Teutonic Ennui

I don’t remember its title or its author.  I do recall that there was a character, or perhaps there were characters, who kept saying “etwas muss getan werden”—“something must be done.”  You see, we read quite a few existentialist short stories in German IV in high school.  There were so few of us left from the freshman intro all the way back in ninth grade that our teacher could put us right in the middle of German literature and have us read.  I wish I still had that facility now.  Although I can work my way through many languages academically (German, French, Spanish, Italian, and, of course, the dead languages of koine Greek, classical Hebrew, Ugaritic, and assorted other semitic dialects), the fluency of sitting down and just reading atrophied long ago.  Still, etwas muss getan werden.  That sense of anxiety feels like it’s permanent now.

Every now and again, when tensions are running high—this past week is an example—I find myself nervously checking online news sources frequently to see if anything dramatically good has happened.  This gets to be almost a tic.  I need to have some assurance that we’ve not become a dictatorship, or that there are those in power with enough humanity left inside them have tried to do something to make things better.  Being a nation of throw-away people is ethically wrong no matter what scale you use.  Skin color and national heritage do not lessen the worth of any human being.  We can’t even get out to protest properly because a pandemic, which is still being mishandled, rages.  The days are full of such sameness.  Etwas muss getan werden.  Please.

I wish I could remember the stories I read in high school.  Some have stayed with me through the years.  German class was my introduction to existentialism, a philosophy with which I still mostly identify.  That was the reason I would pick up books by Kafka, Camus, and Dürrenmatt when I would find them in the once plentiful used book stores.  I remember the latter’s Der Besuch der alten Dame. I recall seeing the play performed and being reminded that we are all players in a drama whose only sense comes from our assignment of the same.  Now I sit inside on sunny days.  Afraid of economic insecurity—who knows how long the jobs will hold out?—I don’t go to stores and try to order as little as possible online.  I keep waiting for something to happen.  As I learned in high school etwas muss getan werden, no matter where I read it.

Hiding Out

It’s seen better days. The spine is coming unglued and the pages are brittle, fracturing into tan snowflakes as I turn the pages. Still, this unusual little book is crowded with memories. I recall the used book store where I bought it—the Boston Book Annex, now sadly defunct. Unlike any other paperback I’d purchased, this one has gray-dyed page edges, adding an appropriate October gloom to the reading. Friedrich Duerrenmatt may not be properly among the existentialist novels, but that’s where he lives on my bookshelf. I picked up The Quarry three decades ago when “Der Besuch der alten Dame” was still relatively fresh in my mind. If I were a younger man I might’ve tried to find an edition in German, but the internet didn’t exist in those days and after a few years of no use, my Deutsch was dusty. It had been my gateway language.

As I read The Quarry I wondered why I had waited so long to do so. The story is brief but intense. And like novels of the period, it is philosophical and theological. (Like many translations it is sold under different titles; this one is also known as Suspicion, but The Quarry captures the duality nicely.) Hans Bärlach, a Swiss police commissioner, is on the trail of a Nazi war criminal. Suffering from cancer, Bärlach is bed-ridden but his quarry is a doctor and he finds a plausible excuse to become his patient. To help him set the trap, he enlists the aid of Gulliver, a Jewish concentration camp survivor. Their dialogue is what makes this brief story so theologically pregnant. Gulliver calls Bärlach “Christian” and reflects on how that feels to a Jew who was intended to be exterminated. I won’t spoil the ending here, but when Bärlach meets his quarry and realizes that he is also the quarry, the conversation once again turns to religion.

There’s an honesty to such novels as this. Writers were not yet afraid to invoke philosophical dialogue. A friend at the time I purchased the book once told me “nobody writes like that anymore.” Since his father-in-law was a novelist, I supposed he was right. I should have instead relied on my memories from high school German. We read “Der Besuch der alten Dame” and even went to see a stage adaption at the local community college. I’d shortly discover the existentialists. Their views on the absurdity of life mingled so readily with a theology becoming broken, tired, and top-heavy. Those ideas I’d met in class such as, if memory serves, Ilse Aichinger’s “Wo Ich Wohne,” became a part of my young psyche and, not surprisingly, many years later I’m finding myself their quarry.