Thursday, January 3, 2013

Klausen

[Despair out of envy] could be the best explanation of all his (alleged) actions, because psychological patterns of this sort are such that they can be used to explain anything. It is possible to explain a human being by this means, that is, by psychology, whenever you want to (it is amazingly simple and thus so beguiling), and the speaker does not even notice that he is always talking exclusively about himself and his own theories, which he then imposes on the world and the whole human race, and not talking about the object he is observing (the person, for example, Gasser). The man in the street subsequently knew one thing only: the psychological model of explanation.

Several years ago now I remember reading an article about modernist fiction that discussed the problems avant-garde writers had disrupting the idea of character: whereas various other literary devices are relatively easy to disrupt, it is hard to have fiction where there isn’t something to which readers can attribute some sense of interiority (some modernists, of course, were all about interiority and character)—and to some extent postmodernism has had this problem too. You can flatten out characterization and use other devices all you want, but readers will just get away with the darnedest things using any scrap available.

As the opening quote may suggest, Andreas Maier’s Klausen (trans. from the German by Kenneth J. Northcott, 2010) is tangled up in this problem: it is a novel that questions the motives people lend to others, and gives you very little to go on about what anyone’s true motivations may have been or even of what has happened. The narrator gives us not an event or series of events but an accounting of all the things people are saying they think has happened in the town of Klausen: everyone is convinced something has happened, mostly they agree that it was a disaster (maybe terrorist attack), and mostly they agree it is all the fault of someone named Gasser, a long absent son of a Klausen widow who has recently returned to the region. By the end of the book, this is still pretty much all we know for sure, because all we learn is what people are claiming they saw (or learned second-hand), and various reasons for thinking that their story may be dubious or is in conflict with other versions of events. To an extent, you could say Maier himself succumbs to a theory of psychology that explains everyone as both willing and unwilling falsifiers of events to serve their own desires—to make the critique he has to succumb to the problem.

What all this adds up to, though, is a hilarious novel told in one long paragraph that lasts up until the final pages: I began reading the novel several times only to put it down because I realized that if I really wanted to read it I would want to have a rather large amount of time to get through large chunks at once. Reading the various versions of events is just too fun, starting with the opening scene of a hotel owner’s account of what occurred between Gasser, himself and two tourists some time before the “event.” And one account leads to and bleeds into another in a way that makes it hard to decide where to stop for a break.

If I have one real complaint about the novel, it is the end, which I found a little too pat and cute: the final image of the novel is too obviously metaphorical and hits us over the head with something that, really, we don’t need spelled out. But this is a small part of what is, in all, a great novel.

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