THE INNER MAN by Martin Walser
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In a series of remarkable novels, all set in the Lake Constance region of southern Germany, Walser has offered dazzling closeups of frustrated men: their ungovernable mind-play, their hapless urges. This time the man in question is Xaver Zurn, cousin to Gottleib, the protagonist of The Swan Villa: Xaver is in his late thirties, married, with rebellious teenage daughters; he's working as a chauffeur for Dr. Gleitze, a rich, opera-loving industrialist who's afraid of planes. And Xaver loves driving the big Mercedes 450 on long trips--to Marseilles, even to Glyndebourne--when the boss so orders. At the same time, however, Xaver's stomach is giving him problems, all of which surely stem from kept-back rage. He actually loathes Dr. Gleitze--even if he's desperately anxious for Gleitze's good opinion. (He silently rehearses what-if? conversations with Dr. G.--with, as usual, the boss in back and himself in front.) Furthermore, neglected by wife Agnes, Xaver has started collecting knives. So, as Xaver goes about his everyday business, there's a steady undercurrent of mental disarray, with fascinating curlicues of rage. He undergoes a series of tests for his stomach complaint--in a memorably comic scene. He provides ferry service for business associates and the boss's aged parents. (""Old Mr. Gleitze's face always looked as if he had been suffering nothing but injustices for eighty years. This was just the kind of face Xaver didn't want to acquire. It showed lack of awareness. It's up to each of us to analyze why such and such things happen to us. Otherwise we'll sit around with that kind of wizened, cry-baby face that's only fit for a laugh."") He dallies nearly unconsciously with the Gleitzes' maid. And finally Xaver gets fired--receiving the knowledge he's looked for in other people's opinions of him. . . but not quite the way he wanted it. Though translator Vennewitz has doen her usual fine job here, this is the most socially specific of the Lake Constance books, with important emphasis on the caste significances of different, untranslatable dialects. Nonetheless, Xaver is irrepressible, a brilliant character: there's hardly a thought he won't entertain--no matter how humiliating or impolite or self-critical. And these interior monologues, warped by frustration and surrender, could be favorably compared to the character-investigation in John Updike's Rabbit books. Finally, however, Walser's masterly feel for the potent, near-invisible development of ideas and metaphors seems more akin to the dry, comically desperate masterpieces (The Confessions of Zeno, As a Man Grows Older) of Italo Svevo: as this splendid novel again demonstrates, Walser has a Svevo-like gift for turning fiction into pure texture--celebrating the liberating, mortifying human talent for surprise and pent-up feeling.

Pub Date: Jan. 18th, 1984
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston