“I was on my way to look out for a life of my own”: On Peter Weiss’s Leavetaking
By Jennifer Kurdyla.
Peter Weiss, Leavetaking, translated by Christopher Levenson, Melville House, 2014
Born in 1916 in a province of what was then Prussia, Peter Weiss was one of the most virtuosic polymaths of his day. Throughout his youth, he engaged in various forms of artistic study—from photography and other visual arts to writing—before emigrating with his family to England and Sweden under the shadow of the Nazi regime. Over the course of his sixty-five years, Weiss was the award-winning author of some dozen plays, ten works of fiction, and numerous films and paintings. Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse was a mentor throughout his life.
Given this impressive education and output, it’s perhaps no surprise that Weiss chose to give his life an artistic treatment as well, turning his personal story of burgeoning aesthetic sensibilities, motivated by or at least coupled with a healthy dose of familial drama, into fiction. Although he wrote novels throughout his career, they have usually been remembered after his drama—especially one play, Marat/Sade (1963), which is his best known work today. A close second, though, is his unfinished three-volume novel about European resistance to Nazism, The Aesthetics of Resistance (1975, 1978, 1981); as much a work of theory and history as it is of imagination, W. G. Sebald it called a “magnum opus.”
With regard to his autobiographical novel Leavetaking (1960), reissued this year by Melville House in its original translation by Christopher Levenson and with a new introduction by Sven Bikierts, contemporary audiences may not only consider it a moving testimonial to a young man’s strivings for personal freedom, or a vivid rendering of Germany on the brink of massive historical change; more than that, it is an essential piece in the larger, sprawling puzzle of Weiss’s political and cultural ideologies. This poetically concise yet propulsive work, characterized by what Bikerts calls a “sense of undifferentiated onrush,” paints a portrait of a young artist in his state of becoming. And while it remains intensely personal, the novel opens a window into the influences behind Weiss’s life-long fascination with both internal and external resistance in his work.
Leavetaking begins, perhaps surprisingly for a Kunstlerroman, from a place of death. The unnamed narrator is now an adult, viewing his father’s corpse: “an enormous outlay of energy dissolved into nothingness . . . the corpse of a man in an alien land, no longer reachable.” Without going into specifics, he immediately sets a tone of underlying hostility and slight haughtiness that has helped bring him to this place in his life, and which will drive the rest of his narrative. Now that his father has passed, a year after his mother’s death, he’s free of the most oppressive forces he’s known and can fully embody and reflect upon the independence he fought to gain from them. Death, then, is the natural starting point for this particular Kunstlerroman, the first sentence of which is: “I have often tried to come to an understanding of the images of my father and my mother, to take bearings and steer a course between rebellion and submission. But I have never been able to grasp and interpret the essential being of these two figures standing at either side of the gateway of my life.” The narrator thus grieves “not for them [but] for what had been missed, for the yawning emptiness that surrounded my childhood and youth. Grief sprang from the recognition that the attempt at togetherness in which the members of the family had persisted to the end for two whole decades and had completely failed.” All that follows is a chronicle of those failed attempts: the tumultuous years of his childhood, at home with his parents and siblings, until the day of his “leavetaking” from that world into one of his own choosing. An aspiring though little-encouraged artist, he departs at the end of the book for Prague to study painting and literature. The highly articulate and penetrating prose itself indicates that the narrator has succeeded in this career. The rebellion he staged against his home life was therefore well worth its many anguishes.
Lacking typographical breaks or dialogue, Leavetaking reads as continuous, even imposing, 125-page block of subjectivity that the reader is asked to patiently parse through, never quite sure what is waiting at the end. It is as pure a work a stream of consciousness as one could imagine. Shifting seamlessly between past and present in tense and chronology, the otherwise mundane events of this life become more difficult to follow. With concentrated effort, the reader can forge through this rough plot from the outpouring of memory and emotion: As a boy, the narrator and his family are constantly moving to escape Nazi threats. This dislocation creates problems for him at school, coupled with the frustration he feels when his passion for art—the realm in which he feels safest and most in control—is beaten down as an unfit life choice by his parents; his father wants him to join the family business. Then, his sister is hit by a car and dies suddenly, marking one of the final turns away from his childhood: “Home. There was no home any longer. The journey into the unknown had begun. Like survivors of a shipwreck in a boat we drove through the gently surging ocean of the city.” With the help of a mentor modeled like Weiss’s own, he makes plans to begin his artistic education abroad, away from all he knows and that much better for it. These plot points come at the reader abruptly and non-linearly, giving the sense that for the narrator they’re all part of a collective past he’s too overwhelmed by to parse himself.
Yet for all his meandering and digressive leaps, the narrator never conveys a sense of being out of control of, or even surprised at, his own life’s path. Each line and memory feels immediate and raw, all the while reflected upon the mirror-smooth, even-tempered surface of a prose that indicates how the narrator, the readers’ Virgil, is hardly blind when it comes to his life. On the contrary: he’s viewing his past, and writing about it, from a vantage point of perfect hindsight. Embedded in the tortuous, Joycean, text are skillfully placed adages that force the reader to slow down, at the risk of missing such gems as: “Profound silence regained, everything was steeped in its long past.”
