There was one time in my life when I experienced metamorphosis. Up to that point it had been only a word to me, and when it began, not gradually, but abruptly, I thought at first it meant the end of me. It seemed to be a death sentence. Suddenly the place where I had been was occupied not by a human being but by some kind of scum, for which, unlike in the well-known grotesque tale from old Prague, not even an escape into images, however terrifying, was possible. This metamorphosis came over me without a single image, in the form of sheer gagging. Part of me was numb. The other part carried on with the day as though nothing were amiss. It was like the time I saw a pedestrian, who had been hurled into the air by a car, land on both feet on the other side of the radiator and continue on his way, as cool as you please, at least for a few steps. It was like the time my son, when his mother collapsed during dinner, stopped eating only for the moment and then, after the body had been taken away, went on chewing, alone at the table, until his plate was empty. And likewise I, when I fell off a ladder last summer, immediately scrambled up it again, or tried to. And likewise I myself again, just the day before yesterday, after the knife blade snapped back and almost severed my index finger, revealing all thelayers of flesh down to the bone, while I held the hand under the stream of water, waiting for blood, methodically brushed my teeth with the other hand.
That era of my life was marked by a daily back-and-forth between feeling trapped and serenely carrying on. Neither before nor since have I had hours of such complete peace. And as the days went by, and I, whether panic-stricken or serene, remained focused on what I was doing, in time the "end" that still gagged me now and then was more and more firmly replaced by this metamorphosis thing. Metamorphosis of whom? What kind of metamorphosis? For now I know only this much: at that time I experienced metamorphosis. It proved fruitful for me as nothing else has. For years I have been drawing nourishment from that period, with ever-renewed appetite. For me, nothing can sweep that fruitfulness from the world. From it I know what it is to exist.
But for some time now I have been waiting for a new metamorphosis. I am not dissatisfied with the shape of my days, am even pleased with it. By and large, what I do or leave undone suits me, likewise my surroundings, the house, the yard, this remote suburb, the woods, the neighboring valleys, the railroad lines, the hardly visible and all the more palpable proximity of the great city of Paris down there in the Seine basin beyond the wooded hills to the east. I would like to stay as long as possible in the exquisite stillness here.
With my work, too, my writing, I should like to continue as long as I can, but with a different point of departure. Never again will I return to the law, to which I remain grateful, for the problems it poses have often stimulated my mind, and its thought patterns have in many respects paved the way for the profession of my dreams. I shall go back neither to that water tower in New York, the United Nations, nor to my partner's office, with its view of the vineyards along Austria's Southern Railway.
I would be more likely to put a sudden end to everything here, my living, my writing, my walking. As always, I am tempted not to go on, to break off the game from one moment to the next, and let myselftumble, or run head-on into a wall, or hit the next person I see in the face, or not lift a finger ever again and never speak another word.
My life has a direction that I find good, lovely, and ideal, yet at the same time my ability to get through a single day can no longer be taken for granted. Failing, myself and others, even seems to be the rule. My friends used to comment that I took small things too much to heart and was too stern with myself. I, on the other hand, am convinced that if I had not found, time and again, a new way of covering up my lifelong pattern of failure, but had admitted to it even once, I would no longer exist.
I was already failing long ago, as a young man, whenever I slipped away early from all those social gatherings to which I had looked forward more than anyone far and wide, and my ultimate failure grew out of the notion that my work and my life with others--why do I shrink from using the word "family"?--not only could be integrated with each other but actually belonged together in the best interest of my undertaking. Meanwhile, my house is empty once more, probably for good. I accepted everyone's leaving me, and at the same time I wanted to punish myself. I failed yet again because I did not know, or had forgotten, who I am. Almost fifty-six now, I still do not know myself. And at the same time the wind off the Atlantic has just sliced into the damp winter grass outside my study, which looks out on the yard.
This new transformation should come without the misery. That gagging, two decades ago, which went on for a year, with moments now and then of blinding brightness, should not be repeated. It also seems to me that something like that occurs only once in a lifetime, and the person involved either perishes, body and soul, or shrivels into a living corpse, one of those not uncommon desperadoes--I recognize them by the language they use, and they are near and dear to me--or, of course, he is transformed by it.
At times back then I thought all three had happened to me. After that year I could taste the light as never before, yet I also no longer felt my body, at least not as mine, and I still terrified the world with my old rages, which now, unlike earlier, were ruthless, and at the same time unfounded.
I was afraid the added light had made me lose my diffuse love. On my own I could certainly still be swept with enthusiasm, again and again, helped along by stillness, nature, pictures, books, gusting wind, as well as the roaring highway, and most powerfully by nothing at all, but I no longer took much interest in anything except certain thousand-year-old stone sculptures, two-thousand-year-old inscriptions, the tossing of branches, the gurgling of water, the arch of the sky, or at least I felt it was far too little interest, and far too infrequent.
I hardly lived in my own time anymore, or was not in step with it, and since nothing disgusted me as much as smugness, I became increasingly irked with myself. How much in step I had been earlier, what a fundamentally different sort of enthusiasm I had felt, in stadiums, at the movies, on a bus trip, among complete strangers. Was this a law of existence: childlike being in step, grown-up being out of step?
I enjoyed this being out of step yet longed to be in step; and when the former pleasure actually fulfilled me for a change, I found myself aglow with passion for those who were absent: to validate the fulfillment, I had to share it with them at once and widen it. The joyfulness in me could find an outlet only in society, but in which?
In keeping to myself, I risked withering up. The next metamorphosis was becoming urgent. And unlike that first one, which had sneaked up on me, I would set this one in motion myself. The second metamorphosis was under my control. It would begin not with a narrowing but with my purposeful and at the same time prudent effort to open myself wider and wider. I wanted nothing dramatic, simply a steadiness of resolve that would dictate one step after the other.
Wasn't what I had in mind a simple opening-up? Didn't I see in my imagination a series of doors, which, though closed, would be child's play to open? But easy for me, with all my years?
A scientist has described the state of certain living beings on the verge of their metamorphosis more or less as follows: they stop eating; attempt to hide; rid themselves of all wastes; feel restless.
All that has been true of me, more or less, for quite some time. Disorder and dirt in the house literally bombard me; I hardly get hungryanymore; I no longer merely play at living in hiding; for the time to come, it seems absolutely appropriate. But above all I am restless. In anticipation of that effortless opening of doors in the offing I am strangely restless.
Thus I become aware that my planned undertaking is dangerous. If I fail at widening myself, I will be finished, once and for all. That would mean the end of my homey seclusion; I would have no choice but to get out of here. I would have freedom of movement, of course, but I would no longer have a place of my own.
On the other hand, I have always felt drawn to failures and the down-and-out--as if they were in the right. I see them, from a distance, as positively ennobled; or as if today they alone among us were figures with a destiny. And thus I travel in my dreams to the harbor farthest from the world, dissolved into thin air as far as the others are concerned, a mere breeze brushing their temples.
This morning there was a constant whirring up in the cedar, as if it were already early spring, and yet winter still lies ahead, with its rigid cold, with the pinging of small stones skidding over the frozen woodland ponds, with flashes from the belt of Orion, sweeping all night across the hills of the Seine; though snow would be eventful for this area--the occasional overly thin icicles, with not a trace of snow far and wide, usually congeal from frost on the roofs.
I am determined to pursue this new metamorphosis here, in this landscape, as a permanent resident. I do not know what I need specifically for this enterprise, but certainly not a journey, at least not a long one. That would merely be a form of escape now. I do not want to forget how close beauty is, at least here. This time the departure will be initiated by something other than a change of place. It has already occurred, with the first sentence of this story.
As I turn from the cedar back to my desk, I have before my eyes the empty, creased outline of my rucksack in the corner of the room, almost close enough to touch. But for as far into the future as possible I wantit to remain empty; at the very most I may sniff the inside now and then, trying to pick up, for instance, the scent of that trail that led from the Julian Alps all the way across Yugoslavia to the bay of Kotor. And the sturdy shoes left outside around the house on the stone, wood, and concrete thresholds must weather there, unused, getting stiffer and more brittle with every downpour and drying wind. The laces have long since disappeared, or when I pull on one of the remaining ones, it breaks off. The dead leaves that the wind still stirs up in the middle of January tend to accumulate around the shoes left out there. Their insides are also filled with leaves, and sometimes, when I reach into them or step into them for a short walk through the yard, I expect to find a hibernating hedgehog. Occasionally I go around the house and rub polish into my worn-out mountain, valley, and highland shoes, deep into the cracks, and then make a second round to polish them.
But this story is supposed to focus on me only as one subject among several. I feel compelled to affect my times by means of it. As a traveler today, unlike earlier, I could no longer affect anything. Just as one can exhaust the possibilities of places, regions, entire countries, I have exhausted the possibilities of being on the road, of traveling. Even the idea of roaming, no matter where, without an agreed-upon destination, which in a transitional period offered me something tangible, has closed itself off to me with the passing years. A kind of openness beckons, and not only of late, in the form of staying here in this region.
That does not mean that no reference to travel will be found in my notes. To a great extent this is intended to be a tale of travel. It will even deal with several journeys, future ones, present ones, and, it is to be hoped, still journeys of discovery. True, I am not the hero of these travels. It is several of my friends who will endure them, one way or another. They have already been on the road since the beginning of the year, each of them in a different part of the world, one often separated from the other, as also from me here, by entire continents. Each knows nothing of his comrades, making their way through the world at thesame time. Only I know about all of them, and my spot, downstairs in the study, with the grass almost at eye level--a moment ago, in the mild air, a January bee buzzed over it--is where the news from them comes together and is collected.
Nor do my friends know that I have plans for them; they do not even guess that the fragments from them that find their way to me from time to time, and in the course of the year are supposed to keep flying in this direction, will create news, connections, transcendences, yes, for moments at a time, actual vicarious participation. My friends do not guess that they are on the road for me--one of them does not even know that in my eyes he is on a journey at this very moment--and that I am traveling along with all of them, from afar.
Such vicarious traveling forms part of the widening that I, while remaining a permanent resident here, have planned for myself and for this region. A conventional rally brings people from all directions to a central point at a specific time. This will not be that sort of rally. And yet I have in mind for my undertaking a kind of rally that will reveal itself as such in the end. This is to be a story about my region here and my distant friends. Yet I am not even certain whether this is my region, or whether those travelers are my friends.
As a rule, in the past I was able to accompany in my thoughts only those distant friends who were off on a journey, preferably a crucial one. Seriously intending to reach a destination was what I considered a journey, and only that. The person in question could not simply take off; he had to set out. Being on the road this way could be replaced only by work or activity. Engaged in any other way, at home, in their accustomed routines, my people could easily cease to exist; I lived pretty much without them. If I was still their friend under such circumstances, it was an unfaithful friend. And I hardly ever saw the other person surrounded by the aura of adventure if, instead of staying behind and watching from afar, I actually set out with him, even if to the islands at the end of the world. So doesn't my gift for sympathetic vibration at a distance actually result from an incapacity for presence?
What a pleasure it is at any rate: while I sit here at my desk on yet another new morning, watching the droplets of rain from the night before on the needles of the spruce outside my window, at the same time I am on the road in northern Japan with my friend the architect, who calls himself a carpenter, after the trade he learned first.
He got up very early and, the only foreigner in the hotel, like the other guests ate dark soup and a piece of greasy eel down in the labyrinthine basement. Out on the streets of Morioka, which stretched across the broad valley ringed by hills, there were large hummocks of glare ice, old and black with dirt. The snowy massif, visible in a gap between the hills, rising in one fell swoop from its base to its peak, looked in spite of the distance somewhat like a city on a hill.
The architect walks along without a plan; one will take shape in the course of the day and with the still-unexplored environs. He is merely flirting with getting lost, as he did yesterday farther south in Sendai and a week ago on the mountainous paths of the national park south of Nara, and the sight of this urban area, in which even here in the desolate north every corner is built up (passages of only a hand's breadth, hiding places for cats, have been left between the houses as earthquake protection), gives him the first impetus for this day's excursion or for the rest of his journey: to find a no-man's-land, however tiny, in this Japanese plain, linked together into an unbroken surface for habitation or cultivation. A no-man's-land could comfort him as the rising of the moon might comfort another.
It is easy to get lost in a Japanese city, even in Morioka, which is not exactly old, and with this in mind the architect moves with increasing zest through this regional metropolis in which suburban street follows suburban street, and I accompany him. I can feel him better from afar. If I were eye to eye with him, his appearance and his manner would perhaps distract me from him. In his absence I forgot every time what he was like; only his essence counted, free of characteristics and idiosyncrasies.
If he then appeared in flesh and blood, I was distracted as always--in the meantime I had merely forgotten it--by his skimpy mustache, which drooped over his lips; I was shaken out of my equanimity by the way he walked a few steps ahead of me; it even took my breath away that he was next to me, around me, present.
Was I better off altogether at a distance? Was this the only way I could save my breath for the others?
Alone with a friend, unlike with a woman, I often felt out of place, even if I had been full of pleasure when I set out to join him. At the sight of him, I looked in another direction. Something jolted me out of my enthusiasm for the other person and turned my head. (According to one of her friends, the poet Marina Tsvetayeva, whose home in exile during the thirties I recently passed on a side street in this area, is supposed to have shown him only her profile when he was around.)
In the other person's company it seemed to me time and again that our friendship had no basis. Maybe love was also a swindle, but a tangible one, whereas friendship was an illusion? After talk of friendship didn't one often hear, from a mouth that spoke the truth, the observation that he had no friend: "My only friend is dead," or "My best friend was my father," to which the others had nothing more to say?
I, too, was so overwhelmed at some moments by the thought that twosomeness among friends rested on complicity and was sheer illusion that I had to pull myself together so as not to see grounds for a squabble or even a schism in every comment made by the person I happened to be with. One time I let something of the sort slip out, and a friendship ended on the spot. If it had been love, the end would at least have been drawn out. Here there was not the slightest hesitation. We immediately burned all bridges. It was as if we had both been waiting for a sign before putting an end to our game of lies. Enmity broke out between us like that between two leviathans, even more powerfully from his side than from mine.
But wasn't it more than simply our loneliness that had previously attracted us to each other? And why did this kind of falling-out never threaten us when we were in a group? Why, when it detoured through other people, did our friendship cease to be something flimsy, proving instead heartwarming, cheering, for instance in a glance exchanged over the shoulder of a third party, in our simultaneous noticing of the same detail, in a common determination to overlook or overhear something unpleasant? Also, when in the midst of hustle and bustle one merely sensed the presence of the other person, an exchange would take placebetween us friends, by roundabout ways, past the heads and bodies of the others, of events, sights, sounds. Such experiences helped me grasp Epicurus' epigram, "Friendship dances rings around the human world."
In this connection a little parable (which does not quite fit, and is not meant to): In the forest that extends westward from Paris over the hills of the Seine to Versailles, there used to stand, in the clearing of the Fontaine Ste.-Marie, an old dance hall from the turn of the century, where, in cages stacked one on top of the other, the proprietor of the inn next door raised birds for participation in international competitions. While their singing and their colors were of great importance, it was primarily the bearing of these altogether tiny creatures, particularly that of neck, head, and beak, that counted. The most showy color, the finest voice was not enough; what made the difference was the way the bird turned its head. A bird could be considered for a prize only if its body, neck, and beak did not form a straight line, and also only if it did not suddenly break into song. Singing to another bird could not be done directly; a crook, a bend, a curve, was required, and one that aimed slightly past the other, out into space. Deviation, along with this slight oblique turn, was right, and also beautiful. As he showed me through the shed and explained the rules of competition, the breeder pointed out to me the many incorrigible birds who burst out in song, and their directness actually did strike me as crude and inappropriate. It was unacceptable. Then my patron removed the cloth from his champion's cage. The bird was no larger, more colorful, or more elegant than his fellows. But when his master positioned himself in front of him, he stood up straighter, and his neck and head formed a bent arrow, with the beak as its point. The arrow was aimed a few degrees away from the man, and at the same time slightly upward. Although the bird, unlike those around him, remained silent, he seemed to be singing. Or is it only my imagination that now makes it so?
The older I became and the farther I moved from my native region, the more it meant to me to be among friends now and then. The clan from which I come has almost completely died out, and my own small family, which the dreams of my youth conceived or conjured upfor me, has fallen apart; at the same time I cannot even muster the certainty that I have failed.
To be united with my friends, not merely with one of them, but with several at the same time, preferably with all those who have been scattered to the winds, has meanwhile become my highest goal, aside from reading and writing. But I must not be the focal point; none of us should be that, and this also entails meeting in a place equally familiar or strange to each.
In poem after poem, Friedrich Hölderlin, in an era that was probably not much rosier than mine, could as a rule call as many as three things "holy." In my story that adjective would have a place at least once: for our rare celebrations of friendship. Each time--and often years intervene--I feel more moved by such gatherings, most of which have a prosaic purpose. Earlier, when I still felt attention directed at me, I would acknowledge it with an abnegating gesture, breaking the existing harmony by employing a counterspell. Now, when none of us any longer is at the center of attention, I gaze into the circle and would like to lift up my voice when the moment comes.
I would probably have less to say explicitly than any of the others. I would begin humming, would fall silent in the middle, and, like one of the singers from that flamenco family on a street corner in the mountains of Andalusia, gaze about wordlessly. And like that time in Baeza, someone else would take up the arabesque and carry on the sound, narrating more thoroughly than I, and more sonorously, for the continuation would issue from the throat and thorax of my friend who is a real singer (at the moment on his way through the wintry darkness of Scotland, by the bay of Inverness, where the buoys bobbing up and down are the heads of a herd of seals, he is trying out the lyrics of what he calls his "last song").
Yet as of today the proper moment for me to lift up my voice has not come; or I have missed it every time. And later the sense of being deeply moved left me. Things between us could even become dangerous again?
The earth has long since been discovered. But I still keep sensing what I call in my own mind the New World. It is the most splendid experience I can imagine. Usually it comes only for the flash of a second and then perhaps continues to glow dimly for a while. I never see visionsor phenomena with it. (Inside me is distrust toward all those vouchsafed illumination without its being a necessity.) What I see as the New World is everyday reality. It remains what it was, merely radiating calmness, a runway or launchpad from the old world, marking a fresh beginning.
"The swamps of mysticism must be drained!" someone said in a dream. "And what will we do without the swamps?" someone else replied. That new world may have appeared to me earlier as a revelation, as a second world, the other world. Meanwhile, now that I am waiting for that moment, it brushes me almost daily, as a particle of my perception, and its space flight, followed by stocktaking and reflection, merely indicates that for the moment I am in a good frame of mind. Birds flying in a triangular formation can thus become two airy balls in my armpits.
Often the New World reveals itself in an optical illusion, which makes me perceive this mast not as an object but rather as the space formed by it and the other mast. And the New World wafts toward me less from nature than from a place with human traces. No-man's-land, yes: yet as I pass by, a brush fire is burning there, the branches freshly shoved together. A plank on a garbage heap. A ladder leaning against an embankment. A spanking new house number on a shanty. A stack of abandoned beehives on the edge of a forest in winter.
The special thing about such a New World is that it presents itself as completely, unmistakably there, and at the same time as not yet entered by anyone. But it can and will be entered! The New World has simply not been penetrated yet, made known, has not become general property. And one person alone with it does not count. And at all events access to it must be created, and is sorely needed. The New World can be discovered. Why else did I see those who would bring it to light neither as dreamers nor as fantasts but as craftsmen and engineers? What was keeping them?
Sometimes I am on the verge of saying that this pioneer world that reveals itself to me, more and more as I get older, glimpsed in passing and even more often in a glance over my shoulder, ready for my, and our, breakthrough, is not new, but rather the eternal world.
If indeed eternity, however, it would not be something that is always the same. It would have changed over the course of history, would havebecome more inconspicuous, would no longer form a consistent whole, would instead be taking place somewhere off to one side, more distinct in its remoteness--though not too much so--than in the middle of things. It seems to me as if the New or the Eternal World has its history as well.
I do want to stick with "new" after all. I had my New World experiences in the last few years not only with pieces of equipment and no-man's -landscapes but also with people. But there they occurred less often and also took a different course. They began splendidly like the other kind, yes, even more splendidly, and in the end they made me miserable. I learned that it was both natural and right to be with certain other people. I had already had this thought earlier: with my wife, with my son. (The former has disappeared, the latter has become a distant friend, just now on the road between Yugoslavia and Greece.)
In every case it had been a single person, or a twosome. It was true that mankind had always counted for me, yet never as a belief, rather as a source of powerful emotion that could not be eliminated by any rational measures. In the meantime it has ceased to be a question of any sort of belief in mankind. It is that rational New World of which I become aware in glancing over my shoulder.
From an exchange of glances a couple of weeks ago with a cashier at the shopping center up on the plateau I learned how extraordinary it was to be fond of someone else, an unknown person--and how natural it seemed at the same time. In harmony with oneself, with a thing, with a space, with an absent person: that's fine with me. But nothing could surpass the harmony I was feeling now with the person across from me. The difference was that, in contrast to perceiving the New World in a landscape, I now went on without air in my armpits. To be sure, I viewed permanence with one person and another as the ne plus ultra, and that no longer merely moved me. It was overwhelming. But the experience tore me apart. For one side of me felt excluded from something at which quite a few apparently succeeded. I shied away from happiness in a communal setting, out of a sort of fear of annihilation. Hence also the rareness of such New World moments with my contemporaries and the lack of consequences, because they occurred not with my friends but almostexclusively with unknown passersby? I began to wonder whether this meant that my end was near.
Didn't I decide to be a marginal figure in this story?
The heroes were supposed to be the others, the architect, who, searching in Morioka in northern Japan for an unbuilt-up piece of land, slithers over the hummocks of ice; the singer, just now caught in a winter storm that keeps flipping over the map in his hands as he makes his way to the prehistoric stone monument in a meadow behind a farm up in the hills to the south of Inverness; my son, who just came of age, and, after his year as a volunteer with the Austrian mountain troops and after soon-interrupted university studies in history and geography, is working at odd jobs, the day before yesterday as a builder's helper, yesterday morning as a language instructor, last night as a tile layer in a Viennese café, this morning, on his first journey undertaken alone, sitting on one of the limestone blocks that line the harbor basin in Piran, Slovenia; the woman I consider my special friend, who set out a week ago, unaccompanied as usual, on an excursion that will take her on foot and by boat from bay to bay along the southern coast of Turkey; the priest from the far-off village where I was born, who still makes his rounds in that same area, a traveler only in my eyes; my friend the painter, about to shoot his first film on the meseta, in Spain; and that is not quite all of them.
In the books I have written since giving up the legal profession, the hero is more or less me myself. If I reached people that way, I was successful only because I was a character in a book.
Whenever I have wanted to be a protagonist in life as well, I have not managed to sustain the role. Time and again I have thought I could pull it off and made the attempt: as captain of my school team, as a speaker in the student senate, as a defense attorney in criminal court, then as the only diplomat who publicly spoke out, abroad, against his highest superior, the federal president; and likewise as a lover, at times even as a womanizer, then husband, father, builder, gardener, vineyard owner. In every case, after a more or less promising beginning, I fairlysoon fell out of character. As a hero or man of action, after the first surge of activity I became a charlatan. I stopped the play, which I had initiated with the best intentions of living life completely. I am too impulsive to be a protagonist in society. As a hero in everyday life I am a public menace. When I confront my past as an activist I see over here a house in ruins, over there a neglected plot of land, perhaps also a betrayed soul, maybe even a dead victim. In my writing, where I could shut myself off from the others, and as the hero of my books, I could act differently, above all more reliably, and there I was primarily and ultimately a danger only to myself. Interestingly enough, I often received the most positive reaction for my equanimity.
