First published in Hungary in 1986 after a five-year battle with censors, Péter Nádas's A Book of Memories is a modern classic, a multi-layered narrative that tells three parallel stories of love and betrayal. The first takes place in East Berlin in the 1970s and features an unnamed Hungarian writer ensnared in a love triangle with a young German and a famous aging actress. The second, composed by the writer, is the story of a late nineteenth century German aesthete whose experiences mirror his own. And the third voice is that of a friend from the writer's childhood, who brings his own unexpected bearing to the story. Compared by critics to Proust, Mann, and Joyce, this sensuous tour de force is "unquestionably a masterpiece" (The New Republic).
|Edition description:||First Edition|
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About the Author
Péter Nádas is the author of the novels A Book of Memories, The End of a Family Story, and Love. He lives in Gombosszeg, in western Hungary.
Read an Excerpt
The Beauty of My Anomalous Nature
The last place I lived in in Berlin was at the Kuhnerts', out in Schoneweide, on the second floor of a villa covered in wild vines.
The leaves of the creeping vines were already turning red and birds were pecking at the blackened berries; autumn had arrived.
No wonder this is all coming back to me now: three years have passed, three autumns, and I know I'll never go back to Berlin, there'd be no reason, no one to go to; that's also why I write that it was the last place I lived in in Berlin, I just know it was.
I wanted it to be the last, and it worked out, just happened, that way regardless of my wishes, no matter; and now, nursing an unpleasant head cold I console myselfmy mind being useless for anything else, though even in its rheumy state hovering around essential thingsby recalling the autumns of Berlin.
Not that any of it could ever be forgotten.
That second-floor apartment, for instance, on Steffelbauerstrasse.
Naturally, I've no idea who but I might be interested in any of this.
Certainly I don't want to write a travel journal; I can describe only what is mine, let's say the story of my loves, but maybe not even that, since I don't think I could ever begin to talk about the larger significance of mere personal experiences, and since I don't believe or, more precisely, don't know, whether there is anything more significant than these otherwise trivial and uninteresting personal experiences (I assume there can't be), I'm ready to compromise: let this writing be a kind of recollection or reminder, something bound upwith the pain and pleasure of reminiscence, something one is supposed to write in old age, a foretaste of what I may feel forty years from now, if I live to be seventy-three and can still reminisce.
My cold throws everything into sharp relief; it would be a shame to miss this opportunity.
For example, I could mention that it was Thea Sandstuhl who took me to the Kuhnerts' on Steffelbauerstrasse, in the southern district of Berlin known as Schoneweide, "pretty pasture," which can be reached in thirty minutes from Alexanderplatz in the heart of the city, or, if one misses the always punctual connections and must wait in the rain, forty minutes to an hour.
Thea was the one who arranged or, more precisely, finagled this room for me, and naturally she, too, came to mind during these last cold-filled days, but strangely enough not with those conspicuous devices she used to draw attention to herselfher red sweater and soft red coat, the enormous amount of red she wore, nor the wrinkles on her girlish face, those pale quivering furrows she did not exactly try to cover up, yet one could sense she loathed by the stiff way she held her necksomehow she always thrust her neck forward as if to say, Go ahead, look, this is my face, this is how old and ugly I've become, even though I, too, was once young and pretty, go ahead, have a good laugh; of course no one even thought of laughing, since she wasn't at all ugly, even if one guessed that it might have been her hangup about the wrinkles that gave rise to her unfortunate love affairbut none of that came to mind just now, or the way she used to sit in her red armchair in her room with the muslin curtains and red carpet; what came to mind was her crying and laughing, her big horse teeth yellowed by nicotinenot her stage cry and laughter, which hardly resembled genuine tears or laughterand I could see her naughtiness when her eyes narrowed with scorn and her dry skin tautened over her jaw, also the tree in the courtyard of the synagogue on Rykestrasse, that withered acacia somehow connected to her, the sign nailed to its trunk saying it was forbidden to climb the tree, but who would want to climb a tree in the courtyard of an old East Berlin synagogue on a Friday night, nearly thirty years after the war? who would have the slightest inclination to do that? and as the long shadows of Jews streamed out of the lighted synagogue into the golden glow of the courtyard, I told her I had a fever, and with a motherly gesture she flattened her hand on my forehead, but I saw in her face, and my face felt it, too, that she was less interested in checking my temperature than in enjoying my skin, still young and wrinkle-free.
