Hermann Ungar – The Maimed

Hermann Ungar is best known nowadays in America as an alternative to Kafka.  Indeed, he bears some resemblance, being a Jewish Czech writer in the 1920s, and his writing is filled with some of the same sense of dread and paranoia.  But The Maimed is far more stark, far less ornate, far more matter-of-fact in prose than even Kafka at his most creepily minimal.

At its essence, The Maimed is a picture of the worst outcome of standardized time.  The protagonist Franz Polzer takes comfort in the clock’s regularity, to the point where the slightest threat of an interruption disturbs him to his very core.  Polzer lives with the widow Porges, works as a lowly clerk at a bank, and visits his old childhood friend Karl Fanta, whose health has failed completely and left him a helpless, though rich, cripple.

Influence of Standardized Time

Look at how much like clockwork Polzer prefers his life to run.  Leaves his apartment at precisely 7:45 every day, no earlier, no later.  He leaves the office for lunch at the same time every day to eat at the same inn, then returns and resumes work in exactly the same way every day.  He leaves the bank at precisely six every day to return home, eat a utilitarian meal cooked by Klara, his landlady, and then go to bed for restless sleep.  Any break in the routine disturbs him: “The knowledge that on one of the next days he would have to go into a shop to buy something made him uneasy.  Immediately he felt as if he had no time for anything else, as if he had no room for anything else in his whole life,” (27).

Polzer takes refuge in his work and seeing his day follow the schedule he’s honed over 17 years at the bank.  “In the face of his work, everything else melted away.  Punctuality, routine, the inescapable certainty of what the next day would bring all destroyed him.  His life was completely absorbed by activities that divided up his time,” (23-24).  Of course, though, it can be no good news to hang your comfort on an abstraction like the movement of a clock.  When his comfort is distrubed—as of course it is, as this is a novel—Polzer feels the walls coming down around him.

It starts when his landlady begins showing him more attention and he feels compelled to invite her on an excursion to another part of the city over the weekend.  “Besides revulsion, with which the prospect of being together with Frau Porges for several hours filled him, he was troubled by the break with routine which this event represented,” (32).

Polzer takes some comfort when he is struggling with the natural disorder of the world in strange ways: “In the morning after a sleepless night he often felt the need to count the sheets of writing paper.  The knowledge that none was missing calmed him,” (43).  This assures Polzer that his grasp of order, however minute, insignificant, and even silly, remains fast.

When Polzer is promoted to a new position in the bank late in the novel, he begins to struggle with this disruption: he fears the new tasks, distrusts the new colleagues he meets as a result, and grows restless.  “I’m being transferred to a different department … Things need to be kept in order… done it for years… everything in order,” (127).  He even fears his replacement will do an unsatisfactory job and that a brief time of being unable to lock his desk will result in thefts.  More than anything, it is the nature of the work that Polzer would take on with this new position that fills him with dread:

“His new position demanded frequent telephone conversations. … You had to be ready, he was told, to reply to enquiries unprepared, to give out binding information, you had to expect new developments which would change your plan of work.  It would be farewell to calm, to order,” (120-121).

Polzer’s sense of dread is alluded to constantly.  “He realized that everything had started to slip out of control,” (146).  Shortly before the vague breakdown Polzer suffers at the novel’s conclusion, he looks up and realizes he has lost any sense of normalcy.  “The floodgates were open.  There was nothing to hold back the chaos any more.  It was pouring down on him from all sides,” (162).

Also of note:

  • “He himself was afraid that Karl’s moving in would bring great changes,” (139).
  • “The order of years in the files had been disrupted and was in disarray,” (170).

Class

Another very visible theme in The Maimed is that of class.  Polzer is raised by his father, the owner of a small shop, and detests growing up in the lower class, selling groceries to servants, and watching his father toady to the wealthy: “He was ashamed of his father, whose jacket always had a dusting of flour, who stepped respectfully to one side whenever a rich inhabitant walked past…” (21).

