“I’m talking about the marriage ladder, where you climb down from desire to liking, to pleasant habit, to listlessness, all the way to aversion and possibly hatred. Then comes the hour of professional or non-professional counselors, and maybe a see-through negligee or a desperate tanga provides a last few sparks, and then it’s the lawyer’s turn.”
On the Edge, a novel from German author Markus Werner is told by 35 year-old bachelor, Clarin. He’s travelled to his small vacation home in Agra with the plan to work on an article for a professional law journal. The subject is “marriage law,” and Clarin has a self-confessed interest in the subject–especially from the historical perspective. Clarin, who in his work has seen the very worst of human nature, has very definite ideas about marriage, but then again as a divorce lawyer, he probably can’t escape an attitude that’s squarely against the institution of marriage. Stopping at the Hotel Bellevue, the place Clarin contemplated exactly how to dump his mistress Valerie with the least trauma to himself, he meets a man in his 50s named Loos, and there’s something about the man–some elusive quality that he finds intriguing
Most people you can classify in a basic way after fifteen minutes, even if they don’t say a word; you can at least rank them as sympathetic or unsympathetic. But with him I couldn’t determine even this much. I only knew that he interested me. He made me think of Valerie, her opaqueness, which fascinated me at the beginning, but ended up putting me off.
Over a meal, the two men strike up a conversation with Clarin working hard at first to engage his moody dinner companion in conversation. Eventually Clarin learns that Loos has lost his wife, and the subjects of marriage and divorce emerge:
“…it must be very disillusioning for you to be constantly confronted with divorce cases. Doesn’t it tempt you to regard marriage as impracticable?”
Tempt, I said, wasn’t the word; the right one was convince. I was positively compelled by the constant torment I saw couples in to regard marriage as a mistake, or at least a simple overburdening of human nature, which seems too wayward to allow itself to be permanently tamed or to be able to accept the few rules that might make marriage possible, if they were followed. It defied all description, I said, what couples did to each other once they got divorced, whether by continuing to act the same way they acted during the marriage or by denigrating their former happiness. But the craziest thing was that people couldn’t keep from marrying, despite the fact that one of every two marriages already ended in divorce, and it was even crazier that more than twenty percent of divorced couples get remarried.
Loos who had listened so attentively that I would gladly have gone into more detail, interrupted me and said, “You’re a bachelor, then.”
That passage occurs very early in the novel, and it’s at this point, I knew I was in for a grand read. There was something so intriguing about the set-up. Here are these two very different men at different phases of their lives–one, melancholy and missing the love of his life, a much cherished wife, and the other, a man who will not contemplate marriage as he sees it as largely an impossible institution that asks too much of the average human nature. Put these two men in the same table, and lively discussions will ensue, and that’s exactly what happens.
“For me it was home.” I tried to catch his eye, but he was looking across the valley. “What was?” I asked. “Marriage,” he said. “Was?” He nodded. “Are you widowed?” He drank. “You know,” he said, “I’m not unfamiliar with your statistics. I even know that there are two million dust mites rioting in every marriage bed, and I’ve learned from an even more disturbing study that after six years of marriage German couples speak to each other an average of nine minutes a day, and Americans four point two.”
“Exactly, exactly,” I said.
“And now I ask you,” he continued,”whether this finding permits conclusions about human nature or perhaps not rather about the nightly TV ritual, among other things.”
“Both presumably,” I said, “for if we accept that couples’ increasing reticence depends on increasing TV consumption, the question remains why the TV screen is preferred to an hour of conversation. It isn’t true–I hear this as a lawyer–that people don’t talk because they’re watching television. No, people talk television because there’s nothing more to talk about, at least nothing new or interesting. ‘It’s gone dead’–that’s the expression I hear most often; and from that I conclude that human nature craves diversion and colour, and can’t really get used to habit.”
“You’re all too right to be right,” Loos said, “and, as I said, my experience was different. Your health!”
The men meet twice, and each seems to be intrigued with the other. While they don’t set out to change the other’s opinion, nonetheless they are both prepared to argue their cases and that means the sharing of experiences. Loos, a teacher of “dead languages” is disillusioned and uncomfortable with modern life, but he’s a believer in love and marriage. He appears to be at the hotel for sentimental reasons–his wife was a patient at a local health spa after recovering from the removal of a brain tumor. A great deal of the discussion spins around the question of why some marriage partners appear to need novelty or change, while for others, deep-rooted routines are cherished. This isn’t exactly an unanswerable question since it addresses the differences between some natures vs others, belief systems, opportunity etc. (just to cover a few reasons), but nonetheless there is no one definitive answer: some people probably should do the world a favour and never marry or produce children if they are more suited to bachelor life. This idea certainly emerges through the conversations between Loos and Clarin; they are very different types of men, and while Clarin loves lightly and moves on, Loos does not.
He asked how it happened that people sat happily in front of the TV, evening after evening, craving the same thing over and over, their series for example, their quiz shows and so forth, whose popularity obviously consisted in their constant and unremitting repetition of the familiar. How did it happen that hundreds of thousands of people were fixated on a moderator’s or talkshow host’s moustache and that a howl would sweep through the nation when he suddenly appeared without it? How could it be explained that the desire for the most inane uniformity was felt only in front of the television screen and not in the rest of everyday married life? But no sooner did people get up from their chairs than they started thinking about divorce, just because their partners were brushing their teeth and gargling the same way they did the day before. “What Mr Clarin, is our nature really after?”
I’m adding these rather long quotes to give a sense of the novel. A great deal of the plot is composed of these encounters between the two men and the discussions they have, but I also want to convey the philosophical nature of the content. There were many points at which I put the book down and mulled over my own opinions as if I were at silent third at the discussions between Loos and Clarin. Of course, apart from these lively debates, there’s a story, a love affair in all of its various stages: the initial throes of passion all the way to boredom and the desire to escape told by Clarin, and it’s this tale that forms the mystery at the heart of the tale. I really enjoyed the book–not just for its two main characters who are perfectly drawn opposites–one man who appears to be the marrying type, and the other a permanent bachelor, but also for its rather bleak look at marriage and the questions raised about its sustainability given the mercurial aspects of human nature, the inexplicable nature of attraction and the selfishness of desire.
Translated by Robert E Goodwin. Review copy.