Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge

Dürrenmatt post 2: The Pledge – Requiem for the Crime Novel. 

This is the last of the five novellas in my paperback Picador edition.

There’s a link to Grant’s post on it at his 1st Reading blog in my previous post. He summarises the plot and comments perceptively on the significance of the frame narrative as a crucial element of the novel. This enables the world-weary, experienced detective (the main narrator) to challenge the crime writer’s methods and explain why he disdains his moribund genre of novel writing – hence the subtitle.

He concedes that it may be ‘morally necessary’ for the puzzle or contest to be resolved by the detective in these stories so that goodness and justice prevail over evil and crime. But the ‘rules of the game’, as in chess, don’t apply or even exist in the real world he operates in. Life is more random.

Dürrenmatt Novels coverThe story he tells to justify his argument is a fascinating example of metafiction serving to highlight the weaknesses in the genre he (and FD) criticises. He’s able to highlight, through this story of the investigation of a serial child sex-murderer, the way a chance accident, a random, unpredictable event can foil the most brilliant detective like Matthaï in this story.

Unlike the two Inspector Barlach novellas discussed in my previous post, this story doesn’t simply favour the detective’s intuitive, spontaneous approach over the conventional scientific-rational police methods of his colleagues. The neatly symmetrical generic plot with its satisfyingly neat conclusion is exposed and debunked. The black-and-white morality of the conventional murder mystery is nevertheless as blurred as it is in the Barlach stories. Justice is again ultimately shown to be an illusion.

Like the classic tragic hero in drama, Inspector Matthäi’s hubris in this story causes his downfall. His arrogant ‘pledge’ to the parents that he’ll catch the killer of their daughter arises from his arrogant confidence in his detection skills (plus he panics and is desperate to escape their despair so blurts out what pops into his head). In fact his logical methods and his motivation become increasingly irrational, obsessive and as deranged as the killer’s.

By refusing to abide by the ‘rules’ of the genre, Dürrenmatt ingeniously subverts the genre he is simultaneously rewriting. As Grant says in his post, he thus explores and problematizes the moral dilemmas and philosophical questions that are raised by this cunningly framed plot. There’s even a grim humour in his exposure of the flaws in the famous crime writer’s (the frame narrator’s) predictable fictional conventions. It’s this self-referential destruction job that makes the novella so intriguing and rewarding.

One of my less impressed initial reactions was that the rash promise (or Pledge) to catch the criminal made to the murder victim’s family was a cliché. I’ve seen this trope countless times in recent TV crime dramas. In most cases the detective making the promise is inexperienced, and allows their emotional response to the grieving family, or their over-confidence in systematic, scientific detection methods, to cloud their judgement.

But then I reflected that FD was doing this in 1958. I’ve little knowledge of the history of the crime genre, but I’d have thought this was pretty innovative at that time.

The subversive ingenuity of this novella was made even more apparent for me when I read at the Univ. of Chicago Press site (link in previous post) that this prose fiction work is a reworking of an original TV play by FD. He was dissatisfied with the conventionally neat ending of that drama, in which the murderer is caught as a consequence of the brilliant Inspector’s relentless and systematic detection methods. It seems he thought this trivialised the story. He deliberately reworked the ending so that the chance accident that Matthaï didn’t or couldn’t anticipate thwarted his success and plunged him into his own moral and mental dissolution. The solving of the case is less important than the sad fate of Matthäi in this subversion of the generic convention.

FD’s achievement here puts me in mind of DH Lawrence’s famous statement in his essay ‘Morality and the Novel’, in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays (1914):

Morality in the novel is the trembling instability of the balance. When the novelist puts his thumb in the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality.

FD enacts this dictum in The Pledge at Matthäi’s (and the conventional crime novel’s) expense.

Isn’t he guilty, in doing so, however, of putting his own thumb in the scale to pull down the moral balance the way he prefers it? Or is this in fact just a realistic acceptance of the amorality of the world?

