Casebook: Geometric Regional Novel by Gert Jonke
One need not have read a single line of Gert Jonke’s Geometric Regional Novel to be irritated by it. How can novels be geometric? What do scientific figures have to do with narrative, literary language except that the letters of the alphabet consist of angles and curves? How could such a combination work since “regional novels” and the scientific discipline of geometry are commonly conceived of as contradictory or even conflicting?1 The hope that the ensuing narrative will clear up the matter unambiguously, so that the literary elements will shine through the label like a drawing through a hologram, remains unfulfilled, though. Instead, the reader is forced to discover that even the seemingly innocuous genre designation does not in the least correspond with the text that it precedes: “The conventional plot and the elements of melodrama traditionally associated with the genre are conspicuously absent” (Vazulik, 1).2 It is not just themes and motifs, however, but especially the form that makes the announcement of genre seem false; the montagelike nature of this novel precludes a conventional regional novel since regional novels usually follow linear structures and have consistent narrative perspectives. None of this is the case in Jonke’s novel, where various kinds of text and jargon stand vis-à-vis without a narrative center: “The outer form of the separate unifying elements in the narrative can be stipulated as: parts of conversations; prose fragments; structures that resemble concrete poetry; formulas; geometric drawings; lists of verbs and nouns stretching for paragraphs and even pages with some underlying associative idea; and more” (Caputo-Mayr 58).
Needless to say, the title itself has attracted much speculation in critical commentaries. The interpretations range from a quite straightforward “geometric (objective) assessment of newly revaluated regional material” (Caputo-Mayr 58) to an ironic or parodistic intention (Vazulik, “G. F. Jonke” 1). No matter which version one prefers, some degree of uncertainty will necessarily remain, since the heterogeneous narrative structure makes a uniform, all-encompassing assessment difficult. The novel “makes no concessions to easy reading” (Vazulik, Afterword 120), so there is no easy way out in the sense that it could be classified ex negativo as an antiregional novel (Rothschild 22 ff.)—a subgenre that was mushrooming in Austrian literature in the 1970s and that aimed overall at using a negatively drawn example to demystify the old constitutive myths of blood and soil found in the traditional regional novel. In contrast to prominent regional novelists like Peter Rossegger or Karl Heinrich Waggerl, authors like Franz Innerhofer or Josef Winkler no longer praised rural and provincial settings as places of freedom and harmony but regarded them as artificial constructions and rejected them as an inescapable trap whose rigid narrowness had destructive power on humans—a view already conveyed by Hermann Broch in his masterpiece Die Verzauberung [The Spell, trans. H. F. Broch de Rothermann, San Francisco: North Point, 1989—ed.] (Schmidt-Dengler 288 ff.). None of these aspects, however, receives more than passing treatment in any passage of Jonke’s novel. Unlike Franz Innerhofer’s novel Schöne Tage [Beautiful Days, trans. Anselm Hollo, New York: Urizen, 1976—ed.], Geometric Regional Novel does not undertake an openly critical revision of the antiliberal, antimodernist, antiurban, and anti-intellectual ideology of a long-established cult of provincialism. On the other hand, the right-wing foundation of province-myths is not suppressed or ignored, as the subchapter “Report in the Fine Arts Section of the Newspaper” unashamedly reveals from the start in its undisguised reactionary tendency: “Regrettably, all too often, access to the public is facilitated for so-called ‘artists,’ who, being reckless agitators and imitators in the service of radical Left machinations, then have to conceal their dilettantism and their lack of ability under the shoddy pretext of an allegedly ‘modern trend’ ” (Jonke 25). This report, which could without revision have appeared in the foreword to a regional novel of the 1930s—or in an aggressive speech by a modern right-wing populist—exists as a mere episode among others with-out actually showing the destructive potential this authoritarian cast of thought can have in daily life. In any case, the “negative track” does not provide a solution either: “This novel has as little to do with the regional novel, be it a positive or a ‘negative’ one, as Gombrowicz’s Operetta has to do with the genre of music bearing the same name” (Rothschild 22).
