Kate Zambreno and Adrian Nathan West in Conversation on Marianne Fritz
When initially encountering the writing of the Austrian novelist Marianne Fritz, whose work is now being introduced to the English-language reading public through her first novel, The Weight of Things, published this October by Dorothy, a publishing project, and translated by Adrian Nathan West, I was first compelled by a dichotomy of scale. On the one hand, The Weight of Things, which won the Robert Walser Prize in 1978, when Fritz was 30, is a short, beautifully vicious, minimal work, albeit taking on heavy themes, a satire of a provincial post-war Austrian family, reminiscent of the works of Elfriede Jelinek.
But after The Weight of Things, Fritz continued this quest to rewrite nationalist fairytales with an epic 10,000 page series she called “The Fortress” (or Festung), each book more sprawling and complex than the last. These works, from her second novel, Das Kind der Gewalt und die Sterne der Romani (The Child of Violence and the Stars of the Romani), to Dessen Sprache du nicht versehst (Whose Language You Don’t Understand), which totalled 3,700 pages and was published in 12 volumes, won her some degree of infamy in Germany and Austria, which quickly devolved into disappearance. She died in 2007, leaving behind her last, most ambitious work, Naturgemäß, or Naturally, or In the Nature of Things, unfinished at around 6,000 pages.
I talked with Fritz’s translator, Adrian Nathan West, over Gchat about Fritz’s work, the mystery of her reception, some of her most famous supporters and detractors, labor and the novel, the cult of the outsider writer, and more.
I. FATUOUS VULGARITY
THE BELIEVER: When were you first introduced to the work of Marianne Fritz?
ADRIAN NATHAN WEST: I think in 2013, when I found a reference to her work in the footnotes to Sebald’s poems.
THE BELIEVER: The lines go, as you note in your Paris Review essay, “The exhausted eyes / of the writer the fingers / of one hand on the / keys of her machine.” Although in the poem Sebald doesn’t explicitly name her.
ANW: Exactly, but in the Sebald poem he writes, “einer Sprache die / du nicht verstehst” which is an unequivocal reference to Fritz’s book.
BLVR: Were you translating other Austrian writers at that time yet? (Josef Winkler, Jean Améry)?
ANW: I had translated two books by Winkler, When the Time Comes and Natura Morta. I had done Améry’s suicide notes, but hadn’t yet started his book on Charles Bovary, which will come out in 2017.
BLVR: That must have been so compelling, to come across the name of a published Austrian writer you had never heard of. I know in English that sends me on an Internet chase.
ANW: It was. I’m one of those people who reads the footnotes, often I like the footnotes better than the book. And then when you look a person up and you see how completely off the wall the writing is, and how relatively unknown, it’s very provocative.
I did have a bit of a disposition toward Austrian lit, though I knew little about it, because I was obsessed with Bernhard.
BLVR: As a fellow Bernhard obsessive, it was interesting to read in your afterword that he disdained Fritz and her tremendous published output.
ANW: Well, the truth is Bernhard was not much of a reader at all, more of a skimmer. His comments on writers are impressionistic. He didn’t need much to go off on a tirade. He probably read something about her in the newspapers.
The quote is from his letters to his publisher, which are hilarious but extraordinarily dastardly:
Before my departure I have had another glance at your recent publishing catastrophe: the 3,000 pages you have had printed and allowed to appear are the greatest embarrassment I have been acquainted with to this day. To print and bind over 3,000 pages of mindless proletarian trash with all the bombast of a centenary event belongs, quite frankly, in the record books: as a world record of stupidity. I am not speaking so much of the begetter of this idiocy, rather of the fact that the publisher has handicapped himself by releasing this fatuous vulgarity.
BLVR: The tirade makes perfect Bernhardian sense. But on the other hand I’m thinking of what Bernhard writes about Ingeborg Bachmann in The Voice Imitator, his sympathy towards her genius. And then also, even though it’s satire, I’m thinking of Wertheimer and the narrator in The Loser, and Bernhard’s love of Glenn Gould, the hermetic genius. His narrators often surrounded by unpublishable notes.
