Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Feverhead

by Wolfgang Bauer

translated by Malcolm Green

And the microscopic school girls. And the three-eyed sailor inhabiting two bodies 3.5 metres apart. And ULF itself - a fleshy head sprouting from the Brazilian earth as well as a huge, bleached skull somewhere in that same jungle. Not to mention hermaphrodites, transvestite nuns, international coalitions of detectives and a woman whose dress constantly changes its color.

‘The Feverhead,’ by Austrian Wolfgang Bauer, is the sort of book difficult to imagine doing anything other than slipping into obscurity. Which is by no means a knock at this delightfully irreverent novel, written in 1966. I deeply enjoyed ‘the Feverhead.’ The history of 20th century literature is littered with similarly exciting little mysteries, all relegated to the nooks of anonymity. The book itself is a fresh, playful jaunt through bourgeois mores and poetic pretension. Bauer skewers both mysticism and rationalism with equal aplomb. It is incredibly fun and breezy. But it’s hard to foresee ‘the Feverhead’ breaking through to a larger audience. Which is, perhaps, fine - but why is that so?

It is exciting, for instance, to read a novel so engaged in stretching, or at the very least confounding, the medium’s expectations. Wolfgang Bauer’s ‘the Feverhead’ fits nicely alongside other curiosities such as Robert Kelly’s ‘the Scorpions,’ Roland Topor’s ‘the Tenant’ and Rene Daumal’s ‘Mount Analogue.’ All four writers are not usually thought of as novelists. Most of them only completed a handful of novels. Bauer himself was a playwright and ‘the Feverhead’ is his sole novel. Kelly and Daumal are known primarily as poets. Robert Kelly’s contributions to poetry are significant; he can be largely credited with bringing Deep Image to American poetics, but his latest novel, 2009’s ‘The Book from the Sky’ met with little to no press. Daumal is considered, when considered at all, more as a dissident footnote to Breton’s battalion of surrealism than anything else. And Topor tried his hand at everything from illustration and animation to film acting. But what remains truly engaging about these four writer’s novels (and the work of many like-minded others, such as American-born Oulipo Harry Mathews) is that they attack the medium slantwise. One does not feel the lugubrious weight of the Novel bearing down on them. Their novels are a nexus of deliberate thought and overheated whim. The absurdity of Bauer doesn’t so much remind me of novelists such as Pynchon or Coover as much as playwrights such as Slawomir Mrozek and Richard Foreman. It is just such a suppositional freedom that similarly draws me to science fiction.

‘The Feverhead’ bursts with phantasmagoric images of malapropism. We meet one man who “…is 2.3 metres tall. But the largest part of his body is his cranium, which makes up about a third of his body… [and has] roughly 10 cm wide sparkling eyes.” A few pages later we are introduced to Olga the living train car, who “…was as white as snow. Nor was it made of metal, old chum! but of flesh and blood! There were veins pulsing away inside, the chimney stack was covered in a down of hair – and instead of headlights it had four large eyes!” Still, despite Bauer’s evident strong turn with startling imagery, ‘the Feverhead’ ultimately reveals itself not as a novel of fantastic images, but as primarily a book concerned with being a book. Which is distinct from the previously mentioned hubris concerning the Novel, which is not only localized in medium, but also a particular tradition.

We follow the ongoing correspondence between Frank and Heinz, two hapless Austrians obsessed, among other things, with a missing daughter named Karin, the feckless murderer Ottomar Fohne, and thermometers. Frank and Heinz’s letters to each other form the bulk of the novel, aside from two final, short letters, written by Wolfgang Bauer and Ulf Halda respectively. But Bauer quickly destabilizes the conceit of correspondence, one as old as the novel itself. Perhaps a better word would be mocked? This is an epistolary comedy gleefully dismantling any vestigial veracity within the tradition of correspondence. Letter writing falls apart, the intrusion of privacy and the serendipity of coincidence intervene. Frank writes Heinz, “It seems my letter has crossed with yours,” while Heinz tells Franks “Unfortunately your letter crossed with mine.” At first we see these mundane collisions - “Now even our telegrams have started to cross, so I tried phoning you at midnight, but unfortunately your number was continually engaged.” The very means of communication crumble. The technology of it all can, and does, break down. Eventually, these small absurdities escalate into the esoteric.

