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Authors: Peter Weiss

Leavetaking

PRAISE FOR
LEAVETAKING
AND PETER WEISS

“This is a dynamic work, a re-creation and exorcism of the past rather than a recollection of it in tranquility. Brief though it is, its truthfulness and imaginative power are such as to involve the reader in what may have begun as an act of personal liberation.”


MICHAEL HAMBURGER,
THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT

“[Weiss’s
Aesthetics of Resistance
] is a magnum opus which sees itself, almost programmatically, not only as the expression of an ephemeral wish for redemption, but as an expression of the
will
to be on the side of the victims at the end of time.”


W. G. SEBALD, FROM
ON THE NATURAL HISTORY OF DESTRUCTION

“Bertolt Brecht comes automatically to mind, but Weiss’s style has its own hypnotic force.”


THE NEW YORK TIMES

“Peter Weiss is one of the most interesting dramatists writing now … To accept his work plain is to miss the whole point; he seems to want to put on stage huge explosions of the instinctual life, instincts that have become politicized, but are not merely politics.”


ELIZABETH HARDWICK,
THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS

“A great novel … Weiss’s account takes us through familiar territory by new routes, so that we see the landmarks as we have never seen them before.”


THE HUDSON REVIEW

“Must be counted among the most important European authors of the 20th century.”


THE COMPLETE REVIEW

“Yes,
The Aesthetics of Resistance
is intimidating. But it is also exhilaratingly strange, compelling, and original. Readers who dare enter this demanding verbal landscape will not come away empty-handed.”


BOOKFORUM

LEAVETAKING

PETER WEISS
(1916–1982) was born in the Prussian province of Brandenburg to a Jewish father, who had converted to Lutheranism, and a Christian mother. He spent his childhood in Bremen and, as an adolescent, began his studies in the visual arts in Berlin. In the early thirties, with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, the family immigrated first to England and then Sweden. Weiss studied photography and painting at the Polytechnic School of Photography and the Prague Art Academy. He began to correspond with Hermann Hesse, who became a friend and mentor. In 1939, Weiss followed his family to Stockholm, where he would spend the rest of his life, receiving Swedish citizenship in 1946. His first play,
The Tower
, was produced in 1950, and he joined the Swedish Experimental Film Studio soon after. But his greatest international success was in the theater: in 1965, the director Peter Brook staged his play
The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade
in London and New York, winning multiple Tony Awards. Weiss’s politically engaged drama also included
The Investigation
, about the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial. A multitalented artist, Weiss wrote fiction throughout his career, and he spent the last decade of his life working on a monumental three-part historical novel,
The Aesthetics of Resistance
, which W. G. Sebald referred to in
On the Natural History of Destruction
as a “magnum opus.” Weiss died at the age of sixty-five in Stockholm.

CHRISTOPHER LEVENSON
is an acclaimed Canadian poet and translator. He is a cofounder of
Arc Poetry Magazine
and the Harbinger Poetry imprint of Carleton University Press.

SVEN BIRKERTS
is a literary critic and essayist. His many books include
The Gutenberg Elegies
and
The Other Walk
.

THE NEVERSINK LIBRARY

I was by no means the only reader of books on board the
Neversink.
Several other sailors were diligent readers, though their studies did not lie in the way of belles-lettres. Their favourite authors were such as you may find at the book-stalls around Fulton Market; they were slightly physiological in their nature. My book experiences on board of the frigate proved an example of a fact which every book-lover must have experienced before me, namely, that though public libraries have an imposing air, and doubtless contain invaluable volumes, yet, somehow, the books that prove most agreeable, grateful, and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there; those which seem put into our hands by Providence; those which pretend to little, but abound in much
. —
HERMAN MELVILLE,
WHITE JACKET

LEAVETAKING

Originally published under the title
Abschied von den Eltern

Copyright © 1961 by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main
Translation copyright © 1967 by Calder Publications
Published by arrangement with Alma Classics Ltd.
Introduction copyright © 2014 by Sven Birkerts

First Melville House printing: July 2014

Melville House Publishing
145 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
and
8 Blackstock Mews
Islington
London N4 2BT

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Weiss, Peter, 1916–1982.
   [
Abschied von den Eltern
. English]
   Leavetaking / Peter Weiss; Translated by Christopher
   Levenson; Introduction by Sven Birkerts.
      pages   cm
   ISBN 978-1-61219-331-1 (pbk.)
   ISBN 978-1-61219-332-8 (ebook)
   I. Levenson, Christopher, 1934– translator. II. Title.

