One of the things that I have found weirdest throughout the time of COVID-19 has been a calling back to the ‘Blitz spirit’ of a mythical Second World War stoicism (‘Our grandparents survived the War without wearing masks’ etc.) usually touted by people who were born at the tail end or long after the hostilities ended, one that discounts the very real trauma and distress suffered by those who experienced the relentless nights of bombings or who actually fought. Despite all the books, TV and films, I don’t think any country has fully grappled with the collective nightmares of those years, and we are only beginning to learn about the possible aftereffects on the children and grandchildren of the traumatised. One writer whose work was focussed on the War’s effects on the Austrian people was Marianne Fritz, and I first discovered her novel The Weight of Things from a review at David’s Book World.
At the start of the book, we learn that Rudolf has died in the War, but his friend Wilhelm has appeared, with a final letter and a daisy he was entrusted with for Berta. Within a few paragraphs we move forward to learn that Wilhelm has now married Berta’s friend Wilhelmine and is engaged in:
seeing both everything and nothing, hearing both everything and nothing, understanding everything and nothing. In a nutshell: Wilhelm was a storybook chauffeur and ideal Come-hither-boy.
Wilhelmine insisted on getting married to Wilhelm on Berta’s birthday, so as the day of her 40th and their wedding anniversary approaches there is a situation that must be resolved between them – but what? As the story moves backwards and forwards in time, as erratic as memory, the lingering effects of the war remain. Bertha is in ‘the fortress,’ in a cage. Wilhelm has nightmares that shake the bed. Wilhelmine relishes telling Bertha and Wilhelm’s children what happened to Rudolf, who met a particularly gruesome end. Bertha doubts her abilities to raise the children, Rudolf and Little Betha, and as they torment her Wilhelm isn’t much help as she falls deeper into her own thoughts and nightmares.
…a man, a word and then you’re lost
Bertha repeats this phrase to herself, as well as musing on the weight of things – the weight of the war – as it bears down on her. She is haunted by loss. Wilhelmine is a third wheel in the marriage, practical when compared to Bertha’s dreaminess, covetous and meddling.
Religious imagery weaves itself around them, from Bertha’s Madonna pendent, to the picture on the wall that she thinks her daughter resembles, to the Wise Little Mother who gives Bertha a form of penance in the fortress. But still Bertha is lost, lost in her own head, lost like the missing members of her family. Fritz’s novel is a reckoning with trauma and the folly of pushing things aside, assessing the War generation’s impact on the ones that come after. It questions what war does to those who fight it and what the Second World War in particular did to those that stayed at home.
The Weight of Things is available from Verso Books, with translation by Adrian Nathan West. I would be keen to read more from Marianne Fritz, but it appears her follow up novels to this one (part of the same series she called ‘The Fortress’) are so experimental that it is doubtful if they could ever be translated. With their diagrams and playfulness with language, they remind me of some of B. S. Johnson’s books. Will keep my fingers crossed they make it into translation one day!
This review of The Weight of Things is for the 10th German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy – especially don’t miss Lizzy’s German Scrapbook: a literary tour of the regions of Germany and Caroline has chosen four authors to focus on this year. Am looking forward to picking up some new recommendations. Are there any books first published in German that have caught your eye this November?