"LUCID, FORLORN, CONSCIOUSNESS is walled-up; it perpetuates itself," writes Antoine Roquentin, the narrator of Jean-Paul Sartre's 1938 novel, Nausea, the classic study of alienation and existential absurdity. In 1973 Eugene Ionesco, in The Hermit, presented another character devoured by nameless fears and frustrated aspirations and tormented by the imminence of death and the pointlessness of all social arrangements.
Now two Austrian novelists have taken up this uncomfortable theme -- Peter Handke and Gerhard Roth. Handke in his 1975 novel, A Moment of True Feeling, traces the actions of an Austrian diplomat in Paris who one day awakens to discover the his life is meaningless and the world around him just as inexplicable. Gerhard Roth in Winterreise (first published in German in 1978) relates the story of a teacher named Nagl who is infected with "an oceanic feeling of loneliness" and the sense that "life was a vegetating thing, just as the earth was nothing special in the universe." He quits his job and heads off for Italy, a sexually greedy if otherwise conventional woman forming no inconsiderable part of his luggage.
These novels constitute a modern genre, the Vagaries of Urban Ennui. In English such diverse writers as Julian Gloag and Joan Didion (and a host of imitators) have swelled the melancholy chorus. In this genre everything if filtered through the consciousness of an educated, generally personable character in his or her thirties or forties who one day for no particular reason finds the quotidian intolerable and derisively arbitrary -- and takes off on an unplanned journey (or at least an aleatory tour of the back alleys of a great city). The caracter divides his time between calibrating his own moods (sudden tears, unprompted despair, love for all humanity and a fear of turning violent) and noticing with appalled relish the banal, bizarre things going on around him (middle-class people behaving in middle-class ways). These activities are punctuated by the protagonist's mysterious dreams, bouts of brutal sex and feelings of omniscience that alternate with feelings of confusion, inadequacy, self-loathing. Posed against all this dismalness are Things of Value, those pieties the main charactrer wanly cherishes but no longer believes in: manual labor, childhood, innocence, traditional religion.
There are differences, of course, among the various miners of this literary vein. Roth, for instance, is less cerebral, less impacted, less ingenious than Handke and far more lyrical. Winterreise has a surface as intricate and smooth as marquetry and descriptions that reveal a sure sense of color, light, place. In Venice "the houses turned pale like crab shells drying in the sun." In Rome, Nagl studies the statues of angels flanking Bernini's bridge: "Above the many whirls in the flowing river, the angels loomed white and beautiful, with large wings and pleated robes, like creatures of an icy, light-flooded planet. In the hard sunshine, which pierced through the rain clouds, the angels seemed to radiate a distant northern light, giving the water underneath a silvery shimmer."
The prose is almost always seductive. Similarly, the trajectory the plot describes is drawn with a strong, clean line. Nagl has a bear-like exterior that conceals a wounded, irritable sensitivity: Anna is presented as little more than a sex object and subject, though she is beguiling in both roles. We follow them on their aimless, entranced and usually alcoholic safari through Naples, Rome and Venice one winter (the title refers to Schubert's song cycle about the unhappy wanderer). While staggering about these cities, Nagl compares himself with his now-dead grandfather, a laborer who had accepted his difficult lot with stoicism, even gratitude. Nagl, however, questions his work. He cannot reconcile himself to teaching children to be compliant, obedient, conformist. In Italy Nagl thinks he "didn't want to return to life, to a country that took care of him, but demanded, in exchange, work that had nothing to do with him."
Roth's novel (the first of his books to be translated into English) is better observed, more skillfully written and more socially rooted than most other works in this genre. But it is a genre, an Ecole de Desespoir, one that seems to many readers automatically profound; this is the apotheosis of Chic Bleak. I don't question that the modern world can be viewed through dark glasses darkly, but to do so in a way so thoroughly predictable lacks (dare I say it?) originality. Interestingly, Kafka and Beckett, usually linked to these other writers, are actually quite different, for they invent their fictional worlds from the ground up. They are not pretending to transcribe modern life. We do not feel that they are stacking the cards against us, omitting those moments that might mitigate the suffering of their characters. No, Kafka and Beckett create every detail of the lives they render -- the castle, the court system, the desolate plain, the noose -- and this exalted work of the imagination is, in itself, exhilarating. What's more (could this be a crucial difference?), Kafka and Beckett are always piercingly funny.