In London in 1940, the novelist, playwright, painter, and filmmaker Peter Weiss was twenty-four years old and living in a state of perpetual gloom. Weiss, forced into exile following the rise of the Nazi party, had not yet left his parents’ home, and was plodding away at a job in a textile factory managed by his father. One day in an underground cafe around the corner from Hyde Park, Weiss lent his jacket to a stranger, a violinist and day-laborer named Jacques. “In my conversation with Jacques suddenly I lost all fear of life,” Weiss wrote in his autobiographical novel, Exile, published in Germany in 1966. “Everything was possible to me.”
Jacques helped pull together an exhibition of Weiss’s paintings in a deserted room in a concealed mews house (attended, apparently, by no one) and spent nights at the Weiss family home. On the thirteenth day of their obsessive friendship, Weiss and Jacques wandered towards the train station. Weiss swiped his kid brother’s toy gun from the garden path along the way. As Jacques waved goodbye from the train carriage, Weiss raised the gun and mimed firing a shot. Jacques fell backward beneath the carriage window and was never seen again.
The gunshot, the falling from view, the disappearance—all of it points to a killing. Was it possible Weiss’s toy gun fired a real shot? Or did Jacques use the impromptu false assassination as a narrative tool for his disappearance? Jacques’s unexplained absence opens up a zone of white noise between cause and effect, a realm of vacillation where nothing can be grasped.
Weiss’s 1960 novella, The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body, out in Rosemarie Waldrop’s translation this April from New Directions,1 was published six years before Exile. Coachman takes risks that Exile does not wager. Its scant 90 pages begins in an outhouse at dawn and follows an unnamed narrator across the muddy yard and into the boarding house where he lives.
The narrator is not lacking in roommates: there’s the hired man, who the narrator hears violently sawing logs in the opening pages of the book; the housekeeper, who is frequently discovered just underneath the narrator, scouring the floor on hands and knees; there’s the captain, the tailor, the rock collector named Mr. Schnee, and a mutilated doctor. And there’s the family, too: mother, father, son, and an infant. We are told from the beginning that the titular coachman is not present.
In Coachman, as in Exile, Weiss is capable of leavening the plainest experiences, so that a table setting or a trivial run-in can tingle with possibility. Weiss’s language as translated by Waldrop can be persnickety, nightmarish, and sometimes uncomfortably funny. That which is difficult to bear is always garnished with energetic particulars. In one scene, following a chaotic act of paternal violence, Weiss describes the father “stretched out on the green cover, the red infant at his head, no longer crying but babbling curiously, diverted by the father’s head beside him.” At another point the narrator lies on his bed, sprinkles salt on his eyes, and proceeds to hallucinate pairs of huge copulating elk on a roadside, accompanied by “a hollow, giggly rattling from all the throats.” Reading this, I briefly hoped Weiss would spend the rest of the novel pranking us: embellish a scene with gothic angst, then hop-skip-and-jump to a smutty punchline.
From the start, though, Weiss fuses outré humor with anxiety about the wellspring of everyday behavior. After departing from the outhouse, the narrator crosses paths with the tailor who, in a bout of nervousness, drops both his pipe and his glasses:
His hands were burrowing in the yellowy mud water; I helped him, handed him the glasses and the pipe, and for a while he tried to put the glasses as a pipe into his mouth and the pipe as glasses to his eyes until finally the things found their proper places; drops of wet mud ran down his face . . .
As the day stretches on, the household is set into motion through similarly mismanaged quasi-mechanical routines, as each member seeks their own “proper place.” These meticulously reported activities seem to generate their own malfunctioning. The narrator is prone to inscrutable glitches, too. As he sits at a meal where the eating habits, attire, and seating position of every boarder are described in near-comic detail, he gets caught up in noticing his own hands and mouth in relation to the empty space next to him, which is soon to be filled by a new boarder who the coachman will deliver to the house. The narrator’s monitoring of every action only falls short when it comes to himself. The question of what he is to do next is perpetually stymied by his need to simply move forward through time.
This estrangement from the source of ordinary behavior seems to be a shared ailment. Passing by one of the boarding house’s windows after the mucky incident with the tailor, the narrator glimpses the family sitting frozen in a primordial arrangement. The mother rests at the back of the room on a bed nursing the infant, covered in shadows but for her bared breast. The father stands fully in the light with his fists on the tabletop and his face jutting forward as his son, who squats on his heels with shoulders raised to his ears, stares into his father’s wide open mouth.
The coldness of the family in Coachman resembles Weiss’s descriptions of his own family in Exile. Born to a Hungarian Jewish father and a Christian mother, Weiss did not know he was Jewish until his older half-brother clued him in at a Hitler Youth rally in the early ‘30s:
. . . when the hurricane of jubilant summons to death and self-sacrifice, which at the time seemed like so much cheering for a gold-gleaming future, had run its course, Gottfried said, “What a pity you can’t be with us.” I felt neither surprise nor fear at these words. And when Gottfried then explained that my father was a Jew, this came to me like confirmation of something I had long suspected.
Jacques’s disappearance from Weiss’s life repeats in the larger structure of Exile, where we experience Nazism only as it influences Weiss, rather than as a source of excruciating suffering. In Exile, Weiss’s persecution is tantamount to a series of stage set changes. The narrative operates like light passing over the scales of a fish: we access no skeleton, no blood, no esophagus or tilted organs, only shifting color, and a gaping, dazzling eye.
If the eye does change its focus, it happens only at the war’s end, when Weiss imagines the reproof of his friend Hoderer, a fellow refugee who died by suicide: “Now that the danger is past, you dare to look at something that existed for a long time, the existence of which was known to you. Now that nothing more can happen to you, you dare to open your eyes.” Weiss is agonized when he recognizes his apathy. He writes that the images of the survivors of concentration camps that circulated after the war’s end rendered his every written word and sketch “a lie and a mockery.”
Weiss’s impression of his own political culpability signaled an awakening that guided his wide-ranging artistic impulses over the years that followed. His three-volume novel The Aesthetics of Resistance (published respectively in 1975, 1978, and 1981) is considered one of the most important works of postwar German literature. As Noah Isenberg wrote in the Nation, it works “to give voice to fascism’s victims, and to preserve the memory of their lives and example.” Where Coachman is barely notched with historical markers, The Aesthetics of Resistance contains a central character named Bertolt Brecht, Marxist interpretations of artworks including Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, and a detailed reenactment of leftist infighting before and during the war.
The Investigation (1965), Weiss’s interlude in documentary theater, arranges detailed testimony of victims and perpetrators in the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials into eleven gut-wrenching cantos. It is Exile’s stylistic opposite: patient and horribly unrelenting where Exile is indulgent, grand, and occasionally goofy. While reading The Investigation I couldn’t shake the feeling of being lowered into a bottomless pit. To put the book down is to dread picking it back up.
The horror that is systematically laid bare in The Investigation also appears in The Shadow of a Coachman’s Body in short scenes of punishment that are as rootless as they are arresting. The doctor’s repeated self-inflicted wounds struck me as the most distressing thread of the novel. When the doctor and the narrator are alone together, the doctor agonizes over his pain until his language becomes even more garbled than the narrator’s own earlier fixations at the lunch table: “wounds not heal, whichever way I cut, hollow out deeply, down to the bone, knife on the bone, grates, scrapes, breaks off, sits deeper yet, bandage, all night, all night awake, still blood, pus, farther, down at the arm, then farther up . . .” This continues for a page and a half. In Coachman, Weiss can sometimes feel like a magician winking and preening as he pulls hair out of the drain), but real desperation pervades the text.
Just as Jacques’s disappearance in Exile destabilizes expectations of cause and effect, Coachman robs us of the ability to accept routines. In The Weird and the Eerie, Mark Fisher writes, “the perspective of the eerie can give us access to the forces which govern mundane reality but which are ordinarily obscured.” The lack of historical context in Coachman is crucial in initiating us into its eerie world. From the start of the novel, Weiss makes clear that current events will play no part when he describes how newspapers are used as toilet paper:
As for paper, everyone rips as much as he needs from the torn-up newspapers from the basement where they lie in a heap beside the coal, crumpled and dusty, having been used as wrapping around some delivered merchandise or left by travelers and read again and again, greasy, worn out, often put to further use in the kitchen, full of black skillet rims and imprints of plates and cups, with potato peels and fish bones sticking to them . . . sitting bent forward . . . one gets absorbed in the small, mixed-up fragments of time, in events without beginning or end, often even divided crosswise or up and down; one follows one person’s speech and continues with the speech of another, one reads the description of the scene of an action and then glides on to the scene of a different action.
The boarders are caught in time such that none of their actions can be traced back to their historical moment, even as their grotesque impulses are shadowed by the same historical juncture as Exile and The Investigation. As Parul Seghal writes in her essay for the New Yorker, “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” “Shakespeare’s source texts for ‘King Lear’ and ‘Hamlet’ include neatly legible motivations; lopping them off from the story releases an energy obstructed by the conventional explanation.” Weiss employs a similar tactic. Marooning us from obvious antecedents, we’re forced to look closer at the entangled behavior of the members of the household.
In the last pages, the Coachman pulls up in front of the boarding house and carries out the final act of the novel with the same electric blankness that can be found throughout. Weiss’s characters act so much like cogs—constantly driving towards a target, but also uncomprehending of their circumstances and incapable of changing them—that the effect is a kind of entrancement with the machine. Seghal’s newly mysterious “energy” and Fisher’s unobscured “forces” are not defined in The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body. We’re given neither cause nor consequence of all that hurtling choreography. By refusing an answer, Weiss pulls a final mischievous maneuver, angling our attention back to consider the endless transmissible coercions of our own daily lives.
1. New Directions is also publishing a reprint of E. B. Garside’s 1969 translation of another novella by Weiss, Conversation of the Three Wayfarers, which is worthwhile for the wedding descriptions alone, and benefits from John Keene’s insightful introduction.↩
© 2022 by Sarah Gale. All rights reserved.