Contemporary literature is, whether we like it or not, firmly yoked to its market value. A new novel comes to us packaged, promoted, and prone to be read in the light of its jacket copy, its reviews, even its author photo. There’s nothing inherently sinister about this state of affairs, although it does sometimes lead us to dismiss or embrace unfamiliar writing for reasons that have little to do with the writing itself. Even those who should know better sometimes treat new novels unconscionably, if unconsciously, as commodities—as the author’s merchandise. Today, the majority of book reviewers have altogether dropped the genteel pretense of literature as a realm apart. Instead, they proudly speak of writers “producing” novels, and readers “consuming” them.
The writer at odds with this brave new book-world is almost guaranteed to be ignored by it. He is hard to advertise, indifferent to review, unfriendly to the reader out to consume. Until he fell silent a decade ago, the Swiss writer Markus Werner was one such writer, out of joint—though not out of touch—with the times. Werner, who was born in 1944 and died in the summer of 2016, began as an academic; his dissertation was devoted to the fiction of his fellow Switzer Max Frisch. From 1975 until 1990, he was employed as a lecturer at the Kantonsschule in Schaffhausen, and it was during this period that he began to write novels, the first, Zündel’s Exit (Dalkey Archive, 2014), appearing in 1984, followed by six more, including Cold Shoulder (Dalkey Archive, 2016) and On the Edge (Haus Publishing, 2012).
All of Werner’s fiction is characterized by an extreme, borderline deranged sensitivity to the insults of modern life above all to the modern use and misuse of language. His protagonists are for the most part educated men, given to outrage and revolted by the vulgarity that surrounds them—men whose outlook the adjective “pessimistic” doesn’t begin to do justice. Also, these protagonists are funny as hell.
Here, for example, is Zündel, having just lost a tooth and discovered a severed finger in the restroom, scrutinizing his fellow train passengers:
All this continual assertion of self. Everything is hostile, everything that happens to me exceeds my capacity to endure it. Why does God have to send me a finger? And take my tooth. Sooner or later, everyone feels unviable. Humanity is assembled from partially reformed bed-wetters who never quite shake the feeling of existential displacement. No sphincter, no melancholy. Look at them, sipping their coffee.
Obviously, it’s fair to compare Werner to Frisch, as well as to Thomas Bernhard. All three of them are sublime misanthropists, capable of articulating a distaste for humanity which, fired by the humor and passion of their prose, detonates in great bursts of scathing, self-loathing soliloquy. You could say that a character such as Werner’s Zündel gives new meaning to the phrase “painfully self-conscious,” so long as you acknowledge that Herr Zündel himself would find both the phrase “gives new meaning” and “painfully self-conscious” excruciating to read.
Like many of Werner’s characters, Zündel would like to be a citizen of the world, a man among men; yet he is always butting up against his own inalterable prejudices and peculiarities. Arriving in a new city, he buys a newspaper (“after all I’m not an ostrich. I know there are more current things than me”), but no sooner has he ordered a Campari and started reading than he notes that all the “sentences and terms didn’t bore him so much as simply disgust him.” “The words stink and the sentences stink, as if they’d slipped out of the hemorrhoid-wreathed intestines of pest-infected morons.” A fairly lively definition of journalese.
To say the least, Werner has a gift for the well-turned vitriolic phrase. Zündel’s Exit abounds with examples, as does Cold Shoulder, in which the protagonist, Wenk, a didactic man, always lecturing, is asked why he hasn’t become a teacher: “He lacked the belief, he said casually, in the educability of the species.” Werner, like Bernhard before him, isn’t averse to taking his characters’ crankiness to extremes. The aging widower Thomas Loos, one of two main characters in On the Edge, launches into a particularly inspired diatribe on the state of men’s underthings:
I only wanted to say that normal briefs are being systematically squeezed out by underpants that are not fit for purpose, that have no fly and can thus hardly be distin-
guished from women’s panties [ . . . ]
But there it is exactly: the world is out of joint, and there is much we seek in vain therein.
Much of Werner’s writing depends on just this kind of ironic rhetorical turn. The state of men’s underthings becomes synecdochic for the state of the world. Righteous anger edges into ridiculous rant. Cynicism slides into self-parody.
I wouldn’t want to give the impression, however, that Werner’s only gift is for rancor. Zündel’s Exit is a frank depiction of a man’s descent into madness, a portrait of a person who cannot escape from his own mind and ends up absconding from his own life. The unexpectedly poignant ending of Cold Shoulder moved me almost to tears. And On the Edge, with its Conrad-like structure and submerged story of grief and love, is a masterpiece of oblique emotion—as well as a catalogue of deep-seated antipathies. Humanity, in Werner’s view, is horrific, but humans, taken one by one, are not all bad. Wenk, in Cold Shoulder, wanders one day into a village graveyard and sees a “rather ravaged-looking” grave overgrown with ivy. On the stone he reads:
And he finds himself delighted. “Was there a swifter way of formulating a life,” he wonders: “No, this was the fate not just of one individual, but of all mankind, even though the villagers might disagree and prefer their dismal ‘Released.’”
Werner has so far been a slight presence in English, although he has been extraordinarily well served by his translators—above all by Michael Hofmann, who has lent his hand (and inimitable ear) to both of the novels published by Dalkey Archive. Probably Werner is not destined to reach a much wider audience. His irony is too subtle, his humor too black to make him a writer fit for mass consumption. But his books are well worth the time of any reader who harbors misgivings about the march of human progress. He is a connoisseur—to borrow a few words from Hofmann’s foreword to Zündel’s Exit—of “the highly evolved, the uncontemporary, the thoughtful, the delicate, the unlikely.” A connoisseur of everything that today’s reductive literary consumerism would have us pass over in silence.