Critical Mass

NBCC Featured Review: Matthew Jakubowski on Gert Jonke’s The System of Vienna

By Matthew Jakubowski

Critical Mass regularly highlights exemplary reviews by its members. Here, in a review originally published in the Quarterly Conversation, Matthew Jakubowski offers his take on Gert Jonke's The System of Vienna: From Heaven Street to Earth Mound Square (Dalkey Archive)

When Austrian dramatist, poet, and author Gert Jonke died from pancreatic cancer at age 62 last year, British journalist Guy Dammann lamented that he passed just as his readership was finally beginning to match his reputation:

At its height his reputation was grounded principally on the widespread misapprehension about the severe difficulty of his writing. Despite winning the first ever Ingeborg Bachmann prize in 1977, and later the Franz Kafka and Berlin Literature prizes, among numerous others, people tended to respect rather than read Jonke. Which makes it all the more ironic that, just as his reputation was once again on the up — a resurgence based this time on a real and growing readership — he has died.

The resurgence Dammann refers to was presumably taking place among Jonke's German-language readership. But English-speakers got some help catching up on Jonke's quirky brilliance this past December, when the Dalkey Archive Press published Vincent Kling's highly enjoyable translation of Jonke's novella-in-stories, The System of Vienna, making it the second Jonke title Dalkey has recently published in English translation.

This richly imaginative book fits fifteen chapters into ninety-eight pages (minus an elegant afterword by Kling). Most chapters in this autobiographical novella focus on a spot in Vienna, and they're recalled in sequence from the narrator's birth through adulthood as he meets odd people who strive to convey knowledge about politics, society, love, and human perception. Jonke's writing isn't difficult, though his sentences can stretch on into multi-page masterpieces, and he's a fan of word games and surreal imagery. But beneath these formal surfaces and experimental style (some have called Jonke a “text composer”), these stories are frequently tender and funny; for all the book's curiosities and through-the-looking-glass moments, System proves Jonke was that rare thing: a huge, rebellious talent with tremendous heart.

In the first chapter, “Beginnings in a Small Southern Austrian City,” a mere two pages in length, Jonke chats about “myself and my academic development” as if he were a well-known author, using a punchy, casual tone that is comforting yet deceptive (considering the philosophical flourishes in the stories ahead). Regarding his birth in “the district hospital” in Klagenfurt, Jonke tells “as you probably already know” of how his mother trudges alone through the cold and tries to get in the side door of the hospital, but can't due to regulations upheld by the night porter. After enough berating — “why else would strict instructions like these exist if they weren't important” — the porter relents and lets her in to have her baby, the final sentence reading, “After that I — as the concluding expression goes — 'turned up in no time,' and, bringing the story to its end, there's a description of my skin, at that point completely blue.”

This tiny monologue sets the tone and lays out a major theme of the book. Beneath the ensuing layers of the narrative, using a close or distant voice that changes from story to story, a deliberately unsettling playfulness is in high gear.

Jonke aims to convey the idea that this kind of rebellious play is a serious skill people must nurture in themselves if they're ever going to keep the world's inanity from ruining their spirits. After all, as “Beginnings” shows in its precise and offhand way, even mothers giving birth in small towns will be made to suffer fools in a society more concerned with rules than well-being. It's as if Jonke is saying, Make me wait, will you? Keep me out in the cold until I'm blue — before I'm even born, will you? All right then, you fuckers. It's on. Jonke worked this sort of lemme at 'em territory at greater length in his social satire Geometric Regional Novel, first published in English in hardcover in 1994 and then in paperback in 2000 by the Dalkey Archive. As a classically trained pianist, Jonke also wrote about music (and based stories on musical forms), as shown in his other books available in English, Blinding Moment: Four Pieces About Composers (Ariadne Books, 2009), and the novel Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique (Dalkey Archive, 2008).

As System continues, Jonke's self-as-narrator grows up. “Childhood in the Country” brims with happy and Eden-like language. As if helping to get the reader in shape for the enormous sentences to come, Jonke offers this relatively short gem (cut in half here), describing his early wonder at the natural world:

I spent the hot summers back in those years mostly at the house of a great-aunt in the country, though, where I would sink down into her garden as if into a subtropical rain forest, in the shadows of the larkspur along the trailers and stalks of vegetables with pods and hulls bursting open in the heat, planted all the way out to the twilit place where menacing stands of horsetail and hemlock woods lined a pondoceanswamp in the sour-smelling surf of which the afternoons coursed along . . .

