The Weight of Things (2015), translated by Adrian Nathan West (Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse, 1978) is this odd thing: something in-between a horror story, a domestic satire and an allegory of the insanity of war – a tale where the only character who does not lack in accountability and personal responsability is the mentally disturbed one.
Set in Austria, the story begins in 1945 and jumps back and forth in time, until 1963. Our protagonist, Berta, had been seduced by a German music teacher named Rudolph on one of his leaves from the front. She gets pregnant, but he dies in a battlefield. Shortly after the war, Wilhelm Schrei, Rudolph’s best friend, returns from the war to marry Berta, keeping a promise he had made to his friend.
“Of all of the events of 1945”, the one Wilhelmine, Berta’s (false) friend, “recalled with particularly painful clarity” was not the war nor the defeat of Nazi Germany, but Berta and Wilhelm’s romantic entanglement. From the beginning, we sense a strong undercurrent of suspicion and resentment between those three characters.
The story then skips ahead to 1963, when we learn that Wilhelm and Wilhelmine are (unhappily) married and plan to visit Berta in the mental hospital to which she has been committed. From this point on, the novel leaps back and forth between 1945 and 1963, assuming an increasingly nightmarish quality, as the weight of things slowly builds up and seeps through each and every relationship. Gradually, we assemble together the pieces of Berta’s personal breakdown.
We learn that Berta had always been absent-minded, “always with her mind somewhere else”. After Rudolph’s death and her marriage to Wilhelm, she turns more and more inward and gets caught up in her own obsessions, as if her mind were a cage. “Inwardness. Inwardness is what eludes me,” she thinks.
At the time of her marriage to Wilhelm, she had two children, Rudolph and Little Berta. She was frequently left alone to take care of the kids, since Wilhelm’s job as a professional chauffeur required him to be in long journeys away from home. To make matters worse, our protagonist is frequently bullied by her own children, who imitate Wilhelmine’s daily acts of mental harassment against Berta.
Much like a soldier who returns home forever changed and psychologically fractured, Berta never really recovered from her grief and war trauma. Her relationship to Wilhelm feels like a facade, and she is doomed to fail to return to normal domesticity: her bleak marriage, punctuated by loneliness, daily humiliations and rancour, will gradually lead her to a mental breakdown.
When her children’s classmates and teachers report them as “idiots”, “just like their mother”, and “not right in the head”, Berta is crushed by a strong sense of doom – “the weight of things”, a vague terror that haunts her, an evil she feels she must (and cannot) protect her children from. “Somehow we just do everything wrong. Somehow we just don’t fit.” She can only shelter her children from “the weight of things” by completely surrendering herself to it. Rather than continue to conceal her wound, Berta digs deep into it. Her life assumes an uncanny quality, descending into despair like a dark fairy-tale. Your Berta echoes not only the more obvious Mad Woman in the Attic in Jane Eyre, but also Euripides’ Medea and Perkins Gilman’s narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper.
The fragmented narrative, leaping back and forth, mimics the protagonist’s own disoriented mind. The narration in third person is never reliable, and repeats itself over and over, making use of refrains that give us a sense of entrapment. Berta slowly stops talking altogether, and her sole response to dialogue is “So, so.” When alone, she repeatedly murmurs the same sentence to herself: “A man, a word, and then you’re lost.”
The events assume an absurd, surreal quality, as her mind descends into madness. Reality is mixed together with a series of disturbing dreams. In one of them, Berta’s corpse is delivered to her door while her husband is away. When her children see it, they are overcome by laughter. As a corpse, Berta is unable to take care of her children, and they start to behave like animals. When her husband finally returns home, he seals the apartment door, like a coffin. At first, it didn’t occur to the children that they had been buried alive. “With time, though, the madness of hunger began to ravage the children’s brains; they began to circle the corpse; the madness of hunger tore their jaws open wide. For long days their hunger encouraged them, before they finally wedged their spindly fingers into their mother’s rotting flesh and gnawed down to her bones.”
In another dream, Berta’s son is crucified and bullied by a chorus of headless figures carrying helmets:
“You can’t catch a ball.”
“You can’t play an instrument.”
“You can’t even sing.”
“You always fall down.”
“Your nose bleeds.”
“You have two left hands.”
“You can’t do your sums.”
“You can’t even remember the Ten Commandments.”
“You can’t write on your own.”
“You can’t even copy things down (…)”
“You are good for nothing.”
The horror inside Berta’s mind is also mingled with the horror of war. In one scene, Wilhelm seems to reminisce over the moment his friend Rudolf died in the battlefield. Wilhelm crawls after his friend’s blown-up, trunkless head, and kisses it. “(…) He kissed the eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks, and forehead over and over, he daubed himself with Rudolf’s blood, longing to reattach the severed head to its torso, to breath life back into his friend amid the torrent of bullets and grenades.” Memory and nightmare resemble and complete each other.
As we meet Berta later, in the asylum, the wound of life has flared up in her eyes, and “the inwardness she had struggled for (…) now suffused her face”, like a contorted flower, blooming from inside out; like a plant, growing towards the heavy weight of things, as if in search of a sun forever covered behind the thick, opaque glass of tightly closed windows.
“Was the longing still there and the burning silence?” ― Marianne Fritz,
“We know this, don’t we, my dear Berta? We know this. Life is hope and hope is a wound.” ― Marianne Fritz,
“Berta’s doubting and brooding compulsion seemed to be swept away, and she thought to herself: ‘I am a blank slate'” ― Marianne Fritz,
“Berta was afraid of late autumn, which she used to call the leafless season, and felt relieved, in a certain way heartened, when the first snowfall came, bringing with it the perennial hope that the bare branches, writhing strangely heavenward, would soon be covered by a blanket of ice.” ― Marianne Fritz,
“Little Berta stuck her tongue out at her mother, and the hate from her eyes collided with Berta’s despair. Little Berta threw the kitchen door open and slammed it closed over and over. And Berta winced each time, as though someone were lashing her with a whip.” ― Marianne Fritz,
“The inwardness she had struggled for, tirelessly and to no purpose, now suffused her face, and it would never leave her thereafter.” ― Marianne Fritz,
About the book
- Dorothy, 2015, tr. Adrian Nathan West, 144 p. Goodreads
- Verso Books, 2017, tr. Adrian Nathan West, 144 p.
- Original title: Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse
- Publication date: 1978
- The book won tge Robert Walser Prize (1978)
- My rating: 4 stars
- I read this book for German Literature Month VII