Hence the immediate and perhaps unreasonable apology that what is to follow cannot and should not be a travelogue, that Arno Sandstuhl, Thea's husband, who is some kind of travel writer, should not he compared to me or me to him: I realize of course that my open contempt for him, which may be attributable to jealousy, is not about his innocent passion for visiting faraway places and writing down his experiences, though this definitely aroused my suspicion, since very few people are permitted to travel from here and most of them know the satisfying feeling of travel only from hearsay, yet he, the privileged writer, had even been to Tibet and Africa if I remember correctly; I think my unjustifiable dislike for Arno was set off not by fleeting suspicion or contempt, not even by jealousy, but rather by the odd manner in which Thea had alluded, unwittingly of course, to a secret period of my life.
The first time we visited them, it was in their home, which was in yet another part of town, rather far away, somewhere around Lichtenberg, I believe, but I can't say for sure, because whenever we drove together I relied entirely on Melchior's knowledge of places, and from the moment I'd met him I looked at nothing but his face, absorbed his face in my face, and I couldn't be expected to pay attention to trifles such as where we were going; he looked at the road and I looked at him, that's how we traveled; and the last time I met Thea it was on the S-Bahn after Melchior had already disappeared from Berlin, and Thea was alone, too, because Arno had moved out of her placewe ran into each other at the Friedrichstrasse station, a few minutes before midnight, and she said, "My car's on the blink again," almost apologeticallyI was coming from the theater and sat with her till we got to the Ostkrenz, where I had to change for Schoneweide (I was still living with the Kuhnerts shell), and she stayed on the train, continuing home, and from that I gathered she must have lived somewhere in the vicinity of Lichtenberg, where that Sunday afternoon when we first visited them I had had a talk with Arno that was very much like a conversation between two writers: cautious, serious, boring.
Actually, we had Thea's dubious little ploy to thank for that, for she was the one who made the encounter so stiff and formal: as soon as Arno entered the room, a bit late, and I rose to greet him, she took both our elbows and effectively prevented us from shaking hands, as if to indicate that only through her could we make contact, though we might also have something in common, independent of the connection she offered us"Two writers in the throes of creative crisis," she said, alluding to one of my earlier remarks I had shared with her in confidencewhich obviously she thought was more important than the thwarted handshake, since her words shamelessly betrayed Arno's torment to me, and mine to him; but it was Arno she had hoped to help with this double betrayal, helping him through me by using me to make the three of us totally interdependent, yet lumping Arno and me together in a separate unit; anyway, we did not look into each other's eyes, because one does not like to be seen through so completelyeven by someone with the best of intentionsor be shown a likeness one does not or wishes not to resemble.
The situation was all too familiar to me, but of course the two of them couldn't be blamed for that.
Melchior was also laughing behind our backsthe spectacle of two bumbling writers must have seemed quite funny to himand it was at that moment that I thought, in my discomfiture or perhaps out of spite, that Arno was allowed to roam the world because he was a military agent on the side, an informer, a spy, but it's entirely possible, I thought then, that he might just think it's all right, quite all right for me to believe that about him, since he knew something about me I would have preferred to keep secret: he had noticed that Melchior made no effort to control his glances in front of Thea, so what we had meant to keep secret, namely, that Melchior and I were not just good friends but lovers, was surely not hidden from Arno, either.
On top of that, I had to show the man some respect, partly because he was a good deal older than I, around fifty or so, and partly because I had no idea just what sort of things he wrote; all I knew was that they were travel books, published in editions of hundreds of thousands of copies, and for all I knew they may have been masterpieces, but in any event, I felt it would be wisest to couch my caution in respectful courtesy; this mutually considerate conversation, carried on while Thea, like some office girl on her day off, was setting the table for tea and listening to Melchior buzzing into her ear about me, made both of us feel awkward.
Arno did everything to do justice to the role assigned to him, and I sensed a kind of masculine charm in his questions about the nature of my drama studies and the kind of short stories I wrote, a charm born of male strength in a state of embarrassment; in fact, one of his remarks seemed gallantly designed to offer me a way out, suggesting that he did not wish to dig too deep, "just briefly, of course, it would be impossible otherwise; I'm not thinking in terms of content, only a hint," he said, and smiled, but the fine little lines running toward his mouth made plain that his more profound thinking rarely found release in a smile; he seemed more of a brooder, which is why he didn't look you straight in the eye right away, as if he were hiding something or had something to be ashamed of.
But as I was answering him he did suddenly look into my eyes, and although his interest settled not on what I was saying, it was a genuine look, and I should have appreciated it, because whenever a glance seeks what lies beyond our wordsas in this case, for example, it sought to discover the relationship between my writing and the fact that, being a man, I was in love with another man, and I believe this was going through his mind as I spokewhen, in short, attention abandons the strands of meaning in the subject discussed and tries to grasp something of the speaker's emotional essence, then that moment must be cherished and taken very seriously.
But I knew full well that I had already stood like this once before in some room, facing and being completely at the mercy of another man.
