Leavetaking

Overview

"I was on my way to look for a life of my own."

A brilliant, brutally honest autobiographical novel, long out of print, from one of the great artistic polymaths of the 20th century.

This is a Sebaldian account of the narrator's attempt to break free of a repressive upper-middle-class upbringing and make his way as an artist and individual, written in a single incantatory ...

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Leavetaking

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Overview

"I was on my way to look for a life of my own."

A brilliant, brutally honest autobiographical novel, long out of print, from one of the great artistic polymaths of the 20th century.

This is a Sebaldian account of the narrator's attempt to break free of a repressive upper-middle-class upbringing and make his way as an artist and individual, written in a single incantatory paragraph.

Leavetaking
is the story of an upper-middle-class childhood and adolescence in Berlin between the wars. In the course of the book, Weiss plumbs the depths of family life: there is the early death of his beloved sister Margit, the difficult relationship with his parents, the fantasies of adolescence and youth, all set in the midst of an increasing anti-Semitism, which forces the Weiss family to move again and again, a peripatetic existence that only intensifies the narrator's growing restlessness.

The young narrator is largely oblivious to world events and focused instead on becoming an artist, an ambition frustrated generally by his milieu and specifically by his mother, who, herself a former actress, destroys his paintings during one of the family's moves. In the end, he turns to an older mentor, Harry Haller, a fictionalized portrait of Hermann Hesse, who encouraged and supported Weiss, and with Haller's example before him, the narrator takes his first steps towards a truly independent life. Intensely lyrical, written with great imaginative power, Leavetaking is a vivid evocation of a world that has disappeared and of the narrator's developing consciousness.

THE NEVERSINK LIBRARY champions books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored. They are issued in handsome, well-designed editions at reasonable prices in hopes of their passing from one reader to another—and further enriching our culture.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A moving testimonial to a young man’s strivings for personal freedom... This poetically concise yet propulsive work...paints a portrait of a young artist in his state of becoming."
3:AM Magazine

“One of the finest, strangest coming-of-age novels you’ve never heard of.”
Barnes & Noble Review

"A remarkable writer... must be counted among the most important European authors of the 20th century."
The Complete Review

"A dynamic work, a re-creation and exorcism of the past rather than a recollection of it in tranquility...Wholly succeeds in fusing a new realism with a new imaginative vision."
Times Literary Supplement

The Barnes & Noble Review

The German playwright, painter, novelist, and filmmaker Peter Weiss is most famous for his play The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (1964), which, if you've heard of it, you likely know as Marat/Sade. He also wrote one of the finest, strangest coming-of-age novels you've never heard of: Leavetaking, first published in 1966 and rescued from out-of-print oblivion by Melville House for its Neversink Library imprint. Its title, like Marat/Sade, has been abbreviated from a more literal- minded one, Abschied von den Eltern, or Leavetaking from Parents.

But there is nothing literal-minded about Leavetaking, which is less like a novel than a dream, and is about leaving more than one's parents behind.

A few words on Weiss's biography are necessary, for although Leavetaking is largely autobiographical, it is unnervingly vague about the historical context in which it takes place. Weiss was born near Berlin in 1916, the son of a Jewish textile manufacturer and a Swiss former actress. In his early childhood the family moved to Bremen and then Berlin. But in 1935, the Nazis having seized complete control of Germany, the family went into exile, first in England, then in Czechoslovakia. Weiss, by then already a painter, spent the summer of 1937 alone in Switzerland, befriended Hermann Hesse and with Hesse's help was admitted to the Prague Art Academy. His parents moved to Sweden after the Nazi invasion of the Sudetenland; Weiss, following his studies in Prague, joined them there in 1939. He ultimately became a Swedish citizen.

Leavetaking opens in 1959 with the funeral of Weiss's father. (His mother had died the year before, in December 1958.) Peter's disposition of the family estate, with the help of his surviving siblings, is the catalyst for a feat of memory that seems oblivious to, or uninterested in, the Nazis' role in batting the family like a paper boat from country to country. To say that Leavetaking is apolitical is just a start. It is, with several striking exceptions, practically ahistorical, and it slips at times into the carefully rendered but unplaceable nowhere of fairy tales.

"The grief that overcame me," Weiss writes, ". . . was for what had been missed, for the yawning emptiness that surrounded my childhood and youth." This grief is the mature expression of what, for that younger Peter whose swirling impressions dominate the book, would be the inward-looking, even self-indulgent emotion of a budding artistic temperament. But it takes Peter many years and a vast range of experiences — from the sublime to the stunningly tragic — to learn to put aside childish things.

