The title of this brief reflection on Richard Weiner, whose masterpiece The Game for Real has just been published in English, is meant to be taken literally, in whole and in part. On the whole, Weiner, a frighteningly original poet, novelist, and journalist compared by many to Franz Kafka, did indeed find himself in an awkward situation when he began working on the first part of this novel-in-two-novellas in 1929. Living in Paris, where he was a correspondent for the Czech daily newspaper Lidové noviny (Karel Čapek, interwar Czechoslovakia’s most celebrated author, was a professional colleague), Weiner had just broken with the avant-garde group known as Le Grand Jeu – yes, ‘the great game’ – which had been one of his few respites from personal isolation. The outstanding writers and artists who made up Le Grand Jeu, among them the writers René Daumal and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte and the visual artist Josef Šima, provided the circle of friends and interlocutors with whom Weiner is himself most readily associated. But their active collaboration was short-lived, rendering Weiner’s specific debt to the group more a question than an answer. After all, what does it say about a writer when his involvement with the school or -ism that would later define him lasted less than two years? Awkward.
At least from my inevitably fanciful perspective, as someone separated from his subject by a century, a continent, and so much more, it’s hard to see how Weiner could have ever found a permanent home in this company. He was, like Šima, from an alien land, working predominantly in an alien language, and two decades his French associates’ senior. That he was gay might not have been an issue – Gilbert-Lecomte had a romantic relationship with the editor Léon Pierre-Quint, another associate of Le Grand Jeu – but for Weiner’s apparently having fallen in love with Daumal, who was straight. Very awkward.
But I have also said that my title is to be taken literally ‘in part’, and here’s how: in the last productive phase of his literary life, a period clearly inaugurated by his relationships within Le Grand Jeu, Richard Weiner finds himself, and he does so in an awkward situation. Or perhaps it would be more fitting to say that, in finding himself, Weiner discovers that he is the awkward situation, an ever shifting set of spatial-temporal coordinates that can never be accommodated easily or comfortably by the consciousnesses/coordinates around him. He feels pulled apart, like the nameless protagonist of The Game of Quartering, the first section of The Game for Real, who feels estranged from his own domestic space because he doesn’t know what to do with the two doubles who’ve miraculously appeared there:
They were strangers to me; they were estranged from me all at once, but not as much as my own apartment, albeit still familiar and unaltered to my eyes. They were somehow more real than it was. They were strangers, unfamiliar, and yet theirs was an assigned unfamiliarity, promised; only I didn’t know ‘where to put them’.
Or else he is compacted, stuffed into an identity he neither wants nor understands, as we experience through the hero of the novel’s second part, The Game for the Honour of Payback. Known only as ‘Shame’, he is constantly confronting the sense that what he thinks and feels is immediately visible to those around him, as when he imagines (or recognises) that the world can see the homosexual desire he is desperately failing to suppress:
He was wont at times to stare into the mirror… Some of his features, after all, must reflect that! Were it not written in his features, it wouldn’t be visible. But they see. For if they didn’t see it, he wouldn’t see it either… yes, and then he’d have no reason to cower before variations of this look, which was actually always the same… This look that we have suddenly inferred… This look like when a hand jolts away when it’s touched cremains or filth unawares.
The Game for Real is, in this sense, a human drama – deeply human, in fact, since it dramatizes human being, not simply the activities of human beings. Personhood appears here as twin torments. On the one hand, there’s the torment of our potentially infinite selves, what Weiner terms our ‘plethoricity’. (‘He’s been left alone,’ Weiner writes of ‘Shame’, ‘but then what is solitude to someone whose plethoricity is such that he is a community unto himself?’) On the other, there’s the claustrophobic dread of being isolated and nameless, a blank sheet to which anyone else can affix a label.
This is why Weiner begs to be read from all angles: biographically, philosophically, formally. He is one of those rare talents for whom daily life, intellect, and artistic method fit perfectly together. Which is to say that, in a manner that is as beautiful as it is devastating, they don’t fit at all.