For the first time in what feels like forever, I will be having a holiday-holiday, and not just a handful of days wrapped around a conference. I will be spending a few days in Tallinn next week – and afterwards a few days in Helsinki. Anything you can recommend me in the way of spending my time in Tallinn? Or things to read? I am currently reading Sofi Oksanan in preparation for the trip. Tipps? Suggestions? What is essential to eat?
I sent a couple of poems away to a competition two days ago and it makes you wonder as you look at the pile of poems that you’ve amassed since your last book: is this really you? Can’t you do this better? Didn’t you write something last week that you liked better that you think works better that is smarter more lyrical more worth pouring into poetry but then you look at that and it already congealed into strangeness and it feels like a selfie you took last week where you have too many chins and awkward hair and didn’t your face look better – I mean I take a load of selfies for various reasons and you know those jokes and sketches where a guy in the mirror mirrors all your movement, tricking you into believing they are real and meanwhile you look at the screen saying: oh, that guy looks nothing like the guy in the mirror, nothing! but you look at your selfie and you scream that guy looks nothing like me and for fuck’s sake this isn’t even Heraclitus, this is just embarrassing to be honest and you know what’s embarrassing? These poems, and you don’t know who to show them to for triage because you don’t want to be embarrassed in front of people you genuinely respect so you sit on the floor in a pile of poems and your weird face looks up at you from every angle, bald spot here, strange torso here and so on and on until you go blind and dissipate nec corpus remanet
So I have a lot of books in this apartment of mine, they are sprouting like a malignant plant and God knows there are many, many unread one – it’s not just a museum of The Things I Have Read, I keep buying books like a meth addict. And sometimes there are whole writers whose work I have surreptitiously acquired in bits and pieces but never gotten around to read. I don’t know how long I will have to wait to shuffle off my mortal coil but while I am forced to stick around, I keep digging into these shelves, adding things, replacing things, reading, reading, reading. I have no real prejudice when it comes to genre, though I obviously have strong opinions when it comes to quality. My books are in three languages, the three I read most easily, German, English and French, though I have a small brace of Russian books here. As I type that last sentence, I am left to wonder whether I have written this prose piece before, whether I have forgotten that I wrote it, whether my life or my memory of it which, ultimately, is the same thing, have folded in on each other again. My memory is notoriously bad. I write about books here so as not to forget. Between the ages of 14 and 25 I had read Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” more than 6 times, as somehow, the previous readings had left no permanent imprint in my brain – and I was delighted again, every time. Sometimes I have a memory of some text or voice and it sits in some recess of my brain like an angry, cornered rat, attacking my present thinking. That is another reason to keep all these books around; I can get up and pick books off the shelves until I find the text whose ghostly memory haunted whatever I was presently reading. But primarily, these books are not about the present or the past – they are about the folds of future possibilities. These malignant plants that have taken over all the walls in this apartment and some of the floors and night stands and window sills they are the texts and books that I might read in whatever time I have left remaining. So I write and write and write, a poem or an essay per day and I read from these books, these walls of paper and how could I ever switch to ebooks: my life is here, printed and bound and sorted onto shelves. It cannot be deleted with a push of a button and neither can I. Like a cockroach, i stick around.
When what you do has to do with writing and thinking and translating and writing, having a temporary mental breakdown means all your work comes to a stop. I am writing again this month, but I have no idea how to reply to a lot of emails from people I solicited last year, or friends who gave me opportunities or look at my list of places to send abstracts or poems or short stories, God knows I write a little of everything somehow.
This is not to complain although it may read like it. But as I am sitting here at my computer, looking at drafts and notebooks, the devastation of two fallow months is enormous, and translates into setbacks, and possibly other fallow months down the line. And I have lived with this for so many years, losing a week here, a month there, and it has cut deep gashes into my CV and you can’t explain this to people. If I can’t write I can’t write. I can push myself here and there, but there’s a limit.
And then I sit here, balding, tired, on a cold March night, with a cat on my lap, a weird writer-translator version of Dr. No, I guess, picking up the pieces, writing a new draft here, a new poem there. And this is how it goes. And this is why I have this blog. I don’t put a lot of work into these reviews but they help clear the mud from my brain sometimes. It is very helpful and I am grateful for every single person who reads this blog, making me feel slightly less alone in this cave of books and manuscripts and cat toys and empty coffee cups.
modoc. n. One of the several small dummies set up to be knocked over by baseballs at a carnival tent; hence, a stupid person.
mohosca. n. Muscle; energy used in work.
mojo. n. Any narcotic.
mokers, the. n. Despondency; dejection; the blues.
mokus. n., adj. 1. Drunk. 2. Liquor.
molasses. n. A good-looking used automobile displayed to attract customers to a used-car lot.
moldy fig. 1. A prude; a pedant; one whose views or tastes are old-fashioned. 2. Specif., a person who prefers traditional jazz to the progressive forms.
