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the Complete Review
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The Aesthetics of Resistance

Peter Weiss

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To purchase The Aesthetics Of Resistance (I)

Title: The Aesthetics of Resistance
Author: Peter Weiss
Genre: Novel
Written: 1975-81 (Eng. 2005; 2020)
Length: 960 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Aesthetics of Resistance: volume one and two - US
The Aesthetics of Resistance: volume one and two - UK
The Aesthetics of Resistance: volume one and two - Canada
Die Ästhetik des Widerstands - Deutschland
L'esthétique de la résistance - France
La estética de la resistencia - España
  • German title: Die Ästhetik des Widerstands
  • Volume one translated by Joachim Neugroschel
  • Volume two translated by Joel Scott
  • The third volume has not yet been translated into English
  • Excerpts of the translation have been published in American literary magazines

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Our Assessment:

A+ : one of the towering works of the second half of the twentieth century

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum A 10-11/2005 Mark M. Anderson
Le Monde . 28/6/2017 Nicolas Weill
The Nation . 17/10/2005 Noah Isenberg
The NY Rev. of Books . 14/1/2021 Adam Kirsch
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Fall/2005 Robert Buckeye
TLS D 2/4/1976 George Steiner

  From the Reviews:
  • "Yes, The Aesthetics of Resistance is intimidating. But it is also exhiliratingly strange, compelling, and original. Readers who dare enter this demanding verbal landscape will not come away empty-handed." - Mark M Anderson, Bookforum

  • "Arguably one of the most demanding works of modern German literature, Weiss's tome has no linear narrative development, no clear beginning, middle or end, no chapter breaks, few paragraph breaks and no clear plot lines. (...) Like the work of Brecht and other old-guard leftist writers, Weiss's Aesthetics seems, on occasion, rather anachronistic. The questions it addresses -- what role, for instance, the artist should play in the class struggle -- are so deeply rooted in the time when Weiss wrote that his novel cries out not only for linguistic translation but also for a kind of historical and political translation; the latter, it turns out, is more difficult." - Noah Isenberg, The Nation

  • "The book is a search for the ideal named in its title: an art that equals the masterpieces of the past in complexity and power, while standing up against the unjust order that created those masterpieces. The Aesthetics of Resistance has been hailed by German critics as a modernist epic comparable in stature to Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time. For all their difficulty, however, those books are much more inviting than Weiss’s. Joyce and Proust offer the reader sharply individualized characters, complex human relationships, dramatic set-pieces, and beautiful prose; Weiss eschews all these things on principle. True to its title, which sounds more like an academic treatise than a work of fiction, The Aesthetics of Resistance proceeds by means of long passages of argument and analysis, mainly devoted to Marxist interpretations of works of art and literature and to detailed recapitulations of internal debates on the European left in the early twentieth century. (…) Yet for the right reader, The Aesthetics of Resistance offers unique rewards." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Review of Books

  • "The monuments of modernism today rise like Ozymandias’ statue in the sand: Ulysses, Proust, Beckett, Pound’s Cantos, The Making of Americans, The Waste Land. At last, we have an English translation of a work that stands alongside them." - Robert Buckeye, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "As his cumbersome title indicates, this is a tract about the aesthetics of radicalism, about the proper concordance (if there can be one) between the arts and the state of the common man. (...) What matters is the interminable prosiness, the humourless, self-inflating didacticism of Weiss' homily. With the exception of a few saving flashes -- the museum-visit with which the book opens, a few snapshots of the Berlin pavements as the Nazi hoodlums tide forward, an orange-fragrant nocturne in Spain -- this pedagogic memoir is a morass." - George Steiner, Times Literary Supplement


  • "The Aesthetics of Resistance, a novel of striking intellectual power that explores Weiss's "search for himself," combines the wishful thinking of a fictional biography of his life as it should have been with a history of how fascism was resisted in Spain, in the cities of exile, and most important, in the Berlin underground." - Peter Demetz, After the Fires (1986)

  • "Die drei Bände dieser Ästhetik des Widerstands haben alle Erinnerung an bürgerliche Romane abgestreift. Sie sind konzipiert als ein episches Wogen. Das strömt dahin Seite um Seite, absatzlos, wer sich damit einläßt, wird mitgezogen in den Strom der Gestalten und Gedanken, der Ängste und Abscheulichkeiten. Es gibt kein Nacheinander, nicht einmal ein Nebeneinander. (...) Kulturschöpfung und Kulturzerstörung im Hellenismus und Ruinengebilde in einer an Ruinen reichen Welt unseres Jahrhunderts." - Hans Mayer, In den Ruinen des Jahrhunderts (1997)

