For many years I mistrusted my dreams. It seemed far too easy to interpret them as wishes freed from the superego. On cue, the Viennese delegation was there by my bedside. When I woke up its was enough to shake my head for the desire to interpret the dream to disappear. And I was never struck by reminders later during the day – a delayed insight, or the feeling of having unexpectedly spied something secret. But for some time now, the dreams are wild and pleasurable. When I wake up these days it’s as if my mind had gone fifteen rounds in the ring. I feel exhausted in that blissful way that otherwise only comes after physical exertion. The feeling that the dream »was worth it« is overwhelming, even though I haven’t the faintest what »it« might be.
Trust »it«. That’s all any dream asks.
The secret behind good lovemaking: greediness and generosity make common cause.
Words from a dream (about a person who died on this night, 26 years ago): »You’re so unbounded, still.«
It’s happened a few times too many for me to be able to regard it as a coincidence: I am talking to another person. But instead of formulating a considered view on something I happen to have done, I ascribe the observation to a third party. Suddenly the person I am talking to is in agreement. Had I personally laid claim to the thought, I would have to expect doubts, agonised nods or unalloyed opposition. But as I am stating that the opinions are those of a third party, concurrence flows freely and easily.
It is oddly satisfying to know that one’s own person can stand in the way of accord.
A colleague of mine who until now has had a reputation for being »difficult« and »serious« – or who has at least written books that only a small number of readers would regard as entertaining – wants success at last. To this end, the writer recently published the first part of what promises to be an epic novel, on a historical theme, of thousands of pages. Why not? This colleague has every right in the world to wish for more from life than editions of 2,000 or it might be 5,000 copies, a third of which are sold and the rest sent to the sales. Who doesn’t want to be able to live off their writing? Nor is there any rule which says that a text is blameworthy simply because its writer is keen for the reader to turn the page.
And yet it isn’t difficult to see that the colleague has switched sides – from a belief in literary prose as an independent form of knowledge to genre fiction. Interviews are peppered with categorical sallies, usually against those who do not favour genre fiction, all with the same objective: to justify the choice. And if this isn’t sufficient proof of how a guilty conscience is ennobled as conviction, the need to distinguish oneself at the expense of others fills the gap. Or, for that matter, the plethora of adjectives and historical details in the text itself. Everything must be included, and the number of nouns that manage without a qualifier is small indeed. This is what happens when you substitute structural walls for filler. The rest is the same old stuff: a suitably unconventional sex life laced with so-called political material. A work such as this relates to literature as a band playing covers does to its music.
How was it James Fenimore Cooper had it? Much book, little know.
It’s late afternoon and I’m feeling listless. Nothing is going as intended. Purposes are pulverised before I have time to turn them into something definite. Suddenly a word comes to mind: »godpowder«. What on earth might that mean? Godpowder?
Reading a collection of aphorisms, I and am struck by the writer’s need for clarity. On one occasion it’s about sorting out a tangle of prejudices, on another about making space for a notion so that the thought can continue ringing out long after the book has been shut. This ability of the author to reinvent clarity, page after page, is admirable. As admirable as his own explanation for why he admires a French colleague who once wrote a publication about himself in which astonishment was turned into an art form: »To have a achieved a literature outside of literature.« Such rapture is probably reserved to those who have once put literature before life.
Does the need for clarity prevent one from writing poetry, a novel, drama? Perhaps. Here, too, clarity is required, but of a different kind. When a piece of literature originates inside literature, yet expands its boundaries, we are faced not with pellucidity but with an image of the circumstances in all their shocking impenetrability. It’s as if the X-ray plate suddenly revealed an unknown organ made of lead.
Should I perhaps write a diary? I almost added »again« – as if I had ever written one … The notebooks I’ve used, on and off, over the years have always only served as rubbish bins of the soul. Repositories of thoughts discarded halfway through their formulation, curt telegrams from the synapses about nothing in particular, reports of Pyrrhic victories from the battlefield of the desk. What about a painstaking dissection of one’s own motivations, hopes and passions? Or a perceptive probing of the times, of the fluctuations of zeitgeist or at least the flora and fauna of public cultural life? Zilch. Today I would enjoy reading what I felt and thought – for example – during my first years spent with German literati. Or how I viewed, ten years earlier, the self-stylising of older Swedish colleagues. But former friendships would interest me just as much – including the blind spots that appear only afterwards, and the passions that later versions of myself have exorcised with garlic and mirrors.