Arno, who had apparently put up with all of Thea's quirks, was now trying with that very glance to get around the burdensome roles she had forced on us; it was impossible not to notice it in his beautiful dark-brown eyes, but I was too preoccupied with my own memories, and paid more attention to what Melchior was whispering about me to Thea than to what I was saying to Arno about my writing, which is why I didn't realize that his glance could have at last freed us both, for he was looking at me with a child's eyes, curious, open, and eager, and with some well-chosen words, or with none at all, we could have turned our conversation into not only a pleasant but also a meaningful one; yet I took no notice of this glance, I did not reciprocate, and having reached the end of my report, I managed to muddle up my own question; wanting to be polite, I settled for what was convenient, simply repeating the question he had addressed to me, and became aware of the rude indifference inherent in this repetition only when I suddenly lost his gaze, as in an odd self-mocking gesture he quickly tapped his temples with both hands, which he then turned palms forward and dropped resignedly.
This waving of the hands signaled no disparagement of his own avocation or work but was, rather, an expression of wonder, of being wounded and embarrassed, a renunciation of ever being understood"Oh, I'm just a mountain climber," said the gesture, and indeed, it seemed to have come from a hiker being routinely asked what the hike was like and was the weather all rightbut what is there ever to say about a hike or the weather?
Arno answered me, of courseafter all, he too had had the benefit of a solid middle-class upbringing that teaches you to bridge moments of inattention, confusion, even hate, with innocuous chitchatand he spoke as native Berliners do in general, producing words as if gargling with mouthwash; but even if I had managed to pay attention to himMelchior was whispering to Thea about what I had cooked for luncheven if I had understood what Arno was saying, his body language, his stooping posture told me that it was nothing interesting, mere talk, just keeping the conversation going, and at one point I lost even his voice, partly because I was fuming about Melchior's intimate disclosures and wanted to find a way to get him to stop, shut him up, but also because I realized or thought I realized why this neatly lined face talking at me looked so familiar: it could have been my grandfather's face, if my grandfather had been born a German, a face exuding seriousness, patience, humorless self-respect, a democratic face, if there is such a thing; and so I lost not only the gist of what he was saying but the sound of his voice, and he stood before me like an empty husk; the only thing I could grasp was that he was still wary of me, careful not to say anything that might be interesting, not to embarrass me by saying anything I really ought to listen to, and even before Thea had finished setting the table he gave up on me; I was left standing, leaning against an armchair, rocking back and forth, and Arno, excusing himself, quickly returned to his room.
How nicely these autumn images overlap.
Never more solitary experiences.
Experiences related to my past, but the past is itself but a distant allusion to my insignificant desolation, hovering as rootlessly as any lived moment in what I might call the present: only memories of tastes and smells of a world to which I no longer belong, one I might call my abandoned homeland, which I left to no purpose because nothing bound me to the one I found myself in, either; I was a stranger there, too, and not even Melchior, the only human being I loved, could make me belong; I was lost, I did not exist, my bones and solid flesh turned to jelly; and yet, despite the feeling of being torn from everything and belonging nowhere, I could still perceive myself to be something: a toad pressing heavily against the earth; a slimy-bodied snail unblinkingly observing my own nothingness; what was happening to me was nothing, even if this nothing contained my future and, because of the successive autumns, some of my past as well.
That autumn, in the back room of the flat on Steffelbauerstrasse, where two maple trees, still green and ripe, stood in front of my window, and where sparrows were nesting above the window frame, in the hollow left by a missing brick, there in that room, that autumn, I should have not only sensed but fully understood the nature of this situation, but I kept grasping at straws, hoping for an extraordinary insight meant only for me, for a new situation to arise, something, a change of mood, a tragedy even, that would at last define me within this indefinable nothingness; I kept hoping to find something worth saving, something that would lend meaning to things and save me as well, deliver me from this animal existence, not be something from my pastI was sick and tired of my past, the past was a reminder as unseemly as the aftertaste of a belchand not anything from my future, either, since I had given up on the future long ago, always reluctant to plan ahead even for a moment; no, I wanted something in the here and now, a revelation, a redemption I was waiting for, I can confess this now, but back then I hadn't yet realized that precise knowledge of nothingness should have sufficed.
Thea gave me a lift to this flat, Frau Kuhnert was her friend, and I spent a lot of time there by myself.
I might say that I was always by myself; never before had I experienced the solitude of a strange apartment the way I did thenthe polished furniture, sunlight breaking through the slits in the drawn curtains, the patterns in the carpet, the shine on the floor, the floorboards' creaks, the heat of the stove anticipating evening, when people of the house came home and turned on the TV.
