Book Discussion Group: Kleinzeit, 2

Kleinzeit touched the paper with the brush, drew in one smooth sweep a fat black circle, sweet and round.

That’s it, said Death. My present.

The first and, probably, recurring item that must be addressed by a reader of Kleinzeit is how to understand the Big Guys. The Big Guys are such characters as Sky, Death, Hospital, Underground/Underworld, God, Glockenspiel, Yellow Paper. Often they speak to Kleinzeit, to Sister, to Redbeard. Sometimes they do things on their own, as when Glockenspiel wonders when it will be played in the underground, before Kleinzeit has dreamed or encountered it. One way of understanding this — which Brad has broached in his post — is that Hoban is “unshackling” objects, in a sense, from their correlationist shackles: making them, simply put, characters rather than accessories and scenery. Certainly they are characters — for instance, I would say Hospital, Underground, and Death are as well-rounded as Redbeard — but I find it difficult to believe that we can understand this to be an object-oriented novel. On the contrary, I would make the case that it’s a supremely human-centered novel, one that enters the solipsistic world of those “characters” we breathe to life with our own words: when we curse the table that stubbed our toe, chat with ourselves, pray, resent the building where we lie sick, or communicate with the instrument we play best.

To be fair, I should point out the remainder this theory leaves behind: these characters, whom I have called residents in a solipsistic world, bring their own ideas to the table. Word rapes Yellow Paper, without which intervention presumably Kleinzeit would never write his novel. Hospital and God, and even Death, have presents for Kleinzeit and Sister. Yellow Paper nearly drives Redbeard mad with its insistence upon phrases that are meaningless to him. Moreover, the world in this novel echoes in a strange Heideggerian eternity (if that’s possible) where conjunctures, meetings, conversations, exist before their participants have arrived, are remembered before they have happened, or recur in strange mythic ways — as if the pattern of interconnection were more real than the discreet elements within it. Kleinzeit spends much of the novel searching for something, some combination, that will feel right, that he will know when he sees it, and this suggests a powerful notion of fate or predestination to which the “objects” often seem more privy than the humans.

Nonetheless, I will psychologize. My sense is that the Big Guys are intended to clearly delineate layers of experience — abstract personalities representing ordinarily unclear tides of feeling and thought while yet, by their mutual interactions and the equality of their personalities on the stage of the novel, making up the unified, plotlike elements of a whole experience. — In this case, the experience of going to a hospital, falling in love, finding a new line of work, and writing a first novel.

Before I launch into my grandiose reflections on theme, I’d like to note two sections of the book that seemed from my perspective as a fiction writer to be especially well-written:

First, the hospital. The character Hospital is an accurate abstraction, full of order and habit that seem out of place given his life and death purpose, yet also unexpectedly savage in its appetites. We see it waking for a morning cigar but also playing cat and mouse, cruelly, with Kleinzeit. But most of all, I appreciated Hoban’s treatment of hospital beds — like unwanted lovers, seeking sweaty sex when all you (being in pain) want is cool, silence, oblivion. Also, at one point, he describes a vision of life support and IVs that I myself have shared when I worked in a hospital:

Readbeard was still there on the other side of Schwarzgang. Kleinzeit nodded to him. Redbeard nodded back, looking at him through the funfair of Schwarzgang’s machinery. They ought to light the old man up at night, thought Kleinzeit. Then it occurred to him that he too might suddenly find Hospital growing on him like a mechanical man-eating vine. Already two thin tendrils bound him to the monitor.

Second, writing a novel. Generally, Kleinzeit’s novelistic interactions with the yellow paper follow the form of a sexual relationship: the romancing, the foreplay, the early fear, the ecstasy, and finally the fruitful regularity. As any writer of fiction knows, the blank page can provoke erectile dysfunction, also six pages earned by sweat, seemingly inspired, can prove barren, can fall off the page, and the only way a novel may be conceived is to try again and again, day after day. One way — one of many — to read the novel, is as a description of the novel-writing process, the formation of a writer.

Reading Kleinzeit can occasionally feel like solving a problem or puzzle, albeit one whose premises are dreams and emotions and whose conclusion is a lifestyle. But the last few pages do solve the puzzle, mostly, suggesting that Hoban didn’t intend the book as an exercise in pinning the tail on the allegory. A second time through, I think, one reads better, experiencing the novel as a novel, where deep themes are explored in the special manner of literature. Themes which stood out to me were memory, freedom, and death.