Instead I fiddle with these caveats of dejection. What’s become of my whole-heartedness? Where’s the elation, where the dithyrambs? Above all: what became of the unguarded wonderment of earlier times? The considered opinions of later years seem so wishy-washy on recent revisitation. Is that the price of believing in self-improvement: this appalling unreadableness?
How much easier is it not to polish pessimism into pearls than to fashion joy into a thimble.
No unnecessary cynicism, and never galgenhumor alone. Surely it must be a matter of getting at the valiant despair, of finding ardour also in sorrow?
Some things can only be proclaimed when one is dead. Literature is the only way of getting round this rule without sinning.
Heiner Müller offers scant consolation, but his is probably the only available in an era of bestsellerism: success is not the same thing as effect. Otherwise Goethe’s talk of »world literature« would sound like the scared man’s whistling in the woods.
As a genre, the biographical novel is an abomination. A novelist hitching a free ride on another person’s life! As if it weren’t enough that the chosen person is never asked, her life is told after the event, with all outcomes to hand. Highs and lows are portrayed retrospectively, when adversity has been endured and battles won – that is, from the hillock in the terrain that affords a surview of a destiny. In terms of narrative technique, this means that the life is treated as a success story, which goes against the most fundamental feeling a person can have – that of being »amid«.
The biographical novel’s raison d’être ought not to be the covert corpse inspection, but the shock of being alive. If, as writer, you nevertheless insist on using historical material, then the least the chosen person can ask is that the narrative tricks offered by a senescent genre do not shackle life to a dramaturgy which makes it deceptively like that of others. None of us lives illustratively; each person is an example only of herself. The prospect of being made, unasked, the subject of a biographical novel, in which the keenly-eared can hear the historical watch ticking smugly in a vest pocket, is enough to make one want to live such an abysmally boring life, so momentously monotonous, that no one would ever even think about making literature of it.
Occasionally I see a man who deals in prints. On this particular day I am actually looking for dragonflies, but he shows me a hand-coloured copper engraving of termites that I am unable to resist. It is from »~1820«, as someone has pencilled on the back. Below the drawings of insects in various stages of development is what could be a fairy tale mountain by Arnold Böcklin, in hues of brown, grey and green. With its tall, narrow pinnacles it is reminiscent of the tip of an asparagus. The picture next to it shows the same formation, but now in cross section. The termites appear to have accomplished their destructive work. The interior is hollowed out; two thirds of it is white powder, the rest a void.
It is only when I turn the print over that I realise what I am seeing. »The most remarkable thing about these insects«, the verso text points out, »is the large and artful edifices in which they live. These are frequently ten to twelve feet tall mounds of mud and sand decorated with many turrets and spires, while inside they are empty and equipped with a multitude of passages, cells and spaces. These mounds are so sturdy that several persons could stand on them without causing them to collapse. From a distance they have the appearance of huts.«
My dream text is such a hut. With a shell of tunnels and nooks that nevertheless can withstand the weight of giants, and an interior of two thirds godpowder and one third empty space, so that the reader will fit.
Literature – or the proof of how you attain freedom through order.
Thomas Mann kept a close watch on Hermann Hesse. In one of his diaries he notes that he has read The Glass Bead Game. The verdict? »Reassured.« Nothing more need be said about the significance of rivalry for writing beings.
Old book title: At an abortion clinic in Bethlehem.
Title long used as a working title: Seven chapters on pain.
Book I wish I might write: Atlas of distant instincts.
Another: In the termite hut.
And a third: Heat.
Title for a biography: My second suicide.
Short novel: The day nothing happened.
Work in a foreign tongue: Instructions pour un crépuscule.
Short story collection I’d never want to write: Love and other disasters.
Selected aphorisms: Manual of astonishment.
Pamphlet: Souls in plastic bags.
Dream seminar, alternatively a religious tract: »It«.
Collection of poetry: Requiem for a mosquito.