the opening of peter handke’s memoir of his mother

A SORROW BEYOND DREAMS    A LIFE STORY

 PETER HANDKE 

 

Random House sez, and I see no reason to differ with them: Peter Handke’s mother was an invisible woman. Throughout her life—which spanned the Nazi era, the war, and the postwar consumer economy—she struggled to maintain appearances, only to arrive at a terrible recognition: “I’m not human anymore.” Not long after, she killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.

In A Sorrow Beyond Dreams her son sits down to record what he knows, or thinks he knows, about his mother’s life and death before, in his words, “the dull speechlessness—the extreme speechlessness” of grief takes hold forever. And yet the experience of speechlessness, as it marks both suffering and love, lies at the heart of Handke’s brief but unforgettable elegy. This austere, scrupulous, and deeply moving book is one of the finest achievements of a great contemporary writer. 

 

 

 He not busy being born is busy dying.  

BOB DYLAN

 

Dusk was falling quickly. It was just after 7 p.m., and the month was October. 

PATRICIA HIGHSMITH, A Dog’s Ransom  

 

My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks; I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide. Yes, get to work: for,, intensely as I sometimes feel the need to write about my mother, this need is so vague that if I didn’t work at it I would, in my present state of mind, just sit at my typewriter pounding out the same letters over and over again. This sort of kinetic therapy alone would do me no good: it would only make me passive and apathetic. I might just as well take a trip—if I were traveling, my mindless dozing and lounging around wouldn’t get on my nerves so much. 

During the last few weeks I have been more irritable than usual; disorder, cold, and silence drive me to distraction; I can’t see a bread crumb or a bit of fluff on the floor without bending down to pick it up. Thinking about this suicide, I become so insensible that I am sometimes startled to find that an object I have been holding hasn’t fallen out of my hand. Yet I long for such moments, because they shake me out of my apathy and clear my head. My sense of horror makes me feel better: at last my boredom is gone; an unresisting body, no more exhausting distances, a painless passage of time. 

The worst thing right now would be sympathy, expressed in a word or even a glance. I would turn away or cut the sympathizer short, because I need the feeling that what I am going through is incomprehensible and incommunicable; only then does the horror seem meaningful and real. If anyone talks to me about it, the boredom comes back, and everything is unreal again. Nevertheless, for no reason at all, I sometimes tell people about my mother’s suicide, but if they dare to mention it I am furious. What I really want them to do is change the subject and tease me about something. 

In his latest movie someone asks JamesBond whether his enemy, whom he has just thrown over a stair rail, is dead. His answer—”Let’s hope so!”—made me laugh with relief. Jokes about dying and being dead don’t bother me at all; on the contrary, they make me feel good. 

Actually, my moments of horror are brief, and what I feel is not so much horror as unreality; seconds later, the world closes in again, and if someone is with me I try to be especially attentive, as though I had just been rude. 

Now that I’ve begun to write, these states seem to have dwin­dled and passed, probably because I try to describe them as accurately as possible. In describing them, I begin to remember them as belonging to a concluded period of my life, and the effort of remembering and formulating keeps me so busy that the short daydreams of the last few weeks have stopped. I look back on them as intermittent “states”: suddenly my day-to-day world—which, after all, consists only of images repeated ad nauseam over a period of years and decades since they were new—fell apart, and my mind became so empty that it ached.

That is over now; I no longer fall into these states. When I write, I necessarily write about the past, about something which, at least while I am writing, is behind me. As usual when engaged in literary work, I am alienated from myself and transformed into an object, a remembering and formulating machine. I am writing the story of my mother, first of all because I think I know more about her and how she came to her death than any outside investigator who might, with the help of a religious, psychologi­cal, or sociological guide to the interpretation of dreams, arrive at a facile explanation of this interesting case of suicide; but second in my own interest, because having something to do brings me back to life; and lastly because, like an outside investigator, though in a different way, I would like to represent this VOLUNTARY DEATH as an exemplary case.

Of course, all these justifications are arbitrary and could just as well be replaced by others that would be equally arbitrary. In any case, I experienced moments of extreme speechlessness and needed to formulate them—the motive that has led men to write from time immemorial.

In my mother’s pocketbook, when I arrived for the funeral, I found a post-office receipt for a registered letter bearing the num­ber 432. On Friday afternoon, before going home and taking the sleeping pills, she had mailed a registered letter containing a copy of her will to my address in Frankfurt. (But why also SPECIAL DELIVERY?) On Monday I went to the same post office to tele­phone. That was two and a half days after her death. On the desk in front of the post-office clerk, I saw the yellow roll of registration stickers; nine more registered letters had been mailed over the weekend; the next number was 442, and this image was so similar to the number I had in my head that at first glance I became confused and thought for a moment nothing had happened. The desire to tell someone about it cheered me up. It was such a bright day; the snow; we were eating soup with liver dumplings; “it began with …”; if I started like this, it would all seem to be made up, I would not be extorting personal sympathy from my listener or reader, I would merely be telling him a rather fantastic story.

 

* * *

 

Well then, it began with my mother being born more than fifty years ago in the same village where she died. At that time all the land that was good for anything in the region belonged either to the church or to noble landowners; part of it was leased to the population, which consisted mostly of artisans and small peasants. The general indigence was such that few peasants owned their land. For practical purposes, the conditions were the same as before 1848; serfdom had been abolished in a merely formal sense. My grandfather—he is still living, aged eighty-six—was a carpenter; in addition, he and his wife worked a few acres of rented farm and pasture land. He was of Slovenian descent and illegitimate. Most of the children born to small peasants in those days were illegiti­mate, because, years after attaining sexual maturity, few small peasants were in possession of living quarters or the means to support a household. His mother was the daughter of a rather well-to-do peasant, who, however, never regarded his hired man, my grandfather’s father, as anything more than the “baby-maker.” Nevertheless, my grandfather’s mother inherited money enough to buy a small farm.

