The hero of Irene Dische’s first novel was Adolf Hitler, alive and well and living in New Jersey. The hero of her second is Benedikt August Anton Cecil August Count Waller von Wallerstein. As a boy, he was obsessed with drawing.
He always drew the same thing: stick figures battling each other with swords, spears, truncheons, whips. He held the pencil in his fist, and pressed so hard that the point pierced through the paper. He clasped his tongue between his teeth, and sometimes he had blood on his lips afterwards. His teacher had observed that he was awkward with his hands, and he could not draw realistically, but he was master of the thick choppy line, and the exploding circle.
Dische’s writing is like Benedikt’s drawing: abrupt, explosive, aggressive; and her characters, too, are non-realistic grotesques, only larger and lumpier than life instead of smaller and thinner – distorted, jerky marionettes in a macabre Teutonic Punch and Judy show. Dische is an American living in Berlin with a German husband. Her parents were German Jews who emigrated, and she grew up speaking German in Washington Heights, a German-Jewish area of Manhattan known as the Fourth Reich. Most of her writing is what she, in her German-infiltrated English, might call an Ausein-andersetzung – a debate – with these strains in her biography.
Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz is set in the summer of 1990, partly in Berlin, where Benedikt works as a mathematical physicist; and partly in his family schloss near Lake Constance. A dictatorial grandmother rules it from her bed, consulting the tarot cards, the Bible, and astrology guides for gambling tips ‘and the social, register for hard facts’. There is a large staff known by its functions as Chauffeur, Hunter, Dogkeeper, Maid – all with capitals but no articles, which is disconcerting. Chauffeur is married to Cook. His proper name is Alfred von Biesterfeld. He is a cousin of the Wallers from an impoverished line, a hunchback, and highly sexed. It all seems conventionally gothic, but slightly out of true.
Benedikt is tall and beautiful, gentle, shy, withdrawn and very clever. He worships Einstein and it is not surprising that his research project is the study of solitrons, particles that never bond with others, or alter through contact with them. Sometimes he has sex with other men, enjoying the physical sensation, as long as his partner does not smell. He is exceptionally fastidious, and the only person he loves is his sister Dolly. Their parents died in a car crash when they were children. Dolly married a hearty neighbour called Count Sieseby and has a large family. She is warm-hearted, but practical and devastatingly unsentimental. In the prologue (called ‘Waltz’), she visits Benedikt in his small modern flat in Berlin. He has contracted a mortal disease that sounds like Aids. Dolly makes him some soup and advises him to adopt a child in order to learn about love. ‘You’ll be able to die with your feelings informed, you’ll know what you missed.’ So Benedikt places an advertisement in the paper: ‘Unmarried Man With Terminal Disease Seeks Child, Preferably Toddler, For Purposes Of Adoption.’
The advertisement produces a nine-year-old Russian refugee, glued to a dumpling shaped mother who settles in with him in Benedikt’s spare room. Marja is demanding, mannerless, slovenly, sometimes aggressive, and exudes an East European smell of unwashed polyester. The boy, Valerie, is hostile and silent. He slobbers and has a runny nose, but his singing voice ravishes even the tough old countess when Benedikt brings the Russians to stay at Schloss Biederstein. Then the old countess dies – a weird set-piece – and Benedikt decides to marry Marja, undeterred by the fact that she has a husband back in Russia. He feels he owes the Wallers a proper heir. So he suborns the local registrar and priest, and organises another weird set-piece, a grand wedding in the family chapel, attended by half the Almanach de Gotha as well as Benedikt’s discarded lover from Berlin, and his colleagues from the scientific research institute there. Dische refers to the Berlin contingent collectively as the ‘Berliner’, as in ‘the Berliner kept to themselves.’ In German ‘Berliner’ is both singular and plural, but in English the use of the singular form for the plural is as disconcerting as ‘Maid’ and ‘Hunter’ without articles. In any case, it ought to be ‘Keeper’, not ‘Hunter’, if Dische is making a Mitford point, as she seems to be, about ‘class self-consciousness’ – a neat term invented by Benedikt’s Jewish colleague Dr Graf. Another stylistic oddity is that all flower names are in German. Perhaps they are meant to evoke the lyrical side of the German character, whereas the gruff absence of articles symbolises its barbarian crudity. This aspect surfaces in numerous meals described with anorexic distaste, and in episodes like Valerie having his snotty face washed in a lavatory bowl by Einstein’s form er housekeeper. She is another of Benedikt’s protégés. Her role in the story is particularly obscure, though one can see how she got there.