The Pocket Dictionary of American Slang. Eds. Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner. Pocket, 1967.
Last Christmas I visited Vienna for the first time in my life – an overwhelming experience. And a brief one. I visited for slightly less than 24 hours, a flu-stained night in the Weißgerber district inclusive. I went through a long checklist of places, cramming them all into my tight schedule, including multiple bookshops and food places. Through all this, however, I evaded one specific place, despite being rather close to it at numerous times: I did not visit the Ungargasse, the street immortalized in Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina. That novel’s protagonist lived in Ungargasse 6, while Ivan, her lover, lived in Ungargasse 9, across the street. Bachmann herself never actually lived there, but she did live in the immediately adjacent Beatrixgasse.
I feel it’s hard to explain how important that novel is for me as a person. I mean, I have strong emotional attachments to a number of Austrian writers, like Josef Winkler, Hertha Kräftner, and I adore and admire the complete work of Ingeborg Bachmann, of which I own pretty much everything that’s ever been published, plus letters and the occasional secondary work. But for some reason, since high school, Malina has exerted a special kind of pull on me (I think the only German-language prose writer who has close to the same effect on me is Uwe Johnson). I considered at some point writing a review or essay about the novel, but I think it’s entirely impossible for me.
Malina is a difficult book, and critics like to point to supposed weaknesses, to strangenesses of structure and plot, to odd remarks; it’s a complex book that eludes easy classification. It’s also a book that readers have tried to simplify by reading it for autobiographical notes and import.
I have been rereading a new book on Bachmann by Ina Hartwig this past week, called Wer war Ingeborg Bachmann? Its publication right on the heels of the first two volumes of the new collected edition of Bachmann’s work, edited by Hans Höller, underlines a currently resurgent interest in Bachmann’s life. This new edition of Bachmann’s work is radically focused on Bachmann’s personal life – last year also saw the first volume of Uwe Johnson’s collected works being published. The editors of that edition started with Johnson’s first published novel (Johnson’s first written novel, Ingrid Babendererde, a complicated manuscript, isn’t slated for publication until much later). Höller does not begin with Bachmann’s first published poetry, or her early radio plays, or her earliest published prose. It starts with her last unpublished and unfinished novel, and a collection of her notes she took in/for therapy. There’s nothing that’s more personal than the latter, and her unpublished, and unfinished prose often reads like an open wound, dealing with loss, violence, sexuality and patriarchy. Höller makes his interest and focus known. He also specifically mentions, teasingly, that he will be publishing the Bachmann/Frisch letters, an almost mythical set of texts about a failed relationship which is detailed in only one longer text, Max Frisch’s novel Montauk.
There’s an unpleasant whiff to Höller’s project. It’s not new, this prurient interest in Bachmann. In a fantastic 1997 book-length essay, Ingeborg Bachmann und die literarische öffentlichkeit, Klaus Amann already details the distasteful nature of this interest, and how it harms Bachmann’s work. And to be clear – I am not innocent in this: I have read all her published letters cover to cover. I have read Höller’s two Bachmann books cover to cover and assembled a wealth of notes on them. I will read everything i can get my hands on.
But reading Ina Hartwig’s book, I found striking how it keeps circling back to the three late novels, the published Malina, and the unpublished Buch Franza and Fanny Goldmann. How it tries to read her life from these clues, and takes details of her life to “elucidate” details from the novel. Hartwig’s book has other oddities (the book is completely permeated by a bizarre obsession with Bachmann’s looks, to the point that she asked multiple interviewees whether they thought Bachmann colored her hair), but as a reader of Malina for all my adult, and most of my teenage life, Hartwig’s fleecing of Malina for clues was…unpleasant, I guess. And not from an ethical point of view. But it seemed to be based on a profound misreading of Bachmann’s text, which is vibrant with ambiguity and significance. It’s a strange spectacle to watch a book one cares so much about be so shallowly treated.
And maybe it’s just me. I cannot explain why I was so terrified to go to Ungargasse. Maybe because I am not convinced that the street I know from the book is there. That it’s visitable. It’s a strange book. And clearly I cannot write cogently about it.