And so it came about that my grandfather was the first of his line—generations of hired men with blanks in their baptismal certificates, who had been born and who died in other people’s houses and left little or no inheritance because their one and only possession, their Sunday suit, hadbeen lowered into the grave with them—to grow up in surroundings where he could really feel at home and who was not merely tolerated in return for his daily toil.

Recently the financial section of one of our newspapers carried an apologia for the economic principles of the Western world. Property, it said, was MATERIALIZED FREEDOM. This may in his time have been true of my grandfather, the first in a long line of peasants fettered by poverty to own anything at all, let alone a house and a piece of land. The consciousness of owning something had so liberating an effect that after generations of will-lessness a will could now make its appearance: the will to become still freer. And that meant only one thing—justifiably so for my grandfather in his situation—to enlarge his property, for the farm he started out with was so small that nearly all his labors went into holding on to it. The ambitious smallholder’s only hope lay in saving.

So my grandfather saved, until the inflation of the twenties ate up all his savings. Then he began to save again, not only by setting aside unneeded money but also and above all by compress­ing his own needs and demanding the same frugality of his children as well; his wife, being a woman, had never so much as dreamed that any other way of life was possible.

He continued to save toward the day when his children would need SETTLEMENTS for marriage or to set themselves up in a trade. The idea that any of his savings might be spent before then on their EDUCATION couldn’t possibly have entered his head, espe­cially where his daughters were concerned. And even in his sons the centuries-old dread of becoming a homeless pauper was so deeply ingrained that one of them, who more by accident than by design had obtained a scholarship to the Gymnasium, found those unfamiliar surroundings unbearable after only a few days. He walked the thirty miles from the provincial capital at night, arriving home on a Saturday, which was housecleaning day; with­out a word he started sweeping the yard: the noise he made with his broom in the early dawn told the whole story. He became a proficient and contented carpenter.

He and his older brother were killed early in the Second World War. In the meantime, my grandfather had gone on saving and once again lost his savings in the Depression of the thirties. His saving meant that he neither drank nor smoked, and played cards only on Sunday; but even the money he won in his Sunday card games—and he played so carefully that he almost always won—went into savings; at the most, he would slip his children a bit of small change. After the war, he started saving again; today he receives a government pension and is still at it.

The surviving son, a master carpenter with twenty workers in his employ, has no need to save. He invests, which means that he can drink and gamble; in fact, it’s expected of him. Unlike his father, who all his life has been speechless and in every way self-denying, he has at least developed speech of a kind, though he uses it only in the town council, where he represents a small and obscure political party with visions of a grandiose future rooted in a grandiose past.

For a woman to be born into such surroundings was in itself deadly. But perhaps there was one comfort: no need to worry about the future. The fortune-tellers at our church fairs took a serious interest only in the palms of the young men; a girl’s future was a joke.

No possibilities, it was all settled in advance: a bit of flirtation, a few giggles, brief bewilderment, then the alien, resigned look of a woman starting to keep house again, the first children, a bit of togetherness after the kitchen work, from the start not listened to, and in turn listening less and less, inner monologues, trouble with her legs, varicose veins, mute except for mumbling in her sleep, cancer of the womb, and finally, with death, destiny fulfilled. The girls in our town used to play a game based on the stations in a woman’s life: Tired/Exhausted/Sick/Dying/Dead.

My mother was the next to last of five children. She was a good pupil; her teachers gave her the best possible marks and especially praised her neat handwriting. And then her school years were over. Learning had been a mere child’s game; once your compulsory education was completed and you began to grow up, there was no need of it. After that a girl stayed home, getting used to the staying at home that would be her future.

No fears, except for an animal fear in the dark and in storms; no changes, except for the change between heat and cold, wet and dry, comfort and discomfort.

The passage of time was marked by church festivals, slaps in the face for secret visits to the dance hall, fits of envy directed against her brothers, and the pleasure of singing in the choir. Everything else that happened in the world was a mystery; no newspapers were read except the Sunday bulletin of the diocese, and then only the serial.

Sundays: boiled beef with horseradish sauce, the card game, the women humbly sitting there, a family photograph showing the first radio.

My mother was high-spirited; in the photographs she propped her hands on her hips or put her arm over her younger brother’s shoulder. She was always laughing andseemed incapable of doing anything else.

Rain—sun; outside—inside: feminine feelings were very much dependent on the weather, because “outside” was seldom allowed to mean anything but the yard and “inside” was invariably the house, without a room of one’s own.

The climate in that region is extremely variable: cold winters and sultry summers, but at sunset or even in the shade of a tree you shivered. Rain and more rain; from early September on, whole days of damp fog outside the tiny windows (they are hardly any larger today); drops of water on the clotheslines; toads jumping across your path in the dark; gnats, bugs, and moths even in the daytime; worms and wood lice under every log in the woodshed. You couldn’t help becoming dependent on those things; there was nothing else. Seldom: desireless and somehow happy; usually: desireless and a little unhappy.

No possibility of comparison with a different way of life: richer? less hemmed in?

It began with my mother suddenly wanting something. She wanted to learn, because in learning her lessons as a child she had felt something of herself. Just as when we say, “I feel like myself.” For the first time, a desire, and she didn’t keep it to herself; she spoke of it time and time again, and in the end it became an obsession with her. My mother told me she had “begged” my grandfather to let her learn something. But it was out of the question, disposed of with a wave of the hand, unthinkable.

Still, our people had a traditional respect for accomplished facts: a pregnancy, a war, the state, ritual, and death. When at the age of fifteen or sixteen my mother ran away from home to learn cooking at some Hôtel du Lac, my grandfather let her have her own way, because she was already gone; and besides, there wasn’t much to be learned about cooking.