Yet I now think I am finished with myself, at least as far as stories are concerned. I have hardly anything left to tell about myself, and that I consider progress. So I note the following: if you are looking for a person to assume a major role in the community, I am out of the question, and I am out of the running for the time being as the central character in my narratives. In life, the proper place for me is that of an observer, and in my writing I want to posit myself less as an actor than before and function first and foremost as a chronicler, chronicling both the year in this region here and my friends far and wide beyond the hills, and I want to preserve the chronicler's distance and tone in regard to myself as well. My decades of working with legal texts, especially the most ancient ones, like those of Roman law, will guide me and trace the line I must follow.
But who knows? I really want to be decisive, yet already questions are cropping up. Wasn't it possible for observation to be a form of action as well? Something that affected what happened and even transformed it? Wasn't a certain observer also a possible hero? Hadn't I learned, either through directing my gaze at someone, or experiencing someone's gaze on me, that looking could avert an act of violence, could let the air out of a scream, bring a toy to life, turn a joke into something serious, blow away a delusion, eliminate a reason for depression? I once saw such agaze captured in faces painted by Giotto: narrowed, very elongated eyes, as if they were merely glancing at what was happening and at the same time intimately participating in it. Such observation would impose shape, impart rhythm, cast light.
And hadn't it been known to happen that observation led to something's being created, an object, an other, a connection, even a natural law? And how far did I get recording such a thing in a reportorial style? How adequate was the language of the chronicler to capturing his own involvement or his possible initiating role? No matter how comprehensive the Latin network of codicils appeared to me, airtight and yet applicable with the lightness of air to all the vicissitudes of life: could the precepts of an imperial legal system also provide a model for my present plan of writing?
I have already touched on this: when I glance behind me, I see a thing differently than if I were looking at it head-on. For a long time in my life this looking behind me always occurred abruptly. I hardly ever took in more than a distorted image.
It was different when women turned their heads sometimes, on a street. Women glanced over their shoulder so naturally; it seemed to suit them. Their beauty became accessible as a result. What emanated from their glance was not so much a provocation as serenity, or a line traced in the air.
Twice a story resulted. The first one came about on the great drawbridge in Maribor, with the woman who in the meantime is my special friend from afar; the other during my time in America on a windy street in El Paso with the woman who then became my wife, whom our son calls "your woman from Catalonia," and whom I, wherever she may be at the moment, consider (under certain circumstances) my enemy. The woman from Catalonia continued to glance behind her long after we had ceased to be strangers--on many streets, bridges, landings, wood roads. And when her glance fell on me, I always swore anew to take it as the measure of all things, not to let myself be dissuaded from considering itthe only one that counted in all our other moments. This woman's glance behind her seemed so joyful to me, so kind, so innocent, so original, so refreshing.
In the meantime I myself am the only one looking over his shoulder. Starting with the period when I renounced a life of action, I even cultivated this habit, and I now practice it purposefully. A glance to the side glides into a turn to the rear hemisphere. From a certain degree on, my head-turning is feigned, but so unobtrusively that if bystanders happen to be looking they miss it.
With moments like this I hope to achieve something, and when my excessive consciousness does not spoil the game for me, I do succeed. First of all, so long as it is peacetime, objects light up as they never would if viewed frontally. It is an inner light that provides shape and focus. In this way I impose a pattern on clutter, whether of underbrush or buildings. And the pattern is set in motion. Along with the pattern I derive a theatrical spectacle from this behind-the-back world.
Time and again I find myself surprised by the richness that exists in places where there is very little to see, or nothing but air. The spectacle fills me with amazement; "Oh!" is often my only thought about something seemingly not worth mentioning in the countryside behind me. Or I think, as I become aware of a group of trees, a cluster of roofs--these things seem to have gathered in as close as if they had crept up on me and were waiting to take me by surprise--like an athletic coach: "So: you're all here. Come on, guys, let's move it!"
Since I began to deny myself any social life, this has become a feature of my activity, a part of my day.
Yet not every world landscape lends itself to this kind of observation, adopted with the intention of setting something in motion, not by a long stretch. My landscape here, which I have known now for twenty years, nestled between the heights of the Seine, separated from Paris by a wooded chain of hills, is suitable, I would assert. Whenever I glanceback at its features, what emanates from them I always see anew as the "glow of the reverse colors."
Despite my familiarity with this countryside, acquired in the course of daylong walks--dreaming and walking, my motto--from suburb to suburb, over hill and dale, across highways and railroad tracks, I still know hardly anyone, still have no friend in the département, which stretches in the form of a half-moon around the western half of Paris, from Bourg-la-Reine and Fontenay-aux-Roses in the south all the way up to Asnières and Clichy in the north--except perhaps for the so-called petty prophet of Versailles-Porchefontaine, who sometimes provides my rest stop behind the next chain of hills.
To give a sense of the effect of such a glance, no longer that of a participant but that of an observer, on people, on strangers, I must move from my Roman-law generalizations to narration. This has been waiting inside me, in my fingers, my knees, my shoulders, from the beginning, and has already begun tuning up now and then.
A few weeks ago, after just such a day of walking, I took the local bus home; it goes from Jouy-en-Josas in the Bièvre Valley across the plateau of Vélizy to the upper valley here.
In my younger days I was a friend to strangers, to passersby, to cross-country travelers. I felt I belonged among them; I was in love with them, with their faces, their bodies, their silhouettes. In the meantime I have to fight my inclination to find any and all strangers ugly and repulsive at first sight, even children. There is no longer any ideal that guides me, and yet I miss having one, as if without it my activity cast no light, and if my publisher had not talked me out of it, my last book would have had "loss of images" on the title page. Especially in late afternoon on my long days, an hour arrives when, dizzy from all the paths and places, I see the faces of others approaching like the masks of automatons, and my own face matches theirs. Even our outlines and shadows appear utterly shapeless. Only a dead, stillborn mankind appears to me, wretches who provide no sense of a path to follow.
On that evening bus trip when, on the plateau of Vélizy, in accordance with my daily observation practice, I almost unconsciously turned toward the people behind me, I finally managed to see people as distinct again.In turning my head I got away from judging and condemning. My era, my enemy: this thought, which had been solidifying in my mind with the passing years, lost its content. At that moment no era mattered, or only all eras together: through the faces behind me I gazed into a primeval time, and simultaneously into a new time. Even though nothing connected the passengers to each other, my glancing back created unity among them. Although none of them seemed conscious of it, it was no fantasy. It would have faded into one if I had approached them now with these tidings of joy. (My friend the singer repeatedly did something of the sort during one period of his life: he would appear before a random gathering of people to sing them awake, and as a rule each one would stare all the more fixedly into his corner, and a certain Pentecostal spirit would arise only if he broke off his song and pelted them with curses.) I certainly felt a wave of feeling sweeping me toward those people, but at the same time some instinct kept me at a distance. "That's it!" I merely thought, and then: "That's how it is." And further: "You should not try to do anything with it, just go off to your corner now and tell about it, and--since oral narration has never worked for you--in writing." And further: "The faces of strangers, the most reliable source of pleasure."
What was there to tell specifically? It was already dark on the plateau. It was raining. The windows of the bus were steamed up. The passengers were of all ages and yet seemed of the same age. That had to do with their eyes, which my gaze took in all at once, in the shadowy light back to the very rear of the bus. My fellow passengers were outlines, with eyes in them, as if scratched by a blade into the otherwise indistinct faces, there in full, like a flock of birds jam-packed into a certain tree or a lone bush.
And then the bus came downhill from the plateau through the forest into the valley and stopped at the station with connecting trains to Paris and Versailles. We got out in the rain, and each disappeared, after thanking the driver--as they do in the country--into the various suburbs, barely lit, in contrast to the city of light behind the chain of hills.
Other than that I have nothing to tell about this event. And at the same time I feel an urge to start telling it again, to find a new rhythm, or even just a single new word.
That is how it has always been for me. I was sure of having somethingoriginal on the tip of my tongue. And the only thing I could think of was: portraying it. And then all that would appear was a deserted street, a bus passing, a gust of wind. A flood of words, hesitation, nothing more to tell, the story at an end; I tried again, then again, and again.
Maybe that took a toll on me earlier. In the meantime I have come to accept it. My habit of winding up, grinding to a halt, starting from scratch, is all right by me. If I am a stutterer, at least I am a self-aware one.
And come to think of it, my friends who are to appear in this narrative are all stammerers: the singer, but also my son, the priest, the architect or carpenter, also my woman friend (less so the painter, who now joins this company for the first time, to narrate with his film, and even less the friend who right now is tracing the stations of my "writer's tour" through wintry Germany, the reader).
From the very first word, I believed in their way of telling stories. Perhaps that is also why I see them all gathered far away from here. Tell stories, my friends, but don't tell histories, at least nothing from world history, don't reproduce world history. Tell me prehistories, which then turned out to be all there was. Hesitate, or bungle, take wrong turnings over and over again; perhaps in this way I will develop an ear for the tensions in your stories that the prettied-up world histories do not have, at least no longer have nowadays, not since War and Peace. And thus I also notice that you, in this respect unlike most of my earlier friends, who long since stopped needing anything, still need something, and for that reason, too, are my friends.
I want to try again with the people on the suburban bus that evening. No, I did not see any universal law in effect. It even seemed that the darkness, not only around the passengers, but also in the faces themselves, grew deeper each time I glanced back. The common element that emanated from all of them was a desolation in which I could detect a still-unidentified tremulous patience. This story had to continue.
And in fact didn't it then continue? At the open-air stand in front of the railway station an adolescent was buying a few things for supper, and every time he asked for an item, he added, "For me and my mother!"until the woman behind the counter corrected him: "For my mother and me!"
And before I went into the nearby Café des Voyageurs as always, I looked up into the plane tree that during the winter months served the sparrows on the square as a sleeping place, the same birds' sleeping tree for all these years; at night the sparrows roosted only in this one, although the square in front of the station is ringed with trees, and not far beyond the embankment crowned with lindens begin the wooded hills whose trees extend almost down to the houses, an upland forest of oaks and narrower edible chestnuts: the proprietor of the Voyageurs, whose upper stories are a hotel for itinerant workers and salesmen, called "sales representatives," says the plane tree became the sleeping tree because of the warmth escaping from his heated hotel rooms. In any case, at night I have never seen a single sparrow in the other trees on the square, or only briefly, for a moment, chased away by the large crowd nearby, because it was disturbing their peace.
And on this rainy evening there was a gleam of wetness through the entire tree, both on the stumpy sparrow beaks and on the black, shriveled round pods of the plane tree from the previous year, yet only the latter, hanging by threads, moved, swayed, swung: the sparrows, even on the thinnest twigs, kept completely still, and had I not known that they were assembled there, their pale gray bodies would have merged with the blotches on the tree's bark, which resembled them in form and coloration. And later at the bar I succumbed to the temptation to repeat my glance from the bus with the others standing there: nothing. And even later the patron behind the counter taped shut with adhesive tape the mouth of someone who was getting obstreperous. And in the brightly lit trains passing up above on the embankment silhouettes sped by, fewer and fewer. And on the way to my house a neighbor's wolfhound, locked in the garage, was hurling himself as usual against the steel door.
And then I ate in the kitchen and listened to the news on the radio. And toward midnight--it had stopped raining and a warm wind was blowing--I went out and sat in the yard, at a distance from the house, where I had turned on the lights, and let the music from Radio Beur,the station of the North Africans in Paris, drift out through the open kitchen window, as I had done the night I moved in here, even then at a distance from the house, in the farthest corner of the yard. From the other houses, long since dark and wrapped in wintry silence, came through the often very narrow gaps that separated them the rustling of the forest, or it was the wind in the cedar right next door, pretending to be the growling of a forest. And the business with the bus continued to stir me. This was not like we-experiences: I did not feel torn between my longing to merge with the others and my congenital inability to do so. Here I was the observer, and could say "we" only from the sidelines. Observing was my project. And it was a big project. Never again could I let myself get involved in action, or in any action but observing and elaborating upon it. Wasn't it also a fact that dreams in which I myself was the hero had become increasingly rare? Even as a dreamer I had been transformed from a figure in the plot to a witness. As such I was not helpful to anyone, true, but I knew that I was active. And that night in my backyard was not the first time this became clear to me--and why had I drifted away from this insight every time and aimed for a fatally wrong target, whether as a lawyer in court or as an author of articles who believed he could make history as Emile Zola once had? Would I betray my realization this time, too? Where would I go shooting off to in my next hotheadedness, deluded anew that this action was something that would last? And didn't I think at the same time that my very own life, in all its uneventfulness, was my only basis for pathos?
It had always been night in those hours when I participated purely as an observer, deep night.
Here in this remote suburb, where there is no theater, also no longer a movie house, the local weekly reports that an association has formed whose program calls for something known as "The Night of the Storyteller."
I do not know what form this takes, and plan to attend at least one such night in the course of the year. But the very expression brings back to me a whole succession of nights in my life. I am thinking less of evenings in late autumn in my grandparents' barn, where half the village would gather on benches and milking stools to husk corn and would goaround the circle clockwise telling story after story until far into the night. The nights of the storyteller I am thinking of were by and large silent, although there, too, each time a more or less large company was sitting or standing around.
That was true a few years ago of an evening with two friends in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. On a trip, of which I was not yet certain where it would lead me, I had invited the painter and the reader there for my fiftieth birthday. The painter flew in via Belgrade from Perpignan, where he had one of his studios in the nearby Pyrenees. The reader had traveled parallel to me, through Italy, down the eastern coast as I was going down the western coast of Yugoslavia, like me by train and bus, and had then taken a boat in Rimini straight across the Adriatic to Split, hot on my trail by that time, but then, in his usual way, had done the last part on foot, so that I could be alone on the morning of my birthday, as I had requested.
I would have remained alone until evening if the reader and I had not been drawn to the same part of Dubrovnik at the same time, outside the city walls. Where we ran into each other by chance, there was nothing but an open stony field, high above the little fortified city on the sea in its shell-shaped hollow. I found myself driven there by thoughts of my mother, who had spent the last summer of her life in this area, sickened by the heat and yet out walking every day, leaving the shade of the town for the countryside, for the goat and chicken sheds in the middle of nowhere, for the stone walls, for the sparse grassy triangles where roads crossed. The ocean down below had merely blinded her, and the islands meant nothing to her, unlike me. The shrill sound of the cicadas tormented her ears. The light of the limestone karst raged. By a doorpost, all that remained of a house, autumnal sky-blue like the background of the Slovenian roadside shrines, she breathed a sigh of relief in passing. His eyes wide, a wooden cudgel over his shoulder, a native came toward me; at second glance I recognized the reader. At least I had been in Dubrovnik before and could then play the role of host in the courtyard of the most obscure tavern. At that very place the painter later hunted us down, coming straight from the airport. He stood between us, without a word, and him, too, I at first took for a local.
That evening each of us did open his mouth now and then, but for the most part we remained silent. And precisely that was the night ofstorytelling. One incident followed the other without need for words. From the darkness outside only a breath reached us; the deeper the night became, the richer in material. More than listening to such storytelling, we sat through it. We did look around again and again, get up, go outside, leaving the others alone for a while, but the most active element in that night was the blackness. I had never seen the black of night so full of color, and seldom a color so massive, and in the same breath so fragrant. It had often made me suspicious when the painter came out with his dictum about black's being the richest of the colors, interacting with light. Now, long after midnight, also long before the first birdcalls, no moon, no stars, I perceived the blackness as the color of a first-day fruit.
It was winter, rainy along the southern Adriatic coast, mild. The late night was windless. We had not stayed in Dubrovnik. I had invited my friends to Ston, a village on the tongue of land toward Korcula. There were the saltworks on one side, on the other, in a bay, man-made oyster beds, with a restaurant adjacent. The previous morning, having gone out there by bus, I had looked into the particulars, and now I guided the painter and the reader from place to place. The table by the bay was set, the white cloth a rarity for Yugoslavia. We had come by taxi; the driver sat at a table at some distance, he, too, having Dalmatian wine and oysters, a common and inexpensive meal in that area. The shells were hardly larger than a coin, and the oyster flesh was correspondingly tiny, yet firm.
Although it was my special day, I set out a present for the others, the same thing for both, a wooden box carved and painted by Albanian craftsmen in Kosovo, purchased the week before in the Croatian town of Zadar, filled with the coarse gray crystals of unrefined sea salt, mixed with sand and autumn leaves, gathered from a pile in the middle of the saltworks, shut down for the winter. The painter stood up and handed me a collection of dull black pencils, all of them already started by him, with dabs of paint on them, for the rest of my journey, so that I could draw in my notebook, for he said he found it unfortunate that I had stopped. And the reader, too, stood up and gave me a book he had printed himself: the notes he had recently discovered, made by a stonemason on a trip between Souillac, Cahors, and Moissac in France aroundthe middle of the twelfth century, in that transitional period between the Romanesque and the Gothic style. The notes were in Latin, true, but having to decipher something, reading a text that did not flow smoothly, always had an animating effect on me; and this commentary dealt with something that might apply to me. It was this remark in particular that caused me to carry the little book around with me without reading it: it scares me off when I am told something seems made for me, and only now do I sense that the time may have come for the stonemason's story.
It was much later when the night outside, silent as it was, became so overpowering around the village of Ston, about twenty kilometers from Dubrovnik in the big country of Yugoslavia. Here a verb suggests itself, a somewhat odd concept, yet it imposes itself on me. What did the night do? It surged, it surged over us: the surging night. The hill by the bay was girdled by medieval ramparts, which because of their length and breadth, up and down around the mountainous fortress, was called the Chinese Wall (of Ston). This wall now seemed close to where we were. It was the same with the row of spruce on the saltworks dam farther away, on the other side of the hill. The trees' needles rustled, and the heaps of salt at their feet glistened; a tipped-over wheelbarrow was covered with salt, except for the rusty wheel.
And meanwhile on the gleaming cobblestones of the Stradun, the main street of Dubrovnik, the local residents were still promenading, with the place to themselves now in winter. For the participants in this regular evening corso there was an invisible demarcation line toward both ends of the broad street--or square?--at which every stroller who had not yet done so would pivot. In the course of this parading back and forth by the population, not at all casual but downright energetic, no one continued on to the ends of the Stradun, unless he disappeared completely from the mass, heading home, or elsewhere. But anyone who kept parading made an abrupt turn at that demarcation line, swerving his entire body, leading with the shoulder. The majority swerved long before, those who were arm in arm swerving all at once, as if on an inaudible command, heading back in the opposite direction; even groups taking up the whole width of the street turned this way, magically. The few who continued on to the end seemed for those few steps like sleepwalkers.But at the last moment, within a hair's-breadth of the imaginary boundary, even the solitary stroller or scuffer would wheel around like a swimmer at the end of a lane. The city elders joined the procession, calmly and deliberately, and the most relaxed and dancerlike ones were the children; they had the pirouette at the turn in their blood. In these hours leading up to midnight no one made a false step, none of those strolling up and down missed the turning point. Several people in uniform mingled with the crowd, also a Catholic priest, sailors, an idiot, whose siblings held him by the hand; and not even he lagged behind in the loop. Down by the harbor the cars came rolling out of the belly of the last ferry from the islands. On the night plane to Zagreb sat a Croatian basketball team, almost the only passengers, after their training camp in Dubrovnik. The tallest of the players, also the team captain, sat next to his Serbian wife, who years before had been Miss Yugoslavia.
The waitress and cook of the Ston restaurant had gone home and had left the back door open for us; it would lock by itself. What distances could be opened up simply by such a going to a door in this Yugoslavia. The night light was sufficient for us. The taxi driver was asleep outside in his Mercedes, bought with his factory earnings when he was in Germany. When we finally climbed in, someone roused himself way in the back of the car. It was one of the workers from a construction company with branches all over Yugoslavia that was building a hotel on the bay. He had just been informed that his father had died, far down in the south, in a village in the mountains of Montenegro, and he asked to be allowed to go with us to catch the first bus from Dubrovnik to Titograd. Along the way he told us his father had died suddenly, of a heart attack, a construction worker like him, forty years old. Since the son did not seem that much younger, he was asked his age. He was twenty-five; when he was born, his father had barely started his apprenticeship, and his mother had still been in school. We said nothing all the way to the dark, locked-up bus station outside the city walls. The buses parked around the barracklike station would stand there empty and inaccessible for hours. Their marker plates, with two letters for the place they came from, bordered by the little five-pointed star of the partisans, ranged from MO for Mostar, SA for Sarajevo, BL for Banja Luka to ZG for Zagreb, TG for Titograd, BG for Belgrade, and there was even an LJ forLjubljana, very far away, and a VŽ for Varazdin, probably even farther away.
Of that night of storytelling I also thought at the time: Actually this should continue now. So although each of us was already supposed to go his separate way, I urged the others to spend one more hour sitting with me the next day on Dubrovnik's Stradun. And my friends did indeed come, laconic and full of anticipation. I was the one who did not know what to do next. I wanted a continuation and could not pull it off, at least not in their presence.
And therein lies one of my fatal mistakes in life. Just a few days ago I wrote a note to myself: "Always, even in moments of fulfillment, your tendency to think: It's not here yet! You always experience even the most perfect present moment as a mere advent. You always expect something more afterward, something bigger, the ultimate. Look! It has been here and is here. And why force something unique into repetition, into a series, into permanence? Consider your monosyllabic friends, for whom once was everything."
Even this morning, for instance, here, behind the house: when I was using a crowbar to loosen the gravel surface compacted by wintry downpours, sparks flew repeatedly; the chain of hills along the Seine contains a good deal of flint. And once I hit a flintstone hidden so deep in the ground that for a moment I saw a spark that shot not into the daylight but down into the dark, and lit it up with a lightninglike reflection off the soil, whereupon the momentary cave disappeared again. And again the unique occurrence was not enough for me, and I wanted a continuation, hoped with every further blow to see an even more splendid hollow illuminated, until I finally went inside and jotted down: "Your greed for continuations, your mania for completeness."
But didn't I long ago establish a principle to guide me in such matters, which went something like this: your experience may be fragmentary, but your narration must be complete!? And apparently this maxim, too, like all those that ever lit my path, dissolved gradually, or, as they said where I came from, a wee bit at a time. Goethe, it seems to me, became increasingly sure of himself as he grew older, despite all the childlike qualities he preserved; the child became an imperious child(and at the same time wrote "gently" and "transitorily"), while I am becoming less and less sure with every passing year, and at the same time would like to write as penetratingly and pointedly as ever. Perhaps I still need a master, and doesn't the itinerant stonemason from the twelfth European century seem closer to me now, his travel notes beginning with an exclamation and a plea: "Oh, where will this drab highway, along which I now stumble for the third winter, among legions of others, finally become my own green path?"
I have experienced nights of storytelling more often with strangers than with my friends. In such hours, the former come together with my friends, as in the fragment of Heraclitus in which the sleeper taps the one who is awake. And I have experienced this most frequently among strangers since I settled beyond the hills, in the hinterland of the great metropolis. The light here probably also has a little to do with it, but mainly it is particular places, the eating places in the region, the bars that close early in the evening. Whenever I can, I want to be among the last. For the most part nothing happens then; the rule is prompt locking-up and the disappearance of all the regulars into the tongue-shaped settlement surrounded by wooded hills. But from time to time the bar --of which there are only two in this particular district--stays open even after the lights have been turned off once, for no particular occasion, in a general, gradual winding-down.