Supposedly “vaguely” or “dimly” remembered memories are piercingly specific and visceral. And because the narrator’s calling to art is never in question, the story’s core—his ownership of his place as an outsider in the world—is treated not as a state of confusion but one of assured understanding and acknowledgement. For example, when he and his family first move into a new house, he identifies within the unfamiliar walls “something fraught with expectancy” and admits “[t]he house remains strange to me, I cannot find my way around its interior”; at the same time, outside in the garden he ingests the pebbles and soil and sun like communion wafers and relishes in how “[h]ere out of doors my senses could expand and when I entered the summer house I entered a kingdom that belonged only to me, my self-chosen place of exile.” In this moment of supposed disorientation, the narrator still exerts a creative agency over his environment. This skill comes in handy at the end of the book when the stakes are higher, and the “kingdom” he’s about to conquer is no longer a canny, familial country house but an uncanny, bustling city teeming with people of greater, highly recognized genius.
The reasons for the narrator’s exile are largely internal, yet the circumstances of his upbringing are also major factors in his rebellion. (The full German title is Leavetaking from the Parents.) For one, his parents loom over him like invisible Pantopicon guards. Elaborating upon his relationship with his parents sketched out on page one, he peppers the novel with specific illustrative anecdotes. In one, his mother berates and belittles him: “You are not to let me know, I suffer sleepless nights because of you, I’m responsible for you and if you’re a failure, it will reflect on me.” With his father, his greatest bond is but one moment of mutually regretted punishment, inflicted under his mother’s orders. Likewise, at school, the narrator finds favor with neither students nor teachers, about whom he notes: “These small whistling stones, and the mocking voices over there, how well they knew that I was a fugitive, that I was in their power.” When he first feels the pangs of sexual urges, he looks to the women closest to him for relief. As children, he and his sister, Magrit, expose their soft nakedness to each other; even as she lies on her premature deathbed, he’s titillated by the sight of “the bright smooth belly that I had felt against my body, I saw the tiny breasts I had caressed, I saw the soft curve of her womb which I had pressed with my body.” After she’s dead, and when he’s a bit older, he turns to his governess, with whom he’s unable to perform.
With each such blow to his character, the narrator rallies to defy these low expectations and thus boost his own self-esteem. Following his mother’s tirade, he turns to look at a model city he’s built: “After my destructive games this was the first attempt to be constructive.” Lacking any real mentors at school, he seeks one for himself: the Hesse-inspired artist called Harry Haller. For all his sexual impotence, including the incestuous obsession with his sister and even his parents’ genitalia, one can easily imagine that this man’s legacy will not be human offspring but art. This is how his self-proclaimed Promethean self springs into being:
And my parents became resigned when they got the letter from the Authority, they gave up on me, but nevertheless with his sense of the practical, my father tried to make it an orderly leave-taking, and I was sent money, given a trial year, by the end of which I was to show I was equal to a painter’s calling. Now I was on my own, all to myself, no one to keep an eye on me, no one to fence me in, I could make of my day what I pleased, and so undertake the impossible, to be done with my old self and create an existence of my own.
There is no clear tone of extreme triumph or defeat here, but instead an anticipatory contentment in the actualization of his fate. He confirms this attitude at the end of the book when, after finding Prague not exactly the paradise he’d imagined, he expresses bleakly: “I took leave of my parents. The wheels of the railway thumped away beneath me with their ceaseless hollow drumbeats and the forces of my flying forward screamed and sang in incantatory chorus. I was on my way to look for a life of my own.” He brings together his outer and inner non-importance, claiming both as reasons for the existence of the “incantatory chorus” that is this book, the title of which puts a name to his movement into the known unknown.
Although there is an ostensible sequel to Leavetaking called Vanishing Point (1961), it is interesting to think of the first book’s end as a segue from Weiss’s fictionalized memory to his true autobiography. It was just after 1940, when the novel’s timeline ends, that Weiss’s career took off, and only after its publication did he begin contemplating Aesthetics of Resistance: his other works are then the fulfillment of both narrator’s and author’s leavetaking from childhood. Yet this ending point also benefits the reader’s relationship with the narrator. Characterized with such self-importance, and an assumption that a devoted reader is there to compensate for the lack of appreciation he’s had in life, the narrator seems like he’s on the path to becoming a rather pompous and unlikeable individual. Pre-leavetaking, he casts a spell upon the reader that is real and tangible, even enjoyable for all its grotesque and discomforting truths, and yet it is always that: a spell, with some conjurer behind it. Once the leavetaking of the title is achieved in the novel, the spell must be broken such that it can exist in the reader’s memories as purposefully and poetically as it does in the narrator’s. One must make a leavetaking from the narrator to his author.
What is best to take away from Leavetaking is the earnestness of its ambitions as well as its successful recreation of an adolescent artist on the cusp of adulthood. Weiss’s narrator is not so different from the average adolescent in his selfishness, but what does distinguish him is an exceptional gift of turning that messy time in his life into something more—into art. One can make the same claim of Weiss: he similarly blended truth and fiction, and wisely timed this publication late in his career. Having moved sufficiently past his youth and its vulnerability, Weiss was no longer threatened by his former self as embodied in the narrator of Leavetaking. Ventriloquized thusly by his alter-ego, Weiss writes: “my childhood lay decades behind me, I can depict it now with well-chosen words, I can take it apart and spread it out in front of me.” Weiss, like the narrator, found the “life of my own” he was looking for.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 5th, 2014.