Who is the Man of Pain?


This post comes to us from Sarah Coolidge, who works with Poetry Inside Out, a program of Two Lines Press’s parent organization, The Center for the Art of Translation. In addition, Sarah helps evaluate pieces for the Two Lines journal during our editorial meetings, and she’s our de facto photographer for Two Voices events.

When I first searched the name Richard Weiner online, I found only a short Wikipedia article and a handful of blog posts by Slavic literature enthusiasts, clearly intended for fellow academics and speakers of Czech. I was intrigued but bewildered. Here and there I caught bits of information: passing remarks about the writer’s sexuality, France, WWI, and odd comparisons to Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust, amounting to mere fragments of a life lived and obscured for nearly a century. I wished I knew Czech.

After speaking this past spring to Benjamin Paloff, Weiner’s translator and a professor at the University of Michigan, I realized that Weiner was a contradiction of identities, much like his protagonists. “It’s no longer, and not yet, real; it’s the most beautiful moment he could ask of waking,” the narrator tells us in the opening pages of “The Game for the Honor of Payback,” the second part of The Game for Real. It seems that all of Weiner’s protagonists live in worlds in which they would rather not exist. In these worlds—I say worlds because Weiner’s universe is multifaceted and malleable—they are pursued, invaded, manipulated, ignored, accused, and shamed. And in this particular case, the protagonist is literally referred to as Shame.

Perhaps this hostility reflects Weiner’s own sense of alienation as a gay Jew living in early 20th-century Europe. This is most likely what first attracted the Czech writer to Marcel Proust, another gay man of Jewish descent writing at that time. In fact, after suffering a psychological breakdown (today we would call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) during his short service in WWI, Weiner relocated to France, where he spent the majority of his remaining life. There, he became one of the first readers and reviewers of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, writing about each book as it came out for the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny.

And yet Weiner never achieved the international success of Proust. Much like his characters, he seemed to take refuge in abstraction, those moments when reality ruptures into a thousand pieces of uncertain dimensions. Whether lost in the torrent of European existentialist and surrealist writers or else overshadowed by his fellow countrymen Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera, Weiner died relatively unknown outside of his own country, and his works were left to collect dust for decades under the expansive shadow of the Iron Curtain.

The harder I search for Weiner—in those biographical fragments as well as in his prose—the more I am confronted with contradictions, which answer my question Who is Richard Weiner? with a succession of slaps! My only certainty is that the writer has playfully eluded me, escaping to an alternate reality in which a day is “ashily authentic, with hands dejectedly folded,” and hands behave “like sworn and skittish spies on the front lines . . . looking out for whatever’s eventually coming up against them.”

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