Sean Penn directed a film version in 2001, also called The Pledge, starring Jack Nicholson. If you’ve seen it I’d be interested in hearing your opinion: is it as good as the novel?

 

 

 

Novels of Friedrich Dürrenmatt: pt 1- introductory

The Novels of Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Picador, 1985 (who didn’t bother crediting the name of the translator.)

In my previous post I admitted to having reservations about autofiction. This time it’s crime/detection fiction I’m delving into – another genre I don’t find particularly congenial.

There’s no particular reason for this. I haven’t even read that much of it. A few so-called Golden Age authors like Margery Allingham, some Sherlock Holmes stories. I suppose most of my knowledge of the genre comes from films and tv.

It’s the formulaic nature that perhaps puts me off. There’s a crime, a detective or law officer has to solve the puzzle. Usually they have some character eccentricity: Holmes’s drugs, violin and slightly sociopathic tendencies; or the ‘tec is an elderly, matronly lady who seems more appropriate for a church bazaar than investigating decorously grisly murders…Nowadays, in the media anyway, he’s (it’s usually ‘he’, though of course there are some women, like Sarah Paretsky’s VI Warshawski; I heard some of her stories dramatized on radio, and liked them) usually troubled, perhaps alcoholic, divorced, a bit of mess in his personal life, lonely, but professionally a maverick who breaks all the rules – to brilliantly intuitive effect.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-90) was born in Konolfingen, SE of Bern, Switzerland. The son of a pastor, he spoke Oberland Swiss-German dialect; German was a second language for him, and I’ve seen it suggested that this perhaps accounts for the plainness and supposed occasional awkwardness of his German prose style (I don’t read German so can’t comment; the translation here is a little stilted at times, but that might be down to the anonymous translator).

Dürrenmatt Novels coverOf course FD is best known as a dramatist, but he wrote in a number of genres (see the essays at the Univ. Chicago Press site noted below). This battered old Picador paperback contains five of his novels.  They were all written in the fifties, apparently to earn money when he was strapped for cash and opted for this popular mode of fiction because it was more likely to be lucrative in sales terms than his drama (it was).

Four of them are “neo-noir” detective/crime stories set in Switzerland. They toy with the usual conventions, but subvert them. They are pervaded by the pessimistic, cynical and nihilistic tone of some elements of postwar Europe. There’s also an edge of satire or criticism of the author’s homeland’s neutral stance in that recent war against fascism.

This probably accounts for some critical descriptions of the novels as philosophical or existentialist thrillers rather than detective stories. All are entertaining and full of quirky characters and pacy action; it’s not surprising they’ve been adapted many times for dramatization and film. Some even started out as dramas and were converted into prose fiction. I’ll focus here just on the first two, involving Inspector Barlach as the anti-Holmesean hero; more on the rest next time.

In The Judge and the Hangman there’s the classic setup: the demonically clever master criminal – a Mephistophelean Moriarty – has made a grim bet with the equally clever Barlach, forty years before this narrative is set, that he’d commit the ‘perfect crime’ in front of him and the cop would be unable to do anything about it. He succeeds.

He then sets out to do the same thing over and over. The cop, now Inspector Barlach (who also features in The Quarry), is always outsmarted. Now dying of stomach cancer, he knows his deadly enemy, now living locally, is the prime suspect for this latest murder on his patch – the victim is one of his own detectives, and that he needs to nail his man before his disease kills him.

A startling twist at the end brings everything to a conclusion that’s so unexpected and symmetrically neat that it’s a little too contrived, and there’s a dry and cynical exploration of the notion of natural justice. Dürrenmatt in all four of these novels refuses to play entirely by the rules of the genre – in fact he makes those rules and their workings part of the substance of his narratives.

[Textual note: there’s a more recent University of Chicago Press translation of the fiction of FD by Joel Agee, 2006; Essay on his fiction at their website by Theodore Ziolkowski]

Bloggers I follow who have written about FD mostly used the Chicago UP edition with its snarling dog on the cover – he was apparently phobic about big dogs, having been attacked by a vicious one in his youth.

