. . . and there was always this third person there, but one who never made an appearance: my uncle J. He was there, and yet he wasn’t.
The Room (Das Zimmer, 2010; tr. from the German by Jamie Lee Searle, 2014) is a far from conventional rumination upon a life, or a family, or a time or place. It feels like an assault, from the first page, on a certain brand of benevolent, seamless, forgiving, lapidary nostalgia, as it introduces a fairly inauspicious protagonist:
My uncle J’s room is on the first floor, overlooking Uhlandstrasse, directly opposite the bathroom that he probably wasn’t even allowed to use. During most of the time I spent there with my grandmother when I was a child, he would be sleeping, and then the whole house would stink. If he was out, which meant lugging packages around in Frankfurt, the smell would linger on regardless. The house essentially reeked of J’s silage-like stench for years. It started back when I was eight or nine years old, because he still washed himself relatively often before that. Even today, my nostrils remind me of J whenever I go down into the cellar, his territory, at the Uhlandstrasse house.
The uncle at the center of this tragic, hilarious (and wonderfully entwined throughout are both elements, a major reason the book is such a wrenchingly funny experience) “memoir” cuts a truly desperate figure. He’s a bit of a simpleton, yes, but he also fills the rooms of the house in which he haplessly exists with his awful stench: he’s a radioactively whiffy lump of a man, all too there and all too ephemeral simultaneously. He also drinks a staggering amount of alcohol (par for the course as Maier would have it) and is tolerated only because he is a family member and because he is of some use, in the main.
Although he is, first and foremost, the family idiot.
Even later, once I had realised that J was purely and simply working ‘independently’ down there, I still assumed that he was actually making and creating something, or at the very least repairing something. There used to be small generators and engines and switches lying around too, and the mere fact that they were lying around made me think that J knew what they all were and how to put them to use. In reality, though, he would just take these things with him when they were thrown out by the company, take them to pieces at home, then stare vacantly at the remains without understanding them in the slightest — for when it came down to it, even if it wasn’t always apparent at first glance, Uncle J was an idiot.
As Maier gives this life a rerun, often using past and present tenses in conjunction to simple but potent effect, he doesn’t offer a favorable spin. Uncle once again obtrusively sinks into the background of virtually every scene in his life (often hissing like a snake, or perhaps an old kettle, or maybe even a deflating football). Not even this opportunity to be reconsidered has lent him any gravitas, any conspicuousness that isn’t humiliating or sad, any sense of epically humdrum stoic eternality, as might easily have been the case. Even for the second time (and another reason the book is such a complex and funny success) he is a disaster zone, doomed to fail all over again: and it’s in this insistence on Maier’s part that this uncle, who he has, after all, decided to resurrect for the purposes of art (despite being artless), remain a blot on the landscape, forever glaring and unresolved and curious and damned by fate, that the book really soars.
The “memoir” manages to achieve a kind of paradoxical comic grandeur in its flat determination to hinge its entirety on a shabby and doomed figure who is, as tragic as he undoubtedly also is, hilariously off-center and incongruous. No age or time can really capture him, and that appears to be part of the joke: the world is not, in the main, recollected events plus scrutinized people equals dramatic history. Here’s a man, in a small town he will never leave, other than to get on the same train at the same time every day, who will drink “3 to 4 litres of beer a day” (whilst at work), who will stink the house up with his horribly pervasive malodorousness, who will reside behind closed doors, perhaps asleep, perhaps dismantling machines he will never be able to rebuild. He is an essence willed into resurrection (or a smell lingering).
In a sense, Maier is trying to return to a long absconded mindset in order to subvert it from within the epoch and young brain in which it recorded everything.
As far as I was concerned, that place, the Uhlandstrasse house, didn’t have a history but had simply been there forever (after all, I thought I had been there forever too). And because it had been there forever, it didn’t need explanation, any more than the sun or gravity need explanation.
