The Judge and the Hangman by Friedrich Dürrenmatt


Do we all go through a detective fiction phase, a bit like that Stephen King phase? There was a time when I serially consumed the output of writers like Ed McBain, James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard. Good and evil were neatly polarised, the bad guys were unconditionally evil, the good guys were flawed but uncontaminated.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Judge and His Hangman must surely be the textbook example of detective fiction. The hero, terminally ill Barlach is endowed with flawless logic though disorganised and lazy. His nemesis Gastman is evil personified. The two protagonists have battled each other for forty years since making a youthful wager:

And as we kept arguing, seduced by those infernal fires the Jew kept pouring into our glasses, and even more by our own exuberant youth, we ended up making a bet, and it happened just as the moon was sinking behind Asia Minor, a wager which we defiantly pinned to the sky, very much like the kind of horrible joke that offends against everything sacred and yet holds out such a devilish appeal, such a wicked temptation of the spirit but the spirit, that we cannot suppress it.

Gastman refrains from the stock manic mwahahaha but you can feel the strain of his suppression. Whether the idle flow of cliché is the fault of Dürrenmatt or his translator, it was a struggle to proceed, at one point our hero holds his head in his hands moaning “What is man!”

From time to time it is useful to remind myself why crime fiction makes be bilious, the relentless path to the obvious. In this case I had nailed the murderer fifty pages before his denouement.

I turned to a work of crime fiction as part of German Literature Month co-hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. I am not inclined to read another Dürrenmatt.

My Plans for German Literature Month II

Somehow during German literature month, in addition to my plans to read Effi Briest, The Silent Angel, Visitation, The Judge and his Hangman and Old Masters, I have challenged Nicole to a shared reading of Elective Affinities, which seems proper to post about as part of German lit-month. I am also going to read at least one of Kleist’s brilliant short stories again to respond to the call for a worldwide reading on 21 November.

The international literature festival berlin (ilb) and the German Heinrich von Kleist Society are calling for cultural institutions, schools, radio stations and anyone who is interested to organise a worldwide reading of the works of the German author Heinrich von Kleist on 21 November 2011, the 200th anniversary of his death.

The 200th anniversary of Kleist’s death on 21 November 2011 is an occasion to discuss the relationship between crisis, critique and reform ideas then and today. However, the 21st of November is also the day on which tribute should be paid to Kleist’s life, how he died and his works. In his honour, excerpts from the letters and works of Heinrich von Kleist should be read on the anniversary of his death.

Fortunately I have a few days off and a business trip down under, so should have reading time to spare.

My Plans for German Literature Month

My literary explorations are serendipitous and subject to whim, so I am cautious about joining shared reading events. I was unable to resist German Literature Month, co-hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, partly because I am drawn to literature from the region but also because I’ve intended to read Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest and Heinrich Böll for some time.

Those authors aside I plan to read some Kleist for the penultimate week and the following:

Week 1 – German Literature

Jenny Erpenbeck – Visitation

Week 2 – Crime Fiction

Friedrich Durrenmatt – The Judge and His Hangman

Week 3 – From Austria and Switzerland

Thomas Bernhard – Old Masters