Peter Weiss was 45 years old when his first work of literary fiction, The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body, came out in 1960. He had spent some 30 years studying painting and illustration, and another seven making surrealist short films. Like many first novels, The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body is a book about becoming someone who writes books: There are no narrative stakes for the protagonist, a tenant living in a rural boarding house, besides “getting my notes beyond a beginning that ends in nothing…although I clearly feel the counterforce in me which used to get me to break off my attempts and which even now whispers…that what I’ve heard and seen is too insignificant to be preserved.” Weiss had some trouble finding a publisher for what he called his “micro-novel” (this new translation by Rosemarie Waldrop comes in at under 100 pages), but upon its release it would launch him to the forefront of the experimental postwar literary movement in Europe, where he would join the likes of Heinrich Böll, Samuel Beckett, and Jean Genet. After 1960, Weiss would spend the rest of his life among the European literati as one of the most acclaimed German writers of his generation. Yet Shadow is primarily an exploration of literature’s limitations and inherent vices.

The project of Weiss’s unnamed narrator is nothing less than a faithful reproduction of his entire world on the written page. The novel opens in an outhouse: The door is ajar, and through it the narrator can see a pig rooting in the mud, the cracking plaster of the boarding house, and black soil “as far as the horizon.” Then there are the sounds of the morning, which the narrator records in painstaking detail: the dripping of rain, the snorting of the pig, the wind whistling at the corner of the house, “the jerky back and forth of the saw,” which “indicates that it is in the hand of the hired man”—and all this before our narrator has buttoned his pants and left the outhouse (whose bucket, he does not fail to note, is “filled to the brim with brownish excrement”). Across the novel’s first six pages, this sketch provides a meticulous conjuring of his whole world, at least as it is seen from a toilet seat. And yet the more exhaustive the descriptions of his surroundings, the more alien and nonsensical they become.

The people with whom he interacts—“the housekeeper” and “the doctor”; “the mother,” “the father,” and “the son” living next door; and other tenants similarly titled—behave in ways that seem both hardwired (in their predictability) and random (in their apparent meaninglessness). Meanwhile, the obsessive survey of the inanimate objects that furnish the narrator’s meager life gives them a weight and presence almost equal to that of living beings, so that everything in Shadow comes across as either more or less alive than it ought to and resides in a morbid half-light that bewilders in its surplus of incomprehensible information.

The narrator initially takes this failure to replicate and organize reality coherently as a problem of time. Everything in Shadow is recounted as if it were happening in the moment; except for the occasional frustrated admission from the narrator that since he has written down everything we are reading, it’s actually not happening at all. “This moment is long past,” he confesses after a long descriptive spell, before adding: “past also is the time that has gone by with the description of my way here. I am now lying stretched out on my bed.” Where his project really topples, however, is when anyone other than him speaks, unleashing a polyphonic torrent as the narrator attempts to portray competing conversations:

Of the words said to the mother…I understood the following fragments: cook beans thoroughly, ham, rind of bacon, melt fat, lard, hole (whole); whereupon I heard the mother say, while lifting her glass and sipping at it: if sleeping, kicks off, blanket slides, diapers wet, wakes me, milk gives out, always sucking, today beans too (bean stew). Of the captain’s words addressed to Mr. Schnee, his legs crossed, sipping alternately at the mug and the glass, I caught: enjoy leisure, right at rest, rare in former times, as at that time; to which I heard Schnee answer….

As opposed to the necessarily sequential flow of information demanded by the sentence, Weiss’s narrator creates something more akin to the assemblage of a painting, wherein the interwoven language of the speakers forms a picture despite the disjunction of topics and the various speakers’ irrelevance to one another. In the absence of a hierarchical narration, language sheds its familiarity in these moments and becomes something almost autonomous, disengaged from the speakers and alive in its own right—a thing that is being borrowed to convey an idea, rather than a natural extension of individual consciousness. As Weiss’s narrator tries with ever more distressed efforts to convey reality, what he finds is a void between language and subjective experience. In short, all hell breaks loose.

