The Flood of Recollected Images Begins: Review of Josef Winkler’s Natura Morta and When the Time Comes — K. Thomas Kahn
Winkler has likened his authorial role to that of a human camera: he would undoubtedly have had Antonioni’s famous montage of images in mind—I am thinking of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), with its stress on images as storytelling vehicles—when compiling his own scenes of natura morta. — K. Thomas Kahn
When the Time Comes
tr. by Adrian West
(Winner of the Georg Büchner Prize, 2008)
Contra Mundum Press, 2013
$16, £10.50, 12.00€
Natura Morta: A Roman Novella
tr. by Adrian West
(Alfred Döblin Prize, 2001)
Contra Mundum Press, 2014
$16, £10.50, 12.00€
Until recently, Anglophone readers wanting to investigate the fiction of Austrian writer Josef Winkler faced only one option: the exacting and elliptical novel The Serf (1987/1997; trans. Michael Mitchell). Published in English by Ariadne Press, The Serf joined Winkler’s Flowers for Jean Genet (1992/1997; trans. Michael Roloff), his biographical and readerly homage to the French writer Jean Genet, whose influence is felt throughout Winkler’s own fiction, as the only works available in English.
But the reader requires an immersive education in Winkler before undertaking The Serf. And even Flowers for Jean Genet, while critical to comprehending Winkler’s aesthetic—his queer appropriation of high camp, religious and perverse imagery; and his homoeroticism (I would suggest, from Ronald Firbank as well)—fails to give the reader a cogent glimpse into his creative output, an oeuvre for which Winkler has garnered many accolades including the Alfred Döblin Award in 2001, the Grand Austrian State Prize in 2007, and the Georg Büchner Prize in 2008.
Luckily, two additional fictions by Winkler were published in the past year by Contra Mundum, When the Time Comes (1998/2013) and Natura Morta: A Roman Novella (2001/2014), both translated assiduously by Adrian West, who, to use his own words (as applied to Winkler’s prose), is able to render the “painstaking … visual detail” and “attention to the musicality of phrases” found in the original German texts with a skill that honors Winkler’s writing as a “writing-against.”
Winkler eschews a traditional plot; instead, narrative fragments work together by means of repetition to complicate his vision of modern life. But single scenes can also be understood on their own terms, if one considers the images and their relation to the overall thematics of the text.
Subtitled “A Roman Novella,” Natura Morta is less a novella than a series of poetic vignettes, a succession of glimpses of life around the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele in Rome where various figures appear, disappear, and then reappear: people “festooned” with commodified and locally popular “colorful plastic pacifiers”; “two teenaged Moroccan rent boys”; and a man whose “eyelids and eyelashes [are] painted black with mascara” and who is taunted with the homophobic “Sida!” There are plenty of “bloody chicken heads and yellow chicken feet” in the marketplace juxtaposed with iconographic images like “a doll of the Christ child” parked in bowl surrounded by “dried pineapples, dates, and figs” and “the Virgin Mary … look[ing] over the fingertips of her clasped hands toward a box of Mon Chéri chocolates.” These images constitute a fixed yet fluid tableau, a natura morta, a still life echoing its literal translation: dead nature.
Winkler is primarily concerned with the fig vendor’s son Piccoletto, “[a] black-haired boy, around sixteen years old, whose long eyelashes nearly grazed his freckle-studded cheeks.” Piccoletto’s function is to join the seemingly disparate images of the city and its inhabitants in a way that allows Winkler to explore the religious history of Rome, particularly as it deviates from contemporary vice and greed. “Sacred kitsch” litters the city; the text works by juxtaposing religious iconography and a marketplace saturated with “one crucified Lord after another,” juxtapositions that in turn inform and reflect the distorted sexualities, the myriad “perversions” and vices paraded before the reader and the young, impressionable Piccoletto: from “[t]wo nuns … lick[ing] the chocolate toes of an ice cream bar shaped like a child’s foot” to Michelangelo’s Pietà, “framed with bulletproof glass,” an icon fetishized by “[a] toothless Pole” with the desire “to clasp the mother of God in her fingers.”
Winkler’s imagistic prose shows debts to the cinema. In one scene, Piccoletto spies a videocassette of “the film Sciuscià by Vittorio de Sica” “[a]top the apricots and white peaches” carried in a plastic bag by an anonymous woman on a streetcar. This mention of de Sica’s first major work as a director—filmed in 1946 and translated in English as Shoeshine—reveals how images in Winkler function similarly to those in a neorealist film; not only do many of the series of images contain potent mixtures of the sacred and the profane, but they overvalue the image itself (in its repetition and in its recurrence) in ways also reminiscent of auteurs such as Michelangelo Antonioni.
