A Loose Collection of Fragments: On the Novels of Peter Weiss

April 26, 2022   •   By Ben Sandman

The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body

Peter Weiss

Conversation of the Three Wayfarers

Peter Weiss

I FIRST READ the German writer Peter Weiss in 2014, when Leavetaking — a long-out-of-print autobiographical novel from 1961 — was published in English. At 125 pages, it’s a short book, but it left a major impression on me. While the story is familiar — a writer’s coming of age — Weiss’s style is distinctive: his sentences rush and unspool down the page, and the book is written in one long paragraph. I should note that, in 2014, I was the novel’s ideal reader: I was a 22-year-old aspiring writer, a lover of German literature, and an intern at the independent press that published the English translation. Rereading Leavetaking, though, I stand by my youthful enthusiasm. The onrush of prose reproduces how it feels to become lost in memory, and, frequently, vivid details shine through. A piece of chocolate — a gift from the narrator’s nanny — tastes “soapy from the inside of her bag.” The narrator recalls how “the hoofs of the heavy shaggy horses struck sparks from the cobblestones.”

Now, two more of Weiss’s out-of-print novels, The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body and Conversation of the Three Wayfarers, have arrived in English translation. Weiss is best known for his 1964 play Marat/Sade and other theatrical work; reading this pair of strange and difficult books, one begins to understand why Weiss isn’t better known for his fiction. Originally published in 1960, The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body, which launched Weiss’s career as an author after several decades spent as a painter, depicts a writer-narrator who obsessively describes a boarding house and its guests. In Conversation of the Three Wayfarers, published in 1962, the vivid details that animate Leavetaking and The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body are still there, but realism has otherwise been abandoned. Reading the two novels together, alongside Leavetaking, one gets a sense of Weiss’s warring impulses: on the one hand, a realist’s love of concrete detail; on the other, an urge to experiment and challenge his reader.

The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body is the stronger book of the two. The drama in it is the drama of its own production: the writer-narrator makes clear that he is jotting down everything he sees and hears. This makes the novel feel, at times, like a long-lost cousin of recent autofiction, which tends to show us the writer writing. In Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (2009–’11), for instance, we frequently see the narrator at his desk, writing the very text we are reading, though this layer disappears, allowing us to lose ourselves in a scene. In Weiss’s novel, we are rarely allowed to forget that every scene is being filtered through the narrator’s senses and then being written about. Among the most frequently used verbs in the book are “see,” “hear,” and “look.” Weiss’s narrator doesn’t participate; he observes.

At the start, this doesn’t feel all that strange. On the first page, the narrator appears to be setting the scene. He sees “part of the house, its wall with yellowish plaster cracked and partly crumbling off, a few posts with horizontal pegs for the clothes lines, and farther back, as far as the horizon, moist black soil.” He hears “the smacking and grunting of the pig’s snout, the slopping and splattering of the mud, the bristly rubbing of the pig’s back against the planks, the squeaking and cracking of the planks, the rattling of the planks and loose posts at the wall of the house” — and seven more distinct sounds besides. (The poet Rosmarie Waldrop, who translated the novel, does a fine job here of paying attention to sonic detail in a sentence so focused on sound: “bristly rubbing” is wonderful, and the repetitive “k” sounds imitate the woody “squeaking and cracking.”) The amount of sensory information in this passage feels excessive, but the technique is a convention descended from Flaubert, who, as James Wood has observed, “seems to scan the streets indifferently, like a camera.” Only as Weiss’s novel progresses does it become clear that this camera-eye approach — what feels, at first, like scene-setting — is the primary mode of narration. The observations are not a prelude to plot or action; they are the action.

Which isn’t to say the novel doesn’t contain events — it does. It’s just that these events do not feel eventful. In one scene, the narrator hears a commotion in the room beneath him. He goes downstairs and looks through the keyhole. A father is beating his son — beating him with such vigor, it turns out, that the man suffers what seems like a heart attack. The mother cries for help, and the narrator rushes into the room and helps the man into bed. It all sounds simple enough, but Weiss’s long sentences — which work so beautifully for description — make the scene hard to parse. His style is so consistent that it has the effect of flattening things out, dulling the impact of climactic scenes. The narrator views everything with equanimity: he gets no more worked up watching a man suffer a heart attack than he does describing a pile of stones.

The style in Conversation of the Three Wayfarers (translated by E. B. Garside) is similarly consistent and flat, though in this book the effect is even stranger because there seem to be multiple narrators. As John Keene writes in the introduction, “instead of the form the title suggests (a conversation or dialogue), the text itself proceeds in a refracted manner, with no discernible plot or clear arc, and it is unclear throughout most of the narrative who is actually speaking.” On page one, the three wayfarers of the title — Abel, Babel, and Cabel — are introduced in the third person, as “men who did nothing but walk walk walk.” On the next page, after a section break, a first-person narrator — presumably Abel, Babel, or Cabel — takes over: “I believe this bridge is a new one, I have never seen it before, it must have been built overnight, a difficult job requiring long preparation and a great expenditure of effort.” After another section break, the first-person narrator (a new one?) informs us that “the bridge has existed for a long time.” Is this a contradiction? An argument between two different speakers? Or have we leapt forward in time, to a future where the bridge is no longer new? It feels impossible to answer these questions, and impossible to know why the answers would matter. Each section, it seems, introduces a different narrator, but this is never made explicit. What ties the sections together is repetition — a bridge, a ferry, a ferryman and his sons — but each section seems to be conveyed from a different angle, and to look for connections or through-lines would appear to be futile.