No other course was open to her; scullery maid, chambermaid, assistant cook, head cook. “People will always eat.” In the photo­graphs, a flushed face, glowing cheeks, arm in arm with bashful, serious-looking girl friends; she was the life of the party; self­assured gaiety (“Nothing can happen to me”); exuberant, sociable, nothing to hide.

City life: short skirts (“knee huggers”), high-heeled shoes, per­manent wave, earrings, unclouded joy of life. Even a stay abroad! Chambermaid in the Black Forest, flocks of ADMIRERS, kept at a DISTANCE! Dates, dancing, entertainment, fun; hidden fear of sex (“They weren’t my type”). Work, pleasure; heavyhearted, light­hearted; Hitler had a nice voice on the radio. The homesickness of those who can’t afford anything; back at the Hôtel du Lac (“I’m doing the bookkeeping now”); glowing references (“Fräulein has shown aptitude and willingness to learn. So conscientious, frank, and cheerful that we find it hard … She is leaving our establishment of her own free will”). Boat rides, all-night dances, never tired.

On April 10, 1938, the Yes to Germany! “The Führer arrived at 4:15 p.m., after a triumphal passage through the streets of Klagenfurt to the strains of the Badenweiler March. The rejoicing of the masses seemed to know no bounds. The thousands of swastika flags in the spas and summer resorts were reflected in the already ice-free waters of the Wörthersee. The airplanes of the old Reich and our native planes vied with one another in the clouds overhead.”

The newspapers advertised plebiscite badges and silk or paper flags. After football games the teams marched off with a regulation SiegHeil!” The letter A was replaced by the letter D on the bumpers of motor vehicles. On the radio: 6:15, call to arms; 6:35, motto of the day; 6:40, gymnastics; 8—12 p.m., Radio KOnigsberg: Richard Wagner concert followed by entertainment and dance music.

“How to mark your ballot on April 10: make a bold cross in the larger circle under the word YES.”

Thieves just out of jail were locked up again when they claimed that the objects found in their possession had been bought in department stores that MEANWHILE HAD GONE OUT OF EXISTENCE because they had belonged to Jews.

Demonstrations, torchlight parades, mass meetings. Buildings decorated with the new national emblem SALUTED; forests and mountain peaks DECKED THEMSELVES OUT; the historic events were represented to the rural population as a drama of nature.

“We were kind of excited,” my mother told me. For the first time, people did things together. Even the daily grind took on a festive mood, “until late into the night.” For once, everything that was strange and incomprehensible in the world took on meaning and became part of a larger context; even disagreeable, mechanical work was festive and meaningful. Your automatic movements took on an athletic quality, because you saw innumerable others making the same movements. A new life, in which you felt protected, yet free.

The rhythm became an existential ritual. “Public need before private greed, the community comes first.” You were at home wherever you went; no more homesickness. Addresses on the back of photographs; you bought your first date book (or was it a present?)—all at once you had so many friends and there was so much going on that it became possible to FORGET something. She had always wanted to be proud of something, and now, because what she was doing was somehow important, she actually was proud, not of anything in particular, but in general—a state of mind, a newly attained awareness of being alive—and she was determined never to give up that vague pride.

She still had no interest in politics: what was happening before her eyes was something entirely different from politics—a mas­querade, a newsreel festival, a secular church fair. “Politics” was something colorless and abstract, not a carnival, not a dance, not a band in local costume, in short, nothing VISIBLE. Pomp and ceremony on all sides. And what was “politics”? A meaningless word, because, from your schoolbooks on, everything connected with politics had been dished out in catchwords unrelated to any tangible reality and even such images as were used were devoid of human content: oppression as chains or boot heel, freedom as mountaintop, the economic system as a reassuringly smoking fac­tory chimney or as a pipe enjoyed after the day’s work, the social system as a descending ladder: “Emperor-King-Nobleman-Burgher­-Peasant-Weaver/Carpenter-Beggar-Gravedigger”; a game, in­cidentally, that could be played properly only in the prolific families of peasants, carpenters, and weavers.

 

* * *

 

That period helped my mother to come out of her shell and become independent. She acquired a presence and lost her last fear of human contact: her hat awry, because a young fellow was pressing his head against hers, while she merely laughed into the camera with an expression of self-satisfaction. (The fiction that photographs can “tell us” anything—but isn’t all formulation, even of things that have really happened, more or less a fiction? Less, if we content ourselves with a mere record of events; more, if we try to formulate in depth? And the more fiction we put into a narrative, the more likely it is to interest others, because people identify more readily with formulations than with recorded facts. Does this explain the need for poetry? “Breathless on the river­bank” is one of ThomasBernhard‘s formulations.)

 

* * *

 

The war—victory communiqués introduced by portentous music, pouring from the “people’s radio sets,” which gleamed mysteri­ously in dimly lit “holy corners”—further enhanced people’s sense of self, because it “increased the uncertainty of all circumstances” (Clausewitz)and made the day-to-day happenings that had for­merly been taken for granted seem excitingly fortuitous. For my mother the war was not a childhood nightmare that would color her whole emotional development as it did mine; more than anything else, it was contact with a fabulous world, hitherto known to her only from travel folders. A new feeling for distances, for how things had been BACK IN PEACETIME, and most of all for other individuals, who up until then had been confined to the shadowy roles of casual friends, dance partners, and fellow workers. And also for the first time, a family feeling: “Dear Brother … I am looking at the map to see where you might be now … Your sister …”

And in the same light of her first love: a German party member, in civilian life a savings-bank clerk, now an army paymaster, which gave him a rather special standing. She was soon in a family way. He was married, and she loved him dearly; anything he said was all right with her. She introduced him to her parents, went hiking with him, kept him company in his soldier’s loneliness.

“He was so attentive to me, and I wasn’t afraid of him the way I had been with other men.”