Perhaps this is what drew Weiss to writing, after all his years as a visual artist: Literature, by squeezing life into narrative, gives the lie of coherence. Every part of a literary project’s formation is unnatural, as Weiss’s narrator experiences, and yet its basic building block, the sentence, is a logical structure that integrates the most indescribable experiences into a narrative that can be followed. If Weiss seems to have an embodied understanding of this, it’s worth noting that The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body was the first work that he wrote in German, his native language, though he was never a German citizen.

By necessity, Weiss had lived in other countries and inhabited other languages for many years. Raised mainly in Berlin, he held Czech citizenship through his Jewish father; the family emigrated to London in 1934 when Weiss was still a teenager, then Czechoslovakia in 1936. After the German occupation of the Czech Sudetenland in 1938, the family again moved, this time to Sweden, where Weiss joined them in Stockholm; he finally became a Swedish citizen in 1946 and lived there for the rest of his life. As Weiss has described it, the thing that unites all these different places is that they were the shadow of the place where he was not, which was Auschwitz. The question that Weiss seems to be circling around in Shadow is not just the circumscribed possibilities of traditional realism but those of our perception of reality itself: If the limits of our imperfect language impose limits on our sense of the world, what happens to the public memory of events that surpass language in their horror?

It’s strange to imagine now, when Nazis dominate mass media as cartoonish villains, but there was a time when the horror of the Third Reich seemed beyond reckoning, let alone artistic representation; consider Adorno’s memorable statement in 1949 that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. As Weiss noted in a 1966 interview, “After the war there were so many themes which we thought couldn’t be transformed into art—they were so enormous they couldn’t be approached that way, especially the overwhelming theme of human destruction.” In Shadow the violent and spiritual estrangement of Auschwitz haunts this rural no-place—as the void between words and understanding, or in the way that the past ceaselessly unfolds whether or not we comprehend the present, or in the anxious cataloging of the material world, which recalls the psyche of the exile and refugee. As the translator and theorist Richard Langston notes of Shadow, “rather than evoking a nightmare that disrupts reality, it is living on after the nightmare that is at stake.”

Fourteen years after he wrote Shadow, Weiss composed a play called The Investigation that takes place in a courtroom during the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt. The play, which depicts the victims’ arrival at Auschwitz to their death in the gas chambers and ovens, is severely minimalist and almost entirely spoken-word, mostly taken verbatim from the trials. Here, through the use of found language, Weiss achieves a hyper-realism similar to Shadow. “I wanted a scientific investigation of the reality of Auschwitz,” he explained in an interview with the Tulane Drama Review from 1966, “to show the audience, in the greatest detail, exactly what happened.” Weiss reflects on this statement for a moment, then concedes that for him, at least, it was a doomed effort; that no amount of investigation could integrate “exactly what happened” at Auschwitz with his sense of the real. When he visited the camps years after they closed, he continues, what struck him was how “a very heavy thing has happened which you can’t understand…. When you see the ruins from the gas chambers, they’re just heavy blocks of concrete or iron or steel, with weeds already grown on them. You almost can’t see them, but they’re bits of our reality.”

The Weiss who wrote The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body is not yet reconciled to this—not because he didn’t understand the limitations of language or perception, which form the productive problem of Shadow, but because this riddle caused him too much despair. In the same year that he gave this interview, Weiss condemned The Shadow of the Coachman’s Body during a conference at Princeton University. In his speech, he disavowed the “passive” attitude without “sympathy” he sees as governing his early writing, which he dismissed as an effort to make life more bearable. Art, he argues, should not simply document despair, but find a way out of it. But would he have written anymore at all, if he hadn’t realized that he could in Shadow? Perhaps, as Rosemarie Waldrop writes in her translator’s afterword, his narrator is thrown into confusion and misery as he realizes that “what he is able to translate onto paper is never life, but at best a shadow.” Freed from the necessity to make a coherent replication of an incoherent world, however, Weiss could become a writer.