Impressionistic Identities: The Game for Real by Richard Weiner
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
According to Benjamin Paloff, translator of Richard Weiner’s The Game for Real, “anyone who claims not to be a bit bewildered by writers like Richard Weiner is inherently untrustworthy.” Weiner, an early twentieth century Czech writer who spent the majority of his writing career in Paris, is a demanding stylist. His prose is densely imagistic, glutted with long sentences sutured together by flights into surreal dreamscapes. He uses this byzantine style to replicate interiority and explore our assumptions about the nature of identity. The Game for Real is filled with doppelgangers and strangers, with false accusations and staged conversations, and with characters who ceaselessly and vainly chase reality.
The book is split into two novellas. The first, “The Game for Quartering,” is a close-first person account of paranoia and inauthenticity. An unnamed bachelor and “hack” leaves a Paris Metro station and is followed home by the train’s only other passenger. This passenger might be an acclaimed Spanish dancer — or, he might merely resemble that dancer. It might be the narrator’s friend, Fuld. At home, things get even weirder: an unidentified woman waits at the narrator’s door. The ambiguities mount when the novella shifts to an earlier episode at a café, where the narrator and three friends sit at a table surrounded by “supernumeraries” watching them talk:
The supernumeraries — that is, the guests of this sanctuary, which is both a tavern and a knightly hall — won’t let us out of their sight for a moment . . . as far as I was concerned, that circumstance contributed decisively to the impression that we were acting before what one calls fate, which also likes to pretend that it’s a disinterested observer.
This short passage displays Weiner’s commitment to minutia. As the narrator qualifies his assertions about the venue — supernumeraries are generalized back to guests; the “sanctuary,” in the course of a clause, becomes a tavern and knightly hall — we feel the mind trying to make sense of the unfamiliar. Description, here, is an attempt to explain the inexplicable.
The presence of fate, at the café, contributes to the narrator’s growing sense of paranoia. The other characters all know more than he does, but what they know, exactly, remains unclear. Weiner uses playwriting techniques in these café scenes to further enhance the narrator’s feeling that they are acting before an audience, living up to preordained roles. The text adopts the look of script, and the repeated use of personal direction forces us to wonder who, exactly, is directing the characters. Is it Weiner, the writer? Or is that falsely disinterested observer, Fate, shaping the plot?
“The Game for the Honor of Payback,” the book’s second section, is an equally elliptical exploration of identity and psychology. Whereas “The Game for Quartering” progresses into the dreamlike world of the café, “The Game for the Honor of Payback” begins in a dream in which the protagonist swims through a “subterranean tunnel and against a foul current.” Things don’t get much better when he awakens. Staying at a small inn, the protagonist — the closest thing we get to a name is “Shame” — is accused of stealing a bracelet belonging to innkeeper’s wife.
After the innkeepers ask him to leave, what follows is an impressionistic account of an outsider’s excursion through Paris. As the novella progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to parse out what is real and what is imagined. Like the narrator in “The Game for Quartering,” “Shame” is obsessively self-conscious:
Why does he [protagonist] say, “If I had pinched it,” “If I had chucked it” . . .? Why does he say this when he knows that in order for him to pinch, in order for him to chuck, he would have to be . . . precisely: not himself, but rather a fundamentally different person.
Weiner deconstructs language to question identity. How can we use language flexibly, hypothetically, when doing so puts language at odds with identity? In Weiner’s work, no phrase is taken for granted. Every image, every particle, every thought, and every shift in personality. Characters are split into temporary selves: “the sinister Zinaida; The Zinaida of early evening; the Zinaida shuffling toward the table . . . the Zinaida carrying a writing pad.” His world demands our attention: “Look! Don’t you hear the heads of their unfurled offensive lines twist suddenly, charmingly, skirting a kind of magnetic focal point, languidly and in vain?”
Though Weiner was highly influenced by the surrealists, his close readings of Marcel Proust, as a reviewer living in Paris, seems to have had a major impact on his depiction of life. Weiner understood, like many of the Moderns, that the future direction of literature was the fluctuation of thought. It is a testament to Weiner’s skill that the impressionistic dreamscapes of 1930s Paris remain as fresh today as they were when he wrote these novellas. And Paloff deserves a great deal of credit, too, for preserving the wit, complexity, and beauty of Weiner’s sentences: the nights are so dark they “stain clothes;” skies “crackle” with stars. It’s unfortunate that English readers had to wait eighty years for The Game for Real to appear. These novellas are intense, funny, and vivid explorations of selfhood and identity. Their publication was long overdue.
by Richard Weiner