Language falls apart in a tossed word salad. Language displaces location. Heinz’s daughter, Karin, stays at “Ottokar’s Famed Ski Lodge, Under the Smoked Bun, Post Gerlitzen, near Breitfuss,” while Frank tells us that his son Alex had spent a winter at “Ottomar Fohne’s Skee Lodge, Under the Smote Bun, Post Merlitzen, near Seitfuss.” Alex “…assumes that the words and some of the initial letters have changed slightly over the last 20 years ‘as a result of the so-called workings of the language,’ and that here we are dealing with the self-same hut.” The confusion, that is, the inadequacy of language, both shuffles identity – as Ottomar becomes Ottokar, but also place and geography – Seitfuss becomes Breitfuss. Language serves as the barometer of reality, but is itself suspect. No wonder Frank and Heinz are so obsessed with thermometers – with means of measurement!

Frank and Heinz both embark on absurdist journeys. I would like to focus on Frank’s in particular. He makes his way to Paris where he encounters at least one Ulf (there are many) and is astonished by the locals; as he exclaims, “By the way, another negro is walking past at the moment!” This excursion to Paris is one of the most telling in the novel in terms of Bauer’s pliable language. Frank signs his name “Francois” and strews tired French jargon throughout his letters written in Paris. He writes, “ Please excuse any words of French extraction in this letter, but you know how it is: la France, Oh lala! C’est la vie! Je t’aime, etc! etc!” Frank tells Heinz he has “…walked past the Louvre four times now, once every hour. Incidentally, the Louvre is supposed to contain the greatest art treasures in the world (e.g. the Mona Lisa etc.). Quite fantastic!” And later still, “… I saw a negro walking along the street. Apart from which, nothing too stupendous has happened.” Frank’s letter is clogged with references to wearisome French clichés. He “…at that moment… saw the peak of the Eiffel Tower shimmering in the distance,” and is “…dropped off by Roger Halda-Vohne on the banks of the Seine late that night. Not far from Notre Dame. Schuller and I walked for a while through the night lights of Paris.” What is Bauer doing here? Aside from playfully highlighting the inanity of his protagonists, Bauer skewers much of the continental French pretension so prevalent in western literature. Why does he do so?

Bauer, we must remember, is an Austrian writer. The West has traditionally cast a wide blind eye to the arts of Eastern Europe, either through a history of political dissolution or Communism’s specter of the Eastern Bloc. When work from this region of the world does find its way to wider audiences, such as the films of Bela Tarr or the novels of Witold Gombrowicz, there is often a somewhat cultish air of amusement. But here, in Bauer’s novel, the myth of ‘France’ is deflated and reduced to some doggerel of catchphrases and tourist traps. The very nation of origin of ‘the Feverhead’ dooms it to obscurity.

It is not in France or anywhere else in continental Europe that ‘the Feverhead’ reaches its conclusion, but in South America – or more precisely, Canca, Brazil. ULF? Again, location infiltrates language – Frank addresses Heinz as “Mio Amigo!” and calls the commanding officer of his ship “Capitano.” Frank is not so much accumulating languages, that is – these disparate tongues are not permeating Frank’s existing lexicon, instead they are bouncing against the surface of his linguistic perimeter. Language leads to disjunction, not conjunction. The world strikes Frank’s surface, nothing more.

But perhaps ULF is the key to the novel. Frank and Heinz bounce off of each other throughout the novel, their identities increasingly blurring, but it is in the reoccurrence of the ‘Ulfs’ that we get a more holistic vision of the novel. We first find a cryptic reference to Ulf as Heinz asks, unbidden, “I’d like to have heard how Ulf is doing.” This is given no explanation. Who is Ulf?