So he is both desirous of invoking a dead time in order to enliven it with a contemporary, more fathoming comprehension, whilst upholding whatever that time and those people stand for in his mind as forgotten and poignantly lost. (He is in part mournfully mocking the workings of a world that could set all of this in unwitting living history in motion only to leave those that follow with little other than an aching sadness and confusion and fury on their behalf.) He exemplifies, rather than denies, his ire by drawing the ridiculousness of it all out as a series of caricaturisms: the prevalence of countless, perpetually-worn and virtually identical aprons amongst the women of the village; the Apspergal remedialities of Uncle J’s comfort-by-rote; the ludicrously automatic and unsatisfactory obligations of those visiting this spa town for a break, during which everything is uniformly monotonous, especially the spontaneous bonhomie. People, Maier says, are not in control of their lives and not even, necessarily, actually in them as their moments elapse.
Every evening is free of supervision or treatments, and you regularly drink yourself under the table. But before that, as a spa guest , you take one more trip to the graduation tower. There, you meet your spa neighbours or your new spa best friend or a new spa guest. Settle down in front of the graduation tower and take a deep breath . The air is saline. Two hours a day, preferably more. And anyone who has ticked everything off their to-do list feels all the more calm and content for it as they make their way to the local dance establishment or to have a cider or — if they’re not in a sociable mood — back to one of the many spa bed and breakfasts, like the one where my grandmother, Uncle J’s mother, used to work back in the early days, for her mother had one named Pension Augusta right in front of the spa gardens, and the Tsar used to drive past whenever he was heading off in his carriage. Or perhaps the guests might go into the common room and watch TV. Is there another moon landing today?
A history unfolding beyond their own is only ever the stuff of entertainment or curious, otherworldly (and Uncle J spends often enough considering the passing police cars and fire engines as part of a “toytown” merely there to augment his sense of overwhelming orderliness and safety: it’s all a show, for him) hearsay. These visitors seem to be half in and half out of their lives, automatons forming part of an authentic backdrop, the world at large, as well as those heading out of it and beyond it onto the moon’s surface, are virtually meaningless to them, or shrunk to manageable triviality as their lives overshadow even such unthinkable scope.
Maier restages certain occasions in the life of the blighted Uncle J and the collective life of his family so that he can arrest their movement long enough to scrutinize them properly, as though mere time and distance is not enough: he needs to inhabit the spaces between their unremarkable moments to get optimum vantage. He can walk amongst them, spend more time with them (before he was old enough to understand any of the interconnections or shared histories or psychologies or misunderstandings – and a two-year old Maier is a frequent character, a perfect point at which realizations are becoming instinctively apparent, as yet inarticulable) and, possibly, draw a little more understanding about them. But even when he does this, he can’t quite let them merely re-enact: he’s too contemptuous of what time has done to them and to what they do, once again (nothing much) as time passes. He won’t let them off the hook. His mendacious, despairing mirth, and his despondency at the futility of everything as it all falls away, no match for the autobahns and towers (a comparison we are invited to share as Uncle J can often be found diffidently gawping at these, and by the insistent, almost disbelieving author as he continually pervades the lives of these inhabitants with the surrounding “progress” that refuses to abate as they dwindle) that are being built as the rapidly altering landscape leaves everyone behind, soon to be six feet underground in the ever-busy graveyard.
Maier, narrating this encapsulation of a time, a place and an uncle (and a road, a district, a country and all the things that make up a consciousness and national identity et al.) is unforgiving of both himself and all the events he recounts. He’s probably too harsh: he’s angry about the indiscriminate ruthlessness of time in scrolling away lives and epochs. But he’s not wielding an airbrush here, and his purpose demands such unsentimental resolve. What we have is a strange and beguiling combination: a merciless resurrection of a doomed and woefully-equipped uncle (although, another question the book seems to ask is: what else would you have these people do? Does it matter what anyone does, from our standpoint outside their lives, when we can know so little about them beyond their daily machinations?) and a reconsideration of all manner of minor situations and anecdotes in order to preserve the idea of them, their reverberative, metaphysical import, the only sense of them that could possibly endure. These lives (not the author’s, of course, and in putting himself amongst the dead he is, I’d suggest, trying to acclimatise to his ultimate fate by such precarious engagement) have passed: does our account of their time make that fact any less eternal when we too are set for the same fate? Will we be remembered as a series of olfactory disasters and seething exemplifications? And can we escape our formative surroundings and those with whom we “became” our embryonic selves?
