Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Wilhelm Genazino: The Unpredictability of Words

On November 6, 1913, Kafka wrote to Felice Bauer: “I don’t keep a diary at all, I wouldn’t know what for; nothing happens to me to stir my inmost self. This is true even when I cry, as I did yesterday in a cinema in Verona. I am capable of enjoying human relationships, but not experiencing them.”
I found six more or less obvious distortions in these five lines. The first (”I don’t keep a diary at all”) is the most obvious. Kafka’s diary is one of the most impressive documents of all time. To unmask his second distortion (“I wouldn’t know what for”) we need to insert a single sentence from this unacknowledged diary: “But the stability I gain from the smallest amount of writing is indisputably wonderful.” The third, (“Nothing happens to me to stir my inmost self”) is so audacious a lie to anyone familiar with Kafka’s biography that there is no need to correct it. The opposite is true. Too much stirred Kafka’s inmost self and he often spoke about this burden. The fourth lie (“This is true even when I cry, as I did yesterday in a cinema in Verona”) is just a progression of the third; crying is a sign of too much emotion. We can easily see the fifth (“I am capable of enjoying human relationships”) and sixth lie (“but not experiencing them”) as the attempt of a melancholic man to pull the wool over our eyes. Kafka recognized long ago that his enormous masochistic energy might allow for much, but it surely wasn’t “enjoying human relationships.”
An explanation might be that Kafka, who found refuge in writing, was not aware of his dishonesty. He shares with many others the inclination to lie – or to be more forgiving, to distort the truth- while successfully relieving his urges. This might explain why Kafka’s distortions have rarely attracted attention.
The difficulty of the writing profession rests in the author’s relationship with his work. There are many fantasized relationships but only one real one. Fantasy is external. The writer sits quietly at his desk and writes. He hopes and prays that this minimal creative effort will help him survive life’s struggles. Of course, the image of serenity at the desk is an illusion. In reality, the author battles several myths at the same time. First of all, he has to invent his job description and his place within it. His occupation is not protected. Anyone so inclined can consider or call himself a writer. Let me remind you of Joseph Conrad. At the age of fifteen, he was convinced he would be a great writer. For the next twenty-three years he struggled with the feeling he might just be playing the part of the gifted writer. Finally, at the age of thirty-eight, he delivered his first novel and proved that all his fantasy had not been in vain. Let me remind you of Egon Krenz, East Germany’s last Communist leader. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall, he was asked on TV about his plans for the future. With the most irritating self-assurance, Egon Krenz stated that from then on he would be a writer.
Both anecdotes are more closely related than they seem. By exposing how they view themselves, writers reveal the imaginary core of their profession. Even serious authors get tangled up in fantasies of entitlement. Despite all their professional accomplishments, they don’t arrive at a clear job description, measurable qualifications, absolute authority, or stable experiences.
The second fantasy the writer needs is more intimate and delicate in nature. A book’s basic structure has to be anticipated and imagined before it becomes reality. This creation fantasy must be megalomaniacal; a reduction fantasy can’t produce a great work, unless, as is the case with Robert Walser, this diminution is also the book’s theme. The author feels like a phantom. He knows he’s a dreamer, but he can’t expose himself as such in public.
The writer’s public exposure brings about the third, most dramatic fantasy. The postmodern author knows the public is not eager to welcome his book. His way to examine and engage in life, via literature, has lost credibility in our canon of communication. It was different once. After the Enlightenment, when bourgeois society established itself, the writer’s voice expressed new liberties. We all know that in our postmodern times we need just as much, if not more, enlightenment. But often the best books of today do not find their readers. The individual writer has to historicize his work into a future where subsequent generations might realize how useful he could have been, had he been recognized during his lifetime. This fantasy is necessary because through it (and often only through it), can the depression of futility be averted. Many important books are denied recognition by their contemporaries. Although published, they did not rise to the top in our culture of stupefaction. Yet these authors, despite failing on a personal and artistic level, hold on to the story, as Giuseppe Ungaretti wrote, that the goal of all writers is to produce their own meaningful biography.
At first, these three fantasies mislead the author and thwart his work. He has to use his fantasized self-assurance to banish the phantoms of obstruction to the sidelines. Only then he can press forward to the true core of his work: the unimposing sentences and images he expects of himself. The irony of writing is that nothing is earned without the input of fantasy. Even great writers often speak foolishly about their work; I presume it is because of their complicated entanglement of fantasy and reality. Nobody knows how an interior emotional script becomes an outward bound text. No one knows what writers separate their sentences from. Or should I say: Expel? Solicit? Tell lies? Not knowing the answer, I offer a metaphor: Literature is the attempt to speak with pain. Great writers know the pain that dwells inside, and what this pain tells them. At the same time, they know the language of pain is always a construction. Still they repeatedly consult their pain, attend to it and listen to the call and response of text and pain, until they become its carrier.
I can’t be more specific at this moment. You have guessed by now that I am attempting to rehabilitate Franz Kafka. I spoke of his distortions, not of his dishonesty. Dishonesty alludes to intention and deliberateness, distortion to disposition. It is the disposition of the poet and writer standing guard at the gates of his consciousness. He is the first one unable to grasp how a text with unsettling immediacy emerges from life and in that instant becomes a mystery. Unlike philosophers and psychologists, poets and writers do not know what speaks through them when they experience it. They are not willing to name this voice, if it is a voice. They do not call it Being, Unconscious, Language, Other or Non-Identical. Only in this namelessness, can the unpredictability of words survive to surface from time to time as fabrication.