In this transitional moment, a brief, much too brief, night of storytelling takes place among us strangers here. Unexpectedly, the excitement wakes me up, and at the same time I find peace: peace, the great eye. Now the majority of guests leave the café, at the latest at the next hint, the switching-off of the fan or, in winter, of the ceiling-mounted heater. The few who stay behind stand around the room, except perhaps for the one older woman, who sits on the only chair not yet put up on the tables. The iron shutters have been let down almost all the way, the door locked, the key on the inside, and anyone who wants to leave turns it, whereupon someone inside locks up again.
Somewhere a crack is always left open for a glance out into the night. Hardly anything is going on out there; all the roads in the settlement are access roads and end at the base of the chain of hills, or, if theycontinue into the woods, then only as wood roads, with white-painted barriers where the forest begins. As a rule they merge with a route that makes a loop around the remotest corner of the suburb. This ring road somewhat resembles a breakwater, and the section enclosed by it a harbor, for instance the harbor of Piran on the Istrian Peninsula, where thirty-five years ago I first sat by the sea, as a student, after a major examination, and, there among the limestone blocks, for hours on end, knew nothing at all of myself and my origins, of jurisprudence, of limestone; I was refreshingly oblivious, and appearances were quite enough; I did not want to know what lay behind anything, a state to which I sometimes long from the bottom of my heart to return.
Part of this civilized surface carved out of the woods actually is water, the water of a pond that has been here for centuries. When you glance out of one of the bars at night through the remaining crack, the black water gleams, now and then ruffled by a gust of wind, and the headlights of the infrequently passing cars dart across the water like those of speedboats. But in the second bar, too, outside of which only the empty pavement gleams, when you look out at night you can sense the presence of water right around the corner, not only of this pond but also of the couple of others in this corner of the world, most of them already in the forest.
Those standing in the bar at night appear at first stranded, and in my imagination they have already been there a long time. Not a few of them, as I gather from scraps of conversation, without specifically listening for the information, have lived in their region here since childhood. Although the bars are not dives but rather the only public places in these outlying towns, serving also as tobacco shops, where you can buy newspapers and postage stamps, and in the summer, when the bakery is closed, as bread depots, I have never met a single one of my neighbors there. The citizenry is not included among the guests at the local cafés, at least not in the evening.
But it was premature to describe the last holdouts in the bar as stranded. For among them I recognize one tradesman or another who has done work on my house. Or the older ones, in the minority, seem in the way they silently follow the smallest happenings anything but failures: calm retirees, solemn anglers, dignified widowers (as the older woman sitting by herself always has the air of a not so dignified widow).
And nevertheless it was there at night that the whole area appeared to me for the first time as a bay, with us as driftwood. At the same time that was one of the rare occasions when I saw this isolated suburb as a part of the large city of Paris beyond the chain of hills, to be precise as the most remote, hidden, least accessible bay of the metropolitan ocean, separated from it by the barrier formed all along the horizon by the hills of the Seine, with the road between Versailles and Paris that cut across them forming the only link with the open spaces. And we, too, came from the turbulent sea, swept in, washed in, rocked in the tides that rolled in and out for years or decades on end, now calm, now more hectic, past thousands of capes and cliffs, through the straits of Meudon, through the narrows of Sevres, through the first inlet, called the "Puits sans Vin," fountain without wine, and a second inlet, called the "Carrefour de la Fausse Porte," crossroads of the false portal, into the narrowest, most twisting and turning, remotest metropolitan bay, all the more fathomable for me in its namelessness, we, the driftwood that had come the greatest distance, and thus also rarer than in the mouths of the bay, yet for that very reason amazingly distinct.
At the same time, those in the bar, since they all stand alone, somewhat resemble an ancient tribe on the only remaining reservation, and in reality I encounter them, when they are going about among the local passersby out on the street, as the remnant that hardly counts anymore, the remnant of the remnant of the original inhabitants of this region. They seem fundamentally misshapen, as if smashed out of their child's and youth's forms by a single blow from a fist, a moment's impact, which I sometimes, in a different sense, wish on the other passersby, who have apparently remained unharmed, and likewise on myself.
No such sense of expulsion in the few minutes of the night of storytelling. There are simply some standing--I do not know who they are--there--I do not know how. If any outside lights were still on previously, they have gone off in the meantime, for instance the barbershop's, in front of which could be a sign: "Last Chance for a Haircut Before the Big Woods," and by eight at the latest that of the bakery, which in fact already has the woods in its name, and whose reversed in BOULAGERIE suggests Cyrillic script to me, as if I were looking out the window of a bar on Lake Ohrid. Only the outskirtishly pale light of the streetlights, leading to the wooded ridge and breaking off just before it, remains. The pinball machine and the video game inside have been turned off, their flashing lights extinguished, the seductive mechanical melodies and voices silenced. The cards or dice on the tables way in the back stay as they are. No one is doing anything more. At the very most the tradesman among us is casually repairing something for the proprietor, moving back and forth between the counter and the kitchen, as if he were at home. Otherwise there are no distinctions among those present, no barriers anymore. Even when the patron is not standing among the others, he could be just anyone behind the bar. No one is smoking now. The day's debris on the floor has already been swept up. No one is loud or especially quiet. Everyone who speaks has the same intonation, and it matches the peaceful atmosphere in the dim café.
In the sense in which people use the term "intake personnel," during such nights of storytelling I experienced those who were standing around as a sort of "uptake personnel," whether one of them happened to be talking, listening, or listening to something else. Now a sort of game was in progress, one without rival players and sides, the opposite of all the games that I, at least, had witnessed over the years, which were accompanied by both hotheadedness and coldness, of which in the end only the coldness remained, most rigidly in the so-called game of kings, chess.
What we are playing here comes closest to a team's warm-up before a match--except that the match itself is already there. In the brief interval, a transformation has occurred in those remaining behind together, stranded or not, even if the next day on the street one will look right through the other.
It may be that I will never see humanity this way again. Yet it existed in those nights there. It exists. I do not need any image as a continuation; it has been told to me.
Or was that just my imagination? Did I fail to consider that one of the people standing there no sooner got back to his room over the garage than he beat up the woman he lived with, perhaps that very woman sitting over to one side, his mother, who was just waiting for him tocome home; that the second took a detour through the woods, where, on one of the banks of the pond, he injected himself with dope, that the third, I myself, with each such night was drifting farther from those who were his real kin?
Yes. And nevertheless it is not something imagined, but rather a fantasy. Fantasy is not something imagined. And when it came, I realized how much I had needed it, all this time, all day. Observation, absorption, abstraction: my daily bread. So didn't we need a continuation after all, recapitulation?
It would have destroyed my equanimity if one of my acquaintances had joined this obscure company. Yet he would see me there as I would wish to impress myself on him, as a pure participant, far from hubs of activity of any sort, beyond immediate relevance, having stepped out of all my roles, no longer a lawyer, or a writer, also no longer a father, but also no shade of the dead, and also not isolated but accessible and present. Which, if an old familiar face unexpectedly showed up there, I would have to become conscious of, and that would put an end to it.
Yet it would not be this way if, on such a night, in such a bar, my wife appeared before me, the woman from Catalonia, who vanished long ago.
Did she really vanish? Two days ago, in my study, on the second of February, Candlemas, the festival of the threshold of light, didn't I see out of the corner of my eye something black flit by outside the window, whereupon I dreamed that night about the steps of the woman from Catalonia on the bridge over the Rio Grande between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez?
Of the people I know, only she would have eyes for this kind of a nobody--although in fact it was she, during our years together, who propelled me from one role to another, from one undertaking to another. And if she showed up here, I would continue to play the person I am, all the more believably, just for her. I would have presented myself to her as a person different from the one with whom she was familiar, if only she had let me. "Let me!" was my constant refrain with her. But she did not let me. If she had let me, she would have been my benefactor.
Now the woman from Catalonia, full of amazement, would let me. She would see me with open eyes: the abruptness gone, and in its place my original equanimity, familiar to her otherwise only from my books, and in which she had soon lost confidence because my life belied it. And at the same time she would see something even worse lifted from me, which likewise had not been part of me from the beginning but only after my years in boarding school: my tendency to drift away from the person I was with, often precisely in brilliant company, and to disappear into myself to the point of no longer being present. I let myself wander into nowhereland, and especially with those closest to me. And yet that vanishing caused me great suffering. How often I had struck myself on the brow and wanted to scratch blood from my scalp, saw my breastplate in two with a two-handed saw.
Yet now I would be standing there without armor. For a certain period of time the night of storytelling would have burst open the dungeon. If the woman from Catalonia approached me now, I would see her immediately as a whole. With a flourish I would give her my hand, and although this gesture always repelled her, especially between a man and a woman, she would not object. I would have matches ready for her cigarette; she always grubbed around endlessly in her deep cloth bag for them. And then I would begin spontaneously to speak of the forest of plane trees in her hometown of Girona, of the winter day long ago when, on the way to the forest, on her command I had closed my eyes and then--"You can look now!"--the shimmering filling my entire field of vision had blinded me, from the gray of the plane trees' trunks standing there shoulder to shoulder, almost without gaps and air in between, and the crowns, likewise gray, intertwined up above. Never had I seen a forest like that. Since all around me there was nothing but the bone-gray glimmering, it seemed as if the plane forest had swallowed up the entire place. It was like when you are carried in your sleep out of your room without realizing it--from childhood, especially from the time my family was fleeing, I remember this happening more than once--and you wake up in a nowhereland, for instance facing a terror-gray surface, which only today in retrospect do I recognize as the dawn sky above one of the borders we had to cross, while the shifting gray below is a load of gravel in the back of the truck in which we are fleeing.
"How dizzy I was that time in your forest!" I would tell the woman from Catalonia in such a night of storytelling. And likewise I would then explain to her calmly that at times she was not the right person for me, either because during our time together, whenever I needed something to remain empty, she would fill it up: the house, an evening, a day off, the summer, the yard, our trips, our son, even my room, my table, whose leaves she pulled out to make it bigger, my window, on which, when I wanted to look out at the grass, day after day new notes greeted me, me myself.
"It was not only for me that you weren't good," I would be able to tell her to her face again. "You aren't good for anyone." Or: "The right man for you doesn't exist; there will never be someone who suits you, not even death, at most a god. But which one? Just as you not only filled the house with objects but also kept shoving them around, you have constantly been on the move from place to place yourself. Never will you find your place anywhere, with anyone, certainly not alone with yourself. And even with your god you will feel hemmed in sooner or later."
On such a night the woman from Catalonia would actually listen to me, unlike earlier. At the very most she would say, in a quiet tone like mine, "You sound like your pal, the petty prophet of Porchefontaine." And all the while the men next to us in the bar would have been trying not to hear us, making occasional remarks like "Smells like snow," "When I was in the service in Indochina," "Red gets you riled up; that's why butchers are so riled up," or "Before the war there were still charcoal kilns up there in the woods."
But at a time like that, when I appeared as I am, and with patience to boot, the woman from Catalonia would never ever show up unexpectedly. She is not capable of taking anyone by surprise. Surprises were something she expected exclusively of the other person, if possible daily. If I managed to pull one off now and then, she was quite overwhelmed. I can recall a sideways glance of unusual gentleness, such as you sometimes receive from a child who has been given a present. But she herself never took me by surprise, as if that were beneath her dignity and were also not appropriate for her.
And besides, nothing would bring her back to this region, and certainly not at night. The very word "suburb" was repugnant to her. She equated it with banlieue, and had the conventional adjectives at her fingertips--"dreary," "characterless," "gray"--like a travel writer who goads his readers to seek out exotic places, as far away as possible, with a title like "Forget the Banlieue!"
She, who came from a town in the provinces, had always dreamed of getting away, and in the end found herself in a similar region, with the same poky houses and streets that were deserted at night, while the proximity of the metropolis just over the hills, its glow lighting up the eastern sky, tore at her heart rather than soothing it. With time she came to see some virtues in this particular suburb, made fun of the teeny-tiny middle- and working-class houses as amiably as she made fun of Gaudí's edifices in Barcelona. She got to know merchants and tradespeople with whom I hardly ever exchanged more than a hello; in the special silence of the wooded hills she had her own spots, which she alone visited and which were off-limits to me. Yet life on a grand scale could take place only in the hub, on the other side of the mountains, as she called the barely hundred-thirty-meter-high ridge. The suburban world here remained for her--to use the expression of the singer's, who, a child of this area, composed one of his angry songs about it--"rotten."
No one would come. I would remain alone with a couple of strangers at a bar in the most remote recess of the bay. And stories are told, for instance: it snows; or: something is going on. I am receptive, and the others, I sense, likewise. And up there in the woods sparks would fly from a nocturnal horseback rider, and that mythical beast, which I expect to turn up any day now in the forest, almost devoid of wild animals and yet so overgrown, has pricked up its ears at least once already for its first appearance.
But every time this nocturnal storytelling has no effect. Because it takes place so remotely, among marginal people, and only there, only there now? "But that can't be," I think, "it has to have some effect."
A year ago, when the priest from my native village visited me in this obscure corner while on his way to Chartres--about which he did not want anything said--"I'm here with you, not on my way to somewhere else!"--he spoke of how solitaries belonged together in the diaspora, which nowadays was the place where, for people like us, things were most likely to go on, one person here, another there, which I denied: I expected nothing from a community of the scattered people, the chosen, from secret circles with secret writings and initiation rites, but rather ... and here, as so often before, I had no idea what I wanted to say next.
The priest, standing there, legs apart as at home, winked at me as if he did not believe me, and as though we both knew better. I now felt even more left to my own devices than before. He had come unannounced, as though my house, three countries away, belonged to his parish, and in the back of his car, which was splattered with mud from top to bottom as only the forest ranger's was here, he had a plaster cast of the Romanesque kings from our village church, which the two of us then hauled to the farthest corner of the yard, where the three knee-high torsos now present their thick-lipped smiles.
A community of the scattered was something I believed in only during a period of transition.
And just as little am I guided by an earlier idea, the product not only of a lack but also of something visible: that of a people. I have never believed in a national people, equally little in a religious people, a linguistic people, and never in The People with the definite article. But neither can I believe anymore in a people of minorities, of people waiting, of readers, of sufferers and victims.
There was only one period in my life when I had the notion of preserving all the changing, indefinable peoples in whom I believed in some more durable form, and even then that could be only something written--not legal files--only a book.
That was at the time when I was a lawyer, barely thirty, and was not yet writing. I was renting a room in a house up in the hills of Sievering, in the north end of Vienna, and I was working with an older colleague in his firm out past Baden, outside the capital, along the Southern Railway. For several years my existence alternated almost daily between completely anonymous travel by bus, trolley car, and train, and contact, which grew more and more intimate from appointment to appointment, with society, the highest levels as well as the lowest, not only that of the city of Vienna but that of all of Austria. In both realms, as an anonymous observer and as an actor in the plot, I became completely engrossed. Yet I was not leading a double life, but rather a twofold one, each part in harmony with the other.
That finally amazed me so greatly that for a time I visualized a human comedy, loosely modeled on Balzac, a narrative of society moving constantly back and forth between names and the nameless, but even freer than Balzac, I imagined, more open, less obsessed with death, since I, like him, believed not so much in a specific people as in this one or that one, even if only in walking or driving by. In my head the book already had a title. It was called "The Apothecary of Erdberg."
My contemporary novel of society--through which wafted the ever-present epic of the undefined people encountered on the street and in public transportation--came to naught. I did not even begin it (although the real apothecary of Erdberg, who in those days sat next to me at table for an evening, still sends me material year after year from far away and hints that if we were together he would have a lot to tell me for my book). The more closely I scrutinized my plan, the less the people with whom I had daily dealings seemed suitable as heroes or even as characters in a book. And if they did fit into a book, then only one that had long since been written, for instance Doderer's Strudlhofstiege.
But even in this saga, in those days already situated far back in the past, I did not find my Viennese and Austrian acquaintances anywhere as participants. When I sat in my room out in Sievering at the end of the 1960s and closed my eyes to the beautiful view and thought about them one at a time, they all, even the oldest among them, lacked that "depth of the years," even in their fragmentariness, that would have qualified them to be developed by Doderer.
Whether as a thirty-year-old then or now, a quarter of a century later,I was not really interested in finding a past that would lend depth to the people in question for my book. But some sort of background, even if it were lit up just for a second as if by lightning, was what I needed for them, for each of them, to let me get launched on telling stories around them, and finally even about all of them at once, if possible.
Nowhere did I see such a background, no matter how often I went over my acquaintances, one after the other. Although most of them, except for my outsider and criminal acquaintances, constituted members of one and the same society, in my mind they did not fit together anywhere. That had nothing to do with my assessment of them or society. They were simply out of the question, no matter how I respected or hated them, for inclusion in a book. Not even the solitaries, the outlaws and strangers, with whom I often had a more intimate association than with the others, appeared to me against the background of a book, or the background remained dull and lifeless. For my imagination, for the book, it had to be alive, bright or dark, short, incomplete--as short and incomplete as possible.
I knew too much about my people in those days. Since I was someone to whom people confessed things, I knew the most secret lives of many. Of course, the heroes of my book were supposed to have a second, secret life. My image of it was completely different, however. So why not attribute it to those unknowns who, as fellow passengers, as people in line with me, as passersby, were supposed to populate the book from beginning to end? No; for then the passersby would lose their fantastic contours in my eyes, too. In those days I was coming to know so many in my country's society from close up that eventually all sorts of people hurrying through the streets appeared to me, when they spoke their first word, if not before, as those I had known by heart for a long time. There, wearing a Tyrolese hunting cap, went the police commissioner, or someone just like him. There, crowded together on the back seat, were all those I had defended that year. There, leaving the perfume shop, was a woman who could be the secret mistress of the professor of Roman law. On the outskirts, in Rodaun, in Mauer, in Weidling, in Hiitteldorf, in Heiligenstadt, in Schwechat, I encountered in strangers the waiters, teachers, judges, pimps, and women with whom I had been on first-name terms for what seemed like forever, and to whom I had just said goodbye in the inner districts. That silhouette over there on the commutertrain was my landlord. When the exotic-looking person on the bus opened his mouth, he turned out to be my neighbor, the one with a boat in his backyard, with the wife who took a fatal tumble on the stairs, with the child whose heart stopped beating during a tonsillectomy.
Only once during that time did a stranger pierce me through and through and yet remain unfamiliar, without dissolving into the double of a type I knew from society. It happened on a streetcar, not an ordinary one but one that went out into the country, the so-called local to Baden. One day, for almost an hour, a woman I did not know sat diagonally across from me, all the way from the Opera House to a central market somewhere outside the city. Beauty is something I have very seldom seen in people, and then always this way: a person was initially not beautiful but became so, over time or all of a sudden. The woman in the local was beautiful immediately, and remained so until she got off; nothing could touch her. When I say, "The beautiful woman was warm and friendly," it sounds to me like "The grass was green" or "The snow was white," and yet it is the only thing I can say about her (although I recall various features). She made me see what mattered, in my life, in the book.
It was summertime, many empty seats on the streetcar, a lot of light, especially out there in the meadows, beyond the city limits. A child, not a small one, was sitting beside the beautiful woman, then on her lap. I did not manage, and this was fortunate for me, to see the woman as a mother, as the wife of some man, of a doctor, an architect, a soccer star. She defied all categorization. She could not be a hairdresser, a businesswoman, a television anchor, a speleologist, a poet, a model, a motorcyclist, a second Marilyn Monroe or a second Cleopatra, a queen or a singer.
And during all this time I played soccer on Saturday afternoons with, among others, a cabinet minister of about my age, who once confided in me, in the cafeteria of our suburban stadium, that since childhood he had been waiting for his father, who had disappeared in the mountains, to come home. And a surgeon, with whom I went hiking inthe Vienna Woods on quite a few weekends, half circling the city, once described to me how during operations he often felt the urge to plunge both hands into the patient's liver, for example (he had very large hands).
And frequently I also sat in a certain outdoor café alone, the last one there, and the proprietor, after the waiters and kitchen help had long since left, would come and join me, expounding on the variations in Austrian dialect, intoning the nuances in pronunciation from valley to valley, with barely perceptible sound shifts, like a series of magic incantations; or he would trot out hunting adventures he had as a specialist in sick animals, none of which he had ever left alive, and when he had followed their sweat trail for days, clambering over cirques and dodging avalanches: "There you are, finally!" and "Always a clean shot!" Often almost the whole night would pass while we talked under the linden tree, which kept the rain off the two of us, except for occasional drizzle. Or I stood in half-darkness in the closed ward by the rails of the bed to which the notary's wife was strapped, while she implored me to report her situation to her husband (who had committed her to the mental hospital).
And the man who sat down next to me in all my regular bars, dressed in the light-colored suit of a man-about-town, was a monk, and every time he was coming from giving religious instruction to pupils each of whose ears he would have liked to box. And the man in a too small gray smock who waved to me from a distance while loading packages in the yard of a local post office on the outskirts of town--I realized it only out on the street--had been the headwaiter at the Bristol Hotel just the week before. And when I rang the bell of the artist couple's apartment because I had left something behind, I heard from behind the door cries of passion, which the most insistent ringing could not interrupt--and just a moment ago, in my presence, and all evening in fact, they had been spitting their mutual hatred in each other's faces. And the traveler to India told me that in the place where he went every year, to get away from society here, he rubbed shoulders with the world's elite, whereupon his equally gentle girlfriend told me he went away only because he had his brother's death on his conscience, and as she spoke these words she slipped her bare foot between my legs under the table.
I knew the place where the former Olympic bronze medalist in theslalom, long since homeless, slept in an underground parking garage, knew that the deputy mayor went fishing only because of his depression, spent several nights with my construction-worker brother in the barracks in Simmering where his crew of itinerant ironworkers from Carinthia was staying, was one of the few allowed to attend the funeral of the murdered gambling kingpin, a book publisher on the side, at which his SS friend, a presidential advisor at the time, delivered a graveside eulogy during which he repeatedly broke down, and his wife then had the St. Stephen's concert choir sing the Mozart Requiem, practiced specially for the occasion.
My comédie humaine from the Austria of that period, modeled loosely on Balzac and Doderer and the Civil Code, remained a figment of my imagination.
Although at times I saw all the characters sharply delineated in my mind's eye, there were still several rather strange reasons why the story did not allow itself to be written, at least not by me. Perhaps the strangest: on the one hand I intended to capture all of society, including the terrorist (today a housewife once more) urging her cause on me in a staccato whisper as we huddled in a broom closet at the chancellery; including the Yugoslav guest worker, his skin reddened from his work in a laundry, in his free time painting signs for pubs on the eastern outskirts of Vienna, a man who despised the Albanians because they "didn't have any butts in their britches," father of a half-Albariian child, off in distant Pristina with its mother.
On the other hand not a single person in this society seemed to fit with anyone else, no matter how I closed my eyes and racked my brains, not even within the established groups, academic and social classes, associations, clubs, and cliques.
Each of these people appeared to me in my imagination alone, without a link to a second or third party of whatever sort.
Not that I had in mind a connectedness, even the most fleeting unity, for this society; its members merely refused to let themselves to be pictured in one and the same story. And the others out there simply appeared as doubles.
Another problem was that on the one hand the individuals whom I was considering as preliminary sketches for my own inventions did not cease to baffle me the more they revealed themselves, and on the other hand not one of them seemed inspired by anything--a cause, a mission. (In my conception, "The Society of the Inspired" had been the book's subtitle, after "The Apothecary of Erdberg.") After they unveiled their secrets I actually found not a few of them good and decent, and could even admire and respect quite a number of them, and not only a doctor for being on call at night or a politician for switching his allegiance from one segment of society to another or a bus driver on snowy mountain roads. The only problem: not one of them revealed anything that sparked my imagination.