It was a quiet house, only slightly more elegant than the run-down buildings of Prenzlauerberg, those "gray birds, ancient Berlin back yards," as Melchior wrote in one of his haunting poems, and here, too, were the elaborately carved, dove-gray banisters like those in other places where I lived in Berlin, on Chausseestrasse and Worther Platz, and the wooden stairs covered with dark linoleum, the disinfectant smell of the floor wax, and the colored stained glass in the windows at every landing, though here only half the panes still had the original intricate floral patterns from the turn of the century, the rest having been replaced by simple hammered glass, keeping the staircase in constant dimness, just like the staircase of the house on Stargarderstrasse where I had stayed the longest and where I had had time to adjust to staircases like this, though not even that house could become mine the way any apartment building in Budapest could have, since its past was missing for me; in various ways this past did signal to me, and I very much wanted to decipher the signals, knowing full well that these games of re-creating the past would not make Melchior more my own; nevertheless, coming home in the afternoon, going up the stairs, I would try to imagine another young man in my place who had come to Berlin one fine day long agothe man was Melchior's grandfather, and he became the hero of my daily evolving fictional story, because he was the one who could have seen these stained-glass flowers when they were still new and whole, illuminated by light filtering in from the back yard, could have seen the totality of the patterns, if he had ever set foot in this house and while walking up the wooden stairs fully perceived his present, which is the past of my imagination.
Downstairs, in the dark entrance hall, even during the day you had to press a glowing red button that turned on the feeble lights just long enough to get you to the first landing, where a similar button had to be pressed again, but often I walked up the stairs in the dark, because the constantly glowing little button beckoned to me like a beacon in the night seen from the open sea, and I liked looking at the tiny source of light so much that I preferred not to press the button, so the stairwell remained in darkness, and while I did not know exactly how many steps there were, the creaks proved a reliable guide and the red glow helped me on the landings; I hardly ever missed a step.
I used to do the same thing in the house on Worther Platz where Melchior lived, walking up the stairs almost every night, with good old Frau Hubner on the third floor looking through the peephole while sitting, I was told, on a high stool, but since I walked upstairs in the dark she couldn't see me, could only hear footsteps, and so she'd invariably open the door to peek out either too early or too late.
In the house on Steffelbauerstrasse the hallway lights didn't work properly, staying on only if one kept pushing the button, so if Frau Kuhnert happened to be in the kitchen when I was ready to go out for the evening, she'd rush out to make sure I didn't walk downstairs in the dark; I tried hard to leave without being noticed, since I knew that Frau Kuhnert faithfully reported my every move to Thea, who was anxious to know everything about Melchior, and after a while I imagined that even Frau Hubner was working for Thea and Frau Kuhnert, but I almost never managed to move quietly enough for my landlady: "Hold it, my dear sir, I'm here to light your way," she'd say, and run out of the kitchen to hold her finger on the button until I reached the ground floor; "Thanks," I'd shout back, thinking that Frau Hubner must be waiting in her third-floor apartment, half-expecting me politely to say hello as I passed in the light emanating from her place; but if I happened to come home during the night and there was no light filtering in from the street, I had to feel out each step on my way up or use a match, because in this house on Steffelbauerstrasse even the tiny red filament of the button had burned out and could not guide me, and I was afraid of bumping into something live on the staircase.
Melchior had never been in this house.
Come to think of it, he never set foot in the house on Stargarderstrasse either; we were forever hiding or, more precisely, we were trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, which was something I was quite adept at, it came easily to me, a sort of behavior that also alluded, unpleasantly, to my past: once, on a Sunday afternoon in front of the building, when Stargarderstrasse was all but deserted, though anyone could have concealed himself behind drawn curtains, on a dull-gray November afternoon when everyone was sitting at home watching TV, drinking coffee, and we both felt we could not say goodbye, we didn't really have to, we could have stayed with each other, except that we'd been together for three days and our protective shell which kept everything and everyone out was getting thicker and thicker and we had to break out of it, we had to part, spend at least one night aloneI wanted to take a bath, and Melchior's flat had no bathroom, you had to use a washbowl or the kitchen sink, I felt dirty, wanted to be alone for the afternoon and evening at least, catch my breath, and then, before midnight, run downstairs and call him from a public phone, hear his voice while leaning against the cold glass of the booth, and perhaps go back to his placeand we agreed that he would walk me to the corner of Dimitroffstrasse, and then he'd buy cigarettes at the tobacco shop under the elevated that stayed open on Sunday, but we couldn't tear ourselves away from each other; first he said he'd walk me only one more block, then I asked him to walk another; we couldn't just shake hands, it would have been ridiculous, awkward, and cowardly, but we had to do something; we avoided looking at each other, and then he held out his hand, if only because we wanted to touch some part of each other, and so we kept holding hands; there was no one on the street, but this was not enough, it was his mouth that I wanted, there, in front of the house, that Sunday afternoon.
And the house on Chausseestrasse he also saw only from the outside.
