Adam Ash

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Bookplanet: books I hope to read before I die (1)

Peter Weiss. The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume 1. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. Foreword Fredric Jameson. Duke Univ. Press, 2005. 376 pp. Paper: $22.95.

1. From the Review of Contemporary Fiction:

Peter Weiss’s monumental The Aesthetics of Resistance is a Marxist Remembrance of Things Past: a history of leftist politics from the end of the First World War to the Spanish civil war (where the first volume breaks off), as well as a bildungsroman concerning the education of its working-class narrator—particularly in what practical uses might be made of works of art.

Written over the last ten years of Weiss’s life, nearly a half-century after the events he records, it is both nostalgia and plea. The failed leftist (and modernist) revolution against capitalism and bourgeois society remains an uncompleted project, a reminder that something is missing, that the conditions of modern living do not satisfy the needs of life. Like Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, its dream today “retains its authenticity solely as a ruin.”

The Aesthetics of Resistance writes those who have been culturally and historically excluded back into the story of their time and demands—as modernism does—that we learn to read in a new way. It includes historical figures, like Bukharin, Nordahl Grieg, and Andres Nin; discussions of Picasso’s Guernica, the Pergamum altar, and Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa; and employs characteristic modernist techniques of montage, the document, the list, and the catalog. At the conclusion of a discussion of Munch’s painting Workers Returning Home, the narrator leaves in a truck and looks back at a friend as he pulls away: “He stayed behind amid the gigantic domes and towers of Valencia, his laughter in his bright face, his waving, street ravines, boulevard along the shore, exit roads, low plateau, harvesters in the rice paddies.” This, the last sentence of the first volume, is a description of a friend and a landscape, not of Munch or the Spanish civil war. We begin and end in that space.

According to Weiss, art must always be seen in relation to life, writing in relation to action. This is a book not to read through from beginning to end, but one in which we should pause, as its narrator does, to consider an idea, event, or work of art in relation to our lives—“the trench warfare of thoughts,” as Weiss puts it. Although Weiss was not himself working class, this novel could stand as its testimony: “What would I have become, how would I have developed if I had come from a proletarian home,” he asks.

The monuments of modernism today rise like Ozymandias’ statue in the sand: Ulysses, Proust, Beckett, Pound’s Cantos, The Making of Americans, The Waste Land. At last, we have an English translation of a work that stands alongside them.

2. From the Complete Review of the Literary Saloon:

Our Assessment: A+ : one of the towering works of the second half of the twentieth century

       The masterly three-part novel, Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, first published between 1975 and 1981, is one of the highpoints of twentieth century German literature, and still stands as the most significant German novel published after The Tin Drum (only Arno Schmidt's late, unwieldy works challenge it for that position). The first part has been translated (by Joachim Neugroschel), but there is currently no publisher for this book. (Excerpts of the translation have appeared in recent years.)
       A large and complex work, the focus of the novel is the time from the late thirties into World War II -- though there is no strict chronology in the novel, and there are many varied essayistic digressions. Weiss uses historical facts and a huge number of personages as the basis for his novel. The central characters, insofar as there are any, are the members of a small resistance group (called "Red Orchestra" by the Nazis). The group was active until late 1942 when most of the members were captured and executed (after being tortured), scenes that Weiss vividly captures.
       An unnamed narrator -- a Weiss-like figure -- tells the story. It is not, however, a simple narrative, beginning with its challenging opening section, a lengthy, precise, and evocative descriptive section on the Pergamon altar, a stunning relief piece taken from Greece and installed in a Berlin museum. Art is central to the novel, as Weiss returns again and again to the aesthetics of the title. Géricault's Raft of the Medusa is another piece discussed at length, opening the second volume. Angkor, Picasso's Guernica, socialist realist painting, and Goya -- to name only a few -- also find their place.
       Weiss -- himself a very talented painter -- masterfully accomplishes the difficult task of representing the visual arts in a literary work. Literature -- Dante's Divine Comedy, Kafka, among others -- are also strong presences.
       But Weiss places it all in a context of history. He presents detailed and impressive histories of proletariat organizations -- as well a history of Spain, of Sweden, and discussions of Greek mythology. And World War II and the resistance against fascism are naturally the spectres constantly hovering throughout the book. The mass of material sounds intimidating and overwhelming, but it is not. Weiss' goal here was to bridge a gap between high art and the common man, to illustrate that art can (and should) serve man in his political struggle.
       Weiss, a true socialist (though hardly of the Soviet persuasion), presents a political and aesthetic agenda that is anathematic to modern America. His lofty ambition, expertly conveyed, seems particularly distant in this time, only a few decades after he wrote the book. Nevertheless, The Aesthetics of Resistance proves that a book can be political and convince aesthetically. Weiss does more than that even: his novel is a superior piece of art, a fusion of subject, content, and presentation that succeeds on every level.
       Passive Americans (and their now hardly less passive European brethren) are unlikely to be able to do much with Weiss' exhortation to resistance and activity, but the book is so accomplished that even those that can do nothing with its underlying message should enjoy it. Of course, few people enjoy the true literary tour de force any longer, and Die Ästhetik des Widerstands is as forceful as fiction comes, but not to have read it is to have missed one of the great artistic visions of recent times.
       There is no doubt that this is one of the "books of the century", however one might want to define that. Readers should know that it is a complex work -- but that it is also immensely rewarding. Highly recommended.


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