Michael Maar’s book “The Snake in Wolf’s Clothing”

IIs it really an adventure book that the literary critic and scholar Michael Maar wrote there? The story of a treasure hunt? An elegant young woman looks at you from the cover, her gaze, self-confident but dreamy, does not strike you directly, the left hand is on an open book that seems strangely out of focus (are these blurry lines, pictures behind parchment paper?), The right hand supports it not, as one might suspect at a cursory glance, the head, which has become difficult to read, but suggests a fist – a threatening gesture? In addition, in an elegantly coordinated color, the title: “The snake in wolf’s clothing. The Secret of Great Literature ”. An only slightly intrusive, mysterious painting, a curiously slipped image and a promise so exaggerated that one immediately trusts the author to confidently renounce his redemption, at least not to have to hunt this treasure. But which one then?

The term around which the entire book – at least 656 pages – is structured is looked for in vain in its title: style. An old-fashioned word, but there’s a lot of tension on it. Style means the highly individual aspect of an (in this case: literary) expression. Style claims a harmony of personality and form, which is pretty tricky, not only because harmony is not easy to come by, but because such a personality is a profoundly dissonant affair anyway. Style doesn’t depict personality, it strives to keep them together.

Proust has found a loophole

However, style also means the super-individual: the style of a school, of a time (so to speak, the zeitgeist that has become form) or just the “good” style (i.e. the underlying set of rules that are supposedly only allowed to disregard those who know it inside out). Style is an individual attitude that not only opposes the demands of the present but, unabashedly enough, also takes advantage of a complicated past and an open future. From there, of course, you can quickly get to the linguistic and identity-political battlefields and minefields of these days.


Michael Maar: “The snake in wolf’s clothing”. The secret of great literature.
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Image: Rowohlt Verlag

Maar, who is careful not to commit himself to a definition of what “style” could be, has all this in mind – the social-historical, especially the political rather half-heartedly. He is so free to fall out of time a little and stick to the “big ones”, because an adventure story needs heroes, also questionable, also comical, stumbling ones. Maar’s heroes include: Walter Benjamin, Rudolf Borchardt, Heimito von Doderer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Martin Mosebach, Robert Musil, Friedrich Nietzsche, Marcel Proust, Joseph Roth, Arthur Schopenhauer, Rahel Varnhagen – quite a few Men, at least in prominent supporting roles, there are dazzling women: Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, Marieluise Fleißer, Brigitte Kronauer, Christine Lavant. In regular slapstick interludes: Stefan Zweig. Somehow difficult, shady, but that’s also part of a good story: Hans Henny Jahnn and Arno Schmidt. The series of names already gives a good impression of the literary cosmos in which Maar’s treasure hunt takes place. It’s classic-modern. As it is a question of language, the borders are pretty tight, but Proust has found a loophole.

Nothing against extravagance, but with moderation, please

The narrator figure, who operates under the title “Style Critic”, is also quite well contoured, but willingly introduces himself, especially in the first third of the book. Even if Maar expressly does not want to set up a normative set of rules for a literary “good style” (he may not have it that old-fashioned), and certainly no literary theoretical or historical derivation of style terms, he does lead a whole series of in the first three chapters “Instruments” of style, which at the same time serve to critically weigh and judge the numerous examples presented. And a lot is judged in this book – in various tones, collegially sympathetic to good “ideas”, inevitable “quirks” and “stylistic mistakes”, curling the “mistakes” with a twitching “editor’s hand”, strictly instructive, then amused again – graciously scanning the “malpractice”.

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