On the sentence level, Weiss incorporates striking and memorable details. The vibrations from a ferry engine come up “through the deck into the soles of your shoes, up your legs, into the body, as in regular quick walking.” A man is described as having a “pointed nose” that “turned up […] when it rained,” so that “it rained into all the openings in his face.” Sentence to sentence, the reader is generally able to envision what is being described. Connecting these sentences and making sense of the whole is what’s difficult.

And so, as I read, I searched for a different way to read this difficult book. I found myself drawn to individual sections, such as one where the mystery narrator describes the ferryman’s boat, which has “often been repaired and tarred […] nonetheless water steadily leaked in, every morning he had to pump it out.” The ferryman crosses from one bank to the other, hourly, regardless of “whether any ferry passengers had come aboard or not, or whether any passengers were waiting on the other side.” People could come “running from afar” or “shout and whistle,” but the ferryman returns “only when the hour had run out again.” The fable-like tone and absurdity made me think of Kafka, whose work, Keene writes in his introduction, Weiss adapted for the stage. Perhaps one way to approach Weiss’s novel — a cop-out? — would be to give up the search for cohesion and read the book as a loose collection of fragments, as one might read Kafka’s journals.

Many passages stand alone, particularly those that relate exploits of the ferryman and his sons: Jam, Jem, Jim, Jom, Jum, and Jym. In these sections, the first-person narrator is less present, allowing me to stop worrying about who the hell the narrator is. (Which isn’t to say I have a clear sense of what separates Jam from Jem, or Jom from Jum.) In one lovely passage, the ferryman tells the narrator about his son Jym, who has “begun to wash himself, have his hair cut short” (hair that, in a prime example of the book’s surfeit of detail, “was still long, but not so long that it hung matted over his shoulders”). Jym moves to a country house on a lake, hires servants, and buys a yacht, and the ferryman comes “with his skiff through a canal to the lake,” where he watches as his son throws a lavish party. A group jumps into the lake, and one swimmer approaches the ferryman:

The ferryman sat still in his boat and saw how the head in the water was drawing nearer, with the mouth making soft blowing sounds. The swimmer came up to the side of the boat, the ferryman already could see the whites of his eyes shining, and the swimmer’s hands stretched out, and the body came after them, and Jym was standing in the boat, bolt upright, naked, dripping. He stood there for some seconds, or minutes, the ferryman did not tell me just how long, then he again dived into the water, headfirst, swam back to the shore.

At least until the end of this passage, when the narrator reappears, I’m able to lose myself in the scene and enjoy this strange moment between father and son.

These two novels help to illuminate what I love about Leavetaking, the book that sparked my interest in Weiss. All three novels showcase Weiss’s energetic style and his undeniable eye for detail. What Leavetaking has that the other books do not is an emotional urgency that matches the prose. The narrator of Leavetaking grapples with the death of his parents and the memory of his childhood, a context that makes every small detail feel meaningful. In The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body, on the other hand, it’s not clear what’s at stake for the narrator in telling this story of his time in the boardinghouse. The narrator, in fact, often seems unsure whether he should continue. “I couldn’t muster the energy to describe again how I climbed down from the stack of wood and helped the son pick up the stones,” he admits. “Instead, after having written this last paragraph of my observations […] I lay down.” If there’s a good reason for the narrator to get all this down, he hasn’t figured out what it is. Near the end of the novel, the narrator admits that he is “fighting hard against [his] sleepiness and [his] impulse to put the pencil down and give up these notes.” At this point, 79 pages in, I was feeling sleepy myself.

It’s tempting to see the three novels as a kind of progression: in The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body, published in 1960, Weiss found his style; in Leavetaking, published in 1961, Weiss discovered how to use that style to excavate his own past; and in Conversation of the Three Wayfarers, published in 1963, Weiss threw everything out the window and began to experiment. Three novels in four years, you might be thinking — not bad. In fact, it was four: in 1962, Weiss published a sequel to Leavetaking entitled Vanishing Point. I am eager to read it. But for now, the 1966 English translation by Christopher Levenson remains out of print, and it is unclear if a new translation is planned.


Ben Sandman’s fiction has appeared in Story, Stone Canoe, and Stirring, among others. A graduate of Vassar College, he earned an MFA in fiction from Oregon State University and is currently a PhD student in creative writing and literature at University of Cincinnati. He was born and raised in Upstate New York.