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Book Review : Comedy of Manners Finds a Struggling German Professor

October 07, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Breakers by Martin Walser, translated by Leila Vennewitz (Henry Holt & Co.: $18.95; 305 pages)

There was a time, before Frederick the Great and his successors put Prussia into high gear, when the national stereotype of the German was a personage who was romantic, melancholy and impractical.

All stereotypes have their truth, and it has been one of the accomplishments of the German writer Michael Walser to dig up this truth and rework it. His Germany is soulless, materialistic, technocratic and loud-mouthed. His German is a man who tries to be these things but fails.

He is a little man, a subordinate of one kind or another. His humanity is finely compounded with resentfulness, but it is humanity all the same. However much he disciplines it, it persists in floating him out of the mainstream and up a cloudy and ruminative backwater.

In "Breakers," Walser has sent his little man abroad. Helmut Halm is a professor summoned to California by an old friend, who has become head of the German department at Washington University in Oakland. For Oakland, of course, read Berkeley.

Novels about academics arriving at American colleges from abroad have largely been an English specialty. The satiric possibilities contained in the rites of academia, the bureaucratic circuses, the American college student--knowing and unfledged--are augmented when seen with an outsider's by-no-means innocent eye. The satire is double-edged; the visitor's personal and national foibles also come into play.

Ways of a University

"Breakers" has some aspects of this kind of comedy of manners. Part of it is very funny indeed; both about the folkways of a big California university and the unpredictable observations and misapprehensions of the foreigner. But there is more wit than comedy. It is a wit not far from despair; the wit of the solitary man for whom the strangeness of California is only a special and intensified aspect of the strangeness of the world at large.

Helmut Halm lives in mists out of which ordeals emerge. The book begins as he is shaving, and the misted mirror presents, of course, another ordeal. Halm contemplates his face "with an indissoluble blend of dislike and satisfaction."

A phone call from California brings the peremptory voice of Rainer Meersjohann. A handsome and arrogant poetic prodigy in his youth, Rainer spent years working his way around the United States before reaching his modestly powerful academic niche. He orders the dreamy Halm to come immediately to fill an unplanned semester vacancy in the German department. Before long, Halm, his wife, Sabina, and his daughter, Lena, are sitting in the San Francisco airport waiting to be met.

They are met by the remains of the lofty archangel: a bald, distrait, pendulous-lipped man whose life is reduced to details--he makes a great to-do about repairing the screen door at Halm's rented house--alcohol, domestic warfare and a flagging interest in academic maneuver. His light is out and Halm, who had once resented and revered him in equal measure--is also dimmed.

Social Whirl

Halm gropes his way into the academic and social whirl. There is the department's strong-willed and marginally sexy secretary, her poet husband and a gaggle of odd professors and companions. Halm goes to his first cocktail party:

". . . A room vibrating with silk, linen and coiffed hair, with skin and princely and magnificent teeth. Wherever you looked, someone was saying to someone else precisely what that person wanted to hear and that person in turn responded with exactly what the other person wanted to hear!"

This, of course, describes no known variety of cocktail party. What it describes, wonderfully well, is Halm's estranged perception. Likewise, California's pleasures--the beaches, the gardens, the mountains, the fresh fruit and vegetables, the automobiles--appear in colors that are too urgent and stepped-up to be real. After spending a bad evening at a concert, Halm stumbles to the shelter of his car, which takes him home as if it were a benevolent guardian instead of a machine.

"Now you've done your driving. Say goodby to the car!" Halm says. "Thanks for the solidarity. You are immediately taken charge of by the television: You can be sure that nothing will be demanded of you that you can't bear."

There is an edge of hysteria that makes this more than an obvious satire on American comforts. Halm reaches out for reality and it eludes him. He becomes obsessed with one of his students, a seemingly enigmatic blond co-ed who turns to him for help with her literature papers. The enigma is his: What does their apparent intimacy, the charged moments when they discuss Shakespeare's sonnet about lust or Benedict's and Beatrice's elaborate flirtation, really mean? Neither Halm nor the reader ever discovers whether the erotic tension--Walser evokes it with great subtlety and power--is real or imagined.

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