THE SWAN VILLA by Martin Walser
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German writer Walser's last novel to come out here, Runaway Horse (1979), a wonderful book, hardly raised a cloud of dust. If this new one is similarly neglected, readers will be missing a mounting treat: Walser's delicious tone--a mix of passivity and rage--and a way with wry, cosmic irony that can send your toes up under your soles. The protagonist here is Gottlieb Zurn, a Lake Constance realtor of extremely limited success who has his heart set on obtaining the exclusive listing for a large villa and marina, the Swan, which is being sold by its legatee owner. How Gottlieb tries and fails to get this golden ring is the whole plot; but the actual story--something quite different--is Gottlieb himself, and his acknowledged feelings. Though 50, a father of four girls, Gottlieb feels barely 15, ""and mustn't tell a soul that what he really wanted to call most people was 'adults.'"" His unsteady realtor's income makes him feel ""like a man driving a motorboat with a hole in the bottom who has to drive fast to make the front half of the boat, where the hole is, rise and stay out of the water."" He does some business-related socializing, then even goes so far as to try some pressuring of the villa's owner--until, at the last moment, he turns tail: ""Everyone wants to get out of the zone of pain and suffering. He was out. Only those who cease to do anything cease suffering. Those who act suffer."" Like Oblomov, Gottlieb prefers those least prominent postures (crawling around the floor on all fours would be nice, he thinks) which would somehow also allow him his infantile but innermost emotion: the wish ""to be preferred. Unilaterally. Everyone should want to be his parents. Everyone should scramble to be allowed to be his mother. And he would like to be allowed to watch this rivalry all the time."" And though disorderly family-life flows around Gottlieb during all this, he's the sole still-point, a little like Thomas Berger's Reinhart character--the vehicle for Walser's musings on subtle, psychological echoes: the freedom of failure, the comfort of the embarrassing, and much, much more. A delight of a book--with a kind of hilarious, unsettling profundity that will make you laugh and cringe in equal measure; Walser is too good to be ignored.

Pub Date: Aug. 23rd, 1982
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston