Sunday, July 20, 2008
The Executor: A Comedy of Letters by Michael Kruger
Translation from the German by John Hargraves
With far more moments of exquisite irony than pure comedy, this novel tells the tale of a hapless unnamed German narrator summoned to Turin upon the suicide of his friend, the literary legend and professor, Rudolf. His assigned task is that of literary executor. His main purpose is to find the much celebrated writer’s final manuscript, his magnum opus, but to do so he must pick through dozens of boxes of documents, and navigate the messy leavings of the famous writer’s life: namely a dying wife, a mistress and a bossy, possessive secretary – all whom operate from a sense of entitlement to the estate. On top of that, the narrator must contend with a miniature zoo which the deceased maintained on his apartment’s terrace. As if the demands of three women and a menagerie of pets weren’t enough to deal with, the university where Rudolf worked believes it has certain rights to the author’s papers. The school’s president too stakes a claim to the author’s legacy.
Kruger, himself the head of a German publishing house as well as an editor, offers keen insight into the mind-set of a literary legend, one lacking in empathy, mostly for his own kind. Of Rudolf he reveals: “Nothing was more repugnant to him than a gathering of authors.”
One wry bit of business was the disclosure that Rudolf attended other writers’ readings in order to avoid having to actually read their books.
But the most oft quoted line from The Executor is: “The public has no idea that writing is a disease, and that the writer who publishes is like a beggar who exhibits his sores.”
Rudolf has few illusions about his own talent: he knows he’s hailed as a literary star not because his talent rates among the very best, but that his writing is the least worse of most other writers; he’s a success because he’s not quite as bad a writer as the rest.
As the narrator pokes through box after box searching for the final manuscript, he unearths a shocking secret, one guaranteed to destroy Rudolf’s reputation and legacy. He reels from the knowledge of how truly little he knew of the man he considered to be his closest friend. The ensuing conflict does not stem from any interior debate as to whether or not reveal this secret to the world, but to keep all the competing parties who lay claim to the estate from getting their hands on the damnable evidence.
As the novel progresses, surprising turn of events happen in rapid succession and the ironic twist at the end is a tour de force on par with Michael Frayn’s Headlong. With his insider’s view, Mr. Krueger has created a most satisfying story about the vagaries of a writer’s fame, and the responsibilities and limits of friendship in the face of death.