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Between the lines of a writer’s life

Times Staff Writer

As the great British actor Donald Wolfit breathed his last, he is supposed to have remarked to those gathered at his bedside, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”

Difficult as it may be on the stage, a genuine literary comedy is even harder to pull off. It’s easy enough to do a comedy of manners set, say, in publishing or literary academia. The trick there is an observant eye, a nose for cant and, as with any comedy, timing. A true “comedy of letters” in which literature and the making of literature are the subjects is something else entirely.

That’s what makes Michael Kruger’s elegant little novel, “The Executor: A Comedy of Letters,” a fine and thought-provoking entertainment for anyone who ever has taken their reading seriously or idolized an author -- however privately. This is a book that not only lives up to its subtitle but also reminds us that between the dramatic poles of slapstick and black comedy is a broad, gray area where the absurd holds unsettling sway.

Kruger, now 65, is one of Germany’s foremost men of letters. Since the early 1970s, he has been a widely admired poet, as well as the head of the prestigious Hanser Verlag publishing house and editor of the influential journal Akzente. He also is a translator, critic and essayist. Two years ago, his first novel, “The Cello Player,” won critical success in the United States as an intellectual entertainment. In that book, Gyorgy, a Hungarian immigrant composer in contemporary Munich, supports himself writing nonsensical television advertising jingles while working on an opera about the doomed Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. It’s an erudite meditation on the sources of creativity and on how the artist’s political relationship to society both feeds and subverts them. Fans of “The Cello Player” will recognize certain similarities in “The Executor” -- not least the author’s choice of an epigraph from Mandelstam’s equally tragic contemporary, Marina Tsvetaeva, who hanged herself:

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When I leave a city, it seems to me

It comes to an end and ceases to exist.

It’s a significant choice on a couple of levels because “The Executor” is not set in Germany but in Turin, “the city of suicides.” (In the German original, the book was titled “Die Turiner Komodie.”) As in his earlier novel, Kruger manages the neat trick of wearing his formidable -- and formidably allusive -- erudition lightly by structuring his story in that most beguiling of forms, the mystery. It is, in fact, a mystery so deftly laid out that, when a reader reaches its resolution on the last pages, they’re likely to gasp in pleased recollection of the subtle clues they missed along the way. Its process is abetted by John Hargraves’ keen and lucid translation.

Kruger’s unnamed “executor” has been called from Germany to Turin because his best and only friend, a famous novelist and academic named Rudolf, has died in a suicide after naming the narrator custodian of his voluminous papers and leaving their disposition up to him. Though German, Rudolf has for many years held a professorship at the Turin university. He lives in a palazzo provided by the school, along with his wife, Elsa (who is dying); a mistress, Eva; and a rather malevolent secretary, Marta. On the rooftop garden, where Rudolf often works, he keeps a kind of private zoo with a decrepit old dog, chickens and other birds and animals, including a hedgehog.

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Rudolf’s academic career is a bit of a scam to which no one seems to object. He recycles the same essays and lectures (“mostly about the destructive side of constructive reason”) with new titles and maintains the Institute for Communications Research on one floor of his home. As Elsa tells the executor, “there was not much communicating happening there, let alone research. Rudolf hated holding seminars and having to read students’ papers. There was nothing to be learned from students, in his opinion, except how not to dress and feed yourself.”

Rudolf’s international reputation rests on four short but highly acclaimed novels that have brought him not only prestigious prizes but also “a great deal of money.” Winnowing their antecedents from among the great man’s notebooks, drafts and extensive library is one of the executor’s tasks -- and it holds its share of surprises. The Grail of his exploration, however, is something grander, the manuscript of the great, unpublished masterpiece over which Rudolf has labored for years -- a novel of such weight and conception that it will render future fictions superfluous. As Rudolf had described it to the executor, it is a work that “must produce an ultimate salvation for humankind -- something that was lacking in the intellectual output of the times. He spoke of fuel for the soul, inner self-illumination, using these pyromaniacal images to describe the explosion of literary fireworks that would be his last gift to the reading, thinking world.”

The executor has lived so long in the shadow of the great man’s overbearing friendship that he sets himself the task of cleansing Rudolf’s papers of anything that might detract from his reputation. As he goes about his work, it becomes more difficult because much about Rudolf and his work was not what it seemed. He discovers pseudonymous hack-work done for no apparent reason but the delight of deceit. The acclaimed novels hide an unsettling mystery of their own. There are embarrassing revelations concerning Rudolf’s true feelings about the executor, and there’s the mystery of the suicide, which the executor locates in the ambiguities of the writer’s life:

“I have never quite been able to imagine what might induce a person to become a professional writer. I can understand someone writing the occasional poem. Given the right state of emotional confusion, the idea might well appeal -- to illuminate a segment of that dark planet of the as yet unsaid with one’s very own words. . . . Even writing an essay on a noble subject . . . is a worthy proposition.” But when someone “makes the decision to spend his or her adult life making up cops-and-robbers tales, or stories that are cannibalizations of the author’s own life; that, it seems to me, is an act of sheer recklessness.”

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The predatory secretary, Marta, puts Rudolf’s particular dilemma this way: “His writing, that strange mix of anguish and accuracy, had to destroy him. It was only a question of time -- anyone who knew him knew that. Every word he wrote was a nail in his coffin. Those who had to watch him at his carpentry day and night, as I did, were at least prepared.”

When the executor comes, at last, to Rudolf’s final “masterpiece,” its nature is a vertiginous shock. Kruger leaves his readers to wonder whether Joan Didion didn’t get things about right: “A writer is always selling somebody out.”

timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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