Marianne Fritz: Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst

Published at 4 Dec 2023

Marianne Fritz

Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst

Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1985.


Brief presentation

Marianne Fritz was an Austrian author who was born in 1948 in Weiz, Styria and who died in 2007 in Vienna. Her large project The Fortress (Die Festung) puts Central Europe’s “continuous rivalries, crises and conflicts” (Csáky 2010: 56) into language, covering the final years of the multinational state of Austria-Hungary and especially in the face of the First World War. As such, The Fortress must be located alongside Robert Musil’s model of “Kakanien”, which thematises and ironises the “multiplicity of national ‘stories’” against the background of a single history that has become impossible (Innerhofer 2016: 115). The project is also in proximity to the work of Karl Kraus, who, facing the First World War, “wrote a comprehensive social, cultural and moral history of the imperial capital and the royal seat of Vienna” and “included the most diverse phenomena of city life” (Weigl and Pfoser 2022: 361). However, Marianne Fritz approaches the topics in an idiosyncratic way: in contrast to Musil’s writings, Fritz opens up a proletarian perspective and while Kraus handles language and its performativity as “an ultimately untouchable quality” that exposes symptoms of speech (Michler 2022: 332), the language of The Fortress appears to be damaged and its performativity is rather constituted by the “joints of speech” (Wetzel 1995: 118).  In the monumental novel Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst (Whose language you do not understand, 1985; henceforth abbreviated as DS), which represents a major part of The Fortress, the syntax is perturbed by an odd punctuation and shaped by deferrals and ellipses. As a basic strategy that is rooted in poetological reflections, narrated contents are not simply represented but rather constituted word by word in their complex and implacable relations (Liessmann 1995: 141). By means of estrangement effects, e.g. Danube-blue (“Donaublau”) as a distortion of Vienna and an ironic reference to Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube (Schmutzer 2018c: 120), the novel processes its own world that can be linked to history only if the reader follows its performative structures. The main figures are the various members of the proletarian family “Null” that live in the municipality of “Nowhere” (“Nirgendwo”). Their stories are interwoven with many other narrative lines that overall reflect how the state struggles to unify its national, cultural, social, and linguistic pluralities in the course of modernity (Stachel 2001: 19-30): in this way, the techniques and problems of literary modernism are appropriated, radicalised and pushed forward against its own limitations to create a portrait of Austrian society that “makes [us] aware of how the crack, that, in the words of Robert Musil, divided thinking and the world in such a way that it could not be mended until today, must be considered the decisive event of this century” (Schmidt-Dengler 2014: 53; Fontana 1960: 338).



After her debut work The Gravity of Circumstances (Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse, 1978/2023, translated as The Weight of Things, 2015), for which she was awarded the Robert Walser Prize, Marianne Fritz was considered a promising talent by critics. Around a hundred pages in length, this text tells the story of a lower middle class woman in the period after the Second World War and introduces the “fortress” as the asylum of the capital Danube-blue, in which stories are locked away. From there, Fritz’s writing went backwards (“im Krebsgang”, Liessmann 1986) into more and more radical terrain. While The Child of Violence and the Stars of the Romany (Das Kind der Gewalt und die Sterne der Romani, 1980) tells in about 550 pages the events that happen around the rape of a Roma woman in the village of Gnom, after the collapse of the monarchy in 1921, the 3300 pages of DS focus on the months before and after the beginning of the First World War and are structured around the very same fortress as a “crystallization point” of an annihilation (Priesching 1990: 89). The body of DS protrudes from the sequel Natural (Naturgemäß, 1996-2007), which remains unfinished, like “the hull of a sinking ship” (Kastberger 2007: 312f) – e.g. the construction plan of DS can be found at the end of the fifth volume of Natural II (Fritz 1998, 4744). Natural is mainly concerned with another “fortress” already hinted at in DS (2823): it “freezes” the siege of Przemyśl at the Ukrainian-Polish border (which ended in a heavy defeat for Austria-Hungary) and dissects it layer by layer on more than 5000 pages (Kastberger and Neundlinger 2012: 5). Thus, besides the asylum of Danube-blue, the historical landscape of Galicia and the area around it as an “eternal death zone” (“ewiges Todesgebiet”, Fritz 1998: 4384), as “a centuries-long deployment zone of European and Asian armies” (Kastberger and Neundlinger 2012: 9), is the other source from which Fritz’ overall project The Fortress draws its stories.

For an overview of DS, it is helpful to look at the various members of the family Null. While Josef Null senior, a worker’s hero, was shot at an uprising, his authoritarian ghost is haunting the five sons. Josef Null junior lives and dies in the same manner in the course of the novel. Matthias Null and his wife Magdalena are victims of the poverty in Danube-blue, where they are joined by his brother Franz, who has an affair with Magdalena and who will end up as one of the many zeros that constitute the human material of the First World War – unlike his brother Johannes Null, whose desertion at the beginning of the war frames the novel. His flight leads him through Galicia and the mountainous terrain of the “Land of the Chen and Lein” back to his lover in Nowhere, to the priest Pepi Fröschl who will ultimately betray him to the authorities. A few weeks earlier, his brother August wandered back the same way with a rifle and ammunition. The montage evokes such a synchronicity, “that the impression is created that the brothers must meet each other” (Schafroth 1985: VII). As August roams through the land and meets its people, he is shocked by the poverty-stricken society and the imprints of “quasi-colonial power relations” (Feichtinger 2003: 13) in the monarchy’s outskirts, which interfere with his own inner conflicts, that confront him with a failed relationship to a woman of higher class, entangled with the rejection of his whole family by the middle- and upper class society of his hometown Nowhere. When he returns, he will barricade himself inside Nowhere’s steeple and shoot at everything that moves or even reflects movement such as windows. He ends up in the fortress separated from his mother Barbara Null, who is interned in another wing.