And similarly I was preoccupied with the evildoers, no less numerous; they assailed me, would not leave me in peace, even in my dreams. Yet they, too, did not galvanize or stimulate me, not even the public speaker during whose hate-filled tirades I could picture all the manhole covers blowing off around his followers gathered on the open square, and the skulls of the dead emerging.
Neither the former nor the latter were anything for my book. Among all these many people, none provided the appropriate starting point, or even the most delicately traced first initial; this only my ancestors offered, the dead and the disappeared.
At the time I came to believe that people in a story could not have anything to do with the living, no matter whom.
When I explained this one time to the petty prophet of Porchefontaine, he replied that I should have started nonetheless. A false start was often more productive than the right one. And besides, nowadays there were nothing but false starts for books. How could I be sure that with the first sentence of my present project I hadn't turned my key in a door that led nowhere? And wasn't it possible that I had been deterred from writing my novel of society merely by the prospect that it would have to be one of those obscenely fat books that both of us despised on sight?
Even when writing was not yet my profession, as in those days when I was still an attorney, it already guided my life, less the how than the where. As the years went by and I realized that the country and people of Austria were antithetical to the book of my dreams, I went away to be among the most distant foreigners.
I never attended the School of Foreign Service. When I was with the United Nations, whether first in New York or later as an observer in Israel and Mongolia, where I was working for UNESCO, even if I was called an attaché or a vice-consul or something else, I was either an office worker or the right-hand man to one and the same clever diplomat I knew from my days in Vienna.
Almost every day in New York I would bump into our future federal president, who confused me with someone else, and always with the comment that I spoke remarkably unaccented German for a Slav. The woman from Catalonia said later that I had written my article attacking him just to get revenge; she herself, who at the time knew him from the East River, sometimes held him up to me as an example, with his way of never revealing his thoughts, also his bearing, his dress, his refusal to touch anything for which others, inferiors, servants, could be called upon, his way of never showing any feelings, either joy or sorrow.
In Israel, when she visited me, I found just enough time to get away from the gun emplacements on the Golan Heights for a week on the Lake of Gennesaret, lying there with its locked-up villas and tied-up boats like the Austrian lakeside resorts in winter, except that it was not frozen over but rain-gloomy, then farther into the basin of the Jordan and the Dead Sea, where, far below normal sea level, in that region that had always attracted me, we begat our child, amid her cries of pain--from the salt--and then uphill through the desert to Jericho, with its sand-shimmering desolation, its rustling palms, interminable Arab music blaring from the terraces, among natives who seemed invisible, and then also up in Jerusalem, until that night outside the walls, on Mount Olive, where suddenly in the moonlight, crisscrossed by jet trails, stones came pelting down, if only against the wall, not on the two of us sitting there.
In Mongolia, where I then spent three summers and three winters with a group providing development aid from various UNESCO countries, I remained just as much on the outside, though in a different way.
Previously no opening had presented itself to me anywhere. In Ulan Bator, on the other hand, as in the whole empire, one opportunity for participation after another turned up. Except that I--did not want to? --resisted.
I shared an apartment, two rooms in one of the few multistory buildings in the nomads' capital city, with a German friend who belonged to our group and was my exact opposite as far as dealings with the Mongolians went. Although he had more trouble than I with Russian, the lingua franca, from his first evening on he immersed himself in the population, and that became his nickname, "Mr. Immersion." No sooner had he set down his luggage than he was outside again and in the midst of the natives, and since the surrounding area offered neither a teahouse nor a refreshment stand, he located the nearest gathering place, downstairs in the doorless entry to our building. As I leaned out of the window upstairs, he was standing on the nonexistent threshold among the much shorter native inhabitants, already one of them. He gesticulated, laughed with them, nodded, and when I looked down again was already squatting like a tailor or a Bedouin or a camel among them, rocking his head like an initiate, with the hand of the man who was toasting him resting on his shoulder.
In our team, my German friend was the most taciturn of all. In our shared apartment, too, he remained silent, only bursting out now and then with a snatch of an almost unbelievable story, and promptly falling back into his brooding, which got on my nerves so much that I, who as a rule also liked to keep still, became the one who did the talking. But the minute he saw natives, anywhere, he would join them so effortlessly that my eyes could not keep up, and would gab with them until late at night, fluently, yes, passionately, and at the same time casually, as if he had always known them, even if no one from his new tribe could understand a word he was saying. And later, from the Yukon River in Alaska, from the bar at the trading post, he sent me on his first evening there a postcard with the signatures and X's of all the Indians of Region Circle City, and then the Tuaregs in southern Algeria recited immediately after his arrival their most closely guarded poems for him, eveninto a tape recorder. Although he was German, never really at home and at the same time crowding the available space with his bearing, gestures, and language, he remained out of place only among whites, among Westerners. Among his Tuaregs, Athabaskans, and Kirghiz he seemed to be borne up by the others' gracefulness, swallowed up in the twinkling of an eye, their long-awaited faithful comrade.
I, on the contrary--who from my first day in Mongolia vibrated with the people there as previously, at all hallowed times, only with the Slovenians, my mother's people--I ducked every opportunity to immerse myself in their company.
I was timid about getting involved in situations where something resonated in me simply as a result of my standing by. The steppe and its peoples inspired me. It was as if I had already sat here as a child, over there next to the door, wide open in summertime, in the village of Rinkolach on the eastern edge of the Carinthian Jaunfeld Plain, or over there in the grassy triangle at the junction of two roads--except that the image was now animated by figures, more numerous than in those days, and the right ones. Yes, here I did not even make a judgment as to whether I was with the right ones or the wrong ones: it was obvious that on those dusty streets, under those wooden colonnades, and on the savanna, on runways or over the grass and far away, it was my people wobbling, stumbling along, waddling toward each other. Not only from the almost treeless wide-open spaces but also from the crowds of people such light streamed over me that I moved about day and night with my eyes half closed.
After several months, when I no longer stood out as a foreigner anywhere, even among the children, I thought I had taken on the appearance of a native and saw myself in the mirror as such. Not only that I no longer saw any eyelids; even my eyes seemed to have blackened. From beneath similarly black hair I gazed at myself inscrutably and amiably. And for those three years this carried me along out there among the people, without conflict or any other complication.
At intervals the woman from Catalonia came to visit me, the second time with our son, still blond at the time, and a complete stranger to me, and once I invited my sister to Ulan Bator for a few weeks.
How astonished I was, and disappointed, that members of my family recognized me, did not so much as raise their eyebrows.
Yet I was increasingly fearful of disappearing. I felt completely at ease among the Mongolians, included in whatever was going on, and at the same time I was afraid of never getting home. I would not have known where to go home to, yet I felt driven to go home--or a creature that came alive inside me did, like a dog abandoned on a highway median strip. Again and again I had flying dreams, which began blissfully and broke off not with my crashing but with my no longer existing.
Later I read in the works of anthropologists that they experienced something similar. Except that in the beginning they always set out planning to study the foreign people or tribe systematically, and only later recoiled in alarm from it, or from themselves, whereas I did not want to know anything in particular about the local people. Precisely because the things I had known about them beforehand hardly mattered anymore in their presence, I felt at home among them. My very enthusiasm about being among them was partly a function of my ignorance.
Of course I took notes and made sketches, and did both regularly, day after day, to keep both feet on the ground and avoid dissolving in ecstasy. But it was not a question of observing this particular country and its people. The sketches showed only things that might have been anywhere, like a pair of unlaced shoes, viewed from above, or a lightning rod that disappeared at the bottom into a block of concrete. But: were there ever lightning storms? And the Tatars who turned up in my notes were not referred to as "Tatars" or some such thing; they were just villagers or people I encountered.
As we know, on the heels of those anthropologists people journeyed to all the still halfway unspoiled landscapes in the world, arriving by plane, bus, all-terrain vehicle, sometimes covering the last stretch on foot, each of them proudly alone, and even before they got there from their American and European headquarters, they were on intimate terms with the most closely guarded traditional tales of the natives, no matterwhere. They called themselves "nomads," had the lightest and sturdiest footgear on earth, as luggage a little backpack with two books; they mingled with the original inhabitants as if they had known them from earliest childhood, and upon their return, in the period before their next departure, this time for Tibet instead of for Australia, they had hundreds of amusing stories, anecdotes, and hair-raising adventures to tell.
I knew a man like this who set out each time with his hands completely unencumbered; he had nothing but his passport and his pockets full of dollar bills. I became fond of him. From each adventure he survived--the coiled snake he encountered when coming down from the Andes and chopped in five pieces with one blow of his machete; the skeletons he stumbled upon in the water at the bottom of a gorge as he let himself down on a rope in the sacred Cenote of the Yucatán Peninsula, victims of the Mayas or recent?--he returned more lost and confused to his Central European wife and his meanwhile grown-up children: Where am I? And what now? And at the same time his stories were much too carefully constructed around a climax for my taste, not that he ever bragged--as though he himself were not really experiencing anything in telling them--and also too matter-of-fact and unamazed: a sweeping gesture, and he was the shaman himself, acted out the dervish. After an evening with him, chock full of perils he had miraculously survived and fluently rattled-off secrets of the bush, from Tierra del Fuego to Hokkaido, I took leave of my nomadic friend with a certain ennui, and found myself longing for a place where there was nothing, yearning for nothingness, nothingness upon nothingness, right around the corner (and half a year later was looking forward to his next visit).
More worrisome were the new nomads, who had no sooner tracked down what remained of the aboriginals anywhere in the world than they put them in a book. These books all shared the characteristic of presenting the most intimate portraits of a people-outside-of-civilization as something that existed in only one place, and then, in the same breath, exposing these portraits to the entire world, with the result that all the fuss about protecting and supporting these peoples ended up by wiping them out once and for all by means of facile stories in which the narrator from distant parts pushed his natives back and forth like pawns and mucked around in their dream as if it were his special property. And perhaps it actually did belong to him, and in the traditions of variousobscure tribes he was seeing the cosmos of his childhood, spent in Friuli or in Glastonbury. Except that these journeyers to the ends of the earth never told us that. Their own half-vanished notions, of time, the cosmos, nonbeing, ancestors, doubles, were of no interest to them. To them only the dreams of the last more or less aboriginal human beings constituted a valid book.
But perhaps I was merely envious, as the woman from Catalonia expressed it one time when I was raging against the "plunderers." Their stories, she said, were more worldly than mine, and also more dialogic. I got in my own way, she said, with my endless brooding over form; I lacked narrative technique, while they deployed such technique effortlessly and wrote now like nineteenth-century Russian novelists, now like American novelists of the first half of the twentieth century. And when I continued to rant about these books that had no narrator any longer but instead a master of ceremonies, about those purveyors of reading fodder whose material was so thoroughly processed that nothing was left to read, she commented that I was also jealous because they had caught on. They had a following--and I? A year ago, that crazed woman standing at my garden gate every morning; and that man dying in the local hospital; and that travel-agency courier; and that farmer's son in Ontario, Canada.
One way or the other, I continued to be guided during those three Mongolian summers and winters by the idea of a book, and then I did write one, my first, the "Drowsy Story," which dealt not with the local population but with my village ancestors, long since dead, in Carinthia along the Yugoslav border.
I did that during my day job, which consisted of teaching German or English, or handling correspondence, or giving typing lessons. In the summer I put my table outside, by the edge of the road. Neither dust nor sun nor people bothered me. And from those days I still have a longing to be able, just once in my life, to write an entire book from beginning to end outdoors, and not just in a backyard, but far out on the steppe. Never have I breathed so freely, and moved along with the day so effortlessly. And the local people did not seem bothered in the slightest, and eventually not even the people's militia. A militiaman whostopped each time on his rounds and looked at the sheet of paper in front of me one day even predicted a glorious future for this beginner.
Writing the book became the one great experience of my years in Mongolia. Although the woman from Catalonia hardly visited me, I did not take up with any native woman. Only once did I walk with a girl down a dirt road, behind a herd of cattle, which, although we were too far back to overtake them between the stone walls, let loose with their constant farting and defecating one stench after the other on the half-infatuated couple. And when my sister came to visit, I did lie in her embrace, but only in a dream.
Back in Europe I went through that period in which I firmly believed in the possibility of connections among individuals separated by great distances, including people who did not even know each other personally.
With my first writing phase behind me, I saw myself as pretty much alone in my further undertakings and thus caught wind of a person here and a person there, particularly beyond the borders--a writer, a naturalist, a linguist--who had likewise struck out on his own to track something down, and thus, as he moved along his particular orbit, belonged to me as I to him. These few, all of whose works I studied, appeared to me in my imagination like the landscapes that filled me with greatest enthusiasm: in the midst of all that hemmed me in, they provided an inner source of light. That was a feeling of exaltation such as I never experienced with friends. These others like me caused something within me to glow, or saved me, like my two or three favorite parts of the world, from despair. It was not merely a way out, but rather a destination refreshing to my heart.
The two lights inside me have gone out. First the distant and the closer countries vanished from within me--the steppes of Mongolia, the highlands of the Cerdagne in the Pyrenees--then my imagined allies beyond the seven mountains. (My only remaining ally resides on the nearest opposite slope, and at the end of our visits to one another I see in this petty prophet of Porchefontaine more and more a caricature of my idea.)
Was this merely because I later met my absent figures of light face to face, or rather was brought together with them, through intermediaries?
Each of them seemed possibly even more reluctant than I, at any rate less generous with himself, or, on the contrary, proposed an alliance to me, thereafter plaguing me across the continents with dedications of his early-morning aphorisms, his minutest linguistic or legal glosses, his exhibition catalogues from Lübeck to Solothurn and Osaka.
None of these scattered folk casts light anymore. Nowadays the diaspora does not provide a community for me, and offers me nothing for my book.
Meanwhile it is almost March here in the bay, and finally snow has come, too. Last night the roofs of the cars coming down from the plateau had a thick layer of white on them, and the sparrows in the birds' sleeping tree in front of the Hôtel des Voyageurs crouched there in the cold, fluffed up to twice their size.
And in front of the unlit palace of Versailles, shining out of the darkness, after an hour's walk in a westerly direction along the Route Nationale 10, veils of snow crystals slithered and lapped over the huge, deserted open square, and a young stranger, his Walkman over his ears, the only person out and about, smiled at me out of the snowstorm, and I thought of several people who had once meant something to me, whose day I had accompanied in my thoughts for a time, and who nonetheless were now out of the question for this story of my distant friends.
In contrast to the singer as text seeker, the painter as filmmaker, the carpenter as architect, the reader, my son, the priest, my woman friend, I have lost those others. A whole series of people who for years were very close to me no longer exist, and not because they have died. They are all living, on the other side of the railroad tunnel, in Paris, farther away in Munich, Vienna, Rinkenberg, Jerusalem, Fairbanks, Ptuj. From time to time I still hear from these people with whom I was once on such good terms. But it no longer moves me, there are no sympathetic vibrations inside me now; when I hear them mentioned, I feel reluctance and revulsion. Unlike my rally participants, no matter how I would like to recall their image from before, I cannot bring them to mind. The trailof light left by these figures, who once seemed cut out to be companions for life, has been extinguished, and its place has been taken by something dark, without our having become enemies.
And that seems final. Never again, I have to assume, would we find our way back together, either through a heart-to-heart talk or through your or my masterpiece.
And then yesterday, continuing around the side of the palace of Versailles, between those pitch-black former edifices of power, on the street with its massive cobblestones, on which the tires made a deep, humming sound as the cars rounded the bend, I saw the snow dancing tier upon tier into the night sky, transected by a dove, and thought of the only politician who had ever been close to me, who now, after his fall from power, sat there in his retirement quarters, around the corner from his successor, in the heart of Vienna.
He had been a professor of jurisprudence, with an international reputation, summoned from everywhere to deal with urgent situations like a crack firefighter; then minister of justice, and it was no mere rumor that he secretly ran the government. Abroad, too, this little Austrian cabinet minister was received as a major statesman. And it was he who phoned me himself, long after I had left the diplomatic service, to say he had just finished my book about my youth in the rural boarding school; he had stayed up all night reading. He invited me to call on him as soon as possible, at the office or elsewhere, at any time of day.
So I met with him again and again, this man whom I had previously known only from a distance, at the university, where he had never been one of my examiners. We met either at his place in Vienna, on the rare occasions when I came to that city, or in Paris, where I was already living at the time, or later outside the city, in the Seine hills, though in a different suburb. The double doors in his ministry seemed to swing open by themselves, and not until I was leaving did I notice how high up the latches were. And likewise, whenever I stood with him at the window in his cavernous office, the squares and parks of the city seemed vertiginously far below, and I was in a hurry every time to get back on a level with the ground and out into the fresh air as soon as possible.
Perhaps he did not have that much power, but it was his power Isensed above all, specifically as a sort of remoteness from ordinary people, even when he recited to me his entire schedule of meetings for that day, with people from all levels of society, from a reception for the Boy Scouts to having a glass of wine with war veterans. I, who spoke with no one for days or weeks on end, saw myself in comparison, at least during those hours, as closer to life, perhaps even immersed in it.
Astonishing how formal his bearing was there, so entirely different from the way he came across on the telephone, although of all his visitors that day I was the only one who had no agenda and also as a rule came at noon, when in any case he merely slipped behind a screen for a snack, in half-darkness. Each of his gestures he acted out, repeated, as if to call attention to it. It was as though this hour with me had an agenda after all: to bear witness to him in office. To be sure, he never said so, but it became apparent that he was inviting me as a chronicler, or at least as one such. Even the delicately rolled slices of ham and dill pickles he shared with me in his niche were supposed to be recorded for later. He never asked about my work, only reported on himself, his next piece of legislation, his most recent trip abroad, not exactly in the form of dictation but certainly with a few repeated turns of phrase that I was supposed to note. He shared these stories with me--about his illnesses, his mistresses--in the tacit conviction that I was there to capture them for posterity.
This became the game that brought us together, operative particularly during his visits to Paris, where each time he appeared with such a large entourage that to me, the witness, at least during his period in office, the country we had in common seemed to possess worldwide importance. When he strode through a salon or a hall of mirrors, with his likewise dark-suited, though much younger, more athletic-looking gentlemen at his heels, always about to dash off to his next appointment, he left in his wake the aura of a historic moment; that was how matter-of-factly and majestically he embodied his power.
And in his presence that impression never faltered, even when he ducked away from his retinue and drove with me out to the little restaurant in Fontaine Ste.-Marie, in the first forest bay beyond Paris, sat there outdoors under the giant oaks and sniffed the cloth napkins, always still a bit damp, pointed out to me the button missing from his double-breasted suit, or the way his eyes were watering because they were nolonger used to the country air, enjoying his anonymity with almost childlike pleasure, one among others on the terrace, yet with emphatic, constantly repeated references to the next gathering expecting him over yonder in the metropolis.
Since his fall from power he has been traveling almost more than before, but I have seen him only once, at his own place. Whereas previously I could call on him at the office whenever I liked, now I was given an appointment--"We'll squeeze you in." And when I came, I had to wait a long time--as I get older, I like waiting--in a windowless vestibule; the "minister" (they spoke as if he were still in office) was being interviewed over the telephone by Swedish Radio. There was a dizzying to-and-fro of secretaries, butlers, bodyguards, chauffeurs, masseurs, creating the impression of an entire court. In the room I was ushered into, there was also only artificial light; although it was daytime, heavy draperies covered the windows. And when the retiree descended the staircase and also later, when he talked at me, in the presence of a third party, a sort of recording secretary, it was as if he did not recognize me, and I, too, found this politician, whom I had respected as I did no one else, more and more unrecognizable the longer he talked.
What he said reminded me of visits to mental hospitals when I was a lawyer. Here, too, areas shielded from the outside world, and indoor air, hovering near the floor, closing in around your feet; here, too, delusions of omnipotence. Except that in this case the pale figure, shuffled off into nowhereland, had really been--and not that long ago--the major historical actor for whom he now took himself. And that made the situation far less funny than with an obviously insane person in an asylum, and at the same time far more uncanny. There was nothing to laugh or smile about, and no one could even muster any sympathy for this man (as had strangely happened to me once on a visit to the commandant of Vilna, responsible for the murder of many Jews, who took himself for the author of "He who never ate his bread with tears ..." and recited the poem accordingly, sternly and proudly, as if even the meter were his own creation, not Goethe's). And while the former politician continued to play at power, I tried to catch the eye of the recording secretary, to exchange a conspiratorial glance, but in vain: she ignored me. In the past he had shown himself a statesman in the way he glossed the world situation with a casualness that breathed authority.Now, too, he issued an uninterrupted stream of commentary, but his casual remarks to those around him had turned into a sort of prattle. If in power he had been laconic and pithy, he now repeated each hollow comment at least three times. If as a man of power he had been the epitome of presence of mind, impossible to dupe, at the same time displaying a charming roguishness, he now seemed absentminded and humorless. Previously, even when he was reviewing the troops, his independence of mind had manifested itself; now he was merely officious, like a wooden doll (and his handshake felt mechanical when I took leave of him). As a man in power he had appeared muscular, massive; now, although he spent time every day in his workout room, he looked pasty and shapeless. And if he still read books at night, it was only to find material for the ones he himself was dictating.
I stood for a long time on the street outside his darkened house, horrified at this phenomenon that had once again leaped out at me, a chimerical world.
Several writing days have passed since the snowfall. It was snowing well into March, although close to the ground it was not cold at all; the early stinging nettles were already sprouting, the most painful ones. The snow came in fitful gusts, out of the underbrush, as if from a tree blooming in secret or as if tossed, just a handful of grains at a time, tiny snowballs that dissolved in flight into single flakes, floated down, para-chutelike, and immediately melted, leaving little dark spots on the asphalt.
But then with the waxing moon it turned bitter cold over the bay. The ponds, especially the wild nameless one deep in the woods, froze over, the dark ice patterned in the form of kinked reeds, and during my walk out there, before I settled down in my study off the garden, I skipped pebbles over the surface, which pinged, whirred, snapped, peeped through the forest as if from a plucked instrument, and sometimes one of the birds hidden in the water shrubbery felt spoken to and replied.
I did that also to invoke the image of another person who had once been close to me. It was maybe ten years ago that he and I had beenout walking here on a winter's day and came upon a frozen forest pond where we made the pebbles sing.
As I threw them alone this time, I recalled having him next to me, and I was reminded of his windup, awkward, like that of a chubby child, and when we played soccer, he always missed the ball with his foot, and yet it was always he, the clumsy one, who found the more innocent pleasure in such things. How else to explain his crowing laughter, even when, after a huge windup, his stone, always too large, plopped through the ice without a sound.
This man had been a reader for years, so full of enthusiasm that when he talked about a book even people soured on writing or on distant terms with books got fired up or at least grew pensive or puzzled, and those who still did read, halfheartedly, remembered what it had been like when they first discovered books. He, like the politician, was somewhat older than I, a teacher at a Jewish school on the western edge of Paris, without wife or children; in response to a book in which I described living with my son for the first time, he had written me the shortest, most trenchant letter, the kind I would have liked to bestow on someone else: "The story you have written is true. The child is your work."
This man loved being outdoors, "even though I'm a Jew," as he said, and thus as often as once a month the two of us would walk the two stretches of forest from Paris to Versailles, the southern stretch from Meudon and the northern one from St.-Cloud.