It was a Sunday evening.
I pointed out the window from the streetcar taking us to the theater; on the empty platform he was telling me about the Berlin uprising, and I told him about the revolt in Budapest, our sentences dovetailing smoothly into one another.
He looked up at the window, but I could not tell whether he actually saw it; he kept on talking: to me it was very important then that he should at least know the house, if not the room, where I had first stayed and which, without his being aware of it, had become important in his life, too; but Melchior, though not indifferent to my past, distanced himself from it, he could not do otherwise.
I had been living in the flat on Steffelbauerstrasse for almost two months, was used to it, had even grown to like it, when one morning Frau Kuhnert, lighting the fire in the stove, told me that electricians were coming that morning to fix the lights in the staircase, they'd be looking for her, but she couldn't stay home, and I'd be there anyway, wouldn't I?..."Yes, of course," I replied, still lying in bed while Frau Kuhnert knelt in front of the stove and, as she always did when working around the house, quietly hummed to herself; she was right, I spent most of my time at home, except for evenings, and since she was in charge of things concerning the building, she said, the electricians had to see her first, but I should tell them she couldn't stay home, "Who do they think they are, anyway?" and I should explain what the problem was, and whatever happened not let them leave, "the swine," until they fixed the lights.
I stayed home the whole morning, waiting for Melchior to callwe had only a few more days leftbut he didn't call, and the repairmen didn't show up either.
If only he had called during that cloudless day of sunshine and complete silence; in the morning the Kuhnerts heated only the living room and my room, and the nights were cold, occasionally there was even frost on the ground; from the dining room, which opened from the foyer, one could walk into the living room, but my room was at the far end of the apartment, approached like two small bedrooms from a long dark corridor connecting the kitchen and the bathroom; save for the living room and my own room, I left all the doors open to make sure I could run quickly to the phone if it rang, and if Melchior had called, I would have suggested we go to the Muggelsee if I could have talked to him from the Kuhnerts' living room; the weather was perfect, I would have said, looking from the warm room into the cold sunlight, but I would have also told him that I wouldn't go with him to his mother's, because the only reason he wanted me along was to make this farewell easier for himself; he had to say goodbye to her, perhaps see her for the last time, without letting her suspect anything, and I could not imagine that he would never again share with me his boyhood bed in his unheated bedroom; it seemed too implausible that everything we had would now irrevocably come to an end.
"That bed? You really used to sleep in that? and it was standing in the same spot? and that stain on the ceiling, that was there, too?"
He laughed at my questions, as if he couldn't conceive of anything changing in his world or of anyone being surprised at the absence of change; he was right, things were not that changeable there, and his mother, Helene, named after her mother, who had died in childbirth, made certain that things no longer changed, so she could provide her son with the security of an ultimate haven, but aside from this home situation, Melchior had good reason to feel like that about changes: before he had met me, he told me, not without a small show of male pride, it had mattered very little whom he was with, he simply had no need to feel secure, was not very choosy; in fact, the most casual relationships were those that had often given him the greatest pleasure; and to have something assuredly constant in his desultory existence, he had rigorously developed his taste, honing and refining it, making it ascetically austere; in his inaccessibly hermetic poetry he had forced himself to be self-effacing and uncompromising; and no matter what happened, he could come back here to his mother's house every weekend, which he did, lugging his dirty laundry in a suitcase, because here everything stayed the same and his mother insisted on doing his laundry, nothing had changed "except for the stain, that got there later," and he laughed, but his laugh never meant very much; he laughed easily, lightheartedly, for no particular reason, and nothing could ever extinguish the cheer in his eyes, except when he thought no one was looking.
I couldn't imagine that come Sunday morning, when waking to the peal of church bells booming through the tiny windows of his mother's house, I'd be alone, no longer able to inhale in the cold room the fragrance of his skin mingled with the pungent scent of winter apples and the sweet smell of pastry baked to be eaten with freshly brewed Sunday coffee, the apples laid out in neat rows atop the closet, the sugar-coated coffee cake on the marble-topped sideboard waiting as the afternoon snack, and the tiny window always open; yet his face would cloud over and he'd look at my forehead, my mouth, when inadvertently I told him that I loved the smell of his sweat; my nose loved it, my palms, my tongue loved it, and as if my words had pained him, he hugged me; "I can taste and smell and feel you!" he said, emitting an odd sound, and I thought he was laughing, but it was a brief, tearless sob that later, on his creaky bed at Worther Platz, erupted in whimpering, choking sounds of terror.