ANW: That little story about Bachmann is so beautiful! But he knew her personally, and she was a public advocate of his work, which couldn’t have hurt. Bernhard was prickly but could also be sweet and he had a deep sympathy for people who had, at an individual level, suffered from the Catholic-Nazi inferno he considered Austria to be. Whereas he seemed allergic to ideology, and Fritz is certainly an ideological writer.
BLVR: How would you characterize “The Fortress”?
ANW: From before the time Fritz had finished The Weight of Things, she conceived a vast fictional work analyzing what aspects of Austrian society had conduced it to the twin disasters of the First and Second World War. And that is “The Fortress.”
BLVR: And she not only wrote, but published thousands of pages, which became more and more stylized and experimental…
ANW Around 10,000 in total, divided up into a few books. The Weight of Things is 120 or so; the second book is around 600; the third 3,800; the fourth, which she died writing, just shy of 6,000. Naturgemäß I and II were published in these huge five-volume sets (they weren’t typeset properly, they’re facsimile editions), which are terribly expensive. Volume III hasn’t been published, it’s available online, but supposedly it will come out some day.
BLVR: She became quite hermetic with the increased output and ambition of these later projects. The “exhausted eyes” and “constant typewriter” of Sebald’s poem.
ANW: I have a friend who talked to her on the phone once. He called her in Vienna and told her he was an admirer of her work and had written about her and wanted to meet her. She said “no” and hung up. A former student of Sebald’s, actually.
BLVR: She seems so much like a Sebaldian writer par excellence, like the archetype—like Walser was, or Rousseau.
ANW: Absolutely, she’s straight out of one of his books. I love Sebald but he has an odd and partial perspective on the writers he admires. He wants to make everyone into a hair-shirt wearing moralist. I read his essay about Peter Weiss before I knew Weiss’s work well and was surprised by how much more sensual and human Weiss was than in Sebald’s characterization. But Fritz really was the type.
BLVR: She lived quite modestly, on what—publishing checks? Only allowing herself to buy a new typewriter. It is very much the romantic model of the outsider.
ANW: She had a brief first marriage to a writer and functionary and had, I think, a normal clerical job for a bit. Then she got the prize for the first book. She used that money, and her royalties (it sold fairly well, 8,000 copies) to move into an apartment. After that, she apparently lived off stipends, prizes, and advances. She was lucky to get picked up by Siegfried Unseld at Suhrkamp after S. Fischer Verlag dropped her. He was one of the greatest publishers of the twentieth century and a visionary in terms of choosing legacy over immediate sales.
BLVR: It is striking to me that her work is so—unremembered, unremarked, her Wikipedia page is still only in German, even though she did find publishers for “The Fortress.” And she didn’t die so long ago. There are so few traces of her on the Internet.
ANW: It looks like recently someone’s added pages on her in Catalan and Basque! But what you say is true: there’s very little at all, and almost nothing in languages other than German. Whereas if you look at Arno Schmidt, who was also a writer of extremely abstruse political books, he’s translated, he makes it into textbooks, and at least has his place in the canon.
II. WHO GETS TO SAY?
BLVR: Fritz has been compared to Henry Darger, to his massive In the Realm of the Unreal, which totals about 15,000 pages, let alone his sequel, Crazy House.
ANW: The Darger comparison is problematic in the sense that Fritz was a person of high culture and developed literary sensibility, and can’t really be called an outsider—she did win prizes, she did have a legit publisher, etc. Whereas Darger was a janitor, no?
BLVR: He was a janitor, yes, and lived off unemployment, in Chicago. Although of course his watercolor collaged paintings are now perhaps the most collected form of “outsider art.”
It’s a problematic but intriguing comparison. On one hand, Henry Darger also lived on very modest means in order to create his works of art, a life of complete frugality and sacrifice, a life that was entirely about the art, and this does seem to connect to Fritz. But Darger’s manuscripts are fairly unreadable, not only because of the sheer output, and I say this being obsessed with Darger.
ANW: Many people do say Naturgemäß is unreadable.
BLVR: It’s an interesting question—what makes a work unreadable? Who gets to say?