Translation first published in Absinthe 9, 2008, New European Writing,

Original in: Der gedehnte Blick, München, Wien 2004

Friday, September 19, 2008


When my mother ate an apple, she slowly and systematically ate the entire fruit including its core and left nothing but the stem. When we threw out a half-eaten piece of fruit, she rescued it from the garbage and finished it. When we failed to clean our plates, she took our unfinished pork chops and gnawed the bones clean. She once made the mistake of baking a crumb cake with salt instead of sugar. The taste was revolting and the family refused to eat it. But without blinking an eye, she ate the entire cake.
It was 1964 and all of Germany was on a feeding frenzy. Even our Chancellor Erhard was chubby. The war had ended and food was no longer rationed. People stuffed themselves to make up for the times they had to do without. One room in our basement was set aside as a root cellar. Apples, potatoes, preserved fruits, pickles and sauerkraut in mason jars sat next to several five-pound bags of flour and sugar. We had no sense of security. Another war might break out anytime. “The next war won’t be fought with tanks and horses. It will be a nuclear war and the entire world will go to hell,” my mother said with teary eyes. I wasn’t worried. My hometown had air raid shelters and bunkers left over from the last war. We had food to survive for a few months.
My mother spread a slice of black bread thick with butter and put a piece of Schwartemagen on top. I hated Schwartemagen, a jellied loaf, made from the edible parts of the pig’s head and stuffed into a casing of pig’s intestine. It tasted as horrible as it sounded. I hated butter, but our family had had to do without butter, the best butter, for so long that it was a crime to refuse it. No matter how disgusting it looked or tasted, my brother and I were forced to eat everything.
“Why that face?’ my mother asked. We had just gathered for Abendbrot, our evening meal.
“I’m not hungry,” I lied, then turned to my brother and rolled my eyes. Heinrich was happily loading up on the slimy stuff. He had no problem with Schwartemagen.
“The poor children of India are starving, and you’re not even finishing your Butterbrot,” my mother scolded.
“Send it to India, then,” I mumbled.
She slapped me across the face before I had time to duck. My mother did not put up with my lack of respect. “Ungrateful brat! You’re lucky to have enough to eat. You have no idea what it’s like to go hungry.”
I did know; I was reminded of it every day. I had heard her story of deprivation a thousand times and could recite her litany by heart. When she was my age, her stomach had growled with hunger pangs all the time. The family lived on cabbage for months. Dinner was often Einbrennsuppe, a soup made with a drop of lard, flour, and water. A teaspoon of butter was a real luxury. A hardboiled egg had to be divided among four people. There was no coffee during the war, only Muckefuck, a grain beverage that tasted just as repulsive as it sounded.
For punishment I had to help my mother make preserves. I stared at the mountains of boysenberries, currants, sour cherries and rhubarb on the kitchen table. My mother started on the cherries and her lecture: “In the hard winter of 1942 people traded their jewelry, damask tablecloths, and even their wedding rings for food. I was sixteen, the oldest. They sent me and my aunt on day trips to the Hunsrück, to beg or trade our own wine for food.” I thought I had heard it all before, but this opening made my ears perk up. I had been to the Hunsrück, a small mountain range, and tried to imagine my mother hiking from village to village.
“You mean you went from door to door like Gypsies?”
“Kind of. We knocked on many doors. Most people didn’t even open their door. But when they did, I always tried to peek in.”
“What did you see?” I was curious now.
“Watch that knife. You almost cut yourself.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be careful. Just go on.”
My mother emptied a sieve full of cherries into a gigantic pot by the sink, rinsed her hands, wiped them on her apron and returned to the table. “I saw tables bursting with black bread. I saw pitchers of milk, sausages, ham and pickles. I saw all the foods we had done without. What tormented me most was the smell of bacon and Handkäs.”
I hated that stinky, smelly cheese, her favorite, and could not comprehend why she liked it so much.
“Look at you, your mouth all red from eating too many cherries. Work a little faster or else we’ll be sitting here all night. Start on the currants now.” Cleaning the currents was a struggle. The tiny berries never came off the stem easily. Having to peel off the even tiny black flower remnants was maddening.
“How did the people react? What did they say to you?” I asked.
“They kept on eating, stared at us, and then told us to go home. They weren’t interested in trading a bottle of wine for a piece of bread or sausage. Maybe we would have been luckier if we had fine linens or gold.”
“That’s mean,” I said. “What happened next?”
“I tried not to faint from hunger. I was so excited by the aromas from the kitchen.”
I looked at my mother, her large breasts and wide hips. It was hard to imagine her as a skinny teenager.
“I was so mad, I prayed all the way back to Langenlonsheim ‘Lord please remove my hatred for these people from my heart,’” she said.

