William Genazino

"The Shoe Tester of Frankfort"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 26, 2006)

"I have this sensation that people like me should be told to either disappear or else get remodeled like the old buildings. This sensation is connected with another feeling I often have, namely that I'm here in this world without any inner authorization.  Strictly speaking, I'm still waiting for someone to ask me whether I really want to be here.  I imagine how nice it would be if I could grant myself this permission, let's say this afternoon."

The Shoe Tester of Frankfort by Wilhelm Genazino

Published by New Directions, which is noted for its publication of experimental fiction and literature from Europe, The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt begins as an existential investigation by a self-conscious 46-year-old man into who he is and why he behaves as he does.  The man is seeking "inner authorization" for a life that has little meaning for him.  By the end of his philosophical and psychological journey, the 46-year-old protagonist has come to new understandings.  Though the premise is weighty, the book is fun to read.   The author's delightfully dry humor, his sense of irony, and his witty appreciation of absurdity evolve in the second half of the book, and these qualities ground the speaker's new understanding of himself in reality and change the mood from melancholy to peaceful acceptance, if not joy. 

The unnamed speaker has been working for seven years as a "shoe tester," a man who walks around Frankfurt testing quality shoes for a manufacturer and then reviewing them.  The speaker enjoys this job, as his walking gives him unlimited opportunity to muse about his life, observe people from the past with whom he has had relationships, reminisce about their mutual experiences, and contemplate "the collective peculiarity of all life."  As he walks, he thinks about his childhood, his failed relationship with Lisa, with whom he has lived for several years, and his lack of professional motivation, and the reader observes him as he has an afternoon interlude with his hairdresser, begins a new relationship, meets a friend who is a failed photographer, gets a drastic cut in salary, and begins work as a vendor in a flea market. 

The speaker makes ponderous statements, noting that "The only truly important people are the ones who have been able to fuse their individual knowledge with their positions in life," and that "People love when they're no longer running away…"  He believes that universities should offer courses in "Comparative Guilt Studies."
All this might become tedious if it were not for the fact that the author also highlights the ironies and absurdities of the speaker's life, which build, until, ironically, at a cocktail party, he spontaneously tells someone that he works for the imaginary Institute for Memory Arts and provides "experience sessions" for clients.  His life and his mood begin to change, and when he sees a friend in dire circumstances, which might have mirrored his own, he begins to believe that "I no longer have the desire to scrutinize myself.  I'm no longer waiting for the outside world to finally fit my inner texts!  I've stopped being the blind passenger of my own life."

Filled with the hypersensitive observations of a man who claims that he "hardly thinks at all anymore—I only look round and about,"  the novel shows the transformation of this character from someone who willfully closes his eyes to the world to one who looks around and begins to recognize his connections with the rest of the humanity.  The author's tongue-in-cheek humor keeps the novel from imploding under its own weight, while the conclusion offers hope for the future.  Slow to start, the novel evolves into a delightful exploration of one man's memories and his halting steps toward a new life.  Winner in 2004 of Germany's highest literary prize, the Georg-Buchner-Preis, this novel is the first by Genazino to become available in English translation in the United States. (Translated by Philip Boehm.)
  • Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Shoe Tester of Frankfort at New Directions

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

  • The Shoe Tester of Frankfort (2001; in US July 2006)
  • A Woman, an Apartment, a Novel (2003)
  • The Expanded Gaze: Essays (2004)
  • Lovebefuffled (2005)


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Book Marks:


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About the Author:

Wilhelm GenazinoWilhelm Genazino was born in Mannheim, Germany in 1943. He studied German, philosphy and sociology at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfort. He then worked as a journalist until 1965. He also worked for the satirical magazine Pardon and co-edited a magazine.

He has been a full time novelist since 1970. When his trilogy, Abschaffel was published in 1977, it earned him recognition as a serious writer. He has been a member of the Academy for Language and Poetry in Darmstadt since 1990. He won the Georg Büchner-Preis, the most prestigious award for German literature, in 2004. Including the trilogy, he has published nine novels, and essay to to date.

He lived in Heidelberg for many years, but recently moved to Frankfort in 2004.

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