Author: Martin Walser
First published: Brief an Lord Liszt, 1982 (English translation, 1985)
Locale: Southwestern Germany, near Lake Constance
Plot: Social realism
Time: Mid-June, the early 1980's
Franz Horn, a middle-aged business executive in the Chemnitz Denture corporation. An ineffectual but highly conscientious bureaucrat, he is in charge of the company's personnel, taxes, and properties. He possesses a photographic memory, in which he documents the alcoholic shortcomings of his most serious rival, Liszt. Most of the novel consists of a letter—with nineteen postscripts—to Liszt, in which he reveals his authentic feelings of disgust toward him. A lonely and suicidal but highly sensitive man, Horn had planned to abandon the company and join its primary rival, Stierle Dentures, but Stierle's suicide and subsequent events stopped him. Horn is pathologically suspicious of Liszt and is torn between admiration for his great talents and repulsion at his crass manipulation of his underlings. He decides at the novel's conclusion not to send the letter and departs, after downing three bottles of wine, for his mother's name-day celebration.
Arthur Thiele (TEE-leh), the middle-aged head of the Chemnitz Denture and Fin Star corporation. Wealthy, self-reliant, and handsome, Thiele is the envy of both Horn and Liszt. He is completely relaxed in the world and enjoys all the privileges his wealth offers him. He saves Horn's life after Horn's suicide attempt yet keeps him employed. He is an inveterate womanizer and performs every action with an ease and assurance that drives Horn to despair. Wherever he goes, he is at center stage because of his charisma.
Dr. Horst Liszt (lihst), a tall, attractive, brilliant alcoholic whose fall within the company is inevitable. Liszt is the major rival of Horn, yet he is also his closest friend. He is well dressed and highly articulate but at heart a manipulative seeker of power and privilege. Liszt possesses all the qualities that Horn lacks. In a letter that initially had been intended as a note of apology for a drunken argument on the feast of the Ascension, Horn declares him the most accomplished monster he has ever encountered.
Dr. Rudolf Ryynänen (ree-NAY-nehn), an up-and-coming young business executive. Ryynänen is an Austro-Finn who was discovered in Helsinki by Thiele. He has brought into the company his major area of expertise, the surfboard business, and has increased the profits of the company enormously. His innovative business practices have put both Horn and Liszt out of any serious running for executive advancement within the company, and he is highly resented by both men.
Benedikt Stierle (SHTEER-leh), the middle-aged president of Chemnitz's chief rival in the denture business. The novel opens with the announcement of his suicide and the burning of his company's plant on the eve of Horn's decision to leave his job and join Stierle. Those events eradicate Horn's plan to improve his professional status.
Klothilde Horn (kloh-TIHL-deh), Horn's seventy-six-year-old mother. She is a highly controlling matriarchal figure who is very much in charge of Horn and his family. A former waitress, she is so secretive that she refuses to tell him the identity of his real father, permitting him to believe that Vater Willi is his father. At the end of the novel, Horn leaves for the celebration of her name day.
Hilde Horn, Franz Horn's attractive wife. She is an excellent wife and mother of two daughters, as well as being an amateur singer who teaches singing to talented local students. She, too, has an excellent memory. She quarrels with Franz over his pathological hoarding instinct. Their marriage has been resuscitated since Franz's suicide attempt, but they never talk about it.
Vater Willi (FAH-tehr VIHL-lee), ostensibly Franz Horn's father but actually his stepfather. He is dead before the novel begins. Horn recalls him as a down-to-earth, dyspeptic bricklayer, a kind man who spent his weekends smoking, drinking, and playing cards.
Mrs. Brass, Horn's secretary, who has been a member of the staff of Chemnitz Denture from its inception. She is an attractive middle-aged woman who wears her blond hair pulled back into a severe bun. She spends most of her time either sighing or complaining but is overly solicitous of Horn's well-being. The major gossip of the office, she treats all subordinates with a withering frostiness.
Erna Zentgraf (TSEHNT-grahf), Liszt's secretary, a highly loyal woman who takes great pains to cover up her boss's progressive alcoholism. She is an excellent amateur singer and a student of Hilde Horn. She sings wherever she is and enthusiastically expresses her gratitude for the gifts that life has given her.