Fortunes and Flaws: The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz
There’s a moment, in certain works of fiction, where certain pieces fall into place. It’s a difficult thing to pull off: it can leave a reader bewildered for long stretches of time, wondering why, exactly, certain information hasn’t been revealed, or why certain narrative quirks exist. The Weight of Things, Marianne Fritz’s first novel (and her first to be translated into English), begins in what seems to be familiar territory, following a group of young Austrians in 1945. We know that their fortunes have been shaped, and will continue to be shaped, by their nation’s absorption by Nazi Germany and participation in the Second World War. But the approach that Fritz takes in this novel is anything but naturalistic: it’s a stylized book with numerous horrors at its core, both national and personal.
In an afterword, translator Adrian Nathan West discusses Fritz’s literary works and the reception they received over the course of her life. (Elfriede Jelinek and W.G. Sebald were admirers; Thomas Bernhard was not.) And West delves into Fritz’s wrangling with Austria’s history in the 20th Century, from the First World War and on towards the rise of Nazism. “To Fritz,” West writes, “fidelity was to be found instead in the minute recreation of a society down to its very fundaments, and to this end, nothing was irrelevant.”
From the novel’s opening lines, that recreation is visible. “Of all of the events of 1945, there was one Wilhelmine recalled with particularly painful clarity,” the novel begins–but the event in question is one of romantic entanglement, rather than any of the larger geopolitical issues that played out in Austria following the defeat of Nazi Germany. And in the second sentence, we learn that the source of Wilhelmine’s distress is, in fact, the action of a man named Wilhelm. Clearly, we’re headed into a more stylized territory here. A rough dynamic establishes four characters: Wilhelm; a young woman named Berta; Wilhelmine, who resents Wilhelm for choosing Berta rather than her; and a distant figure named Rudolf, stationed at the front as the book opens. That sense of stylized repetition will occur again later in the book, as a child named for Rudolf becomes a significant part of the narrative.
From its opening, the novel leaps through time, sometimes jarringly. Rudolf is dead in the war; Rudolf and Wilhelm are young men together. Wilhelm is working as a “chauffeur and Come-hither-boy” in post-war Austria; Wilhelm is married to Wilhelmine. And the flashes of information the reader is given about Berta can be difficult to process; the points at which she’s encountered do not, at least initially, seem to have a clear narrative line. The novel leaps around in time, from 1945 to 1963 to 1958, revealing fragments of these lives, even as the sense of repetition and duplication continue. It’s dizzying, but there’s a narrative reason for that disorientation, though it takes much of the novel’s (admittedly short) length to pay off.
Throughout the novel, there are also moments of terrifying surrealism, unfolding with a (sometimes literal) nightmare logic. Berta dreams of her son, bewildered and crucified, with a phantasmagorical array of figures below.
After the headless figure had spoken, the scattered groups merged into a single human mass. All of them had their heads at their sides, holding them in their heads and resting them on their hips. Each head was the same as the others. And all the heads resembled helmets.
It’s a bizarre and horrifying image, both terrifying and transgressive. It’s also one of the few moments in the novel where the war is directly acknowledged, and it echoes a later scene that flashes back to Wilhelm and the elder Rudolf’s time in the war.
Fritz’s novel slowly extracts how each of these deeply flawed characters came to be that way–a flashback to the childhood of young Berta provides some grounding for a series of harrowing sequences involving her later in the novel. The idiosyncrasies of The Weight of Things are numerous–though, based on West’s account, they seem relatively minor compared to the “neologisms, intentional misspellings, and readiness to violate the rules of grammar” that would turn up in her later work. It’s a fragmented, halting, somewhat broken narrative reflecting a society trying to reassemble itself after being complicit in some of the worst horrors in living memory. A more concise tone may have made for an easier read, but it wouldn’t have been as appropriate for the period in history that The Weight of Things chronicles.