As If There Were No Tomorrow
The only talent for which I was justly world-famous as a teenager: skipping class. In upper secondary school I could more often be found at a café table than a school desk. Impossible to say why. It would be too simple to claim that it had to do with hormone imbalances, or the discovery that not just the sky but the soul, too, was fathomless. More truthful would be to say that an invisible path led from the sixteen- or seventeen-year-old back to the sullen six-year-old who ran away from home – and ahead to the middle-aged bureaucrat I was until recently, who didn’t think twice about trumping up a meeting to get out of the office where he was expected to accomplish great things on behalf of the homeland, and instead wander around the city in the hope of undoing the knots to a text he had hardly even begun. Nine times out of ten he had to make do with the irritation that came over him a few hours later when, without having put a word on paper, he went about washing, cooking, brushing the child’s teeth. These roles – runaway, skiver, dodger – are but different versions of the same irredeemable need: to live according to your own calendar.
And yet … How willingly, how delightedly have I not dreamt of being a cog in The Great Machine. Ah, this utopia of becoming a bookkeeper, a clerk, a civil servant! Is it the other side of the same coin – also, that is, a wish to be left alone, only this time by making oneself replaceable? Sometimes a soldier’s life offers the best protection. No one is as loyal as the recruit waiting for the opportune moment to desert.
»Where are you going?«
»To the privy. Pray for me.«
The eighth deadly sin: lack of imagination.
When she realised that flattery, ironically framed, opened all doors she was able to step in and out of his good books as she pleased.
In younger years I was bothered by people’s inability to talk about anything but themselves. My reaction was born of callowness: I tried to counter with an insight or achievement of my own. Then it dawned on me: the only attitude worthy of the name lay in not needing to talk about yourself. The advantage was not just that you learned more about the world by listening (by extension that was just miserliness masquerading as generosity), rather it was that the ego took on other proportions. Twenty-five years ago I would not have thought it possible, but today I know that parts of me exist on the inside of other people. Does that make me weaker, or more dependent? Not at all. Fitter for survival.
S., who is an arts editor, guards his special position so jealously that he sees every act not carried out for his sake as an affront. On one occasion I invited him to a public appearance at the institution where I worked until recently. We spent fifteen or twenty minutes chatting in the office. Then I needed to seal an envelope. At once S. rose from his armchair and began pacing like a caged animal. He reckoned he was a lion. Now he showed his true colours: a hamster without a wheel.
For a long time I was tormented by a strange mixture of a guilty conscience and morals. If someone wrote me to ask something – even in passing, perhaps without any real interest – I felt called upon to go into the matter. It might cost me a sleepless night if I neglected it, which led to absurd efforts at retroactive reparation of the matter. Eventually I realised that this desire to do the right thing was imposed from without. In reality I might even disdain the person, or at least the situation I had been put in, which meant that my attitude sooner or later turned into its own opposite. I became arrogant or flippant, allowing myself absurd exaggerations or disparaging judgements. What a fuss. He who wishes to be left alone does best to cultivate absent-mindedness. Lack of interest almost always requires an effort. Only the abstracted knows he mustn’t jangle the keys to his calm in his pocket.
À propos of the eternal talk about style: style is what you haven’t got if you’re demanding it.
Pleasure? I can’t say what it is, only what it may contain. One characteristic is recurring: the future ceases to matter. The books of the sages would beg to differ. They claim that only knowledge of a future to which we do not belong provides spice to the present. Pleasure, then, is based on finiteness. Either we ignore this knowledge, in which case we become licentious and lose our grip (who hasn’t read of the giddiness that overcomes people on the eve of doomsday?), or else we observe it, and so discipline ourselves. But the former is a life in its decadent form, the latter a project, ethical or aesthetic. I am not referring to debauchery or culture; I am talking about self-forgetfulness with a heightened sense of presence. Only then does the balance, at once desirable and preternatural, install itself. As if there were no tomorrow.
I was a late learner of the benefits of »sleeping on it«. Even now the fact that the trick actually works can surprise me. On the night before, an area of low pressure blankets the brain; the morning after skies are clear. Or else the rain beats down. Whatever the weather: it goes on.
