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the Complete Review
the complete review - biographical

Peter Weiss

Werner Schmidt

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To purchase Peter Weiss

Title: Peter Weiss
Author: Werner Schmidt
Genre: Biography
Written: 2016
Length: 441 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Peter Weiss - Deutschland
  • Leben eines kritischen Intellektuellen
  • Peter Weiss has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : limited, but useful as far as what is covered and discussed

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Peter Weiss (1916-1982) is perhaps best remembered for his Marat/Sade, but he also wrote several other important plays, was a film-maker and painter, and wrote a variety of works of fiction, including the monumental The Aesthetics of Resistance. Weiss was a major artist, and a great writer, but the subtitle Werner Schmidt chooses for his biography -- Leben eines kritischen Intellektuellen -- makes clear how Schmidt wants to frame Weiss. The sub-title doesn't quite translate as 'Life of a critical intellectual', the connotations of kritischen not quite the same in English -- 'critical' has too much (more) of 'essential' to it, for example -- but Schmidt's focus is very much on Weiss' role as public intellectual, and the connections in this respect to his art, specifically his writing from 1964 onwards, Schmidt emphasizing that Weiss was unable and unwilling to separate his roles as writer and as (public) intellectual, and showing how this was reflected in both his (public) life and art..
       Schmidt acknowledges in his Introduction that his specific focus leads to him disregard 'certain aspects or phases of [Weiss'] life, or some personal dimensions'; in particular, he mentions or discusses only that limited part of Weiss' personal life that he deems significant in terms of the 'Erkenntnisinteresse' regarding Weiss -- material supporting (t)his particular picture of Weiss-as-author/man/intellectual.
       So it is perhaps worth noting what this biography isn't, and what it doesn't offer -- which is, in fact, what many might expect from a 'biography'. There's very little mention or discussion of Weiss' early and family life: so, for example, one brother, Alexander (1924-1987), who also became a writer (and whose work is a fascinating contrast to Weiss' own). gets only a single mention in a footnote, while sister Margit Beatrice, whose tragic 1934 death was a major early trauma for Weiss, barely gets any more attention. A four-year marriage in the 1940s to Helga Henschen also only gets the briefest of mentions, while an affair Weiss apparently had with the wife of the publisher of Der Spiegel is only mentioned in a footnote, in connection with his considering, in late 1971, settling down in Berlin. There's also almost no discussion of any of his works from before Leavetaking and Vanishing Point in the early 1960s; Schmidt correctly sees the latter two as Weiss' final 'psychodramatische Aufarbeitung seiner eigenen Biografie' ('psycho-dramatic processing of his own biography'), but shows almost no interest in rehashing very much of that (or, for example, Weiss' struggles between his two languages, German and Swedish). In fact, Schmidt more or less jumps ahead to the full-formed artist -- or at least the more or less final version thereof (as Weiss underwent many changes, personally and artistically, in his youth and the decades leading up to his first real breakthrough, in 1960).
       So readers looking for a more traditional, personal- and background-information-filled biography might be better served turning to Jens-Fietje Dwars' Und dennoch Hoffnung (2007), or even Jochen Vogt's 1987 monograph, Peter Weiss. (And, as Schmidt does suggest, Weiss' own journals -- including the fat volumes of Notizbücher, Rekonvaleszenz, or the recently published Das Kopenhager Journal (2007), as well as numerous volumes of correspondence that have appeared since Weiss' death do make accessible much personal (albeit also subjective) detail.)
       Schmidt's tighter approach and focus make for a different kind of life-study, the subject in many ways a mature artist -- having 'found himself', in a manner of speaking, after early struggles focused much more on defining, in far more fundamental ways, self and (artistic) possibilities -- yet one who was also still evolving.
       The 1960 publication of The Shadow of the Body of the Coachman marks a significant turning point, official validation that also brought with it certain responsibilities. Thereafter, Schmidt suggests, Weiss was, for better and worse, no longer a 'free' author -- and:

Als Verlagsautor wurde er Teil einer Verkaufsstrategie mit bestimmten Verpflichtungen. Von ihm wurde erwartet, sich für die Vermarktung seiner Produkte einzusetzen und ständig neue Produkte zu liefern. Dieser Produktionsdruck blockierte ihn.