  • "Die Ästhetik des Widerstands represented the culmination of the career of an author who always stood on the fringes of the German literary scene (.....) Already unfashionable when the work appeared, the collapse of East European socialism has made it even more so. Nevertheless, its magnificent "epic" qualities, which link it to the great philosophical novels of the earlier part of the 20th century, surely mark it as a milestone in postwar German literature." - J.H.Reid, in Encyclopedia of German Literature (2000), p. 998

  • "His Ästhetik des Widerstands, that thousand-page work of fiction which he began when he was well over fifty, making a pilgrimage over the arid slopes of our cultural and contemporary history in the company of pavor nocturnus, the terror of the night, and laden with a monstrous weight of ideological ballast, 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, On the Natural History of Destruction (Eng. 2003), p. 190

Please note that these illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the pieces they are taken from as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual pieces by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The masterly three-part novel, Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, first published between 1975 and 1981, is one of the highpoints of twentieth century German literature, and still stands as the most significant German novel published after The Tin Drum (only Arno Schmidt's late, unwieldy works challenge it for that position). The first part has been translated (by Joachim Neugroschel), but there is currently no publisher for this book. (Excerpts of the translation have appeared in recent years.)
       A large and complex work, the focus of the novel is the time from the late thirties into World War II -- though there is no strict chronology in the novel, and there are many varied essayistic digressions. Weiss uses historical facts and a huge number of personages as the basis for his novel. The central characters, insofar as there are any, are the members of a small resistance group (called "Red Orchestra" by the Nazis). The group was active until late 1942 when most of the members were captured and executed (after being tortured), scenes that Weiss vividly captures.
       An unnamed narrator -- a Weiss-like figure -- tells the story. It is not, however, a simple narrative, beginning with its challenging opening section, a lengthy, precise, and evocative descriptive section on the Pergamon altar, a stunning relief piece taken from Greece and installed in a Berlin museum. Art is central to the novel, as Weiss returns again and again to the aesthetics of the title. Géricault's Raft of the Medusa is another piece discussed at length, opening the second volume. Angkor, Picasso's Guernica, socialist realist painting, and Goya -- to name only a few -- also find their place.
       Weiss -- himself a very talented painter -- masterfully accomplishes the difficult task of representing the visual arts in a literary work. Literature -- Dante's Divine Comedy, Kafka, among others -- are also strong presences.
       But Weiss places it all in a context of history. He presents detailed and impressive histories of proletariat organizations -- as well a history of Spain, of Sweden, and discussions of Greek mythology. And World War II and the resistance against fascism are naturally the spectres constantly hovering throughout the book. The mass of material sounds intimidating and overwhelming, but it is not. Weiss' goal here was to bridge a gap between high art and the common man, to illustrate that art can (and should) serve man in his political struggle.
       Weiss, a true socialist (though hardly of the Soviet persuasion), presents a political and aesthetic agenda that is anathematic to modern America. His lofty ambition, expertly conveyed, seems particularly distant in this time, only a few decades after he wrote the book. Nevertheless, The Aesthetics of Resistance proves that a book can be political and convince aesthetically. Weiss does more than that even: his novel is a superior piece of art, a fusion of subject, content, and presentation that succeeds on every level.
       Passive Americans (and their now hardly less passive European brethren) are unlikely to be able to do much with Weiss' exhortation to resistance and activity, but the book is so accomplished that even those that can do nothing with its underlying message should enjoy it. Of course, few people enjoy the true literary tour de force any longer, and Die Ästhetik des Widerstands is as forceful as fiction comes, but not to have read it is to have missed one of the great artistic visions of recent times.

       There is no doubt that this is one of the "books of the century", however one might want to define that. Readers should know that it is a complex work -- but that it is also immensely rewarding. Highly recommended.

       Please note that this review refers solely to the German edition of the novel.

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The Aesthetics Of Resistance: Reviews: Peter Weiss: Other works by Peter Weiss under Review Works about Peter Weiss under Review:
  • Werner Schmidt's biography, Peter Weiss: Leben eines kritischen Intellektuellen
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Peter Weiss (1916-82) was born in Germany. A remarkable artist, he was a talented painter who then turned to writing. Only slow to achieve recognition with his fiction he burst onto the international scene with the stunning success of his play, Marat/Sade. Winner of many West and East German literary prizes, he was also the author of Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, the most important German novel since The Tin Drum.

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© 1999-2021 the complete review

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