WINTERREISE by Gerhard Roth


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In Germany, this Austrian novel won a literary magazine's annual prize for ""depicting with great literary seriousness the human experience of alienation."" And alienated it surely is: Nagl, the single and barely named narrator of Roth's cold little trudge, is a teacher, a connoisseur of self-surrender, a courtesan of ennui--and, in the middle of a bleak winter, he decides to throw over habit and make for Naples to see Vesuvius (heat, light, explosiveness). With him goes Anna, his recurrent but never strictly faithful mistress. Nagl and Anna spend the time either making love in hotel rooms or morosely sightseeing through Naples, Rome, and, finally, Venice. They have a grand time of it: ""Embryonic people walked about, were old, sat on chairs next to cartons of wonderfully large eggs, fossilized membranes, next to cages of densely crowded brown hens, hutches of speckled and white hares, with slaughtered and skinned carcasses displayed above them in glass cases."" Nagl even manages to get himself beaten up by some sailors. The sex, admittedly, has a desperate--hence, fairly erotic--character to it, improvisatory and challenging; and Nagl's first view of Vesuvius, standing at the crater edge, is vivid and strong. But a ""great literary"" depiction of human alienation has to grind on pulselessly if it's going to win a prize, and this does that, mostly to sterile effect. For sweet Schubertian desolation, listen to Fischer-Dieskau instead.

Pub Date: Feb. 6th, 1979
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux