Commentary Magazine

A Kindly Contagion, by Walter Toman

Tales by Toman
A Kindly Contagion.
by Walter Toman.
Bobbs-Merrill. 218 pp. $3.75.


Quite belatedly—for Walter Toman’s work, long popular in Germany, has been making the rounds of American publishers for some years—Bobbs-Merrill has brought out a volume of his tales. They are original little allegories which, although sharing much with Kafka and Isaac Babel and occasionally with the fancifully grotesque drawings of Paul Klee and George Grosz, attain a dimension of acid satire all their own. Toman’s highly individual personality holds his work in check with an objectivity which tempers only the greatest of satirical writings; to expose his own personality thoroughly, a personality of genial yet realistic insight, without ever appearing unjust or paranoic, is his peculiar gift.

A Vienna-trained psychoanalyst and contributor of articles to the psychiatric journals of Europe (he is now a member of the faculty of Brandeis University), Toman has obviously adapted the fantasy life, the allegory-spinning capacity of dream-making, and the highlighting of insights, achieved in bewilderment, that are both the subject and the method of his profession. Some readers will see, in a bizarre story like “The Roll-Thrower,” a satire of political patronage systems or a depiction of the infinite adaptability of man to new, demanding situations. But what every reader, regardless of his interpretation, will share when reading these tales is the sense of recognition, a glimpse into his own experience, even if he cannot put his finger on exactly what experience it was.

Of course, Toman is sometimes less elusive. In “The Do-It-Yourself Living Space,” for example, he is obviously satirizing recent European history, the arms race, and international politics by treating them as personal behavior taking place inside an apartment house. In the story “Love in Armor,” two lovers attempt to embrace, though dressed in awkward and confining armor. Like John Crowe Ransom’s “The Equilibrists,” the story depicts the kind of tortuous personal relationship in which two people simply cannot achieve intimacy no matter how hard they try—call it frigidity, rigidity, bashfulness, custom, honor, or whatever. “What goes on between us now is an unfortunate thing. . . . We embrace each other; I kiss her visor. We even want to get married in style and live together, but I am not sure whether we shall ever lie together naked.” There is nothing original about Toman’s metaphor of armor, yet he manages somehow, without sacrificing simplicity, to sound an original note.

This simplicity and originality is illustrated in a little tale by Toman which I quote in toto: “Those were the days, when Luise and I were still pulling Kingmeier’s wagon! Kingmeier was a butcher who had good common sense; that was why he sold his wagon together with his horses and bought himself a smaller one, one which two people could pull without much trouble, even when it was loaded. Our daily work consisted of pulling this wagon, and of waiting in the street when something was being loaded or unloaded. At such times he would toss a blanket over each of us to cover our nakedness, for otherwise we were both bare, and in the summer we didn’t need a blanket even while waiting. Although during the summer sometimes the people on the street complained about our being naked, and though as workhorses we were under the authority of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which had no objections, as human beings we had to contend with the police control of public morals, and they insisted that we wear bathing suits at least. They said they understood our peculiar position and therefore allowed us to wear bathing suits, but in the city they couldn’t reduce their demands for decency any more than that. So from then on we went about our daily work in bathing suits, and not until evening, when Kingmeier led us to our stalls and put some bread in the manger, did we undress, eat, and throw ourselves down on the straw.

“Those were the days! Luise and I stuck together day and night; there was nothing else we wanted of the world, and Kingmeier made all that possible for us in such an elegant way. But after less than three years Kingmeier died one day; his heirs sold our wagon and the stable and drove us away. It was then that I was unfaithful to Luise for the first time, and soon after that Luise strayed too without telling me about it. We wore clothes now too, and maybe that had something to do with it. Everything was quite different from the way it had been, and even now it is pretty dreary, although we two, Luise and I, still stick together as we used to do.”

One could point out many things about this story, and yet they would all be redundant. The quest for dignity that makes one half-animal and half-human, the fall from grace, and the bitter disillusionment of the years and of a disintegrating marital relationship, are all imparted in a sad, Shandean good humor.

“Busse’s World Theater” is a story about a chocolate wrapper so impoverished that on his dates he pays “her way to the movies, waits outside and afterward buys her a beer, not drinking one himself, or at most taking a sip of hers.” He rejoices to be admitted into membership in Busse’s World Theater, an organization that will remind some readers of the Communist party, others simply of any hollow promise. After being admitted into “not just any old theater, but Busse’s World Theater—the stress is on World,” the story’s Steig-like protagonist goes back to his life as a chocolate wrapper, taking comfort in “the man from Busse’s World Theater saying that for the time being everything would remain as it has been. I emphasize: for the time being.”

Toman’s work impresses one as that of a deep and compassionate humanist, a visionary scarred by his own sufferings and guilt, for Toman’s comfortable future was shattered by his being drafted into the German army at the beginning of World War II. Wounded in Russia and discharged in 1942, he spent the rest of the war years beginning to work with his talent for what he calls not stories but “short circuits.” His stories short-circuit, like sparks or lightning bolts. Toman wrote them, he says, “to fill an air raid shelter, a wrecked house, very empty stomachs, and even whole people mourning over losses of their beloved or of all their possessions with something, maybe light. So I kept writing them in spite of the fact that peace, brotherhood and love ‘have since been restored to us.’”



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