But Ulf, we learn, is not necessarily one person. Ulf is, rather, a situation, isn’t he? Early on in the novel, Heinz relates to Frank a dream in which Ulf appears in a pastoral wood, and “…goes likewise to the tulip(s), snaps off the second one and disappears into the forest. End. At this point I wake up, soaked in sweat. And I’ve never seen Ulf in all my life! I would pass him by on the street as if he was a total stranger. But I recognize him in my dream. It’s Ulf! I know it!!” Ulf materializes not as a person, but as a name. Karin announces her travel plans to ‘Ottokar’s Famed Ski Lodge,’ and at the bottom of the letter, Ulf signs his greetings.

Later, Alex gives us the address of his new friend, the poet “Dr. Ulf Kiemburg-Nurser, Free lance writer, Annenheim by Lake Ossiach, No.16/4/4.” The same Ulf? Or more of the same? Later, Frank finds “…the way Ulf keeps making himself noticeable quite mysterious in fact downright incredible! Not only did he sign Karin’s letter twice, no, he put his scrawl at the bottom of yours!” As the novel progresses, Ulf places his signature at the bottom of each and every one of Frank and Heinz’s letters, even as the two friends travel to increasingly disparate reaches of the globe. By the novel closes, there are numerous characters named Ulf. Or, numerous characters are Ulf. Are they maybe the same person? Reverberations of the same person?

A doubling occurs in ‘the Feverhead,’ whether it be the two bodies of Captain Ox, the hermaphrodite Schuller, or the peculiar fever causing both Frank and Heinz’s “…pores [to] open up and become veritable cavities.” This doubling eventually opens to an intensive and diffuse multiplicity. Perhaps singularity is the word? Frank arrives in Canca with his traveling companions, including an Ulf Thermsbauer, and implores Heinz, “…please don’t think I’m mad, I’m quite clear in my mind and obviously one way or another I am still the Frank of yore. Still the wag of old and Canca anyway is the locus, as it were, of all waggishness, as you’ll shortly find out. It’s hard to say where Canca lies. All of us who have just traveled here assume that it is hidden, as I’ve already hinted, in the Brazilian jungle; but it could just as easily be in Alaska or Lower Austria…” Canca, then, could be anywhere. It is a transcendental place of recognition, much like the Mount Analogue of the novel of the same name by the previously mentioned Rene Daumal.

When Frank arrives at Canca, he sees “A giant head with its neck stuck in the ground. It was about 400 metres tall and 300 wide. But it wasn’t some giant papier-mache head, such as you know perhaps from the various fun fairs that visit Villach! It was a head made of flesh and blood! It lived, saw, breathed and spoke like a human head! And its face – was my face! Please don’t laugh – all the others thought they recognized their own features in Canca as well.” A couple pages later, Heinz describes his arrival at Canca with his traveling party, including “…tiny model girls and Ulf Kiemburg-Nurser, the mini-poet….” But Heinz doesn’t quite see the fleshy head that Frank observed; he sees “…a giant skull jutting out of the earth. Inside the skull is a town. ‘The town has been dead now for thousands of years… it has frozen up…in the old days it was full of hustle and bustle… the houses, indeed, everything here was made of flesh and blood… Once upon a time it was a living organism… all that’s left now is ice and bones… Canca is Ulf…”

At this point, Frank and Heinz’s correspondences dovetail into each other, forming a sort of feedback loop. The novel then closes with two letters written between the psychiatrist Ulf Halda and Wolfgang Bauer. Halda writes that one of the patients, a young man, has written a novel that “…centres around a postal correspondence – the last two letters of the ‘work’ keep carrying on at the end of one another. According to the patient, he has no other alternative but to continue the correspondence ad infinitum.” Bauer then writes to Halda “…the last two letters in my [novel] keep leading into each other – and there is no end to it!” The overarching awareness of Frank and Heinz’s final letters, a transcendence perhaps leads to a madness or sublimation of intellect, is mocked here in the final two letters and relegated to psychoanalysis or creative frustration.

And where does that leave us?

NEXT: I still intend to finish William Hope Hodgeson’s Dead Earth epic, The Night Land, but since I left my copy of the book in my friend Zach’s van, I won’t get a chance to retrieve it until Monday. In the meantime, I’ve been making my way through Penguin Classic’s ‘Tales of ETA Hoffmann.’ I’ll be weighing in on one or the other in the next couple days.