Polzer begins to fake it, trying to keep his clothes neat, his shoes polished, and his postures straight.  “He wanted to look like a schoolboy from a good middle-class home and not like the son of a small shopkeeper,” (21).  Years later, as the novel’s plot unfolds, he meets a rich doctor who has apparently been taken in by this illusion.  As Polzer desperately tries to cover a hole in his trousers, the doctor quietly reveals that he has noticed the somewhat shabbiness of Polzer’s appearance, and makes a series of observations:

“I know nothing about you, but I imagine you come from a good, middle-class family in the provinces.  Back home your father will have been a respected merchant, a doctor or a lawyer.” (87).

“The thing that weighs most heavily on you, I know, is the fact that your outward appearance is not in harmony with the line of your movements, that it goes against your memories of your upbringing, your image of your father, I could almost say,” (88).

Of course none of this is true.  What is unclear is whether or not the doctor is actually as taken in by Polzer’s illusion as he appears to be: it’s my opinion that his judgement is too close to the one that Polzer aspires to cultivate to be completely honest.  At any rate, the doctor buys Polzer a new set of clothes to bring him more in line with how the doctor perceives him.

Polzer’s colleagues at the bank respond in awe to his new suit, commenting that it must be from inheritance or the lottery, and showing him much more respect as a result.  His superior hears the news and promotes him strait away.  What’s curious is the degree to which their attitudes change, and how it makes him feel: “What he wanted to say was that he had not had a win on the lottery [or inherited any money] and that he did not deserve all this politeness,” (122).  Why exactly he would deserve politeness and respect if he had won the lottery or gained an inheritance is not really clear: neither of these hap occurrences are due to his talents, intellect, or anything other than chance.  Something of a holdover from an older heuristic  of respect, I suppose.

Sex – Heterosexual Horror

Sex is a major theme in The Maimed, and all references to heterosexuality as focalized through Polzer are twisted, warped, and horrfying to him.  From a young age, “He could only imagine the relationship between the sexes as something horrible, something fundamentally disgusting,” (18).  This horror of a woman’s body resurfaces later in his life, as well: “[W]henever he saw [Klara], he didn’t know why, but an image of her naked body immediately appeared unbidden in his mind.  It filled him with a deep sense of shame and disgust,” (28).

Polzer soon experiences an incident in which he thinks he catches his father—for whom he has contempt for his humble origins—leaving his aunt—who he despises for her cruelty towards him—’s room one night.  Polzer sees that his father’s shirt is not entirely done up and catches a glimpse of his chest hair as a result, and gets the impression, though he only sees her silhouette, that his father’s sister is naked in her room when his father exits past Polzer in the dark.  The early encounter with sex troubles Polzer, and he is tormented by the thoughts of “the wild scenes that must be taking place at night between his father and his father’s sister,” (19).

He also has encounters with the young maid Milka while working in his father’s store.  She is another figure of dysphoria for Polzer, as he catches his father feeling her breasts, and thereafter “He avoided Milka… [and] did not dare look at Milka’s breasts,” (29).  She is the first of Ungar’s tortuously sexual women for Polzer, as she confronts him:

“[Milka] came up to him and laughed, she could see that he was afraid.  Her hands grasped him.  He did not move.  She fumbled with his buttons.  He trembled.  She took hold of his penis.  Milka laughed when his sperm came and gave him a shove that sent him staggering,” (29)

Porges shares a harsh parting in her hair along the center of her scalp with Polzer’s aunt, a trait that fills Polzer with horror.  He cannot help associating this trait with the feelings of disgust aroused when he allegedly catches his father having sex with his own sister, and Polzer has a horrifying vision after his and Porges’ first tryst: “He felt as if he had had sexual relations with his sister,” (61).  Polzer sees people as a product of their characteristics, so when e thinks that he catches his father having sexual relations with his aunt, he learns to generalize the part in his aunt’s hair to incestual guilt.  And, when he begins a physical relationship with Frau Porges, who also has a part down the center of her hair, he feels this same guilt directed at himself.

This parting in Porges’ hair is a consistant image of horror throughout the novel for Polzer, as he obsesses over it whenever he is near the widow.  “He wanted to ask the widow to comb out her parting, but he did not dare,” (113-114).  This is continually wrapped up with incestual guilt, as his rambling thoughts soon observe that “Even a sister has breasts that are constantly moving and a woman’s open flesh,” (114).  Polzer’s obsessive need to rid the widow of her part is perhaps one of the catalysts for the violence at the end of the book, as it draws in two other major images from the later part of the novel: the butcher’s knife:

“Chop off the parting with Sonntag’s sharp knife, perhaps,” (156).

and money:

“Of all places, the money was behind her parting,” (198).

