The Surreal and Musical Renderings of Gert Jonke

Theme: Eastern Europe


Gert Jonke is one of the preeminent authors who can create an illusion that slyly seduces the reader and then dismantles it right before our eyes leaving us to wonder what part of the fiction was fiction.  This may sound confusing or obtuse, and at times reading Jonke is just that – a confounding, vertiginous description of a story that turns the idea of story on its head.  Jonke died this year and I wanted to explore his place among the philosophical literary surrealists that include some of my favorites like Robert Walser and Gustave Flaubert. I began my Jonke journey with Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique (translated by Jean M. Snook) which is comprised of two parts:  The Presence of Memory and Gradus and Parnassum.  Both of these are narrated by Fritz, a young composer who is struggling with the expectations of his talent.  We don’t sense this as much in The Presence of Memory because although Fritz is the narrator, he is the unreliable narrator that witnesses a reality that we are not sure he is creating or he is describing.  It begins with Fritz attending an annual party of two siblings that he attended the year before.  The siblings, a brother and a sister, want to recreate the exact same party as last year, having the people saying the exact same things and doing the exact same things.  To facilitate this idea, they have hung paintings on the trees in the garden that are paintings of what they are hanging on so that it is difficult to determine art and reality.  The siblings, Diabelli and Johanna, make Fritz initially uncomfortable with this idea:

It wasn’t so much Diabelli’s stubborn insistence on being right that alienated me as it was Johanna’s smugness; and when she spoke of the circumstances of our lives, she always hinted at a still prevalent but next to unrecognizable form of suppression, consisting of all of us repeatedly being used to our disadvantage–primarily to demonstrate to several other people, at our expense, that the reassuring feeling they have that all things they do behind our backs are an indispensable precondition of our continued existence is entirely justified–and yet, while she said that sort of thing, she believed herself to be free of the stereotypes of this kind of existence, in which she herself would use others, pointing out their dependence, especially when it was a matter of their dependence on her, to confirm her own independence, to which she unconditionally subordinated the events of her private life–for example, the coming party.

Fritz becomes enured to the idea of the party and we meet the people of the town in a conversation about the smoke stacks that escalates into ridiculousness.  Enter Mr. Jagusch, the building inspector, Jacksch, the city gardener,  the man just called ‘the Town Planner’ and the woman called ‘the City Manager’.  As it goes on, and it does go on, we begin to see Jonke’s satire of bureaucracy.  There is also a subtle mocking of Austrian society and the pretense of class that makes the party simultaneously comical and grotesque.  But what saves us from dismissing Jonke’s premise of repeating a party exactly the way it happened a year before as a mere literary exercise is Fritz’s remorse of the loss of his girlfriend who literally ‘vanished into thin air’.  Fritz is explaining to Johanna what happened with his girlfriend and it shows Jonke’s ability to create the real, the surreal and the emotional amongst a backdrop of loosely related scenes that increase their sense of the bizarre and the fantastical.  Fritz is retelling Johanna about how he lost her on the way to the train station:

I suddenly saw her walking on the other side of the street, turning down an avenue that ran through the fields of snow towards the train station, and having seen her, I stood motionless–though not without casting a happily hopeful glance at her gently swaying figure moving through the rows of trees–until I saw that she was all ready to leave on a trip, exactly as arranged, that she was having a hard time carrying two large suitcases, and so I thought, well, I guess we’ll still be going away together today on that trip we’ve been planning for so long, and naturally I was already looking forward to using all the different means of public transportation at our disposal, and so I finally began to run after her, of course I wanted to cross over to her side of the street to help her carry her luggage, but I was prevented from doing so by the traffic that suddenly seemed very busy at that intersection.  Unfortunately, she hadn’t seen me, so she continued walking purposefully along the avenue, without turning around, and only then did I succeed in crossing the street and hurrying after her as quickly as I could, already out of breath, until in the middle of the road, I can’t explain it, she had, there’s no other way to put it, you know, because it was impossible that she could already have reached the station that was still miles ahead of us, she had vanished into thin air, or become invisible, you know, simply gone, yes, and even her footsteps in the freshly fallen snow on the sidewalk simply stopped where she had disappeared, didn’t continue either doubled back or sideways, there were only two long wide fresh imprints from the suitcases she had put down, yes, at that point of her life everything about her that could have left any visible traces had come to an end.

Johanna responds to this story by suggesting that perhaps he made the whole thing up and that his search for her is some sort of useless ritual that keeps him bound to the city.  After denying this and reiterating that he everything he told was true, Johanna replies:

Yes, I’ll gladly believe you because even reality is often a good invention.

