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Book Review : A Clinical Pursuit of Derangement

October 09, 1985|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Letter to Lord Liszt by Martin Walser, translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz (Holt, Rinehart & Winston: $13.95)

Like the caged birds that used to be kept in coal mines, Martin Walser's characters fall sick to show when the air has turned bad.

In late-industrial, conglomerate-ridden West Germany the air has become unfit for human consumption, Walser tells us. And so the protagonists of this most interesting writer develop the most peculiar symptoms.

In "The Inner Man," an earlier book and perhaps his best, the chauffeur to a wealthy industrialist oscillates between naive efforts to assert a human relationship between two men who are so constantly in each other's company; and rage when his employer treats him exactly the same as his expensive automobile. The unforgettable Xaver Horn remains a believer in humanity even if he marks each successive bout of fury by buying another dagger. He has accumulated six or seven, futilely, in the glove compartment.

Franz Horn, Xaver's better-off cousin, is the protagonist of Walser's new novel, "Letter to Lord Liszt." It is a shorter book, more abstract and more clinical in its pursuit of the derangement inflicted by society on the individual. It has Walser as ingenious as ever, but somewhat less inspired.

False Teeth to Surfboards

Horn is an executive in a dentures factory whose exuberant and piratical owner is selling out to a conglomerate and putting the money into vacation equipment. False teeth to surfboards: Walser manages to float in a suggestion of German betrayal of its own pinched, repulsive but particular values in favor of an amorphous international hedonism. It seems far-fetched, but it is the author's gift to fetch far.

For Horn, in any case, it is a minor detail in a lifelong panorama of betrayal. Over the years, he has gradually fallen out of favor with Thiele, his boss, and has seen others move up. He keeps a calendar of revenge, detailing every slight received.

He notices, for instance, that the New Year's Eve telephone greeting from Thiele comes earlier and earlier each year. Once, he would receive it a few minutes before midnight; now, it comes at 6 in the afternoon. From a main course, Horn has dwindled to an appetizer, and from there to a cocktail tidbit.

"Letter" is Horn's effort to reason out the workings of his world; a world that is as strange to him as if it had mutated and he had not. He himself, beneath a sense of old-fashioned order, has dim pastoral longings. Walser puts them there, I believe, to express his notion, reflected politically by the Greens, that Germany went wrong a century or two ago by ignoring her natural vocation for a culture built from bucolics instead of heavy industry.

Night of Solitary Drinking

The letter of the title, along with 19 obsessive postscripts, is written over a night of solitary drinking to Liszt, a rival who displaced him years ago and now is being superseded himself.

The word lord is mocking in one way; in another, it is not. Horn detests Liszt's breezy patronage, his smug assumption over the years that he, unlike Horn, was one of the higher powers and not simply their servant. He envies Liszt as well. But, above all, he is consumed with the need to make the other man realize that he too has joined the fellowship of the fallen.

Horn's letter ranges widely over his cosmogony of thin-skinned grievances. But it focuses mainly upon Liszt, and upon two disastrous meetings they had; one at dinner in Hamburg, the other at an inn on Lake Constanz where they were waiting for Thiele to pick them up for an excursion on his yacht. Thiele never appears, of course; a slight which seems perfectly natural to Horn.

Just what went on at the two encounters is not clear, as Horn's account drifts from narrative to something approaching hallucination. He was trying simultaneously to embrace his rival and denounce him; the tone in the letter ranges from truculence to obsequiousness.

A Violent Assault

What he fails to do is get the other man to recognize their common fate. Liszt, "laughing, relaxed, powerful and resilient," deflects everything. To Horn, this obliviousness is an assault of the most violent kind. And he gives it material form as he speaks about various physical attacks, real or imagined. Liszt, so Horn claims, has successively swept all the glassware from their table, thrown Horn's watch repeatedly into a garbage pail, and snapped his eyeglasses in two.

Things become less and less clear. Horn recalls a young professor sitting at the next table in the inn whom he suspects of being involved in a murderous love triangle with an older professor and his wife. He attaches a mysterious significance to a newspaper report of two wooden statues of saints found floating in the lake. We never get a clear picture of Liszt himself through Horn's choked and shifting address.

The clouds on the protagonist's vision are part of Walser's intention, of course. Here is a man who sees, pitilessly and wittily, and then frequently not at all. The clouds are society's.

It makes sense but, in terms of fiction, a narrow kind of sense. Walser reveals the world through the illness the man suffers, but the reader needs--as he received in the far more expansive "The Inner Man"--wider points of reference than the illness itself.

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