On Conversation of the Three Wayfarers

by John Keene

Related: Peter Weiss
cover image of the book Conversation of the Three Wayfarers

If the name Peter Weiss (1916–1982) sparks any recognition at all these days, it is likely because of his authorship of one of the major theater works of the late twentieth century, the formally experimental, philosophically and politically profound Marat/Sade (Full title: 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), his play-within-a-play that was first staged in 1964 in Berlin. Weiss’s acclaim as a playwright continued with a host of works that included his 1965 work The Investigation: Oratorio in 11 Cantos, a documentary treatment of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, and his adaptation and revision of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (in 1974 and again with The New Trial in 1982). From the beginning of his multifaceted career, which included painting, film-making, and criticism, Weiss showed immense talent and aesthetic daring, not least in fiction, producing numerous works of fiction that culminated in his remarkable magnum opus, the three-volume (1975, 1978,1981), thousand-page, anti-fascist novel The Aesthetics of Resistance, the last part of which was published a year before his death.

A native of Nowawes, in Brandenburg State, near Berlin, Germany, Weiss was the son of a Christian mother and a Hungarian Jewish father, a textile manufacturer who eventually took Czech nationality after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I. The family moved around repeatedly during his youth, residing in Bremen; in Berlin during his adolescence, where they were subject to Nazi persecution; in Chislehurst, near London; in Prague, until after Hitler’s invasion of the Czech Sudetenland in 1938; and finally in Stockholm, Sweden, where Weiss landed in 1939 and would remain for the rest of his life. Though he issued several early works in Swedish, he published nearly all of his major works after 1950 in German. A figure of the political and cultural Left, Weiss’s personal and artistic stances increasingly united in the 1960s when he joined the German-language Gruppe 47 and publicly opposed the Vietnam War, denouncing the United States’ role in the war during a 1966 Gruppe 47 visit to the United States, and going so far as to travel to North Vietnam in 1968. Weiss would draw upon this activism and these experiences for his 1968 play Viet Nam Discourse (full title: Discourse on the Progress of the Prolonged War of Liberation in Viet Nam and the Events Leading Up to It as Illustration of the Necessity for Armed Resistance against Oppression and on the Attempts of the United States of America to Destroy the Foundations of Revolution) and for the critical text Notes on the Cultural Life of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, published that same year.

The novella Conversation of the Three Wayfarers, whose comparatively brief title closely approximates the German original, occupies a curious place in this oeuvre. Published originally in 1962, it is neither overtly auto-biographical, like several of the longer fictional works that immediately preceded it, nor evidently political, like the plays that would secure his international fame. Instead, Conversation of the Three Wayfarers is a quasi-fabular transitional text that stylistically somewhat harkens back to Weiss’s early experiments in film and fiction, with light touches of Surrealist juxtaposition and repetition, and Brechtian techniques of defamiliarization. It is more straightforward in some ways—and less in others—than Weiss’s acclaimed The Shadow Of the Coachman’s Body (1960), which established his name in German-language literature. Additionally, Conversation of the Three Wayfarers hints at the social and political critiques that would underpin his writings, particularly his plays, which contributed so much to the Theater of Fact or Documentary Theater movement in the years to follow.

Rather, this novella reads like the working out of an abstracted idea: instead of the form the title suggests (a conversation or dialogue), the text proceeds in a refracted manner with no discernible plot or clear arc, and it is unclear throughout most of the narrative who is actually speaking, though what the speaker or speakers conveys unreels in an almost incantatory fashion that holds the reader’s attention while gradually indicating how one might assemble this puzzle into a coherent whole.

If Weiss’s earlier works reflect a Modernist approach to form, time, and other elements of fiction, Conversation of the Three Wayfarers anticipates the postmodern in its abrupt shifts between contemporaneity—with mentions of fluorescent lights, traffic, and factory buildings—and its dreamlike elision of chronological time or any fixed locations at all. One way to understand Weiss’s storytelling here is to view it as a roundabout way of describing a Germany, and a Europe for that matter, after the upheavals of various world wars (particularly World War II), the Holocaust, and the capitalist onslaught that followed. The text suggests a particular moment in time and yet stands jarringly outside it. The old fables or stories, it seems to say, will not suffice, but the new ones must struggle toward coherence.

The three figures we are introduced to at the novella’s opening, Abel, Babel and Cabel, are clearly (at least the first two) biblically named; the exact rhyming of the names suggests an element of absurdity. Much like their rhyming monikers, the text that follows does almost nothing to distinguish these three by character traits, actions, or any other means. Moreover, we never know whether Abel, Babel, or Cabel is relating the stories to us, since there are no quotes or shifts in voice or tone to mark out any of the trio. They are both multiple and the same. As we proceed, however, we may grasp that the point of this novella is not for each of our wanderers (whose tales initially wander all over the place) to tell individual stories that collectively paint a portrait of an era, in the manner, for example, of Billiards at Half Past Nine (1958), a novel by Weiss’s exact contemporary Heinrich Böll, but rather that each of these amblers through an unfocused present bears the various traumas of modernity, particularly European modernity, from industrialization to war to mass murder, that their accounts, sometimes repetitious, sometimes verging on the phasmagorical, fragmentarily impart.

When the novella introduces the six semiarchetypal, fantastical sons of the ferryman—Jam, Jem, Jim, Jom, Jum, and Jym—it is clear that we are beyond the vale of realism, and that depicting a realist social, political, and economic picture here is not Weiss’s goal. Put another way, instead of depicting the changes to this world through a conventional fictional approach, Weiss captures the psychological and material reality of the disorientation, the dispossession, and the disruption that pre- and postwar capital, as well as World War II itself and its aftermath, have wrought. The narrator or narrators show the effects of this through a series of observations and recollections, such as the ferryman’s loss of his job and key societal role once the new bridge is erected, or the speaker’s experience of having to hide at the edge of the town (for reasons we can only guess at), or watching the arrival of a military column proceeding down the street. It is a circuitous method, but by the novella’s end, an effective one.

Abel, Babel, and Cabel keep walking, and talking, or someone is walking and talking, and narrating, step-by-step, story-by-story—the “I” a we, a chorus—events and incidents, returning to key scenes involving the past, wars large and small, the ferryman, his sons, fathers and mothers, the nearby city itself, and so on, right up to the novella’s end, remembering and recounting. These narrators, or conversants, are remembering the past, recounting experiences, piecing together a world that gradually begins to coalesce, filled with lives of coalescing selves moving through space and time, if not identifiable here on any fixed map then at least on an interior one, providing the reader with perhaps one of the most basic and profound truths of storytelling, which is that it is through narrative that we make sense of the world, just as Weiss’s characters here—however haltingly—cumulatively succeed in doing, and thereby make what they, and we, call the past, the future, and the present (as the novel’s unpunctuated, ongoing ending underscores) possible and comprehensible.