Winkler has likened his authorial role to that of a human camera: he would undoubtedly have had Antonioni’s famous montage of images in mind—I am thinking of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), with its stress on images as storytelling vehicles—when compiling his own scenes of natura morta. Consider the following two passages:
A dog on its hind legs with a protuberant member snapped over and over at the small crucifix hanging from the wrist of an exhausted woman leaning with her eyes closed against the wall. A kneeling girl bumped her forearm against the thigh of a young monk holding a clear plastic bag of freshly watered cherries.
Aroused, staring into the girl’s leg holes and sniffing at her map, the boy [Piccoletto] bit down on his tongue, coated in bits of fruit bar, then stopped as he became aware of the taste of blood filling his mouth and glanced self-consciously as the mincing red feet of the pigeons. Piccoletto stood, daubed his lip with a handkerchief, passed the city map of Rome to the girl with the words “Mille grazie!” and looked for the toilet.
Winkler wants us to regard a teenaged boy—who is always “playing with his sex”—as a Christ for our times, in a world comprised of tourists, clergy, tradespeople, sex workers, and drug addicts. The fragmentary glimpses of city life in Natura Morta are refracted through the sexualized consciousness of Piccoletto whose observation of two other boys “gnawing on a fig, fresh and purple” is followed up immediately by “[t]he two boys huddl[ing] together, whispering and giggling, eyeing Piccoletto’s broad buttocks.”
Even more crucial to Winkler’s sexual vision of modernity is Piccoletto’s interest in soliciting both male and female gazes, and how he can arouse and also express sexual interest across the gulf of gender. Winkler’s aesthetic construction of modern-day Rome conjoins sex and the city, forcing individuals to confront the past in a present whose greed, lusts, and sensual pleasures—e.g., “Frocio wrapped fistfuls of ice chips in tin foil, pressing them into the form of a phallus, held the cold fetish at his hips, and squeezed the ice chips out of the tin foil in front of the fig vendor’s son, as though releasing kilos of ejaculate”—contrast with the iconographic and architectural reminders of latter days: “a stone phallus” in the Piazza San Vittorio the scene where an ambulance “pick[s] up a young drug addict, passed out and foaming at the mouth”; “the exit of the papal tombs” of Saint Peter’s Cathedral “leaking blood in the filthy streets,” streets littered with pages of the Cronaco vera, “in which tragedies from throughout Italy—illustrated with hearses, eyewitnesses, chesty women, and Mafiosi…—are reported every week.”
In contrast with Natura Morta’s portraits of city life, Winkler’s When the Time Comes takes rural Austria as its focus (Winkler’s native Carinthia). But like Natura Morta, When the Time Comes centers on a young boy whose intellectual and sexual maturation are influenced by his attempts to compile the stories of those who have come before him. In When the Time Comes, the storyteller is “the bone collector” Maximilian, whose “black bone stock … smell[s] of decay” and yet, because it contains the bones of the dead, has within it a history to decipher, record, fathom. Maximilian is Winkler’s anchor point; other characters’ stories are woven into his “clay vessel” of bones, creating a portrait of life in rural Austria spanning generations.
The town’s pastor has erected a terrifying painting representing God’s judgment at the town center, an icon that oversees the lives and deaths of the townspeople in a “town built in the form of a cross.” It depicts a man “who dragged a life-sized statue of Jesus through the forest before the Second World War and threw it over a waterfall,” causing Jesus to lose both arms; the painting shows the man’s retribution in life, since he “lost his own arms in Hitler’s war,” and after, in the fires of Hell. The often vindictive Old Testament God’s relationship with his flock, one built on fear as much as veneration, is a paradigm that repeats at the secular and personal levels. One is never free from one’s history, and even rewriting history, placing bones upon bones—as is the bone collector’s iterative, inscriptive task—cannot pry the individual from his or her community and the repressive social and religious structures of the past.
Winkler inverts the famous “begat” passages in the book of Genesis, opening the sections of When the Time Comes with his characters’ often tragicomic deaths rather than with their births; because of this, their lives seem to take on a more purposeful and even allegorical meaning. For example,
Willibald, who had worked for decades in the Heraklith factory on the other bank of the Drava, was dead from long cancer. His hands in the air and his pants around his ankles, he stepped out of the bathroom and called [to his wife]: Hilde! Hilde! Help me! then fell over and died on the spot.
