From its opening page, Ror Wolf’s Two or Three Years Later defies expectations. This collection of forty-nine ‘digressions’ (Wolf’s term), translated from German by Jennifer Marquart and published by Open Letter Books, takes the reader on a disorienting journey through a series of fast-hitting, unresolved, and zany stories. Located at the intersection of anti-novel and metafictional farce, Wolf blends his own spare style with absurd setups, half plots and tragic loneliness. We never get inside. We never arrive. Hell, sometimes we never even depart. Instead, we bounce about on a pointed quill of uncertainty and wild merriment.
Of the forty-eight miniature stories in this collection, only three are longer than two-and-a-half pages. Many take up less than a page of text. The last story, “The Forty-Ninth Digression: Twelve Chapters from an Exposed Life,” is forty-nine pages long. (Wolf does seem to enjoy these little riddles.)
Born in eastern Germany in 1932, Ror Wolf is an award-winning novelist, poet, artist and collagist. Two or Three Years Later is the first of Wolf’s books readily available in English. He emigrated west in 1953, working in a variety of fields before studying with the German philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, members of the famous Frankfurt School, the source of modern critical theory.
Wolf plucks his stories from the edge of the familiar, so that we recognize some part of the architecture, some cornice or balustrade that hints at a larger design, but the building never materializes. Instead, we are left with only fragments, an incomplete blueprint that distorts assumptions and dismisses significance.
Take the story “Neither in Schleiz, nor Anywhere Else in the World,” in which Wolf announces his ambiguous intention in the title itself, not really a title but the negation of a title. Then the opening lines: “A man who prefers anonymity, a certain X—his name is irrelevant—arrives one day, one morning, one afternoon…It’s all the same in a city whose name we won’t disclose. He does nothing, which is what we wanted to report, since what he does is so insignificant that that’s the only significant thing to say about it.”
Notice how the story races ahead of the reader, all the while undercutting expectations. In a few sentences, Wolf silences character, plot, setting and theme with the cold-blooded efficiency of an assassin. What’s left, the reader reasonably wonders? But don’t expect Wolf to deliver an easy answer. He goes on to further nullify, through a series of parallel non-descriptions, any remaining hope of familiarity: “If he contemplates something, it is without feeling; if he touches something, it is without reason.” He’s erasing the story, rather than inventing it. He tells us nothing, and shows us even less. This story, like most in the collection, becomes almost impossible to summarize because it never arranges itself into any order.
Again and again, through a series of seemingly disconnected anecdotes and halting starts, Wolf declines to assemble. This is more than just post-modernist style. The collection doesn’t drift toward absurdism, it wallows in an almost nihilistic refusal to conform. And yet there’s a sturdy elegance about each of these pieces, a cold, biting quality that binds and spreads, so that what remains is a refreshingly pure, playful examination of stories without meaning (and, by implication, stories that do appear to have meaning).
“In a French Kitchen. In a Swiss Lake. In a Berlin Closet.” is a half-page story that delivers the accounts of three tragic accidents. A man intentionally blows himself up with dynamite. A golfer drowns after throwing his golf bag into a lake. Three seventy-year-old men playing cards burn themselves to death. Wolf relates these incidents without any context, emotion or explanation. “All three burned. This was in Berlin, near Nollendorfplatz.” Thus the story ends.
In “On the Edge of the Atlantic,” Wolf’s turns comically ornery. “A man yelled out in fear. Shortly thereafter, he died. That’s basically what happened, in any case, generally and essentially.” Nothing else happens. No explanation is offered. No narrative details fill in the missing pieces. In fact, what Wolf supplies in place of the expected is a direct admonishment: “Of course, the reader deserved nothing better than the waves crashing over the man’s body, and the rain rolling in simultaneously, streaming down from above. Maybe he didn’t even deserve that.”
The idea of the reader not deserving the image, the prose that Wolf refused to render, certainly strikes a sinister, hilarious tone.
This roguish antagonism is embroidered in the text—between expectations and outcomes, between narrator and reader. It reveals that the patterns here are non-patterns, or anti-patterns at least. Uncertainty and doubt prevail. The stories rest on conditionality hinged together with the subjunctive mood.
Wolf does offer something of a clue to his aesthetic in the two-and-a-half page story, “At Nightfall.”
Last Monday I began to describe a man, who turned the corner of 82nd Street with a tremendous yawn. I didn’t want to describe his yawn, in any case it’s indescribable, and I didn’t want to describe how he turned the corner, but rather I wanted to describe how this man—or differently, differently. I’ll start over.
Wolf goes on to make nine aborted efforts to describe the simple act of a man turning a corner. “No, that’s weak, and not very good either. Maybe I should begin like this…” Is Wolf showing us the impossibility of language to adequately describe reality? Is he unmasking the fickle power of words to conjure anything? Or is he just having fun? If a story can’t get the simple act of turning a corner right, how can it hope to tackle the larger issues of morality, life, death, meaning? Wolf seems to be reminding us that, sometimes, it’s better not to try.
Artists are always trying to kick down the doors of tradition and form. The artist is always radicalizing his art; testing boundaries, pressing forward. Ror Wolf — with his philosophic roots in the Frankfurt School, famous for its intense critique of reason, the Enlightenment and modernity — appears to be of this ilk. His writing challenges the very notion of meaning and interconnectedness. In the end, the only thread that holds these stories together is no thread.
“I’ve traveled throughout this entire loud, reverberating world,” Wolf writes in “The Power of Song in Nevada, my favorite story in the collection. “I’ve traveled out of a profound disposition for the echoing sea. I’ve heard ship bands and chamber orchestras, I’ve experienced the howling of the wind and the wild shouts of sailors—but all of that is nothing compared to the men’s choir I heard in Nevada.”
I don’t know what this means, especially when Wolf tells us how awful this choir was. But somewhere in the peregrinations and uncertainty, somewhere in these digressions, these strange and wondrous non-stories, the writer searches for the true note, for the profound disposition. It’s anyone’s guess if he’ll ever find it.
Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, A Year in Ink, upstreet, New Plains Review, Descant (Canada) and Numéro Cinq. He lives in San Diego.