Along a firebreak, the piles of felled trees all pointed one time in the same direction, every treetop facing toward the mosque-white domes of Sacré-Coeur, many kilometers away, a vista I still look for today and do not find again, unlike the wild strawberries along the path that can be counted on to redden in the same ditches at the end of June.
No matter how citified he looked in his hat, tie, and oxfords, the teacher found no terrain too arduous. His clothes soaked by rain, his soles slipping and sliding in the clay, his glasses fogged up, he trudged along gamely. All through the war, while still a child, he had been in hiding in a cellar in the heart of Paris, and now he enjoyed life every day, especially the parts without deep significance. At certain moments while we walked, the tiered horizons of the Seine hills up ahead, evenas he stumbled along--this seemed to be his rhythm--he, who was also often gripped by fear of death, preached of a sort of immortality there in the region beyond the hills; wasn't the fact that this area repeatedly promised immortality a kind of proof in itself?
Yet even at that time he was convinced that the end of the world was imminent, and it would come from Germany, all of whose landscapes he carried around with him--and here he would point to his chest. In response to the violent acts of the Baader-Meinhof gang, he commented, "This is the end!" and then the same when they committed suicide in prison. We were sitting that autumn evening on a quiet, well-lit square in Paris, and he stared into the darkness, which under his eyes grew denser among the trees and seemed to close in on us; he said it without a trace of smugness, filled with childlike or primitive horror.
Years later he began to mistrust me, although he continued to write interested letters about what I was doing. This change, I now thought, as I made the little stones ping over the ice of the nameless pond, had started with my asking him to do something for me. I had noticed much earlier how difficult he could become the moment you specifically requested something of him. Any schoolboy lie was good enough for him when it came to dodging others' expectations. And one time he was supposed to mail something to me in Germany, where I was spending a few weeks to be with my father (which yielded the "Writer's Tour"). I managed to persuade him, although he said he had dislocated his leg; the post office lay in the opposite direction from his school; and the air in post offices brought on asthma attacks.
He finally mailed the envelope, but because he had put it off so long, I was no longer at the address I had given him, and the item was sent back. And upon my return he suddenly burst out in a hate-filled tirade. In Germany they had looked at the return address and seen "a Jewish name," and that was why they had sent the envelope back. "A Jew! Return to sender!" And those were my countrymen!
He calmed down, and for a while things were all right, until he wrote that he had tried to read my first book, the story of my ancestors, but all these villagers disgusted him. In his eyes they were all anti-Semites, who, if he had grown up among them, would have driven him into exile. Yet my "Drowsy Story" dealt only with rural life after the war, and thecharacters were Slavic peasants, many of whose sons had been killed for a Germany that had never meant anything to them. And in our region there was not a single Jew, and I recalled a chronicle from the turn of the century according to which, since even at the village fair, the day of greatest sociability, there was no Jew among the outside vendors, one of these had to stand behind his booth dressed as a Jew, in wig and costume, to make the festival complete--which, however, only confirmed my acquaintance in his opinion. He continued to announce he was coming out for a walk, but when I was already expecting him he would call to say he had been detained in town. The times he did come, he would remark as he was leaving that I was probably glad to be rid of him.
He became most alienated from me when he stopped believing in the possibility of writing new books, or in books altogether. He, who had once been able to trumpet his opinion on a book, and books, with the best of them, now did not even mention a book, no longer asked me about any book, or refused to listen. It seems as though he has given up books, and sometimes I can sympathize with him. Only he no longer comes to see me, and so I cannot tell him that. In his old age he now walks alone, with his immortality on the horizon, and I daresay he probably never needed me for that.
And I, did I need him? Whom have I ever needed? No one, as the woman from Catalonia always reproached me.
There would be tales to tell of several others with whom I once considered myself connected and whom I have lost in the meantime, or can no longer bring to mind. I know they exist, often hardly changed since my time with them. But whenever I try to picture them and their day from a distance as I used to, nothing comes to me. I have no associations with them; at their very names darkness closes in.
The same thing happens to me with my previous publisher, whom I once pictured as showered with happiness when he was reading a manuscript; for entire summers I swam next to him in the icy waters of mountain lakes, heading for the snow on the opposite bank; we were of one mind about our books, past and future. He has long since sold all his book rights to a magazine publishing conglomerate and commutesbetween his faith healer in Scheveningen, the Institute for Thalasso-therapy in San Sebastian, the Rheumatism Center on the Plattensee, the sulfur baths of Saturnia, the Clinic for Zero Diet in the Caucasus, and his guest cell in the monastery on Mount Athos. I know where he is at any given moment; we are not estranged--it is simply that I no longer see him anywhere. That the rights to everything I had done over the years did not belong to me: that was wrong.
And it is the same with the woman whom I could view from a distance during one period in my life as my Muse. I knew her from her letters, but at that time it was enough to think of her for a moment across the continent and the ocean, and she would be there. Once, when I was sitting at a loss for words at my writing table, waiting since morning for a first sentence, which kept announcing its imminent arrival yet had not come by nightfall, I felt her draw near and silently write the sentence out for me, and then the next sentences, down the entire page. And once, when I was flat on my back--and never again would I be able to get around--she came to be with me and rolled, pulled, rubbed, stroked, pushed, licked, seasoned, breathed, kneaded, and rendered me mobile for a long time, at least well past Easter, which was then approaching.
For decades that woman, whose appearance I cannot even describe, remained in charge of me. From a distance I would turn to her and try out questions on her that were perhaps being asked for the first time since the world began, and she would answer without delay. I included in my books not a few of her letters, always written without corrections. Yet I did not want to know what she was doing; pictured her as having children, going to work, tending her house and garden.
In the meantime she no longer answers, has fallen silent for good. Even before that she gave me to understand that she was disappointed in me. Then she suddenly turned against me, in a letter of pure hatred. She severed all connection. I was not the person she had taken me for. This happened, I told myself, because I always went on as though nothing were wrong. To keep her respect, I would have had to perish. I would have had to go to hell, and instead I took refuge in my writing. I would have had to go smash at a certain moment. I would not have been allowed to have a wife or child or an everyday life. I was supposed to suffer, or at least not hide my suffering, experience martyrdom manytimes over, and die a terrible and at the same time pitiful death. Only thus could I have remained true to myself and to her.
During the last days of winter I walked and walked in the cold wind through the woods, and pondered whether it was not I after all who had been forgotten by the others, who had been given up for lost by them. Perhaps I am the one who no longer counts for them, who holds no more surprises for them, who appears in neither their daydreams nor their night dreams?
What, for instance, about the one who of late has been most powerfully present for me in my thoughts as I walked, Filip Kobal from Rinkenberg, the next village over from Rinkolach, whom I once viewed as my successor in writing, more flexible than I, more generous, more warmhearted, more colorful? Yet at one time we often said to each other that it should actually be the other way around, since I came from the village on the sunny side, and he, a few years younger, from the village on the shady side, beyond the hill, which was much steeper there.
We first met as adults, he a lawyer as well; I already had a book to my name, and he at the time was nowhere near that. He did become my successor, at any rate in the legal affairs bureau of the Southern Railway, as a tenant of the house in Sievering, and in other respects, too. Although he was bigger and broader than I, had a more powerful voice, lighter skin and eyes, many mistook him for me. Then, at a distance, I read his first texts and talked him out of all the guilt and self-flagellation he had put into them: "From the shadow of Rinkenberg into the light of Rinkolach!" He, who had previously groaned at the thought of having to go down to the garden gate, learned from me to go walking. Likewise he, who at one time had to clear his throat before every sentence and even then remained almost impossible to understand, became a sought-after reader and panelist, from the heart of Switzerland to Schleswig-Holstein. When he told me, his confidant, that he secretly felt superior to all those around him, that he spent entire evenings sitting alone as if enthroned, with the lights out and the entire world at his feet, I encouraged him to go ahead and let people see that from time to time; it was appropriate for him and his writing, within limits, and since then, whenever he stands up and reads, out comes a mighty voice that drownsout any contradiction, a most remarkable contrast to the diffidence, mumbling, and word-swallowing he still displays in everyday situations. Perhaps he has become an authority even more with his voice than with his books, and at the same time a folksy figure; wherever he appears, he is immediately invited to sing along, to play cards, to go bowling, which is probably unique for our Austria and a homegrown writer, especially nowadays. Yet he still dreads the physical work I recommended to him, partly for waking and schooling his imagination; he recoils at the thought of it, as if this were asking too much of him; a quiver of revulsion runs through him if he has to so much as pick up a trash can. True, he has moved from the shade to the sun of Rinkolach, his house is open to all--natives, refugees, readers--but his elder sister does everything for him, from polishing his shoes to chopping wood and mowing the lawn; with her there, he hardly lifts a finger.
And this Filip Kobal, who could count on being understood by me in a way that a person probably experiences only once in a lifetime, has, I think, turned his back on me forever.
The last straw was his visit to me here in the bay over a year ago. Since then he has sent me not a single sign of life, not even a card from the places where he gives readings, whereas previously I would receive big fat letters from him in his enormous sign painter's handwriting, for which I once praised him, like so much else. A reason for his silence toward me may perhaps lie in the country once so dear to both our hearts, Yugoslavia, which he, as he puts it in an article, has unmasked as his "own personal illusion" and has "smoked out of himself," and which still shines on before me as a reality. But I know that one hour of double-voiced storytelling about that country would suffice, and Kobal and I would be reduced to completely unanimous weeping and cursing, weeping, laughing, and cursing.
No, Filip Kobal has written me off because I settled in a faraway country, rather than where he is convinced I belong. He disapproves, as he told me at the end, of my obstinate, and, according to him, arbitrary, abandonment of my place of origin for something that in no respect seemed necessary, certainly not essential as an "exile" (which, to be sure, I have never in my life asserted a need for). It did no good that on that last visit he roamed for days at my side through the hills and valleys ofthe Seine, dropped in with me on hundreds of bars, churches, hermitages, houseboats, transmitters, and local radio stations.
I took him to the wintry birds' sleeping tree by the railroad station, even had my opera glasses with me, so that my nearsighted friend could distinguish the massive branches in the plane tree's crown from the motionless sparrow-balls. I shared with him the minutes of the last session of the town council, filled him in on the proportional assignment of seats to the various parties, from community to community within the département, with its population in the millions, gave a scintillating account of the early history of the region, from the days of the Romans and the Middle Ages to the liberation in 1944 by the division commanded by General Leclerc. In the church in Sevres he found himself standing with me by the tiny spiral staircase from the twelfth century that began high above our heads in the wall--there was no other staircase, not even a ladder--and ended who knows where; in Ville d'Avray, as the wind feathered the water, I showed him the ponds painted by Corot; on Mont St.-Valérien near Suresnes we breathed the air in the former Gestapo death cells; in La Defense we stood together, buffeted by the night wind, in the ghostly light of the Grande Arche.
In the forests we crouched side by side over the secret springs from which I had scraped away the leaves for him, whereupon they began to pulse before our eyes. I slipped with him into the underbrush to find the foxes' lair, climbed down with him into the ditch of the giant toad, pointed out to him in passing the rivulet flowing around a menhir, bought apples and milk with him on a farm on the plateau of Saclay, sniffed at his side the great mill of Versailles, passed with him four forest rangers' lodges in a single afternoon, approached with him, without saying a word, as we made our way uphill on the path taken by Jean Racine and Pascal through the meadows along Rhodon Brook, the barns of Port-Royal, of which I hoped to hear my Filip Kobal say that he had never, not even in our Jaunfeld region, seen such noble threshing-floor roofs, soaring so high toward the heavens, mirroring the centuries.
I introduced him to the waitress in the church-bar of Jouy-en-Josas, who unexpectedly addressed him in Slovenian and turned out to have been born in Kosovelje on the karst and to the tarot players in the back room along the Route Nationale 10, who were a group of itinerantSerbian stonemasons; attended with him the Russian Orthodox Sunday service in the blue wood-frame church in the bay here, no larger than a garden shed, but how many people unexpectedly inside, what an enormous missal, and above us all, in a cloud of incense, the eagle of St. John the Evangelist. I showed him the smocks of the local craftsmen, just as blue as those of the cottagers back home, the shopping bags of the older women, dangling from the crook of their arms on long handles, the pocket knives with wooden grips, so similar to our penknives back home, the numerous blank windows in the houses along the bay, even a hillside with ancient cow paths.
Yet Filip Kobal, after all the days we had spent hiking together, after he had remarked briefly that the region here was exceptionally lively and varied, and that anyone could see I knew my way around like a taxi driver, geographer, and forester all in one--why else would the many people who got lost here instinctively turn to me and receive reliable directions--Filip Kobal said I had spent enough time away from home now. For a long while I had represented a standard for him. As long as I had stuck it out, as his fellow countryman, in writing and also in life, that had given him and a few others the strength to carry on, he would assert. But in the meantime my example was no longer valid. Of course, he himself repeatedly left our country and its people. I, however, had overstayed my time abroad, and it was henceforth inconceivable that he should read my admittedly very original and special writings as before. Of course, he saw the similarities between this place and the region from which we both came, precisely through the differences, but a spiral staircase in Sevres could never be "my" or "the" spiral staircase, something characteristic, something for a book. With all due respect to the pear tree in my yard, likewise to the even older cherry tree, to the neighbors, to the bar acquaintances, to the cattails, bullfrogs, snakes, and otters in the forest ponds, to the air base, the atomic plant, the secret vineyards, the tangle of vines above the brook known only to me: when described, woven into a narrative by me, one who had come of his own volition, they amounted in his eyes to nothing but interference in others' business, the opposite of a well-founded book--something superfluous, and with all those plane trees, cedars, bamboo stalks, even fig trees and palms, to boot.
And abruptly, as Kobal was lecturing me, he seized me around themidsection, hoisted me in the air, and continued to speak, thus: "It's true, in the course of these days you've let me see, without pointing it out, always only in passing, the Easter fungus on the tree trunks just like that at home, the moss in the ravines, the almost identical rural railroad station, the woman with the washboard, the cassis or currant bushes deep in the woods, the bus station like Klagenfurt's, the wooden balcony with red geraniums like Kobarid's, the root cellar like the one behind my family's house in Rinkenberg. But it isn't here. This here is a substitute. The originals are somewhere else and have been waiting for you a long, long time. What do I care if you keep a journal on the landscape and the people here, even a chronicle? Even if you sit out and walk out another twenty years here, nothing will acquire mythic depth for you. And the mythic dimension, the earth-fissure world, was your specialty, from the beginning. Without the mythic dimension your books are certainly more manageable, less circumstantial. But they aren't really yours, don't really yield a proper book. And don't tell me you're on the trail of the mythic world of the Ile de France just because you know the appropriate story to tell when we get to the 'Crossroads of the Woman Without a Head' in the forest of Meudon, and likewise at the 'Crossroads of the Broken Man' on the other wooded hill, which is called the 'Forest of False Rest,' and likewise in the forest two hills farther on, called the 'Forest of the Hanged Wolf.' Though the original inhabitants here, of whom, I admit, there are quite a few, like to describe how things looked in their childhood, even they are far from having a unifying history, let alone a legend, a tale, a fairy tale, a tradition. This people is simply not your people, and I mean not only the people of the suburbs here, but the entire French people, so enlightened and linguistically sophisticated that for every situation on earth it has, without even looking it up, a polished, definitive, if not always lucid formulation on hand. From what I know of you, the Mongolians were a more appropriate people for you, also the Indians, the Mexicans. Here in France not even all the stone graveyards with their exclusively elaborate plaques to which I've followed you have a mythic aura, certainly not those; these fields of sarcophagi look to me like nothing but sarcophagi, flesh-devouring containers. In this country you have to go back to the Middle Ages to encounter the fairy-tale colors and the gust of myth that at home brushes your forehead around every corner. You mustn't be without a people,not you. You're not cut out for mere reporting, for the role of the uninvolved bystander. Consider the warmth, rare though it may have been, that you've received from your people in the past. There's no warmth like it. You've sidestepped your people, again and again, and now you're in the process of losing it. Only yesterday when you came home you were hailed as 'someone special.' Today from one end of the country to the other no one greets you. You've spoiled your relationship with your people by your absence, and even you stopped believing long ago in a people of readers in the diaspora. By the Milky Way above the Jaunfeld Plain, by the double onion towers of Heiligengrab, by the brewery of Sorgendorf, by the fir forests of the Dobrava still full of chanterelles and a Russian sense of vastness, by the train shooting by in the autumn mist like several trains in one, by the freshly renovated clay bowling alley, by the monument to the partisans, by the IHS carved on the barn gable in Rinkolach, by the woman under the apple tree, by the windows of the farmhouses so low that children don't need a door to go in and out, by the wilted wildflowers in tin cans in the wayside shrines, by the manna ash trees on the Liesnaberg, even without a pilgrimage up there, by the owl in broad daylight on the chimney of the house next door: connect again, if there's still time, with our shared Slavic litanies, which always made you quake inside as otherwise only the Psalms, the Odyssey, and the bells of the Resurrection could."
In my recollection, Filip Kobal dropped me as he spoke these words, rather than setting me down. I struggled with him, half hoisted into the air, half scraping the ground with one foot. But he was not my angel, not then, and not since. For his next folk novel he has returned to the valley we have in common.
For a time the region was poisoned for me by his presence, as had never happened to me with anyone before, or at most with my publisher, the other one, who, when he still came to visit me in the bay, left me each time, after his equally hectic arrival and departure, feeling the kind of loneliness in my house, my region, and particularly my writing such as a writer can probably experience only through dealings with those who buy up the rights to his work: no sooner was his greed for the manuscript satisfied, or the obligatory visit, like one to a terminallyill patient, hastily taken care of, than he found my existence as incomprehensible as tedious; the silence around the house and grounds made him restless, the chair on which he perched seemed too small, the countryside in which I lived, with its forests, birds' flight paths, barracks, orchards, all of which he took in sullenly, was not part of the civilized world, anyone with whom I had dealings was not worth mentioning. In the meantime I dream of a third publisher, a new pioneer for my books, and by the light of day have no hope for any such thing.
Yet only my obstinacy has saved me from that damning judgment rendered by Filip Kobal, my old pal, that I and my place of residence are out of the question for a real book, for a "Gregor Keuschnig book." While Kobal was speaking in such terms, my obstinacy whisked me away to the titmice hopping about in the spruce outside the window, to a helicopter above the ridge of the hills, and to a ball of paper that kept rolling back and forth in the sun on the sidewalk as he hurled these charges at me; whenever something became threatening to me, I have always taken refuge in such sheltering images.
During the first period after this, when I walked the countryside, alone again and determined to remain unaccompanied in the future, I wanted my eyes to compel those mythic phenomena to appear that Kobal had declared absent from these parts, and, contrary to my usual practice, even questioned the bay's native residents about them, like a researcher doing fieldwork, which I regretted as I continued on my way, precisely when the answers betrayed secrets and yet more secrets.
But perhaps only now, however confusedly, would I be capable of responding to him, thus: "It may be that where we come from myths and fables are cultivated more than here. Yet that very fact renders them hollow. No, for now I am not going home. You see, when I come home, no one is there. It's actually more likely that I will move even farther away. In the meantime things are more lively here than at home, with the cliffs I've just discovered, something you missed most in the Seine hills, the blackberries, the yellow-headed dragonflies and hornets; and just a moment ago the first peacock butterfly of the spring crashed into the window, and yesterday the mythic woman from Catalonia brushed by it, and this evening in Porchefontaine I am meeting someone who collects ladders! And how do you know in any case that I'm still dreaming of archetypal images and stories? And that, if indeed I am stilldreaming of them, I still have confidence in them? The following, for example, is the dream I've had repeatedly over the last few years: all the animal species in the world are running, galloping, flying, in all their variety and in harmony from all directions toward a watering hole in the desert, and each of the animals is equally large or small, the horses, the birds, the lions, the rabbits. But then when I reach the water after them, I see nothing but an infinite number of bees circling and about to drown. May it not be that the myths are still potent, but at the same time warped, corrupted, spoiled? Perhaps I would like to get rid of them once and for all, lest they, which only lead me astray now, become dangerous to me; perhaps I would like to cause them to vanish, and why not through the practice of making notes, lists, charts every day? Yes, it sometimes seems to me now as though the mythic may still be beckoning to me from a great distance, but it turns out to be a labyrinth with no way out. And by contrast I'd like to let the simple present have its say, the current day, the moment free of myth, and capture and accompany it in the language of the chronicler; smoke out my addiction to myth. And perhaps I left my country and yours because unlike you, Kobal, I'm not capable of maintaining a fraternal distance there, at least not in the long run, but get too close to people, know too much about them, and then become petty from all my knowledge. Yes, in my own country, no matter how happy I am to return each time, sooner or later I feel stifled, as much by its unique people as by my own pettiness. In a foreign country, away from the metropolis, surrounded by a language that is not my own and never will be, I can't help preserving a distance, and I also do my utmost to avoid learning anything about the local people (question them only out of weakness), thus preserving all the more my peculiar intuitions, and as a result can do something that was impossible for me back home, namely dream deeply of one or the other of the absent ones, even dreaming at times, for instance now during the long winter nights, in almost unmutilated forms of myth, fable, or primeval tale."
Since childhood I have had in me a readiness for fallings-out of the sort I had with Filip Kobal and my Jewish friend, and with others. When it came to a parting of the ways, each time I accepted it immediately. To have a falling-out at first gave me satisfaction, in some casesa sense of triumph. Finally I was alone, which agreed with me and suited me perfectly. Almost never did I later experience disappointment or regret. What had happened was right, and in moments of uncertainty I had only to recall my fallings-out to feel confirmed.
That is no longer the case. True, I still have quarrels with people. But by the next day my sense of satisfaction has gone sour. On the other hand, since my childhood I have also had in me a readiness for reconciliation. And in my memories I always made the first move toward restoring good relations. It came from a bright surge of feeling pushing or propelling me toward the other person. In its abruptness it could also give rise to misunderstandings, which drove others to run in the opposite direction. Alternatively, I was the one who misunderstood--I would throw my arms around the other person, thinking he was leaning toward me, when in fact he merely wanted to whisper the next obscenity into my ear. Mostly, however, my surge of feeling would sweep the other person along as much as it did me, and without wasting another word on our conflict, we would go back to doing things, talking, or playing, in new harmony.
In the end that is what happened to me with my sister. It was the summer before her death, and one afternoon I found myself driving through the Austrian town where she, with whom I had broken off relations over the dissolution of our parents' household, was in the meantime living. Suddenly I stopped. At first, on the way to her house, I almost hoped she would not be there. But when I was standing in front of it, she absolutely had to be there; if not, I would wait for her, would go looking for her. And of course she was home and leaned her head against my shoulder, and without hesitation brought out buttermilk, bread, and elderberry brandy for me. We sat outdoors side by side on the bench, at our backs the unevennesses in the whitewashed wall of the house; she told me about her operation--her hair was growing back over her bare scalp, which shone through the fuzz. I told her about my house in the foreign suburb, which, with its unstuccoed sandstone walls, she had once mistaken in a photograph for a castle, the occasion, in turn, for an angry letter from her about my forgetting my origins. I told her how the woman from Catalonia had fled, how my son was becoming alienated from me. Now nothing would ever come between us again, and as we sat there in summery relaxation, for the duration of that houra song was playing around us, unpolished and free and easy, somehow suitable for my sister and me, like the sawing away of a country fiddler at a square dance or a Tyrolese country dance.
And thus I can also picture reconciliation with someone with whom I have seemingly broken for good. Yet if I spin this out in my imagination and examine the idea to see if it is serious and realistic, most of my former loved ones or kin become even more shadowy to me.
