NEITHER FATE NOR HISTORY is kind to Berta, the protagonist of Marianne Fritz’s slim first novel, The Weight of Things. Although she is a kindly person, Berta has a difficult time being kind to herself.
Seduced and impregnated by Rudolph, who dies in the Second World War, Berta marries his comrade, Wilhelm Schrei, and gives birth to her second child. Wilhelmine, the novel’s other adult character, is nominally Berta’s friend but really more of her bully, a role that Berta’s own children eventually also assume. In her halting, anxious narration, Berta presents the daily humiliations that characterize her bleak existence. Berta’s failures happen for no particular reason; her hopeless submissiveness and her offspring’s boorishness seem to be a matter of fate. She grimly assesses her flock: “Somehow we just do everything wrong. Somehow we just don’t fit.” The Schrei family is poorly adapted to “life as such,” Berta’s well-worn phrase for reality, and she can do nothing to protect her children from “the weight of things,” another phrase that accumulates meaning the more Berta worries at it. She suffers from hideous nightmares, in which she sees “allusions to life as such, and therefore found them worth taking to heart.” One particularly vivid case, in which she dies and her son, Little Rudolph, is crucified, features a dream chorus that lists all of the things wrong with the boy:
“You can’t catch a ball.”
“You can’t play an instrument.”
“You can’t even sing.”
“You always fall down.”
“Your nose bleeds.”
“You have two left hands.”
“You can’t do your sums.”
“You can’t even remember the Ten Commandments.”
“You can’t write on your own.”
“You can’t even copy things down […]”
This list continues for a while and culminates in, “You are good for nothing.”
At some point, Berta makes what might be her only decisive act in the book: she strangles her children, “two hopeless cases,” and tries to kill herself, only to fail, because a medical anomaly has placed her heart on the right and not on the left. Her note to Wilhelm is as humble as it is outrageous: “I have brought my cursed creations to an end. Your Berta, who loves you.” She is placed in an institution, “The Fortress,” where she ultimately loses what is left of her mind. Wilhelmine ultimately weds the now-unattached Wilhelm on Berta’s birthday.
The Weight of Things garnered widespread critical acclaim in the German-language press when it was first published by S. Fischer Verlag in 1978, earning Fritz the prestigious Robert Walser Prize. It has recently been translated into English by Adrian Nathan West for Dorothy, A Publishing Project. In some senses, the novel is more or less a chamber play, limited in scope, gnarled in its hermetic and highly controlled but unremarkable language. Here, Fritz masters the voice of a gentle-natured neurotic. Critics loved it, because it is consistent, circumscribed, economical. Everything unnecessary has been hewn away (Berta never has a chance to say anything but the essential), and readers are left with a small, dull pearl.
After this auspicious beginning, Fritz’s work became increasingly experimental and increasingly maximalist, and as a result, it met with decreasing enthusiasm from the German-language press. The 1985 Whose Language You Don’t Understand clocked in at 2.8 kilograms (6.17 pounds) and 3,392 pages, “written in a foreign language whose rule is the breach of rules,” according to a review in Der Spiegel, whose befuddled critic did not manage to finish the novel.
Though her later work eschews convention, down to minute norms of grammar, The Weight of Things is a tightly wrought masterwork of narrative, a little gem that shows off everything that it can (and should) do, without looking as if it were particularly trying. Fritz addresses large themes obliquely; that is, she makes them accessible only by revealing the tiny corner of them that protrudes into Berta’s life and consciousness. After Berta has killed her children and been institutionalized, for example, Wilhelmine and Wilhelm visit her to announce they are getting married, and Berta gives Wilhelmine a tiny trinket of the Madonna that she cherishes — the last thing she has left: “Only when she hung her Madonna around Wilhelmine’s neck did her doubting and brooding compulsion fall away from her like withered autumn leaves, and then she understood that she had lost, and that life, with its molding hands, the weight of things, had won.” This small act signifies a howling loss, a loss of faith miniaturized in the Madonna. The largest life issues — the weight of things — are couched in the careworn phrasing of her mind, which withdraws into the tightest corner of her ever-shrinking existence. The germ of the sprawling historicity that would follow in Fritz’s later work is palpable here, but in a more contained way.
West’s translation of this expansive miniature does not make a single misstep, particularly its rendering of Fritz’s prose, which conveys the hesitancy of a woman worrying the edge of her shawl, its philosophical ruminations dressed in the cautious language of petite bourgeois thought.
Fritz, who died in 2007 at the age of 58, eschewed public attention, so relatively little is known about her personal life. She was born and died in Austria, lived in modest circumstances from literary grants, and perhaps the one salient detail is that her apartment was packed so full to the brim with books and research materials for her work that there was little space devoted to the comforts of living.
What is remarkable in an author whose later style split so markedly from that of her earlier work is that the same themes remain relevant throughout both. All of her novels in some sense or another follow “little people” as they endure the fates dealt to them by the historical vicissitudes of the 20th century, literary counterparts to Fritz’s lifelong commitment to class causes. In his afterword, West paraphrases the writer Klaus Kastberger, who identifies “the essential question for an understanding of Fritz’s oeuvre: in what does the subjective experience of such a disaster as National Socialism consist?” “The subjective experience of disaster” is a useful rubric through which to understand The Weight of Things. Fritz is a genius of disappointment, a genius of storytelling with a ruthlessly pessimistic bent, with each of the novel’s terse chapters more devastating than the last.
The Weight of Things, then, is the tip of an iceberg of desolation. Arriving at its shores, we look around and realize that it reaches more or less to the middle of earth and to the end of history. Yet, Berta believes that more is possible; she just does not know how to reach it. Her thumb-twiddling philosophizing produces fruits she herself cannot taste. Her observations are too big for her, at least within the framework of the life she leads: “Inwardness. Inwardness is what eludes me,” she thinks. “I’m too caught up in the world, too concerned with surfaces.” Ultimately, her inwardness develops into her insanity.
Fritz’s later writings will never be translated — the English promotional text for the book goes so far as to call them “untranslatable” — and so, when at the end of this small, insular, polished novel, West suggests, “there is a class of artists whose work is so strange and extraordinary that it eschews all gradations of the good and the mediocre: genius and madness are the only descriptors adequate to its scale,” he encourages us to take the leap with this enormous word, genius, for a book that contains itself, as well as what is beyond it.