Weiss remembers his raging, overbearing mother and the "sufferance, humility," of his nanny Augusta. The exploration of the city with Augusta yields glittering memories — of this city itself ("We tried to explain to each other the snake gargoyles along the tops of the drainpipes, the figures of saints on the cathedral façade") and of a riotous fair, with its roller coaster and Punch and Judy show. But this magic is counterbalanced by the depredations of the neighborhood bully, Friederle — who later, we learn, finds his place in the Wehrmacht — and of a cruel, punitive schoolmaster.

Peter's view of his family and his world are complicated further by the narrative's most explicit brush with history, Peter's discovery of his father's personal effects from his service in the First World War. But these mementos of bravery do little to temper Peter's comparison of his buttoned-up and submissive father with a good-humored neighbor, Fritz, whose children frolic naked and who laughs at Peter for fretting about getting a poor grade. When Peter's father chides him to develop a work ethic, Peter retreats into fantasy: "The parkland around our house assimilated all the fairy tales, it was enchanted, and amid its mosses, its thick bushy places, its gnarly roots like cartilage, lived animals that talked, gnomes, robbers, and fairies."

Two episodes in Leavetaking stand out as particularly brutal. One is the death of Peter's sister Margit, who is struck by an automobile but clings to life for a day or two in the hospital, an apparition "tightly swathed in bandages, plaster [concealing] her cheeks and her squashed nose . . . stretched in a wire frame." It is in the midst of this tragedy that Peter "stood before the easel . . . and painted [his] first large picture," noting later, "My sister's death was the beginning of my attempts to free myself from my past." The second episode, in which Peter seems to pity his ineffectual father's attempts at discipline — "[a]s he was not strong, his blows did not hurt" — foreshadows how suddenly he will cast off, in the name of art, his family's expectations.

One is tempted to withhold the fact, lest it scare readers away, that Leavetaking consists of a single long paragraph and contains no dialogue. This takes some getting used to, but it conspires with Weiss's vivid, often hallucinatory prose to produce an oneiric effect —in the onrush of words there are, as in dreams, sudden shifts in time and location, disruptions of logic, and moments of outright fantasy. Here, Peter outwits an attempt to cure him of somnambulism:

My parents tried, on our family doctor's advice, to put an end to my nocturnal wanderings, they surrounded my bed with large basins of water that were to wake me . . . when I stepped into them. This treatment resulted in my learning to fly. I increased the horror and the creepiness by artificially induced cold shivers that had the property of making me weightless and with their help, stretched out stiff, I hovered up out of bed, to fly, feet first and flying on my back, straight across the room, through the open window and over the garden.
Leavetaking is also shot through with disturbing sexual elements. It can be hard to decide whether they are evidence of a truly disordered psyche or are, rather, symptomatic of garden- variety adolescent confusion and impulsiveness. Whichever the case, these episodes are deeply unpleasant to read: Peter's incestuous flirtation with his sister Margit ("noiselessly we explored each other with bated breath"), or his awkward and abortive attempt to seduce or be seduced by his governess Elfriede — and these are not the most unsettling of the book's scenes.

On the whole, though, it is well that there is so much unpleasantness in Leavetaking. Few take the opportunity for such sustained and pitiless recollection of their formative years outside the context of therapy. (How different that phrase is, formative years, from the word childhood. It evokes not some lost Arcadia but the action of glaciers.) Weiss's book makes the case, by example, that such recollection can be a contemplative practice of great value and beauty.

"I was on my way to look for a life of my own," Weiss writes in conclusion. He is taking leave not only of his parents and their influence but also of his solipsism and passivity. He is on his way from being a child who receives and reacts to life to a man who makes sense and art of it for the benefit of others. Maturity does not lie, as much coming-of-age literature implies, in racking up grown-up experiences but in putting them to adult use. The note on which Leavetaking ends and Weiss's subsequent career begins tells us that this is precisely what he intended to do.

A writer living in Hudson, NY, Stefan Beck has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Sun, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and other publications. He also writes a food blog, The Poor Mouth, which can be found at www.stefanbeckonline.com/tpm/.

Reviewer: Stefan Beck

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781612193311
  • Publisher: Melville House Publishing
  • Publication date: 7/8/2014
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 527,460
  • Product dimensions: 4.90 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

PETER WEISS was a German writer, painter, graphic artist, and experimental filmmaker. He is best known for his plays "Marat/Sade" and "The Investigation," as well as the monumental three-volume historical novel The Aesthetics of Resistance. Born in Germany in 1916 to a Christian mother and a Jewish father, he began his career as visual artist, studying at the Prague Art Academy in the late '30s. After the German occupation of the Sudetenland, his family moved to Sweden, where Weiss would spend the rest of his life, eventually becoming a Swedish citizen. His work won many major German literary awards, including the Buchner and Mann Prizes, and Peter Brook's production of "Marat/Sade" received the Tony Award for Best Play. Weiss died in 1982.

CHRISTOPHER LEVENSON is a prominent Canadian poet. He was the co-founder of Arc Magazine and of the Harbinger Poets imprint of Carleton University Press.

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