Unconcerned with his colleagues’ intense struggle for meaning, Rothschild views Geometric Regional Novel in a tradition of (post)modern titles meant to mislead readers rather than to lead them to the ensuing text (Rotschild 23). According to him, interpreters desperately trying to extract reliable meaning from the title are only wasting their time with a castle in the air, unaware that they are being ragged. The author may thus sit back and gloatingly enjoy the confusion he has caused by luring the reader with a key that doesn’t unlock anything. What is meant to be uncovered uncovers the uncov-erer in the end—reader-sociology at its best, one might smugly note, or one might simply be entertained by the “Sprachspie,” the “play of language,” apparent right on the cover of the book.
It would nonetheless be fatal to regard the matter as finally settled now, after the search for a semantic correspondence has turned out to be a trap. There is yet another “Sprachspiel” awaiting discovery; it arises from the title’s inherent communicological scope of reference. Looking closer at the formal construction, it appears to be significantly different from what we usually get in titles. If we take, for instance, a book title like Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften [The Man without Qualities, trans. Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike, 2 vols., New York: Knopf, 1995—ed.], we are at least formally provided with some—though very little—information about the forthcoming plot. Whether the announcement or the reader’s expectations derived from it actually come true or not is a different story—and often enough a different story in the most literal sense of the word. In contrast to the vast majority of book titles, which mediate some kind of content-based information, Geometric Regional Novel provides no conduit into the plot. Instead of embarking on the level of the signifiée, a genre (“regional novel”) is established, and its appearance or layout (“geometric”) is labeled. The latter has highly symbolic relevance: instead of “being awarded” a tiny piece of a great structured unit (the plot), the reader is confronted with the principle of structuration itself: “the village-square is a structural model” (Jonke 41), it says under a drawing of the town hall. Maria Luise Caputo-Mayr notes: “Working out from the leading term ‘geometric’ in the title, the reader is led ever farther along through references, comparisons, and descriptions derived from geometry, mathematics, and physics” (59). The focus is undoubtedly laid on the process of narrating and the construction of meaning, since geometry is not an object of analytical decoding, like novels, but is itself a decoding mechanism or a meaning generator: “Processes and procedures that alienate are the subject of Jonke’s novel, not geometry. The concern here is not for the geometrizing of nature, landscape, and world, but—entirely in the sense of Victor Shlovsky’s ‘deautomatizing’ [usually called ‘defamiliarization’ in English; see Culler 143; 160—ed.]—of (linguistic) perception” (Rotschild 35). Narrative language, symbolized by the genre of regional novel, loses its monopoly on the representation of prototypical realities associated with the countryside, such as the mountain range. Instead, narrative language is only conceivable as a displaced category in terms of its submission to another mode of representation. The following passage from chapter ‘The Village” impressively illustrates this principle, even though the extreme use of complex geometric and mathematical functions points to the presence of some irony: “The silhouetted margin of the mountain range north of the village has the shape of four curves that lead into one another: a sine curve, a cosine curve, and a sine and a cosine curve, each displaced by one and three-quarter phases” (9). Overshadowed by another discursive system, the announced signifiée “regional novel” is unavailable; i.e. objects are stripped of realistic appearance according to the codes of vraisemblance, reduced instead to their mathematical figurations and portrayed only in their mathematical relation to other figurations (see Vazulik, “G. F. Jonke” 2). Any representation therefore inevitably acquires the deconstructive function of sub-suming and concealing the other and thus concealing itself rather than establishing identity. Presence means absence at the same time and vice versa, one might say, using a standard phrase of postmodernism. The strategy of displacement is a mutual one, since narrative language is required to give proof of this displacement. In other words, it is language itself that deconstructs language.
Parallels have been drawn between Jonke’s geometricalizing representation,the resulting suspension of the absolutist status of language, which causes the author in the traditional sense to disappear, and structuralist notions of the subject (Caputo-Myer 58). The introduction of the village and its inhabitants convincingly supports this view:
The village square is rectangular, bordering on the houses gathered around it; streets and lanes flow into it; other than the well in the center, in which the paving stone patterns seek their source and from which they spread out like rays, there is nothing in the village square.