Where exactly reality ends and fantasy ends is impossible to pinpoint as Ungar’s prose begins to reflect Polzer’s loss of control over his mental state in The Maimed‘s concluding chapters, so it’s not clear whether Polzer or Sonntag are responsible for the widow’s death.

Also of note:

  • “Frau Porges put her hand under the table.  The student’s hand followed.  Frau Porges’ blouse had slipped.  To his horror, Franz Polzer found himself looking down her blouse.  He could see the top of her breasts moving,” (48).
  • “Frau Porges lay down beside him. … She laughed and snuggled up against him.  He realized that now she expected something of him.  Polzer drew very close to her.  Frau Porges felt Polzer and laughed out loud,” (57).
  • “Klara Porges and the student had disappeared. … After quite some time he found them in some thick bushes behind the inn.  They were looking for forget-me-nots.  Polzer knew that there were no forget-me-nots out at this time of year and pointed out to them that their search was futile,” (83-84).
  • “I’m pregnant with your child,” (168).

Sex – Queer Urges

Though sexual women fill Polzer with endless horror, there is a sense that he is not in fact asexual, as in his actions and recollections he makes allusion to feelings for his friend Karl Fanta and his son Franz Fanta—whether or not Franz Fanta was named for Franz Polzer is not discussed in the novel, though I would have a difficult time ruling it out completely.

When they were children:

“Karl Fanta saw that Polzer felt unhappy and the two boys often embraced and kissed amid tears,” (20-21).

“Polzer was happy for the opportunity to live his life at the side of this handsome young man whose impervious self-assurance he admired no less than the classical proportions of his physique,” (23).

And when the boys grew older, going off to college on Fanta’s father’s dime, Polzer feels an urge to rekindle these experiences, though he is evidently not successful:

“He longed for some small token of affection, a repetition of those boyhood kisses,” (23).

Fanta is later a horrifying character, a figure of decay, but some sense of spiritual decay is evident in his youth as he tries to spread his libertinism to the uninterested Polzer:

“Polzer would not have gone with women if Karl, who did not understand his revulsion, had not taken him and forced him to have intercourse with them,” (28-29).

As he considers the horror of breaking his routine to spend time with the widow Porges as well as the potential heterosexual contact inherent, the thought of Fanta occurs to him as a defense mechanism:

“He was afraid of returning there in the evening.  He thought of going to see Fanta, telling him everything and asking him to take him in, at least for one night,” (62-63).

As for Fanta’s son, the two Franzes have an extremely odd relationship.  At the end of one of his normal visits to the Fanta house, Polzer meets with Franz Fanta in order to take his homework.  “Franz Fanta handed him his homework so that Polzer could do it for him.  Polzer ran his fingers through the boy’s dark hair,” (74).  The concept of a grown man doing a boy’s schoolwork for him is puzzling enough without ending the encounter with Polzer running his fingers through Franz Fanta’s hair.  And when Polzer meets up with Franz Fanta later, he has an alarming moment of realization:

“He pulled away quickly, alarmed at the blur of memories of the boy’s father, … of tears and distant caresses,” (80).

Sex – Pain and Embarrassment

After Porges devotes her attention to Polzer, he inevitably finds himself in her bed.  Though Porges begins by seducing him, Polzer never once displays anything like sexual desire as a result, so it’s difficult to classify her actions as such.  The only time Polzer evinces anything like sexual arousal is on the evening following the widow’s show with the student in the bushes.  Whereas the previous attempt by Porges to initiate sex had been unsuccessful, That evening he did manage it,” (60).

This implies that the root of any heterosexuality in Polzer’s mind is embarrassment and cuckoldry.  Embarrassment especially figures heavily into Polzer’s sexual encounters.  See the above quoted passage where Milka laughs and shoves him down after giving him an orgasm, and compare it to the widow Porges’ and her friend Kamilla’s treatment of him throughout their affair:

“Kamilla and Frau Porges were standing beside his bed,” (91).