The novel’s often pejorative critical reception has been analysed extensively in various places (Dath 2020: 105f.; Rabelhofer 1991: 49-61; Schmutzer 2018a/2018b/2019), while the obstinacy of DS has been related to Hölderlin’s “poetic calculus” (Schmidt-Dengler 2014: 55; Kastberger 2007: 14-31) or his “language of the ether” (Liessmann 1991: 200) and has yet to be examined in the context of the neo-avant-gardes. “Her work continuously forces [us] to examine our criteria”, Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler said at a laudatory speech for Fritz (Schmidt Dengler 2014: 52), which may explain why there are so many introductions to DS that stop halfway (Schmutzer 2018c: 55-95). Initially, Suhrkamp itself published “an introductory volume to the novel” that consisted of paratexts (like an essay by Heinz F. Schafroth or poetological statements by Fritz) together with the novel’s first chapter (Fritz 1985b). Ironically, this is one of the more difficult chapters since it was written at the very end of the writing process, where the author could naturally refer to a world that the reader does not know yet (Schmutzer 2018c: 201). When readers read the chapter for the first time, they are confronted with dense columns and an unintelligible hierarchy of titles and headlines that obstruct the reading even more than the “textual terrains” (“Textgelände”) of its sequels which provoke our play drive. This is demonstrated by numerous contributions in a recent edition of the Schreibheft that continue to experiment with those terrains (Kraus and vom Brocke 2023).

There is an ironic turn in the composition of the beginning, as the narration starts with a road blockade, while the narrator continues to call roads “communications” (“Kommunikationen”, Rabelhofer 1991: 78) throughout the novel. This can be subsumed in Walter Benjamin’s notion of an “objective irony” that reflects the artwork’s form itself (Benjamin 1980: 89; Schmutzer 2018c: 117f), a form that Konrad Paul Liessmann linked to Adorno’s assumption that “no artwork is to be described or explained in terms of the categories of communication” (Liessmann 1991: 189/Adorno 2012: 167; Adorno 2002: 109). Opposed to such a repellent situation, Klaus Kastberger quotes Heinrich Kleist to describe a utopian scene in the core of the work, where August Null tells his story to his cell neighbour Romeo inside the fortress:

The human face confronting a speaker is an extraordinary source of inspiration to him and a glance which informs us that a thought we have only half expressed has already been grasped often saves us the trouble of expressing all the remaining half. (Kleist 1951: 43; Kastberger 2007: 327)

On the one hand, Kastberger argues that the narrator’s stance trusts this human face to manufacture speech. On the other hand, Kastberger emphasises the novel’s inherent urge towards totality. It confronts the narration, which is in its “null state” so to speak, with all the discursive attributions of meaning that alienate its figures in the course of the novel. In a world that has become binary in the course of the twentieth century, they all fail to transcend their meaningless “null state” into a meaningful “one state” (Kastberger 2007: 313f). As captivating as this interpretation is, it sets interdependencies that block our approach, if we consider that the “totalizing model of meaning-making” (Kastberger 2007: 315) might differ from the totality at work in DS. While Kastberger names de Saussure’s linguistic assumptions as a paradigm for this model, Liessmann applies a totality that Georg Lukács formulated in the Theory of the Novel, published 1916 (Lukács 2009: 7), in the same year of war as Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale (Saussure 2011: IX). Art itself becomes a totality in the historic moment it loses its character of representation, but it is a totality in decay because there are no authorities any more that could guarantee meaning. What strives for totality inevitably disintegrates in the process of its formation. Aware of that, DS, as Liessmann proposes, shapes its own decay (Liessmann 1995: 145). It uses the achievements of modern literature, but pushes them beyond its limits – not to limit itself to aesthetic experiments with the suspicious tools of representation, not to attack an institution or to disrupt our means to access the world, rather to strain “the unfolding of the decay of communication, of language itself, to the utmost, to tell a story” (Liessmann 1991: 190).