A figure, suddenly appearing in the square, approaches the well and draws water, making the winch creak; it turns from the well, a jug on its head, vanishes into a narrow side street. (7)
The village square is conceived of as a (re)constructed object, represented only in terms of its structural dimension and thus significantly devoid of any metaphysical dimension that authors like Rossegger or Ludwig Anzengruber always ascribed to rural, regional settings. Through its emptiness (“there is nothing in the village square”), its ontological lack of object-identity is emphasized. The square by no means becomes comprehensible as a unique place emerging from a transcendent underlying construction; the square is located outside the “center,” which means that it is cut off from the reference of a transitory identity that any center-constituent phenomenologically represents. Any reference to a center line in the village square (8) only stresses the absence of an underlying transcendence that might emerge from the square itself, since a line is a geometrical de-vice imposed from outside the object to make it perceptible in the given discursive system. If any object-identity is established at all, it is that of the geometric discourse that can only produce useful meaning and uphold its own constituitive principles. Any object of investigation has to be governed by these principles, or else the scientific system would not be able to “extract” meaning from it. In other words, geometric calculations are bound to mathematical axioms and their rigid noncontradictory interrelation in the sense that any further meaningful sentence must, among other features, rigorously exclude any contradiction to or deviation from (a) the axioms, (b) the inherent systematic rules of deduction, and (c) any other mathematical sentences that fulfill the former pos-tulates—bearing in mind, though, that Kurt Gödel claimed that a mathematical system which is totally free of any (macro-)contradictions might not be possible. Narrative constructions in their traditional meaning as literary narrative follow different principles—especially regional novels. Therefore, the reference “regional novel” can be regarded as a somewhat didactic, emphasizing device, which stresses the contours of (literary) narratives in general since in the case of regional novels these principles are par-ticularly obvious. A brief digression will illustrate this system-inherent difference.
Contrary to abstract modes of representation, as used in mathematics or geometry, the popularity of regional novels is widely grounded in their seemingly authentic language and their graphic immediacy. Instead of following rigid deductive principles that emerge from an axiomatic and thus stable set of scientific rules, they are conceived as manifestations of the spirit of a specific place or region. The literary appreciation of “Heimat,” the “region” or local setting in traditional regional novels, was rigorously linked to metaphysical modes of representation, appealing to the soil as a subliminal grounding place and spiritual influence, which therefore had to be a hermetically closed system. To begin with, “regional novels,” as the term implies, treated the provincial setting as a dissociation from, a sharply contrasting alternative, to urbanity. In their own understanding, regional novelists often depicted and upheld safe islands in an unsafe, blighted urban world.3 According to Vazulik, the genre was “inclined to display a certain provincial narrowness and to exaggerate the idealization of rural life in contrast to life in the alienating, hostile metropolis. . . . Features of the surrounding landscape, such as mountains or dense forests, often helped guarantee its isolation” (Afterword 121). Another indication of the (desired) isolation of rural life, as presented in regional novels, is the observation that the predominant “natural” order can only be challenged and rescinded by external or higher forces: “Any disturbance of the existing order was commonly the result either of a natural calamity or of someone crossing the boundary of this closed system to enter or leave it. Foreigners who intruded brought catastrophe upon the community; similarly, the native inhabitant who left this secure realm met with misfortune” (Vazulik, Afterword 121).
The myth of sacred soil which underlay these works was often supported by an incantatory, “holy” rhetoric. The emotive appeal through pathos to his compatriots by the German national historian, Heinrich Ritter von Srbik (1878-1951), a prominent figure in the Austro-Fascist Regime (1934-1938) and a precursor of National Socialism in Austria, impressively illustrates this aspect:4 “Swear by your homeland’s holy soil.” [Srbik’s words in German sound even more archaic and portentous: “Schwört auf der Heimat heiliger Scholle”—ed.] (79). These words of conjuration bear what Theodor W. Adorno has called a “Jargon der Eigentlichkeit” or “jargon of authenticity” [see Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will, Evanston: North-western UP, 1973—ed.] in which “words tremble with profound emotion while failing to disclose what they’re so profoundly emotional about” (“Der Essay” 14). As the “jargon of authenticity,” a typical linguistic feature of regional novels, presupposes, the “holiness” and transcendent redemptive quality of the soil were commonly regarded as inaccessible to rational analysis. What was aimed at was, to use a Barthian phrase, a transformation of history into nature (Barthes 113).
