Reconstruction 9.2 (2009)



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Peter Weiss, The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume 1: A Novel. Translated by Joakim Neugroschel. Foreword by Fredric Jameson. Glossary by Robert Cohen. Duke University Press, 2005, 376 pp. US$23.95 (pb), US$84.95 (hb).

Peter Weiss (born 1916 in Germany, dead 1982 in Sweden) has a truly cosmopolitan biography. As the son of a Jewish manufacturer of Hungarian descent and a Swiss actress Weiss had German as maternal tongue, but was in fact a Czech citizen, and lived his childhood and youth in Poland as well as in Germany and Great Britain. In 1939 he migrated to Sweden - following his parents - and finally became a Swedish citizen in 1946. He wrote several books in Swedish, and was also, during the 1950s, active as an experimental filmmaker in Stockholm, acknowledged by for instance Jonas Mekas and Film Culture in New York. He had however his breakthrough as a writer in the beginning of the 1960s when he published his autobiographical novels in Germany. In 1964 his play Marat/Sade premiered at Schillertheater in West Berlin, and from that date he must be considered as one of the most important post-war European playwrights. In 1966 Weiss attended a meeting arranged by Gruppe 47 at Princeton where he made his position clear regarding the Vietnam War, giving his important speech: “I come out of my hiding place”. And when Weiss came out of his hiding place he wrote a series of political plays, turning into one of the most influential European intellectuals, a travelling spokesman for the Left. He was soon an active member of the Swedish Communist party and participated in several political manifestations, for example, the second meeting of the International War Crimes Tribunal at Stockholm in 1973.

In 1975 he published the first instalment of the novel Die Ästhetik des Widerstands - The Aesthetics of Resistance, and two more volumes were to follow, published almost simultaneously in the two German republics and in Sweden. The novel has since been translated into other languages, but not into English, until 2005, when the first volume appeared in translation by Joachim Neugroschel and with a foreword by Fredric Jameson.

Most of the œuvre of Weiss has been translated into English, his plays from Marat/Sade to The New Trial, as well as several of his early novels, but it is no coincidence that the translation of The Aesthetics of Resistance arrives with such a delay; in the over 1000 pages long novel Weiss puts together his various experiences, and presents a “Gesamtkunstwerk” of sorts, mixing extremely diverse genres and modes of address: art history, war reports, autobiography, dreamlike hallucinations, reflections on German history, Swedish history, the history of the European Left. Among the dramatis personæ are historical persons like Bertolt Brecht in his Swedish exile, the members of the secret resistance group “Die Rote Kapelle”, the physician Max Hodann, the Swedish writer Karin Boye and a row of figures from the cadres of the European Socialist and Communist parties. The narrative is performed through inner monologues, thorough descriptions of the geography of the settings, long historical summaries, and philosophical dialogues on the dialectics of political work and aesthetics. The novel is furthermore composed of gigantic blocks of prose with no significant markers when one period ends and another starts. (Weiss himself said that the composition was inspired by the sculptures of Donald Judd, where cubiform blocks are piled upon each other.)

The novel thus offers resistance through content and form, but when you have worked your way into its topography, it offers several readings, several narratives in strata super strata. One path to follow is the history of the young narrator with no name, but with a biography which parallels the life of the author. This reading connects to the discussion of the novel as a “Wunschbiographie”, i. e. the heroic, proletarian life Peter Weiss himself could have led, if he had not been born into the bourgeoisie. Like the nameless narrator, Peter Weiss was a refugee in Sweden during the war, but whereas he was trying to start a career as a painter, the narrator is engaged in the secret antifascist resistance, working for a while as the helping hand for Bertolt Brecht. Another way of reading the novel is to see it as a monstrous essay on the necessity of art. The commentaries on art works like Picasso’s “Guernica” or Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa”, not to mention the opening of the novel with its breathtaking interpretation of the Pergamum frieze, afford a new and truly dialectic understanding of the Western art. A third reading will present the novel as the collective history of the antifascist struggle, in Germany, Spain, and Scandinavia, with the martyrdom of “Die Rote Kapelle” in the Plötzensee prison in Berlin as the tragic climax.

The opening sentence of the novel, which describes the Pergamum Frieze in Berlin, is fascinating in its dense presence:

All around us the bodies rose out of the stone, crowded into groups, intertwined, or shattered into fragments, hinting at their shapes with a torso, a propped-up arm, a burst hip, a scabbed shard, always in warlike gestures, dodging, rebounding, attacking, shielding themselves, stretched high or crooked, some of them snuffed out, but with a freestanding, forward-pressing foot, a twisted back, the contour of a calf harnessed into a single common motion.

The literary achievment of Peter Weiss has been compared to other great modern novels as Der Mann ohne Eigenshaften by Robert Musil or Die Blendung by Elias Canetti. Its is obvious that his aim was to create an aesthetic practice based on a dialectic relationship with the avant-garde; the novel itself is an avant-garde performance, but contrary to many other art works it does also present and discuss the political implications of the avant-garde. In the first volume of The Aesthetics of Resistance the character Coppi, one of the young Socialist friends of the nameless narrator - and in reality one of the key figures in the circle around Liberta Schulze-Boysen and “Die Rote Kapelle” - is formulating an idea of the relation between art and politics:

And just as our political decisions were based on fragments, dissonances, hypotheses, resolutions, and slogans, all borne by a conviction deriving from our own life experiences, so too we could not conceptualize art without including its ruptures, fluctuations, and oppositions. And if it were deprived of its contradictions, then only a lifeless stump would remain.(p. 63)

The volume which now has been issued in English presents only a third of the work, telling the story of the end of the 1930s, and the young narrator’s journey from Berlin to the Spain of the Civil War, but through the foreword of Fredric Jameson this edition turns into a challenging introduction not only to the rest of the novel but to the entire world of Weiss.

Jameson constructs a framework for the novel and its historical context but also turns his introduction into an essay on the Marxist heritage and the need for a political memory and a political archive in the shape of fiction. Jameson discusses historiography and historical fiction in general, and performs several remarkable interpretations of events and characters in the universe of Weiss. An interesting aspect is that he tries to understand the Surrealist heritage as well as the Marxist, and develops an interesting discussion on the oeniric in the art of Weiss. He also traces the sexual desire, which in a way was suppressed in Weiss’s work from Marat/Sade and on, but had been an dominant factor in his early years. In The Aesthetics of Resistance the author returns to the aesthetics of a youth passed and makes segments of his Bildungsroman into a political Traumdeutung. The desire and the dreamlike is not treated by Jameson in order to explain the biographical figure Peter Ulrich Weiss, but is used in order to transcend the tyranny of the manifest and present: “what seemed over and done with is thus opened up for a new beginning, a new continuation”, and the ultimate lesson of the novel is, according to Fredric Jameson, “about the productive uses of a past and a history that is not simply represented or commemorated but also reappropriated by some new future of our own present”. (pxlvii)

Joakim Neugroschel has translated vital parts of the modern European literature into English; works by Franz Kafka, Joseph Roth and Marcel Proust. It is important to remember that the writing of The Aesthetics of Resistance was hard for Weiss himself; friends and family can testify about the labour it cost him to form his ideas and his pre-war German language into the these compact cubes of prose. The task of Neugroschel has thus been monumental, and his handling of the sometimes heavy and didactic and always enigmatic prose of Peter Weiss is worth respect and praise. This brilliant translation, combined with its illuminating introduction, is a true pièce de résistance in the restless media flow of an age with such a desperate need for memory.

Lars Gustaf Andersson

 

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