The Aristocrat, by Ernst Weiss

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.

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12 thoughts on “The Aristocrat, by Ernst Weiss

  1. Hesse’s Unterm Rad would be worth adding to those three, as another Bildungsroman. Maybe the most conventional of the four, still worth reading. It’s different from his other writing, I think. I’m not sure I’ve read Weiss before, I think not.

  2. I may have read Unterm Rad (The Prodigy in English). I read a lot of Hesse once upon a time, but a lot of it I’ve forgotten. One I haven’t read and which I keep meaning to is The Glass Bead Game. It’s always near the top of the pile.

    I feel the need at the moment to have one big early-c20th German book on the go: I think after Auto da Fe, it’s either The Radetsky March, The Magic Mountain, or embarking on The Man without Qualities. Or perhaps Green Henry, or Berlin Alexanderplatz, or even The Glass Bead Game. It can act as a counterbalance to my non-German Eastern-European reading.

    Weiss seems a bit neglected. The Aristocrat is set for no good reason in Belgium, though it’s clearly about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like a lot of Austro-Hungarian writing of the time, it’s fascinated by the collapse of the old regime which had been ruling Europe for centuries and the rise of more democratic forces. From this novel and a common reader‘s comments on The Eyewitness, he also seems fascinated by the German mindset which led them to entering into two world wars.

  3. Thanks for reviewing this book. After really enjoying Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer I wanted to read another book by Weiss and almost chose The Aristocrat. An interesting writer.

  4. He is indeed. I have The Eyewitness, and possibly some other books by him (hidden away somewhere on my shelves). Probably you talking about him got me to pick up The Aristocrat again – though, to be honest, I’ve no idea why I started writing it again the other day.

  5. Nice piece, a new name for me and one I’ll keep an eye out for.

    I read Musil’s feuilltons published in one of the Penguin mini editions, and based on that I took the plunge and bought A Man Without Qualities a couple of months ago. I’m quite keen to tackle it, I’ve read the first chapter without really meaning to and found it very pleasing.

  6. Yes, I picked up Volume 2 of TMwQ the other day, having had Volume 1 sitting alone on the shelf for many years. There still seem to be two more volumes, though if I start it now, I’ll probably have bought them by the time I get to the end of the second book.

  7. I would like to recommend a big German book you haven’t mentioned but of course- not translated. (It was von Doderer).
    Radetzky March is not chunky (I thought by writing big you meant that, no?)
    I still see Weiss mentioned in Germany, but outside, I suppose, he isn’t that well known anymore.
    All those novels like “Unterm Rad” illustrate the mindset well.
    Why do they have to be chunky?

  8. Are you talking about Heimato von Doderer’s The Demons. Not merely is it translated, but I actually have the entire thing somewhere, in a nice three volume edition – though it’s in a house 500 miles away. I’ve being putting it off till I read Dostoevsky’s The Devils, but now I’ve read that….

    No, I’m not entirely sure what I mean by “big”. Perhaps I mean merely “which I conceive of as important”.

  9. No, I was thinking of Die Strudelhofstiege. I looked everywhere – during German Literature Month because I mentioned it in a post – but really couldn’t find it. I’m not sure how Die Dämonen compares, I thought Die Strudelhofstiege was his best. I pick it up occasionally but I really don’t like those chunksters.
    It’s so odd. In Germany he often said to be suprior to Roth but he isn’t much translated, the same can be said about Eduard von Keyserling. He has the best of Schnitzler and Fontane but nothing is translated.
    If big means important it was just a coincidence that all the books you mentioned were long.

  10. Ah no, maybe that one’s not translated. – Perhaps I was meaning “chunky and important” then. It’s true the Roth perhaps doesn’t fit in well, and knowing Roth I imagine it’s quite a quick read too. Berlin Alexanderplatz, on the other hand, is perhaps the same length as Roth, but definitely not a quick read (a bit like Auto da Fe – and Jew Suss, which I’ve got a bit stuck on).

  11. It’s a fine book. I was a bit put off at first by the ultra-pedantic style, which seemed a bit like a British parodist’s conception of how an ultra-pedantic German would write. I don’t know whether this quality is increased in translation. No doubt in the original, the effect is one of fussy precision, but would that precision strike a German reader as particularly fussy? The narration often teeters on the edge of bathos, without ever quite going over. An always-almost-funny novel, very good indeed, but still more odd than it is good. I liked Orlamünde’s obsession with horses – vaguely Lawrentian, except that Lawrence would probably have made it risible, which in Weiss’s hands it isn’t.

    A backwards school being a kind of metaphor for a decaying Germanic aristocracy also features in the first part of Sybille Bedford’s excellent A Legacy.

    Interesting that at least some Doderer is available in translation. I read his entry in some beginner’s guide to German literature and thought, Right, there’s no way any of that’s been translated.

  12. Yes, that a fair summary of The Aristocrat. Good, but odd.

    I had a dream last night actually, in which I was in the house where my copies of Doderer’s books are, and I was looking for them but couldn’t find them. They’d built some more bookcases and filled them with other books, possibly just to confuse me, possibly just because that’s the kind of thing that people in dreams do. (There were much more interesting parts to the dream, and I was very annoyed and depressed when my alarm suddenly woke me up).

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