Two or Three Years Later is a unique collection of short stories, many only half a page long. Each sentence has been distilled down to only the essential words, yet Wolf’s stories retain a very conversational quality. He often speaks directly to the reader, saying he is sure that the reader is curious to hear this or that about the story in question. Sometimes Wolf will cut himself off mid-sentence and begin his story again. All of these techniques make the bare bones of the writing process visible throughout this book. The reader becomes a part of the author’s struggle to find meaning in his characters and their lives, yet the confidence with which Wolf displays this struggle allows the reader to trust that there is meaning here.
The search for meaning in our everyday lives and in the lives of unknown strangers is paramount. Many episodes are told with little direct commentary, instead consisting of a series of events. On the first page of a two-and-a-half page story, “Ein Unglück im Westen, am 13. Mai” (“Misfortune in the West on May 13th”), a nameless man goes for a walk and sees a homeless man die, a car hits a tree before sinking into a nearby lake, another man falls off a roof, and a set of keys are lost in a canal. On the second page, a man sees a woman almost get hit by a bicyclist, a man reports that a body has fallen on top of his car, and while the police find out that this man is a criminal many times over, the homeless man dies at the same moment in another city. The story ends with the author telling the reader that he met the nameless man who went for a walk and wrote down his story.
This constant author-reader dialogue begs the question, where is the real story? Is the real story that of the nameless man walking down the street, or is it the story of an author writing a story? The ultimate conclusion I came to was that the process of writing, the examination of the ordinary and the extraordinary, is what is meaningful, and Wolf is seeking to create a dialogue with his readers about exactly that. Influenced by surrealism and absurdism, Wolf constantly probes the various situations that people create, and these stories reflect his satisfaction with the idea of art for art’s sake.
Admittedly, I found these stories repetitive and a bit frustrating at first. What changed my mind was the very last story, which is significantly longer than the rest and much more revealing of Wolf’s intentions. Told in the first person, this last story is broken into twelve short chapters. Set after the war, (when a nameless stranger asks the narrator which war, he replies, “any war”), the narrator drifts along on trains and boats, from Europe to Africa. In place of an author-reader dialogue is a narrator-stranger dialogue, and here Wolf reveals the questions he expects his readers to ask. I began rereading some of the earlier stories, looking for the questions I, as the reader should ask. In one very short story, Wolf writes that a man tries to grab a woman on the street, but the woman gets away, and nobody knows what the man wanted. Such a brief and seemingly meaningless account actually provokes the reader to finish reading the story, to wonder what that man really wanted.
From this perspective, Two or Three Years Later is a very engaging and active text, despite its first impression. Whether Wolf is arguing with himself over whether or not to write a story about a town called Mörfelden (and thereby writing a story about Mörfelden), or whether he recounts the uneventful events of a town hall meeting in Memphis, Tennessee, the reader cannot help but be involved in the process of creating a story.
Ror Wolf had been a mainstay in the German cultural scene since the 1960s, experimenting with collage art, radio collages, and other audio media. His star power probably encouraged many German readers to wade through this metafictional collection of stories. Although American readers—are less familiar with Ror Wolf—andmight not have the same motivation, it is ultimately worth the journey.
Zwei oder drei Jahre später. Neunundvierzig Ausschweifungen
(Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions)
By Ror Wolf
Schoeffling & Co.
English sample translated by Anthea Bell available from Schoeffling & Co.
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