Lukács’ Theory of the Novel reacts to a narrative crisis that, according to Walter Benjamin, results from the gap between “storytelling” that conveys experiences (Benjamin 2000: 78) and “information” that “lays claim for prompt verifiability” (Benjamin 2000: 80; Stierle 2012: 235). Fritz refers exactly to this hiatus in a poetological reflection addressed to her lector:

Perhaps I am concerned with what certain forms, documents, card-like curricula vitae exclude, fade out, leave out, do not include; Maybe I am moved by the ‘blanks’, the ‘not kept’, the ‘deleted’, the ‘left unmentioned’, the ‘irrelevant’, the ‘superfluous’, the ‘surplus’, the fact that much of what is ‘information’ is lived, maybe I am more responsible for what is stored in information, namely: Experiences? Destinies? Sufferings? Agonies? Torment, errors that are PAID, suffered; probably, conceivably it is certainly, I ‘make’ certain ‘curricula vitae’ an experience again? (Fritz 1985b: 7; 2010: 218)

The “stabilized meaning” (Kastberger 2007: 317) that Kastberger persistently refers to is always at stake; not as the novel’s end point “that Marianne Fritz pursues” (Kastberger 2007: 315), rather the other way around: As something that she conceives in manifold fragments that add up to the novel’s structure. It drives the processual logic between the parts and the whole that Adorno describes as constitutive for modern art and that Liessman applies to DS (Liessmann 1991: 189f). However, while Adorno’s notion of communication as “adaptation of spirit to utility“ (Adorno 2012: 115; Adorno 2002: 74) is accurate as a critique on a world organised by “information”, it fails to encircle the vivid speech situation that Kastberger reminds us of by quoting Kleist. The novel harbours many of those “primal scenes of poetic speech” (Wetzel 1995) that as such have to be differentiated from the narrator’s stance which is characterised by its changing distances to all figures by the extensive use of indirect free speech. We are very close to August Null when he thinks about his inner struggles as well as about his relationship to Romeo:

Most of the images were in him, as if locked up, put in chains, in shackles. August Null wanted to open them, but he didn’t know the chains, maybe it was only a chest and it was locked. On it: a lock, he did not find the key for it. [...] And if he had the key, what was the use of opening this chest. That he understood, Romeo? (2662)

For August, their conversation is in continuation of his brother Franz’s recitals of fairy tales, where, among other things, Day and Night have given birth to a child named after the father “Child of the Night”, which is also Romeo’s epithet when he is introduced in the beginning of the core part of the novel. Again at the end of this part, August reflects on his brother’s mythical symbols:

He saw the night differently, also the day. But the question How Romeo’s Gusti never answered; he silenced it down, had no words for it, merely pictures. But those remained in his head. Phrases; only fragments, often only single words, were released: transformed. And herewith audible, also for Romeo. (2664)

After listening to August and the story behind his rampage, Romeo sees August’s aggressions as a psychic paradigm of their contemporary society. However, while August was driven by class conflicts in the last instance, Romeo finds the same aggressions addressed by the war that has just started:

“Masses, you murdered, masses”, and Romeo shook his head: “I say you’re just a precursor. You ran ahead, just for OTHER reasons. I emphasize, for OTHER reasons” (2744).

Written at the end of the short twentieth century, the novel pursues the palpability of the society’s inherent conflicts right before the First World War not only by interweaving manifold narrative lines, but especially by reflecting them in its poetic structure, where meaningful language is ruptured by the performativity of individual speech. The “Child of the Night”, for example, has a different meaning depending on whether it is understood from August’s, Franz’s or Romeo’s perspective, while only its persistent occurrence insinuates a stabilised meaning between the lines. The novel recreates in miniature a historical situation in which, as Peter Stachel’s thesis about Austria-Hungary goes, a nation has perished from a “linguistic defect” (Stachel 2001) and it grasps this miniature as the “dynamic process” and the “performative and hybrid space of communication”, as which Moritz Csáky characterises Central Europe (Csáky 2010: 55). At the same time, the novel’s title, “Whose language you do not understand”, thematises also a rebound of the linguistic defect on the narrative discourse that affects the conditions of reading, which is why the novel’s avant-garde strategies force us to examine the philological criteria that have to be sensible for the performative intertwining of all these textual layers.


Avant-garde strategies

Based on a structuralist and semiotic approach, Bettina Rabelhofer worked out an extensive catalogue of the text’s characteristic phenomena, in which she stressed how they de-automate our reading process and how they express a variety of speech situations (Rabelhofer 1991: 26f.). On many textual layers ambiguities are revealed or created, e.g. by means of distorted orthography or punctuation (Rabelhofer 1991: 44). Comparing the word “Vatterland” (“fatherland” with an additonal ‚t’) to Jandl’s poem schtzngrmm, Rabelhofer states that the phonetic body is equally inscribed with the rattle of guns and the harsh tone of authoritarian speech (Rabelhofer 1991: 31). An example for the use of punctuation is the semicolon in the phrase “whom she feared; still not” (62) which makes us stumble in our reading and focuses our attention on the function of negation, which must first thematise what it negates. In the context of the ritual of a naming that is narrated at this point, it demands sensitivity for authority (Schmutzer 2018c: 204-24). Another example is a dash that marks the point where – in terms of Shoshana Felman’s reflections on speech acts (Felman 2003) – an intention stumbles over a desire. Warned, that he should not hide at the priest, Johannes Null replies: “Ich geh nicht – dorthin zu allerletzt” (S. 474). The utterance bears two meanings: “I do not go; there at the very last” and also: “I go there last but not least” (Schmutzer 2018c: 33). Thus, this anacoluthon mirrors the tragic setting of Johannes Null’s entire narrative arc spanning several thousand pages and demonstrates how macro and micro structures interact.