Grant on the two Insp. Barlach stories, at 1st Reading, recommends them to any reader who enjoys ‘morally complex issues’ in fiction, not just lovers of crime fiction; links in the comments there to:

Jacqui Wine’s Journal ( her post was part of Lizzy Siddal’s German Reading Month in 2015), compares FD with Simenon (indeed Barlach has been called the Swiss Maigret) and singles out some excellent quotations, including the trope of chess players engaged in a mortal battle of intellects.

Marina Sofia at Crime Fiction Lover on The Judge and his Hangman (with a ‘gloriously pulpy’ cover image), and at her own blog on Suspicion (aka The Quarry) here, finds similarities with Josephine Tey. One of her key quotations: ‘the law isn’t the law: power is’. She sees the novel in the context of Cold War brinkmanship and suspicion; ‘how can humanity survive on nihilism alone?’

Lizzy Siddal’s own post on Barlach (in a series on crime fiction in German, and specifically the genesis of Swiss authors) finds both plots (as I did) rather contrived to the point of fairy tale-like, with contrived resolutions and implausible situations (why would the bed-bound, dying retired detective in The Quarry place himself in the clutches of the suspected Nazi mass murderer and exponent of surgery without anaesthetic on his victims, without any backup? The denouement is comic-book implausible, with an anti-superhero Jewish Spiderman clone as deus ex machina.)

Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings more recently wrote about the same collection as me; her post, part of the Read 1951 project, is about The Quarry, which she found compelling, ‘brutal’ but ‘necessary’ – in the sense of its salutary message about ensuring unspeakable events in the past must not be repeated. Also pertinent as I write this, shortly after the poignant ceremonies on the beaches of Normandy after the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

Grant also posted on The Pledge here (using the Pushkin Vertigo edition). I hope to write more about this interesting novella – the best in this collection – next time, as this post has already become too long.

PS: Centre FD at Neuchâtel website: exhibitions, artworks by him, etc., located at his former home to the west of Bern.

 

Glory and littleness: Robert Walser’s ‘Jakob von Gunten’

On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion…the unmistakeable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings. W. G. Sebald, A Place in the Country (2013), reviewed by me here.

Here is a section from my post on Sebald’s posthumously published collection of essays that dealt with Walser:

The essay on the isolated ‘outsider’ Walser is a poignant mini-masterpiece.  This ‘most unattached of all solitary poets’ is portrayed with delicate, loving sensitivity; we see the ‘precariousness’ of Walser’s existence, his loneliness and ‘virginal innocence’.  At the core of this ‘ragged soul’ was an ‘absence’ that was the source of his ‘unique strangeness’.   Although he was always ‘beset by shadows’, his writings are ‘illumined…with the most genial light’, striving towards ‘weightless[ness]’ in an attempt to ‘obliterate himself’.  He ‘almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself’, he was ‘a clairvoyant of the small’, his thoughts were ‘honed on the tiniest details’ but they became increasingly incomprehensible as his sanity faded, and he tended to ‘get lost in the clouds’ and dissolve into the ‘ephemeral’, into ‘thin air’, heading for the darkness of insanity and a solitary death in the snow one Christmas Day.

 

Robert Walser (1878-1956) grew up in the Swiss border town of Biel. His work was admired by Kafka, Musil, Hesse and Walter Benjamin – a group of artists who no doubt found similar themes to their own in his existentially anguished ‘outsider’ narratives, concealed under a deceptively slight, charming and eccentrically naïve exterior.

Jakob v G Walser cover Jakob von Gunten (first published in German in 1909, translated in 1969 and with an introduction by Christopher Middleton, reissued by NYRB Classics in 1999) seems inspired by Walser’s own experience. It tells the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who runs away from what he feels is a stifling bourgeois home to join a training academy in Berlin for aspiring servants, the Benjamenta Institute, named after its principal, Herr Benjamenta. Walser had attended a similar school in Berlin in 1905, followed by a period of employment as a butler in a castle in Silesia.