Now back to the novel. This lack of transcendence reflects upon the construction of the narrative, which implicitly rejects the notion of a transcendent discourse as the determiner of its representation, due to which the narrative implicitly establishes this emanatory relation. Since the village square lacks any kind of object-identity, it appears to be an architectural device, which is replicable anywhere and anytime; what is more, the square loses its status as an object. There seems to be nothing beyond this structure but the plan of an architect on a drawing board: “The topography of the village square is plotted like an architect’s design, constructing and not just finding” (Rothschild 27). The square’s lack of a proper identity, the emphasis on its being a construction and not a “natural reality,” corresponds to what the French philosopher Marc Augé has referred to as a “non-place” (see Augé). A similar pattern is to be detected in the depiction of the people on the square. They are referred to as mere figures and not as subjects, who gain their subjectivity through manifestations of intentional consciousness. The possibility of gaining subjectivity through intentional consciousness is symbolically ruled out as the two figures throughout the novel never actually manage to cross the village square, at least not until the very end. The figures appear only as place markers in a deterministic structure which defines their functions at the same time as it limits and symbolically rules out their status as subjects. Rothschild notes: “Movement on this square is described like mechanical ballet. Its protagonists are figures with no individuality or inner qualities of any kind” (23), that is without subjectivity. The most impressive instance of this “mechanical ballet” is the description of a handshake:
meanwhile, the first figure on the first bench nearest us had risen, while the figure sitting on the bench opposite the first bench had also risen; then they walked toward each other, met each other on the center line dividing the village square, raised their right hands, thrust their palms toward each other, clasped, shook them up and down, released them, turned away from each other, went back to their benches, sat down again; at the same time, the second figure sitting on the first bench nearest us had risen, while the second figure sitting on the bench opposite the first bench had also risen; then they walked toward each other . . . (8)
The human gesture of the handshake as a code of interaction, by which figures establish themselves as subjects through a code bearing the notion of the other and the resulting notion of difference, appears utterly dehumanized and reduced to its technical procedures. Only these are representable in the scientific discourse, which emphasizes its claim to universality in the light of serial reproducibility, as the second handshake is represented in exactly the same way as the first. The functional rule remains the same, the constants of the calculation are exchangeable. After all, it is the “implicit reader” who identifies the “mechanical ballet” as a code of human interaction and thus trans-forms the geometric discourse into narrative meaning.
We are confronted with a poetology that Roland Barthes has referred to as “a practice of writing,” where the reader opens up the text and participates in the game of discourses, whereby the text is no longer is a closed system of codes but open, since it is the reader-based context that is essential for the actual decoding and connoting of the bare denotations; Vazulik notes in an applicable context that Jonke’s text almost totally lacks metaphorical and connotative language (“G. F. Jonke” 2). Barthes’s general distinction between the “text lisible” and the text “text scriptible” becomes a structural device here specifically in the sense that a traditional “text lisible” changes into a “text scriptible.”5
The handy slogan “death of the author”—indicating that the author has lost the status of a god like metaphenomenon—also applies to the novel in its entirety: throughout the text there is no constant narrative thread. As has already been stated, different types of discourse and jargon (music, concrete poetry) co-exist. As a result, the narrative is no longer a linear construction but a set of several narratives. In their appearance, these narratives are not synthesized into any single transitory narrative system, as there are also passages of musical expression, forms, or concrete poetry. In his set of narratives titled Glashausbesichtigungen (A Tour of Hothouses, 1970), Jonke stresses the principle of discontinuity as constituitive of his narratives:
I don’t believe in normal stories. I can only believe in stories that are interrupted by other stories. I believe that every single sentence of a story has to be interrupted by a sentence from a second or third story that follows it. By separating each sentence of the story from the following sentence of the story by a sentence from a second or third story and not fixing its placement until later, I get to have many stories in a single story. People hear several stories. There are several stories. (Die erste Reise 218)
Even if Jonke seems to undertake no direct examination of the genre “regional novel” and its stylistic excesses in conveying totalitarian and fascist thought—a development that began long before the Austrian “Ständestaat” or corporative state (1933-1938) and the Nazi era (1938-1945)—the text should not be misjudged as lacking a political dimension. The standard reproach directed by critics like Claudio Magris or C. E. Williams against Austrian writers of the time between the two world wars is that they defaulted in the face of political reality and focused only on formal innovation in their works. That widespread reproach is certainly unjustified for Jonke’s novel, though. Geometric Regional Novel is not just a (harmless) parody ignoring the often ideological and aesthetic dubiousness of this genre. The form, which comes to the fore through parodic treatment, is exactly what gives the political dimensions its contours, in keeping with Georg Lukacs’s statement that “the truly social element in literature is the form” (Lukacs 81).