Since J spent most of his time sleeping, it must have almost always been pitch black in there. Today, it’s my study. I’ve always written novels in there, but until now it had never occurred to me to write about my mentally-impaired -at-birth uncle J. About him and his room. About the house and the street. And about my family. And our gravestones. And the Wetterau, which is the whole world. The Wetterau, which for most people is named after an Autobahn service station, the A5 Wetterau service station, which is now being transformed into a bypass. When it comes to down to it, the Wetterau is a bypass with a service station attached. When I say that, people laugh. And yet it was once my home. My home, a road. And now I’m writing a bypass while they bulldoze my home into oblivion outside, and I’m starting with my uncle in his room. This is the beginning that everything else stems from. The room, the house, the place, the street, the towns, my life, the family, the Wetterau and everything else beyond it.
Maier ultimately out-Knausgaards Knausgaard, if that’s the comparison that dares not go unspoken. He has more of a biting comic intent, certainly, but that serves to provide an even more vivid, authentic-feeling piece of work. We are amused by this blunt character, not so much a square peg thumping guilelessly against a never-ending sequence of round holes (life itself might be considered as such) but a blurry blot on a landscape he is both lost in and happiest amid, alone, when no humans can blight his daydreams of a somewhat more impressive self. (Unless, of course, he can be sat drinking in the fug and hubbub of a forest inn in the mythically revered Forthaus Winterstein as life and cigarette clouds swirl around him whilst he inhabits those yearned for moments in his day (and yet, how much of any of it does anything but glance off him, like the beatings he would routinely endure whilst at school, the inexorable figure agonizingly revering his tormentors, who he wants to emulate regardless of their hateful contempt?) for a carefully appointed two hours.) We care about his plight because, as depressing as his long-passed life might seem, we find him funny. He is odd and beleaguered. He works strange hours and drinks his way through his shift (as, seemingly, do his colleagues). His only means of rejecting what he sees as abuse of his time by importunate relatives is to hiss and consent. The more ridiculous his delirium at a passing car or woman (“As he waits, my uncle grips the steering wheel as if he’s still driving and stares through the windscreen of the Variant from beneath his charcoal-black eyebrows, perhaps at that moment fifteen-year-old Elke Schuster is walking by, wearing a very short skirt or maybe even a miniskirt, in keeping with the fashion of the time, and she has breasts too. Everything goes empty and silent in my uncle’s mind and his eyes protrude from his head at a considerable distance”), the funnier he is and the more we want him to endure – despite his being dead. So, in that he is already doomed, we can at least celebrate his unique ineffability. The very things that destroyed any possibility that he might ever be accepted in life make him a hugely successful literary character: and this is very much both a lampoon and a lament.
Much of The Room’s bleakly amusing distress manifests as iconoclasm. We like to think of cities or the environments that develop looming significance over us as the maddeningly timeless factors sandwiching our existences, either side of us before and after we’re here, and nonchalantly impassive as we fleetingly breeze through them. They reject us, knowing our transience, and our attempt to make our mark upon them is preposterous. Maier richly evokes this through the eyes of uncle, who gawps awestruck at cars (“. . . uncle could stare his eyes clean out of his head and admire them to his heart’s content.”) passing through the town; who speaks in deferential, implacable tones about a building being constructed (“. . . in much the same tone as others would talk about a pregnancy.”). He’s obsessive about such matters in a way that only children normally are, and crucially in a way that characters in such sardonic accounts virtually never are: here we’re amused and crushed at the same time. It’s too easy to scorn such simplistic, juvenile lusting after ‘stuff’ and half-ready buildings: but we’re also too empathetic of uncle’s plight and happy to vicariously adopt his innocence to entirely rubbish his passion for these things, and furthermore, we’re newly enlivened with a sense that a place is nothing but the myriad versions supplied by those living in and around it, be they worshipers of gleaming wheels or perplexed interrogators of easily ridiculed and mysteriously bereft uncles. Whatever nebulous definition a place and a time actually attains is no more valid than the vastly divergent representations existing, temporarily, inside the heads of the inhabitants of it. And that simple fact poses some intriguing questions, unanswerable but very potent, as uncle seethes and hisses and routinely drools after American cars gliding out of view, and Maier laughs, sadly, after the fact, and is as determined to cast this oddball back into his milieu as he is nonplussed as to precisely what he was doing there in the first place.