Brad touched on one pervasive aspect of the novel: Kleinzeit’s attempt to recover himself by remembering himself. There is that place where he seems to be making up memories, which Brad pointed out, but I don’t think we can take that too literally as Hoban later ties Kleinzeit’s quest into the myth of Orpheus. (That, by the way, is a very common allusion in Hoban’s works.) According to Hoban, Orpheus is dismembered, but then re-membered under his own power. So while I grant that Kleinzeit seems to engage in a lot of autonomous self-construction, I don’t think he does so without a history: behind him, perhaps in those first few pages where he is sacked and begins to wince from A to B, lies a dismemberment, and before that — not self-construction but his given, unawakened and unreconstructed, self. I take memory, then, to be the location of the conflict: Kleinzeit has been dismembered there, suddenly finding himself socially, physically, and economically disoriented and torn apart. The novel asks, apart from the selves held together by our structures of money, status, class, health, etc., what resources for a self does our memory possess?

To discover the answer to this question, Kleinzeit must take a lot of wrong turns (which aren’t entirely wrong turns). For instance, he imagines himself to be patroned by some caretaker of busking bums — until he discovers that the key which prompted this fantasy fell by accident from a hand that wants it back. He also attempts to identify himself with the Athenians, to borrow their courage and (he believes) ultimately their success — until he discovers they lost the Pelopponesian war, that he has aligned himself with the losers. Is he a hero? Then he must some kind of hero — that is, some hero already existing. Even Orpheus, though, is a red herring in that respect. For all Hospital’s snide comments, Kleinzeit gets the girl, escapes the Underground, and re-members himself, all at once, which Orpheus didn’t.

Fallen out of the social, physical, and economic orders that used to sustain his self, to hold him together, Kleinzeit madly searches for another already existing order to stuff himself into. But he fails. Instead, he discovers his own moments of harmony, in memory and the present, which are utterly unique, part of no existing order but constitutive of a new one — freedom:

Untwisting all the chains that ty

The hidden soul of harmony.

Inside him he felt a pause, as of an uplifted hand. Then it was as if a fat brush drew with black ink in one perfect sweep a circle, fat and black on yellow paper. Sweet, fresh, clear and simple. His whole organism was strong and sweetly rhythmic with the perfect health of it.


‘What is harmony,’ said Kleinzeit, ‘but a fitting together.’ He wasn’t saying it to Tede but he had to say it aloud.

‘That’s an awfully good line,’ said Tede. ‘What’s it from?’

‘Nothing,’ said Kleinzeit, and cried some more.

But for all this to happen — the re-memberment that is — Kleinzeit really required the help of death. All the other guys in the yellow-paper ward are dying away — mainly because they aren’t accepting the gift of death, I think. Even the one who expresses an interest in getting a bargain coffin isn’t really accepting the lesson of death, because that lesson isn’t about ceasing but about discovering the singularity of oneself, the uniqueness of one’s organism, and relying on that rather than anything else. So many little deaths — the successive failures of Kleinzeit’s narrative lifeboats — lead to a big disenchantment and, ultimately, a real life.

Finally, as a note for An und fur sich theology regulars, I’d like to dwell for a moment on one intriguing Big Guy: God. He begins his career in the novel as Sister’s special conversation partner. She wants to pray to him, he wants her to chat with him. He’s unimpressive. No omniscient knowing of needs before they’re asked. No obvious overarching plan for his own glorification. Instead, he seems uniquely unempathetic, really curious about what humans are feeling because he genuinely doesn’t get it. He gets jealous of Shiva at one point, but otherwise his only real personality feature is a pervasive boredom and social awkwardness.

I wondered — tell me what you think — if this didn’t resonate at all with the freedom pursued by Kleinzeit, a freedom of self-constitution by re-memberment that escapes the claims of other things, peoples, stories. Only God is the logic of this freedom completely played out: all-powerful… and rather indecisive and unsympathetic. Sister wants him to be the God of Christian orthodoxy, but that’s a standard he doesn’t much care about (to her occasional frustration). In this sense, to be human is better than to be God, for a finite singularity is much more… I don’t know, empathic, interested?… than an infinite one.

There are a lot of things I should have fleshed out here — no time at the moment — but hopefully we can do so in the comments.

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14 Responses to “Book Discussion Group: Kleinzeit, 2”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This is an excellent post, and I feel reluctant to try to add anything, knowing how much more invested you’ve become in the novel than me. Just hoping to seed the discussion because people might be reluctant to be first commenter.

