Melville House’s Neversink collection rereleasing Christopher Levenson’s translation of Peter Weiss’s Leavetaking (Abschied von den Eltern, 1961; tr. from the German by Christopher Levenson, 1967), and the way the translation has held up, might not quite amount to one of those acclaimed literary events, but we should instead hope that it is the first step towards such an event’s arrival — say, in the form of a translation of all three volumes of his Aesthetic of Resistance. With Weiss’s work largely unavailable to English monoglots like myself, the translation of W. G. Sebald’s essay “The Remorse of the Heart,” in On the Natural History of Destruction, on Weiss opened curtains for many, and with the glimpse through that is Leavetaking, hopefully the window behind can be fully opened.
Though in many ways a standard coming-of-age novel, Leavetaking leaves behind many of the clichés associated with one. It is a short novel comprised of a single paragraph, following the memories of the narrator until he can arrive at that titular leavetaking, the moment when the daunting authority of his parents can be left behind, and with that comes the arrival of a fully formed self. In the flow of the book’s single paragraph, days and possibly weeks separate memories, but they all become one. One only accessible after both parents have passed, and from there, the writing follows memories, drifting in the wake of memories instead of sitting on one and choosing the next: night terrors lead to a visit from a family friend who helped him “experience a foretaste of bodily freedom,” leads to the remembered shame when his mother bathed him, cleaned his penis on the cusp of puberty.
A book that contains only one single paragraph can often be a source of intimidation, intentionally or not. Here, the form is necessary, the only way to move with the memories, to follow them so flowingly. Weiss wants to challenge readers on other grounds, and because his prose is built on simple sentences, each building carefully on one another, when the prose launches into more expansive expressions, the reader has been prepared, and the just over one-hundred-page paragraph doesn’t seem as daunting.
An autobiographical novel, Leavetaking is an almost completely insular endeavor by the unnamed narrator, concerned with his family and private life in the time leading up to World War II. It seems shocking, this lack of concern with the horrors that have just passed and the still worse horrors yet approaching — even more so considering the narrator’s Jewish heritage. Yet, as unfolds in the silences of the book, Weiss is far from unconcerned with those larger issues, and we witness intense bravery in focusing so attentively on the little world of the narrator’s experiences and dreams. It is an act of bravery to look deep into an individual and familial world that is so drenched in sorrow, as his certainly is.
From the very beginning of the novel, there is the sense of a need for safe worlds, even without a clear idea of the threats that fill the rest of the world: “Closeness, a shut-in feeling reigned in the house, and my senses were trapped. Here out of doors my senses could expand and when I entered the summer house I entered a kingdom that belonged only to me, my self-chosen place of exile.” Inside, his parent’s attic, the little boy has created fields and hills, and even stages battles there; but he finds the most relief between the battles, when his specially set aside figures explore the now peaceful world he has created. In this early focus on hunting out the space between violence, the comfort in exile, we see a child preparing himself for the world he doesn’t want to acknowledge, doesn’t yet need to acknowledge because he is busy creating a self — a necessary requirement when it comes to dealing with the realities of the world, and often one of the first self-empowering acts of the artist.
The larger politico-historical world is treated with silence not because of simplicity or fear, but because both the narrator and Weiss are inevitably caught up in it: why write about it directly when it impinges on all fronts? In describing incidences of violence in his life, those minor traps that birth fear, limit one’s creation of identity, the narrator explores them so completely that we see the shape of everything that remains: the rising anti-Semitism, an oncoming war. This encroachment is so fierce that even the innocent child, a victim, begins to take on guilt and responsibility for the violence—and this is a book of violence, even if episodes of violence remain detached from the narrative and, when they are mentioned, are never graphic. His goodbye to his closest friend leaves him feeling guilty, wondering if play violence was somehow real violence:
I shot Jacques dead as he stood there behind the lowered carriage window. I raised the tin pistol, aimed, imitated a shot, and Jacques pretended to be hit, threw up his arms and fell backward…Jacques did not appear at the window, I never saw Jacques again…Sometimes I thought, Perhaps I was mistaken, perhaps it wasn’t a toy pistol I shot him with, but a real revolver.
With everything else considered such confining and damaging actions, how could this act not be? How could it not come with responsibility and its attendant guilt?
In Sebald’s essay on Weiss he identifies in Weiss’writing “the transformation of the wounded subject into another, intransigent person constitute[ing] itself both as the will to resist and a process that may be described as the assimilation of the chill of the system which the subject knows threatens him.”In Leavetaking, this wounded subject is a child who from the earliest moments of the novel understands himself as outside this threatening system. Delving into his first day of school, the narrator emphasizes that he is only able to understand and find the meaning in the experience as he writes it: “I went back by the avenue in the white dust of the roadway, my childhood lay decades behind me, I can depict it now with well-chosen words, I can take it apart and spread it out in front of me, but as I experienced it, there was no thinking and no dissecting, there was no controlling reason then.”
His birth into exile both tortures and saves him. Having fled school before even arriving, the child is wrangled and brought back only to find a community formed, with him on the outside. From his place as an outsider he is both punished and able to observe punishment. Unable to understand his teacher’s question, the child is met with anger, and this lack of understanding, the nervousness and shame that comes with it, is taken as defiance — his basic animal instinct to avoid an oncoming blow, further defiance, in a classroom waiting in silence, wanting to see their would-be-peer be hit, hurt, learning how to accept this standard violence of culture.
Abuse becomes an acceptable cultural practice, part of the environment in which children are meant to become adults,as is the silence with which violence is met. The suffering is remembered as personal, private. This isolation is familiar to many, and to recognize it is to recognize a world of suffering. The fullest expression of the private life and the reflection of society comes in the form the parents, those people who must be left. The narrator’s mother and father are opposites, working in conjunction to mold a child into their society.
Traditionally, the father is the figurals life, the most humane portrait we get of the father is in the description of a family friend who is his almost complete opposite, carving a negative space outline of the father:
I perceived clearly the rivalry that arose between him and my father, with Fritz the contest was relaxed and self-confident, whereas with my father it expressed itself in strained self-control.
The mother, that traditional source of comfort and kindness, is the more insidious authority here in Leavetaking. Hers is the fiercest rule in the family because she controls goodness, it is hers to dole out, or to reserve, making the narrator earn it, feel he cannot accomplish enough, consistently enough, to deserve it:
It was she who threatened me, but at the same time she was my savior. She took away with one hand and gave back with the other.
Pain and pleasure intermingle, confidence and fear find each other and squirm in the interior of the narrator’s mind. The very act of comfort, with all its entrapments, becomes another form of violence and punishment: Weiss’narrator imagining “barbaric women who bound me and overwhelmed me with their cruel caresses.”
Somewhere, supposedly, Kafka once wrote that education “is the step-by-step initiation of the humiliated child into the lie.” It is the story of such an indoctrination that Weiss is telling here, but the leavetaking is the eventual discovery that there is a lie. The ordered, serious authority of his father’s world, the mother’s instillation of fear in a child so that she can then graciously console that fear: these are formative kinds of lies, and when the narrator begins to uncover them, even without replacing them with new lies or attempting to locate any sort of truth, he becomes himself, no longer bound by indoctrination: “Here by this lake I found an intermediate kingdom, here arose the beginnings of another relaxed, almost happy existence.”
The leavetaking is also an uncovering for the narrator, discovering the hidden while also creating his own insular life. Leavetaking is an act to which the narrator is dedicated from his youngest days, searching through his family’s attic, rummaging among chests to find artifacts of the past that might offer insight into his parents’ hidden lives. Secret explorations of sexuality, of the forbidden female body (twice forbidden in his erotic relationship with this sister), parallel the narrator’s exploration of art; these are new paths, even if they are troubled ones, to plateaus where pleasure and comfort grow like companion plants. In books, he finds another secret reality, finding them to “demand my collaboration.” The writing of Leavetaking is Weiss’s authorial role in that collaboration, and a reading of it the continuation. One then hopes that writing about it, talking about Leavetaking, pushes the collaboration further.
Leavetaking’s narrator discovers art as a space of exile, but exile from a world that does not nurture or challenge, except through cruelty and denial. His pursuit of this exile is threatened most seriously by the war, but his parents have sided with the war, desiring safety for their son more than creative passion or joy. At the end of the novella, Weiss cannot pass silently by the war any longer, and its undeniable violence breaks through. This crisis is a determining moment for the narrator, and he tries to bring a friend with him:
Flee, hide yourself, you with your hopelessly open face, with your disconcerted staring gaze behind the thick prisms of your glasses, flee before it is too late. But Peter Kien remained behind. Peter Kien was murdered and burned. I escaped . . . I experienced the irrevocable decision, the overcoming of the last resistance.
He will either be consumed, but he flees that threat, yet manages to escape his old exile, as he rushes towards to a new form of belonging, to the world where there are others like him.
Weiss’s work is a prayer to the place from which art is conceived, the place where art is pondered. It is for those who have faith in art because it makes more sense than the rest of world, because the experiences in that land of exile are not holier or better than other lands, but for some of us it is through those experiences that we find the only safe way to be, to finally live. This land is not a complete detachment from the mundane world, but it is a vantage point, a matter of perspective that allows understanding not otherwise possible. It is only from his exile that the narrator is able to uncover his parents outside of their lies, which singular parts to love and to mourn. From there, a war, too, can be mourned, and the euphoric parts of life captured, then released. Near the end of Leavetaking Weiss writes of dying men calling for their mothers, and we read in it the source of life, death, birth, love, sex, and for Weiss’narrator, his commitment to art, refusal to become what society wanted him to be, is his own scream:
There lay these finished men, perhaps falling for something they believed in, and the last thing they screamed for was the abyss from which they had once crawled. One cannot live unless one loves this great crack. Oh life, oh great cunt of life. In the moment of death, we scream for you.