Tag: The Weight of Things

Reflections: fiction and manipulation

MountainsEchoedI recently read Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed for my book group. It’s the kind of realism that is not generally to my taste, but I found it okay for the most part. That was until the point where two characters were about to be reunited, when I had a distinct sense of being made to care about these characters – and I did not like that sense at all. “Unpleasantly manipulative book,” I thought.

But this reaction raises some questions for me. Couldn’t it be argued that all fiction is ‘manipulative’, in that fiction manipulates language, and language affects the reader? Well, maybe, but that makes it sound as though fiction is just a trick, and I don’t believe that – I have been affected deeply, viscerally by some fiction; it would be denying the reality of those experiences to treat them as products of trickery. If I’m going to conclude that, however, perhaps I need a more nuanced picture of what was happening when I read Hosseini.


It might be useful to compare my experience of reading And the Mountains Echoed with that of reading The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz. Now, there was a book I found harrowing, an effect created at least in part by the way the novel withheld information and rearranged its chronology. Is Fritz’s approach really so different from Hosseini’s? If not, why did one book induce the feeling of being manipulated when the other did not?

The answer, I think, lies in the language and style that the authors use. In The Weight of Things, the style, structure and shape become part of what the book is about – they mean something in their own right. So, for example, the deceptive lightness of tone can be seen to reflect the way that the characters do not or cannot acknowledge the existential weight bearing down from the events of their history. As a result, Fritz’s novel could not be written another way, because then it would mean something different.

To my mind, Hosseini’s book isn’t like this. It’s written what feels like a default literary style: effective and efficient in its way, but familiar from so many other books – and, crucially, not implicated in the novel’s project. It would be possible to change the words and style of And the Mountains Echoed without really changing its meaning. For me, this makes the language a kind of veneer over the novel, and that’s where the sense of being manipulated arises.

In contrast, The Weight of Things acknowledges that its language is the novel, so it brings me as reader closer to the text – and my response to it seems to emerge spontaneously from the reading. This is one reason why fiction that doesn’t take its language and shape for granted is the fiction that makes me feel most alive.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

Book details (Foyles affiliate/publisher links)

And the Mountains Echoed (2013) by Khaled Hosseini, Bloomsbury paperback

The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz, tr. Adrian Nathan West (2015), Dorothy, a publishing project paperback

Tip of the iceberg: The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz

WeightofThingsThe Weight of Things is a little book (140 pages including afterword; small, square format), but it’s the tip of what sounds an extraordinary iceberg of writing. Translator Adrian Nathan West provides illuminating background on Marianne Fritz (in his afterword, at The Paris Review, and in conversation with Kate Zambreno at The Believer). During her lifetime (1948-2007), Fritz produced some 10,000 pages of an unfinished project that she called ‘The Fortress’ – in West’s words, “a vast fictional work analyzing what aspects of Austrian society had conduced it to the twin disasters of the First and Second World War.” Over time, Fritz’s work drifted further and further from convention, as though language itself had been complicit in the atrocities of the 20th century, and she needed a different mode of expression. She went from deliberate misspellings and unusual grammar, through to elaborate diagrams and arrangements of text on the page (just take a look).

This first novel of Fritz’s (originally published in German in 1978, now in English from Dorothy, a publishing project) is in fairly straightforward language, though the shadow of that iceberg is never far away. In the first few pages, we have established some basics: in 1945, Berta Faust’s husband Rudolf did not return from the War; his comrade Wilhelm Schrei came back in his stead, and married Berta. By 1960, Wilhelm has married Berta’s friend Wilhemine; and Berta is in an asylum (‘the fortress’). In 1963, Wilhelmine suggests paying Berta a visit for her fortieth birthday (which just happens to coincide with Wilhelmine’s and Wilhelm’s wedding anniversary); but we sense that Wilhelmine isn’t doing this just to be friendly…

The stage is set for a blackly comic farce, and there are indeed moments of wry humour. Here, for example, is Wilhelmine talking to Wilhelm when he first brings the news of Rudolf:

What’s your story, sir? Are you planning on staying in Donaublau, then? Nowadays all the cities look more or less the same. A heap of rubble is a heap of rubble no matter where you go. Nowadays everyone has to start from scratch.

But this lightness of tone is deceptive. Even the title isn’t as innocuous as it first seems in context at first, not when you start thinking through what it means: “In February of 1945, Berta experienced a moment of freedom from the weight of things, in particular from that weighty circumstance historians call the Second World War.” Berta carries an existential burden with which she struggles to cope, just as the four little words of the novel’s title can’t hold all their meaning in. Wilhelm is too equivocal and reticent to be of much help: “He believed all and nothing, doubted all and nothing, was a born dreamer who never dreamed. In a nutshell: he was a worthy representative of his nation.” In that last comment, Fritz seems to suggest that here is a seed of war in microcosm.

The Weight of Things moves restlessly backwards and forwards in time, which enables the narrative feints that I won’t go into here… More fundamentally, though, it disrupts the reader’s feeling of progression: a period of history flattens out into timelessness, a sense that these circumstances cannot be escaped. When I’d finished The Weight of Things, my immediate feeling was one of waking from a beautiful nightmare – but it’s a nightmare that demands to be revisited.

Now read on…

I read The Weight of Things as it’s the first choice for the new Reading the World Book Club organised by the University of Rochester’s Three Percent blog. The Book Club has its own tag onNew for ‘ Three Percent, and Lizzy Siddal from Lizzy’s Literary Life has also been taking part.

Book details (publisher link)

The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz, tr. Adrian Nathan West (2015), Dorothy, a publishing project paperback

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