After 1945, previous views of nature and rural life, with their inherent ideological premises, were therefore transformed and could no longer be upheld in the same form. For a long period in postwar Austrian literature, the theme of “Blut und Boden,” or “blood and soil,” along with as its traditional motifs and literary figures, was conspicu-ously avoided by writers and intellectuals.6 The tradition was broken forever, a disinterested, impartial continuation of the “glorious” past of the regional novel in the nineteenth century now made impossible. Attributes like beauty, totality, harmony, or purity, which had previously marked the hermeticism of the province as a wholesome setting, were hopelessly discredited and had irreversibly lost their innocence.
In his essay “Philosophy and the Teacher” (1961), Theodor W. Adorno spoke of the “brutality of the rural” that had to be overcome by an “emancipation from the province.” Otherwise, as Adorno feared, barbarity could be perpetuated (see Rossbacher 13 ff.). It was not just the aesthetics but also the representational modes used for mediating this “brutality of the rural” that got into a scrape. In his essay “The Standpoint of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel” (1954), Adorno criticized representations that grew exhilarated by their own graphic immediacy and by their fatal suppo-sition that the world itself represented a meaningful, transcendent ontological entity. In particular, realism became a target of Adorno’s attack:
All those who in this day and age would immerse themselves in representationalism, like Stifter, and would derive effects from the abundance and gracefulness of whatever they are observing with such humble receptiveness would be forced to assume a posture of arts-and-crafts imitativeness. They would be incurring guilt for the lie of abandoning themselves in love to the world; that lie presupposes that the world has meaning, and those who perpetrate it would end up in the insufferable Kitsch of regional art. (“Standort” 41)
As has been argued in the above discussion about the intricate forms of representation in Geometric Regional Novel—forms that show parallels to the French nouveau roman (Rothschild 23; Caputo-Myer 58)—the narrative formally overcomes the cult of authenticity and immersion in the represented objects. Instead, it is always the repre-sentations that, displaced by other representations and at the same time displacing them, the object, prevent the representational aspect from emerging; the manner of representation in these forms guarantees that representationalism will always remain unavailable. The myth that language as the “significant” provides access to the “signi-fiée”—a notion which the “jargon of authenticity” fiercely tries to uphold—is deconstructed. What the novel does is attack the foundations of totalitarian structures and concepts such as the idea of a strong, definite subject or a godlike author as authority figure: “What is overturned is not, as would soon be the case with Innerhofer and others, an idyllic conception of Heimat [or region,], nor a prettified view of rural life, nor even a reactionary interpretation of village communalism, but the conventional understanding of narration” (Rothschild 23). Therefore, Geometric Regional Novel is in any case a more radical contribution than Innerhofer’s Beautiful Days or other novels of other “rebels damaged by ‘Heimat’ ” (Rothschild 24).
1 Rossbacher notes: ” ‘geometric’ and ‘regional novel’ are mutually exclusive
in the common understanding of the terms” (20).
2 See also Rothschild: “The very first chapter disappoints every conceivable
expectation of a realistically narrated novel” (23).
3 In Austria the phrase “Insel der Seligen,” which translates as “Islands of the
Blessed,” is frequently used in reference to provincial life.
4 It must be noted, to avoid a mistaken generalization, that myths of the
soil are not necessarily fascist; I chose this author and the passage in question because they reveal the incantatory character of soil myths in a very direct and obvious way.
5 See Barthes, S/Z. 7ff. Jonathan Culler notes on Barthes’s distinction
between the “text lisible” and the “text scriptible”: “Lisible is whatever is in agreement with the codes and about which we know how it has to be read; scriptible is whatever sets itself against reading and can only be written” (34).
6 Rossbacher notes: “After 1945, the village—along with the farmer—the
small-scale, local landscape, and the province as a whole all came to be viewed as features of a discredited concept of regionalism and were now themes hardly treated at all by writers and intellectuals. In the assessment of regionalism, this was the phase dominated by an awareness of its compromised nature” (13). We should add, though, that in popular literature the genre “regional novel” did not disappear, because since it proved helpful in establishing a new Austrian national sentiment after 1945.
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