He did the deciding and she trailed along. Once he gave her a present—perfume. He also lent her a radio for her room and later took it away again. “At that time” he still read books, and together they read one entitled By the Fireside. On the way down from a mountain pasture on one of their hikes, they had started to run. My mother broke wind and my father reproved her; a little later he too let a fart escape him and followed it with a slight cough, hem-hem. In telling me of this incident years later, she bent double and giggled maliciously, though at the same time her conscience troubled her because she was belittling her only love. She herself thought it comical that she had once loved someone, especially a man like him. He was smaller than she, many years older, and almost bald; she walked beside him in low-heeled shoes, always at pains to adapt her step to his, her hand repeatedly slipping off his inhospitable arm; an ill-matched, ludicrous couple. And yet, twenty years later, she still longed to feel for someone what she had then felt for that savings-bank wraith. But there never was ANOTHER: everything in her life had conspired to inculcate a kind of love that remains fixated on a particular irreplaceable object.

It was after graduating from the Gymnasium that I first saw my father: on his way to the rendezvous, he chanced to come toward me in the street; he was wearing sandals, a piece of paper was folded over his sunburned nose, and he was leading a collie on a leash. Then, in a small café in her home village, he met his former love; my mother was excited, my father embarrassed; standing by the jukebox at the other end of the café, I picked out ElvisPresley‘s “Devil in Disguise.” My mother’s husband had got wind of all this, but he had merely sent his youngest son to the café as an indication that he was in the know. After buying himself an ice-cream cone, the child stood next to his mother and the stranger, asking her from time to time, always in the same words, if she was going home soon. My father put sunglasses over his regular glasses, said something now and then to the dog, and finally announced that he “might as well” pay up. “No, no, it’s on me,” he said, when my mother also took her purse out of her handbag. On the trip we took together, the two of us wrote her a postcard. In every hotel we went to, he let it be known that I was his son, for fear we’d be taken for homosexuals (Article 175). Life had disappointed him, he had become more and more lonely. “Now that I know people, I’ve come to appreciate animals,” he said, not quite in earnest of course.

 

elina hirvonen’s when i forgot: “memory is one of life’s burdens that we can do nothing about”

if you are interested in the effects of time, memory & violence on the human subject, then buy and read this book!

  

Elina Hirvonen’s When I Forgot opens in a Helsinki cafe where Anna Louhiniitty is drinking coffee and reading Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway — or maybe it’s Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. However, she is soon at the mercy of intrusive memories of her brother, Joona, whose mental breakdown seems connected to the events of 9/11. Eventually the recollection of the impact of violence on both her family and her boyfriend’s — his father came back from Vietnam a broken man and died in a V.A. hospital — overwhelms her. Anna is forced to try to do the impossible, to break free from her past and develop a less painful identity, one which . . . pardon my psychobabble . . . From the publisher’s jacket copy:

An astonishingly assured and compelling debut, When I Forgot explores the relationship between a sister and her brother, the past that they share, and the painful memories that shape their lives forever.

Anna is on her way to the hospital where her brother has been institutionalized when she falters, and in that pause her world splinters in a blazing display of memory and madness, of childhood security treasured and shattered, and of families blighted by psychological trauma—her brother’s and that of her boyfriend’s father, a Vietnam vet. September 11 serves as a backdrop for the story, and the Finnish perspective on America and its politics is as uncomfortable as it is compelling. 

 


 

the opening pages of elina hirvonen’s when i forgot: 

 

1 

Why I’m happy

I’m happy because I have a steam engine (that works).

I’m happy because I have Daddy Mommy Sister Grandma and got a Stiiga bike for Christmas.

I’m happy because I’m in the science club and when I grow up I’m going to be an inventor and win the Nobel Prize.

I’m happy because I get to live my whole life in free and independent Finland and because my Heavenly Father loves me and takes care of me.

Joona Louhiniitty 3A

 
2

I can make it. This day.

There’s the smell of sun-warmed dog shit and damp earth. A bent woman in winter boots from the eighties and a child in muddied jeans whose tongue darts out around his icecream moustache. There’s the long morning when you don’t
have to look at your watch.

There’s the café where you get old-fashioned coffee and thickly iced mocha squares and where you feel like someone’s just told you a secret. There are the clacking trams and the footdragging kids on their way to school and the grey-headed women who prop each other up as they cross the street. There’s the book I got from Ian. There’s Ian, who loves me.

There’s the book.

There’s the world I am allowed to enter. Three women on a single day in different time periods. The writer Virginia Woolf, who filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the water.

You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight it any longer, I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work.

I’ve read Virginia’s suicide note many times, but keep coming back to it. What did the rocks look like? What was she thinking as she sank under the water? Did she have time, before losing consciousness, to regret what she had done?

 

 

3

 

I first saw Ian three years ago in a university lecture hall. He had been invited from ColumbiaUniversity in New York as a visiting lecturer for the literature department’s Virginia Woolf seminar. Ian was fortyish, but looked older. He was in brown corduroys and an orange-yellow sweater and the same kind of bumpy-soled health sandals that my mother wore when we were small. He stood in front of us looking thin and a bit hunched, a glass of water in one hand and a sheaf of paper in the other, turning his head back and forth looking for a place to set them down.  

The girls in long skirts and the boys who pulled their wispy hair back into ponytails talked loudly about literature (‘Orlando like totally expanded my sexuality, man’) and last night’s party (‘So I wake up on some fucking tech student’s floor and I’m like uh sorry’) and Ian kept saying excuse me, excuse me please to get everybody to quiet down. Finally he set down the glass and the pile of paper, stamped his sandal and shouted ‘Shut the fuck up!’

When Ian started to talk, we were all quiet. He sat on the table, pushed the papers aside, and took a sip of water. His gaze was intense and his voice deep and dark, as if someone were humming quietly just behind his words.

