German Literature Month happens every November, and usually I remember about it some time in December. This year, though, I’m taking part for the second year in a row! After my review of Austerlitz last year, here are my thoughts on The Weight of Things by Austrian writer Marianne Fritz.
There are some pretty horrible characters in The Weight of Things, from the overbearing Wilhelmina to the spineless Wilhelm. Even Rudolf, a man who appears only for a few pages before being decapitated, manages to come across as quite arrogant and unlikeable.
The only sympathetic character in the book is Berta, which is odd because she ends up doing something absolutely awful. But she does it because of the weight of things, you see. Fritz’s genius is in communicating the weight of things so tangibly that we understand Berta’s terrible act, and we sympathise with her for it. Well, I did, anyway.
The Weight of Things
So what is the weight of things, you ask? Essentially, it’s life. It’s all the unfair things that happen, all the mean-spirited, grasping people who move up while others are left behind, all the ways in which society operates to reward some and destroy others. Sometimes, the amount of unnecessary suffering in the world can feel overwhelming.
Berta feels all of this as a weight bearing down on her. She seems to do everything wrong, and she’s constantly told that she’s “not right in the head”. Then, as her two children get older, they are also told they are “hopeless cases”. They’re bullied and laughed at and excluded from the regular classes. Berta begins to worry that they, too, will be worn down by the weight of things. So she acts as a mother, to protect her children.
Wilhelm, her husband, is a very different character. He doesn’t think at all about the weight of things. He parrots other people’s opinions, follows other people’s leads. He smiles and agrees and goes through life as light as a feather. As a chauffeur, he says, his job is to:
“steer the car from one place to the other without putting myself, my passenger, or anyone else in unnecessary danger.”
He lives his life the same way, smoothly steering the safest course. He does well, gets good tips, does his duty to his employer and his family. As Fritz sardonically writes, “he was a worthy representative of his nation.”
It’s sad to see the smiling, cowardly Wilhelm and the ambitious, relentlessly critical Wilhelmina get ahead, while gentle, honest Berta gets crushed under the weight of things. But, even sadder, it feels true to life. This is a short, beautiful and sad novel that I would recommend reading. Probably not one to give as a Christmas present, though…