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Inconsistent Constance : WITH THE NEXT MAN EVERYTHING WILL BE DIFFERENT, By Eva Heller Translated from the German by Krishna Winston (Random House: $19; 348 pp.)

March 15, 1992|Merle Rubin | Rubin is a free-lance writer and critic .

You just know that Constance Wechselburger, the narrator and heroine of this best-selling German novel, has some problems with her perceptions when she announces, at the start of her story, that Prince Charles and Princess Diana are her idea of the perfect couple.

Twenty-seven-year-old Constance is pretty (she has dark hair, just like Ava Gardner, she informs us) and she's smart (she's just bought a copy of Hegel's "The Phenomenology of Mind," which she carries around, hoping to impress her professor, who teaches a graduate seminar on film). She is dipping into Hegel to get some ideas for the politically significant film she is planning to make, but she's not quite sure what the movie should actually be about. Maybe her recent break-up with her live-in boyfriend Albert, a handsome but (in her view) hopelessly stingy and bourgeois young doctor, would be the appropriate vehicle for a revolutionary feminist and Marxist deconstruction of capitalist gender relationships?

Having "liberated" herself from Albert, Constance is hoping to attract the attention of her inspiringly anti-bourgeois film teacher, one Gottfried Schachtschnabel, who she imagines will be her politically committed intellectual soul mate. Certainly, he's noticed Constance, especially on the day when she wore her hot-pink satin miniskirt to class.

Constance can just imagine the review of her film in Germany's leading magazine, Der Spiegel:

"The attractive filmmaker portrays a woman's attempt to free herself from an emotionally repressed and incredibly stingy physician. Although the film is based on the dark-haired filmmaker's personal experiences, it must not be misunderstood as an act of revenge. . . . 'The Liberation of Minna von Barnhelm,' an oeuvre out of the Schachtschnabel school, provides a positively scathing analysis of the prevailing societal strictures, the likes of which have seldom been seen in this intensity, and it reveals an intuitive capacity to plumb the depths of the psyche of the emotionally repressed and incredibly stingy physician."

Constance, needless to say, does not get past the preliminary outline stage of filmmaking. Most of the time she haunts the clubs, coffee bars and other singles hangouts, looking for her next man. The next person whose acquaintance she makes, however, is a woman: a recently divorced psychologist who preaches the benefits of achieving a "harmonious separation" and who manages to steal the coveted Schachtschnabel out from under Constance's very nose.

It soon becomes evident--to the reader, if not to the besotted Constance--that Schachtschnabel is a dubious prize. In addition to the fact that he is the consummate intellectual phony, he is slavishly devoted to his ex-wife. Constance can scarcely believe that her Marxist hero should ever have participated in the bourgeois institution of matrimony in the first place, but she is relieved to learn that he did it only because his mother-in-law would otherwise have written him and his wife out of her will. Curiously--but, in Constance's case, characteristically--the contradictions inherent in that position float right over her head.

Constance is as deluded about herself as she is about others. Jealousy, she solemnly informs us (just after she's thrown an egg timer at her former lover for calling her by the name of the new woman he's taken up with), is definitely not one of her faults. Rage, maybe, she admits, but "rage was only an expression of honesty." Indeed, the very name Heller has given her heroine, Constance Wechselburger (roughly translatable as constancy changeable-burgher), is another way of poking fun at her all-too-reliable inconsistencies.

Looking at the Berlin singles scene through the jaundiced yet naive eye of the obtuse, opinionated Constance, Heller portrays a world of shallow, half-educated people with university degrees who talk about spiritual and intellectual values but who are chiefly interested in money, possessions and following the latest fad, whether in apparel or ideas. (Schachtschnabel drives a denim-upholstered Mercedes--a kind of vehicular capitalist wolf in proletarian sheep's clothing.)

First published in Germany as a paperback original, "With the Next Man Everything Will Be Different" became a best seller there. Clearly, Heller, who was already known as a satirical cartoonist, had struck a chord. Her ear for colloquial speech is apparent even in translation, and, although her brand of humor--broad, often verging on crudeness, heavily ironic, not to say downright sarcastic--is a style more familiar to Germans than to Americans, American readers will doubtless recognize the targets of her satire. With bold, slashing strokes of her pen, Heller lambastes everything from "Personal" ads and adult education to trendy Marxist professors who'll do anything to hold onto their jobs and would-be "liberated" women who spout psychobabble about relationships but are unable to get along with anybody.

Admittedly, this is lightweight entertainment--a little obvious and heavy-handed at times. And yes, the characters created by this author-cartoonist do verge on caricature. And certainly, the heroine is not what they call "sympathetic": She's a pretentious, foolish, bad-tempered brat--which is precisely what makes her so amusing. It's even possible that she learns a little from her trials and tribulations; "Sexual frustration," she declares in a moment of rare lucidity after an ill-considered and unsatisfying one-night stand with a guy she's picked up in a bar, " . . . it always sounds like the only frustrated ones are the ones who don't do it. What a laugh. The frustrated ones are the ones who do do it."

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