An Existential Spy Story

SHORTER, KINGSLEY

An Existential Spy Story The D'Arthez Case By Hans Erich Nossack Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 313 pp. $7.95. Reviewed by Kingsley Shorter This is an enigmatic book. D'Arthez, the author explains in...

...What sort of face do you wear to stand at the foot of your mother's bier...
...who waits 10 years before announcing himself, with consummate tact, to the daughter he never knew...
...the difference is that after Hitler nothing is more suspect than the role of solid citizen on which the old-time esthete looked with such an exquisite mixture of envy and contempt...
...Later, when Security has concluded that D'Arthez must surely belong to the most dangerous sort of secret society, he will be assigned to the "D'Arthez Case," and it is the story of his deepening involvement with D'Arthez and company that provides the connective tissue of the novel...
...What will last is the characters he has created, and some of the set pieces by which he brings them to life...
...for Lambert, who drove his wife to suicide and himself dies of a heart attack, it is not...
...that is mere theater...
...who lives on like a lone partisan in the occupied territory that is bourgeois society...
...to engage in the wheeling and dealing of the epoch...
...A very poor relation of Kafka's The Trial, it was a textbook exercise in Existential Guilt: the scenario being a courtroom of the mind, where the nameless, faceless subject cross-examines and of course condemns himself, ostensibly for the disappearance of his wife but really for that most modern of crimes, so memorably explored in Camus' L'Etranger, of failing to have the proper emotions about things...
...And a scene like this demands hours of preparation in front of a mirror...
...The ones who do are finished"), as against the embattled stoicism of the few who see beyond appearances to the hollowness of existence...
...Or Edith's monologue????nossack is particularly good at monologues????describing how her father arranged their first meeting in the lawyer's office: "I'm awfully sorry, Dr...
...These willful inscrutabilities are a major flaw in what is otherwise a brilliant and satisfying fiction...
...meanwhile he is free again, "free among the dead," sent out into the world under a new name just as D'Arthez, expecting to be executed at war's end, was given a "kick in the pants" into freedom...
...But you see, Edith and I simply are not in a position to accept these roles and play them as they were generally played a hundred years ago...
...But the implication is that a mystery is being progressively unmasked...
...What is the matter with the narrator...
...What will in fact last of the D'Arthez Case is not the tired old existential agony, Being clamoring at the gates of Nothing (no wonder Nossack found such an enthusiastic fan in J.P...
...D'Arthez himself we meet only at second hand, anecdotally, through the eyes of Lambert and of his daughter...
...Instructed by his superiors to strike up an acquaintance with Lambert, the narrator gets caught between two irreconcilable worlds, and finds what little "identity" he has being ruthlessly stripped away...
...Lambert plays a ghoulish game with the police, deliberately feeding them misleading "clues" via the microphones installed in his flat...
...His concern is with life after death: the living death that denies Being in every way short of actually pulling the trigger...
...For D'Arthez, with his parody identity (the pseudonym) and his parody communication (mime, dumbshow) it is a workable strategy...
...Why, when D'Arthez' rooms are searched by Security, is his blotter found to contain a power of attorney, signed D'Arthez and dated 1850 but obviously fake...
...But luckily they don't know it...
...For this reason we must provide them with subjects...
...why, having quit the Security Service and given himself over to a despair with which he, unlike D'Arthez or Lambert, is not equipped to cope, does he run out on Edith, refuse to turn to her father for help, and commit himself to a three-year stint in a "developing nation...
...Unfortunately, so is the reader...
...What will last is the words that were never spoken...
...Not in the presence of others, of course...
...What existence do we have outside the collective charade, outside others' blighting misperception of us...
...But alone, what face...
...The novel ends with a story found among Lambert's papers, of a man who reports "for his negation" at what he believes is the appointed hour, only to find that he is 12 hours early...
...Grieshu-ber, but neither Edith nor I have ever rehearsed this scene...
...Sartre...
...and we've read enough modern literature to know that it's something pretty serious, some sort of metaphysical cat-and-mouse having to do with masks and identities and meaning and the Problem of Being...
...Holding up a mocking mirror to the audience, he acts out pivotal scenes from his own life...
...One would like to know what will last," muses the narrator...
...The Chief of Protocol politely explains that his case must be re-programmed...
...respectability covers the snake pit, and had better be excoriated...
...just as D'Arthez insists that his daughter send Christmas cards to other members of the family she hardly knows: "Because they have nothing else to talk about, they will always have something to say about us...