[As an author tied to a publisher he became part of a sales-strategy, with certain obligations. He was expected to be actively involved in the marketing of his products, and to constantly deliver new ones. This pressure to produce adversely affected his ability to work.]
       A 'Suhrkamp'-author for the rest of his career, Weiss both benefitted from the relationship -- and that with publisher Siegfried Unseld -- but was also disappointed at times by a lack of the kind of support he needed. (Much of this is beyond Schmidt's ambit, but for a detailed, fascinating study of the author-publisher relationship, see Rainer Gerlach's Die Bedeutung des Suhrkamp Verlags für das Werk von Peter Weiss (2005).)
       The one-two punch of Marat/Sade (1964) and The Investigation (1965) propelled Weiss to the front ranks of dramatists, and the latter, especially, premiering simultaneously on sixteen stages, in both West and East Germany, was a milestone. As Schmidt notes, roughly a thousand (!) articles appeared in the press about the piece and Weiss around the time of the premiere of The Investigation, with Weiss successfully forcing the issue of Auschwitz to the fore, and successfully pushing a public engagement with the subject-matter -- a public role for art that Schmidt sees as one of Weiss' main ambitions.
       Weiss' next plays -- Song of the Lusitanian Bogey and Discourse on Vietnam -- were of even greater (and more threatening) immediacy. The anti-colonial Song of the Lusitanian Bogey faced a different sort of opposition than his Auschwitz-play had, but Schmidt notes it was particularly successful in the developing world, 'producing a cathartic effect in countries with a colonial past'. (Interesting aside: the French translations of several of these plays were by Jean Baudrillard.)
       Weiss' relationship with the literary establishment was complex and uneasy, most obviously so regarding the prominent 'Gruppe 47' literary group. Schmidt quotes him as immediately frustrated with the petty infighting, jealousies, and power struggles of the group. An odd man out, Weiss' political engagement, in particular, would rankle some of the Gruppe 47 -- and come to a head at the infamous 1966 Princeton meeting, as the majority steered clear of the local student protests or any statements regarding the war in Viet Nam, while Weiss was eager to show his solidarity and play a more active role.
       This fundamental commitment to active engagement repeatedly set Weiss apart from his writing-colleagues, a professional isolation that was also exacerbated by his unique situation (living in Sweden, writing in German) and political stance. A rare author published and staged in both West and East Germany, Weiss' refusal to compromise principles for the sake of political expediency caused rifts that, for a significant period, limited his role in the Soviet-dominated nations. His positions on Wolf Biermann and the Soviet (mis)handling of Solzhenitsyn were obviously problematic, but it was the play Trotsky in Exile that, as Schmidt puts it, transformed Weiss: "von einer Persona gratissima in der DDR und dem übrigen Ostblock zur Persona non grata" ('from a favored son in the German Democratic Republic and the rest of the Eastern Bloc to a persona non grata').
       Weiss noted the irony of his situation in the 1970s:
In der DDR, »der Gesellschaft, die ich ideologisch verteidige, wird Zensur über meine Arbeit ausgeübt«, während sie in der BRD, »der Gesellschaft, die ich ideologisch bekämpfe«, gefördert wird.

[In the GDR, "the society that I defend ideologically, my work is subjected to censorship", while in the Federal Republic, "the society that I am battling, ideologically," it is supported.]
       Schmidt understands The Aesthetics of Resistance as Weiss' culminating work -- and as:
eine facettenreiche Suche nach einer Wahrheit, in der auch er ganz enthalten sein konnte und gleichzeitig eine Suche nach dem Ich in dieser Wahrheit.

[a multifaceted quest for a truth, in which he could both be entirely contained and simultaneously a quest for the 'me' in this truth.]
       Schmidt usefully also considers the reception of the novel -- a work whose three volumes were published in 1975, 1978, and 1981 -- noting that the harsh criticism of the first volume when it appeared (recall also George Steiner's (unmentioned) devastating review in the Times Literary Supplement (2 April, 1976)) was, in a sense, unjust -- and certainly premature, as:
Da es sich bei der Ästhetik des Widerstands um eine Entwicklungsgeschichte handelt, können die einzelnen Bände erst adäquat verstanden werden, wenn das Gesamtwerk vorliegt, denn jeder Teil erhält im Nachhinein, durch das Gesamte, seine spezifische Bedeutung.

[Since The Aesthetics of Resistance is a development-story, the separate volumes can only be adequately understood when the complete work is accessible, because each part achieves its specific meaning only in relation to the whole.]
       Schmidt quotes the great Hans Mayer, who acknowledged -- when the work was complete -- that: "Literaturkritik im Alltagssinne muss davor versagen" ('literary criticism, in the conventional sense, is inadequate to deal with it'). And certainly the warning that the work must be seen as a whole is a helpful reminder to English-speaking audiences, limited as they still are to the first volume of the three-book work.
       Schmidt effectively presents Peter Weiss as (politically) engaged artist between the early 1960s and his death in 1982, and his public positions and the consequences, personally and artistically, of his actions. However, the choice to leave out so much of the personal -- while still focusing so closely on Weiss himself (i.e. not considering much in terms of the greater context, or the other figures involved) -- can make it feel like there are (significant) pieces missing. More significantly, the limited consideration of how Weiss came to that point, and what he underwent until his first real success, when already in his early forties, leaves the work feeling like an incomplete biography.
       Schmidt makes clear his concept of biography as undertaken with hindsight, and the choice of focusing on the person Weiss became, the role he played, and the art he produced during his mature years has some validity -- yet surely part of the fascination of Weiss-as-artist is what came before, as well. Arguably, some of the autobiographically-colored writings, such as Leavetaking and Vanishing Point, as well as general familiarity with the story of Weiss' early years might be an adequate substitute -- but even Schmidt feels compelled to point out that, for example: 'The conclusion of Vanishing Point is fiction' (as Weiss has his alter-ego find himself optimistic in Paris -- a city Weiss would only get to for the first time years later), i.e. it's only limitedly reliable (and hence, presumably, limitedly revealing).
       So Peter Weiss isn't quite a full-fledged biography of Peter Weiss, much less a definitive one, and certainly not a complete life-story. It is nonetheless a useful and often insightful companion volume to Weiss and his (later) work.
       Limited -- intentionally so -- but certainly of value within those limits.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 October 2016

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Peter Weiss: Peter Weiss: Other works by Peter Weiss under Review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Biographical works under review
  • See also the Index of German literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Werner Schmidt teaches at Södertörn University. He was born in 1944.

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© 2016 the complete review

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