When he went out the next morning and headed for the square, he knew, even before he looked up, that he was no longer there: he had been replaced by his legend. A legend without beginning or end, a narrative as yet illegible, but therefore almost more credible than him, than the banal mediocrity of his impoverished existence.
Written between November 1929 and February 1931, The Game for Real (Hra Doopravdy in its original Czech) is a marvelously strange and inventive novel whose narrator is suspicious that life might be nothing more than the absurd theater of his own imagination. Deeply anxious about language and certain that he is guilty of something, the book’s narrator is nameless – “and rightly so, since his name is Shame.”
The Czech writer Richard Weiner (1884-1937) lived in Paris for a few years before World War I, then served in his homeland’s military before returning to Paris again in 1919. During this second stay, he joined with a small group of French writers that included Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, René Daumal, and Roger Vailland who called themselves Le Grand Jeu (The Big Game). Between 1928 and 1932, while Weiner worked on The Game for Real (which sounds suspiciously like an homage to the group), Le Grand Jeu published several issues of a magazine titled, appropriately, Le Grand Jeu. The Game for Real apparently remained unpublished until 1998, and, rather remarkably, this book, which will be issued by Two Lines Press in a few weeks, is the first of Weiner’s books to be translated into English. Martin Tharp, of Prague’s Charles University, says of Weiner: “he really is a kind of European mind, that brings in the experience of trench warfare in Serbia, of cafés of a provincial capital of the Hapsburg Empire and a close connection with the Parisian avant-garde, as well as just the fact that his stories are just so enjoyable to read.”
In “The Game of Quartering” – the first section of The Game for Real – the narrator boards an empty metro, only to have the train’s next passenger sit directly across, facing him. “I don’t know what prayer is,” he thinks. “But, having seen him, I was quick to compose one.” When the narrator disembarks at his station, the man follows him. By the time the narrator has reached his apartment, a woman has joined the stranger. “They were from the same team – not like spouses, not like lovers, not like friends, not like acquaintances, not like castaways on a raft, but they went with each other.” Fast forward a few dozen pages and the narrator abandons his apartment and the two strangers to visit his two friends, Fuld and Mutig (see the link to an excerpt from the book below).
Here they were as if on stage, each with his assignment and in his appointed place. They were acting. A new act had begun with my entrance, they had known about it from their past rehearsals. I understood right away that I, too, was acting, and I settled into it quickly. As if at the instruction of an invisible director I headed without hesitation for the far side of the table.
Fuld, Mutig, a woman named Giggles, an unnamed “blackamoor,” and the narrator proceed to act out a play that continually morphs like scenes within a dream. The Game for Real is littered with references to the theater, to acting and the stage. Objects often strike the narrator as mere “props.” It is even possible, he thinks, that he is playing all of the roles himself.
It was in this room. In this room where today, in the summer morning, he is allowed to play whatever he wants (God only knows whether he’ll abuse it): the innocent accused; the avenger of the righteous and the weak; the public prosecutor; the good judge; the magnanimous man who has taken on the worst bit; the desperado who soldiers hopelessly on; the downtrodden man who smiles for no reason but to give heart to those nearby, though they are less unfortunate than he; the lamb who has assumed others’ guilt upon himself; the angel who begged for his own banishment…He’s allowed, but by whose will, by whose power?
The longer second section, called “The Game for the Honor of Payback,” revolves around the accusation that the narrator has stolen a bracelet. The narrator awakes from a dream in which he has been swimming through a sewer to find himself staring at the cheap wallpaper of his room, which depicts a bird-of-paradise and tropical plants. He occasionally studies himself in the mirror and seems to interact with other people that come and go in his room, although it is not clear if these events are anything more than figments of his imagination. “They were alone,” he thinks, before correcting himself, “that is, he was alone.” Is this even the same narrator as the first section? We don’t know for sure. Eliminating ambiguity is of no concern to Weiner. The narration is, in fact, so deeply interiorized that the exterior world (if there really is one) cannot be distinguished from the narrator’s imagination. “He caught on that he was dreaming, or that he was in regions bordering on dream.”
In spite of his own fluency with language, Weiner sees that language is yet another trap for the unwary. “Between the thought and its correlate a broad land stretches, overgrown with seductive realities.” The narrator “sees himself as a conjuror spinning an endless paper ribbon with signs of Morse code from his maw.” To some extent, Weiner’s narrator welcomes the rich imaginative opportunities that open up when the boundary between the interior world of dreams and the exterior “real” world is shattered. “He was drowning in incongruities, he knew it, but nothing in him opposed them.” Like so many Surrealists, Weiner was determined to see if the dismemberment of the perceived structures of ordinary “reality” might lead to a higher and richer – or at least more interesting – level of consciousness. But the new reality that Weiner finds is in equal parts dazzling and guilt-ridden, life-giving and deadly. Crossing Paris in a taxi, his narrator suddenly realizes that his taxi driver is Charon, carrying his fare across the Lethe. When it comes to the narrator’s lingering sense of shame, the absence of a clear boundary leads directly to paranoia. He is positive that other people, even complete strangers, see right through to his shameful core, and thus avoid and detest him, even though it is just as likely that he might be projecting his own thoughts upon everyone he encounters. To my mind, Weiner’s obsession with guilt and shame, contempt and defiance, power and cruelty, aligns him as much with Kafka as with his coterie of French Surrealists.
Pen/America has published a short reflection on Weiner by Benjamin Paloff, the book’s translator, as well as an excerpt. Here’s Paloff (who has studied Weiner for a decade): “anyone who claims not to be a bit bewildered by writers like Richard Weiner is inherently untrustworthy. ”
All of this had an air of carefully contrived ceremony, yet above it there dwelled an accent of tragic improvisation, so much so that there was a chill. It was a comedy that had imprudently crossed a forbidden limit and become something real, somehow, as real as catastrophe.