Read the rest of the story in H. Tosteson, C. D. Brockett (Edit.) Families: The Frontline of Pluralism, Wising Up Press, 2008

Monday, September 8, 2008

A Visit to Germany

Once I had my green card, I could travel home again. My mother’s excitement had been building for months. In every letter and every phone call she asked:
“What shall I cook for you and your husband? What do you want to eat the day you arrive?”
“Cook something typically German,” I told her.
She did. The first evening we sat down to a substantial meal of fatty Schweinshaxen, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes.
“Best to have a good foundation, so you won’t get too drunk,” my mother said toasting with Earnest.
“Summ Woll.”
I had tried to teach Earnest a few German phrases, but he was hopeless. While my mother delighted in her new son-in-law, his manly voice, good manners, handsome looks and funny attempts at German, my brother’s face turned sour. Heinrich did not approve of my move to fascist America. The America of Ronald Reagan, the land of Right to Life fanatics and Evangelical Fundamentalists.
“Anna, tell Earnest he’s not the first black man I met,” my mother said.
“Is that so?” Earnest grinned.
“Langenlonsheim was liberated by American soldiers. When the GI’s rolled into our village with their tanks, I was scared of the Black soldiers. I had never seen Black people before. When an old man warned us that Blacks weren’t human like us and that the soldiers might rape us, all the girls ran home. I hid at home, but I shouldn’t have been afraid. They were very friendly. They gave us chocolate and chewing gum.”
I translated the portion about the gum and chocolate.
“Tell your mother her pork knuckles are almost as good as my mother’s.”
My mother watched Earnest struggle with his knife and fork. He did not manage to cut much meat off the bone. She came to his rescue. Holding the meat up with her fingers, she took a big bite. Earnest, relieved, followed her example. She nodded approvingly, “No need to feel shy. It tastes better this way.”
I studied my brother. Heinrich ate mechanically, without pleasure. He drank too fast. After my father’s death, my brother had taken on my father’s mannerisms, patterns of speech and way of bossing my mother around. Sitting in my father’s chair, under the crucifix, he barked at her: “We need more beer here, Mutti” and sounded just like the old man.
After dinner my brother proposed a trip to Vater Rhein, a brewery tavern. “You’ll be able to taste real beer, not that dishwater they sell in the US,” he promised his brother-in-law. It was a cool and cloudy August evening. Germany’s endless grey winters and cold and rainy summers had always depressed me. Now after years of tropical heat and the unbearable humidity of New York summers, I enjoyed the grey skies. I wasn’t gloomy, rather pleasantly melancholic.
On the way to the pub, I savored the scenery. The factories with their gigantic chimneys weren’t as ugly as I remembered. “Hein, do you remember how we played in the coal dumps. Wasn’t it fun to slide down the slag heaps?”
My brother shrugged his shoulders. “I guess.”
“Remember how mother had to waste a pound of butter, how she scrubbed us for hours to make us look like white children again?”
Hein did not share any of my excitement. I turned to Earnest.
“You might be in for a special treat. Twice a week, the blast furnaces of Krupp Steal light up the sky. It’s awesome. Different shades of flaming reds and oranges you’ve never seen before.”
“Can’t wait,” Earnest said.
There was the unpleasant smell from the Chemical plant. Still, after being away for a while, it was rather romantic. Keyed up by the view of the green meadows and the majestic river, I recited my favorite Heinrich Heine poem for my husband.
Mein Liebchen wir saßen beisammen
Traulich im leichten Kahn
Die Nacht war still und wir schwammen
Auf weiter Wasserbahn

