Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions by Ror Wolf – A Review

Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions
Ror Wolf
Open Letter, 2013, pg 142

It would be easy to characterize Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions as a collection of short stories. In some ways they are short stories in that they are short, usually two pages, and stories. However, anyone looking for a well tuned collection of micro fiction might be disappointed because as the title notes, these are digressions. In some ways they could be called anti-stories since they eschew any claim to plot, character or narrative structure that mark most stories, and instead delight in continually breaking down into digressions that call into question the assumptions that are built around story telling.

Ror Wolf is a German visual artist whose work is marked by surrealism and that juxtaposition of otherwise everyday elements into contrasting elements is evident in his work. For Wolf, narrative only exists to be broken down. His typical story is a first person piece that starts with the announcement about what the narrator is going narrate. The narrator never tells the story, though, instead he changes his mind a few sentences in and begins a new narrative direction. For example, The Next Story begins

The next story I’d like to tell I already told on Monday, and would not like to tell it again. So I’ll tell the story from Tuesday. But now it occurs to me that absolutely nothing happened on Tuesday that I could talk about…

or from The Rate of Fame

In the past, Lemm was often compared to Klomm, to whom he absolutely shouldn’t be compared because, one must admit, not a single feature of Klomm’s can be found in Lemm. Enough about him, but think of him from the start as a man to whom there is no one to compare. So we won’t talk about Lemm or Klomm. We’ll talk about Hamm instead…

Just these two short quotes give you an insight into his approach. First, there is a consciousness that we are observing the act of story telling and that that act is not the formalized illusion of a first person short story, but disassemble of the process of telling a story with all its false starts and digressions. Second, the story itself is not necessarily the import element, rather the act of telling the story is the important element. How the teller tells the story says as much as the story itself. Finally, although it is not quite as evident in these two pieces, all the false starts are new directions one can take the unwritten stories. The false starts are not dead ends, they are openings into stories as yet untold.

No Story is a good example of the creation of stories out side the story. It starts,

I don’t have a story to tell about an accountant’s wife who was unable to sit because she caught a filthy, itchy disease, I’ve never heard of such a case. I also don’t have a story to tell about the illegitimate birth of a child, on the occasion that the woman in question implored me not to tell the story.

Again, he starts and stops, hinting at something larger, but that he won’t tell, as if it were boring or distasteful. The sense that certain stories aren’t worth telling and that certain characters are pointless or annoying is a trait Wolf shares with Thomas Bernhard. With some frequency his stories have the acerbic bitterness of Bernhard and more than a few times his stories felt similar to the Voice Imitator. However, where Bernhard wants to poke fun at society and is preoccupied with the pettiness of bourgeois life, Wolf is more interested in how the stories one tells constructs that reality.

All of his stories call into question what is a story. Is it the plot, the characters, or something else? And more important, what is the point of telling them? After reading several of his stories it is obvious there are no answers. But the idea that narrative contains one story, and whose very existence is to relate something is quickly dashed when reading Wolf’s digressions. The breaking of the narrative strategies can also the stories occasionally tiresome to read. No matter how good they are, all the shifting of the story telling can make a stead diet of them difficult to read. I would recommend dosing your effort to get the full power of his work.

While the first two thirds of the book is made up of the stories I’ve described, the last third is a long form narrative: The Forty-Ninth Digression: Twelve Chapters from a Exposed Life. The story is a kind of traveler’s journal of his various ship wreck and travels throughout the world. Except, in typical Wolf fashion, the actual travels are the least important part, often getting a perfunctory line of basic description. They are, if I can use the anti word again, anti-travel writing. The idea that one would describe the emotions, customs, or opinions of the characters is ludicrous. Yet the narrator is aware of his adventures and probably the most telling line from the whole book says,

I took pleasure in these notes; to me they seemed to become increasingly important, they were the real reason for my journey from chapter eight onwards. I didn’t write down my experiences, but tried to experience what I wanted to write down in order to lend a uniqueness to my notes that has not yet appeared in literature, or at best not in in Scheizhofer’s writing. (Emphasis mine)

Here is the crux of Wolf’s writing: one lives to write and in doing so looks for things to write about, but that is an unnatural act. The writing is the artificial element, it is the author’s search for something to write about. And that search rather than reportage, is the disruption of the experiment. Whether or not you love all of his stories, if you are interested in story telling this is a fascinating book to read.