Peter Weiss is perhaps best known as a playwright, in particular for his play Marat / Sade which became an international success, staged by Peter Brook in New York and later adapted into a film. He continued to write prose, however, and his greatest work is often regarded to be The Aesthetics of Resistance, a three volume sequence, only the first volume of which seems to have been translated into English (and that was in 2005, thirty years after its first appearance). Leavetaking is an earlier (1961) autobiographical novella which was recently reprinted by Melville House in its original English translation by Christophe Levenson from 1968.
The text is presented in one intense single paragraph, as memories of the narrator’s life resurface in the aftermath of his father’s death. In a sense, the novella is a series of leavetakings as he remembers the various homes in which the family lived despite the fact that:
“This man, who now lay lost before me, had never given up believing in the ideal of a permanent home.”
The turbulent history of Europe had decided otherwise, but the effect of the father’s death, which has closely followed his mother’s, on the family is described in terms of the house where they lived:
“We pushed and shoved around the chairs, tables, and sofas, violently we disrupted the order that had always been unassailable, and soon the house resembled a furniture warehouse and the objects that had been afforded a lifetime’s care and protection at my mother’s hand lay piled up in various rooms in five huge heaps, some to be taken away, some to be sold.”
He realises that “the home from which we had been thrust out had nevertheless embodied a security for us, and with its going the last symbol of our unity disappeared.” In this ending he remembers his beginnings, and a first house which has “large blind spots in it” due to his young age. Much of what follows comes in the impressionistic style of vivid but disconnected memories.
The narrator’s distance from his parents is highlighted early on in a scene where he lays out their clothes in an attempt to understand them:
“About my father I knew nothing. The strongest impression he made was his always being away somewhere. I had heard only a few words about his past.”
This lack of knowledge of his father’s identity feeds into the narrator’s attempt to forge his own in opposition. Weiss’ birth around the time the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved left his family without a clear national identity (his father was also a converted Jew); though born in Brandenburg, Weiss was never a German citizen. He resists his father’s attempt to find him employment and instead becomes determined to be an artist (in this way the novella is a typical Bildungsroman). This attraction to a more Bohemian lifestyle is perhaps foreshadowed on a visit to friends where they find the children playing naked:
“And we now found out what we could have found out any day that summer, though it never returned, how alive we became in our nakedness.”
Like many an artist before and after, he finds escape in books:
“In books I encountered the life that school had kept hidden from me. In books I was shown another reality of life than that into which my parents and teachers wanted to force me.”
As one would expect from a Bildungsroman, Leavetaking also features the narrator’s sexual awakening; less typical is the involvement of his sister, Margit, in this. As adolescents they strip and explore each other’s bodies in Margit’s bed – the style of the narrative is such we cannot tell if this happens once or many times, and the scene appears largely without context. Perhaps Weiss’ intention is simply to suggest that nothing is hidden, though it emphasises that Margit is the only member of the family he seems close to. When she dies shortly after (the two scenes are placed very close together) he loses any reason to remain with his family:
“My sister’s death was the beginning of my attempts to free myself from the past.”
This is juxtaposed with his discovery of his Jewish roots, something which he suggests saved him from the temptation of Nazism; this tie to the past will also free him as he must move away for safety, determined to make his dream of becoming an artist a reality.
Though Weiss’ story of the artist as a young man is, in many ways, typical, it is the style of its telling which makes it worth reading. His impressionistic prose telescopes his defining years into a narrow space, cleverly mimicking the solipsistic viewpoint of childhood and adolescence while making each moment vivid for the reader.