“The Tunnel is a stupendous achievement and obviously one of the greatest novels of the century, a novel to set beside the masterpieces of Proust, Joyce, and Musil as well as those of Gass’s illustrious contemporaries.”
—Steven Moore, Review of Contemporary Fiction
Anaxagoras said to a man who was grieving because he lay dying
in a foreign land, “the descent to hell is the same from every place.”
What I have to tell you is as long as life,
but I shall run as swiftly, so before you know it,
we shall both be over.
LIFE IN A
It was my intention, when I began, to write an introduction to my work on the Germans. Though its thick folders lie beside me now, I know I cannot. Endings, instead, possess me . . . all ways out.
Embarrassed, I’m compelled to smile. I was going to extend my sympathy to my opponents. Here, in my introduction, raised above me like an arch of triumph, I meant to place a wreath upon myself. But each time I turned my pen to the task, it turned aside to strike me.
As I look at the pages of my manuscript, or stare at the books which wall my study, I realize I must again attempt to put this prison of my life in language.
It should have been a simple ceremony: a wreath to honor death and my success¾the defense of my hypothesis concerning Germany.
And when I wrote my book, to whom was I writing if not the world? … the world! … the world … the world is William welshing on a bet; it is Olive sewing up the gut of a goose; it is Reynolds raping Rosie on the frat-house stair; it is a low blow, a dreary afternoon, an exclamation of disgust. And when I wrote was I writing to win renown, as it’s customarily claimed? or to gain revenge after a long bide of time and tight rein of temper? to earn promotion, to rise above the rest like a loosed balloon? or was it from weak self-esteem? From pure funk, out of a distant childhood fear or recent shame? … the world . . . the world, alas. It is Alice committing her Tampax to the trash.
I began, I remember, because I felt I had to. I’d reached that modest height in my career, that gentle rise, from which I could coast out of gear to a soft stop.
Now I wonder why not. Why not? But then duty drove me forward like a soldier. I said it was time for “the Big Book,” the long monument to my mind I repeatedly dreamed I had to have: a pyramid, a column tall enough to satisfy the sky. Duty drove me the way it drives men into marriage. Begetting is expected of us, and in those days of heavy men in helmets the seed was certain, and wanted only the wind for a womb, or any slit; yet what sprang up out of those foxholes we fucked with our fists but our own frightened selves? with a shout of pure terror, too. That too-that too was expected; it was expected even of flabby maleless men like me. And now, here, where I am writing still, still in this chair, hammering type like tacks into the page, speaking without a listening ear, whose eye do I hope to catch and charm and fill with tears and understanding, if not my own, my own ordinary, unforgiving and unfeeling eye? … my eye. So sentences circle me like a toy train. What could I have said about the Boche, about bigotry, barbarism, butchery, Bach, that hasn’t been said as repeatedly as I dreamed my dream of glory, unless it was what I’ve said? What could I have explained where no reason exists and no cause is adequate; what body burned to a crisp could I have rebelieved was bacon, if I had not taken the tack I took?
And last night, with my lids pulled over me, I went on seeing as if I were an open window. Full of wind. I wasn’t lying in peaceful darkness, that darkness I desired, that peace I needed. My whole head was lit with noises, yet no Sunday park could have been more lonely: thoughts tossed away, left like litter to be blown about and lost. There were long avenues of footfall, leaf flutter lacking leaf or tree, barks unreturned to their dogs.
My hypothesis … My word … My world … My Germany …
Of course there is nothing genuinely German about me, though my name suggests that some distant ancestor doubtless came from that direction, for I have at least three generations of Americans safety beneath me. My wife, a richly scutcheoned Muhlenberg and far more devoted to armorial lines and ties of blood-all such blazonry-than I could ever bring myself to be, has already tunneledthrough five layers of her own to find, to her unrelenting triumph and delight, the deepest layer lying on American soil still, and under the line of the nineteenth century, if only by a spade’s length. So my name, and the fact that I speak the German language fluently, having spent a good many years in that exemplary country (though there is nothing genuinely German about me), help make the German nation a natural inference. I was there first as a student in the middle of the thirties, and I must confess I was caught up in the partisan frenzy of those stirred and stirring times; yet when I returned it was ironically as a soldier behind the guns of the First Army, and almost immiediately afterward I began my term as a consultant on “dirty Fascist things” at the Nuremberg Trials. Finally, on the fore-edge of the fifties, with my fourteen hundred francs of fame, to alter the French reviewer’s expression in my favor, I purchased my release from the paws of the military and was permitted to become a tourist and teacher and scholar again. Yes, by that time I had a certain dismal renown as the author of the Kohler thesis concerning Nazi crimes and German guilt, and this preceded me and lit my path, so that I had to suffer a certain sort of welcome too, a welcome which made me profoundly uneasy, for I was met and greeted as an equal; as, that is, a German, a German all along, and hence a refugee: I was William Frederick Kohler, wasn’t I? wasn’t I fat and fair, with a dazzling blond wife and a troop of stalwart children fond of-heaven help them-hiking about with bare knees? and so why not? … no, there was no mistake, I had the name and knew the language, looked the part, had been wisely away through the war, and, of course (though no one said it, it was this which pinned that wretched label to my coat like a star), had written that remarkably sane, peace-seeking book, so close on the event, too; a book which was severe¾all right, it was severe, perhaps severe-yet patient, fair and calm, a Christian book really, its commentators, my hostesses, their guests, all my new friends, smiling pleasantly to pump my hand, declared (as though history had a fever); yes, so calm and peace-seeking (came Herr Kohler’s cool and soothing palm), so patient and perceptive, so serene (while he lay bitterly becalmed himself)with a quotation from Heinrich Heine just beneath the title like a tombstone with a grave-that the French reviewer (and there was only one at first) spat on his page (he had a nose like a dirk and spectacles enlarged his eyes): It will be fourteen hundred francs spent on infamy, he said, and you will get your money’s worth. Of peace-seeking, peace-making, peace-loving Buch. A good buy.
A friend of mine did the French version, but it was I, quite unaccompliced, who betrayed my English to the German. At twelve marks it continues to have a brisk sale. I redid my study with a recent check.
I had intended to introduce
This is to introduce a work on death by one who’s spent his life in a chair.
I could not hold my father in much love, my mother either. Indeed, I learned to love far later, as it proved, than they had time for. So perished they without it. None of us grieves. I’ve played a few sly tricks upon insanity since then, and now life holds me as it once held them-in a dry fist. Hearts held that way wad up eventually … trees did. Once—once only—my heart burst bloodily in that grip. But what has this to do with me now, or with Germany?