“That sounds lovely,” Earnest said. ”Must be a romantic fellow, this Heine.”
“He was a romantic fellow. Born in Düsseldorf on the Rhine, not far from here, “
I said.
“Your homeboy,” Earnest chuckled.
As soon as we stepped into Vater Rhein, all eyes turned to Earnest. I was glad that he had left his bone earrings and bear claw necklace at my mother’s house. He was exotic enough. People in my hometown had no problem staring at strangers. Perhaps the only Black men they knew were Muhammad Ali and Sammy Davis Jr.? We sat down at the barrel-table and waited for the burly waiter in his blue work shirt and apron to bring the first round. He came with a tray full of small glasses of Diebels Alt, the local specialty-- a copper colored, slightly sweet dark beer. Happy to hear him speak in the local dialect, I didn’t mind his gruff manner. Smiling was not common in this part of the world. If you wanted to see smiling people, you went on vacation to the Italian Rivera or the island of Mallorca. I didn’t need to be around smiling faces when I was home, among my people.
My brother spotted a co-worker and shouted across the room. “Manfred, come over. Meet my sister and brother-in-law from New York.” All heads turned in our direction. It was rare for tourists to visit Vater Rhein. I eavesdropped on people’s conversations. The local dialect melted my heart. The view of the Rhine was sensational. Although it was 9:00 p.m., it was still bright outside. How I had missed the long European summer evenings. I watched the barges headed for Rotterdam, Basel, and Cologne. On one barge, a woman was hanging up laundry, on another a terrier looked expectantly at me. The boats’ lovely puttering sound put me into a dreamy state. I remembered the train rides along the Rhine on visits to my grandmother. The castles, fables and the tale of the Loreley Mountain. I had pictured myself as a stowaway heading for Holland, the North Sea, and finally the Atlantic Ocean on my way to America, the country of my dreams. The land of the Little Rascals, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton. A country where having fun was mandatory.
When the waiter set down the slender glasses I snapped out of my reveries. Heinrich and Manfred took two beers each. “The first round is on me,” my brother announced. The waiter took out his pen and noted six beers on Heinrich’s coaster. “Na denn, Prost,” Heinrich said and clinked glasses. Manfred emptied his in one gulp, Hein took two for his. They wasted no time and moved on to the next round. Earnest and I looked at each other. I shrugged my shoulders. “Guess, they have to prove their manhood,” Earnest whispered.
Hein inspected Earnest as if he wasn’t good enough for me. Hein and Manfred stepped up their drinking tempo. The waiter served us in shorter intervals. “Let’s see if the American can hold his beer,” my brother said. I was worried for Earnest. Like most Americans, he wasn’t accustomed to real beer. The waiter noted that they had twelve beers. My brother and his friend were not the only ones getting drunk. Many of the guests at Vater Rhein were working themselves up into a drunken stupor. In the rear, a group of fans celebrated the victory of their soccer team. They made sure the rest of the guests knew about it. “M--S--V, M--S--V, let’s drink to the MSV,” they hooted every time the waiter brought another round. Back by the brewing-kettle, two parties battled each other for dominance. They sang songs praising the beauty of the Rhine. “Why was it so beautiful on the Rhine? Because of the jolly maidens and the thirsty fellows.”
The singing and excessive smoking got on my nerves. I’d just kicked the habit a few weeks earlier and worried about a relapse. “Ask Earnest what his position on Reagan’s foreign policy is,” Heinrich demanded. During high school my brother had fallen into the clutches of the Communist Party. He decided against college and chose the revolutionary path: working among the masses in the factories. He never approved of my choices. We had been arguing about politics all our lives. Now he was ready to start with my husband. I translated the request. Earnest was perplexed.
