Hermann Burger’s Frenzied Harmonies

Hermann Burger’s Frenzied Harmonies

His roman à clef Brenner documents the last days of a hyper-articulate and depressive scion of a cigar fortune. 


Early in Hermann Burger’s 1989 novel, Brenner, the eponymous narrator recalls that “the young Mozart could drive his father to the verge of madness with an unresolved seventh.” Brenner knows this feeling well—the slow torture of an unresolved note, a loose end. It’s one of his first memories from childhood. Lying sleepless in bed on a bright afternoon, bound with rubber cords by his mother so he won’t get up from his nap, he hears the idle tinkling of a servant girl at the piano. She plays a string of chords, descending sixths, then stops abruptly just before the series is finished, leaving little Brenner in a fit of agitation from which he never fully recovers.

This sense of tension looms over the entirety of Brenner, which appeared in English for the first time this summer in a hypnotic translation by Adrian Nathan West. The novel is a roman à clef, presented as a document of its narrator’s final days. Hermann Arbogast Brenner—as the narrator somewhat pompously refers to himself in the third-person—is, like Burger himself, a middle-aged cigar connoisseur and scion of a Swiss cigar fortune, though he has “no hand in production.” Like Burger, he is recently estranged from his wife and two sons. Death, he knows, is near. He has received what he delicately describes as a “terminal diagnosis” and estimates that his life “has a maximum duration of two to three years.”

Brenner’s illness, the reader slowly gathers, is depression; he expects that he will soon kill himself. He spends his days traveling the Swiss countryside in a brand-new Ferrari 328 GTS convertible (the same model owned by Burger), visiting his remaining friends, and reflecting with gratuitous candor on every detail and bitter grievance of his youth. By turns acrid and lyrical, charming and self-indulgent, the novel represents his final “search for lost time,” as Brenner puts it. Proust is his explicit model, a source of both inspiration and parody, though Brenner’s flights of memory are spurred by the “pneuma” of cigar smoke, not the madeleine. Burger planned the novel as the first volume of a semi-autobiographical tetralogy, but it was to be his final completed work: He died by suicide a few days before it was published.

Burger was born in 1942, in the canton of Aargau, in a German-speaking region of Switzerland. He fixated relentlessly on the many injustices, large and small, to which he had been subjected since childhood, and his literary output reads at times like a steady catalog of these various affronts—an erudite self-portrait of misanthropy. The grievances started early. The first was his precipitate birth and status as the oldest sibling, which he often argued—using one of his many strange and misogynistic pseudo-Freudian theories—was the source of later neuroses. “Even in the womb,” the narrator explains in Brenner,

the firstborn has it harder than the latecomers, for them it’s a cakewalk, this can be proven gynecologically, the new mother’s pelvis is narrower, the path through the birth canal a torment, not to mention the patient’s panic in the delivery room, and this can be passed down to her offspring, if the oxygen is too thin, the blood supply interrupted, the lady parts fail, fiasco….what is my winter pastime, bobsledding, if not the constant attempt through repetition compulsion to conquer the canal?

Among his frequent targets for the airing of grievances in his fiction were his mother (whom he blamed not just for his birth but for tying him to the bed during his childhood naps, and for a brief but horrific stay in a children’s home), his younger siblings (usurpers of his favorite childhood toys), and humanity at large. “I approached society full of hope and good intentions,” the narrator reflects, “but would soon find this love was not reciprocated.”

Burger’s literary career began in the late 1960s, with the publication of a book of poetry and, soon after, a collection of short fiction. An enduring fascination with death motivated his writing from the start. “Death is the most important event of life,” he told a friend at the age of 23, inverting Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assertion that death is a non-event because one never lives to experience it. Burger’s first mature work was the 1976 novel Schilten, written not long after he discovered the works of his more famous contemporary the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, whose digressive style—and obsession with suicide—irrevocably influenced Burger’s approach to literature. Schilten tells the story of Armin Schildknecht, a schoolteacher who tries to equip his students, not for the trials of life, but for the inevitability of death. The novel launched Burger into a period of widespread acclaim during which his mental health deteriorated dramatically. He developed a public reputation for eccentricity and instability, known for his Ferrari, habit of chain-smoking cigars (up to 30 a day), and once showing up to a reading of his work with a rifle. Periods of frenetic activity and bizarre public stunts were often followed by bouts of severe depression and stays in psychiatric clinics.