First Ian told us why he became a literary scholar. ‘I’m convinced that it’s important to remember. Only by remembering can we understand something about ourselves. But I happen to have a terrible memory. I wanted to fill in the gaps by stealing from others.’ Ian looked away, took a drink from his glass, and began talking about this dazzlingly intelligent woman who lived a hundred years ago and who wanted to capture even the tiniest movements of the mind, to dive into a person’s inner world in a way no-one had ever done in the history of world literature.

His voice tightened something in my throat. I wanted to raise my hand and tell him that remembering isn’t really all that great. Memory is one of life’s burdens that we can do nothing about. I wanted to stand up, make the note-taking and enthusiastic nods stop and shout that all I want is an escape from memory.

Ian’s face flushed and his hands drew swoops in the air. His hands were thin and his wrists were hairy and I wanted to put my hand there too.


4

The phone rings before I get to the end of Virginia‘s letter.

‘Where are you?’ My mother’s voice as doubting as ever.

‘Transcribing an interview,’ I lie. ‘What?’

‘Don’t get angry. Could you please go see Joona?’

‘I told you already. I want to make up my own mind when to go.’

‘Yes, you told me. But it would mean a lot to Joona if you’d go now. He needs you. To get better.’

Oh fuck off. That’s what I want to say. Fuck off and let me live my own life for once. But you don’t talk like that to your mother. Not any more, now that you’re grown up and living in your own place. Not to the mother who has to care for Joona like some gigantic child. Not to the mother who in her whole life never had a door she could lock against other people’s intrusions.

‘Joona is not going to get better.’

‘He could be less unhappy. He says you don’t care about him any more.’

‘Jesus Christ.’

‘Joona asks about you all the time. What should I tell him?’

‘You don’t need to say anything. I’ll go out there when I get this done.’

He says you don’t care about him any more.

Where does he get off saying that? Where does he get off using a smarmy, crappy, hypocritical word like ‘care’? Caring’s been poisoned by children’s songs and politicians. If only we could all just care about each other we’d all be happy happy happy.

But he’s right, I don’t care about Joona. What I feel for him is something else. Nothing warm or fuzzy or happyhappy. I feel more towards him than anyone else in the world. I wish he would just vanish and I’d never have to remember anything about him.

 

When I was born, the world was already full of Joona. He had golden hair, a bright voice, and a racing car covered with stickers, which he crashed over and over into the yellow painted wall of our room. One day the paint cracked into flaky figures and father locked the car in the attic.

Joona played sad songs on his brown plastic recorder and sat for hours with a picture book in front of him without turning the pages or saying a word. He dreamed of dropping me along with carrots, turnip cubes, and celery stalks into Grandma’s old iron pot and stirring my pink baby flesh into a savoury stew. On bad days he crept over to my white crib and pulled my downy hair out of my head with both hands. On good days he pulled a blanket over the table in our room and we crawled under it to play. We had a torch and mashed banana and played Jonah in the belly of the whale. Joona pulled me into his lap and rocked me back and forth. I imagined behind the blanket a stormy sea, on whose waves our whale would rock up and down for ever.

Joona’s golden hair and ringing voice are my first memories of the world. For a long time I was sure that Joona was the whole world.

On my plate there is a half-eaten mocha square and a ring of coffee left by my cup. The man at the table next to me stares into space and a tram clanks by outside the window. I close the book and run my fingers over its rough cover. I feel like apologizing to the people in the book.


5

When I was five and Joona seven, Father drove into our yard in an old hearse.

We were swinging with my mother. Joona sat alone on one swing and she held me in her lap in the other. When we heard the car horn, all three of us jumped up and ran to see what was happening. The car was big and black. The radiator grille had a big dent in it and someone had drawn a huge peepee in the dirt on a back window. I hoped my mother and father wouldn’t see it. I tried to look like I didn’t notice anything.

Father ran his fingers along the steering wheel. He had rolled the window down and ‘Roadrunner’ was playing on the radio. His hair was messed up in the back, he had unbuttoned his top shirt buttons and golden chest hairs curled up out of the opening. He drummed on the wheel with his knuckles to the beat of the music and smiled so wide his teeth showed. My mother’s hand was hard and tight around mine.

‘Henri,’ she said. She sounded as if she had to make an effort to control her voice. Father closed his eyes and lifted a finger to his lips.

‘Please don’t.’

‘We agreed.’

Father turned the music up and got out of the car. He smelled like he’d been at sea. He came up to us and lifted Joona and me in the air. My stomach flipped over.

‘Let’s go for a ride,’ he said. ‘A spring outing.’

Father pulled Mother close and I got squished in between. Father smelled of sweat and pipe tobacco and Mother of grass and her pink face lotion. Their smells mingled and plunged into me till I felt dizzy.

‘Have dead people driven in that?’ Joona asked. Father said they had. ‘But they’ll be happy to see a smiling boy in the back seat.’ My mother didn’t say anything. She turned away and I cried out, because at that moment I thought she would never come back. But when after a while she returned, she had put on a flowery Marimekko scarf and on her arm she carried a basket she’d bought at the market. In the basket were a bottle of juice, a package of cookies, and sandwiches wrapped in grease-proof paper. We climbed in the car, all four of us, Mother in the front seat next to Father and Joona and I in the back. The car’s leather seats were hot from the sun and stuck to the backs of our legs.

‘Maybe there’s dead spirits in here,’ Joona whispered. I thought of wrinkled old grandmas and grandpas sitting on the seat with us, nodding their tiny shrunken heads and eyeing the other cars for more dead people. The sun shone in through every window and when Joona sat in just the right spot, the peepee on the back window thrust up out of his head like a horn. Mother laid her hand on Father’s thigh and I could see in the rear-view mirror how they both smiled a little. I turned around and knelt on the seat and waved at the bearded man in the car behind us, and laughed when the seat back hummed against my stomach.