“ ‘Oh, how obedient,’ said Kamilla, softly and tenderly, ‘doesn’t stir at all,’ ” (92).

“She laughed.  ‘Just like a schoolboy,’ she said, ‘just like a schoolboy.  Perhaps you should be beaten like a boy. … To make you obey,’ ” (65).

“He heard her burst out laughing.  He flinched at her laugh.  Then he heard the swish of her belt.  Klara Porges had raised the belt and brought it down.  She hit him with the end where the buckle was attached,” (66).

These last two passages are comparable to one that describes his father beating him as a boy: “It was as if he were compelled to make everything reality, including his hatred of his father, by having the latter hit him on the back with his heavy fists,” (20).  The difference is that his father gains no satisfaction from his son withstanding the pain, whereas the widow inflicts it primarily to obtain her own sort of satisfaction.

Porges’ revels in the humiliation of Polzer, committing acts against him which would be considered especially horrific if their sexes were reversed:

“During the night he woke.  He could feel that Frau Porges’ hands had pulled his nightshirt up and were groping his body,” (67).

and humiliating him with his own physical urges and responses in much the same way Milka had years ealrier:

“She gave a silent laugh and came up to him.  The torment to come was familiar from many nights. … She would often let go of him, while he was lying on the floor, order him to stand up and finish it off with his own hands in front of her,” (113).

Decay and Disease

The only important figure for the theme of decay and disease in The Maimed is Karl Fanta.  Though described as a handsome in his youth, it is when he is forced to travel south for health reasons that Polzer must give up studying medicine and being working in the bank, and by the time that the novel’s action has started, he is a disfigured cripple.  His legs amputated, his body bloated, his arms covered with sores, and his strength depleted to the point that he cannot even raise his arms, he sits with initially only his wife to care for him.

What’s most disturbing about Fanta’s condition is that he appears to be fairly lucid.  He definitely suffers from some forms of paranoia, as he suspects nearly everyone around him (especially his wife) of conspiring against him, but he is well aware of the ridiculous nature of his condition.  He is sarcastic when Polzer asks how he is doing: “How am I, with no legs, and abscessed on my arms?  Fine, my dear Franz, just fine!” (68).

As for his paranoia, he reads his wife’s acts of devotion as evidence that she’s conspiring against him:

“What devotion, people say.  Bandages my stinking sores.  ‘Can you smell the stench?’ I ask her, but she just smiles sweetly as if she cant’t smell it. … Then she puts her lips so close you’d think she was going to kiss the pus,” (70).

He prefers the thought of a stranger attending to him:

“I want a male nurse, Polzer, a paid nurse, d’you hear, but she won’t allow it, she refuses to let my dying body out of her sight.  She thinks I might recover after all,” (69).

What’s more disturbing is that his sexual urges, alluded to in his and Polzer’s youth, seem relatively unaffected by his condition, and he makes numerous lewd comments at the disgust of those around him.  He tells Polzer about how he demands the only sexual gratification his wife can give him in his condition: to expose her breasts to him and lower them to his hands so he may touch them.  “She feels ashamed to have her breasts touched like things by a thing!” (72).

He also makes numerous comments to Polzer about Frau Porges, first sarcastically encouraging Polzer to “have” her the way he would, and in other ways nudging him about the widow’s sexuality: “All goods have their price and the goods are good, aren’t they, Polzer, eh?” (157).  Ultimately he makes a judgement about decay and disease, remarking that his wife is no good to him due to her youth and beauty: “It can’t reside in beauty, Polzer, not there.  It lies somewhere else,” (158).  “Somewhere else” meaning the widow’s bloated and used-up body and sexuality.

The Horror of Other People

Polzer is especially afraid of other people, any people at all.  He does not participate in shooting billiards, though he enjoys watching the players, because “He shrank from the idea of putting his body movements on public display,” (33).  He finds himself tongue-tied in the presence of others when on his initial excursion with Frau Porges: “He gave no answer to Frau Porges, since he was disturbed by the feeling that those around might follow their conversation,” (35).

