The defining works of the Modernist novel, Proust’s The Remembrance of Things Past, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, all worked to dethrone the presuppositions of bourgeois consciousness, with its assumption of fixed character interacting with circumstance in a way that revealed the former while affecting the latter. The most perceptive of the Romantic realists, a Stendhal or a Dostoevsky, had challenged and subverted this model, but it was not until the first decades of the twentieth century that a sustained and destructive assault was mounted against it. Proust, emerging from fin de siècle Decadence, took memory, the supposedly transparent vehicle of identity, as an act of creative construction. Joyce, reacting more directly to Freudian psychology but also carrying philosophical empiricism à l’outrance, dissected the mind as a vortex of sensation and desire, whose essential product was not action but fantasy. Musil, responding to the civilizational catastrophe of the Great War, took for his protagonist a subject whose evident gifts and capacities only isolate him from the world to the point of suicide. Ulrich—his lack of a second name through the seventeen hundred pages of the novel suggests his radical dissociation from anything but a fully ironized consciousness—is a free-floating intelligence suspended over a doomed culture, whose only intimate relationship will finally be an incestuous one with his sister Agathe, in whom as in a mirror—or a labyrinth—he hopes at last to catch some glimpse of himself.
In Ulrich, the impossibility of the social leads to a cul-de-sac in which the self as such, naturalistically conceived, is impossible as well. The bundle of qualities that is “absent” in Ulrich exists only as a set of relations with an external reality on which they may be enacted; lacking such a field of play, they lose all propositional coherence. What remains of the world is a network of conventions to which only the gullible or the timid subscribe, a tissue of deceit that dissolves at the touch to reveal horror and absurdity—the void into which ten million lives plunged between 1914 and 1918, and sixty million more between 1939 and 1945.
Kafka, meanwhile, produced his fables, in which the most solid-seeming of structures and rule-bound procedures—a castle, a courtroom—were figurations of an abyss, and Beckett, following him, offered only the traces of an unfathomable ruin, an umbrella, a carrot, a pair of ill-fitting shoes, a world in which names of any kind were finally superfluous. For the generation of Robbe-Grillet, disjecta membra became the subject of the novel as such, sometimes in an apocalyptic setting (the early Le Clézio). Suggestive and often rich as these texts were, however, they pointed to the dethronement of the novel as the dominant fictional episteme of the West. No successor appeared. A loose cohort of American writers—Gaddis, Pynchon, Wallace—emerged to take up the dare of Beckettian parsimony by producing texts of gargantuan length, providing temporary grist for scholarly mills. Magic realism had its moment in Marquez. But the scene of globalized postwar capitalism had less to show for itself artistically than the prison-house of Stalinism, whose very drabness and insistent bad faith preserved a more accurate documentation of the world that had collapsed in 1914. Temporarily, then, the novel seemed to have found a refuge in the dystopia of Eastern Europe. Here, too, however, the lease was short-term. Stalinism’s symbol was a wall that held nothing up and led to nowhere, a terminally absurdist structure that, as in the faux-narrative late paintings of Philip Guston, leaves no objective but the futile effort to climb it.
The postwar East European novel was “discovered” by Philip Roth in the 1980s, and certain writers, notably Milan Kundera, gained popularity. Kundera depicted absurdity with a light touch, but his work tended to lose substance after he left Prague for Paris and adopted French as his literary language. The Albanian Ismail Kadare has similarly been mediated through French, for although he continues to write in his native language, translations of his work are made from French versions. The phenomenon of European writers who abandon their mother tongue for an adopted one has antecedents, of course, and scarcely confined to those who speak rustic dialects. Vladimir Nabokov’s Russian turned to equally fluent German and then English as his journey of exile proceeded, and he settled finally in a country without a literary language of its own, Switzerland. Beckett moved in mid-career from English to French, presenting himself bilingually through self-translations as if to suggest—as did his work itself—that language itself had become the site of difficulty.
If there is a language that this condition has touched most intimately, it is German. The events of World War II made German a tongue whose exercise as a vehicle of higher culture appeared singularly problematic. Germany’s most celebrated postwar literary figure, Gunter Grass, died under a cloud when he preemptively revealed that he had been a young soldier in the SS. Its most truly distinguished figure, W. G. Sebald, spent much of his career as a scholar of English literature although he continued to write in German, a language for him of reconstruction and repentance.
A curious reverse phenomenon has also occurred, however, in at least two significant cases. The Roumanian-born Paul Celan, a Holocaust survivor who committed suicide in 1970, chose to compose his entire body of verse in German, in a uniquely gnomic style that seemed to hack at the very language it used it in confronting the darkest chapters of human history. Far less known, however, is the work of the Hungarian György Sebestyén, who like Celan chose to write in an adopted German, and whose culminating masterwork, Die Werke der Einsamkeit—The Works of Solitude—is one of the most substantial efforts to extend the Modernist novel, and to address the implications of Europe’s descent into barbarism.