  2. Kleinzeit | The Anti-Moderate Says:

    [...] is just a link to a guest post I put up today at An und fur sich. It’s about the novel Kleinzeit, by Russell Hoban. I loved this novel: thanks Brad Johnson [...]

  3. Brad Johnson Says:

    Just for the sake of adding another comment, I want to say that I fully intend on commenting on this post, as well as Robert’s comments to the first one. If all goes as planned, it will happen . . . tonight. Very good post.

  4. Brad Johnson Says:

    Robert, there’s a lot in this post, and I will not even attempt to address it all in the course of a single comment. Let’s see how things play out conversationally.

    Re: God. I’m not sure I can go along with your characterization of God in Kleinzeit: “all-powerful… and rather indecisive and unsympathetic” — though, after I paste that, I see you compare God here to the “logic of freedom,” so perhaps this is redeemable. Apropos how you start your post, w/r/t to the “Big Guys,” I think we have to understand God (and even Hospital, who seems the most powerful figure in the novel) in terms of the “hidden soul of harmony.” None of them can stand alone; and, as such, none of them are nearly as weighty as we might want and/or expect them to be. They all basically “play their part,” whatever their part might be at any given moment. This doesn’t necessarily mean they “exist” only in relations to humans — though we might note that those moments in which, say, Mirror or Hospital “talk to themselves” in the absence of a human character, they still do so about ABOUT the humans in the novel who happen to be absent. (Note, too, that even their “silence” is objectified in a similar way.)

    This is all related, I might add, to the similar-minded notion that we are not quite what we want and/or expect to be. And by that, I mean that we are not autonomous, self-creative agents of our own destiny. It is, after all, precisely when Kleinzeit owns up to NOT being a hero — i.e., to stop clinging to the word I — that he is fully “re-membered,” and consequently (for a time, anyway) breaks out of the Orphic cycle. All this occurs only via a kind of (vaguely) kenotic self-awareness — which comes only by way of being, as Hospital puts it, “I-Don’t-Know” (p. 173).

  5. robertminto Says:

    Taking your comment about the interdependence of the Big Guys, as well as your distinction between anarchic self-creation and the freedom of harmony (from the other comment thread), I find myself partly convinced and partly not. You are persuasive that we should nuance the theme of freedom, — and I think you do that, partially, by relating the theme to the Big Guys, rather than just treating it as a Kleinzeit specific idea. In fact, now I think of it, there’s a place where Death complains about the conditions of his job, wishing he were Spring or Youth or something — and we’re suddenly sent on an amusing tour of these other Big Guys, who all also whish they were someone else. The significance of that odd moment may be to reveal that the Big Guys face a similar problem to Kleinzeit…

    But w/r/t God, specifically, I feel as if his chief characteristic is a socially awkward (if that’s the right phrase) aloofness. He talks about how hard it is constantly sustaining things:

    Creation isn’t the cut-and-dried thing people think it is. You don’t do it once and then it’s all done, like in that Haydn oratorio. It’s a day-in, day-out thing. You stop for one blink of an eye and it’s all come undone, all to do again. And goodness knows I’ve blinked from time to time. . . (p. 84)

    One gets the impression that this infinite task is precisely what has unfit him for achieving harmony while yet providing the singularity of his organism (as it were). Earlier, on that same page, Sister begins to suspect he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but he says, “I mean, how much is there to talk about really?” This is a characteristic moment in the novel: God hanging on sister’s words with a kind of fatuous interest, entertained but unmoved, not uninterested but disinterested.

    All of this is to suggest the following: your comments made me wonder if we shouldn’t nuance the idea of freedom even further, to distinguish between the freedom of harmony — which, I think you’re right, is the freedom to own up to the place you’ve been allotted — and the freedom of work. By the latter, I’m thinking mostly of Kleinzeit’s pursuit as we leave him at the end of the novel, trudging forward with the novel, quite apart from the inner drama of inspiration and desolation that affected his earlier attempts. So, in addition to owning up, one has to discover the work that one is willing to trudge forward with, having run the gamut with it from enthusiasm to distaste, but still finding it worthwhile and consequently forming a detached (but still, obviously, contextual) impulse to accomplish it in the long run. (At my times of deepest skepticism and distaste, I suspect my impulse to remain interested and committed in some sense to Christianity is an impulse of this sort.)

    I think we can make this distinction because in God we seem to have a character who is free in one of the ways but not in the other: free in his work, but not free in harmony. Because the place he’s cut out for himself by his work is all-exhausting, all-isolating (Hoban’s ironic counterparts to all-powerful, all-present), he is whole but dismembered, whole within himself but dismembered w/r/t the whole pattern. That’s why, I think, the novel suggests that their is a superiority to the finite singularity.