We’re a happy family, I thought. It felt like the sentence had flown into my mind from the page of a book. I imagined myself a rosy-cheeked pigtailed girl from a children’s book, off on a huge exciting adventure for which someone had already written a happy ending.

Father drove fast. The front windows were open and an earthy wind blew my hair into my eyes. Mother clung to the hem of her scarf. Father honked his horn as he passed a Volkswagen beetle. The driver showed us his middle finger. Joona responded by making a circle with his thumb and forefinger and pumping his other forefinger through it. I stuck my thumbs in my ears and made a raspberry with my tongue.

‘Henri,’ Mother said quietly when Father passed a carrot-coloured Lada and two other cars. I saw her hand squeezing Father’s thigh so hard her fingers were white. Father put his hand over Mother’s and laughed. ‘Ain’t it great, kids?’ he shouted over his shoulder. We mumbled something, because we didn’t want them to get cross.

Vad i helvetemenar du?’ Mother asked when Father passed a speeding sports car with its windows open and a motorcyclist wearing a leather jumpsuit: What the hell do you think you’re doing? Mother always spoke Swedish when she didn’t want us to understand. My stomach twisted and my skin got goose bumps, even though it was hot. I tried to take Joona’s hand, but he had his clenched in fists and was staring at the back of Father’s neck with a face as blank as a doll’s.

‘I’m enjoying life!’ he shouted as if my mother were a long way away. ‘You should try it some time. Just once!’

Then Father shouted: ‘Shit!’

Glass tinkled.

Mother screamed.

Something went crunch. As if someone had broken a small bird’s neck.

I was on the floor listening to a banging noise coming up out of the car. The carpet smelled like wet dog. Joona breathed warm air onto the back of my neck. I scrunched my eyes shut and waited for someone to come and lift us out.

Mother was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. Father said it wasn’t serious. His shirt front was splotched with blood from her nose. At the top, where the shirt was open, the blood had dyed his chest hairs into reddish-brown clumps.

When the ambulance men helped Mother into the ambulance, he didn’t say anything. I sat on the curb and wrapped my arms around my knees. I didn’t say anything either. Or else I was screaming. I can’t really remember.

‘Mother was just in shock,’ Father said. ‘When she comes back, everything will be like before. She will probably look funny with her nose all bandaged up. But otherwise everything will be fine. Just like before.’

We were sitting at the kitchen table and Father was grilling hot sandwiches. Joona knelt on the chair on his hands and stared at the wall. He hadn’t said a word all evening. Father set the steaming sandwiches in front of us. Ham, pineapple, melted cheese. When Joona picked up his knife to cut into his sandwich, Father grabbed his hand.

‘Let us pray,’ he said. ‘Let us thank the good Lord for watching over us today.’

The chair banged on the floor as Joona jerked his hand away and jumped up from the table. His cheeks were red and he looked at Father as if not really seeing him.

‘What if it wasn’t God?’ Joona asked in a grown-up voice. ‘What if it was the devil going into you and driving like crazy?’

‘What?’ Father said. Red splotches appeared on his neck. ‘What did you say?’

The radio beeped to signal the hour. A piece of paint the shape of a face had flaked off the wall. I took a bite of hot cheese. Tears popped into my eyes. I held the milk glass with both hands and drank. The milk ran cool into my mouth and all the way down to my stomach. It felt as if it were washing me clean on the inside. Washing me away.

—from http://www.tinhouse.com/books/catalog_wif_ex.htm

promotion, friendship, black dogs: personal crap to be mulled over later

the pain never stops… 
and thank god, otherwise i might never know i am alive

promotion

received a promotion at work and sizeable raise — it seems i pass from strength to strength in the working world, even though I am basically sleepwalking through my life (see any novel by hermann broch for more on this theme — better yet, his journals). 

and it seems pointless… i don’t care about the money. my foremost thought is that i’m running out of time.

however, my boss did make an effort to burn my nose hairs with a lighter after i deliberately — and perhaps too obviously — feigned ignorance of basic company policy, so any further accolades may now be delayed.

every once in a while sarcasm exacts its price.

friendship

the other day I saw someone who i once considered a very BFF… quickly averted my eyes and changed course lest angry fireworks be directed my way.

anyway, one day a year or so ago my former friend simply ended our friendship (begging the question of whether it was in fact a friendship or just a way to kill time. 

very weird and sad to suddenly feel once again the… the what? the sting? the sorrow?… the sense of loss, i suppose, occasioned by this highly intelligent and artistic person simply ceasing contact with me for reasons i could never discover.

now i wonder if my interpretation of this person’s actions as deliberate cruelty was a misinterpretation; maybe it was something else, a need to be left alone for a while. conversely maybe former BFF thought the same of my actions, when i was in actuality only trying to find out why the friendship seemed to be on hold, if not over.  

but in trying to force the issue i wound up forcing the person, as it were.  

it was certainly a very bad time for me and my ill feelings may have been directed outward (one shouldn’t drink to excess when ones doctor is changing one’s medications).

weird, too, that something like this only happened to me once before, and since I was a young child i probably forgot all about it in a few weeks. sadly, given my obsession-compulsive tendencies, i will probably ruminate on these issues for years to come, until:

time’s arrow one day hits me dead on the heart, as every wasted chance and lost opportunity come back upon me and i’m too busy looking backwards.

at least i won’t see it coming.

never far from my mind: time and time’s very own BFF, loss, (in the form of lost opportunities & missed chances accumulating behind me, and an ever-narrowing set of options in front of me). would need the pen used by proust on his deathbed to write this down properly — or maybe it’s not proust’s pen but faulkner’s whiskey bottle.

and yet as an adult married male the idea of friendship is typically not something that occupies my mind very often. i have my wife, and I always make friends in the work place with like-minded individuals, but i hadn’t met anyone like this person in years, a genuinely independent-minded person with very real artistic talents — and also capable of sophisticated abstract thought: a combination not found very often in north america.