The syntax conveys the sense of strolling through a “singing fog” (Dath 1998) with much happening around that cannot be ordered. The use of tenses is limited and infinitives are preferred. The components of sentences are twisted or reduced, articles are dropped, the subject is erased or blurred by the omission of the auxiliary verb that is connected to it. Thus, the urge to locate the events and their circumstances is created. It is rather an exception that the narrator mediates what happens. By means of indirect free speech the narration rarely leaves the level of reflection of the characters as well as it slides into dramatic and lyrical and ironical passages (Liessmann 1991: 194; Schmutzer 2018c: 71-79 and 109-121).

A radicalisation of Musil’s “sense of possibility” (“Möglichkeitssinn”) displays the striving of many figures against authoritarian structures (Rathjen 1995: 47). The term hints at recounted passages that delve into the potential concealed in the many relationships, whereas only one of the many hypothetical ramifications is “frozen” into reality (Rathjen 1995: 44). Many descriptions offer an immense amount of detail that could be compared to Oswald Wiener’s page-long description of a brown rubber (Wiener 2020: XLIII-VIII), like maps that are paced in language, when two pupils walk through the town of “Dreieichen” or two lovers follow “star walks” in Nowhere (Rabelhofer 1991: 132-40). However, less driven by a merely sceptical attitude that tries to overload and to test language, relationships are established here that are woven into the fabric of the whole. For example, the meticulous depiction of street networks is mirrored in the pedagogical methods of Dreieichen’s seminary, which are also designated as “God’s eyes” (634).

Within Fritz’s work, there are particular strategies for dramatising and ironising historic sources from the late 19th and early 20th century, which shall be demonstrated here with two examples, concerning ethnological studies from the margins of the monarchy on the one hand and contemporary authoritarian pedagogy on the other. First, the customs of the Hutsuls reported by Raimund Friedrich Kaindls ethnological study from the late 19th century are transferred into scenic arrangements where the observer himself is involved in the situation. For example, when Kaindl reports that Hutsul women would consider it a sin to deny themselves to a man (Kaindl 1894: 9), in DS, we read in indirect free speech about the fictitious source of this report (15; Schmutzer 2018c: 281), a sexist officer desiring “young” and “untouched flesh” (9). The “Hucul’ščyna” (Makarska 2010) in Galicia is defamiliarised as the “Land of the Chen and Lein” (the land of German diminutives, so to speak, Schmutzer 2018c: 158), among others by playing with Kaindls statement, that diminutives characterise the Hutsul language (Kaindl 1894: 108). Already the opening scene with the montage of a folk song plays with the ethnological heritage as well as intertextually with the bucolic tradition. The subjects of the song, which depict a pastoral scenery, including freely lived sexuality, crime, punishment, class differences and conflicts with the authorities, transgress all levels of the text (Schmutzer 2018c: 143-165).

Secondly, the entanglement of historical sources with other layers incorporated into the idiosyncratic structure can be exemplified by a passage that is best described with the cinematic technique of the “match cut”, where there is a surprising effect in the transition of different movements via a formal contiguity (Schmutzer 2018c: 105; Metz 2000: 139). In this case, because it does not work with images, it has an even more confusing effect than in a film. In one scene, we follow the educator of Dreieichen’s seminary while he transfers in the spirit of Moritz Schreber the watchmaker’s knowledge of the end of the 19th century into his authoritarian pedagogical methods. In the next instance, we read an objection of the watchmaker’s son Johannes Todt in conversation with his colleague Pepi Fröschl at the beginning of their erotic adventure at the cemetery (Schmutzer 2019: 90). The historic sources are put into a dramatic context where the creative and wishful thinking of rigid pedagogues clashes with rebellious pupils.

Measured against a steady narrative discourse as Genette deduces it from Proust’s Recherche (Genette 2010), everything is contorted. For example, it cannot be clearly determined what is an analepsis and what is a prolepsis. Each passage can be followed up in different directions. Rabelhofer speaks of “narrative scores” (Rabelhofer 1991: 143) and compares phrases to upward and downward movements in twelve-tone music. Recurrent motives are arranged symmetrically across thousands of pages (Rabelhofer 1991: 143-155). To demonstrate how the strategies mentioned so far are interdependent with those larger structures, it is helpful to return to the conversations between Romeo and August. Those conversations are hinted at for the first time in the third part of the novel, “The Village of the Dead I” (“Das Dorf der Toten I”), by two caretakers during their nightshift in the fortress. While they ponder about Barbara Null’s psyche, they mention that August Null only speaks to his cell neighbour Romeo (838), who is interned because of his zoophilic attempts (818). The reader knows this name already from the first chapter where a military officer named Rome, who “has lost the o” (112), seems to know much about the fortress’ customs.