He is also particularly afraid of theft; it is described that the greatest horror to him would be to have something taken from him in public.  A major contributing factor to his decision to go along with Frau Porges initial walking plan comes from a desire not to be evicted (or “removed”) for this reason.  “He was well aware that thefts frequently occurred during removals,” (54).  The constant threat of theft that Polzer perceives is also a major reason he gives for turning down the bank office’s promotion: he is aware that his new desk does not have a lock on it, and he knows that he will have to move his things from his old desk to his new one and there they will have to sit until he can get a lock for it, where it would be exposed to potential theft.  “To be exposed top surreptitious theft with no means of telling whether one had actually occurred was to be left defenceless,” (120).

Polzer is also intently self-conscious, especially of his clothes.  This is undoubtedly rooted in his sensitivity to his father’s class growing up, and his efforts to keep  his appearance respectable throughout his life reflects this.  Nevertheless, he overthinks his clothes and is disturbed by what others must think of him.  “Polzer realized he was wearing the wrong clothes.  Immediately he felt dejected,” (81).

The young fellow bank clerk Wodak is perceptive of his horror of others, remarking after Polzer finally turns down the promotion for such petty reasons: “ ‘You’re your own worst enemy,’ said young Wodak,” (129).

Also of note:

  • “He would have to avoid people…” (92-93).
  • “ ‘I’ll be honest with you: you’re a petty bank clerk and that’s about it as far as you’re concerned.  Maybe you realize that yourself, hm?’ / ‘Yes,’ said Franz Polzer softly,” (99-100).

Polzer’s Patron Saint

Polzer keeps above his bed a small framed picture of St. Francis, which he keeps largely out of desire for normalcy and because he finds its presence comforting.  The Saint follows the trajectory of the novel in a very interesting way.

“The picture came from Polzer’s mother,” (39).

“He thought of the picture, never of the patron saint it represented,” (40).

Meaning that Polzer attaches no religious significance to it, rather the picture is a symbol of Polzer attempting to reign his life in order, to keep things under control and the same for his own comfort.

“He never asked himself whether it might be capable of protecting him.  Its very presence calmed him.  As if it confirmed that everything was in order, everything was in its place, that even in the incalculable darkness nothing had changed and that he himself had done nothing that might breach the solid order of routine and thus open the way to something out of the ordinary,” (40).

Of course, it is this very picture falling that anticipates his and Frau Porges’ first tryst:

“The saint fell,” (56).

Immediately following this, he enters the widow’s room at night and lies in her bed at her urging, recognizing her new expectations.

When Polzer begins to lose control and is forced out of his room and into Frau Porges’ to sleep, he has an urge to regain some slight semblance of control once again, however petty, by reclaiming the Saint’s picture:

“St. Francis ought to come down from the all to go into Frau Porges’ room with him in order to protect him,” (114).

Porges hates the picture, though, warning him, “I don’t want that picture in my room,” (147) and when he fails to remove it, she destroys it: “I burnt it.  I couldn’t take it a moment longer,” (148).  Of course this is not encouraging for Polzer:

“Franz Polzer said no more.  The picture of St. Francis would not be over his bed during the night anymore.  Everything was going to collapse around him,” (148).

Polzer goes to complain to Fanta about its destruction, perhaps hoping his old friend will offer him condolance or advice.  However, he finds no comfort from the resulting discussion between himself, Fanta, and Sonntag, in which the three men reveal their completely different attitudes towards spirituality and religion:

Fanta: “But no, it’s superstition, it’s no different from that fuss with your penholder,” (150)

The utilitarian Fanta detests such fancy, belittling Polzer’s horror and reminding him of another possession taken from him that caused him dysphoria.

Sonntag: “[A] God-fearing person respects the divine order,” (150).

This and the speech that follows is the first clue as to Sonntag’s bizarre story, and while he agrees with Polzer that order is important, he differs in that the basis of order is heavenly and not humanistic.

Polzer: “It’s just that he was always on the wall above my bed,” (151).

Polzer can’t put it into words himself, but the entire value of the picture to him is that the picture has always been there, and now it won’t which is terrifying.

