Am I a Redundant Human Being?

The Austrian actress, writer, and painter Mela Hartwig (1893–1967) published relatively little during her lifetime: a collection of stories, a novel, a novella, and a book of poems. She did most of this work between 1921, when she married and retired from acting, and 1938, when she and her husband moved to London to escape the Nazi occupation and annexation of Austria. Am I a Redundant Human Being?, written in 1931, was one of three completed novel manuscripts found (along with a fourth, incomplete novel) among her papers after her death. Unpublished until 2001, when it fueled a renewed interest in Hartwig’s work in her home country, the novel has now been translated by Kerri A. Pierce and published by Dalkey Archive Press—the first appearance of any of Hartwig’s books in English.

Am I a Redundant Human Being? is the monologue of Aloisia (known as Luise) Schmidt, a secretary at a Vienna construction firm. Luise narrates the events of her life from her early childhood at the turn of the twentieth century until about the age of 30. Judging from the intensely psychological focus of the book, it is clear that Hartwig’s Vienna is also very much the Vienna of Sigmund Freud; the narrative has the feel of a case study in low self-esteem. After an undistinguished school career, Luise’s life has been a mostly unbroken series of unfulfilling low-skilled clerical jobs and difficult relationships: tentative friendships with women, whom she tends to idolize and imitate excessively; and unstable romances with men, whom she tends to obsess over and who ultimately reject her over her neediness and her weakness of personality.

The bulk of the novel is taken up with the two most recent of these slavish involvements: first with Elizabeth, a narcissistic, melodramatic acting student, and then with Elizabeth’s arrogant ex-lover, the businessman Egon Z. (Note the quasi-Freudian use of initials to abbreviate surnames for the sake of anonymity, which Luise applies to all the men with whom she has been involved.) Although they come last in the story and take up almost half the book’s length, these two encounters underscore the essentially repetitive nature of Luise’s story, since they do not differ much in kind or significance from the earlier ones.

Further emphasizing this sense of repetition, Luise’s method throughout is to alternate descriptions of events from her life with moments of frank, poignant self-laceration that for the most part outshine in interest and originality the events that give rise to them. Here is one example from late in the novel:

I can’t remember what finally made me turn against this life, and the weak, pliable person I’d become, content with dreams—but I’ll never forget the disgust that filled me when I realized I was satisfied rather than desperate. I preferred escaping into dreams to confronting the real world. I was content with a phantom lover. I had become capable of deluding myself, precisely so that I wouldn’t have to see my life was hopeless. But no, I hadn’t “become” anything—I had always been like this. I had always fled from every deep, every painful emotion. Such sloth, such cowardice—I was simply repugnant. It seemed I wasn’t even capable of well-earned despair. Again I told myself that I’d never be able to experience true feeling, that I would only ever know its shadow. My whole life I’d lived off the one wretched ambition that still possessed me: to be more than I was; to reject and despise everything that was in my reach and to set goals I was incapable of reaching; to chase after emotions I was incapable of feeling; to seek out adventures I couldn’t live up to; to have a friendship that was no friendship, a love that was no love; ambitions yoked to a weak will, a will stuck in the mire of unfulfilled desire.

And another, from just six pages later:

What’s the point of a person like me, what? A person who will never amount to anything because she doesn’t believe in herself, who doesn’t believe in herself because she doesn’t amount to anything, a completely redundant human being? Who would miss me, who would mourn for me? My parents perhaps, but who else? I saw my mother before me, a vague image that only lasted a moment; I could hear her voice whisper in my ear, warning, imploring: “All you ever think about is yourself.”

How often had I heard “All you ever think about is yourself” from her? She’d said so at every opportunity, and yet I’d never understood or wanted to understand her. Now I flung her accusation back at myself: “All you ever think about is yourself.” It’s true, I admitted. All I ever think about is myself. My life might actually have something like a goal, a real purpose, if only I could forget myself, if only I could lose myself in the crowd, if only I could sacrifice myself to some higher purpose. But I had more fear of this sacrifice than of life itself. . . . Even if I knew I’d get back a thousand times what I’d given, I simply couldn’t let go of the tiny, despised bit of self that I still possessed, despite everything. Besides, what was I good for, really? The menial tasks that no one ever noticed? Simply becoming the tiniest cog in a huge machine wasn’t worth the sacrifice. I couldn’t afford to forget myself because everyone else forgot me anyway. Yes, I was self-absorbed all right, because otherwise I was nothing at all. Another repulsive revelation.

This degree of painfully heightened self-awareness both gives the book its Freudian flavor of psychoanalytic case study and, while fascinating, renders it static as a work of fiction. For although by the end of her monologue Luise has gained a slightly more mature perspective on her experiences, she has also not changed very much—except perhaps in the intensity of her resignation to her perceived character flaws. In this sense her narrative is if anything anti-psychoanalytic, since after describing her life Luise seems not to have learned how to cope with it any better. Instead, it seems as if her only point in her reminiscences is to remind us again and again of her deficiencies, and the constant repetition tends to undermine the reader’s desire to sympathize with her plight.

Despite the frustrations of the material, however, praise must be given to Pierce’s fluid and highly readable translation, whose momentum never flags throughout a work that is not broken into chapters and contains not even a single scene break. Nevertheless, in a few spots the text would have benefited from the attentions of a careful editor: a “leeching” instead of a “leaching,” two instances of “hand and hand” for “hand in hand,” a mistaken reference to a typewriter’s shift lock as the “caps lock,” and a document in which Luise is referred to with the specifically English or British (and somewhat anachronistic) title “Ms.” in place of “Fräulein.” These minor complaints aside, Pierce’s translation is a pleasure to follow from start to finish, even while Hartwig’s fiction itself seems to run in place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.