28 October 2006 | Vol. 6, No. 3
A Review of Wilhelm Genazino's The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt
The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt
Translated by Philip Boehm
New Directions Press, 2006.
132 pages. $14.95.
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"He who is forced to live as I do, without having consented to this life, frequently escapes by wandering around and about..." So says the hero of prize-winning German novelist Wilhelm Genazino's The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt, a man employed by a shoe company to try their new products as he walks the city streets in the tradition of literary flâneurs. Constantly analyzing as he perambulates, obsessing over his life, he diagnoses himself as "living without inner authorization." This slim novel is the chronicle of his unlikely adventures at overcoming angst and dislocation, a story at once poignant, profound, and hilarious. While written with the assumption that our age is dominated by boredom and alienation, The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt, unlike, say, The Stranger or Nausea, also holds to a belief in the innate innocence of human beings, that we are all, in fact, all right, naturally, just derailed by culture, mildly neurotic but inherently curable.
Which means that Genazino gives us the best of both worlds, both tortuous, sliding stream-of-thought passages and moments of startling clarity. The latter satisfies, but the former can be a laugh riot. For instance, early in the book our hero notices a woman drop a piece of gum from her backpack:
The woman is engrossed by a jeweler's window display, she didn't notice her loss. Shall I go to her and tell her: You've dropped a stick of gum? Maybe it would be enough to say: I think something fell out of your backpack. Or simply: You dropped something. To clarify things (and because I don't like saying the words chewing gum), I could point my index finger at the object on the ground. Except for the fact that pointing my index finger would (does) embarrass me. It's awful.
No inner authorization, but plenty of internal commentary; in the end, of course, he does nothing, but his deliciously rambling rationalizations for inaction, and his tangled exegeses of his most minute thoughts, not only give the narrative a slap-stick momentum, they make a serious argument about the philosophical condition of our time. This book is no less heady, in its own assessments of our modern state, than those of Camus or Sartre, but it's a load more hopeful, and comic to boot. There's a way that it reads like a mix of Jerzy Kosinski's Being There and a particularly cringe-inducing episode of Seinfeld. In the midst of sex, for example, our hero realizes he still has his socks on, and, in a matter of one frantic paragraph, his thoughts have ricocheted through all possible ramifications of this, anticipated his lover's every reaction, second-guessed and third-guessed any move he could make.
It's easy to see why a guy like this would want to spend some time walking his way through shoe soles and into a kind of thoughtlessness. "The only reason I end up wandering around and about the city so much is that it makes it easier for me not to remember," our hero says, which is half true and also half rationalization. His girlfriend has recently abandoned him, and staying away from his apartment is one way not to think about that. Yet his job as a shoe tester is one of the reasons she left him; he's poor and aimless, seemingly lacking ambition, quick to claim that he no longer has any fantasies. This is nonsense, too, for as much as his wanderings are consumed by melancholy and high-concept anxiety about the smallest or largest things (Should he shoplift? Should he throw his jacket off a bridge?), he is just as frequently lost in elaborate daydreams, spurred on by chance encounters in the world that pull him out of the abyss of naval-gazing.
Indeed, the experiences that break through his internal dialogue are part of his salvation. He passes a pet shop for instance, or sees a child constructing a tent of blankets on a balcony. Children play an especially important role in this book, and while our hero claims that he wants not to remember his childhood, that his adulthood represents a full divorce from those times characterized by play and imagination, he is still, luckily, very much a child in all the best ways. To mark his girlfriend's leaving, he doesn't just mope around the city, he fills an empty room with fallen leaves:
I ought to have at least one place in the world where nothing can get too close to me, where I'm not subject to any demands. When I walk among the leaves I even lose the feeling that there's something I need to account for. The leaf room is unquestionably an invention of my soul, which is very possibly quite cunning.
Very cunning, indeed, but also pure—as Genazino tells it, childhood is something that gets taken away, tainted, by the process of education into alienation and unhappy adulthood. Our hero has an eye not only for the young in their innocent bliss but for that moment when children, "boasting about imaginary experiences" are already beginning to get defensive, wary, cynical: "Even at their age they're talking fast and furious to ward off disappointment!" This creeping "disappointment" is the mark of our collective neurosis, and while inevitable, it is not irreversible.
Slightly buzzed on champagne at a dinner party that began as an uncomfortable, over-thought affair, the shoe tester finds himself suddenly giving voice to his daydreams and becomes the instant life of the conversation, inventing an imaginary Institute for the Art of Memory and Experience, envisioning a radical new "treatment" based on his wandering attempts at self-therapy—active engagement in the world. "People," he says, "sense that their lives have become nothing more than one long drawn-out rainy day, and that their bodies are no more than the umbrella for this day." They spend their life alternately bored, waiting for something to happen, or disappointed at what does. Thus, the Institute aims to help people "rediscover experiences that have something to do with them, beyond all the TVs, vacations, highways and supermarkets..." This might seem a well-worn trope, but our hero carries it out with originality and verve. People do come to him, and money, success, new jobs, a new lover, and all of this owes itself to the peculiar relation he is able to find with the world, a mix of open-eyed wonder and dumb luck.
This is the gift of the book, in the end, a balance between philosophy and poetry, helter-skelter wit and calm sensual pauses. Genazino has written a parable of redemption that doubles as a manifesto for a theory of engagement with the wonder and absurdity of the world.
Wilhelm Genazino, born in 1943 in Mannheim, Germany, has published numerous books, including eight novels, a trilogy, and two collections of essays. His many literary honors include the Bremer Literaturpreis (1989), the Hans-Fallada-Preis (2003), and the Georg-Büchner-Preis (2004). He lives in Frankfurt. Translator Philip Boehm is a playwright, theater director, and author of numerous translations from Polish and German. He won the Austrian State Prize for Literary Translations in 1990. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri.
About the author:
Spencer Dew is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, completing a dissertation on the late novels of Kathy Acker. He regularly reviews books for Rain Taxi Review of Books. His fiction and poetry have appeared in such publications as Juked, Pindeldyboz, The 2nd Hand, Verb Sap, Wandering Army, and Word Riot.
For further reading:
See the complete list of work by Spencer Dew at 42opus. Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 6, No. 3, where "A Review of Wilhelm Genazino's The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt" ran on October 28, 2006. List other work with these same labels: nonfiction, review, review of fiction.