after this near-encounter i am left with the unpleasant residue of something worthwhile having ended badly and wrongly, through a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications… left with a vast oceanic feeling of deep regret and an even deeper wish that the friendship hadn’t ended. 

on black dogs (mine, not churchill’s)

 it must now be said: Addie (full name Adele Pray Webb-McLachlin , from the book Addie Pray and film Paper Moon) may be the worst dog ever allowed to live.

now ANYONE in my neighbourhood walking a dog will cross the street or run back to their house if they see me and addie coming towards them. 11-pounds of miniature schnauzer! 

the local pitbull who runs around off-leash with total impunity refuses to go within 15 feet of her. 

the 80-pound chocolate lab reverses direction and drags his owner back home if he sees or scents her from 50 yards.  

the recently-immigrated chinese lady living down the street runs along the edge of the park in her heels until she safely is out of Addie’s sight — a good 300 metre sprint in her stilletos!

all of this simply fuels addie’s already rapidly metastizing ego. she knows exactly what effect she has on dogs and people and she relishes every second of it.  

she is possibly the smartest dog i have ever seen. she is totally without fear, but never lacking in a kind of low animal cunning (like george w.?). 

undiluted, uncontainable purity of canine spirit.  

re spirit: paraphrase hegel on napoleon? — "i have seen the world-historical prancing on four paws with maimed squirrel dying in its mouth."

it is quite possible this wholly amoral and self-serving creature represents the way of the future (thomas homer-dixon and robert kaplan)

or maybe she is a doggy myra breckinridge… she does try to hump her brother dexter from time to time. 

dexter seems resigned to the fact that she is here to stay and apparently has forgiven me for ruining his life by adding her to the family.


addie pray, fictional character, and the inspiration for addie pray webb-mclachlin, black schnauzer and obstinate little girl:

the critter herself, incognito:

 

more elegiac feelings american: hart crane looks at a fading past he never knew


"My Grandmother’s Love Letters" was first published in the The Dial in 1920, and included in Crane’s first book of poems, White Buildings (1926).

My Grandmother’s Love Letters

 

There are no stars tonight
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.

There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother’s mother,
Elizabeth,
That have been pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow.

Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.

And I ask myself:

"Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?"

Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.

—Hart Crane, 1899-1932

“on what else would our anguish feed if we did not all feel we had a small part in universal evil?”


Nobel Prize–winner Imre Kertész’s novella The Pathfinder is a haunting story about the psychological dynamics experienced by those who choose to understand and reveal totalitarianism and its legacy—as well as a study in the behaviour of those who ignore, deny and conceal the past. Set in an unnamed middle-European country, a visiting government investigator finds his questions and discoveries lead him more and more into a realm characterized by fear, suspicion, and powerlessness; it is a world resonant with intimations of the barbarism of human agency and the tenuous nature of our efforts to rescue the past from falsehood and oblivion.

Here are the opening pages:

 


Visiting

 

The host—a man with a complicated family name, Hermann by Christian name—was chattering ingenuously; it seems he really did still take his guest to be only a simple colleague, and the latter, puffing on his pipe (a tiresome implement but, it had to be admitted, one that on occasion was quite indispensable) quietly studied his face. He did not see it as anything special: it was the face of a middle-aged man that radiated an untroubled self-confidence, oval in shape, ordinary nose and mouth, brown hair, blue eyes. As yet it was impossible to tell for sure if behind the show of chattering was concealed the usual trickery or merely infantile naïveté; he inclined toward the latter assumption, though in point of fact—he reflected—the difference between the two was negligible. He cast another glance at him: did he really seriously believe he had finally managed to cut the strings? Well, it made no difference; he would soon have to learn that the strings never could be cut and that, like all witnesses, sooner or later he, too, would have to confess.

 

He donated another minute to him, a single minute of unclouded freedom from care. He paid attention to his chatter; he was chattering about his occupation, or, to be more precise, the difficulties of his occupation, with the confidence, if maybe not of an accomplice, then of a colleague, pretending to be immensely concerned on their account—that is to say, pretending to have not a care in the world. Crafty, the guest granted, very crafty; it was not going to be easy to break him, that was for sure. He swept his eyes over the scene: the moment seemed opportune, with the two of them sitting in spruce-green leather armchairs in one corner of the room, behind a coffee table, while in another corner the wives were trying out shoes on each other’s feet, totally absorbed in this female whimsy. Yes, it was time to set to work. 

 

He took the pipe from his mouth and cut him short with calm, premeditated hostility. He then informed him in a single terse sentence who he was and the object of his mission and the investigation that he was to pursue. Hermann turned slightly pale. He soon pulled himself together, though, as was only to be expected: to some extent the unexpected announcement had caught him off-guard, for up till now all the signs suggested that the guest—the colleague—had come to the small town merely on account of the specialist conference that had just ended, as a result of which, offhand, he could not think what to say at this late hour…

 

“And after so many years,” the guest interjected.

 

“Just so! I can’t deny that either,” Hermann responded. “But one thing intrigues me before we go any further: Am I under any obligation at all to answer your questions?”

 

“No,” came the quick answer. “Your own laws are the only ones applicable to you. You should definitely be cognizant of that, and it’s inexcusable of me not to have said so at the start.”

 

Hermann thanked him, he had merely been curious, and now, he declared with a smile, he was ready to give evidence, voluntarily and freely, as his guest could see. True, the guest agreed, though maybe with less appreciation than Hermann, for all his magnanimity, had no doubt been expecting. The guest was evidently of the opinion—surprising self-assurance—that Hermann would give evidence in any event. But that was precisely what was baffling. He asked nothing, just carried on calmly sitting there, sucking his pipe, looking almost bored.