I also pictured the path around the Muggelsee, covered with multicolored leaves, and the tranquillity of the mirror-smooth lake itself, and the sound of our footsteps on the fallen leaves muffled by early-morning mist; actually, there was another reason I would have asked that we go to the Muggelsee: I felt that there I might still win him over, or commit myself unconditionally to him for good, but I knew it was impossibleoh, that incredible autumn!or we could have gone to the zoo, of course, if he thought the stroll around the Muggelsee too troublesome or far away; if one could believe the colored posters on the S-Bahnlooking at them became my pastime while riding the trainsthe zoo was also located in a forest, full of secluded shady paths, and we had never been there even though we often planned to go: but I also pictured myself taking a knife from the Kuhnerts' kitchen and during our walk stabbing him to death.
In this last of my Berlin residences I used to get up late, or rather, I'd wake up two or three times before actually getting out of bed, sometimes close to noon.
First, it was always the waking with a start at dawn as Dr. Kuhnert rattled down the hallway past my door toward the bathroom: I'd pull the pillow over my head so as not to hear what was to followhis going into the bathroom and first urinating; I had to hear the precise sounds of the short, sharp splashes preceding the long steady stream that stopped abruptly and ended in a gradually weakening trickle, the wall was thin and I could tell he was aiming at the back of the bowl, the hollow that fills up with water even after flushing; as a child I had also tried to do the same, and in a way I found it amazing that someone at the age of fifty, a university professor, should still amuse himself this waybut if the only sounds I heard were a short tap followed by a muffled squirt of urine against the side of the bowl, I knew he was going to defecate, too.
Elimination was not necessarily indicated by breaking wind; farts sounded quite different when done while urinating, standing up, than when seated, in which position the bowl acted as an amplifier; there was no way to confuse the two noises, and the pillow didn't really help, for the groans, the gentle sighs of relief, the scraping and rustling of the toilet paper could be heard clearly through the wall; the pillow could not possibly help, because I was also listening, as if enjoying it all, as if tormenting myself with the knowledge that I couldn't and wouldn't want to close my earsone can close one's eyes or mouth but ears can be stopped up only with fingers, ears can't close themselvesand Dr. Kuhnert was still far from finished, the noisy flushing was only a brief pause, and if I hadn't known what else was still in store, I might have had enough time simply to roll over and fall back asleep, because during these startled awakenings, at night or early in the morning, one is hardly aware of the transition between sleep and wakefulness, and the fading characters in a dream sometimes aren't intimidated even by a suddenly switched-on light; they have faces and hands, and they recede just far enough to be out of reach, jumping on shelves, among the books, and sometimes the very opposite happened: the features of my room dissolved smoothly into a dream, I'd see the window, but it was already a dream window, and the tree in front of it and the hollow left by the missing brick where sparrows nested were also part of the dream, and suddenly my whole body would stiffen, because this was the moment when Dr. Kuhnert would stand in front of the mirror, bend over the sink, right over my head, blow his nose into his hand, and, while the water was still running, begin to snort and hawk, spitting forced-up phlegm into the sink, directly at me.
At seven o'clock a knock on my door would wake me again, and "Yes, come in," I'd call out in what sounded like a completely strange voice, a sign that I first wanted to say in Hungarian what in the very next instant I had to say in German, whereupon Frau Kuhnert would enter and, humming softly to herself, light the fire in the stove; in the evenings I'd walk to the theater over a soggy carpet of fallen leaves and the soles of my patent-leather shoes would always be soaked through.
But by that time Melchior was gone.
I was left with Berlin, slushy and gray.
After the show I went to the flat on Worther Platz; it was cold, and the lamp's glare made the purple of the curtain look faded, but I didn't feel like lighting the candles.
It was raining.
The police could arrive any minute and break down the door.
The refrigerator was humming peacefully in the kitchen.
The next day I also left the city.
In Heiligendamm there was bright sunshine, though what happened to me there I still can't explain.
If I treated words lightly, I'd say I felt happy there: the sea, the journey, and the events directly preceding it must have contributed to this feeling, not to mention the pretty little place itself, which they call the "white city on the sea," a slight exaggeration, since the whole place consists of only a dozen or so two-story cottages facing the sea, on either side of the attractive spa, but white it wasthe shutters, now closed, the benches on the smooth green lawn, the colonnade, the summer musicians' chairs stacked in neat piles, and the houses themselves surrounded by manicured deep-green shrubs and tall black pinesthe most attractive feature of the place may have been its deceptively fair weather, and the silence.
Deceptive I say, because the wind howled here, and the embankment deflected enormous waves, crushed and cleaved them asunder, massive steel-blue waves booming thunderously into white foam; and silence I say, for between two booms one's sense of hearing fell into the trough of the waves, into a rapt anticipation, redeemed by the sounds of force turning into weight, though in the evening, when I set out for a walk, everything had calmed down, a full moon shone low over the open sea.