ANW: With these complicated works, you get into the question of what “reading” means. You and I can read the same cereal box and there are objective ways of showing we’ve had the same experience, or a similar one. With something like Naturgemäß, I’m not sure that an orthodox interpretation can exist.
BLVR: How much have you read of “The Fortress”?
ANW: I have read the first two books in their entirety. Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst (Whose Language You Don’t Understand) as a whole is well past my abilities. I have read in it. Naturgemäß is too expensive—I have looked at what’s online. And I’ve read almost all the criticism. For me, as her work goes on, the disruptions of grammar and plays on words start to go over my head. I have a friend who has read them all, but she’s German and picks up on many things I miss.
BLVR: It says somewhere in the copy that The Weight of Things is the only “translatable” book of hers.
ANW: The second book, Das Kind der Gewalt und die Sterne der Romani (The Child of Violence and the Stars of the Romani) is beautiful and could be done well in English, albeit with some lexical stretching. When you get into the third book and beyond, with so many portmanteau words, to honor the form is to violate the content, and vice-versa.
BLVR: Do you see Fritz as an outsider, whatever that might mean?
ANW: Fritz was programmatic: she had a clear idea from early on of what she wanted to do. Undoubtedly it changed over time, but still… She did research, revised, signed contracts, and all the normal stuff that authors do. With reputable houses.
BLVR: I think one measure of outsiderness is how closed off a writer is from any sort of “literary communities.” Or someone who willingly shuts themselves away.
Did Fritz know, say, Elfriede Jelinek, who was her generation and who I believe you wrote was an advocate of her work?
ANW: In that sense, Fritz is a real outsider: only one reading that I know of, no signings, no interviews, no schmoozing. I don’t think Jelinek knew her, though she does admire her. Jelinek compared her work to the Ka’aba, saying she had to stand before it and admire it. She included something of hers in an anthology of Austrian women writers she edited. Fritz lived with a companion, Otto Dünser, who helped with her research and still promotes her work.
BLVR: There are so few massive texts by women writers. There’s Marguerite Young’s Miss Macintosh, My Darling (I’m looking now at a Wiki of List of Longest Novels and Miss Macintosh is a little over 1,000 pages, at about Infinite Jest length, the only woman writer on the list; Fritz is absent, and Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans doesn’t rank at 900 or so pages). I’ve wondered if there’s more this tradition of revering the historically quite masculine ambitious epic. Perhaps this connects to your inquiry in your essay as to whether genius is socially read as masculine.
ANW: This isn’t scientific, but my gut tells me that when a guy rolls out with a huge manuscript, people take it seriously, and when a woman does so, there’s a tendency to think, “cat lady,” and in a subtle way the critical reaction to Fritz bears this out.
BLVR: What was Fritz’s reading public like, in Vienna? Did she have a lot of readers? Fans?
ANW: The first book did well. The second one bombed, and her publisher (Fischer) let her go. The third was released in two editions, a three-volume and a twelve-volume; those were small runs that sold out, and it hasn’t been reprinted since. I’m not sure of the history of Naturgemäß but I imagine the copies on sale are still the first edition. Dessen Sprache did better than the second because it was so off the wall that it at least got reviews; I have found almost no reviews of the second book. Allegedly there is a small group of diehard fans; a criticism she has received (in common with Juan Benet, another writer I translate) is that she has disciples but no readers.
BLVR: She didn’t change to get a larger reading public, her work became less concerned with a reader, more ambitious and theoretical—is that right?
ANW: There are no interviews confirming it, but anyone can see that reader response and markets are of no concern in the later work. This is one thing that fascinates me—not only is “The Fortress” literature with a theoretical grounding, but it can almost be called a theoretical work of literature, insofar as it exists in some sort of ideal space beyond reading.
BLVR: The fact that she didn’t do interviews suggests this refusal to play the part of the author. I find that so remarkable. Although she kept publishing, unlike Walser. Does that show some desire for readers?
ANW: Maybe. Or maybe money, even if she couldn’t imagine she would make much off of it. We’re not talking about the kind of personality that would have accepted working at a bowling alley during the day to subsidize her writing career at night. She’s a total writer in the sense that there’s so little left apart from her work. At least with Wittgenstein we know what movies he went to.