As he waits, my uncle grips the steering wheel as if he’s still driving and stares through the windscreen of the Variant from beneath his charcoal-black eyebrows, perhaps at that moment fifteen-year-old Elke Schuster is walking by, wearing a very short skirt or maybe even a miniskirt, in keeping with the fashion of the time, and she has breasts too. Everything goes empty and silent in my uncle’s mind and his eyes protrude from his head at a considerable distance. But perhaps fifteen-year-old Elke Schuster is not walking past at that moment after all, and instead my uncle is just staring into space with both hands on the steering wheel — what else is he supposed to do?
Even as Maier gives his Uncle J a moment of his life (a doubtful, largely embellished one) once again, he must fritter it away, necessarily. What are the options available to him? If he goes to Forthaus Winterstein, he will assume the role of a fictional character, a “hunter,” a man who can mingle with these other people, upon whom he has conferred all manner of awestruck attributes. He wants to fit in, but can only do this by sinking into a delusional mise-en-scène. And only then after inwardly raging at the inconvenience of all the quotidian matters he must contend with in order to preserve that precious window of time in which he can escape himself and be someone else. “Himself” means compromise, dutifulness, the ubiquitous demands made of him. The car that provides yet another fantastical identity/protective symbol of himself is only his with the proviso that he make use of himself by running errands:
[H]e opens the car door and gets in. Like others get into a space rocket or a Messerschmidt. And now he’s inside. Time to check all the instruments! All the instruments are still there. The speedometer is there. The tachometer is there. The gear stick, everything in its place. Don’t touch the steering wheel just yet! Check the rear-view mirror. Are the doors properly closed? Doors are closed! Check the clock too, synchronize with the time on his wristwatch. Time all fine, synchronisation complete. Everything in order and faultless and ready to start, all the safety precautions completed and verified and passed. Gearstick in neutral, engage the clutch, ignition. IGNITION! It’s almost like a countdown.
And so he takes solace in the only way he can: by copying and deifying “manly” pursuits and concerns. Maier, though, won’t even let him have those moments.
My uncle comes back into the house as if from some momentous life experience, hesitates in the hallway for a moment, then heads briskly down into the cellar. He will work there for a little while. There are important things he wants to do down there, today of all days, even though he doesn’t have much time. This has only just occurred to him. The pilot in his workshop. Something needs to be tweaked. The finishing touches applied. But you still haven’t washed, says his mother. A nervous twitch in my uncle’s face as lava begins to flow into his temper once more. The dispute is heating up.
It’s worth pointing out that, due to an incident with ‘the forceps’ during his delivery, Uncle J is afflicted with certain deficiencies. But he possesses just the wrong amount of faculty: he can take things apart (as he does, as mentioned, at length, working away for hours at a time dismantling various things) but cannot put them back again. He can assume the role of the beer-swilling ‘hunter’ but, pressed into conversation, soon reveals a glaring hopelessness in the art of conversation: he’s all childish hyperbole and incongruous tangents. He’s also exceptionally gullible and the victim of much merriment at his expense, not least by a young Andreas Maier, who toys with him along with his brother, mocking his juvenile immersion in cheap, macho TV dramas about mountaineering (Uncle J is mesmerised by the hammy lifesaving exploits of the protagonists of such studio-bound epics, until his two nephews cacklingly and cruelly demolish them, and Uncle J, resulting in a predictably irate (and, due to a rare and impressive tragicomic tone, that mixes a kind of enervated, resigned, witheringly deadpan mirth that Vonnegut and Bukowski were expert in with a curt wistfulness that feels a little like the David Mitchell of Black Swan Green or the corroded mania of Muriel Spark, very funny) response.
J stands there with his back hunched. His eyebrows pull together into a frown, his eyes narrow into slits, and out of his mouth escapes the well-known hiss, so filled with hate it’s as though he’s about to pick up the nearest knife and run from the house to kill, massacre and painstakingly slaughter everyone in the Wetterau, cutting them all up into equally sized pieces.
