Peter Weiss Torn between the two

Peter Weiss
Peter Weiss | Photo (detail): © Andrej Reiser/Suhrkamp Verlag

In exile in Stockholm, the writer Peter Weiss battled to come to grips with Germany’s history and his own. He would have celebrated his 100th birthday in November 2016.

In writing his three-volume novel The Aesthetics of Resistance, Peter Weiss produced a seminal work that is a match for any by Marcel Proust or James Joyce and influenced an entire generation. Tribute was only paid to this accomplishment when the third volume was published in 1981. Now Peter Weiss is once again prompting debates about politics and art – he would have celebrated his 100th birthday on 8 November 2016.

Weiss was born in 1916 in what today is Potsdam’s Babelsberg district. His father came from a Jewish, Austro-Hungarian family and was a draper by trade. His mother, an occasional actress, was originally from Switzerland. Following Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, the family emigrated first to London and then to Czechoslovakia, where Peter Weiss spent three years attending the Prague Art Academy. In the end, finding no safe shelter there either, the family continued their journey to Sweden. In 1940, Peter Weiss arrived in Stockholm, a penniless painter.

A sense of being uprooted

He tried his hand at writing and had his first book, Från ö till ö (From island to island), published by the renowned Stockholm firm Bonnier. It was not a success, however. During the following years Weiss worked as an experimental filmmaker, and from 1952 was together with the stage designer Gunilla Palmstierna. Both shared a sense of having been uprooted: born in Lausanne, Palmstierna had experienced the destruction of Rotterdam as a child.

In 1960, an opportunity presented itself for Weiss to be published in Germany: Suhrkamp Verlag’s Siegfried Unseld published his short novel entitled The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body, a surrealistic text with echoes of Franz Kafka. This was Weiss’ breakthrough. Unseld hoped to establish him as a new voice in German prose. But Weiss turned to theatre instead and attracted international attention in 1964 with his sophisticated 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.

Increasingly a political writer

With his second theatre success, a docudrama based on the files and minutes of the first Frankfurt Auschwitz trials entitled The Investigation. An Oratorio in 11 Cantos (1965), he focused greater public attention on Germany’s suppressed past. Ingmar Bergman directed the play at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. Even today, it is perhaps the best condensed portrayal of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime.

Unseld the publisher did not like the fact that Weiss was increasingly becoming a political writer. “I see little sense in engaging in political activity in words without this being followed by deeds or concrete action”, Unseld wrote in a letter to Weiss. “Ultimately the business of a writer is to write, however, not to act. You now have such a great opportunity to create impact through your work as an author. I am seeing more and more how you are undermining this impact yourself through your comments.” Weiss paid no heed to the advice and in 1968 staged his play Viet Nam Discourse in Frankfurt.

“Gnawing doubts”

A year later, he made enemies in East Germany with his play Trotsky in Exile, and in 1971 he was refused entry to the country. Besides his correspondence with his publisher, his notebooks, which were published by Suhrkamp, also offer detailed insights into Weiss’ life. In the same year, he wrote the following: “I think in opposites, always with a thesis and antithesis … always have gnawing doubts about everything and find it difficult to decide in favour of one thing, am torn between the two, fluctuating in my work, formerly painting – writing, theatre – film, language – travel – constantly plumbing the depths, as if my entire being were composed of these two conflicting opposites between which everything must be decided that, with violent power, demands contradictory things from me – which are my driving force, all of which generate my work.”

After his career in theatre Peter Weiss reinvented himself as an author. He wrote The Aesthetics of Resistance, a fictitious autobiography. The first-person narrator is one year younger than Weiss. The book is about the fight against fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. Weiss does not make things easy for his readers, as he works without paragraphs. The novel is considered to be unreadable, and yet is full of suggestive power. Appropriately for a painter, Weiss creates wonderful images.

He positively battled with the text. Before completing the novel, he wrote in his notebook: “Every time I sit down to write I undertake an attempt. The speech sounds around me give me nothing. Much of the language that I use is antiquated, anomalous, alien. I do not even know where most of it comes from. Is it in fact German at all?”

Weiss was honoured for his work too late: in November 1982, the German Academy for Language and Literature awarded him the Georg-Büchner-Preis. He had already died in May 1982 and been buried in Stockholm.