“Romeo” is also the title of the core of the work, which, at this point of the text, is still to come. It will begin with the opening of the cells during the nightshift by the same caretakers, so that Romeo can join his neighbour August Null. Right after, the reader is pushed into another scene in front of the “Ochsenwirt”, an inn where August finds his former liaison Wilhelmine Spieß together with the industrialist’s son Kurt Schwefel, while all guests indulge in “mockery and derision” (1184) of the Null-family, as Romeo will sum up more than a hundred pages later. Put in a prominent place in the beginning and edited together, the scenes form a knot in the multidirectionality of the novel: each scene is the condition of the other. The opening of the cells marks the primal scene of August’s storytelling, while the mockery and derision in the inn is a re-actualisation of a scene of humiliation that tells how he will end up in the fortress. In a chiastic relation but edited together, both primal scenes address the blockade August is telling about at the end of “Romeo”, when he refers to his images that are locked away.

Unlike August’s stance, the poetic calculus is not fixed in a cell and links both scenes to a broader context. We perceive the situation inside the fortress through multiple perspectives, when we learn of one of the caretakers thinking of him being a symbolic father (1058f.), while his family’s line-up is pivotal in the novel’s two parts of “The Village of the Dead”; or when Romeo is wondering, why killing can be socially prestigious but his love for a female ape is scorned (1112-15). The patriarchal and paternalistic structures that run through the entire novel right up to the political level can be exemplified here.

We find August’s scenes of humiliation, threaded over many pages, along the symbol of a chestnut inside its spiked ball and condensed in the compound “Selbstbeweihräucherungs-FaßEs” (1857). The latter poetic play, that cannot be translated concisely, builds on the coincidence of “self-adulation”, which is literally translated from German as “self-incense”, and a “thurible”, a “Weihrauchfass”, which would be literally translated as “incense-cask”. Moreover, the word is used in the genitive case, where it literally harbours the “instruction” (Rabelhofer 1991: 26) “Get it!”/”Grab it!”, that, again, is emphasised by the notation. To try to understand this word, which hints at preachy and dismissive speaking, means to keep track of scenes that express not only August’s, but also Nowhere’s conflicts that span class and economic frameworks, religion, education, sexuality and the patriarchal and authoritarian structures among those. When August comprehends this word in the context of a dream at the steeple, he is hearing “the old Spieß” – whom he murdered just before – “walking his language” like walking his dog “Waldi” (1857). Already during August’s liaison with Spieß’s daughter Wilhelmine, the lecturing tone has been a topic, where he, the proletarian, unlike any figure of Viennese Modernism, seeing himself as Nowhere’s “Freethinker” (e.g. 1158), referred to scholars (“Gelehrte”) as “the emptied ones” (“Geleerten”, 1332), while she summons sacred authorities to finally reject their sexual encounter under a chestnut tree: “The reverend works with incense and Gusti with wild chestnuts: […] she has become the victim of an emissary of the devil” (1149). August has given Wilhelmine a chestnut which she keeps under her pillow (1148f.). He told her that it has to stay inside its ball, what evokes his former enuresis whose stains he was forced to display in the corner of the classroom – “he sees the opened spiked ball, the reverend calls him back into the religion lesson and it flows, already down to the floor[.]” (1137f.). Later, when a group of ten “proper sons” (1185) try to force a chestnut away from August, a brawl with twenty “hell’s boys” (1185) ensues (“They thresh Gusti! There’s ten of them!”, 1186). Finally, at the Ochsenwirt, Kurt Schwefel points out that August “works with wild chestnuts” (1174), demonstrating that Wilhelmine has revealed their secret to him.

The chestnut inside its spiked ball is developed as symbol for love as well as for August’s inner struggles and Nowhere’s tensions that spread out into social, economic, political, cultural and colonial contexts within the multinational state. The contradictions between these symbolic meanings cannot be resolved. This sequence of images in various scenes exemplifies how individual acts are connected in multiple directions in a fabric shaped as a “fatality of all that was and all that will be” (Liessmann 1995: 155; Nietzsche 1999: 96), while it makes palpable how the figures miss each other in using the same words and symbols that thus transgress all discursive layers.



On a macro level, we find “Romeo” as a core of more than 1500 pages. Basically, it is the story of August Null from childhood scenes and his relationship to Wilhelmine Spieß in the first chapters up to his internment into the fortress, while taking his rampage (starting with the fifth chapter) as an occasion to look with him from the steeple to get a view of Nowhere’s residents. Thus, it relates the conflicts in the organised workforce right before the First World War (eleventh chapter) and puts the reader into the role of a detective in the homicide case of the painter Abel Niemand that spans out into Naturgemäß (twelfth chapter). It depicts the horrendous conditions in Danube-blue by portraying the situation between Matthias Null and his wife Magdalena (second chapter) as well as in the Land of the Chen and Lein, that August roams on his journey back to Nowhere (fourth chapter) and what underlines how DS confronts us with another “Kakanien” – one of marginalised minorities and poverty.