Restoring good relations with someone in my imagination, where images seize hold and hold true, has proven successful thus far only with the woman from Catalonia once, and once with Filip Kobal. In that daydream, while the woman from Catalonia was raging silently against me, her eyes dull black and her lips almost white, without hesitation I led her into the next room, where I sat down beside her and held her head, jerking as if bolts of electricity were darting through it, held it between my two hands, which did nothing but wait until the wild gallop inside her skull had subsided.
And in much the same way Filip Kobal came toward me on a sunny forest path in early spring here in the bay. The shadows of the trees' crowns, still without leaves, cast a pattern on the sand of the path, and when I reached his spot, with another movement of my two hands I casually conjured out of the earth and the light the mythical beast of this region. It was not a chimera, but rather a tiger of the steppes, peaceable, sunshine yellow, branch-shadow black, whereupon my companion and I continued on our way together as though nothing had ever come between us.
These are my fantasies of reconciliation, and I believe in them. But along with them there must also be at work within me a dream-deep distrust, even a revulsion against any form of coming together again.
How else to understand last night's dream, following right upon the day on which I wrote about the happy ending to the trouble between me and my sister? In the dream she was raging and enormous, hurled clumps of earth at me, then stones, heavier and heavier ones, and was finally intent, in a massive murderous impulse, on bashing in my head with a boulder.
And even the friends and family whom I now accompany from a distance have all been on the point of disappearing from my sight.
With whom shall I begin? With those who merely by virtue of their profession are so similar to me that trust was accompanied from the beginning by something like a natural distrust. Thus even before I knew the singer, I often felt a certain uneasiness when music began to play or so much as a single instrument, as if such sounds were false, indeed presumptuous, lacking harmony with the moment, especially when the music was an actual performance.
My inner conflict over music has meanwhile become insurmountable, my uneasiness as a rule more powerful than my emotional response, especially after the fact. It upsets me most when a voice or an instrument rings out above the rest or emerges all by itself. In this connection I recall from childhood in the Jaunfeld region a singer in our church who now and then performed the solos in the hymns, letting his tenor ring out, especially at night, during outdoor performances, where he stood apart from the choir and invisible, somewhere in the darkness high above the heads of the congregation, for instance up in the bell tower, and suddenly from that heavenly height sang out above the people below and over the entire quiet countryside, arousing general emotion, also in me, the child, who, however, even then felt the clammy touch of something revolting in those solo nights and recoiled from such song, as from the sense of community it created. When I think back now, of all the cultural events in that rural area, I found this the most unsettling, and when I mentioned it one time to the village priest, he revealed to me that before his days with the church choir this particular singer had been the most full-throated herald of Hitler's Greater Germany.
I could open myself up to singing or music making only if it took place incidentally, among other things--sounds, silence--and if I was not the audience, or if it did not address itself to an audience at all but turned away, toward the heavens, or inward, or into the void. Kobal knew what he was summoning me home with when he spoke of the litany and hymn singing. I can still be overwhelmed by a speaking voice that imperceptibly passes into chant and then goes back to speaking. All it takes is for the priest of the Russian Orthodox church here in the bay to raise his voice slightly during his sonorous Slavic recitation of Scripture, and I have to rein myself in to keep from weeping. Yes, as Kobalsaid, I quake. And it is enough for me if music is heard from afar, by chance, not intended for me. After an all-day hike across country, in the dusk, in an unfamiliar region, a few notes knock almost inaudibly at one's ear: the larger world opens up.
Sometimes all it takes is the sight of an instrument. It need not even make a sound. And thus the mere fact that my friend is a singer can fill me with elation, while as soon as he opens his mouth to sing, I am again overcome with exasperation, although his voice sounds like almost nothing, or not like one of those trained voices that put me off at the first note. When he plants his feet firmly on the ground and sings, I often feel at odds with my friend; but when I hear him speaking, and in my imagination his singing voice accompanies his speech, or simply in his silent presence, it makes me feel good to know that he is a singer. (In the meantime there are concerts in which he hardly sings and instead does almost nothing but speak, murmur, gesticulate, laugh out loud, as if talking to himself.)
I feel less exasperation with painters, at least with my own, who meanwhile has made his film in Spain, as well as the architect, here in the person of the carpenter, who I know is at the moment somewhere by the sea in northern Japan, in deep snow, sketching a telephone booth to which several steps lead up--thus it remains accessible even with this depth of snow.
When it comes to painters, I am sometimes repelled by their unrestrained or panic-stricken rush of images, which makes me able to sympathize with, if not understand, the various historical instances of iconoclasm (yet book burning remains incomprehensible to me). This happens with my friend in particular, so that, unlike with the singer, for whom I find it entirely justified, I cannot approve of his having all that money, and furthermore find it suspicious that he always appears so cheerful and extroverted. Nothing, it seems to me, gets under his skin anymore. He rejects anything resembling a new beginning or a metamorphosis. He has had his hard times, he says, and now he has a right to pleasure, in his work and otherwise, and also to wealth. And indeed, for a long time now every one of his pictures, in spite of their mono-tonality, has something uniformly supple about it, entirely consistentwith the impression this sixty-year-old makes, which caused someone to write about the innate capacity for transformation that makes particular metamorphoses superfluous, and another wrote: "He speeds from victory to victory." Things were different only with this film, which he kept wanting to call off, and which, despite his intense seriousness and fresh excitement, made him feel for the entire two months, just as in his early days as a painter, as if he were dancing in a dream, constantly at risk of falling down.
But perhaps I am the one who is bad for my worldly friend? I once heard from a third party who had visited almost all the painters and writers of our times that the former seemed quite tranquil in old age, sociable, cheerful, whereas the older writers seemed dissatisfied, touchy, disgruntled, and even the successful ones apparently felt cheated.
Architects remained alien to me in a different way from painters. My friend in Japan is the only one to whom I have become somewhat close, and that certainly has to do with the fact that in recent years he has transformed himself back into a woodworker, a carpenter, and comes across as such; someone who once stopped by when I was here in the house with him at first failed to notice him and then said, when he finally saw him, that he had not realized I had workmen in the house.
In the region where I grew up I certainly knew painters, if only as painters of signs and wayside shrines, but never an architect; even the word was hardly known there. There was the master mason who was also a master builder. And the structures that captured my imagination were hardly ever built of masonry, but rather of wood, also on the small side, and their construction did not require master craftsmen: the barns, the rough board toolsheds, the shelters for harvested crops, and those racks for drying grass, with narrow shingled roofs, scattered at all angles across the mowings; even today I will squint past a monumental stone structure in search of something unobtrusive, of wood. It is simply a fact that to this day things I did not encounter early on can make me skittish; it is a reflex, one I cannot get rid of. I think it comes from the jolt I got at the sight of the boarding school, which at one blow cut me off from my familiar world, that fortress seen from far below that took up an entire hilltop. It did not help that the final and steepest part of the path leadingup to the building passed a mausoleum as big as a house, windowless, with a half-open door from which, every time we returned from summer vacation, a cold breath of decay wafted, coming, I imagined, from the sarcophagus of the bishop who had retired in old age to what would later become this boarding school for future priests.
Although large cities were my element for a time, I have never been on friendly terms with city buildings, either castles or railway stations, either palaces, cathedrals, medieval squares, or high-rise buildings of any sort, bridges spanning rivers or inlets of wonder-of-the-world length, subterranean twin cities. They intoxicated me, dizzied me, but never sparked my imagination. To this extent, even if my siblings have accused me of the opposite, I can say that I have never become a city person. Structures that suggest "city," and perhaps also "power," "grandeur," "authority," were not on my scale, least of all in places where I was supposed to study: at the universities. These never became "mine," the one in Vienna as little as the one in Paris, except for a summery campus one time, far out of town near Santiago de Compostela. City people--in my eyes that is what architects are, and I often see them as antagonists.
Only with my distant friend is it different, and even so we are threatened, if not by a falling-out then certainly by wariness. He does not want to build anything more. For years now his work has consisted entirely of travel, and of searching for material for repairing and completing what is already there, which he never wants to see torn down anywhere, no matter what it is. My architect is not a city person, or one sees no signs of it in him. What could drive a wedge between us is the opposite of what so often aggravates me in my painter. Whereas the latter enjoys being celebrated as a winner, the architect presents himself as a loser, and for some time now has actually come across as just that, with the ironic style he adopts at the beginning of any conversation, as if he did not trust himself or the other person to be serious, his veering between impulsivity and rigidity, his interrupting of himself. And this makes me realize that an apparent loser disconcerts me as much as a declared winner.
Even the Japanese police, who otherwise look right past foreigners, as does the rest of the population, except children, have already stopped him several times on his trip--that is how derelict my friend looks, a white man stranded on the coasts of Japan, at least from a distance,where a pedestrian like him, with his broad-brimmed hat on his bowed head, can only be a mendicant friar, a stranger to the country; from close up, however, even with his worn soles and his threadbare shirt collar, he is elegance personified and humility in human form, which causes anyone spoiling for a fight to step out of his way and even salute him. And he, the most frugal and resourceful of us, who now sleeps in temple enclosures instead of hotels, lives almost exclusively on rice and fruit, and wears his clothing so gently that it veritably blooms, has enough money even in Japan to continue his travels for a good while longer, this entire year.
In the cavernlike fish market of Aomori, where everyone smiled at the carpenter, an older woman with a rubber apron has just given him a few fillets of raw salmon, which he is now eating, crouching in the dusk on top of a snowdrift, behind him poles, swaying boat masts, for the drift has formed right by the ocean, across which he is looking in a northerly direction, toward the island of Hokkaido.
Evening is coming on there, while here in the bay between the hills of the Seine beyond Paris it is the morning of the same day, already spring, with brimstone-butterfly yellow seen out of the corner of one's eye and thousands of frogs softly fluting, piping, or peeping as they mate in the nameless pond, overgrown with underbrush and trees, out in the forest glade. What kind of alienation is supposed to be hanging over me and him? Don't I see us as together across the continents?
And now it occurs to me that it was stone buildings that put me on the alert, for instance the house of the harbormaster of Piran, Istria, on my first day by the ocean, the way it stood there alone on the dock, the sky in its windows, without anything around it, without a yard or a portico, stone rising perpendicularly from the horizontal paving stones.
I move on among my friends to the reader. Mightn't he, too, disavow me and write me off? Metamorphose into someone who despises me?
There was a time when our relationship was in danger. It did not even go that well at the beginning. I met him for the first time in one of the two railway-station cafés in that other Parisian suburb where I lived before coming to the bay here; it was the Bar de l'Arrivée, while the other is called the Bar du Depart. I was sitting there waiting for myson's piano lesson to be over, and now, whenever I sit out on that terrace, I can still hear, through the roar of the traffic and the rumbling and screeching of the trains, from the top floor the obedient and defenseless groping of the six-year-old child on the huge instrument.
At first the gaze of the person who turned toward me from the next table struck me as that of a double, an evil one. Then he addressed me, without transition, without a greeting, without a question, without hesitation, as if I had been his acquaintance from time immemorial: "Gregor Keuschnig, I'm one of your readers," which, with my son's disconsolate scales in my ear, filled me with the uncomfortable feeling that I was this stranger's chosen victim.
That dissipated as he began to summarize, verbal image after verbal image, my books for me--there were only two or three of them. For in this way what I had created came back to me and seemed solid. As reproduced by the reader, in his tone of voice, my stuff sounded robust and at the same time surprising, and I felt in the mood to go and read it myself right away, thanks to the other man's roguish acting-out, his dastardly laughter at passages quoted verbatim--as if he were taking revenge on the state of the world.
But later on it was disconcerting again that the reader had eyes only for me. When I had picked up my son, he ignored him, as he did the people and places of the suburb, through which he then accompanied us on our errands. At my house, where I invited him to stay for supper, he did not even glance at the fire in the fireplace, and before that, while I was splitting wood in the yard, he stood around and continued to recite from my books, until I found myself wishing a piece of firewood would fly up and hit him in the head. And even the woman from Catalonia did not exist for him, she whom otherwise no one, not even an animal, ignored.
And then again, as we made our way in the gathering dusk across the backyard to the house, I with my arms loaded down with firewood, the reader holding forth with both hands free, he began to make delicate trilling and fluting noises, his lips pursed, whereupon little birds, sparrows and titmice, came whirring from the trees and bushes and perched on his elbows, which he held akimbo.
Things settled down with the reader only when he was gone, far away, back in his Germany (which at the time seemed more distant from Francethan it does now). At intervals he wrote me letters full of little stories about the seasons and reports on his country, and never expected an answer. I could say of him that he let me alone, and that did me good. Of course, my father lived in Germany, too, but I was completely indifferent toward him. Germany, a nonplace, despite my sense of finding myself and feeling at home in the smallest German word-hamlets: through the reader it became a country for me. I viewed him from afar as a poet. He was a court of appeal. And you could rely on the reader as on no one else. I took his letters along on my hikes and pored over every word, swore to be guided by them and never to disappoint him. I had confidence in him as otherwise only in the poets Goethe and Hölderlin, in Heraclitus and John the Evangelist. He was the epitome of constancy, never got worked up, and when he spoke, and not only about books, he gave a definite yes or no--my ideal, which I never attained. I, the writer, followed him on his expeditions in reading: just as I came to enjoy my own work through him, I read, after his telling me about them, the writings of others whom I had previously not known or even disliked. I went so far as to copy out sentences from his letters: "I exist in order to read." Or: "When I don't know what to do next: the light shed by reading." Or: "If I start a family someday, down to the last generation it will be a family of readers."
Then, with the passage of time I noticed something about the reader that made me angry at him again. He was not content to be alone with his reading; he was on the lookout for others of like mind. Like me, there were quite a few here and there in Europe and even overseas who followed his example and read the books he recommended. He encouraged that, too. Through his reading he wanted not only, as he expressed it, to "keep myself in top form," but also more and more to wield power. True, he felt no desire for public prominence. Nonetheless he presided over a circle whose head he was, the great reader. He presented himself as the authority in a most intimate circle, and thus it fell to him to dictate, without television appearances and newspapers, what was worth reading and what not. I saw the reader on his way to founding a sect, a sect of readers. And thus he claimed for himself and his followers exclusivity, infallibility, singularity vis-à-vis the mere crowd.
The moment came when, after he had again begun to talk in conspiratorial tones about an exceptional book, an exemplary contrast to theprevailing literary nonentities, I wanted nothing more to do with such a reader. And I told him so. Wanting to wield power through reading, and surreptitiously at that, in a whisper, made no sense, I said. He was a bogeyman, a corrupter of children, the antireader, the equivalent of the Antichrist. "Clear out, beat it, let books be books again, each one as best it can!" I blurted that out, unthinkingly, as always when I am in a rage, and when I finally looked at him, his lips were trembling terribly.
Thus we became friends. He continued to write his letters to me, but he never made mention of a particular book. For a time he tried to refrain from reading altogether, but then found that unnatural. Without reading, he said, he could not see the day in a day. The work that suited him was, and remained, reading and deciphering things. And wasn't writing an invention that to this day held a secret power?
To be sure, since then I have never seen him reading his book in public. He does it surreptitiously now, under the table, as it were, which reminds me of those carved medieval stone figures holding their book in their hand, and the hand as well as the book is shrouded in cloth. As a sideline he prints and binds books himself, one every couple of years, like those fragments of the twelfth-century itinerant mason.
At the moment he is walking along Jade Bay by the North Sea at Wilhelmshaven, where my father still lives. It is night, after the first day of spring. The lights far out on the ocean probably belong to the island of Helgoland, and when the reader turns around, he sees Orion disappearing in the haze on the horizon, "until next winter!"
It is not long until Easter now; hardly any sparrows are sleeping in the birds' sleeping tree here by the local railway station, and the few who are left perch there at night in their normal size, no longer puffed up against the cold. I go or roll along to the priest of Rinkolach on the Jaunfeld Plain, where I was born.
Today, Sunday, he is driving back and forth across the countryside because he has to say Mass in several scattered villages, one after the other. His rectory is elsewhere; Rinkolach is merely his branch church. It is a long time since there has been a priest in residence there.
Patches of snow can still be seen on the plain, especially on the edge of the woods; unlike here, the climate is not determined by the ocean.Yet even where he is, in continental Europe, the air in late afternoon has a lingering mildness, and thus the priest is struck all the more by the contrast between the warmth outside in the open air and the massive cold inside the churches, particularly in the sacristies where he changes for Mass, always in haste, as now in the particularly chilly church of Rinkolach.
On the table the elderly woman who helps the priest with his robing has placed a jam jar with a bunch of wood anemones; far off at the railway station on the border one of the infrequent Sunday trains blows its whistle, and down in the gravelly soil of the cemetery are piled the bones of my kinfolk, all jumbled and intermingled, with spaces between where there is nothing but the absence of my grandparents' two sons who died in Russia for the Third Reich, most recently joined by the ashes of my sister.
Thus I could close my eyes as I just did and spend this Sunday with the distant priest, sit next to him as he eats his midday soup, breathe in the smell in his car, and, stronger than he, who is always in a hurry, be with him in the afternoon when he nods off at his desk, and perhaps myself let my head sink onto my desk here; I would know my friend's day inside out.
But even with him there has already been danger. How indignant he has made me at times. It had almost nothing to do with his way of speaking, even if some of his expressions left an unpleasant taste in my mouth, for instance when he said he gave the dying members of his congregations "the death escort." (Gratifying, on the other hand, that he never called a thing or a person "stupid," "evil," or "bad," but used the term "simple" for it all: a "simple man" was a stupid or limited person; a "simple book" meant something inconsequential, somewhat humorous, and had nothing to do with "admirable simplicity.")
What put our friendship to the test during one period: that during the one or two times a year when I returned to my old region he took it for granted that I had to be mainly with him, if with anyone, not with my brother, the only surviving member of my family; I was allowed as little as possible or not at all to go about by myself. As the overseer of the parish, he imposed on the visitor the requirement of registering his arrival, his presence, and his departure, and all in the name of friendship. If I came, he was in charge; nothing else would do.
He, who in his profession was always there at once for anyone who needed him, expected the same of his friend as a matter of course, as a duty. He could not imagine that the primary reason for my coming might be, for example, a certain path at a certain time of year, or a stone wall around a field, or the entire region with its milk pickup stands, new or rotting away, and not some living being, and certainly not him.
If previously I had usually informed him of my coming, in time I began to keep my arrival secret and then even tried to avoid this man, who otherwise would have lain in wait for me far outside the village, at the train's flag stop, standing there by his car, his arms crossed and his legs apart, destroying my monthlong looking forward to the footpath across the fields in the autumnal light, and, even worse, making it impossible for me to take a single step by myself even way out there, far from human habitation.
And besides, it irked me that if anyone it should be this particular person with his clerical collar picking me up upon my return home, and with the local railroad workers as witnesses: it was as if I were letting myself be co-opted by a particular party in front of the whole population.
From now on, no one, not even the priest, was to know in advance of my visits to my old home. At the right moment I would instead simply show up at his house, as I was accustomed to do with my brother. But he, although I changed the times of my visits, seemed to intuit my return to his territory, even if it was only for a matter of hours. On the deserted highway to Rinkolach, my footsteps making the only sound, the wind between my fingers, at sunset, when I pictured him at evening Mass in Moos or Smihel, suddenly I would hear a honking behind me, followed by a curt wave from the village boss that brooked no contradiction, telling me to get into the car, whose door he was already holding open. And the next time I got off one station earlier and slunk by back roads to the village, which I reached long after dark. Heat lightning flashed ahead of me. In its glow, the familiar figure was suddenly there by the cemetery, spreading his arms wide and greeting me, as usual without first saying my name, with loud singing: "Salve in domino!" There, on the way to the graves of my kinsmen, I backed away from my friend, as one would only from a foe, and at the same time I felt like aperson who had been caught in the act, as though by being here without his knowledge I was a sort of poacher. And while I was cross at his cutting me off and blindly assuming that we both felt the same way, my recoiling and my reluctance to speak wounded him.
Although we remained standing next to each other and talked, in the alternation between the darkness, which I have experienced so concretely only on the Jaunfeld Plain, and silent heat lightning, it felt as if we had just taken leave of each other for good. I said, when he reproached me for my unfriendliness, that he was a "despot," "clueless," a "cannibal" (etc.). He said only that I was "a very simple person."
I am describing this incident also because the nightmare of that particular nocturnal hour had already faded by the next day. Or had it? At any rate, on the way back from my brother's house, where I had slept as usual on the couch under the staircase in the hall, I was honked at from behind my back, louder and more imperiously than ever, and then in addition had the headlights flashed at me, in broad daylight--when I had been sure that at this hour he would be teaching his religion at the elementary school in Bleiburg. Without hesitation he gestured to me, just with his fingers, to get in on the passenger side. We then moved to the trunk the crate filled to the brim with early white-skinned apples, just picked by him in the rectory garden. The quarrel of the previous evening, which had seemed absolutely final, was not even mentioned. He did not alter in the slightest his behavior as lord of the village, omnipresent; displayed it even more insistently, exaggerated it. And he also robbed me of that hour alone by the train window, that hour of slow departure, in an arc, one station after another, from the place of my birth, which I need in order to experience the region fully; instead he drove me in his car to the regional capital to catch the express, turning a deaf ear to my protestations. "Leave me!" I said. "No, I'm not leaving you," he said. And then, after we had arrived much too early in Klagenfurt, a town that had never meant anything to me except for its movie houses, which were gone now, and after we had sat together somewhere, I was the one, as is not uncommon with me, who would not let the other go. "Stay a while, I'll take the next train, I have time," I said. "Don't you remember that they're waiting for me to do a baptism in Humtschach, and that after that I have to go into the rift valley and callon a parishioner who's dying? That I'm not the master of my time the way you are, but rather its servant?"
And this is how we worked things out between us. I always keep my arrival secret from him, and whenever I come home to Rinkolach I double back again and again, under cover of darkness, through the underbrush, and the district priest tracks me down, blocks my path, confiscates my open space, ruins my time at home, and after my initial resistance, I accept the unwelcome company, indeed even want to be with this other person for the time being.
But who knows? What I do know is that after that nocturnal quarrel, the new beginning we both made, despite the powers of reconciliation I ascribed to myself, must be credited exclusively to my local friend. Was it only during my childhood that I could make up so matter-of-factly, for instance with our neighbor's son? Didn't I cultivate not long thereafter in boarding school one or two insurmountable enmities? Have I in the meantime become one of the "irreconcilables"? At any rate, that word appealed to me for a long time. But even there I no longer know.
I see my woman friend under the Turkish sun, while here in the Seine hills the first blossoms are raining down from the trees, or rather, I sense her this way, in her environment there, the white-glistening delta of a river between the place where it flows out of the Taurus range and where it reaches the sea. She is turning a piece of wood in her hand that has lain in the water for a long time, in fresh water and in salt water, a narrow cylinder whose wooden parts, the fibers and splinters, have been almost completely replaced, into its very core, by finger-long, spiral-shaped bivalves that have grown into it. Only the outward form remains that of a cudgel, which lies heavy in her hand, heavier than one made of wood could ever be, heavy as stone.
Remarkable that I can think my way to this woman (although she also helps me, as do the others on the road, by writing to me now and then or sending me a sliver of wood, and although I carried with me just such a shell-encrusted piece of wood along the southern shores of Turkey until it began to stink, and the captain of the ship threw it overboard, as he did with everything that did not belong on the ship).Remarkable, because we were once a couple, and our story ended in a way that makes a subsequent friendship appear miraculous. At the time I fled in horror from this woman who loved me.