György Sebestyén was born in Budapest in 1930 to middle-class parents in the newly independent Hungary, the largest of a bevy of ethnic states and federations that emerged from the postwar wreckage of the Habsburg monarchy. Hungary was distinct both in its demographic composition and in the semiautonomous place it had occupied in the former Austrian empire. The Hungarian plain had been dominated since its conquest by a ninth century invader, the Magyars, who controlled and latterly enserfed an older and numerically larger Slavic population. The dissolution of the Habsburg empire in the wake of World War I had politically destabilized Hungary more than any other region of Eastern Europe. In the space of less than two years, it had undergone transition to a republican government, an insurrectionary Communist regime—the only one established outside Russia before the end of World War II—a republican restoration, and then the authoritarian rule of Admiral Miklós Horthy, who allied himself with Nazi Germany and was replaced, first by direct German control and then by Soviet occupation.
Culturally as well as politically, the old Austro-Hungarian empire had been allied with Germany, and Sebestyén’s own upbringing reflected this. He was raised by German governesses, and, although he began his literary career in Hungarian, German was for him—as for the educated classes generally in for the former Habsburg dominions—an essential tongue. It became the language of his literary career when he fled Hungary in the wake of the suppression of the 1956 Revolution, settling permanently in Austria. The transition was gradual: his first novel was written in Hungarian and translated for him into German by a colleague to give him access to his new public; his second, begun in Hungarian, was laid aside and rewritten by him in German. Thereafter, Sebestyén wrote in German alone.
Austria was divided in 1945 by a four-power occupation similar to that imposed on Germany. Like Berlin, Austria’s capital, Vienna, had also been divided into American, British, French, and Russian zones. While less of a political flashpoint than Germany, Austria had thus also been on the front lines of the Cold War, until agreement was reached in 1955 to reunify the country on the basis of an internationally recognized neutrality. For some sixty years, Austria receded into the political background, a tourist destination—skiing and Schnapps—that had little to add to history, and preferred to recall as little of it as possible.
Yet Austria, and particularly Vienna, is a place as full of history as any in Europe. Between 1273 and 1806, the Habsburgs had been at least notionally suzerains of Germany, and Vienna twice the site where Ottoman invasions had been repelled; until 1918, they presided over the largest and most culturally diverse state in Europe outside Russia—a babel of peoples, cultures, and religions held together, finally, by the symbol of the monarchy itself. Vienna itself had been for centuries the center of German culture, and even when Berlin surpassed it in size, its cultural hegemony in the German-speaking world remained unchallenged: indeed, in the final flowering of European civilization before 1914, it held pride of place, as the home of Freud and Wittgenstein, Mahler and Schoenberg, Klimt and Schiele.
It was also to be, briefly, the residence of the final Austrian ruler of Germany, Adolf Hitler.
By a convenient fiction, Austria was declared by the Western powers to be Hitler’s “first victim” after World War II, as the nation first occupied by him when German forces entered it in March 1938. Unmentioned in this was the fact that the great majority of Austrians received the Germans with the welcome normally accorded a liberating army. Postwar Austria had been a country against its will, whose population voted overwhelmingly for annexation by Germany in 1920. Nazism was quickly embraced: Jewish homes and businesses were at once occupied; Austrian soldiers fought beside Germany in World War II; and Austria—now officially a part of Greater Germany—was the only territory in Occupied Europe where resistance to the Third Reich was all but unknown. Although Vienna was heavily bombed as an enemy city during World War II, Austria was spared the formalities of denazification after the war and never compelled to share in the indemnification of Hitler’s victims, including the country’s few Jewish survivors.
This was the place György Sebestyén now called home.
In writing The Works of Solitude during the 1980s—it was published by the Verlag Styria in 1986, four years before his death in 1990—Sebestyén was faced with two formidable challenges. One was the shadow of his great predecessor, Musil, whose The Man Without Qualities was the unrivaled masterpiece of Austrian literature and whose portrait of prewar Vienna the elegy of a vanished civilization. The second was the amnesiac culture of postwar Austria itself, its past unexpiated for forty years and its ghosts still lying in wait. Its Habsburg past was safely enfolded into tourist itineraries, and, for the rest, its citizens were content to dwell in an anodyne present. If, for Musil, the problem of representation had been that of depicting a decadent society on the eve of its disintegration, for Sebestyén it lay in dealing with a culture of resolutely bad faith.