The Complete Review website, 5.8.2010
the autobiography of albert einstein by Gerhard Roth
The Complete Review‘s review:
Gerhard Roth’s the autobiography of albert einstein is not an autobiography of Albert Einstein; indeed, it has relatively little to do with Albert Einstein — though it does begin with a description (and drawing of !) Einstein’s embryonic form (” the actual configuration of the albert einstein embryo formed quickly”). There is this brief introductory section, as well as an autopsy report to close the book, but there are three main sections to the novel — the first: ‘the voyeur’, the third: ‘the observer (a sketch)’. So, yes, there’s much detailed observing going on here.
the autobiography of albert einstein is written almost entirely without capitalization, though there are some sentences and a few words entirely capitalized. In look and feel, Roth’s 1972 debut reminds of the works of Konrad Bayer ( the head of vitus bering) and Oswald Wiener (die verbesserung von mitteleuropa — yes, those Austrians really went for not capitalizing for a while there). This isn’t straightforward narrative, with the blocks of text ranging from word-lists to actual events being recounted. Throughout there’s a sense of straining for just the right words: there’s an incredible variety of vocabulary here– though, coupled with the tendency to list that also lends parts of the text a thesaurus-like feel, a game that can feel too forced (though it is all very gamely translated by Malcolm Green).
This is a book of close observation, the narrator — mentally ill, by the standards of the day and his environment — intently focused on the self. So right at the start:
i swim, swim in a flickering. the relays clutter in my head … dreamy phase ! i race through the convolutions of my brain, i look through the vitreous spheres of my eyes … exquisite speech bubbles burst in my brain, bespatter my perception, drip from furniture.
He lists “what i am” — everything from a louse and an atom to Feodor Dostoevsky — and his account is one of trying to fix (in all senses of the word) his identity, especially in the world around him. At one point, he suggests: “i am AE, a formula”; he tries to explain how it applies, but it is just another flailing attempt.
He is hyper-verbal — and knows as much:
word eczemas broke out all over my inflamed cerebral membranes
At times, language itself becomes deformed:
in yer brain yerve gorrabaat 15 tharsand millyun nerve sells runnin’ riot, in yer sereebull cortecks there’s 100,000 nerve sells ‘nevry kewbick millymeater ov yer brain jelly !
Many of the observations and analysis (and justifications) for the approach taken here are old hat by now (and were back then, too) but they are still spelled out:
1) time is mashed up and its tatters can be used qite arbitrarily
2) thoughts, fragmentary scenes, facts torn from apparent contexts. there are no more contexts
7) the difficulty in committing oneself. the reduction to an empty page. the pattern of the words on paper. poems as patterns.
9) the trivial gains in significance. life becomes art. art flows into life. qotes, footnotes, scientific style, even if partially ironic. short instructions for use etc.
His is the familiar dilemma:
wasn’t i quite consciously negating reality, wasn’t i playing a game without end, simply involving reality in order to change it as if it were my invention. wasn’t i letting my very inventions become reality by forcing my environment to accept them as facts and react accordingly ? i turned reality into my invention, i forced it into this, my mind, into my lump of brain, forced it through the filter of my inventions, through, that’s right, through my own impressions …
It comes as no surprise that the postmortem report notes “Severe epistaxis” — nosebleeds — and that he haemorrhaged to death, his brain surely practically exploding under the pressure.
This is a first novel — much of Roth’s later work is considerably more conventional — and has the feel of a writer experimenting. In the context of when and where it was written it was hardly particularly radical (or unusual), but it’s not fiction of the sort one finds a lot of any longer. It’s not particularly approachable, but, at less than a hundred pages, certainly manageable — and there’s enough here that is inspired and clever for it to be worthwhile. Still, readers should be aware: this is not your usual contemporary fare.
Also: there’s not very much about Einstein (don’t be fooled by the opening pages).