Thursday 5 February 2009

Ernst Weiss

A close friend of Kafka, Ernst Weiss, who was born in the Czech town of Brno (then in the Austro-Hungarian empire), produced a considerable wealth of novels and stories in German which are generally considered to be milestones in the genres of Expressionism and New Objectivity. However, his œuvre is nowadays not given the recognition it undoubtedly deserves, especially in the English-speaking world.

He came from a prosperous Jewish family which was also very open to all things artistic, and studied medicine in Prague and Vienna, becoming a surgeon in 1908. His profession would have a significant impact on his fiction, which not only featured many doctors among its characters and questions of science and ethics among its recurring themes, but was also keenly analytical in its narrative approach, displaying a marked interest in the basic drives that motivate human endeavour (he was strongly influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis). In some respects one could draw parallels with other early twentieth-century writers who came from the medical profession, such as Chekhov, Schnitzler, Bulgakov and Céline. His first novel, Die Galeere, published in 1913, centres around a morphine-abusing Austrian scientist whose research into x-rays results in a repulsive tumour on his hand (which was very scientifically prescient for its time), an affliction which mirrors his moral shortcomings in his relationships towards his family and his mistress.

During the First World War, Weiss worked as a doctor on the front, receiving a golden cross for bravery. He would later combine medicine, journalism and fiction-writing, and lived mostly in Prague and Berlin, although his job as a doctor took him as far as Japan and India. He published over twenty books, garnering widespread acclaim which culminated in the Adalbert Stifter Prize and the Silver Medal for Prose Fiction at the Amsterdam Olympic Games. Due to the rise of Nazism, Weiss went into exile in Paris in 1934, and tragically took his own life when German troops marched into the city in 1940. According to legend, a suitcase of unpublished manuscripts vanished after his death. Nazism haunted his later works, a logical extension of his continued literary interest in crime and the corruption of society in general. His final and arguably most famous novel, Ich: Der Augenzeuge [The Eyewitness], written in 1938 but first published posthumously in 1968, deals with a doctor who, racked with guilt because he has cured Adolf Hitler of temporary blindness, flees Nazi Germany for Paris.

There are unfortunately very few English translations of Ernst Weiss’s writings still in print, but Pushkin Press has begun to restore his legacy, publishing a translation of Jarmila, a rediscovered manuscript which Kafka described as Weiss's finest work. Franziska, a tale of music, venereal disease and a love triangle, set in an evocatively rendered Prague, was published by Pushkin last year to great critical acclaim.


No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome your comments, feel free to leave a message below.