The two parts of “The Village of the Dead” come before and after “Romeo”. They follow Barbara Null’s movement from sickroom no. 14 to the sickroom no. 66 of the fortress, after her transformation into the “Erdäpfelchen” (the diminutive of a potato) has taken place at the end of “Romeo” (Schmutzer 2018c: 23). The misery of 75 women under the regime of a professor called “Pluto, the moon-faced” is depicted in great intensity. She teaches the song about “life the wound” to them, passed on to a later generation in The Gravity of Circumstances (2811-13). “The Village of the Dead” is as well about the Krieg family living in a house at the outskirts of Danube-blue. While Hubertus is a young doctor in the fortress, his brother Cornelius works there as a caretaker who appears under the name “I-told-you-so” in many conversations with his colleague “the other”. Their sister Scholastika Peregrina Krieg renames herself “Wiglwogl” (an Austrian dialect word referring to indecision) and turns to a vagabond but keeps correspondence to Cornelius. She experiences another transformation, due to a traumatic experience, in the fourth chapter of “Romeo”, where she meets August, while she also wanders through the first chapter of the novel (Schmutzer 2018a: 203-9).

As a secret main figure, the young reverend Pepi Fröschl occurs throughout the “stories-mycelium” (Priesching 1990: 11). In “The Village of the Dead” he appears in his relation to Barbara Null, while the novel’s outer framework is constituted by a repetition compulsion of the priest:

            1. “The Outlawed” (“Der Vogelfreie”)

            2. “Who would hear me; if I called I: The Cephalopod or the Squaring of the Circle”

            (“Wer hörte mich denn; wenn ich riefe I: Der Kopffüßer oder die Quadratur des Kreises”)

                        3. “The Village of the Dead I: Barbara or the Many-Headed”

                        (“Das Dorf der Toten I: Barbara oder der Vielköpfige”)

                                   4. “Romeo”

                        5. “The Village of the Dead II: Barbara or the Schizophrenia of the Potato”

                        (“Das Dorf der Toten II: Barbara oder die Schizophrenie des Erdapfels”)

            6.  “Who would hear me; if I called II: Raincoat”

            (“Wer hörte mich denn; wenn ich riefe II: Regenmantel”)

The first part of “Who would hear me; if I called” is situated in the seminary of Dreieichen at the end of the 19th century, where Pepi Fröschl and his colleague Johannes Todt discover their desires, while their educator persecutes them with his “language of innuendos” (“Die Sprache der Andeutungen/oder/Gleichnisse entfernterer Art”: 576), derived from contemporary poisonous pedagogy in the spirit of Moritz Schreber. At the end, Johannes Todt will hang himself, while Pepi Fröschl is henceforth pursued by the Ape of God, a psychosis created in allusion to the case of Daniel Paul Schreber (Freud 2000b; Schmutzer 2019: 95f).

The title “Who would hear me; if I called” is a reference to Ijob 9,16 as well as a paraphrase of the first verse from Rilke’s first Duino Elegy – however, in the novel we find in this phrase Fröschl’s longing for god overlapped with his sexual desire towards Johannes: “Who would hear me; if I called: Johannes?” (549) In Fröschl’s psyche, this name is overdetermined, which constitutes the novel’s outer framework (Schmutzer 2018c: 201). The second part of “Who would hear me; if I called” is also complementary to the first part of the novel, “The Outlawed”, which tells the story of the desertion of Johannes Null at the beginning of the First World War and his flight back to his lover in Nowhere, where he will become a victim of Fröschl’s inner fight against his “unnatural” desires: “killing men, these were the heroes, men loving each other, this was unnature” (3038).



The title, “Whose language you do not understand”, seems to inform the reader about its own poetic structure. At the same time, however, it finds a diagnosis for “the crack that divided thinking and the world” in defects of speech and languages inside the multinational state of Austria-Hungary at the brink of the First World War. As a quote from Deuteronomy 28:49, where God sends people of a foreign tongue upon the disobedient, it thematises isolation and authoritarian manners, national and cultural tensions, social and economic disputes in a fabric of variegated scenes (Schmutzer 2018b: 87). This happens within the context of a historical moment, right before Austria-Hungary has to face its “fundamental existential problem” consisting of the hiatus between the need for cultural unification and for administrative modernization (Stachel 2001: 24). DS links psychoanalytic case studies as an underbelly to those manners that suppress what should not be. Pepi Fröschl – who is torn between his sexual desires, his role as priest, his proletarian heritage and his noble patron – displays a breeding ground for “the authoritarian personality” (Adorno e.a. 1950). Similarly, August Null stands at the intersection of public and intimate conflicts, when he, with “the intemperate “burning” ambition of the former enuretics” (Freud 2000a: 29f), takes the rebellious “Fire!” (1546) from the Hutsuls into his hometown. But the novel does not abet a psychoanalytic interpretation of society. Rather, it challenges concepts and any effort for generalisation by building relations that must be traced in their performative structures. By means of techniques of defamiliarisation, it plays with psychoanalysis as with other discourses, even with mythical elements, at the threshold of the twentieth century. What has been coined as “counter-history” (Schafroth 1985: III) can be found in this poetic entanglement of individual acts that challenges our philological criteria that have to be sensible for phenomena like polyphony and a narration ruptured by other speech acts not lower in hierarchy. Thus, the narrative and syntactic breaks and fragmentations can often be linked to spoken language or to troubles or even blockades in communication. They produce ambiguities which are continuously developed poetically and culminate in a radicalised sense of possibility. The urge to locate events and their circumstances provoked by the poetic structure and by strategies of defamiliarisation might provide new impulses for the theory of the neo-avant-gardes, since Sabine Müller recently has stressed the importance of the ability to acknowledge the “socio-political interpellations of the subjects” along with their origins (Müller 2021: 210).


