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the Complete Review
the complete review - letters


Peter Weiss

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Title: Briefe
Author: Peter Weiss
Genre: Letters
Written: 1938-1980
Length: 204 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Briefe is currently our of print
  • an Hermann Levin Goldschmidt und Robert Jungk 1938-1980
  • Edited and with an Introduction by Beat Mazenauer
  • With 16 illustrations
  • Includes:
    • Errinerungen an Peter Weiss, by Robert Jungk
    • Freundschaft mit Peter Weiss, by Hermann Levin Goldschmidt
  • First published 1992
  • Briefe has not been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : insightful letters, exemplary presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Peter Weiss first met Robert Jungk in Prague, in 1937, and then Jungk's close friend (and former classmate), Hermann Levin Goldschmidt, in Zurich, in the fall of 1938. They set out for a week together in the Swiss countryside that September (chronicled in Goldschmidt's diary, excerpted here), then went their separate ways -- Weiss remaining near Hermann Hesse, the others returning to Zurich. A close friendship developed -- despite a brief rupture between Jungk and Weiss early on over a girl. Goldschmidt even bought one of Weiss' early canvases (Weiss still focussed more on painting than writing at the time, though he pursued both), selling it back to him decades later.
       Briefe documents much of the friendship, though the picture is not complete and rather one-sided: the vast majority of the 83 letters are the ones Weiss sent Goldschmidt (the latter being the only who managed to save most of the letters). Most of them date from early on, 1938-1941, with only a few stray letters from later. Nevertheless, they are of considerable interest, in particular as they are revealing about that period of early exile for Weiss. The bulk of the letters cover the same time-frame as many of the most significant parts of the autobiographical novels, Leavetaking (see our review) and Vanishing Point (see our review).
       Political concerns are largely secondary, the war rarely and barely touched upon beyond how it affected the three as displaced persons. Weiss' focus is more on his very personal concerns, on his life, and his struggle to establish himself as an artist.
       He recounts working in a factory in Sweden -- learning the art of appearing to be occupied, but in fact doing very little. He saved enough money there to devote himself solely to painting, retreating to the country to do so, and then preparing for his first exhibition, in Stockholm in 1941. His art consumes Weiss, and he will do most anything for it. One of the highpoints for him during this time is when the paintings he had to leave behind in Prague finally arrive in Sweden, and he can live with them again, covering the walls of his room with them. He spends a great deal of money on his exhibition, and he emphasizes that he is willing to publish his books essentially for free: he merely wants to be an artist, published, seen, recognized.
       The often effusive letters offer interesting insights into Weiss' life, concerns, and art. The natural beauty of Sweden does little for him -- "Die schöne Natur kann mir merkwürdigerweise nichts bieten" -- while some of the urban vistas fascinate him: "Die trübe Vorstadt birgt die Landschaften, die mich bannen können" ("The drab city-outskirts holds those landscapes that can captivate me").
       Weiss is forthright, emotional, half cocky and half unsure in these letters. He is certain of his art, and yet plagued by doubts. He looks for security and yet also revels in freedoms:

Doch TREIBEN, SICH-VERFLÜCHTIGEN, SICH AUFLÖSEN, VERGEHEN, DAHINFLUTEN: das, Hermann, sind Dinge auf die ich nicht verzichten kann, denn dies, scheint mir, sind die beherrschenden Elemente im Leben.

(But DRIFTING, LOSING ONESELF, DISSOLVING, PERISHING, FLOODING ALONG: those, Hermann, are things which I can't forgo, because these, it seems to me, are the dominating elements in life.)
       Weiss also writes openly about his love affairs: "meine ewige Verliebtheiten, ohne die ich garnicht auskomme" ("my eternal infatuations, without which I can't get by"). He also misses the company of his friends -- and often complains that they don't write enough to him.
       Presciently Weiss asks that his letters be kept. In one from June, 1939 he writes:
Hebe diese Blätter bitte auf, Bob. Später möchte ich sie gerne wieder sehen. Sie sind die einzigen Dokument[e] aus dieser Zeit und einen Tagebuch ähnlich. Ich schreibe sonst nichts.

(Please save these pages, Bob. Later I would like to see them again. They are the only documents from this time and similar to a diary. I am not writing anything else.)
       In another letter Weiss makes a similar request, addressed to Goldschmidt -- and then, in one from 1978, he thanks Goldschmidt for the copies of these letters which he had then just received.
       There are far fewer letters from the later years -- a few from here and there. There are some interesting titbits (including the haggling over Weiss buying back the picture he had sold to Goldschmidt decades earlier), but not much of note.
       The brief reminiscences by Jungk and Goldschmidt nicely round out the collection.
       The collection is useful for anyone interested in Weiss' life, and especially in shedding additional light on the autobiographical novels. It is, however, unlikely to be of great interest for those not familiar with Weiss.

       Particular note must be made of the exemplary presentation of this volume. The detailed notes (going so far as to physically describe each letter) are especially helpful. The presentation -- with a useful introduction, illustrations, notes, and reminiscences -- is thorough without being dryly scholarly. Too bad the volume (published as a nice little Reclam-Bibliothek paperback in 1992) is out of print and practically unobtainable.

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Robert Jungk: 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:
    • See also the Index of Drama at the complete review
    • See also the Index of German literature at the complete 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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