imageWinner of the 1978 Robert Walser Prize

Translated from German by Adrian Nathan West

Original title: Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse

Firstly let me say how glad I am that Adrian Nathan West didn’t opt for the literal translation of the title.  I wouldn’t have entertained a novel entitled “The Gravity of  Circumstances” regardless of it being picked as the first read for Three Percent’s Reading The World Book Club.  Far too ponderous – too darned lebenswichtig by half.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some pretty heavy material in these pages, which begins

Of all the events of 1945, there was one Wilhelmine recalled with particular painful clarity.  Wilhelm has hung the necklace with the tiny Madonna around Berta’s neck, not hers.

A case of sibling rivalry you might think, nothing to worry about, except that Wilhelmine soon establishes herself as the most vicious and relentless pursuer of her own objectives ever to cross my reading path. Even so, when years later, she finally gets her hands on that necklace, it is an act so callous and calculated, it takes the breathe away, and earns her the title of villainess of the piece.

Unequivocally, despite …

Well, that would be telling, but her sister, Berta, ends up locked in a cage in a mental asylum as a result of what she does, and yet, Fritz ensures that the reader’s sympathies remain with her. For it is Berta who suffers under “the weight of things”, an incapacity to cope with life, “a softness in the head”, which first becomes manifest – in the novel at least  – when she is told of her fiancé’s death at the front.

… (She) sat down at the table, ran her hand over the tablecloth, trying to smooth it out; said again, “So. So.,” and didn’t even look up.

“So. So.”  becomes her refrain whenever life becomes too much.  Bertha’s tragedy is that her dead fiancé is the only one who understands her needs. He ensures that she has a husband, but Wilhelm, well-meaning as he is, isn’t made from the same mould.  Once Bertha’s mental disintegration is complete, he is no match for Wilhelmine (and, from that point on, deserves everything he gets imo!)

Ah yes, Wilhelm and Wilhelmine.  As mismatched a pair as you could ever conceive, in which Wilhelm is definitely not the Kaiser.  (I know this is an Austrian novel, but that is the association in my mind.)

Fritz plays with names here and throughout the piece, a device of which I am particularly fond.  This edition from Dorothy contains a helpful note on those names and their significance.  There is also an essay by the translator regarding Fritz’s oeuvre as a whole, which is unlikely to ever see the light of day in English.  Why?  Because it’s untranslatable.  Shame.  I’ll have to look out more titles from Dorothy instead.

Recommended for fans of Veronique Olmi’s Beside The Sea.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016