PT2685.E5A6213 2014
833′.914—dc23

2013045408

v3.1

Contents
INTRODUCTION BY SVEN BIRKERTS

The German-born novelist, dramatist, artist, and filmmaker Peter Weiss, who adopted Swedish nationality after World War II, is part of that generation of German-speaking writers (including Heinrich Böll, Alfred Andersch, and Max Frisch) who came into young manhood in the years preceding the war and whose work almost inevitably explores questions of power and morality within that historical frame. In the decade leading up to his death, Weiss—who is best known for his play
Marat/Sade
—was finishing what many consider to be his masterwork, the three-volume
The Aesthetics of Resistance
, of which only the first volume has been translated into English. That novel, as its title suggests, takes on the vast subject of the European opposition to the rise of Nazism. Another play of Weiss’s,
The Investigation
, meanwhile, assembles documentary evidence to assess the findings of the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial. His claim on posterity would seem to be as a key figure of witness and moral inquiry.

Readers may well be surprised to discover, therefore, that the writer had a powerful and highly refined
subjective register as well, displayed in his surrealism-inspired paintings (he’d studied first to be a painter) as well as in a pair of imagistically compressed autobiographical novellas,
Leavetaking
(1961) and
Vanishing Point
(1962). Indeed, so intense is Weiss’s sentence-by-sentence charge in this mode that one could be excused for assuming it is his central expressive register.

Coming-of-age is, of course, one of the great archetypes. And the basic narrative template is familiar. The narrator/protagonist is depicted as alienated from the outside world as well as from family; there are bitter struggles over the failure to conform. Great ambitions and great loves are nurtured in an uncomprehended privacy. Until eventually comes the breakaway. He (in this version of archetype, it is usually a young man) experiences the travails of formation—conflicts, losses, and sunderings—but at last finds himself standing, if teetering a bit, on his own two feet.

There is nothing new in Weiss’s use of this narrative pattern in
Leavetaking
. The stages are ones we recognize, yet through every page this short work is arresting, confirming—if confirmation were needed—that much important art is a matter of the
how
rather than the
what
. Which is not to discount the subject matter, only to stress how often it is the treatment that shows the hand of the master.

Leavetaking
projects a distinctive tone, a decisive confidence, and captures with complete freshness a sensibility in development. This confidence is manifest immediately in Weiss’s declarative opening:

I have often tried to come to an understanding of the images of my father and my mother, to take bearings and steer a course between rebellion and submission. But I have never been able to grasp and interpret the essential being of these two figures standing at either side of the gateway of my life. Both died almost at the same time and it was then I saw how deeply estranged I was from them.

Though Weiss begins with an admission of uncertainty, he does so with a frankness that will be carried through in every line of this unscrolling account of his younger years. I use the adjective “unscrolling” deliberately, for the author appears to be an early pioneer of the unparagraphed text, and the visually effortful—at times frustrating—business of reading this novel-as-memoir from start to finish is clearly part of its intent. But what is such a choice of presentation stating? That life will pause for no organizing afterthought; that in the chaos of becoming, immediacy is the rule; that it is better to preserve this sense of an undifferentiated onrush than to try to wrest from events an impression of circumstance mastered in retrospect?

Weiss achieves these effects, and after a few pages during which we experience that “irritable reaching after fact and reason” that Keats described in one of his letters, there is (there was for me) a shift to acceptance. While it is not exactly a stream of consciousness that the author is deploying, it is definitely a refusal of easy narrative footholds. Weiss wants us to take away a sense of
relentlessness, of exacerbated awareness, the sensations of a life that has thus far (it ends in the narrator’s young manhood) attained no vantage of comprehension.

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