Further reading

  • Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. London/New York: Continuum, 2002.
  • –––––. Ästhetische Theorie. Eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2012 (1973).
  • –––––., et al. The Authoritarian Personality. New York/Evanston/London: Harper & Row, 1950.
  • Benjamin, Walter. “Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik.” Gesammelte Schriften. Band I/1. Abhandlungen. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1980. 7-122.
  • –––––. “The Storyteller.” Theory of the Novel. A Historical Approach. Eds. Michal McKeon. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000. 77-93.
  • Csáky, Moritz. Das Gedächtnis der Städte. Kulturelle Verflechtungen - Wien und die urbanen Milieus in Zentraleuropa. Vienna/ Köln/ Weimar: Böhlau, 2010.
  • Dath, Dietmar. “Der singende Nebel. Über die österreichische Romanautorin Marianne Fritz.” Spex 5 (1998): 48-49.
  • Dath, Dietmar. Stehsatz. Eine Schreiblehre. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2020.
  • Feichtinger, Johannes. “Habsburg (post)-colonial. Anmerkungen zur Inneren Kolonisierung in Zentraleuropa.” Habsburg postcolonial. Machtstrukturen und kollektives Gedächtnis. Eds. Johannes Feichtinger, Ursula Prutsch and Moritz Csáky. Innsbruck: StudienVerlag, 2003. 13-31.
  • Felman, Shoshana. The Scandal of the Speaking Body. Don Juan with J.L. Austin, Or Seduction in Two Languages. Trans. Catherine Porter. Stanford: Univ Press, 2003.
  • Fontana, Oskar Maurus. “Erinnerungen an Musil.” Robert Musil. Leben Werk Dichtung. Ed. Karl Dinklage. Vienna: Amalthea, 1960. 325-344.
  • Freud, Sigmund. “Charakter und Analerotik.” Studienausgabe Vol. VII. Frankfurt/Main: Fischer, 2000. 23-30. (=2000a)
  • –––––. “Über einen autobiographisch beschriebenen Fall von Paranoia.” Studienausgabe Vol. VII. Frankfurt/Main: Fischer, 2000. 133-203. (=2000b)
  • Fritz, Marianne. Das Kind der Gewalt und die Sterne der Romani. Frankfurt/Main: Fischer, 1980.
  • –––––. Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1985. (=1985a)
  • –––––. Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse. Frankfurt/Main: Fischer, 1978.
  • –––––. Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2023.
  • –––––. Naturgemäß I. entweder Angstschweiß; Ohnend; Oder Pluralhaft. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1996.
  • –––––. Naturgemäß II. Es ist ein Ros entsprungen; Wedernoch heißt sie;. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1998.
  • –––––. Naturgemäß III. Oder doch Noli me tangere „Rührmichnichtan!”. Web. 12th June 2018 <>.
  • –––––. “Poetologische Fragmente.” Schreibweisen Poetologien 2 Zeitgenössische Literatur von Frauen. Ed. Kernmayer, Hildegard. Vienna: Milena, 2010. 218-223.
  • –––––. The Weight of Things. Trans. Adrian Nathan West. St. Louis: Dorothy, 2015.
  • –––––. »Was soll man da machen.«. Eine Einführung zu dem Roman ‚Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1985. (=1985b)
  • Genette, Gérard: Die Erzählung. Trans. Andreas Knop. München: Fink, 2010.
  • Innerhofer, Roland. “Kakanien.” Habsburg neu denken. Vielfalt und Ambivalenz in Zentraleuropa. Eds. Johannes Feichtinger and Heidemarie Uhl. Wien / Köln / Weimar: Böhlau, 2016. 112-118.
  • Kaindl, Raimund Friedrich. Die Huzulen. Ihr Leben ihre Sitten und ihre Volksüberlieferung. Vienna: Alfred Hölder, 1894.
  • Kastberger, Klaus. Vom Eigensinn des Schreibens. Produktionsweisen moderner österreichischer Literatur. Vienna: Sonderzahl, 2007.
  • Kastberger, Klaus and Helmut Neundlinger. Marianne Fritz Archiv Wien. Eine Dokumentation. Web. 20th April 2014 <>
  • Kleist, Heinrich von. “On the Gradual Construction of Thoughts during Speech.” Trans. Michael Hamburger. German Life and Letters 5/1 (1951).
  • Kraus, Dagmara and Sonja vom Brocke, eds. “Vom Wurzelfassen / Im Bodenlosen. Die Textgelände der Marianne Fritz.” Schreibheft 100 (2023). 131-188.
  • Lukács, Georg. Theorie des Romans. Eds. Frank Benseler and Rüdiger Dannemann. Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 2009.
  • Liessmann, Konrad Paul. “‘Ein Riß. Nein, ein Abgrund.’ Drei Skizzen.” Nullgeschichte, die trotzdem war. Neues Wiener Symposium über Marianne Fritz. Ed. Klaus Kastberger. Vienna: Sonderzahl, 1995. S. 140-155.