In 1988, again channeling Wittgenstein, he wrote his Tractatus Logico-Suicidalis, arguing for the logical necessity of suicide by means of a dense series of 1,046 “thanatological” aphorisms, in an attempt to exorcise his own suicidal impulses. Boasting that he had succeeded, he set out to write his intended masterwork, the Brenner tetralogy. Burger was by then cut off from his family, holing up as a guest at Castle Brunegg (fictionalized in Brenner as “Brunsleben”). He confided in his landlord (Jean Rudolphe von Salis, who appears in the novel as Jérôme von Castelmur Bondo) that when the series was complete, he would commit suicide. Von Salis rightly feared that Burger would not finish these books. Burger was “a drowning man,” the landlord later said. “He had made more than evident to me his wish to bring things to a close.”

Brenner is divided into 25 chapters, one for every cigar in a typical box. Burger titles each chapter with the name of a different cigar he’s prescribed for the reader: a “Wurhmann B Habana,” for example, for appreciating his meditation on unresolved naptime harmonies, or an “Opalino Forelle,” for taking in the wandering history of Brenner’s ancestral home in Aargau. It’s a charming conceit, the novel as cigar box, flatteringly suggestive of an intricate pleasure to be savored without haste—the “indulgent reader,” as the narrator frequently puts it, partaking of the “tobacco leaves” that are the book’s pages. The chapters range widely, the tone modulating between breezy and antic. Some are pure digression—a free associative history of snuff (“permissible in Molière’s comedies, but not in Racine’s tragedies…you couldn’t, ye know, just let Phèdre up and die in the midst of achooing on the stage”), or a discussion of the similarities between the pastoral landscapes of Proust’s childhood and those of Brenner’s.

Others carry more narrative force, such as the Brenner’s agonizing recollection of his two-week stay at the children’s home while his parents attended a conference for Moral Re-Armament, a Christian revivalist group. “I have long wrestled in vain with this section,” Brenner confesses:

The memory burns like dirt in a skinned knee…. what I suffered through two years after the gruesome discoveries in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen cannot be compared to the Nazis’ vast death-and-inferno machinery…. everything was quite simply much, much worse.

The provocative exaggeration here is typical, conveying not only the depth of the author’s bitterness but also something essential about his project of recovering the past. Anticipating the criticism that “whoever says such a thing has no idea what he’s talking about,” the narrator doubles down, insisting that he does so “in awareness of my right to subjectivity…. a personal point of view, the primordial ownness of my perspective are my weapons.” For all of Brenner’s charm and humor, his pathological insularity is absolute; he exists as if underwater, sealed off from all others, never surfacing. There is, for the reader, a compelling claustrophobia in being immersed so thoroughly in such a warped subjectivity. It is this, ultimately, that Brenner shares with the best of Thomas Bernhard’s work: not merely the sheer bravura of a three-page sentence, but how such sentences capture the swerving freneticism and unreality of a mind in the act of consuming itself.

But reality does intrude. It is impossible not to feel one’s knowledge of Burger’s death looming over the novel, its shadow darkening as the book nears its close and the narrator’s final unravelings grow more vivid and desperate, imbuing the narrative with the grimly propulsive quality of a countdown. It’s here that the central conflict of Brenner gradually arises, in the tension between the growing urgency of the narrator’s wish to die and the lingering attentiveness with which he attempts to capture every detail of his life. Everything must be recalled exactly as it was—weather patterns, cigar brands, minor historical trivia—no matter how unimportant it may seem. The color of a window shutter at Brunsleben cannot just be purple—it must be “a blend of a magenta, mauve, and caput mortuum, a reddish purple named for the blood that flows from a severed head.”

It’s a lesson the narrator seems to have picked up from a friend, who early in the novel describes the effect on the audience when a character in a play lights a cigar: “with this gesture he tells them: no worries, we have time to spare. In this way, he thwarts the telos of drama itself.” The overflow of information in Brenner becomes a means of perpetual delay—a pleasure principle to counteract the novel’s abiding death drive. The narrator makes repeated reference to this method of literary bricolage, acknowledging that he has chosen to reject the advice of one critic to “stick to the relevant facts of my life as a cigarier” because (as the critic tells him, in Swiss-German dialect) “ye hef te know how te dishtinguish relevant en irrelevant.” This is a meaningless distinction for Burger, who chooses instead to swim against the current of his dwindling attachment to life by stubbornly refusing to leave anything out.

It is a refusal born of love, a fact that grows achingly apparent in the novel’s masterful and devastating last chapters. “My courage to live is broken, the demons have been stirring for days now, it is time to pay them their tribute,” the narrator confesses—but even then, “as he passes the indulgent reader the yawning box with the last cigar,” he finds more to say, more details to call up from oblivion: a history of the Cuban Revolution, “a brief excursus on magic.” He knows he “must make haste to bring these observations to an end,” but no matter. As Brenner contemplates, in the final pages, whether he should check himself into a psychiatric hospital for his own safety, the reader feels along with him the conflicting desires to bring the story to a close, but not yet; let the frenzied harmonies resolve, he seems to say, let the song never end.

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