Purity in a Pandemic – Like Mother Like Son

Andreas Wolf is seriously considering murdering Horst, the Stassi informant and Annagret’s abuser. While we’re able to see the beginnings of his plan, we end up going back into time, again. It is a flashback within a flashback, to Andreas as a youth.

Wolf’s adolescence follows a young man under a successful party-touting couple, one an economics adviser, the other a professor at a college. For both of them, it appears to Wolf as natural the way that they course a path through the disintegrating world of communist rule, and sometimes Andreas would like to believe the world that they create for the public. And yet, he also feels entirely separate from the world he inhabits, where soccer to him is a way to ignore certain segments of thinking and interacting with his classmates, who are either too stupid or boring for his intellectual or physical pleasure. Instead, Wolf turns to his imagination and artistic temperament in masturbating and drawing.

These sections of novels make it always so difficult to recommend to friends and relations. Now that you have read this section, how exactly do you broach this novel in its entirety to someone close to you? And supposing they did read it, how would you have a conversation? Supposing you chose it as a book club book, what would that suggest about you as a person? Surely judgment and forms of disgust would not be far from the topic at hand.

It turns out I did this exact thing. Granted, I did not know about this moment in the book beforehand, but…there you have it. So instead of simply ignoring the discomfort presented in the novel, lets attack it head on!

Why do I seem to be uncomfortable with certain sexual promiscuities of Wolf, but not his propensity to violence? This is an intuitive reaction of American readers. There has been a long standing tradition that American films tend towards violence and away from sexuality, while European films offer the reverse. How or why this came to be, I am not sure, but here we are now with my double standard ready and waiting.

This double standard I did not really catch until I continued reading later sections, especially with Andrea’s mother. If Freedom and The Corrections centered on fathers, between Walter on the one hand and Alfred Lambert on the other, each attempting to navigate in their own way certain environmental and neurological problems, Purity is a novel investigating motherhood. While playing soccer, Wolf is interrupted by a strange looking homeless man who he calls a “ghost.” When the Andreas follows him under the bridge, the man informs him that he is his father. As a graduate student under his mother years ago, he had an affair with her, and he was imprisoned because of it.

Quite suddenly, although Andreas initially rejects the supposition, the past appears clearer to him because of it. On many occasions, Andreas has caught his mother with men. Young men coming out of offices, working men in blue overalls coming out of bedrooms, and, in one jarring scenario, his mother naked in a rose garden.

Even earlier in the novel, Andreas begins to draw nude pictures of women, ripping photographs out of magazines and undressing them in his mind. His mother enters his room and sees his drawing, which she compliments. She tries to persuade him to reveal who the face of the woman is. Is there someone in his life? Andreas becomes defensive, as teenagers do, and says no. Whether it is true or not, his mother presses further, saying that she cannot “help” him unless he is honest with her. After this exchange, and after Andreas forcefully yells at her to “please leave so I can masturbate,” he is sent to a therapist.

All this to say, that when we hear about Andreas, his mother, and her propensity for sexual adventures, we realize that she was not seeing her son in those engagements, she was seeing a version of herself.

We’ll come back to this idea, but what is fascinating was my reader response to both of these predicaments. I was disgusted with Wolf’s habits, his lonely tirades in his room and the repeated mentionings of them, and even now as you can see I am using abstract language in a way that Franzen most perniciously does not. And on the other hand I seemed to have no such response to the revelation of Wolf’s mother’s adventures. Granted, she was an adult, but she was also married, and the idea of having not one but several affairs (even with multiple men at once) should have been shocking and produced a judgmental response from me.

But they didn’t.

My intuition told me that she was an independent woman and was free to conduct affair as she pleased. Why I could feel this way for her and not for Andreas, who was simply a teenager playing out his curiosities in experiments that hurt no one, is so strange to me.

The power of literature, even and especially the kind that makes the reader uncomfortable and insecure, is in the way it forces us to interrogate our own preconceived notions of morality and ethics. His mother risks plenty in a controlled state like East Germany, especially with her husband as a prominent member of the government. To be found out would be to face public ridicule, and to forever alter the trajectory of Andrea’s life. Yet still she goes on. Of course, one step further in and we could discuss why a society could be arranged that forced people who had sexual desires for one another to do their works in secret, rather than face the possibility of open dialogue and risk vulnerability with their partners?

Somehow, in hindsight, it feels as though this section simply had to be about sexuality. Perhaps Andreas Wolf is catering to a kind of control, where really the sexual act is about power, where he is able to manage all the variables. His mother is instead embracing the power of the story surrounding sexual acts: of the hidden, the forbidden, the taboo, the kind of experience that heightens the moment into the kind of abyss that only psychoanalysis is willing to discuss in any analytical sort of way.

I wont say that I’ll be thrilled to discuss this moment with my fellow book club members, but I do think that if we did not have literature that attempted to transgress moral lines in a way that allows us to interrogate society as we see it, then the stories we told ourselves would be insular and self-perpetuating. We need sexy and, ironically, sexily unsexy literature.

To come back to Wolf’s mother, and what she sees in her son. There’s a great line from the movie Kinsey (2004) starring Liam Neeson about the famous biology professor studying sexuality, where he states in a class that “whatever is repressed in society becomes an obsession.” I think here Franzen is exploring that in the world of transparency. I used to think that polyamorous living must be this transgressive and hidden experience, like navigating dark waters without moonlight. But now I see that many polyamorous relationships might be communicative to the point of tedium, where every desire is laid bare, where every engagement is discussed explicitly, and the whole experience runs the danger of being rote. It steals all the fun.

But on the other hand, if a desire persists in secret for long enough, without any kind of enacting and acknowledgement, or at the very least without some discussion, neuroses can develop. Perhaps Pip’s obsession with her father comes out of her mother’s continued desire to close them off full stop from their life. Perhaps Wolf’s desire to bring to light certain power disparities in governments and institutions comes out of what I suggested last post, because of living in a failed state that watches everything, and fights hard to keep the worst aspects of society out of sight. Franzen claims that Andrea’s own father has the most “creative” job in the world, as he muddles with the country’s numbers to make sure no one knows just how bad it really is. Here is the repressed, and it can rise to the level of entire countries.

Where do you begin to come clean, and where do you draw your lines of privacy?

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