The Aristocrat is probably the novel I’ve most enjoyed this year – though it may well get replaced in that capacity as early as tomorrow, and I did start it – I think – in 2010. There may be elements in that time, from the first half of it at least (I read the whole second half today) which I’ve forgotten: though there are images which very much stick in the mind, particularly the fire-cat (a cat which, when it sees fire, goes and stands in the middle of it).
The Aristocrat is remarkably similar to two other German novels I’ve read in the last few years: Young Törless, by Robert Musil, and Jakob von Gunten, by Robert Walser. All three of them are bildungsromans, where boys are sent away to austere, spartan boarding schools, to discover themselves from the manners of their institutions and in their interactions with their fellows. In the end, I think Weiss’ work is closer to Walser’s, in which the central character becomes dominated by a single overwhelming ideal: for Jakob von Gunten, delighting in being a cog in the machine; for Boëtius von Orlamünde, a notion of aristocratic correctness and indifference in the face of death. Orlamünde comes from a high-born family which has become completely impoverished; his father refuses to take on work, which he conceives of as beneath his station, and he and Boëtius’ mother lives in secluded destitution in order to afford the fees to send Boëtius to boarding school. Boëtius is therefore under great pressure to live up to his father’s demands on him. Luckily he venerates his father and believes implicitly in the same aristocratic ideals. The book is told from his point of view – it is written in a very correct, precise style (at least, in English) – and, like Jakob von Gunten, all the characters are judged in these terms. It is also – like the episode of the fire-cat – at times quite strange.