And here I interrupt this passage. For it seems questionable to me, and not for the first time, by the way, when I refer to the person I was in the past as "I," not only the child, but also the person from as recently as last year. My "I"-uncertainty is equally great for all the years, and pertains to almost everything I did, everything that was done to me, and everything that happened to me. It is as though I constantly had to put quotation marks around myself in my memories. "I" looked after my three-month-old sister. "I" was mugged. "I" was resuscitated. "I" gave a speech. A moment in which I am not questionable to myself is a rarity, even reinforced with an exclamation point. Then I woke up next to my dead grandmother! Then I walked with my grandfather, facing into the raindrops, through the dust from the path across the fields! Then I sat all summer and fall, and wrote, looked out the window, yes I! Then I caught sight of my son, yes, I! Then I swam in the middle of the year in the middle of the river, yes, I! Yet with most of my experiences I find it difficult to say "I," would rather substitute some other word, except that none presents itself. I have no choice but to use an undifferentiated "I" as the subject of my active and passive experiences, no matter how false it rings to me.
Onward. Through. So at that time I was my present woman friend's lover. I was thrilled by the two of us. I wanted to tell everyone I knew about her and me, and did so, too, in my circle: about our first meeting on the main bridge in Maribor, where I knew at once that we would become a couple. I even told my son, at the time still a child, about her, and had to hold myself back from flaunting my rapture with the other woman in front of the woman from Catalonia.
Yet our story, as far as I am concerned, had begun beyond the body, as an idea, long before I knew my friend: it was that my woman should come from the country most closely related to me. Of course, this idea, which, by the bye, was as erotic and captivating as anything could be, had been forgotten instantly when the woman from Catalonia turned her head on that very different bridge in El Paso, and also remained forgotten for years; it came back to me only with the appearance of my friend onthe great bridge in the southern Slavic town of Maribor, with people streaming by and the Drawa flowing underneath at an autumnally slow pace, as wide and bustling as a river in China.
I then avoided any touch for a long time. I did not even want to look her in the eye, as if that would have been too familiar. One night, when the moon was full, she led me to a snow-covered field high above the city, and I did nothing but stand there for an hour; the snow lying on the ground and rustling, its crystals on top forming tiny gables, made more noise than I, and when she reached for my hand I slapped hers away.
When we finally became a couple, more as a result of her prodding, almost pushing, it made me unhappy. As she undressed, with the agility of a teenager, I was thinking that it was all over.
And something was over, namely my idea about her and me and our people, and something new was beginning.
After we had been together, she promptly disappeared, without saying goodbye. Utterly downcast, I fell asleep and awoke the next summery morning as the entirely different person at whom "I" had already marveled as a child, usually also upon waking: unspeakably happy, shot through with sweetness, connected to everything outside of me, irrepressible.
And in the months that followed, this sort of immediacy prevailed between us as a particular elegance, without any danger of a false step or a misunderstanding. It was a grace that made us invisible. When I think back, I see neither a face nor a body, but in its place the roots of spruce trees growing across the wood road, the clothesline on the terrace, the succession of moraines rushing by on the horizon through the open train window. When I was with her I felt as if I had been swallowed up by an earthquake. That boy who looked right through us as he passed the place by the forest path where we were lying. The band of reed cutters who poled their boat past our sandbank, each looking in another direction, anywhere but at us. Once we lay together under a cherry tree, and again the two of us disappeared, and the only memory image that remains is of the cherries up in the tree, as if each time I looked up there were more of them, small, round, glowing red.
And every time, my memory reminds me, I found myself alone afterward. I see her dashing away from the circle, and already she is aroundthe corner, out of sight, inaudible. Since she always presented herself as a sort of adventurer, disguised or shrouded and veiled, she did not leave behind the smallest image.
As a rule we arranged to meet in third locations, settings neither of us knew, usually even in third countries. In one such foreign city we were lying once in the summery darkness, and suddenly I heard her saying that I should live with her. It was less this statement than the voice echoing from the pitch-black emptiness that made me fall silent. And then she repeated what she had said, with the same ghostly echo.
I have never known what verb to use to describe physical love. The verb that came closest was from the Odyssey, where it is said of a man and a woman that they "rested" together, often "all the night through," "until rosy-fingered dawn." That is how I had rested with this woman, time and again.
Such rest was now at an end. The voice talked and talked, saying always the same thing, with variations. And then the invisible being next to me, a moment ago nothing but a giddy summery body, resorted to violence. At first there was just a kind of stomping in place. Then it began to flail around and grew to giant proportions, or as our lover of local legends, Filip Kobal, would say, became a "Berchta mummer," a worshipper of the pagan goddess. And the heavy, massive body of this spawn of darkness sat on her victim, just as in legend, threw herself over him, kneaded him, plucked at him, pressed down on him, stuffed him into herself. I have felt horror like this only in the one dream I had of sleeping with my mother.
It was also appropriate for a dream or a legend that I "freed myself with my last ounce of strength," "I do not know how." I fled the bed, the room, the dark house, and when I turned to look as I ran, the devouring woman was perched above the door, like in olden times in the village, as tall as the façade, her legs spread over the lintel and dangling to the ground on either side of the entrance, and as I ran I got hopelessly lost, took the bus going in the direction opposite from the railroad station, ended up in suburbs where, in the bright light of morning, I could not even decipher signs that were as clear as day. And I did not feel liberated in the least, but rather, in spite of the fresh air and the passersby who shielded me, still suffocated by that slimy placenta-darkness.
Since then I have never rested with my former chosen one. For a long time we also did not meet, and neither sent the other any sort of sign. Then I saw her again, in the harbor of Split. At the sight of her I at once felt summery all over. And suddenly I had no other memories of her, had forgotten everything else in her new presence. She was rolling with a stream of others down the gangplank of the car ferry just arriving from the Dalmatian islands, and what I had seen first was not her face but the bunch of flowers in her hand, which was also holding the steering wheel, flowers so small and richly colored and native that they could have been gathered only on an island, on island cliffs.
Then she approached me perfectly naturally. She had married in the meantime, but she still played the adventurer, the independent woman, or, as she had been called during our time together, the "loafer," taking off on her own once a year, though with her husband's money and also with her father's, and going far away. To be sure, I kept thinking as she talked, "How threadbare this woman is!" or "How worm-eaten!" But such thoughts did not count. And she acted as if nothing were wrong. And thus nothing was. And that is how it has remained between her and me ever since.
It is not she I see at the moment, not even her hand, but only the white pebbly seashell cudgel in the midday light at the foot of the Taurus range, still snow-covered on the peaks, while here outside my study a thrush leaps like a cat out of the bushes, and the shadow of a bomber from the air base passing high overhead darkens my writing paper for the twinkling of an eye.
The wooded hills around the bay are greening. The greening began on the ground, crept upward, and in these first days of April has reached the level of the underbrush. The trees themselves still look bare, except for some crowns rounded out by a veil of green, which yields tiers of parachutes floating down. Here, too, lizards leap and dart, a type different from those my woman friend sees in her Middle Eastern delta, more adapted to tree bark, and the other day, when I dug out the rotten stump of the poplar tree in the garden, then sawed it up and split it, along with still-motionless stag beetles, the pulpy interior was swarming with hornet larvae, from which, some of them already clearly formed, the heads with their hornlike protuberances stuck out and stirred, next tothem their dead ancestors as mummies, surrounded by wood in which, when I dumped them out, their hollows remained.
Before I move on to the seventh and last of my distant travelers and also describe, describe in an interrogative mode, the temporary rift with my son, consummated only in my thoughts, already long past, yet still alarming to me today, I should like to try to clear up a problem of form, perhaps for the last time in the course of this undertaking. (My son, still retracing my footsteps, in Yugoslavia, far to the south in Montenegro, will have to hurry to reach by Easter Sunday that tiny church in Thessaloniki where Christ resurrected after the Crucifixion is portrayed in a way that I, so needful of images of resurrection, have otherwise never in my life seen.)
It sometimes seems to me that in my writing, and not only this present project, I am threatened by completeness: instead of leaving space, of filling up all available space, something of which I always accused the woman from Catalonia; of not creating a line for my story but cluttering it up with intricate variations. So: away with variations? Away with completeness, which threatens to reduce my freely streaming narrative to a kind of catalogue? I, the cataloguer, as the internal enemy of my other I, the narrator? To avoid a catalogue, should I now leave the episode of my alienation from my son out of the narrative? I do not know.
If this were the case, that internal enemy would have to be the one with my first profession. Might I, the lawyer, the doctor of jurisprudence, be obstructing me the narrator? Might the form of the laws I once studied be turning against the form, not amenable to study, of my story? And again there come to mind the catalogues belonging to that Roman law I so greatly admire, codified later in Byzantium under the emperor Justinian. Although they constitute a closed system, as a legal code should, reading them still opens and refreshes my mind. And long ago that legal language helped me find my way out of myself. That was true especially for my writing, to which I was drawn as never to a place and also never to a human being. (It did not become a substitute for a country and its people; rather it stood for them from the outset, had from the beginning no intention of doing anything but narrate--but what?)
The question was: what language was suitable for my writing? When I was a young man, each time I sat down to write, full of inchoate longing, I found myself hesitating at the very first letter and realized that I had no language--no writing language. Usually I would then slink away from the desk or wherever, my mission unaccomplished, and whenever I wrote something down after all, it was the same word covering the entire page, or the stammering of mere syllables. And that was supposed to be the story I had just seen before me in chiaroscuro?
Until I learned the language of the law, and in particular the Latin terminology, I did not succeed at getting a single sentence to capture properly the light that at times shone so far up ahead of me, within me? Only the language of the historians, of Thucydides among the Greeks and among the Romans especially the laconic language of Sallust, had something to offer me, so it seemed, yet then as now I could not think of a story to fit this language; I, the inlander, would have had to go to sea like Joseph Conrad.
There was no question of using the language of novels, no matter which, for my narratives: I soon learned that that would condemn my primal longing to lifeless imitation and singsong. How, then, could I hope to find revelation in the language of the law, which instead of narrative sentences consisted of paragraphs, usually conditional statements following the pattern of "If someone ... then ..."? First of all, this language sobered me up, without in the slightest impairing my attraction to writing. The light I had previously intuited, who knows where, cleared my head through this language. And then the language the law offered me was by no means its own, but an entirely different one, one I still had to find for myself, a narrative language parallel to the language of the law, like it given to circumlocution, at a remove from the thing described, with a limited stock of concepts, so that the myriads of words that previously had perhaps contributed most to my linguistic confusion were now out of the question. Such avoidance, such a limited choice, as a result of which, above all, descriptors for feelings were eliminated, actually strengthened the presence of feeling in the writing process, and with the help of the language of the law, and also mindful of the historians, I was able to complete my first story, even if I occasionally ran into snags, as I still do today.
But even then the wholesome influence seemed to be coupled with athreat. As the law did not omit any facts of a case, insisting on one variation of the premise after another, and was also not at liberty to omit any variation, for otherwise it would not be a law, anywhere near a just one, I was correspondingly tempted to add to each detail in my story a further one, and yet another, all those that in my eyes pertained to the matter at hand, as if I could do it justice only in this way.
In that compilation of old Roman law, for instance, a distinction was made, in the case of one person's striking another, on the basis of whether the blood "fell on the ground" or not. For if the blood dripped onto the ground, the penalty had to be more severe. And it also made a difference under the law whether the blood ran down to the ground from a blow on the head or from a blow lower down, and even whether blood flowed only after the third blow or sooner, and whether the blow was administered with a flat hand or with the fist or with a whip, and whether the act was committed by a freeman, a slave, a "Frank," or a barbarian, which also applied vice versa to the victim. And the provisos for women who were beaten this way were different from those for men, so that the paragraph or "title" on hitting and bleeding, in order to be halfway comprehensive, expanded into subparagraphs and sub-subparagraphs. Likewise the determination of the penalty for someone who had cut off a boy's hair without his parents' permission could not make do with a single sentence but, as a law, had to have variants, at least depending on whether the child was long-haired or not, and so on, and in the eyes of the law at that time it was also not all the same if a native (Roman) man "squeezed" a native (Roman) woman's arm or "grabbed" it, and whether he committed this offense against the arm below or above the elbow. (Then a completely contradictory form of justice in the paragraphs on setting fire to others' houses "with people sleeping inside," which differentiated according to whether the sleepers were natives or not, and in the last section extended likewise to setting fire to cattle barns, and in its final variant to pigsties, for which, I imagine, it imposed the same penalty as for arson involving non-Roman sleepers.)
Be that as it might: what attracted me so much, even on a first reading of the code, was, I now think, not any particular model of justice but rather a kind of ordering, a fanning-out, illuminating, an airing-out of chaos or of so-called reality, both in ancient Rome--which, at the time when these laws were codified, had already collapsed quite a while earlierand was probably supposed to be revived as an empire by this means--and in the present, my own reality, both internal and external; as I spelled out the pandects (digests), paragraph by paragraph, subparagraph by subparagraph, no matter how different the topics treated in them were from contemporary concerns, confusion and obscurity vanished from my world. Even distinctions that appeared at first to be hairsplitting organized this world more precisely and accurately, and at the same time widened the larger picture.
Was that a paradox? The more possible conflicts the law carved out of formlessness, the denser its net; the more chiseled and discrete the vicissitudes it illuminated, the more spacious the world appeared to me as I read on, and also the clearer and more open--linguistic form, whose deciphering, detail by detail, had the effect of unlocking, enlarging, completing, complementing me?
And another paradox connected with my reading of the laws, the most curious of all? That these laws, focused on everyday misdeeds and atrocities, of which they treated exclusively and on which they rang the changes exhaustively, gave me, the decipherer, more than a millennium after their compilation, fresh certainty under my feet, something like rootedness, simply on the basis of their language, generally applicable and binding, which first named stabbing, killing, ripping out limbs, raping, exhuming corpses, pillaging in all conceivable degrees--that in itself created order and tranquillity!--then organized them, and in such a way that even the most deviant and malicious act was, to put it briefly, "provided for."
Because the legal dicta provided for every possible turn of events, I was no longer threatened by chaos, and the unreal--than which there was nothing more catastrophic in my eyes--evaporated. A legal work that catalogues crimes and punishments comprehensively does not merely order them, but, as I still feel when reading this text, also welds the world together and validates it. What then emerges at times is indeed something like an empire; not a vanished Roman one, but rather one that again brings to mind the phrase "New World"; I experience in this case the very opposite of a trance.
I also became rooted in another sense through the language of these laws: even while I was a student in various capital cities, whether in Vienna or in Paris, the occurrences circumscribed by the Latin paragraphswere always transferred in my mind to the rural area from which I came. Although, as far as I knew, violations of the law had hardly ever occurred there, at least no criminal offenses--there was just one person in the village who was constantly in litigation with his neighbors, as probably happens everywhere--I thought I recalled, as I worked my way through even the smallest subparagraph, a corresponding situation in and around Rinkolach. Such a memory would shoot through me, brightly outlined, an oscillating, vibrating image, electric in quality. What flashed by me as I pored over my texts were fragments of narrative images such as I had never seen in any actual narrative from my native region. The village tales told by my grandfather, who everyone agreed was a "born storyteller," never aroused any memories, nor did the novels of Filip Kobal, he, too, as people said, made of "epic bedrock." Memory, marvelous in quality, did come to me, however, by way of the generalizations and ramifications of those long since inoperative prescriptions.
As recently as this morning, when I was trying, with my now fairly faded Latin, to decipher the paragraph in the digests about stealing flour from a mill--and it mattered for the penalty whether the flour belonged to the miller himself or to a customer--I found myself transported, with the force of a hallucination, to the Jaunfeld mill, deep down in the already dark rift valley, furthermore on a gloomy rainy day, sacks of grain under the tarpaulin outside on the ladder wagon on which I had been sitting only moments before, facing backward, while now I was standing inside the deserted mill, surrounded by the shrieking and roaring of the millrace, high above me the guttering light of a naked bulb.
And when I read on, another situation is evoked for me, from the same region: "When a person enters a stranger's garden for the purpose of stealing ..." "When a person steals grain from a stranger's field and hauls it away with a cart or on a horse ..." and "But if he hauls it away on his back ..."
One section even reminds me of a specific person, my grandfather, who, after the death of his wife, when he was already quite an old man, fell in love with a neighbor's hired woman. In the law it is mentioned that anyone who consorted with the king's maid and openly entered into relations with her was sentenced thenceforth to serve the king likewise. And thus, when I read the Roman law I see my grandfather on a certain Sunday afternoon, when he had been left alone on purpose with hisforbidden love, which was known to the entire village, being caught by his family when they returned unexpectedly--his own daughter, my mother, and also his second daughter are there. The almost seventy-year-old man stands there with his pants down, the hired woman, not much younger, in her slip. None of the witnesses laughs; that a man, and an old man at that, should enter into relations with another woman so soon after the death of his wife, and with this kind of woman, is serious, and the two daughters look most serious of all. The two elderly dissolutes have flushed cheeks, two times two small, bright red, perfectly round spots there, not from shame, but because they were just kissing, their mouths almost closed and their lips pursed like birds or children, and just as eagerly, at a frenetic pace, head against head, yet their bodies at a distance from each other. The hair of this purple-cheeked couple sticks out from their heads, the woman's gray, the man's still black. She looks at the bystanders while he gazes into her eyes as before. They do not pluck at their clothing, either one of them, and thousands of Sundays later, in his charity cubicle, with room only for his bed, this man, meanwhile almost ninety, pulls the blooming young woman from Catalonia, visiting with his grandson, onto his knee and breaks into dry sobs.
Where I come from, I was never considered a native, a villager. But I can say that deciphering the aforementioned legal code helped make a villager out of me in the cities, at a distance, and only there. I read: "When someone steals the bell from a stranger's pigsty ..." and I recall the bell, although there was probably no such thing, in a pigsty back home, and see or visualize our village as located in an imperial province, isolated yet within easy reach of the capital.
And yet the law, even that of classical antiquity, does not provide sufficient reading for me. Give me a sentence that begins with "In the days when" instead of "Whenever," and I am electrified altogether differently.
I fear, though, that I have read all the "In the days when" books I am referring to. The last one was the Bible, and there I kept putting off the end, finally rationing myself to two sentences a day of the Apocalypse. After that I stopped my kind of reading for the time being. I do continue to read, but it is really more a reflex action, like watching television, no longer a way of life; it does not penetrate to a deeper layer,and just as I soon switch off the television, I soon hit a snag in my reading.
The "In the days when" books still rank highest, as far as I am concerned, although those written nowadays usually soon catapult me back into the outside world, the here and now, instead of keeping me in their "It was" and "It happened." And I feel just as comfortable there as earlier when reading stories, even if nothing happens but a cloud's passing overhead. I do not know why. The only strange thing is that I am back outside most quickly, have no desire to enter into a present-day book at all, when the story pretends to be one from olden times, like a classic tale. I also cannot manage to read the "In the days when" books that merely make a game of those earlier ones in which everything is possible. I need a kind of narration that is initially problematic, lifelike, urgent --"What is the question?" means to me "What comes next?"--and then, when it can finally answer all questions and take up where the earlier or eternal stories left off, comes across as something very rare, as a happening, suitable to the kind of narration I have in mind.
At the mere idea of such a thing achieved in this day and age, I, who have not taken leave of my reading, feel immeasurably relieved, a feeling that is conferred on me only in bits and pieces by the kind of hairsplitting over definitions that occurs in the texts of the various scholarly disciplines, no matter how animating and pleasurable that may be. An idea or merely a wish? A new book full of narration, that's what I wish for. And then I again see before me and in me something grand that calls for a form entirely different from that of conventional narrative. But what sort of form?
As recently as last night I had a dream in which I was doing nothing but reading. It involved a passage from the Gospel according to St. John with which I was unfamiliar, a pure narrative, with nothing but "And he departed ... and he ate ... and they said ... and when it became evening ... and they gathered together ... and he sat down ... and when the sun rose ... and we washed ourselves ... and he said," in large, clear print with large spaces, as if winged, and I could see simultaneously everything I had read, in the form of a constant succession of "he" and "they" and "we," set in motion by letters and blank spaces, concrete and at the same time dancelike in a way I have not once encountered outside this book.
And like my reading, so too my writing. I need ... and I hope ... and I wish ... and I have a dream.
For this narrative I have needed for a while all the open questions, the working-out of possibilities, the greatest possible comprehensiveness, as if it were a law. Now I hope to extricate myself from the dovetailing of objects as well as of words and to shake off the heavy hand of compulsion. More than ever I wish I could be swept away in unquestioning narrating, vibrating sympathetically just as with reading, the kind of narrating to which, it seems to me, I have not once had a breakthrough for more than a paragraph.
But I have dreamed the dream of it again and again, and that was the most profound thing in me. And in my imagination for some time now, precisely because of my taking so many detours with this present project, my starting off down so many side roads, I can feel this dream shaking free, ready to soar aloft and take wing, for the day, the desk, and the deed. I sense that it is no longer a dream. The image has changed into a tone, a voiceless one, to be detected only by my sense of taste, with which, instinct tells me, something will begin and continue, and persist, finally without more fuss or reservations or question marks, that will give whoever reads it the ability to hear without sound and to see without images and to sample without taste.
I also find myself wondering whether this might not be my second metamorphosis, which I have been waiting for and working toward since the beginning of the year. Might this presumably last metamorphosis consist in my setting out to narrate, in sentences that would be absolutely straightforward, in the sense of "Let your speech be yea, yea and nay, nay"? And might I thus be at the moment no longer the one I was at the beginning, nor yet the person I will be, but also not the one I appear to be?
The more freely I sense what is coming, the more constricting my present condition feels. This becoming aware has always been a problem for me. Whenever it has manifested itself, it has cut me off in the midst of life from living. Suddenly I become aware, and instantly my breath falters and runs out, in the middle of a sentence, in the midst of life, in the midst of an upswing. My awareness has nothing in common with any form of reason, but rather meddles like a daimon, destructively. Like my love, it has also destroyed my narrating every time.
But now, having advanced as never before to a stage on the verge of what appears to me as my destiny, I sense that I could rid myself of my daimon, my nemesis, the crocodile in my heart, the antithesis of the mythical beast. This metamorphosis--is it going to turn into a struggle again after all: between me, the monster of awareness, and me, the Tom Thumb of narration? I have gambled away my social being, my life with others, through my awareness. Grant that through my writing I may, at least in its main purpose and its main theme, find my way back to the realm of the dream, preserve the underlying tone and become as clear as day.
From the window at which I sit, I see my narrative every morning, see how it should continue in broad strokes. It is a place. I noticed it at the very onset of winter, for the first time in all my years here: a spot in the woods on the hillsides, which since then, as a result of daily observation, has become a place (as Filip Kobal, at home on his Jaunfeld, takes those apparently insignificant little spots to which he is drawn time and again and "declares them a place").
There are trees there, as everywhere, only these stand out more distinctly than usual, up hill and down dale. In part that has to do with my distance from them: they grow halfway up the hill, approximately midway between the forest's edge below, of which the other houses allow only little glimpses, and the line of the horizon higher up, where the plateau of Vélizy begins, of which only the sky above it is visible, arching over the farthest treetops. Thus the place strikes me as the heart of the forest, removed from the foreground with its smoke rising from chimneys, but also certainly not yet far off in the distance. And for another thing, the spot has something special about it, for the oaks, the birches, the edible chestnuts are lined up on the brow of a foothill, behind which the land apparently descends again into a hollow. Of this hollow, with the fuzzy gray background of the forest rising again on the next slope, nothing appears from my vantage point but its light, which, however, picks out individually each of the few trees in front and forms them into a group. Sometimes in fog the entire line of hills appears lower by about half and ends right there, with everything above it and behind itvanished. For me, the hilltop and the hollow mark the boundary to distant parts, no matter what the weather.
