The Weight of Things
by Marianne Fritz
BEST-KNOWN for the cycle of novels called The Fortress, the late Austrian writer Marianne Fritz has been compared to James Joyce for an experimental style of writing which caused her proofreader to quit in exasperation at her intentional misspellings and deliberate grammatical violations.
There’s little such experimentation in evidence in her debut novel The Weight of Things, the first of her works to be translated into English by Adrian Nathan West. It is nonetheless concerned with the subject that was to dominate her books — understanding the disaster of Western civilisation.
The slender volume uses a domestic nightmare as a metaphor for the cruelties that run through society over time and at its heart is the relationship between Berta — institutionalised after being undone by her desire to be less superficial — Wilhelm, who consoles himself that there’s more to “the world than an average citizen like himself could ever imagine” and Wilhelmine, a scheming cleaning lady with “no respect for social hierarchy.”
The narrative, set against the traumas of WWII, employs a language to describe the iniquities of their situation which is rich in military associations — marriage is seen as “combat.” The dual associations of the wording are also evident in the names, many of which have secondary meanings.
In a book that’s small but tightly wrought, that choice of wording is paramount and the cumulative effect of repetition is devastating. Wilhelmine pseudo-affectionately addresses her supposed friend Berta as “my little catastrophe,” while the dreamy indecisiveness of Berta is captured in the phrase “So. So.”
The repetitive motifs indicate the characters’ roles within wider society. Wilhelm remains subservient with his “ifs and buts,” believing that those from common trade schools aren’t meant to have independent thought, while the aggressively single-minded Wilhelmine is obsessed with ownership of a tiny Madonna.
The precision of the language lends the book a poetic feel as the narrative, moving between past and present, pieces together Berta’s downfall. It carries a weight that makes the story compelling yet not one the reader would willingly revisit.
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