I began walking on the embankment toward Nienhagen, a neighboring town, with the rumbling sea and its glimmering crests on one side, silent marshland on the other, and I, the only living soul in the midst of the elements; I had run out of cigarettes earlier in the afternoon, and since Nienhagen, a town protected from the western winds by something called Gespensterwald, or Forest of Ghosts, did not seem that far awayI'd used a broken matchstick to measure the distance on the map and was sure I could reach it, because my eyes, though occasionally blinded by the wind, could pick out the flashes of its light towerI planned to buy cigarettes there, maybe even have a cup of hot tea before returning; I pictured a friendly tavern with fishermen sitting around a table by candlelight and myself, not one of them, walking in; imagined their faces turning toward me, saw my own face looking at them.
I could see myself, clearly, transparently, walking in front of me; stepping lightly yet gravely, I followed behind.
It was as if not I but my body was unable to endure the pain caused by our separation.
The wind got under my loose-fitting coat, pushing, shoving me forward, and although I had put on all my warm clothes I was cold now, without actually feeling cold, and that frightened me, because even if the usually merciful sensory delusion wasn't functioning perfectly, I knew that I ought to feel cold; at another time I might have turned back, let fear win out, and find no difficulty in explaining away my retreat by saying it was too nasty out, and catching a bad cold would have been too high a price to pay for such a nocturnal outing; but this time I could not delude myself, as if something had splintered the image we so painstakingly create of ourselves and wish to see accepted by others, until this distorted image seems real even to us; there was no room for deception: I was this person walking on the embankment, and though all my familiar conditioned responses were functioning, there was something amiss, a gap, more than one gap, distortions, cracks through which it was possible to glance at a strange creature, another someone.
Someone who long ago, yet on this very day, arrived in Heiligendamm and in the evening started out for Nienhagen.
As if what was about to happen took place fifty, seventy, a hundred years ago.
And this was so, even if nothing was about to happen.
It was a new, exciting sensation, rather unsettling, to experience my own disintegration, yet I accepted it with the serenity of a mature person, as if I were fifty, seventy, or a hundred years older, an affable elderly gentleman recalling his youth, but there was really nothing extraordinary or mystical about this, and though I couldn't imagine a more poetic setting for my death neither could I muster the courage to take the sleeping pills I had been carrying with me for years in a little round box; still, just to do something, I again called on my imagination to separate my two selves, liberating myself from my hopelessly muddled emotions, and saw that the future of my strange self was nothing more than the past and present of my familiar self, everything that had already or would still come to pass.
The situation was exceptional only in that I could not identify with either one of my selves, and in this overexcited state I felt like an actor moving about on a romantic stage set, my past being only a shallow impersonation of myself, just as my future would be, with all my sufferings, as if everything could be playfully projected into the past or the future, as if none of it had really happened or could still be altered and it was only my imagination that made sense of these entangled fragments from the various dimensions of my life, arranging them around a conventionally definable entity I could call my self, which I could show off as myself but which was really not me.
I am free, I thought to myself then.
I also thought then that out of this boundless freedom my imagination selected, quite haphazardly and not very adroitly, only potentially tiny possibilities from which to assemble a face that others might like and that I could then consider my own.
Today I no longer think this, but then the realization seemed so powerful and profound, I saw with such clarity that other being, the one who had remained free, untouched by any of my potential selveshe walked with me and I with him, he was cold and I feared for himthat I had to stop, but that wasn't enough, I had to kneel down and give thanks for this moment, though my knees did not like to bend in a show of humility, I would have liked to remain neutral as a stoneno, but even that wasn't enoughand I even closed my eyes: nothing, nothing but a tattered rag flapping in the wind!
The moon hung low, it was yellow and seemed only an arm's length away, but on the horizon its reflection grew pale, too feeble to outline the tremulous crests of the waves; the water seemed perfectly smooth but that, too, was an illusion, I thought to myself, the illusion of distance, just as on the other side of the embankment, in the marsh, where the light had no focus, there was no surface or edge in which it could be reflected and so the light ceased, vanished, and because the straining eye could find nothing to fix on, there was no darkness or blackness there, nothing but nothingness itself.
I had arrived in Heiligendamm in the late afternoon, just before sunset, and I set out for Nienhagen after dark, when the moon was already up.
I couldn't tell what was out there, the map indicated marshland, the guidebook mentioned a swamp, and whatever it was, it lay deep.
As if the wind had halted and turned back over the embankment, stopped blowing there.
Was it covered with reeds or sedge, or, disguising itself as plain soil, did plain grass grow over it?
There was a time when the possibility of seeing ghosts gave me a thrill; now the thought that only nothingness was out there seemed far more terrifying.