The Room spends plenty of time exacerbating a general sense of insignificance and things simply playing themselves out there in the Wetterau, a place in the way of progress, willfully obscured, as far away from the giant leaps into the future undertaken by the moon conquistadors as imaginable.
Up there, at this very moment, they’re driving around in a buggy, then they’ll leave it there and fly off again, discarding the entire rocket, then fly forevermore through the universe and further and further away from the Earth and the Wetterau, which can’t be seen on any of the photos of the blue planet, they would need to be much closer for that.
There’s also (key to the sense of mischievously cynical pithiness) often a submerged desperation, on the part of Maier, comparable to that of Uncle J’s, looking for a way, an apt moment to impose itself on this life that simply ran through its routine, day after day, a vicarious, anarchic omniscience that wrenches, briefly, this life out of its helpless, occluded passivity, even to cause murderous havoc.
She stands there for a while longer with the package of meat in her hands, there are still things to talk about, so why did my uncle have to rush so much? Maybe she’ll stay there for another half hour, and then old Frau Blum will end up coming down in her apron too, or Frau Siebert from Blumensiebert or Frau Jakumeit, and they’ll discuss neighbourly matters until there is nothing left to be said, talking into the evening and into the night while my uncle sits in the Variant, and inside the butcher’s everyone is laughing and cheerful and happy, and he can’t go to Forsthaus Winterstein, so he takes out a machine gun, gets out of the car, shoots, kills and massacres everyone in the butcher’s and then runs onto the street and shoots the passers-by and ideally everyone on Mühlweg too, until there’s a mountain of five hundred corpses lying there, and then he gets into his Variant and drives to Forsthaus Winterstein and orders a beer in the orderly and proper manner and at least one Doppelkorn maize schnapps.
So what is this book, generic mishmash that it is, about? A country, a man, a time? None of those things, particularly. It’s about a comic sensibility borne out of deep disquiet. If it’s about anyone it’s about Andreas Maier, but really it’s about a means of coping with the abundant relentlessness by indubitably confirming your own history. It’s very philosophical: were we to possibly doubt the existence of Uncle J, we could modify Descartes slightly for our purposes. “He stank, therefore he was.” It’s a book that, as I parsed it latterly for excerpts and illustrative quotes, suggested virtually every word of itself, as though were I to cut away a random fragment, it would speak perfectly eloquently of the whole.
Maier has managed something highly unusual here (as far as I can tell: I can think of no precedents for this kind of “reinvention as portrait” other than Eric Chevillard’s masterful Demolishing Nisard (Mookse review here), which is quite different in most respects). He has found a way of representing himself through his family, primarily his uncle, that manages to be moving about them and the impossibility of even favorably resurrecting them, scathing about himself and the dishonest embellishments that nostalgia inherently confers upon virtually everything, and often hilarious about the bleakest of things: death, futility, helplessness, alienation, erosion, time’s brutality. Uncle J is, you might say, time itself: unfathomable, subjective, impossible to apprehend.
The Room, then, is a truly brilliant, innovative piece of work, at the very least unmissable, and quite possibly worth your while earmarking the subsequent volumes (this is only the beginning of what promises to be a grand overall work) which will hopefully appear soon. For now, let Uncle J have the last word.
Having exuded a noticeable smell for hours now, my uncle heads off on his eight-minute journey home with a certain sense of importance. He feels this sense of importance because he has been to work, a completely normal working day, he earns his money just like everyone else and is practically a civil servant, he could almost wear a uniform, and if he were to go to the postal depot in Bad Nauheim he would feel like he’s amongst colleagues, and would long to talk shop with them (which, admittedly, the postal workers in Bad Nauheim would never have understood, not realising that he worked in a postal depot too). And also because, for today, he has earned what is about to come, in other words his evening off, in an orderly and exemplary and proper fashion. And his mother will be content (He wasn’t in the Kaiserstrasse district, after all! Or maybe he was, but just very briefly, in and out in a matter of moments, and no one knows about that anyway, even he has already forgotten about it, as if it never happened. And did it really?).