is an online magazine of the literary arts.

28 October 2006 | Vol. 6, No. 3

A Review of Wilhelm Genazino's The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt

The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt
Wilhelm Genazino
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 wan