The wedding has no immediate effect on Benedikt’s relations with his new wife and son, but when they disappear, apparently for good, Benedikt feels existentially bereft in his Berlin flat, and neglects himself until he smells worse than Marja. He doesn’t mind that, but the ‘seas of sadness that had been frozen in his eyes suddenly melted, rose and poured over his face.’ His illness progresses. He gets weaker and weaker. Then Marja reappears, tidier and friendlier than she used to be, and starts looking after him. Valerie, too, becomes more affectionate. The ending is not quite what you would expect, though, after several pages of nascent cosiness and sentiment: Marja’s husband turns up, moves in with the other three, and shares the spare room with Marja. The values being preached are evidently not traditional family values, just warmth, togetherness, humanity. The ultimate sin seems to be squeamishness. And why not? It is the one St Julian was canonised for overcoming when he lay down with the leper. And in case the message is not clear, an American scientist disproves Benedikt’s theory about solitrons: far from being unaffected by other solitrons, when they collided ‘they grew tails, wavy lines; they became complicated, and some became beautiful.’
There are a number of eccentric sub-plots: Benedikt’s married lover in Berlin has an affair with Dolly’s daughter; Chauffeur fails to be unfaithful to Cook; and several of Benedikt’s wedding guests die a few weeks afterwards from salmonella poisoning contracted in a Berlin restaurant: a light-hearted episode that reminds one of Le Roman d’ un tricheur and rounds things off perfectly, because the restaurant proprietor is the man who, at the beginning of the novel, hired Marja as a piano teacher for his daughter, got rid of her in a fit of parsimony, and thereby drove her to answer Benedikt’s advertisement.
A lot of big subjects get an airing. Besides Germanness and Jewishness, they include blood sports, relativity, number theory, refugees, the development of reciprocal relations between human beings, the connection between the body and its functions, on the one hand, and the mind and emotions, on the other: the most brilliant of all Dische’s startling setpieces is a practical dissection of the heart and veinous system. On German reunification she takes the Günter Grass line: ‘Moral malnutrition had produced this calamity,’ says Benedikt. ‘The German reunion was a hunger oedema.’ Clever aphorisms abound, and Dische’s insights can take one aback by their unexpected sensitivity: as he watches Benedikt go upstairs, Chauffeur ‘tried to banish his feeling of sad-superiority ... as if my gaze is a weapon ... and the object, merely by being unaware, is my victim.’ Her humour tends towards slapstick, but there are slyer and funnier jokes as well; a stream of consciousness, for instance, shared by a group of wives as they wait for their husbands to return from a shoot; they hear thunder brewing, and
thought about their hair, and then their husbands. Perhaps they’d get struck by lightning. Their married lives passed in a second before their eyes, and then the long minutes of fantasy about their widowhood. They felt their grief. They wondered which dress to wear at the funeral. There was a rumble of thunder. They thought about their hair again.
Dische isn’t often as kind as this to her readers. She complicates things by cranky epigraphs to each chapter (‘Binding: Benedikt and Marja re-enact the pietà. Einstein is watching. He is not impressed’) and by even crankier footnotes. Her message may be cuddly, but the reader gets pushed around. She is always jumping out at him from the thickets of her strange imagination and eccentric prose and giving him frights – or else lectures. The lectures are annoying, but Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz is still an unusual and exhilarating piece of work that leaves one curious to see what Dische will do next.