The only rule of etiquette worth observing: never utter a good word about yourself.
Many years ago I stopped using exclamation marks. My objection was banal: a sentence must itself be capable of suggesting emphasis or escalation. Yet I was irritated by sentences that should have ended with a question mark, but where the writer had neglected to insert it. Why? Should not the same thing apply for question marks as for exclamation marks? Not at all. Unlike an exclamation, a question is dependent on something the sentence itself cannot encompass.
Since having read a reflection by a Scottish poet I am experiencing a new problem. »Exclams are for hysterics«, he writes. »Ellipses are for sensitives. Colons are for bullies.« Despite the pointedness, he could be right. The only question is what I am to do with the colon, which I’ve always liked. The author’s own reply is hardly enough, is it? »Please: can we have either all punctuation, or none …« In that sentence, the know-it-all is feigning humility. Only a question mark could have saved him.
So: what am I to do with the colon? What?
He publishes a book and the only objection in the press seems to be: style too accomplished. When he juggles, the critics opine, he drops no balls. The brilliance is offensive. What sloppy readers! He himself hears dreams and china shatter on every page. And anyway: don’t they see that these are Christmas baubles and grenades, lumps of nerves and dishcloths? Is that not enough for his book not to be confused with a circus? »Be my guests«, he thinks, »sit down on the three-legged chairs in my head. But don’t expect any sea lions. Or that I intend to lose my poise on purpose.«
Aphorisms rarely speak in the subjunctive. That doesn’t mean they disdain uncertainty, only that they themselves arrange the world – and what world is there in which the creator is uncertain of its existence? In our era this indicative ability is viewed with scepticism. The fragment, the brief note, the jotting are preferred – guarantors of the incomplete. The attitude is not unpleasant. Nor does it lack an appreciation of literature’s peculiar character. But there’s something fishy about the pretension to incompleteness. The writer wants to be perceived as a person »with warts and all«. In other words, as someone who has yet to be beatified. This need, however, requires ever more space. If the person is not as clear-headed as Canetti, as entertaining as Lichtenberg, as distraught as Cioran in his best moments, the oxygen will eventually be used up in the rooms opened by his or her assertions. Here the aphorism is different. It limits the need for expression to a minimum. Thus the reader can stroll through a world created at leisure. The aphorism allows us to forget the writer.
Nabokov, who dedicated his life to fighting poshlost, the kitsch cherished by the masses, hardly escaped the affliction himself. For consolation, he blessed the tripe with such a keen sense of lucidity that most readers take his criticism at face value. But is he not the kitschiest of writers? For Pete’s sake, he even provides directions for how the brooches in the glass display case are to be used.
Writers say so many daft things about writing. This is not one of them.
If you must reflect on yourself: at least make common cause with the termites in the timbers of the ego.
Presumption’s prehistory. A rainy Sunday in February. For eight hours – it was still dark when I got up – I have been writing what comes into my head, gliding through reflections, utterly in my element, feeling allied to nothing more than the day. My faith couldn’t be greater. At two-thirty in the afternoon I boil an egg, butter a slice of bread. Overcome by this sheer sense of lucidity, I finish the meal with a bag of jelly bears found in the larder. They settle into a lump in my stomach. The day ends before I know it.
Poetry asks: »Who am I?« Drama: »Who should I be?« Only the novel says: »I am many.«
The feeling when a text doesn’t even stagger forward. Two minutes’ leafing through papers is enough to set off as many hours of evasive manoeuvres (washing, cleaning, nose-picking). Warning: author at work.
Daughter’s rebuke as we’re getting dressed before kindergarten: »Hey, be careful with my body! There’s skeleton in my body!« How to get on a par with such poetry?
After three weeks of treading water, the rhythm comes. For the past several days I have been ignoring email, feeling no reason to read foreign newspapers on the web, watching hardly any TV. Everything has turned into a routine, with a four-year-old making mischief in her rose-coloured room. Reclusion ensues, as sure as fate. I procrastinate infinitely over phone calls that should be made, shave only when the child says I scratch, forget the post in the letterbox. Conversations with the Vietnamese on the corner are sufficient socialising – and games in the rose-coloured room. Gentle everyday, please let the rainbow linger a while by this desk.