    But anyway, apart form this minor quibble about one character — which may result from my determination to find something theological to talk about in the book in addition to its other treasures — I think your nuancing of the theme of freedom is right on and provides a richer framework for interpretation: for instance, the notion of Kleinzeit having fallen out of some of today’s most important self-structuring orders — money, social status, physical well-being — but having to cope with this, not by taking up and discarding different other orders, but by constantly defining himself differently in relation to the same orders, until he arrives at that kenotic self-awareness(/definition) that you speak of.

  6. Brad Johnson Says:

    I think we can make this distinction because in God we seem to have a character who is free in one of the ways but not in the other: free in his work, but not free in harmony. Because the place he’s cut out for himself by his work is all-exhausting, all-isolating (Hoban’s ironic counterparts to all-powerful, all-present), he is whole but dismembered, whole within himself but dismembered w/r/t the whole pattern.

    I’m still not entirely clear why you think God in the novel is not “free in harmony”. It seems to me that God is, throughout the novel, where Kleinzeit ultimately finds himself at the novel’s end: a little bit powerless, sees things in their shabbiness, still w/ the slight pain between A & B. The difference is that he’s not striving for that something else that would redeem it all, and in the process re-member himself as a singularity to cling to. The God character, as I read it, seems to inhabit this disposition throughout — he doesn’t seem particularly bothered or put out that Sister (in particular) has orthodox expectations about him that he cannot meet. It is almost as though God fully inhabits and accepts, as a part of himself, the profound disappointment in him we have when we learn he isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. (As I think about it, this would be the grounds for a pretty interesting apologetics.)

  7. Dan Says:

    Hi Robert,

    May respond in more detail later, but just thought I would say that this is a really excellent reflection. It’s the sort of thing that I was looking for (but never found) when I was scanning the web to see what others thought of Kleinzeit. I’m still not sold on the greatness of the book. I think your review says more about your own creativity as an intelligent reader… of what I take to be a pretty mediocre text.

    I’m also glad that you and Brad are developing your comments on freedom because I thought that was the area that needed the most unpacking in your post.

    And I’m curious to hear more about your puzzlement in relation to Shiva.

  8. Robert Minto Says:


    I think I understand you better. Maybe I can make you understand my objection a bit — though I confess I’m coming round to your view. Two things, really, about the God character make me see him as dismembered: (1. (And I am probably making too much of this, or transporting ideas into the novel that shouldn’t be there, but) the infinity usually associated with a God character in combination with his lack of understanding of other characters struck me as a remarkably appropriate sort of isolation, a dismemberment because God doesn’t have/isn’t a part of any “members.” Infinity and simplicity, etc. (2. God seems to worry more about the dismemberment (or unraveling to be precise) of his work than of himself. Perhaps I could sum the two points up this way: God doesn’t seem to have a memory of himself, a history of relations within an order. Instead he worries about the memberment of the order itself. However, as I said, I’m coming around to your view and wondering whether I’m not putting this contrast in freedoms in there purely because I decided, in the post, to focus on the God character a bit and therefore had to, basically, invent something of interest regarding him. =)


    Thanks for your kind words.

    About Shiva I’ll explain my bewilderment later on, when I have more time. Quickly, though, I’d like to make a comment about the sense I used freedom in the post (above the comments).

    There I associated freedom with singularity — not necessarily autonomous or contextless — with learning to rely on the givens and dailyness of one’s organism rather than attempting to fit the comfortable but false modes of other organism an past configurations of order. Then Brad came along in the comments and very rightly pointed out another sort of freedom — the freedom to own up to your place in your allotted circumstances. Finally, I, struggling to maintain my point about the God character, came up with the notion of freedom to work: that is, freedom to pursue some daily task with a doggedness unfettered by the changeability of circumstance and psyche.

    But none of you needed that recap — I only mention it to say that I’d like to add, since you’re highlighting freedom again Dan, something else implicit in my post, another sort of freedom that I think the novel addresses. Let’s call it political freedom. I mean the freedom to align oneself, not in reaction, but aggressively and self-reliantly to the orders that previously quietly tyranized your memory and therefore your self — in K.’s case, money, social status, and health. I know there’s a danger you will all hear some sort of existentialism here, some idea of anarchic self-creation — but that’s not what I mean. Perhaps I should call it immanent freedom, or something like that, to emphasize its close association with the singularity of an organism. I didn’t get around to it in the post, but one point that Hoban made well was how sickness can lead to dissidence. Sickness is a profoundly politically motivating intervention of circumstance, acting upon us with the same fruitful rape as Word acted upon Yellow Paper, perhaps.