Back then, years earlierand much as I'd like to avoid it I shall speak about this at greater length laterif a shadow, a movement, or a noise unexpectedly materialized in something palpable and called me by name from behind my back, spoke to me or seemed to be listening to me, I knew it to be the very embodiment of my fears; now, whatever this was, it just lay over that moor, made no movement, emitted no sound, cast no shadow.
It merely kept watch.
Hung there over the marsh, an empty shell, an alien thing watching scornfully whoever strayed this way, and this scorn was disconcerting.
I wouldn't say it was frightening, more like chastening; its power lay in reining in my overwrought imagination, which wanted to gallop freely and invent its own story; it scorned all such ambition and gave me to understand that it was responsible for confounding my sense of time; it created the gaps through which I could peer into my soul, and in return for the playful doubling of my self, all it asked me was that I not forget it, which meant that I should not believe my own self-serving stories; and if I had neither the courage nor the good sense to do away with myself, I should at least be aware of it, as of a pain, and know that it was here, outside me but able any time to reach inside and touch my so-called vital organs, of whichno matter how cleverly I try to manipulate things, to become independent of itI had no more than one or two; my existence could not be replaced by my imagination; I should not be too sure of myself, should not delude myself that a setting such as this, a moonlit night by the sea, could make me free, let alone happy.
I was standing up by then, and like one who has just completed his compulsory daily devotion, I reached down and with an involuntary movement dusted off my pants.
Much as I would have liked to excuse this little movement as a telltale sign of instilled orderliness, it made me feel again just how ridiculous I was, how fraudulent, and I quickly turned around and wondered if it might not be a good idea to go back, since after all, I could buy cigarettes in the restaurant, where I had had a pleasant meal earlier on, sitting in a comfortably furnished room set off by a glass door; I could even get a cup of tea there, the place stayed open until ten; the wind kept howling, and I would have loved to howl along with it and throw myself on the rocks, but by now I had got quite far from Heiligendamm, I hadn't even noticed how far, and seemed to be on higher ground, too, because somewhere below, on the line dividing land and water, the twinkling of a few tiny stars suggested the presence of houses, and I would have been at least as ashamed of taking flight as I was disturbed by the vacuous stare of the marsh at my back.
I thought about how to continue.
I could not walk without part of my body, mostly my back, coming into contact with it, but what if I turned down to the beach?
When this idea occurred to mequite uselessly, since by now I could clearly see the surf exploding in the yellow moonlight, pounding away at the foot of the embankment, and one part of my splintered self found it amusing that the other was seeking shelter at the embankment, hoping to avoid what inevitably he would have to acceptwhen this idea occurred, it was accompanied by a figure, not a ghost, but a simple notion of a young man walking through the glass door of that pleasant restaurant; he looked around, our eyes met, and the room was flooded with sunshine.
I made myself turn around once more and continued toward Nienhagen.
This is getting to be quite amusing, I thought to myself.
For there I wasand at the same time I imagined myself not thereand walking with me was this elderly gentleman whom I would one day become, and he brought along his own youth; the elderly gentleman at the seaside, reminiscing about his youth, perfectly suited my own purposes, now transformed into strictly literary ones, and so did that room with its comfortable chairs, the white damask tablecloth, the coffee cup he had just raised to his lips; and the young man who joined us, with his hand on the back of a chair bidding a courteous good morning to the group breakfasting at the table; to get a better look at him, for he was the one I was most interested in, I could send him back to the door where he had first appeared, because I felt that he was completely mine, since he did not exist; and there was someone else besides us, the one who was watching and who let me have this blond youth in exchange for allowing myself to become a helpless instrument of his power.
This had to be the moment when I finally concluded the silent pact that had been in preparation for years: for if today, much sadder and wiser, in full knowledge of all the consequences, I imagine the impossible and ponder what would have happened if, giving in to my fears, I had turned back and not pushed on toward Nienhagen, and like any sensible mortal in similar circumstances had taken cover in my boringly ordinary hotel room, then most probably my story would have remained within the bounds of the conventional, and those twists and deviations that have marked my life thus far would have indicated only which path not to follow, and with a good dose of sober and wholesome revulsion, I might have stifled the pleasure afforded by the beauty of my anomalous nature.
Table of Contents
|The Beauty of My Anomalous Nature||3|
|Our Afternoon Walk of Long Ago||21|
|The Soft Light of the Sun||38|
|A Telegram Arrives||52|
|Sitting in God's Hand||66|
|Slowly the Pain Returned||80|
|Losing Consciousness and Regaining It||94|
|Our Afternoon Walk Continued||109|
|Melchior's Room under the Eaves||184|
|On an Antique Mural||227|
|Grass Grew over the Scorched Spot||252|
|Description of a Theater Performance||381|
|The Year of Funerals||477|
|In Which He Tells Thea All about Melchior's Confession||512|
|The Nights of Our Secret Delight||571|