Sonntag the Nurse

Though he enters the novel after the half-way point and is mostly on the sideline until the last few chapters, Sonntag is one of the most important characters in the novel.  He is first mentioned—though this is before he has a name—on the first visit we see Polzer make to Fanta’s, when Fanta tells Polzer he wants a male nurse so that his wife doesn’t need to care for him.  This is reiterated numerous times, with Fanta propping up the idea of a paid male nurse as his key to some sort of salvation, as the answer to his problems: “As soon as I have a male nurse, I’ll have a will of my own,” (100).

Fanta’s wife Dora fears the image of a nurse, remarking, “He’ll shut me out completely if I get one.  He won’t need me any longer and won’t have to take me into consideration at all,” (106).

Fanta ultimately hires Sonntag shortly before having one of his arms removed due to the sores.

“ ‘This is Herr Sonntag,’ said Karl, ‘my new nurse.  I’m very happy with him,’ ” (123).

It is soon revealed that Sonntag was originally a butcher, which Fanta finds hilarious considering his position as a nurse for a man losing his limbs, but which Polzer finds troubling:

“Polzer was disturbed by the thought that Sonntag might simply throw the arm away, just as butchers throw the stinking entrails of slaughtered cattle into a pit,” (131).

Fanta takes the opportunity of staying in the hospital to separate himself from hi wife, not allowing her to visit him, and then to move into Frau Porge’s house.  Fanta ultimately forces Polzer to move in with the widow so that the nurse may sleep in his room when Fanta’s paranoia spreads to Sonntag:

“He can’t stay in this room.  You do whatever you like, but he must sleep in your room.  He can’t sleep here any more, Polzer.  Let him sleep with you, or you move in with Frau Porges, but he can’t stay here, Polzer, I’m afraid of him,” (145).

The nurse’s story is slowly revealed in the last fifty or so pages of the novel.  In the past, he was a butcher who drank, gambled, and in other ways did not live a Christian life.  He describes getting into a fight while young that puts him in a hospital.  One nurse is particularly kind to him, a kindness that threatens the butcher’s lifestyle and he heaps abuse upon her, yet she remains kind and serves her duties with him.  One morning, his plot to finally embarrass her is spoiled:

“When she came the next morning I was going to throw the bedclothes back to reveal my lust and mockingly ask her to help me.  But something terrible happened.  She did not come that morning.  She had been murdered in the most horrible manner.  The murderer was never found,” (152-153).

Sonntag tells Polzer and Fanta that his experience changed him, and from the day he left the hospital, he was a remade man.  He renounced the butcher’s profession, instead serving the sick as their nurse.  “Put your faith in Christ and fear no weapon.  Do not fear death.  The light of reconciliation shines from the faces of the dying.  Many have died in my arms,” (154).  Once Fanta has moved to Frau Porges’ house, Sonntag begins using Fanta’s house as a prayer meeting for women in the area.  “Sonntag wanted to convert the women.” (159).

Franz Fanta asks Polzer to help get rid of Sonntag, worried about what he is doing to Franz’s mother.  He tells Polzer that the nurse carries with him a suspicious brown package to the meetings, and when Polzer goes to warn the elder Fanta about it, he looks into the nurse’s room.  “On the nurse’s suitcase was the brown-paper parcel,” (176).  Opening it, Polzer discovers a sharp butcher’s knife and a bloody butcher’s apron.  Asked why he keeps such things, Sonntag explains that he wears the apron while preaching, with the knife on his knees.

“For there is no atonement than to take your sin upon yourself again, for it is never done with,” (178).

All these events are described with the butcher/nurse described in menacing tones, which is brought to fruition at the end of the novel.  The widow is beheaded, and we find in a deleted concluding chapter that despite his lost grasp on reality, Polzer has been acquitted of the crime, and Sonntag is going to go into hiding.  He admits that he was the one, in fact, to have murdered the nurse from his story, even with broken bones he killed her, and hints that he murdered Frau Porges as well: as all men must take their sins upon themselves in atonement, the butcher/nurse states “I have the feeling I will often be standing at night outside the house where the widow Porges was murdered,” (207).

All the characters are maimed by their circumstances.  Polzer by his dependence on order, Fanta by his perversion and disease, Dora by her temptation, Porges by her greed, and Sonntag by his incurable bloodlust.

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