The Melancholy Shoe Tester
I can’t fully rule out the possibility that I might be going crazy at this moment.
His wife has left him, the pay he receives for testing new shoes has been slashed, and he suspects that the woman who cuts his hair – and with whom he occasionally sleeps – is sleeping with other men as well. He spends his time reflecting on past relationships, observing the few animals one can find in the city, watching and commenting on people as he walks around. Somehow, it is the very casualness of the world that seems to astound the melancholic, yet oddly comic narrator of Wilhelm Genazino’s novel The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt. A hyper-sensitive character who could have emerged equally from a novel by Italo Svevo or Thomas Bernhard, the narrator becomes frustrated with his “compulsion to see things meaningfully,” when no one else seemed bothered by silly ideas like meaning. “A boat is a boat is a boat,” he declares, yet he remains unable to stop himself from seeing the boat as a metaphor for his own rising and sinking spirits. His only means of defense is to build up a righteous disdain for everyone he encounters before they can first reject him.
As the title suggests, objects are at the core of Genazino’s novel. For the narrator, objects provide safe haven. Unlike people, who “form new identities whenever someone comes too near,” objects stay reassuringly fixed. On the other hand, people accrue objects in lieu of real experiences.
How nice it would be if I could see [people] without their sunglasses, handbags, crash helmets, pedigreed dogs, rollerblades, atomic watches – with nothing on them but the same rags they’d been wearing for years. At least for half an hour.
At a dinner party, trying to show off, he extemporizes on guilt. “I’m talking about the guilt that accumulates without being seen when we think we are living guiltlessly.” Pressed by one of the guests for his occupation, he somewhat drunkenly retorts that he runs “an Institute for the Art of Memory and Experience” to help people “rediscover experiences that have something to do with them, beyond all the TVs, vacations, highways and supermarkets.”
As this very short novel begins to wind down, the narrator cautiously enters the capitalistic world on his own. He begins to sell his sample shoes at the flea market, he consents to providing experience sessions through his non-existent Institute, and he takes a job writing “breezy” articles for the newspaper. He wants to conform, to “create a feeling of belonging to the world.” But his reconciliation with the world is without considerable ambivalence. “I’m convinced that all these happy people will become merciless at the first opportunity, if mercilessness suddenly looks profitable.”
Wilhem Genazino, The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt. (New Directions, 2006) . Originally published in 2001 as Ein Regenschirm für diesen Tag and translated from the German by Philip Boehm. Apparently, New Directions didn’t like the idea of the more accurate title An Umbrella for this Day.