Martin Mosebach is well known in the German speaking world for his brilliant, cutting edge novels for which he received the prestigious Büchner Prize in 2007. But he has also written a collection of polemical essays on the Roman Liturgy from a traditionalist point of view–so far the only one of his works translated into English. This makes him a bit of a puzzle to German churchmen. He does not fit the cliché description of a “traditionalist,” “Latin Mass” Catholic. He seems like a throw back to certain writers of the first half of the 20th century who were both top notch writers and traditionalist Christians. The English speaking world had plenty of these both Catholic (Evelyn Waugh) and Anglican (T.S. Eliot). The likes of Eliot and Waugh provided devastating descriptions of a modern society (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”) which they considered to have gone astray, and the also proposed the a cure in the form of a return to traditional Christianity. Mosebach might be read this way as well, but there seems to me to be a difference. Comparing the two Mosebach novels that I have read, Der Mond und das Mädchen (2007) and Was davor geschah (2010), to Waugh’s satirical novels there seems to me to be something subtly different going on. To be sure Mosebach is concerned with showing the emptiness of a culture drained of Christian faith and morality just as much as Waugh is, but the difference is that Waugh thinks there is still something to be done about it. Mosebach, it seems to me, doesn’t; he doesn’t think that the culture as a whole has any chance of returning to Christianity.
The result is that Mosebach gives a much more detached narration of his stories than Waugh. The narrator of Was davor geschah tells us that one of the characters is not motivated by “predilection for the aesthetics delights of decline and ruin” (Vorliebe für die ästhetischen Wonnen des Niedergangs). But Mosebach does seem to show a keen enjoyment of such delights. Mosebach’s novels are very similar to Waugh’s A Handful of Dust in describing the ruin that people run into by flippant disregard for the moral order, but while Waugh’s book is written with bitter wit, Mosebach’s is written with a kind of aestheticising elegant distance–like a 19th century novelist describing a landscape. Mosebach himself makes something like this point in an interview. There he states that he cultivates an abstract relation to his material, trying to treat his characters like musical themes which he then develops into a kind of symphonic composition.
It is interesting to compare Mosebach’s detached view of the contemporary culture that he despises and considers himself to have transcended with morally serious contemporary writers who see themselves as part of the culture, and struggling with its moral contradictions. In an earlier post I compared two such writers, Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace with respect to the problem of necessity. I argued that Franzen sees part of the problem with contemporary life in an excess of freedom of choice without the kind of moral necessity that gives life direction and urgency. Wallace, I suggested, shows how the version of necessity that Franzen sees as the saving possibility is insufficient to the extent that it cannot finally ground the good which necessitates. Mosebach too is concerned with the problem of a false necessity that people embrace for the sake of giving their lives direction. In Was davor geschah everyone’s life is destroyed by some of the characters trying to escape the emptiness of their lives by giving themselves over to passion. Mosebach describes this without bitterness or sarcasm, but there is one wonderful passage where he hints that it is all an illusion. It is a chapter called “time holds breath;” a breathtakingly beautiful description of a moonlight sledding party. This is the last paragraph:
We had passed through a no man’s land in the sleds, but no man’s land has no man’s time. We had moved in a great white bag, as though we were still in the world of the unborn. The wintery forrest in the darkness of the night had made everything appear as though it were not yet inevitable, as though there were many combinations possible, each one about to dissolve again. In the light [of the house] we were back on the tracks on which we had long since been moving. Must I even mention that despite all the good drink that night Phoebe no longer looked at me?
(Ein Niemandsland hatten wir mit den Rodelschlitten durchfahren, aber im Niemandsland herrscht auch eine Niemandszeit. In einem großen weißen Sack hatten wir uns bewegt, als seien wir noch im Reich der Ungeborenen. Der nächtliche Winterwald hatte alles erscheinen lassen, als sei es noch nicht zwangsläuﬁg, als seien viele Kombinationen möglich, und jede davon bestimmt, alsbald wieder zu verfallen. Im Licht gerieten wir wieder in die Gleise, in denen wir uns längst bewegten. Muß ich hinzufügen, daß Phoebe in dieser hochalkoholisierten Nacht keinen Blick mehr für mich übrig hatte?)