Last month I heard that Dorothy, A Publishing Project was publishing the first English translation, by Adrian Nathan West, of the Austrian writer Marianne Fritz’s debut novel, The Weight of Things – originally published in 1978 as Die Schwerkraft der Verhaltnisse. The publisher and the translator should be commended for bringing the work of such a criminally neglected writer to English readers. I have only a neophyte grasp of German, and had previously only been able to stumble through pieces of Fritz’s work sentence by sentence with dictionary in hand. This translation seems to ably capture the irony and horror of Fritz’s novel. I think it would be of interest to anybody with an interest in experimental literature, and hopefully it will gain Fritz the readership which has largely eluded her work, even in her original language, and lead to the translation of her later works. It has been perfect late November reading on bus rides home through the rain and the dark.
I first heard of the work of Marianne Fritz chasing footnote to Sebald’s haunting poem In Alfermee, in his selected poems, Across the Land and the Water. The poem begins, in English translation by Iain Galbraith –
letter by letter
comes a language
you don’t understand
The exhausted eyes
of the writer the fingers
of one hand on the
keys of her machine”
The translator’s footnote suggests that the reference is to Fritz, and probably came out of discussions between Sebald and the German critic Heinz Schafroth in 1997, whom Sebald visited around the time that he was delivering the lectures which became On the Natural History of Destruction. Schafroth was one of the few critics to pay attention to Fritz’s work with anything other than derision, and he wrote the foreward to her Was Soll Man da Machen.
The brevity of The Weight of Things does little to prepare the reader for what follows. Fritz would subsequently embark on an extended literary project she called “The Fortress”, replete with numerous diagrams, which ran to more than 10,000 pages, and which withstood all attempts at proofreading, typesetting, casual reading or tidy critical summaries. Her third novel, entitled Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst (Whose Language You Don’t Understand) is 3387 pages long in my 12 volume Suhrkamp edition. Naturgemass I and II would follow, each of which was published in 5 volume sets.
I don’t know if Sebald read Fritz. The aforementioned Was Soll Man de Machen, which was sort of an advance installment and cast listing of Dessen Sprache. . . was at one point in his library, but is listed in the short list of books he had once possessed but had disposed of. This didn’t necessarily indicate displeasure on Sebald’s part – according to Jo Catling, in chapter 11 of Saturn’s Rings, Sebald often sold or otherwise disposed of books in his library. The title of Dessen Sprache. . . is certainly evocative of the sense of dislocation which Sebald’s narrators sometimes seem to feel when listening language and not being able to comprehend it, especially while traveling.
The Weight of Things can be purchased at better bookstores, or from the publisher. We have a number of first editions and signed books by Fritz here, and in the shop.
For further reading – there is a German language website devoted to Fritz, which includes some unpublished pages from the third installment of Naturgemäß. Adrian Nathan West has written a blog post on Fritz and translating Die Schwerkraft. . on the Paris Review website, and another piece here. There is also the text of a discussion between West and Kate Zambreno over at the Believer.