The teaching is mostly conducted by the principal’s sister, Lisa. There’s only one class, and the teaching consists largely of rote-learning from a tract called ‘How Should a Boy Behave’; ‘we are not taught anything’, Jakob explains with bland transparency. There appear to be other teaching staff, but they are either absent or asleep – a typically enigmatic situation: it’s difficult to tell throughout this hazy narrative how much is fantasy, dream or some kind of intuited reality as perceived by the eponymous first-person narrator; he writes in an early journal entry:

Sometimes my whole stay here seems like an incomprehensible dream

There’s little in the way of plot. The novel is constructed as a journal, with short, disconnected entries in which Jakob puts down his thoughts, dreams, reflections on the mundane events of the day with his classmates, several of whom recur in different situations. He forms intensely close and bizarrely fluctuating relationships with them (and with everyone else), at times speaking of them as if they were adored intimates, at others with arrogant disdain. Paradoxically, Jakob claims to admire the compliance of the other boys with this unconventional school regime, while at the same time exhibiting tendencies of rebellion and feelings of scornful superiority. By the end, however, he expresses gratitude to the school for transforming him into ‘an ordinary person’, happy to become ‘lost and forgotten somewhere else in life’, a cipher: ‘I don’t want to think of anything.’ Later he says: ‘You’ve no idea what bliss, what grandeur there is in yearning, in waiting.’

He develops a schoolboy crush on Fräulein Lisa, which doesn’t end well, while her brother the principal appears to fall heavily for Jakob. The school’s pupils gradually leave, and there is a sense of inevitable closure by the end of the novel, and we’re left unsure whether the protagonist is set to embark on a life-enhancing adventure with his partner. Or else it’s like Don Quixote riding off into the Mancha with Sancho Panza, a deluded escape from a crushingly banal life of servitude – or a flight into madness.

This is a strange and challenging novel. It can become so superficially inconsequential that I was tempted to put it aside, and then something arresting and strange happens (often inside Jakob’s head, as far as I can tell), and I carried on reading. It gets under the skin despite the apparently inconsequential surface. As Christopher Middleton says poetically in his introduction:

The stylistic invention ranges between maximum abruptness and beautifully timed arabesque dottiness.

With his obsessive narrative accumulations of fantastic mingled with quotidian minuscule details, Walser as a writer resembles the ‘primitive’ style of that other psychically troubled artist, Richard Dadd, rather more than Douanier Rousseau, with whom he is more usually compared. ‘Is this a morgue, or is it a celestial house of joy?’, Jakob muses at one point, in a typically polar opposition.

I’ll finish with an extract to try to illustrate the novel’s unique quality. It will have to be quite long in order to demonstrate these curious qualities in the prose:

What singular oddities we are. Our hair is always neatly and smoothly combed and brushed, and everyone has to cut his own parting up there in the world on his head…That’s how it should be. Partings are also in the rule-book. And because we all look so charmingly barbered and parted, we all look alike, which would be a huge joke for any writer, for example, if he came on a visit to study us in our glory and littleness. This writer had better stay at home. Writers are just windbags who only want to study, make pictures and observations. To live is what matters, then the observation happens of its own accord. Our Fräulein Benjamenta would in any case let fly at such a wandering writer, blown in upon us by rain or snow, with such force that he would fall to the floor at the unfriendliness of the welcome. Then the instructress, who loves to be an autocrat, would say to us, perhaps, “Boys, help the gentleman to pick himself up.” And then we pupils of the Benjamenta Institute would show the uninvited guest the whereabouts of the door. And the morsel of inquisitive authordom would disappear again. No, these are just imaginings. Our visitors are gentlemen who want to engage us boys in their service, not people with quills behind their ears.

Robert Walser

Walser in 1890 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1929 Walser had some kind of mental breakdown (he attempted suicide maybe more than once) and entered the first of the psychiatric clinics in which he was to spend the rest of his life. When he was placed in the Herisau sanatorium in 1933, he stopped writing and spent most of his time on solitary walks.