Am I a Redundant Human Being?

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A lost literary voice from early 1900s Austria slyly addresses female self-loathing and finds answers with unsettling modern relevance.

I’m a secretary. I have nearly twelve years of experience. My shorthand is first rate and I’m an excellent typist. I don’t mention it to brag. I just want to show that I amount to something. I’m ambitious.

I repeat: I’m ambitious. I’m hopelessly ambitious. Even though I certainly have reason to be humble. Reason enough to use modesty to avoid making the deficit between my talent and my ambition too obvious.

So begins Am I a Redundant Human Being?, the tale of Aloisia Schmidt, a 30-year-old woman looking back on her life in an unnamed city (presumably Vienna) before, during, and after World War I.

Aloisia’s an enigma behind a veil of endless confessions. Note how in the last two sentences of the self-deprecating quote above she equates being humble with the wise choice of admitting she has no talent, and is, therefore, silly to be ambitious—and that, tellingly, she calls this admission modesty. Hundreds of small movements like this, hidden among concise, puzzling anecdotes about identity, make this a fantastic novel, one that raises important questions about sexism and society, then and now.

The author, Mela Hartwig, was born in Vienna in 1893 and died in London in 1967. Redundant is the first of her books translated into English; it was a lost book, not published in Austria until 2001. A short novel, it’s questions will pester the reader long after its end. The title’s question sounds a bit dramatic, risking sounding like self-help. Yet it’s a question Aloisia asks herself throughout the novel—and she’d be the first to admit it’s a bad title, and she’d most likely claim to wish you’d ignore the book altogether. We learn this about Luise, her nickname, as she describes in maddening detail how she learned to loathe herself. From childhood, her parents encourage this loathing and squelch their daughter’s wish for a real education. Her mother hates reading, calls it “decadent,” and tells Aloisia to learn to sew. (Aloisia remarks, “There’s no activity so vulgar, so thankless.”) Of her father, injured and back from the war: “He seemed to think it was his duty to declare every experience my mother and I had had in his absence—every thought and opinion we’d formed without his express consent—to be worthless, completely worthless.”

A painful teenage romance leads to her failing out of school. Unmarried, without friends or siblings, she begins a career of menial office jobs. “I was uselessness… incarnate.” Aloisia is so hard on herself she practically begs to be contradicted, and Hartwig shrewdly uses this personality trait as a narrative tactic, a way to aggravate the reader the way Aloisia seems to feel aggravated about herself. We read to see if she’ll be able to escape, or at least cheer herself up. In this way, she resembles first-person narrators in novels by Amelie Nothomb and Michel Houellebecq. But as the story of her anxiety moves swiftly, irritatingly ahead, Hartwig drops hints that as a character Aloisia is a construct, a manifest response to sexist stereotypes. Her pain is the bright lure dangling within the mouth of the larger, darker truths of the novel.

Most painful for Aloisia is that she lacks fantasies; given her situation, imagination seems essential. Rather than look within, she befriends an actress named Elizabeth; as Aloisia mimics her friend, Hartwig’s writing style begins to flicker with melodrama. It’s another ploy meant to disarm: Hartwig counts on us to dismiss Aloisia for acting ridiculous. But then the poverty and indifference from others that are enhanced by the war prove fatal to Elizabeth, and Aloisia herself stops just short of suicide: “I simply couldn’t let go of the tiny, despised bit of self I still possessed, despite everything.”

Redemption and happiness live in other books. Hartwig nudges Aloisia away from fantasy toward tiny victories in hard lessons. When Aloisia is in her twenties, the word “modesty”—echoing from that opening confession—reappears significantly in a speech given by one of her bosses, a Don Draper-ish prick she adores:

“Modesty is a poor recommendation,” he told me icily. “If you’re any good, there’s no reason to pretend modesty is a virtue. If you’re not worth what I’m paying you, I won’t cut your salary: I’ll fire you. I don’t want you to be modest. I want you to be efficient. You’d do well to remember that.”

She does, and the novel’s conclusion is merciless. Aloisia sees an endless loop: self-loathing, anxiety, men in power, anxiety, self-loathing. With no avenue of education or family support, she refuses to admit hope, and concludes that unhappiness best communicates her experience. A marriage proposal from an accountant is of no help:

And because the accountant is exactly my size, because he resembles me outside and in, because he’s a zero just like me—a redundant human being (albeit, in his case, one who doesn’t even know just how unessential he is)—marrying him would be like multiplying myself with myself, zero with zero.

Given everything Aloisia’s been through, it would be hard to argue with her. Hartwig’s long-lost book is a serious literary provocation, a great find.

Matthew Jakubowski lives in Philadelphia. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bookforum, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Millions, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Quarterly Conversation. More from this author →