“Death is my life’s theme,” Winkler has stated, and its presence—impending or otherwise—is felt on every page of When the Time Comes.
Most of the narrative in When the Time Comes, however, is taken up with the story of two boys, Jonathan and Leopold, names that allude to religious and popular examples of queerness—the first, a reference to Jonathan’s homoerotic relationship with David in the book of Samuel, and the second recalling Leopold of the Leopold and Loeb murder scandal in 1920s Chicago. It is typical of Winkler to fuse extremes: love alongside fear, pleasure alongside pain, and loyalty alongside greed: in this case, Jonathan and Leopold achieve an extreme jouissance combining pleasure (mutual masturbation) with pain (autoerotic asphyxiation):
The two boys tied the two ends of rope behind their ears and jumped into the emptiness, weeping and embracing, a few meters from the armless Christ who had once been rescued from a stream bed by the priest and painter of prayer cards… With their tongues out, their sexes stiff, their semen-flecked pants dripping urine, Jonathan in pajamas and Leopold in his quicklime-splattered bricklayer’s clothes, they hung in the barn of the parish house until they were found by Jonathan’s sixteen-year-old cousin…
Neither the bone collector Maximilian nor the townspeople condemn the boys for their homosexuality; instead, the townspeople grumble about the senseless act itself, not its queer connotations (“those two idiots who did away with themselves together!” in “this godless village”), and Jonathan’s mother Katharina grants her dead child unearthly powers, certain that he will return like the resurrected Christ to be again among his family. Whereas “[i]n death they were separable,” the intermingling of “their tears, their urine, and their sperm” in life had rendered them inseparable: they can now be mourned as individuals, despite the fact that, curiously, “Leopold was buried in Jonathan’s death mask.”
W. G. Sebald notes that Winkler’s use of repetition points to something personal in his work, an act of self-definition that requires sifting through and making sense of one’s origins: “Josef Winkler’s entire, monomaniac oeuvre … is actually an attempt to compensate for the experience of humiliation and moral violation by casting a malevolent eye on one’s own origins.” If repetition is the sole way to work through trauma, as Freud has suggested, the rural portraits in When the Time Comes suggest that trauma is as endemic to everyday life as is a kind of quiet joy, and the ways in which collective and personal traumas are eventually reconciled with one another are mediations intrinsically bound to the storyteller’s sociocultural function.
Sebald’s remarks on Winkler’s work also point to a moral complicity that individuals need to recognize, one that carries the weight of the past and also points toward a future—though, just what that future constitutes is bleakly uncertain. The teleological aim of the future, as Winkler sees, points only toward death. Thus, the reader meets each character in When the Time Comes at the moment of his or her death, the narrative then working backward through the character’s life. Winkler’s vision privileges the figure of the artist as conduit between past origins and present traumas, interpreting “the flood of recollected images [as it] begins,” but just what the artist or storyteller figure does with these “bones” is undefined, as is who will replace Maximilian when his own time comes.
Like Sebald and like his own Austrian compatriots Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek, and Thomas Bernhard, Winkler flags memory and history—collective and individual—as inescapable traps that affect present experience. Winkler is concerned with the individual’s role in history, how it is necessary to acknowledge complicity with the past, and how one must grapple with the external forces of inhumanity, greed, and immorality and ultimately reconcile with that past. And yet, while it is essential to remember the stories of the dead, sadly, we erase all memory of them before we have had time to absorb all that they can offer us:
Tomorrow morning or the day after, they will scrape it [candlewax] off with a kitchen knife and sweep it up with the leftover flowers strewn about, then there will be no more traces of a dead man in the house, the mourning house will smell no more of rotten flowers, burnt spruce twigs, and wax candles.
—K. Thomas Kahn
K. Thomas Kahn is a writer based in New York City whose criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Quarterly Conversation, Bookslut, 3:AM Magazine, The Millions, Music & Literature, Berfrois, and other venues. He can be found on Twitter @proustitute.
- I would like to thank Kristine Rabberman for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this piece.↵
- “Among the first instances in Winkler’s fictional works alluding to his role as human camera—one with a “camera-head” (Filmkamerakopf) occurs in his third novel, Muttersprache (1982), yet to be translated into English. I am grateful to translator Adrian West for this insight.”↵