  • –––––. “‘Hat; wieder einmal; die Axt der Wahrhaftigkeit zugeschlagen’ (?). Die große Prosa der Marianne Fritz.” Falter 2 (1986): 20-21.
  • –––––. Ohne Mitleid. Zum Begriff der Distanz als ästhetische Kategorie mit ständiger Rücksicht auf Theodor W. Adorno. Vienna: Passagen, 1991.
  • Makarska, Renata. Der Raum und seine Texte. Konzeptualisierungen der Hucul’ščyna in der mitteleuropäischen Literatur des 20. Jahrhunderts. Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang, 2010.
  • Metz, Christian. Der imaginäre Signifikant. Psychoanalyse und Kino. Trans. D. Blüher et al. Ed. Jürgen E. Müller: Nodus, 2000.
  • Michler, Werner. “Sprache und Nation.” Karl Kraus Handbuch. Leben – Werk – Wirkung. Eds. Katharina Prager and Simon Ganahl. Berlin: Metzler, 2022. 331-340.
  • Müller, Sabine. “Differentiating the Return of the Real: Towards an Interdisciplinary Concept of the Neo-Avant-Garde.” Neo-Avant-Gardes. Post-War Literary Experiments Across Borders. Ed. Bart Vervaeck. Edinburgh: University Press, 2021. 195-215.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Götzen-Dämmerung.” Kritische Studienausgabe. Vol 6. Eds. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari. Munich/Berlin: dtv/de Gruyter, 1999. 55-161.
  • Priesching, Barbara. …hinter und über die Mauern… Zur formalen Gestaltung einer Geschichte der Namenlosen in Marianne Fritz’ Roman “Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst”. Dissertation, Vienna, University of Vienna, 1990.
  • Rabelhofer, Bettina. So es geraunt rundumihn. Der ästhetische Code in Marianne Fritz’ Roman Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst. Versuch einer semiotischen Poetik. Erlangen: Palm & Enke, 1991.
  • Rathjen, Friedhelm. “»Auch dies war wahr«. Zur Radikalisierung des Musilschen Möglichkeitssinns in Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst.” Nullgeschichte, die trotzdem war. Neues Wiener Symposium über Marianne Fritz. Ed. Klaus Kastberger. Vienna: Sonderzahl, 1995. 40-54.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Transl. Wade Baskin. Ed. Perry Meisel and Haun Saussy. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2011.
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  • Schmutzer, Lukas. “»Was; Johannes, bewegt dich nur.« Die Räume in Marianne Fritz’ Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst.” Raumirritationen. Warum nach dem Raum fragen? Eds. Julia Grillmayr and Andrea Kreuter. Vienna: danzig & unfried, 2019. 69-107.
  • –––––. “Zwischen Wunderblock und Diskursmaschinengewehr.” Visualisierungen von Gewalt. Beiträge zu Film, Theater und Literatur. Eds. Dagmar von Hoff, Brigitte E. Jirku and Lena Wetenkamp. Berlin: Peter Lang, 2018. 189-209. (=2018a)
  • –––––. “‘Trotzdem! Ein gutes Land’ (?). Marianne Fritz’ ‘Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst’ als radikalste Liquidation des habsburgischen Mythos am Leitfaden seiner Sprechakte.” Studia theodisca Vol. 25 (2018.XX). (=2018b)
  • –––––. Zwischen Wort und Werk. Zur Logizität der Sprechakte in Marianne Fritz’ Roman ‘Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst.’ Dissertation, Vienna, University of Vienna, 2018. (=2018c)
  • Stachel, Peter. “Ein Staat, der an einem Sprachfehler zugrunde ging. Die ‘Vielsprachigkeit’ des Habsburgerreiches und ihre Auswirkungen.” Das Gewebe der Kultur. Kulturwissenschaftliche Analysen zur Geschichte und Identität Österreichs in der Moderne. Eds. Johannes Feichtinger and Peter Stachel. Innsbruck/Vienna/Munich: Studienverlag, 2001. 11-45.
  • Stierle, Karlheinz. Text als Handlung. Grundlegung einer systematischen Literaturwissenschaft. Munich: Fink, 2012.
  • Weigl, Andreas and Alfred Pfoser. “Weltkrieg.” Karl Kraus Handbuch. Leben – Werk – Wirkung. Eds. Katharina Prager and Simon Ganahl. Berlin: Metzler, 2022. 353-367.
  • Wetzel, Michael. “‘mal vu – mal dit’. Urszenen poetischen Sprechens im Werk von Marianne Fritz.” Nullgeschichte, die trotzdem war. Neues Wiener Symposium über Marianne Fritz. Ed. Klaus Kastberger. Vienna: Sonderzahl, 1995. 107-123.
  • Wiener, Oswald. die verbesserung von mitteleuropa. Ed. Thomas Eder. Salzburg/Vienna: Jung und Jung, 2020.