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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Die Feuerprobe

Ernst Weiß

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To purchase Die Feuerprobe

Title: Die Feuerprobe
Author: Ernst Weiss
Genre: Novel
Written: 1923 (2nd rev. ed. 1929)
Length: 158 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Die Feuerprobe - Deutschland
L'Epreuve du feu - France
  • Die Feuerprobe was first published in 1923; a second, revised and expanded edition was published in 1929
  • Die Feuerprobe has not been translated into English
  • The 1982 Suhrkamp edition (based on the 1929 edition) includes an Afterword by Peter Engel and a Chronology

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Our Assessment:

B+ : searing, soul-searching expressionistic work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Berliner Börsen-Courier . 9/12/1923 Oskar Loerke
Berliner Börsen-Courier . 7/7/1929 Hans Sahl
Deutsche Zeitung Bohemia . 8/12/1929 Ludwig Winder
Der Querschnitt . (9) 1929 Franz Blei


  • "I've had it around for weeks, have read it one and a half times; it is splendid and even more difficult than anything else of his, although it wants to be very personal and then again by twists and turns tries to avoid the personal." - Franz Kafka, in a letter to Max Brod, January, 1924

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ernst Weiss' short novel, Die Feuerprobe ("The Trial by Fire"), is an emotional, expressionistic work. Set in Berlin in 1928, it is only lightly shaded by the misery of everyday life and continued political unrest. Instead, it is a deeply personal novel, author and narrator obsessed almost entirely with self. It is apparently based on Weiss' own extremely unhappy love, and he himself calls it a confession. It can certainly be read as that: a wild, unsettling confession, written from the depths of despair.
       The novel begins: "Dies ist Wirklichkeit, kein Traum." ("This is reality, not a dream.") But it begins in a dreamy state, set in the earliest morning hours, narrated by a man who wakes in the middle of Berlin and claims to have no memory -- who claims not even to know his own name. A nightmarish vision unfolds. The narrator can't escape it, even by forgetting it.
       He says: "Die Welt ist groß. Übergroß für mich." ("The world is large. Overlarge for me.") He sees only uncertainty -- and himself as a personification thereof: "Alles ist Zweifel, und Zweifel bin ich." ("Everything is doubt and doubt is me.") He has lost his place and his hold:

Man hat sicherlich bemerkt, daß ich in Tatsachen ersticke. Aber nirgends ein Wort, das man versteht, nirgends ein Name, der etwas bedeutet. An keinem Ort ist ein Halt, überall nur das irrende, verlorene Ich.

(One has surely noticed that I am suffocating in events. But nowhere a word that one understands, nowhere a name that means something. No place is there a hold, everywhere only the aimlessly wandering, lost me.)
       He recounts his story -- his unfolding waking dream. He writes it down, but even that act carries burdens and reminders:
Mein Blatt hier hat die Farbe von ausgeblaßtem Blut. Mein Bleistift ist geschliffen wie ein Stilett

(My paper has the colour of paled blood. My pencil is sharpened like a stiletto)
       Slowly memory returns -- or vision appears. Central is a lost child, and a murder. Is the homeless infant his ? Was it his wife ? killed by his hand ?
       Soon it isn't the absence of memory that weighs on him, but experience: "Ich habe zuviel gesehen." (I have seen too much.") His own story overwhelms him: "Aber ich schweige. Ich befehle es mir, Schweigen !" ("But I am silent. I command myself: silence !") But the story won't stop.
       It comes down to a love story, eventually. He is married, but it is an unhappy marriage -- a tortured and terribly complicated relationship. "Liebe ist nie rein", he says. It translates both as "Love is never pure", as well as: "Love is never clean." Their love has been sullied, torn, dirtied.
       There is a child -- the child he sees as lost in his vision. And worse is to come. The test of fire.
       Early on there is a different test of fire. He recalls it, as he recalls and recounts more and more of his past. He works in a firm working with asbestos (the fantastically fire-proof substance) and years ago he made a discovery that was the basis of his success and wealth. He tested it again and again, subjecting it to the test of fire, always with success. Finally he invited his wife, who doubts his success and abilities, for a demonstration. And there the test fails. After she leaves he tries again and succeeds. His wife makes any personal success impossible.
       The deeds he sees himself capable of -- murder and a horrific second test of fire -- grow, like flames licking at his memory.
       He remembers his mentally infirm brother: beloved but helpless, hopeless. Dangerous. He remembers his family. And he remembers the terrible times with his wife and wonders what it led him to do.
       The flaming vision is his test. There is no passing, no failing, only, always, enduring. He does, just.

       Weiss' work is a distinctly expressionistic one: of that time. Many of the images and ideas are striking. It is self-obsessed -- unnaturally and unhealthily so. Weiss, a medical student in turn-of the-century Freudian Vienna, a doctor under Julius Schnitzler (brother of Arthur), a friend of Franz Kafka, took soul-searching to its darkest depths. He is remarkably open (it would be unfair to say 'candid'), searching, and piercing.
       Die Feuerprobe is a vivid work. It has the failings of most expressionistic work, but Weiss also know how to tell a story and there is a vivid story here as well, soul-searching side by side with murder, arson, innocence. Both how he allows the tale to unfold and the telling itself is impressive. It is more than a historic curiosity. Worthwhile.

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Ernst Weiß: Other books by Ernst Weiss under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Ernst Weiß (28.8.1882 - 15.6.1940) was also a doctor. A friend of Kafka, Stefan Zweig, and others, he wrote numerous acclaimed novels. He committed suicide in his Parisian exile on the day the German troops marched in.

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