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Marianne Fritz: Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse (The Weight of Things)

Marianne Fritz may be best known for her essentially unread Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst [Whose Language You Do Not Understand], a ten-volume work I struggled through some years ago. It was one of those works – think Finnegans Wake – which you suspect is a work of genius but it really is hard work to understand and appreciate it fully. Yet here, eight years after she died and thirty-seven years after it was first published, is her first work and, so far, the only one of her works to be translated into English, thanks to the Dorothy Project, a St Louis-based small publisher, specialising in books by women.

This novel revolves around the story of Berta Schrei (German for scream), nee Faust (German for fist as well as recalling the work by Goethe and by Thomas Mann). We meet her at the beginning of the novel, in 1945, just as the war is coming to an end. However, Berta’s three brothers have not been heard from and are presumed missing in action and Rudolf, neighbour and father of the child she is carrying, is also dead (decapitated, as we later learn). Wilhelm Schrei, his friend, arrives with the news and gives her a necklace and a letter, to the disgust of her friend, Wilhelmine. We soon learn that Wilhelmine and Wilhelm will marry, but not till 1960 and that they will marry on Berta’s birthday, at Wilhelmine’s specific request. Only later do we learn that Wilhelm did indeed first marry Berta. They had two children – Rudolf, son of the other Rudolf, the baby she was carrying when Wilhelm arrived, and young Berta, Wilhelm’s daughter. Not only is it not a particularly happy marriage, Berta seems remarkably unsuccessful at parenting.

Wilhelm is the chauffeur and odd-job man for a rich man and this sometimes requires long absences, e.g. during the hunting season. He seems to be successful at his job, no doubt because of his winning smile. He wants to raise his children as competent citizens with both feet on the ground but Berta is indecisive and inconsistent and both of the children seem to despise her and despise each other. Rudolf is well aware who is his biological father is and points it out frequently, while Little Berta frequently accuses her mother of not being right in the head. As Berta says Somehow we just do everything wrong. Somehow we just don’t fit. Rudolf is aware of his own inadequacies. In a dream, he hears people telling him:

“You can’t catch a ball.” “You can’t play an instrument.” “You always fall down.” “Your nose bleeds.” “You have two left hands.” “You can’t do your sums.” “You can’t write on your own.” “You can’t catch frogs.” “You can’t even make it to the bathroom when you need to go.” “You’re a bed-wetter.” “You can’t throw a punch.” “You don’t know how to fight.” “You’re a weakling.” “You always have diarrhea.” “You bite your nails.” “You stutter when the teacher asks where you’re from.” “You’re an idiot.” “You can’t swim.”

This does not particularly seem to bother him though clearly he is not too happy about it. He struggles at school and while Little Berta is initially doing well at school, she soon follows in her brother’s footsteps, doing so badly she has to be moved to a special school. Indeed, when the children come home from school, both dragging their bags along the ground, they seem just to sit and stare into space. Berta quite simply cannot cope and she has strange and violent dreams of crucifixions and corpses. One day, however, they stay in bed and she cannot bring herself to force them to get up. She phones the school and tells them that the children are sick. They stay at home and continue to stay at home. Things improve and they become closer to their mother and she to them.

Early on, we learn that Berta is in a special home and that she cannot speak. Indeed, it is Wilhelmine who suggests to Wilhelm that they visit her on her birthday and their third wedding anniversary, which they do. As she said, before she lost her voice, A man, a word, and then you’re lost. The visit has some effect on all three of them, with Berta forcing her Madonna necklace – the one he had given to her back in 1945 – on Wilhelmine. Of course, we learn what happened to Berta and why she is in the home.

This is a sad tale of a woman who finds it difficult to cope with life. Clearly the war has had an effect on her, with the loss of three brothers and the father of her child. Fritz skilfully portrays a woman who is unsure of what to do and how to cope, while her husband seems to cope well with his lot and Wilhelmine with hers. The two children are both awful but, at the same time, clearly to be pitied, like their mother, unable to cope with life. It is an excellent story and it is good that finally we have a work by Marianne Fritz in English.

Publishing history

First published in German 1978 by Suhrkamp
First English publication by Dorothy in 2015