That “pondoceanswamp” shows Jonke satirizing mile-long, German compound words, and the final portion of the quote contains a common Jonke technique wherein units of time, in this case “afternoons,” become objects moved by the mind through metaphor, where they can be manipulated in the physical world, side by side with our bodies, just as vulnerable to being moved as we are by nature and chance.

When the book moves from nature into Vienna, however, the action frequently retreats into his mind as microadventures in thought. As the narrator ages he becomes justifiably confused by the foolishness and emptiness and banality of modern urban life. As if to dramatize this, “Wholesale Fish Dealer by the Danube Canal” spins in annoying circles, forcing readers to ask, Why all this stuff about the guy not being a fish dealer? Three pages later, Jonke answers: “Therein was to be sought the reason and the cause of why things are sometimes, mostly sometimes, rather often, sometimes rather often, mostly sometimes rather often, mostly rather often, sometimes mostly mostly, mostly mostly not as they should be.” Jonke isn't making a point so much as observing the follies of human communication; to Jonke's great credit, that distinction — observing, not teaching — is carefully maintained throughout the book.

This approach, which lets the reader reach conclusions without unnecessary moralizing or preaching, lends power and conviction to the author's driving belief: we're alive and we're adventurous and the world so often thwarts us in our pursuits to understand more and see more.

Yet if there are moments of humanity here, there's also plenty of formalism. In “Attempt to Break Out to Klosterneuberg,” Jonke lets the story end like a poem, with short line breaks and all lower-case letters. At another point Jonke adds extra spaces between the letters of each word in a key phrase. (And Dalkey does an admirable job of integrating these typographical devices.) Far from being cold puzzles, though, these tactics mirror the daily challenges of perception and communication that people face. And his use of repetition and layers, as with music, mirror the emotional sequence of how we experience things, remember them, and assemble memories.

Jonke does all this while keeping his readers' best interest in mind. His chapters are compressed without being impenetrably dense, and he uses standard plot elements to frame his greater ambitions, making something new and surprising in the process. This fusion of the traditional and the experimental is exemplified in the wonderful epistolary story, “Jorger Strasse Prelude Hernals Beltway Fugue,” where Jonke tucks a moment of human vulnerability into a complex narrative structure, in this case a son caring for his elderly father.

“Fugue” and the next two stories form a thematic downward arc that turns abruptly heavenward at the end of the novel. A nadir is reached in the trio's middle story, with the narrator's suicidal tendencies in “Danube River Bridge.” Here Jonke's language demonstrates that he takes depression seriously, even as comedy threatens:

would often walk from bridge to bridge along the banks of the Danube . . . looking down into the river's eyes as they drifted past below, and then spitting down into the river before I resumed my crossing. To this day I am absolutely certain that my spitting down into the water from the bridge was in no way connected with its bringing good luck, as a simplistic folk belief would have it, but was rather a kind of substitute for my not spitting my bodily self in its entirety over the railing along the firmament. Instead of a complete plunge into the river, then, I let drift downward just a few words or sentences, now rendered unutterable through liquefaction, dissolved in my oral cavity from keeping silent so long . . .

The sadness bottoms out then surges upward into the glad but gloomy romantic fantasy, “Caryatids and Atlantes — Vienna's First Guest Workers,” which concludes the trio. The story shows Jonke giving fame the finger, imagining himself as “a creative sleep artist,” not a writer hounded by the urge to self-promote but “a sleep interpreter engaged with the completed creation.” Throughout this trio Jonke repeats phrases like chords, whole pages of narration stuttering ahead upon rising and falling rhythms, using musicality as a guide for word choice.

This search for music and freedom in language yields eloquent results at the end of the “Klosterneuberg.” With its broken lines, like a poem, even in translation we see how the words on the page had to yield to what Jonke was pursuing. It's dreamy stuff that lets his adult narrator feel momentarily ageless. Jonke risks sounding terribly sentimental, but because of the risk he achieves instead the defiant tone of a soul too proud to let time have its way.

and I do go away at once, not without having said goodbye; but no, I don't go, I run, ride back at once on one of those days that have ended before they even began,
on this eveninglikemorningishly afternoonnight;
in fact, this day hasn't even dawned yet.