An extended synopsis of Windows on the Abyss
The death of George’s mother triggers in him guilt-riddled memories of the breakup of his marriage and his subsequent neglect of both wife and mother. He relates in a polyphony of voices the build up to, and the unfolding of, a series of breakdowns and his eventual confinement in a clinic. These voices are interleaved with the voice of his estranged wife, Amanda. She too undergoes a crisis but of a different nature. The two voices afford two perspectives on the happenings. Although separated, the lives of Amanda and George are intertwined to such a degree that they must reunite once George has recovered.
A prologue introduces a certain Pater Braun who attends the death of George’s mother. Her last words set off in him a spiritual crisis which turns out in the end to contribute to George’s eventual recovery.
The novel proper begins soon after the death of the mother. While sifting through memorabilia, key incidents in George’s past pass through his head... the various persons relevant for the novel, are in this way introduced.
Then follow George’s description of several incidents which lead to his confinement in a clinic. In each of these incidents every attempt by George to make contact with his surroundings ends with his ever increasing isolation and eventual fall into a psychological black-hole. George’s fragmented story-line mirrors his life, shattered as this is into pieces.
The first incident tells the nightmare of a self-inquisition which culminates in George’s nerve-cells being condemned to gnaw away at his conscience for all eternity. A flirtation during a business trip comes to a premature end, caused by the inadvertent arousal of intense memories around his wife. There is then a discussion in a restaurant on free will. Why is it not possible for George to ignore his feelings of guilt when his reason tells him these feelings are irrational? To his dismay the three participants in the discussion turn out to be different facets of his self. A working day in Moscow ends with a breakdown caused by a TV documentary triggering memories of his flight out of Hungary during the uprising of ’56. A Joycean romp through the centre of Munich with a rehearsal for a requiem in a church, a dinner in a beer-hall and drinks-and-more in a brothel, climaxes with George confronting his brain in the form of a ball of tangled sea-weed and the cries of his wife and mother emanating from it. He is arrested for disturbing the peace and packed off to a clinic. After his premature release from the clinic, he attempts, unsuccessfully, to rendezvous with Amanda. This results in a further breakdown and his delivery for a second time into a clinic. His mind is portrayed as a hotbed of simultaneously existing but opposing trains of thought around his wife and mother, which discharges repeatedly into extremely intense feelings of misery. With the passage of time he attains some kind of equilibrium in the clinic. His mind – still teeming with these opposing trains of thought – now discharges into intense moments of happiness. On the insistence of his doctor, George writes a series of sketches around incidents in his life well before the breakdowns began. Against the expectation of his doctor, these sketches focus neither on his mother nor his wife. Instead they focus on the good times he had moving from one postdoc position to the next, but also on the disappointments in his academic life and on the absurd bureaucratic system which employs him later. The sketches nevertheless allow the doctor to hazard an explanation for the breakdowns. There are times when George finds it impossible to work on his sketches; he then composes melancholic lines of verse that articulate the meaninglessness of his life, indeed, of life in general.
Interleaved with the travails of George are the concurrently occurring but independent incidents from Amanda’s life as related by herself: a visit to her mother in an old-age home, an evening with a friend in a beer-garden, a phone-call from a former lover, the recall of sessions with a psychologist to determine the cause of her chronic yearning for harmony, a stay in a sanatorium which almost ends in a breakdown, and finally, her recovery from the setback she suffered in the sanatorium and her subsequent search for her husband. In contrast to George’s highly charged descriptions, Amanda relates hers in a “down-to-earth” fashion.
Taken together, the travails of George and Amanda reveal how intertwined their lives are even though they are separated since years. Indeed their travails seem sometimes to converse with each other, incidents in the one echoing off incidents in the other. It is this that gives the novel unity, despite its fragmentary nature.
Pater Braun’s fortuitous presence in the clinic has been keeping George from a total breakdown. Their eventual recognition of each other leads to George’s rapid recovery (they had seen each other during George’s mother’s final days). Once he is out of the clinic, George and Amanda reunite. The reunion assumes however only the semblance of normality; the shadows of the past are always latently present. George busies himself trying to understand his breakdown in terms of current ideas in neurobiology and quantum physics. Intimations of such an explanation are in fact scattered throughout the novel.
The reunion is only a short intermezzo. It ends abruptly with the death of Amanda. George is haunted by the impression Amanda left behind, that she was happy to depart. He is again stranded with guilt-riddled memories that refuse to fade. The execution of the verdict delivered at the end of a nightmare years earlier, that his nerve-cells are to gnaw away at his conscience for all eternity, resumes in earnest. This time there seems no hope for a recovery.
Kurt Hartmann was born in Budapest and educated in Cape Town and Oxford. He is a physicist and a former consultant to the German government on technological matters. He lives in the Munich area.