BLVR: Cowboy westerns!
BLVR: The fact that Fritz wrote 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, over decades, I confess to you when I read it, I wondered who did the housework, how did she eat, if her male partner did this other type of labor so she could write—and I wonder less of the material conditions of a male novelist.
ANW: Do you know Anne Boyer’s work? She wrote a great piece, “Not Writing,” about the economics of unpaid labor, writing, and publishing.
BLVR: Yes, I do—and it’s true, especially of writing novels, which is so much about labor and economy. Work on a novel necessitates long periods of deep uninterrupted time. I love your rant in the afterword against the constant Joyce comparison Fritz gets, how lazy that is.
ANW: These pseudo-intellectual heuristics suck the individuality out of everything. It’s ubiquitous in our culture. A chef is doing a Ferran Adrià type thing. Knausgaard is the Norwegian Proust and Ferrante is the female Knausgaard. Long books with weird puns, hard to read—female Joyce. It’s very cocktail party-ish and smarmy. You don’t have to know her work or Joyce’s to say it.
BLVR: Reviewers also love labels. Even Kafka being called a “Walserian” type when his Meditation came out. Although, I have just finished The Tanners, so I was really thinking of Walser when reading The Weight of Things. I thought of Jelinek too, for the archetypes and word play, and this sense of a domestic gothic that’s haunted by the war and atrocity and violence.
ANW: Walser’s a magnificent writer. But so sensitive. I think Fritz in The Weight of Things is quite cruel.
BLVR: For me with Walser it was the syntax of Fritz’s novel, the slipperiness of it, the way she went in backwards with things, if that makes sense, the humor that is seemingly polite and servile yet has that nastiness underneath.
ANW: That’s a lovely way to describe his humor. Yes, the syntax in The Weight of Things does have—and this is something Walser has in common with Kafka —that feinting quality, of saying something only to retract it halfway through.
BLVR: I thought of The Weight of Things as a work in miniature, which seems so distinct from the rest of her work. Does the book explore her later themes?
ANW: The axis is always the same: war, who bears the responsibility for it, who suffers the consequences. The first book picks away the plaster, while the later ones dig deeper and deeper until they finally end up in a kind of parallel world. The themes and settings are the same throughout: Vienna, Przemyśl, etc. Fictional places recur, too: the mother of the family in Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst ends up in the same asylum as Berta in The Weight of Things, the same town, counties, and streets appear, and so on.
BLVR: What draws readers like us, and translators like you, to outsiders?
ANW: Recently I’ve been thinking about “late style” and what it’s come to mean, and with many writers of recent years you can pinpoint where they stop being writers and become “writers” and it’s inevitably a disaster. The writer as an institutional figure sits ill with me, even though there are magnificent writers who were very established. There is something so awe-inspiring in the person who writes to write, who never lets the work take second place to publishing or to cultivating a public persona.
BLVR: Yes, I love that—to be a writer not somehow ossified as to style or expectation (this horrible concept of the brand, of one’s readers’ expectations, all this to be overthrown).
When I was reading your beautiful translation, I had just learned Chantal Akerman died, and there then became this connection, between her films and Fritz’s novel—this sense of a woman’s interiority, the deadness of the day and its possible violence. And thinking of Akerman’s oeuvre—her magnificent, mercurial, weird body of work, which always irritated and provoked, and now thinking of Fritz’s immense body of work, this monument—I think it takes such immense bravery, and sacrifice, to still take risks, and resist, in the face of either open hostility or indifference.
ANW: It does take bravery, and it’s so rare, that kind of resolve. Those little crossovers between different artworks always mean so much. There’s a writer, Saudamini Deo, not well known, she publishes on her blog and some online journals, who writes about these kinds of coincidences beautifully.
BLVR: It goes back to Sebald, at the beginning, you following the footnote, the pleasure of following coincidences.
Adrian Nathan West is the author of the forthcoming Aesthetics of Degradation and translator of numerous works of contemporary European literature.