...The book gets off to a crisp start with a tautly written interrogation scene...
...the narrative keeps darting up blind alleys: What is the significance of the headless dressmaker's dummy that Lambert keeps in his room...
...that the reader, unlike the idiot police, will ultimately be let in on the secret...
...After the beginning, one is agog...
...Is there a connection between D'Arthez and the "D'Arthez"????A former Nazi collaborator and minor figure in the Paris underworld????found slain with a brick...
...For if there can be gaps in one's life, no matter whether they last three months or only a single Sunday afternoon, these gaps still color or discolor all those things that we take for granted...
...This is a much better piece of work than The Impossible Proof, the only other novel by Nossack published here...
...Lambert, a librarian, immediately sees through his disguise as a doctoral student poring over law books and takes him in, subverting his petty ambitions and infecting him with the virus of angry nihilism...
...What will last, he concludes, is the interstices between events...
...Keep them busy, he says...
...But gradually the suspicion dawns that Nossack is doing the same thing to us...
...The will-reading scene, for instance, where D'Arthez gulls his greedy relatives into believing he is going to "make difficulties," to demand more than his share, whereas he actually intends to refuse any part in it...
...Formally the narrative suggests a spy story: The narrator writes from the standpoint of an investigator piecing together clues, preparing a dossier...
...And while his relatives grow still wealthier by making concentration camp uniforms, he pursues his specialty, one-man mime shows...
...The newly discovered daughter falls tearfully into the arms of the newly discovered father????no, that just strikes us as childish...
...They are both, as Lambert puts it, "extraterritorial...
...It is like a sieve...
...The theme is the unmitigated awfulness of conventional people leading conventional lives ("The lives they lead are horrible...
...In part it is the familiar German business of Artist versus Burgher, a la Tonio Kroger...
...Although the disjunction between the official language of the court and the intractable ambiguities of the defendant's experience was deftly handled, the general effect was too schematic by far, and claims that the book would stand as a "classic metaphor of man's loneliness, and his courage" seem absurdly exaggerated...
...Meanwhile, the narrator ????who refers to himself throughout, in an agony of self-deprecation, as "the narrator"????Sits next door and tapes the interview...
...D'Arthez, courteous to a fault, opposes a sheer wall of speculation to the clumsy detective probing of his interlocutor...
...D'Arthez????ceal name Ernst Nase-mann????breaks with his wealthy industrial family to become an actor...
...Nossack's D'Arthez????it is a pseudonym, the action takes place in modern Germany????is just such a man...
...The D'Arthez Case, by contrast, is a cracking good read????not the most sophisticated of criteria, perhaps, but a reliable starting point nonetheless...
...No one behaves like that nowadays...
...Otherwise we won't know what they are saying...
...Even if the "secret society" has no existence outside the routine paranoia of the security police, clearly something is going on...
...Yes indeed...
...D'Arthez asks his friend Lambert (another Balzacian pseudonym...
...Introduced to D'Arthez' daughter, Edith, the narrator finds himself concealing her existence from Security, and is very soon completely out of his depth...
...D'Arthez, the author explains in case you don't remember (I didn't), is a minor character in Balzac's La Comedie Humaine, "mentioned only at junctures where the author felt compelled to offset France's political, commercial and literary frenzy with the nation's conscience, so to speak: one man who refused to board the bandwagon of fashion, however attractive...
...Like some portentous modern movie, the book abounds in loose ends, red herrings, false leads, empty disclaimers...
...Even while at school, he infuriated his teachers because he always slightly exaggerated the good behavior they demanded of him, so that they felt he was not showing them the proper respect...
...In this way one protects oneself from them...
...No longer can the artist yearn for respectability...
...And anyone who can come at that dilemma with as much wit and verve as Herr Nossack richly deserves to be read...
...Why does he stand at his open window night after night, addressing the Frankfurt rooftops...
...who makes fools of the police when they question him about the murder of another, lesser pseudo-D'Arthez...
...And what, for God's sake, is meant by D'Arthez' dictum "We need transmitters of information who know how to hold their tongues...
...But the question is how one does behave nowadays, isn't it...
...For it is clear enough what Nossack is about...
...Lucid, ironical, self-possessed, gallant, he is a survivor of the camps (put there for a cabaret act satirizing the Nazis) who declines his share of the family fortune...

Vol. 55 • January 1972 • No. 2


 
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