 

Hermann broke the silence a minute later. What, in point of fact, he inquired, would be of interest to his guest? Would he like, perhaps, he pumped further, seeing that the guest was putting off giving an answer, as if he were still weighing something up, to quiz him, Hermann, about some personal questions? Or maybe, he continued with a ready, conciliatory little smile in anticipation of understanding, to ascertain what he, Hermann, knew, and how much?

 

“Well, certainly,” he responded. “Of course, I’d be glad to listen, insofar as you are indeed in the mood to talk about it.”

 

“Why not?” Hermann shrugged. After all, he had nothing to hide. Though it therefore followed, he added, that he did not have much to say either. There was no denying that he had heard about the case. He also knew that it had happened around there. It was painful, still painful, even to talk about it. He personally had not been able to devote much attention to it at the time. He did not wish to burden his guest with explanations, butat any rate he had good reason, at the time, for instance, to say no more; he had still been more or less a child, which was no excuse, of course, merely a circumstance, but it might go some way to explaining it. Even so, naturally, one thing and another had come to his attention. He heard that something had happened, despite the numerous impediments—indeed, it might be true to say that precisely through their conspicuous presence—it had been impossible for a person not to become aware of certain things, albeit involuntarily. Anyone who said any different was lying. However, the details and the scale, which is to say the case itself, had actually only started to assume their true shape later on.

 

At this point, Hermann relapsed into silence for a minute; perhaps to give himself a fixed point to rest on at last, he interlaced his constantly mobile hands, which had been providing a running commentary to accompany everything he said, around a knee that he had pulled up as he sat there, and a quiet popping of his knuckles was clearly audible before he commenced speaking again.

 

He could have done what others had done and just ignored the matter. Who could reproach him for that? But, he carried on, something had given him no respite; something had driven him, troubled him—curiosity, but no, that wasn’t the right word for it, yet this wasn’t the place for being modest, so was it all right for him to speak instead about duty, the agonizing duty of knowledge? He had set about feverish research: he had sought facts, indisputable facts above all, in order to see his way clearly in the matter. He had collected files, acquired evidence, accumulated an entire archive—there were things to show to the guest. All that was missing now was to work up this heap of objective evidence; it was just… Hermann sighed deeply, leaned back in his seat without letting go of his knee, and closed his eyes for a minute as if they were being bothered by the strong lamplight. “It’s just that even with the hypothesizing,” he continued, “we are going a long way, rather too far in fact. One had certain thoughts: one can’t help it. And although those thoughts don’t stem from yourself… it’s just… how to put it? You understand? In other words… there’s something intimidating about this. Something stirs inside… some inner protest… a feeling that I find hard to put a name to offhand… I’m afraid I am not making myself clear enough…”

 

He fell silent again, casting an unsure glance at the guest, and although the latter was careful that no comment of his should exercise any influence, Hermann seemed to have read encouragement from his expression, because he continued:

 

“Perhaps it’s the fact,” he said, “that it’s possible. Yes, the fact that we surmise the impossible, and all of a sudden we gain proof that… that it’s possible. I think,” working himself into a fever, “that I’ve managed to capture that certain feeling.” He leaned forward, very close to the guest, his eyes burning with a strange light, his voice switching to a whisper. “The possibility, you catch my drift? Nothing else, the mere possibility. And that what happens just once, to just one person, has now transcended the frontiers of the possible, is now a law of reality…” He broke off, staring ahead, almost crushed, before again lifting his still slightly troubled eyes to the guest. “I don’t know if you understand what I’m getting at…”

 

“Of course I understand,” the guest nodded. “Thought-provoking and, moreover, probably true, because on what else would our constant anguish feed if we did not all feel we had a small part in universal evil?”

 

“Yes, yes! I see you understand me completely!” Hermann exclaimed, stretching out his hands in sudden delight toward the guest, then, perhaps failing to find the actual target of this exuberant motion, withdrew them: “I’m glad we met, glad you’re here! Indeed, you ought to have come sooner, I’d say!”

 

“That was impossible,” the guest apologized.

 

“There was a lot we needed to talk about, a lot! There was a time when I was very much expecting. . . expecting your arrival virtually any day!”

 

—Imre Kertész, The Pathfinder

(from http://media.npr.org/programs/day/features/2008/oct/pathseeker.pdf)  

 

you can’t go home again, except when reading about it…

André Aciman is a novelist and critic whose works include Out of Egypt: A Memoir, False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory, and the novel Call Me by Your Name. He is also the co-author and editor of The Proust Project and Letters of Transit. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, he has also lived in Italy and France, and now lives in New York. This is an excerpt from an essay which recounts his return to the Roman neighbourhoods of his youth:

 

I learned to read and to love books much as I learned to know and to love Rome: not only by intuiting undisclosed passageways everywhere, but by seeing more of me in books than there probably was, because everything I read seemed more in me already than on the pages themselves. I knew that my way of reading books might be aberrant, just as I knew that figuring my way around Rome as I did would shock the fussiest of tourists.


I was after something intimate and I learned to spot it in the first alley, in the first verse of a poem, on the first glance of a stranger. Great books, like great cities, always let us find things we think are only in us and couldn’t possibly belong elsewhere but that turn out to be broadcast everywhere we look. Great artists are those who give us what we think was already ours. Never mind that we’ve never seen, felt, or lived through anything remotely similar. The artist converts us; he steals and refashions our past, and like songs from our adolescence, gives us the picture of our youth as we wished it to be back then—never as it really was. He gives us our secret wishfilm back.

Suddenly, the insights nursed by strangers belong, against all odds, to us as well. We know what an author desires, what he dissembles; we even know why. The better a writer, the better he erases his footprints—yet the better the writer, the more he wants us to intuit and put back those parts he chose to hide. With the right hunch, you could read the inflection of an author’s soul on a single comma, in one sentence, and from that one sentence seize the whole book, his life work.

 

André Aciman, Intimacy