The key to Peter Weiss’s work lies in a short text entitled My Local Area. ‘It is a place,’ he writes, ‘for which I was marked down and from which I escaped. . . . Its name was Germanicized to improve the understanding of those who lived and worked there.’ The name of the place is Auschwitz. Without this very real vanishing-point of his life and imaginative spiritual autobiography, we can understand nothing of his writings.
Peter Weiss lived to be 65 years of age, but our image of him bears no trace of his old age. Other features predominate, such as his courage, intransigence and ever youthful thirst for knowledge. He was often ill, it is true, and had bouts of hypochondria. The notebooks from his later years make frequent reference to the afflictions and scandalous demands of old age. Although Peter Weiss was not spared this experience, he fought against resignation. When he was invited to appear as a writer, people would discover the sharply drawn contours of an ageless intellectual.
Perhaps this was based on an optical illusion, which would be dissipated once it was clear that Weiss had first appeared on the West German literary scene at the age of 45. Yet he was then immediately recognized as one of the outstanding authors of our time in Europe and the wider world. West Germany is probably the only country in the world where this is considered an exaggerated judgement. How are we to understand that in the hour of his death, the Akademie für Sprache and Dichtung rushed to bestow the Büchner Prize on an author who already had been world-famous since 1964? Had there been no earlier opportunity? Had Weiss’s fame reached New York and Tokyo but not Darmstadt? Were his political polemics and partisan declarations held against him to the end: his espousal of communism, his occasional dogmatism, his apparently relentless attitude to opponents, his obviously finite indulgence towards friends, his patient life in the thick of contradictions? Or was it, above all, his refusal to recant? What political suspicion on the part of an academy established in the name of Georg Büchner! At least this belated gesture of a troubled conscience gave some idea of the loss to German literature caused by Peter Weiss’s death.
German literature—one falters at the word. Did Weiss really belong to German literature? He did gain his writer’s identity through the German language, but only by dint of hard work in the linguistic no-man’s land of exile. For more than forty years, Weiss lived in Stockholm as a Swedish citizen. He never found his ‘way home’. What connected him to Germany was the language of his roots. Both little and a great deal. But no sense of social, political or even national belonging grew on those roots.
He made his literary debut in Germany with a prose text—or ‘micro-novel’, as he called it—which was published by Suhrkamp in a small series for booklovers. That was in 1960. For the previous twenty years or more he had mainly worked as a painter, searching for a visual expression of his experience of the world. He had started life as the bourgeois son of a well-off German-Jewish line of manufacturers. Art and literature were the quite uncommon escape of a young man dominated by fears and anxieties.