In this particular section of the forest I then saw a water meadow, which in fact is probably nothing of the sort--for that there would have to be water flowing through the depression--and named it after a painter, the "Poussin Meadow."
In the beginning I still visualized scenes from some of his paintings there: figures dancing off into the distance, two men carrying a basket of wine grapes as large as themselves on a pole between them, a man with a woman at the edge of a summery field of ripe grain, and all that at the bottom of the bright, broad hollow, which took on some of the qualities of a corridor. Yet I soon started looking up at the place on the hill, just to lift my head in the morning, for instance. But then, every day, against the background of more distant vistas, I perceived something in the silhouettes of the trees, illuminated by the light from the hollow below, or the sight set me to thinking. On the Poussin Meadow, even on dark, dim days, color predominated. Although nothing was happening, it was a lively scene. Although it was not far off, I saw far into the distance. Once I saw us there walking below the Acropolis.
Against the glow in the background, the trunks and branches of the promontory became struts, themselves already the finished structure. Or the one oak tree there, almost as large as the one named after Louis XIV in a neighboring forest, its form starting at a central point and rounding out toward the top, had the appearance of a wheel, with hub and spokes, driven only by the light in between and the upwind from down below in the meadow. Nicolas Poussin in his self-portraits was looking out, as I pictured it, into just such a slice of landscape. And early this morning--Easter week has begun, with storm and a haze of rain--I saw the branches of the royal oak, almost motionless, only slightly shaken amid the general swaying, and next to them and around them a wild tumult, a massive surge of green from the tops of the birches, the first trees in the forest to leaf out completely, and at the edge, the blooming torch of a single wild cherry, an isolated ghostly whiteness there in the depths of the forest, far from all the blossoming closer by in the suburban yards, while the predominant color of the meadow was still gray, a sporadic, all the more strongly glistening pre-vernal gray, whose light came straight across the forest from the east and gathered in the branches andin the multiple tall, thin trunks typical of the trees in the Seine hills. Not a person to be seen there, and yet the meadow appears as a window on the world.
Instead of "Who am I?" I have taken to asking myself "What is most unique to me?" I do not know. But I know its place, every morning, halfway up the hill, thataway.
But Poussin's meadow often disappears with the morning light, or at least appears at midday so shrunken that the hilltop as well as the hollow could belong to one of the thousands of craters left by the bombs dropped on Velizy in 1944, whose victims are buried in the cemetery farther up on the flank, and at most I can still see Poussin's Eurydice in the bushes, just bitten by the deadly snake.
And I belong to the green and gray glow out there only as long as I sit indoors at my table and stay put. The meadow loses its picturesqueness if I go so far as to look at it not from downstairs in my study but from upstairs: either I cannot locate it at first or there is nothing remarkable about it. And whenever I went up to the forest looking for it, I was never quite sure if this was the place I had fixed my eye on that same morning from my window, had scrutinized, studied, observed--even the oak, unmistakable from my house, multiplied as one approached, and had no regal dimensions anymore. And similarly, from my table here, morning after morning the eastern rays of light will dissipate more, like the columns of smoke from the suburban roofs gradually disappearing in springtime. The place is being overgrown. Its image is being veiled. Is its image being veiled?
Well past his childhood I did not think or say "my son" but "the child," and was also more likely to address him that way than by his name.
Many were put off by that; my own father reproved me in a letter, in his own way, by reporting that one of his girlfriends was "puzzled" by it, and the woman from Catalonia felt that by my constant invoking of the "child" I wanted to immortalize this in my son and, on the other hand, keep him at arm's length, as an exceptional being.
But what about the moment when I no longer saw Valentin either as a child or as a son, and he did not even have a name, except perhaps"him," or "that boy," or "the stranger in my house," "the ruffian," "the good-for-nothing," and the only thing I could manage to say to him was "I don't know you"? When for his part my son, whenever we still went anywhere at all together, would rush on ahead, strike out in an unforeseen direction, and leave me panting along behind him? When the adolescent's notebooks, which I did not leaf through until last year when I was cleaning out his old room here in this house, are full of hatred and loathing for me, the man who, according to him, merely put on a show of love, whose presence just got in the way, me, the false father, whose solicitude was an act; who took nothing seriously; whom he wanted to get rid of every single day, wanted to kill with his own hands, with the ax, with a club, with a medieval morning star; about whom he prayed night after night to the heavens above, when I happened to be away, that I would never come home; and in comparison to whom even "my so-called mother," "the modern woman," "the woman with the cold shoulder," "the mournful wanderer," ceaselessly roaming the world, at most leaving him a scrap of paper with a heart scribbled on it in the empty house, already off to her next nondestination, represented a reference point?
If I think back, it is touching that there were two different times when my son and I were at loggerheads this way: there was the time he secretly raged against me for about a year, while I, according to a memory that does not register the past but feels it, and of which I can therefore be as certain as of a fact, was intensely fond of him, as in the years before that. And the time when I, on the contrary, the father, moved away from him in my thoughts--this is putting it too innocuously--that was later, and I feel, likewise in memory, several glances of my son's resting on me, as if from the far corner of a dim hall, and I know they stemmed from helplessness, a wondrously tender helplessness.
Unthinkable, back in his childhood, that there should be a question of anything between the two of us but a lifelong story. I experienced hours, even entire days with him that above and beyond that had to lay the groundwork for something, something enduring, a bond that could not be banished from the world.
That did not come immediately with his birth, when, at the sight ofthat fuzz-covered, dark-skinned little creature, in the presence of his almost bloodless mother, I recoiled as if the woman from Catalonia had foisted a changeling on me. During the first years of his life, which I spent without my family, far beyond the Urals, I saw him so seldom that every time he failed to recognize me and at the word "father" was more likely to look at the Mongolian faces around us than at me, and I, too, felt as though the word did not refer to me. Although I had felt a powerful urge to have a child, and with this particular woman, who would clearly bear me someone extraordinary, whenever "my family" came to mind, it was never the three of us, but, as always before, my grandparents, my mother, her brothers, long since dead, my sister, my brother; and that most decisively where I find the measure for what I call "real": in my dreams. Deep in my dreams, the woman from Catalonia, my son, and I never appeared in the context of a family; the three of us did not even appear together. Even when we were finally living together in Paris, at first I felt so ill at ease with my son that I avoided being alone with him and often did not come home in the evening until he was sure to be in bed already.
Yet my memory also preserves a few very different moments from that period: the face of a child, behind a door in the dark, where he has hidden and is smiling, a smile in profile such as one sees only during hide-and-go-seek. And in a particular stretch of sidewalk, which I let him walk on the day they were paving it, his footprint, next to that of a large dog. And my searching for refuge and elan, and not only once, in his cowlick. And then, in our first suburb, initially so quiet after the roar of the metropolis, up there in the Seine hills, on the side streets the postman's regular morning whistling, and inside the house the two of us, intent each time on not missing a note of it, our moment of shared experience.
And in spite of that our life together continued to be determined by an expression in my son's eyes that has been gone for many years now, and even then appeared only occasionally. I understood that look as one of distrust, as a sign of a serious disturbance. The child's distrust focused on no one in particular. It was a matter of principle, or at least in the process of becoming a matter of principle. I knew that kind of look from earlier, from myself, in the only photo from my boarding school, a group picture, and I encounter it likewise in children today, more and more,including smaller children. I see it every day in some here in the neighborhood.
For one in particular--he has not been walking that long, and speech is still new to him--the word distrust does not seem strong enough: it should be suspicion. This child looks around for suspicious sights, and not only from time to time--he does so uninterruptedly, eyes darting, somberly from below or over his shoulder. Paraphrasing a saying of the petty prophet of Porchefontaine, I then think, "Two years old--and already it's all over," and although it is clear to me that the blame rests with his parents (or someone else), I cannot help condemning the little fellow himself; that's how upset I am by his unremitting wariness.
My son had that look, but quite unexpectedly, between two looks quite normal for a child. Yet even then I was repelled and felt a surge of rage, directed against him, myself, something unknown. In the face of this sudden darkening of his gaze it seemed to me that it would take only a little for that look to become permanently fixed on his face. I felt an urgent need to dispel that facial expression, by force. Something had to be done about this distrust, unbearable to someone who was subjected to it day in, day out from close up. But I did nothing.
The person who did something after all was my son. Valentin, in defiance of the usual expression, did not "come" to me. He ran, galloped, flitted, leaped, stumbled, dashed. That usually happened after periods of separation, which had meanwhile become infrequent. Previously, even if he had caught sight of me the moment I appeared, his first movement had been a looking away, almost a violent swiveling of his head, as if he had been waiting for anyone but me. But now, picking me out without any particular peering around, even from among a crowd of people in a railroad station or airport, he would promptly break into a run, looking straight at me from way across the building. I did not see the need for help and the pleading quality that later replaced distrust in his eyes and can still appear there, even now that he has come of age; rather, it was an instance of uninhibited pleasure, never preceded by the slightest surprise, even when he could not know I was going to turn up. For he took it as a matter of course that when he had climbed the lighthouse at the end of the earth with his grandparents, in La Coruña (or somewhere else), on the platform at the top I would appear around the corner. And he did not even need to be separated from me to run toward methat way. Once we had just spoken with each other and then met by chance on the street, on opposite sides--he surrounded by friends--and he immediately slipped away and came flying and leaping toward me, a glow on his face that embarrassed me and at the same time made my heart bleed.
For an entire decade the child and for a while also the adolescent and I lived together this way in harmony; or we were of one mind, without words, each of us, wherever he happened to be just then, equally preoccupied with nothing of moment, like two idiots.
Only when we walked together did this boy otherwise so silent--to his teachers "silent Val"--begin to speak, the first speaking in tongues I ever witnessed. As a rule, it occurs to me, this happened when we were going gradually downhill, after a longish ascent, and if I still feel drawn today to places from the past, it is to those nameless stretches where my son did nothing but enumerate the world for me.
One time, after we had gone up and down in the Seine hills, we descended to the Métro station in Issy-les-Moulineaux, located in one of those suburban streets for which the dictionary of commonplaces would offer the word "gray," and he began to speak about the colors of the houses, and by the end of the street each house had its own color, shading, and nuance; yet he was not inventing or adding anything, simply comparing what was there, making distinctions, emphasizing, and when a building remained gray, which was the exception, it became dove gray, beech-trunk gray, slate gray, so that when we looked back over our shoulders the row of houses stood there as a strip of colors, more varied than any human being could dream up, and even the asphalt of the sidewalks displayed that tinge of red that is a fact in this region on the outskirts of Paris and takes on the deep red of animal blood in the lightest showers.
I was always threatened by a kind of numbness: losing any sense of coherence, whereupon the world continued to move along without me; instead of conceptual bewilderment, which I welcomed, I was struck with something like a visual bewilderment, for which in the area whereI grew up they had an expression--"to stare into the idiot box"--comical only to those who watched someone actually doing it. In the meantime I have been trying to avoid this condition with the help of an aphorism from Goethe's later years: he says we have an obligation to keep ourselves alive and impressionable, following the example nature gives us. And accordingly, my decade of association with the child seems to have brought this notion of impressionability to my attention--a word I am now writing for the first time, although it has accompanied me since the beginning of this undertaking and actually showed me the direction in which it should be going, far in advance; a multisyllabic word, uncommon in this usage, that set me on the path for an entire book.
I learned that a child could make one impressionable, much as nature does, simply in its way of being there before one's eyes, to be perceived without Goethe's microscope or magnifying glass, for instance with that cowlick, from which the eye moved on to the bracken, the door, the pebbles, the rusty key.
Then my son and I had a falling-out. It was never put into words. Had that happened--and how close I was to blurting it out, and probably he as well--there would have been no going back. By holding back the final word, each of us made a fresh start possible.
And yet our falling-out was a fact, and no mere growing apart such as they say is usual for parents and children in a transitional era.
I see its origin in myself. Even when we were of one mind, I had an ulterior thought: to be alone and on my own again. Back in my family period I was already leading a double life. In hours of harmony I was still on the lookout for something else--the wind in the leaves over there, the quivering rain puddle far off in the light of night--and considered my being with the others a mere episode, though it might last for decades; afterward I would be able to go my way as never before. I lived with those who had been entrusted to me and recognized that inside me something was turning in a different direction, away from closeness, away from fulfillment, away from the present. That counter-direction within me often became so powerful, even during the day and when things were outwardly tranquil, that I could not stand beingtouched by a child, not even my own, although I was happy with him, in harmony.
And then came the time when he did not believe in my affection anymore. He did not expressly avoid me; I simply did not exist. At our morning encounters he took cognizance of me without really seeing me. I, who with the passing years had come to need a greeting at least once a day, greeted my son myself, often through a door behind which he had locked himself, usually greeted him two or three times, hardly ever receiving a response. Upon occasion he looked right past me, jostled me, and did not even notice. Although Valentin and I continued to live in the house, more and more rooms, corners, even stair treads, door handles, and dishes seemed to become orphaned.
In the evenings he came home later and later, and I never knew where he was. Although I asked him to, he never once telephoned; I had simply dropped out of his consciousness. When he did call one time, the people he was with had reminded him of me.
Finally, while still a child in age, he began staying out all night, and I could not help waiting up for him. I got dressed and went out. In the suburbs, shortly after midnight, neither trains nor buses are running, and the headlights, shining, of a car, moving, become an unusual sight, and someone there, waiting in the house or in front of it, on the street, as I did time and again in those days, until that hour of night when only a barely audible, but all the more penetrating, hissing comes through the air, as if from all the electrical and gas conduits in the area, and still waiting when the first birds begin to sing and the racket of the day begins again--this person will perceive such a place, and with it the isolation, the silence, the ponds, the forests, only as his enemy. And on just such a night, a bitter cold one, with the glory of the sparkling winter constellations in the sky above the hills of the Seine, fresh snow was on the ground, and every time I walked down the white street in the direction from which I expected my son to come, and each time saw only my own tracks ahead of me, not those of any other pedestrian or any vehicle, I cursed the bay, together with its bamboo, palms, stars, and snow.
After a series of nights like this, the moment came when my sonstrolled toward me in the early light with the dreamlike gait of a dancer, and it became a certainty to me that I would reject him. I wanted to disown my child. And I had that thought in these very words, fired up by my intention, as though, having made a breakthrough to a biblical story, I had attained a life goal. While he was asleep in his room, I paced up and down in the yard and repeated, "I don't know you anymore; go away from here." But I never spoke any such thing out loud, and not because on one of the following nights he had an accident but rather because the other story was still there between us, biblical or not.
Yet I know of one father or another who has expressly disowned his son. How irrevocable such ruptures are. How such fathers retroactively deny their sons any good qualities, even those things for which they once unhypocritically praised them to the skies. And besides I am preoccupied with the question: What happened to the prodigal son after his return? And: What if in reality God the Father had long since forsaken his human, crucified son--see God's disdainful expression in many of his oldest portraits. And: Is there also a prodigal father?
These are my background stories with my friends, who, while I sit here in my study off the yard, are on the road in different parts of the world on behalf of a new--what kind of?--story.
But what is it that makes precisely these people my heroes, and not my many other acquaintances, who lend themselves far more obviously to being exemplary figures and contemporaries: my young journalist friend, who just last summer was covering the Tour de France and in the meantime has become a war correspondent; the professor of ancient languages, who now and then comes by here on his Japanese motorcycle, dressed all in leather, each time with a different beautiful woman riding behind him? Besides, don't I know a great deal more about these acquaintances?
Yes. Yet precisely the fact that I know so little about my son, my woman friend, the singer, the architect and carpenter, the priest, the reader, the painter, and the filmmaker makes them interesting to me or draws them to me, more from afar.
That means: fundamentally I do not know any more about all theothers, but the little I do know about them already seems to be everything, as if there were nothing more to be learned beyond that. No matter how I view them: they look complete to me, as Austrian society used to; inside me there seems nowhere else to go with them, and not merely because most of them have succumbed to what the petty prophet of Porchefontaine calls, with reference to all of contemporary humanity, "desperate self-deification."
The attractive quality of my heroes is precisely that I see them as unfinished and cannot imagine that that would ever change. Unfinished? Incomplete. Incomplete and needy. And they will be incomplete and needy all their lives. Close to despair, none of them will seek salvation in the worship of false idols.
Of all those whom I know somewhat, only these seven are this way: eternally unfinished, incomplete, needy, cool, hot, always on the go. My poor carpenter, my rich painter, my loafer woman friend, my empathizing reader, my high-handed singer, my somnambulistic son, my jubilant pastor, the only ones with whom I can be together from afar, strike me, in the morning perhaps more, in the evening perhaps less, as figures of light--bold, fiercely decisive. Whenever I was in their presence, I had only to touch them accidentally to feel to the very tips of my fingers that they were in my head.
I expect something of us--what? Something from the New World. That is unthinkable for me with a single hero, even with two: but from three on it becomes exciting. And to make clear what I mean, I shall offer a variation on an experience of the early Gregor Keuschnig: place beside the pencil on the table a hairpin, for instance, and push a shard of mirror next to them: how astonishing this threesome is. But how much more so when you then roll a pebble toward them, and fifth, blow a piece of string in their direction, and sixth, plop down a lump of resin, and seventh--is this maybe too much already?--nick an eraser among them: what a metamorphosis occurs in every one of the individual objects with each addition, and likewise in all of them together. What an experience, and how it wakes one up, tension created out of nothing, nothing at all.
Yet as far as my heroes and I are concerned, there have been times when I thought in terms very different from "we." One of the incentives to my present undertaking was actually the question: "Who is the hero? All of you or I?" In the midst of accompanying these absent ones, at the same time as I was observing things around me, the thought repeatedly interposed itself that I was the only one of us doing the right thing with his life. Only a moment ago I might have been wafting away with the smoke from the house next door or traveling with the passengers in the train to Brittany up there on the embankment, at the same moment so wrapped up in a distant friend that what he was doing just then was a first-person experience for me, and already a voice inside me was severing me from such unity, insisting that my life was entirely unique. Particularly in the backyard, there and present in the procession of impressions offered by the seasons, from within the earth-spanning stillness I became indignant at all the absent ones because they did not know what was beautiful, and were leading such a false life.
Even now, separated from the yard by the closed window, at my table in the study, when I look out at the cedar, at the beech, at the three stone kings in the grass, and order my distant friends to file past in review, for a moment also seeing them together as a frieze, I can find myself wondering: Who is more where he belongs, the pastor in his forester's vehicle, by his deathbeds, or I at my table; which of us is on the right path: the singer with his rising and falling notes, the painter with his pictures, materials, tools, machines, or I with my pencil script?
Am I also a self-deifier? A self-crowned king? One of the millions of self-anointed emperors running around today? The new metamorphosis all the more unavoidable? Or should it be called: expulsion?
Several weeks ago, on a sunny day, at the very first greening, that of She moss, I traced a wide arc through the woods in the bay here. Beside a sandy path, along a newly reforested area, where it was light, I sat down on a tree stump. Although on one side of the path the trees stood far apart and on the other the recently planted ones had barely reached the height of shrubs, I felt as if I were deep in the forest--it was so quiet, hidden, and at the same time lively there. The occasional airplanes, high above, white, hardly visible in the blue sky, were part ofit. The whirring of the highway on the plateau at my back receded behind that of not yet fallen tissue-thin leaves in the oaks, still there even now when spring was beginning.
As if it were a marker for the middle of the forest, at this place, unlike at everywhere else I had walked earlier, no more water glistened, not even the usual patches of standing water, and no rivulet. The sand, which had not been dumped on the path as elsewhere in the bay but had worked its way up from the subsoil, breaking through a thin layer of humus, fine as dust, was that of an extended dune, which emerged just as nakedly on the slope, although there it was firmer and more clayey, crisscrossed by roots, riddled in places by the mining bees, slipping into daylight en masse before my eyes, as if from ancient cave cities, reeling, flying upward.
The path ran straight ahead, though continually forming humps and hollows, and disappeared into a distant realm, where a far-off light beckoned, with the same pattern of crooked branch shadows as at the tips of my shoes. The sand changed color from one section of path to the next, going from a loessial yellow to an ash gray, from coal black to a beach white, brick red, desert brown. The colors appeared sharply separated, section after section, and for each one a corresponding animal turned up, as if growing out of that particular sand.
From the pale yellow a brimstone butterfly fluttered up. I saw the gray stretch enlivened by the similarly gray lizards, seemingly just born, a threesome, matching the coat of arms of the suburb, which extends into the woods here. And there, where the path suddenly blackened, to complement it a huge raven stalked along and sparkled, his bowing and scraping reminiscent of a duck, his sparkle reminding me of my runaway wife (a note from whom I had, just that morning, when I stepped into the study, found taped to the outside of the window). But the unpopulated places, too, were churned up by the tracks of animals, not only those of dogs, horses, and cats--which are led through the woods on leashes by their owners--but also those of mice, rabbits, birds, and then at my feet I searched for the print of the local mythical beast; but saw only clumps of rabbit droppings, as if expelled in mortal fear; mouse innards breaded with sand; feathers with tufts of animal fur stuck to them.
As I continued to sit on the tree stump at the edge of the dune path,my mind more and more vacant, I began to feel as though at any moment a horse-drawn carriage would drive by, garlanded, with my departed or defunct ancestors riding in it.
Meanwhile midday had come, balmy air, and the familiar yet always alarming joggers turned up, from the hundreds of office buildings up on the plateau, colorful like nothing else in the forest. One of them, as usual (and, as usual, a different one), called out a greeting. A little later, after the howl of a jet landing at the Villacoublay air base, squadrons of helicopters flew by carrying visitors of state, heading northeast over the hills toward Paris, whereupon it occurred to me that on that day a conference on a civil war was taking place.
I saw a man going straight ahead along the dune path, between sun and shade, up and down, dark stretches of sand and light ones. I caught sight of him while he was still far off, in the place where I could sense that other zone, veiled in distance. It was the medieval stonemason, tramping alone through France at the end of the Romanesque period, the man whose notes I had been reading just that morning. He strode along, although overtaken again and again by one of the joggers, maintaining the same even gait whether going uphill or down, and likewise in the deepest sand, the gait of a villager, shoulders back, arms and legs swinging wide, not of a contemporary villager, but rather of one from prewar days. He was dressed accordingly: a black suit with an open jacket and trousers fluttering around his knees, a white shirt without a necktie, a gray vest. With every change of color in the sand of the path, in a hollow, on a rise, the walker glowed in new splendor, one colorful panting figure after another circling around him. When he paused for a moment, I fantasized that he was hammering his stonemason's mark into a tree with a chisel. At my spot it was I who greeted him. A laconic greeting in reply, and already his back, shoulders rolling, as if there were balls of air in his armpits.
I followed him with my eyes, past all the bomb craters to left and right, obscured by the joggers as he was, until he disappeared into that so very different section of the path, no longer in the present but also no longer in his Middle Ages. And what had I just read in his notes? "I do not belong in the current era. I only wreak havoc there." And onthe other hand: "Today I shall find something I thought lost forever; there are such days!" And what was written on the paper the woman from Catalonia had stuck to the outside of my window? "We must remain at odds for a while longer. And even longer. And even longer." But didn't that thought come from me?