Herewith, a delightful micro-story from Ror Wolf’s latest collection, Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions (published by Open Letter Books and translated by Jennifer Marquart ). Wolf was born in East Germany in 1932. He is an award-winning novelist, poet, artist and collagist. He emigrated West Germany in 1953, where he studied with Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, members of the famous Frankfurt School, the source of modern critical theory. As you might expect of a writer with such a background, Wolf merrily refuses to create a conventional story line. Rather he works in fragments and asides and wordplay, always shadowed by the IDEA of a conventional story that might come into existence but doesn’t. A first person narrator is asked a question. “What prompted your remark?” But Wolf’s narrator dashes and evades. “I didn’t make a remark,” the narrator says. And from there, we are off and running. Notice how Wolf shifts from past tense to present tense. Notice how he describes a cast of characters that aren’t really part of the main action. Suddenly the story fills with a variety of men sprawled out like disfigured shapes in a Goya painting. What’s real? What’s it about? And Wolf leads us only further into the mystery, into the facts that never materialize. Like Robert Walser, like Gertrude Stein, like Thomas Bernhard, Wolf invents new possibilities for the story.
Excuse me, what prompted your remark, said a man as I approached the reception desk at the train station hotel on October 21st 1999, and I said: I didn’t make a remark. I can’t even guess if the next man who shows up in line will make a remark. I also don’t know if my abilities are sufficient enough to describe this showing up, or to at least prove my competence for such a description here, in front of my readers. Anyway, I have doubts about my competence regarding the problem that surrounds and seems to occupy this man, and from which he is trying to momentarily step away in order to get my attention. Before I give any thought to this, I’ll turn my attention to another man, who’s lying crumpled under the table with only his feet visible. Without an extra explanation, no one would figure out why two identical-looking men are behaving so differently; and yet the explanation is very simple. You shouldn’t wait for an explanation from me because I just decided to turn my attention to another man. This man is resting his head on the table, as we can see, but in reality it only looks like that, and has no bearing on the continuation of this story. I am also not really interested in this man, but will only compare him to the man I wanted to discuss at the beginning and who is standing beside him—not directly next to him, but at a little bit of a distance. If I were to hear that the man I mentioned opened a door and disappeared, it would live up to my expectations and wishes entirely, enabling me to easily turn my attention towards several other men. They are men with a purpose, coming in as if they invented their purposes in the moment they entered, and they are in reality only meaningless purposes. Incidentally, all of these men wear their hats on their heads, and, between you and me, that seems somewhat boring, but I won’t dwell on it. Instead, I exhibit a certain interest in listening to a man whom I don’t see, but can hear quite well. Excuse me, what prompted your remark, this man said, as I approached the reception desk at the train station hotel on October 21st. And I said: I didn’t make any remark. That was ’99, a rather shitty year for men—men who went to the brink of tolerability, the end of their strengths, men with hats firmly adhered to their heads, shoes firmly attached to their feet, men who did not have a solid grasp on what could happen to them in a train station hotel. And that’s not nearly all. I’m refraining from describing what came next. I’ll do everything to avoid confusing you with more words, I said that time in ’99. I stood up. Where are you going? someone asked, some man asked: Where are you going? But I didn’t pay attention to the question, I left, and refrained from describing the further development.
Ror Wolf is an artist, an author of prose and poetry, and a writer of radio plays and “radio collages.” Born in the East German city of Saalfeld, Wolf left the GDR for West Germany at the age of 31. His writing has earned him many awards, including Radio Play of the Year (2007), the Kassel Literature Prize for Grotesque Humor (2004) and the Literature Award of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in 2003. Wolf’s work has been translated into over 12 languages.
Jennifer Marquart studied German and translation at the University of Rochester. She has lived, continued her studies and taught in Cologne and Berlin. Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions by Ror Wolf is her first book-length translation.