And that, dear readers, is the essence of Gert Jonke.  The party continues and eventually Fritz believes it was successful if depressing:

So it had turned out to be exactly the same party as last year, right down to the smallest details:  much as I could no longer tell which photos were from last year’s party or which were from the party this year, it was exactly the same now with the pictures surfacing in my memory:  when I thought of moments or events from the party last year or the party this year, I couldn’t tell the pictures apart, they were also turning up in twos in my head, absolutely identical silhouettes and chains of associations from both events:  when I thought over my worries about the party, I no longer had the faintest idea whether I was worrying about this year’s party or last year’s:  as though, in my head, both parties had been identically depicted, each on its owntransparent film and then laid over one another with all the elementscoinciding…

Jonke plays with the concept of fiction while also incorporating the rhythms and phraseology of music into his narrative.  The tit
le of this novel is named after Carl Czerny, an Austrian pianist and composer.  He applies Czerny’s musical ‘studies’ to a literary form that is reflected in repeating dialogue, different voices and using those voices as if they were instruments performing a symphony together.  This high aim is lofty, but not always satisfying.  The more affecting part of the novel is Gradus and Parnassum (A Step to Parnassum) which is also named after Czerny, this time referring to a collection of instructional piano pieces.  Fritz continues as the narrator as he and his brother Otto search for their old music professor’s piano studio inside the Conservatory.  Unintentionally, the get locked in the attic with 111 pianos and thus begins the story of what happened to these two promising musical students.  Fritz, an alcoholic who is detoxing, had some success as a composer but hasn’t produced anything of merit in years except long bouts with drinking.  Otto, never as talented as Fritz, couldn’t succeed as a pianist so he ended up building an empire as a piano mover. 

The usual friction between siblings ebbs and flows throughout with the Otto berating Fritz for his drinking.  The attempt to find ways out of the attic but no luck.  Then we learn of Otto’s failure at imitating Robert Schumann and that Fritz began drinking when his girlfriend ‘disappeared without a trace’.  Otto and Fritz exhaust the possibilities of their lives, undermining each other and questioning the subjectivity of their reminiscences.  Meanwhile, they wait for their old teacher, Hellberger, to come and find them.   He eventually arrives and the story is calmed by his presence but also takes on a mysterious tone.  In the end, this part of the novels uses the musical composition in a literary setting to a greater effect than the first part and seems to strike the chords with more resonance. 

Although this novel may prove a bit challenging, an interesting read if not for the intellectual and philosophical questions it asks about memory, society, perception, and to a lesser extent, the role of alcoholism on the artist.  If you are a fan of Italo Calvino, Jonke is definitely worth the effort.  But most pleasing to me was his autobiographical novel, The System of Vienna: from Heaven Street to Earth Mound Square

It has man of the same characteristics as Homage, but it is more engaging and cohesive.  It is presented in short vignettes each title after a Vienna trolley car stop and this is perhaps why it works better than the previous book – the surreal and fantastical elements seem more refined and impacting in shorter segments.  What I also thought was intriguing was that it wasn’t linear but still manages to incorporate many of the things we experience in life such as innocence, disappointment, love, death and will.  The blend of surrealism and psycho geography work perfectly with each stop relating to a specific story in Jonke’s life.  With the quick turn of the phrase Jonke takes the routine and infuses it with a bit of the fantastic, as in this excerpt from In the Course of My Courses–From Neuwaldegg to Schottentor:

End of the line! the conductor yells;  I push my way out of the streetcar and proceed onward and upward to the university. as on every other day; everything seems at the moment to have run its course again, but while I am looking from a window in the corridor on the second floor how the sheen-glinting streetcar tracks, over ad pass the heat waves of which multicolored swarms of butterflies aflutter in a summer bursting forth now are skimming and are woven into the air of this day like a many-colored pattern, alive and whirling, one of those dimwit assistants whom I still have to put up with suddenly draws me off to the side and whispers with a hoarse voice into my ear:  I have a history of music for you; I’m holding a history of music for your use, so I think you should be grateful to me…Then he presses an envelope into my hand and vanishes into the nearest auditorium, awkwardly fleeing my glance as if he were embarrassed by me but at the same time even more for me.

Jonke’s imagination is mesmerizing, especially when it balancing on the fine line between the real and the surreal.  This comes to life in his relationship with architecture in the chapter Caryatids and Atlantes–Vienna’s First Guest Workers.  As luck would have it, our narrator falls for a caryatid:

It was almost as if I were touching the caryatid across the distance from me to her, as if I could already feel her very deeply without having to cleave the surging stream of air between us, to swim toward the shoreline of her voice so as to gather up some of the flotsam and jetsam of her scarcely begun sentences from the breakers of her glances, trained on me still and now suddenly dropping down over me like a veil.  It seemed to me that I was “hearing” something, although “hearing” wasn’t the right word; rather, it was an iridescent flutter and shimmer of shadows twinkling through the district.

I don’t care if she is made of stone, that is just damn beautiful writing.  And like all his writing, full of comic brilliance and a satiric sneer that doesn’t quit.  Jonke flips the literary finger to method and tradition and the idea that as human beings we have any control over the chaos of life.  He proves his point mainly through exaggeration, but there is enough tempering with a light narrative hand that doesn’t drive the reader to incredulity, only to feel that he is one on the joke. 

It’s easy in some ways to continue breaking down the work of the Jonke, but also very challenging to cover all of what he actually does with his writing.  The best to have done this is Vincent Kling, who translated System of Vienna, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring 2005).  Well researched and written, this is the best reference and guide to reading Jonke.  But if you don’t have time for that, simply pick up a copy of System of Vienna and enjoy the ride.

Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique
By Gert Jonke
Translated by Jean M. Snook
Dalkey Archive
Paperback, 149 Pages
ISBN: 9781564785015

The System of Vienna: From Heaven Street to Earth Mound Square
By Gert Jonke
Translated by Vincent Kling
Dalkey Archive
Paperback, 120 Pages
ISBN:  9781564785503

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