What I’m Reading: Sibylle Lewitscharoff – Pong

Another book by a German author that has not yet been translated into English (although it appears a translation of her novel Apostoloff is scheduled for release in December 2012). Pong was first released in 1998, is Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s first novel and won the Ingeborg Bachmann award (one of the most popular, if not necessarily most prestigious, awards for German-language literature). And it is a very strange novel indeed.

It is a book about a madman (a schizophrenic, to be somewhat more precise), and it is written exclusively from a close third person perspective, i.e. we see and experience the world only the way Pong sees and experiences it, with no outside perspective that might serve as a corrective at all. There are some very few instances where it is possible to infer some information about the “real” world from the protagonist’s experiences, but those are only very small intersections of Pong’s world and the world most of the readers will be familiar with – for the most part there is only Pong’s perspective and it demands to be absolute.

In that respect, the book Pong resembles most closely is likely Daniel Paul Schreber’s Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken, which first appeared in 1902 and in which the author expounds in great detail the method of his madness, erects an edifice from it that is as complex and as coherent as any system of philosophical idealism and just as removed from any kind of experienced reality. The book was extremely influential – Freud wrote an important essay on it and among those fascinated by the work were Walter Benjamin and Elias Canetti.

Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s Pong does not have quite the intellectual rigor of the Geheimrat Schreber, but then, Pong is literature, not a treatise or an apologia. And the author never lets her readers forget that for a single moment – freed from the obligation of having to refer to a recognisable world, liberated from the constraints of having to make sense, language is at play in this novel, it is doing somersaults and pirouettes, it prances and frolics and preens in all its beautiful colours. Pong has something of Oskar Pastior or H.C. Artmann in the way it luxuriates in the playfulness of languages, the sheer joy of forming words from letters, of stringing together syllables and tasting their sound on your tongue.

Pong is not pure l’art pour l’art, though; and while its language has a strong tendency to become weightless, to lift off and become weightless, leave the world behind, it is pulled back towards earth by its main character – there is a certain gravitas to Pong that grounds the novel, not in any kind of reality (although I cannot help but wonder if it might be possible to suspend disbelief so thoroughly as to read Pong as a second world fantasy where everything Pong imagines is literally true) but in a solid emotional core: Pong might be deluded, but his delusion is not simply one of self-aggrandizement, but places quite literally the weight of the world on his shoulders. While that is obviously an unconscious strategem to make himself important and to give his life meaning, it also shows that Pong cares, and that in turn makes the reader care for him.


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