The two novels Peter Weiss (1916–82) wrote relatively early in his career, Leavetaking and Vanishing Point (Fluchtpunkt, 1962) are ambitious and unsettling works of prose fiction, styled, in terms of genre, in a Proustian manner of fictionalized autobiography, though charged with a more forceful sense of political urgency. Written in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust brutalities, these works reflect an effort on the part of the author to analyze and understand, if only in retrospect, the cultural logic that made the catastrophes of the Second World War possible. They are rooted in the assumption that any serious investigation of an age must begin at home—in unabashed self-scrutiny.
The first work, Leavetaking, opens, characteristically, with the narrator’s memory of his parents’ death. What begins as belated sorrow for family estrangement and disintegration serves as a prelude to a more rigorous examination of “the yawning emptiness” that has been a mark of the narrator’s childhood and youth. Cruelty is a central subject. From instances of “ritual beatings” that took place in the traditional bourgeois household of his childhood, through the more fearful experiencing of classroom spanking or ritual persecution and stoning by the gang leader Friederle and his cronies, cruelty, the narrator suggests, and the consequent fear of punishment and persecution, have been the major facts of this lingering feeling of emptiness. As the narrator’s early exposure to the morbidly sadistic world of German fairy tales also suggests, the cultural sanctioning of cruelty not only drives the traumatized subject to a state of early alienation, but it also overcasts his early years with a premonition of a fate that, due to his exile, he was to escape later in life.
With a compulsion that to a great degree explains the germination of Weiss’s writing here and in his later pieces, the narrator of Leavetaking repeatedly looks back on those scenes from his early life. In the aftermath of the historical disaster of World War II, these scenes loom large with the horror of their premonitory potential. Here the narrator spares no one. This includes neither society, which has made the existence of degraded conditions possible, nor his youthful self, who—prior to his exclusion from the system of which, due to his Jewish origins, he learns he can no longer be a part—had internalized many of its laws.
The childhood experience of persecution by the bully Friederle and his menacing group, the narrator realizes, may have been shattering in itself, but it does not put him on a par with real historical victims of the cruelty of the war years. Weiss studied in Prague with Peter Kien, for instance, a young writer and painter who later died at Auschwitz in 1944. Quite ironically, in fact, the narrator reveals how the trauma of victimization had often been followed by a fantasy of power, or worse, by his literal projections of cruelty upon others. Remembering one such episode in which the brutalities acted out upon a small boy had turned him into a Friederle-like thug, the narrator remarks, “I was filled with brief happiness to be able to be one of the strong ones, although I knew that my place was among the weaklings.”
It is this astonishing sincerity with which Weiss is prepared to examine his own place in the processes of “merciless development” at the time that distinguishes his writing from any easy attempts, popular in postwar German literature, at “coming to terms with the past.” What only saves the young Weiss from being thoroughly overcome, with many others, by Hitler’s screaming speeches summoning to self-sacrifice and death, is the shock of his father’s Jewishness. This knowledge is closely tied in his memory with the experience of another loss, the death of his sister Margit. The two events, both fostering the already present sense of dislocation and alienation, stand as overtures to two major departures in the narrator’s life: the “leavetaking” of his family and the self-conscious embracing of the challenges of an émigré existence. For Weiss, neither comes easily.
The years of later exile in Prague are full of guilt and foreboding, not the least of which are induced by the narrator’s struggle and rebellion against his parents, from whose control he cannot seem to liberate himself totally. It is only after realizing that his defeat “was not the defeat of the emigrant in face of the difficulties of living in exile, but the defeat of someone who does not dare to free himself from his independence” that the narrator decides to make power of his non-belonging and sever his ties with the past. Stirred by the ominous force of a dream about a huntsman who could also be the dreamer—that is, the narrator—and under the threat of a forthcoming war, eventually Weiss’s narrator in Leavetaking takes leave of his parents by embarking on a train that would lead him to a new life of his own.
Berwald, Olaf. An Introduction to the Work of Peter Weiss. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2003.
Cohen, Robert. Understanding Peter Weiss. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
Hernand, Jost, and Marc Silberman, eds. Rethinking Peter Weiss. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.