    Anyway, for what it’s worth, there’s a further nuance and subdivision to our theme of freedom.

  9. Brad Johnson Says:

    Re: Robert’s last point, re: how sickness can lead to dissidence. There is something to this, but it’s also something that very often makes me wary — namely, because the upshot of Kleinzeit’s realization that the key thing to be achieved is the realization that one is sick, not the pursuit of a cure. On one level this seems appropriate. This is because the sickness “defines” who you are as you (i.e., the “I” is borne of the sickness that is consciousness — the re-membering that ultimately leads to a dis-membering, on and on, for most men who follow the path of Orpheus). If this is the case, the pursuit of a cure is, in short, the pursuit of the cessation of self — namely, death, or at the very least, madness. Some obviously choose to pursue this path, but their stories are (narratively-speaking) actually quite dull and, effectively and literally, lead nowhere. (The mystical tradition would say something otherwise here, I realize; and perhaps I’ll follow up on it in a later post.) The danger of this is, I should think, pretty obvious: it all-too-casually can slip into a kind of acceptance of whatever-is that, where it is not outright & fundamentally opposed to the sort of dissidence you have in mind, is oblivious to it and/or its possibility. That is to say, such an acceptance might look at the self, the world, etc., and identify what it sees/experiences as the underlying harmony of all things. “It’s all shit, yes, but what isn’t,” such an acceptance might in effect say. Or, “It’s all shit, but in the sunshine it looks like gold, no?” Or, if it is feeling especially frisky, something about the sound of one hand. Now, I’m of the mind that such acceptance can be rendered a kind of dissidence, but it’s not going to be the kind that issues all that well in sloganeering and union organization. But, as I say, perhaps more on that some other time.

  10. Dan Says:

    Robert and Brad,

    I’m not all that convinced that Hoban shows sickness as leading to dissidence. If, “all men are sick,” as Sister says to God at one point (off topic: I’ve been thinking about what a feminist reading of Sister would produce), then there is nothing about sickness per se that results in dissidence.

    Further, I’m not convinced that Kleinzeit’s realization of his sickness is a source of dissidence. Granted, his realization of his sickness is accompanied by a refusal to do what sick people are supposed to do (stay in the hospital and undergo an operation). He recognizes his illness, refuses to pursue a cure, but also refuses to act as though he is ill.

    But I don’t see any major acts of dissidence in all of this, nor do I see anything that would make sickness “a profoundly politically motivating intervention of circumstance” in this case. Whatever dissident political freedom Kleinzeit exercises doesn’t seem to trickle down into the realm of his actions or his day-to-day existence.

    (This has got me wondering about Agamben’s conception of the messianic vocation. Perhaps something like that is going on with Kleinzeit living “as not” [hos me]? But then this just leads me back to my suspicion that, despite his strong critical analysis, Agamben’s “way forward” is pretty weak.)

  11. Brad Johnson Says:

    One could make the argument, though perhaps not one intended to be particularly persuasive, that the dissidence emerges as such by virtue of one fitting into (rather than actively, intentionally or not, resisting) the “hidden soul of harmony”. To me, this is where the potential problem of such dissidence arises. There is a way to conceive of a “fitting into” that is politically dissident; but it is obviously pretty counter-intuitive, and perhaps only works on a certain level of discourse and thought that is not at all amenable to explicit political action.

  12. Dan Says:

    Yeah, I just think of all the Conservative Christians I’ve known who are “in the world but not of it” (and who then go on to rape the world whilst thinking they are a dissident minority) when I hear this kind of argument.

    The only way I can imagine a “fitting into” that is politically dissident is by thinking of the way a stick fits into the spokes on a bicycle wheel (and not the way a cog fits into a machine)… but I don’t know if those who make the argument you describe would accept this as the kind of “fitting into” that they are on about.

  13. AUFS 2010 Wrap-up « An und für sich Says:

    [...] Book Discussion Group: Kleinzeit, 2 by Robert Minto — our guest bloggers know how to bring it. Posted in year-end wrap-up posts. Leave a Comment » [...]

  14. Bifurcated Life – Russell Hoban: not just the author of the Frances books… Says:

    [...] Also, Kleinzeit. Speaking of which, did you know there was once a great and epic book discussion about that novel? At AUFS? In which I participated? [...]

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