“I have no idea what Reagan’s politics are.”
“But he’s your president. Aren’t you concerned?” my brother screamed.
My stomach felt queasy.
“Not really. I don’t care about politics,” Earnest said.
How could he be so relaxed under an interrogation like this? He had never experienced the barbs of my brother’s fury.
“What do you care about then?” Hein yelled.
“Interior decorating. Whether I should change my slipcovers from hunter green to midnight blue. Whether that would match my carpet.”
“What did he say?” Heinrich asked.
I didn’t dare to translate, but my brother, despite his proletarian demeanor, was quite well-versed in the English language. He was outraged. “The whole world is going to hell because of your government and you worry about your sofa!”
He had a point. I had been mad at Earnest for not exercising his right to vote. When was the last time he participated in politics? During the Vietnam War?
“You need to pay attention to your president’s position on rearmament. He wants to install more missiles in Europe,” Manfred said as his face turned purple.
”I don’t know anything about that,” Earnest said, without sounding the least bit apologetic.
“Don’t you read the papers?” Heinrich countered.
“Not really. I’m not interested in politics.”
Manfred was beside himself. US ignorance had infiltrated his favorite pub. My brother lit a new cigarette with the butt of the old one. Greedy, he inhaled as he worked himself up for further confrontation. The waiter brought another round of beers. One, two gulps and the small glasses stood empty again. Manfred called the waiter back to the table. The coaster had no more room for notations. The waiter turned it over and used the back to write on.
“I expected more from a Black man,” Hein said, “You are a bad example for your race.”
“How dare you say something like that,” I screamed.
Earnest covered his ears. My voice must have been several octaves too high.
“A black man should be aware of his country’s history. Aware of his people’s struggle,” Hein lectured.
Manfred nodded his approval.
“Well, maybe he is,” I said, hardly believing it myself.
“Does he think with his dick? Does he have a big one?” Manfred asked.
I was stunned. I had experienced bigotry a few times in Earnest’s company. While walking arm in arm in SoHo, a car with a New Jersey license plate had stopped next to us. One of four young men stuck his head out and yelled “Why don’t you let us fuck her, brother” before they sped away. This sort of conduct could be expected in New Jersey or Queens, but not here in my hometown, in the company of my brother and his friend, two revolutionary thinkers.
Earnest had not understood a word. I had been looking forward to this visit. The Rhine, my friends, my mother’s cooking, the Tatort detective series on TV. When Earnest got up to go to the bathroom, the revolutionaries took turns attacking me.
“The US is a fascist country.”
”Reagan is a madman. How can you live in such a country?”
“Look,” I defended myself, “not all Americans are alike. Some even read the New York Times.”
“But look at the politics of the country.”
“Not everyone supports it. At least none of the people I know.”
My arguments fell on deaf ears. Only one thing mattered. The principle. Reagan’s foreign policy had brought us dangerously close to a war. WAR. Didn’t I know what that meant?” Earnest came back to find me shouting on top of my lungs:
”No, I don’t know what war is. Neither do you. We have never lived through a war.” My brother was a pompous ass. So was Manfred. I was tired of their pontificating. They let me have it.
“You’re a fascist pig, yourself.”
“A degenerated Philistine.”
In our teenage years Heinrich and I argued all the time. At times, we chased each other around the kitchen table shouting obscenities at each other. My helpless mother tried to be the peace- broker: “Stop, you’re going to kill each other one of these days. For Christ’s sake, remember, you’re brother and sister.” He was my brother. But he was a fool who had not learned anything in all these years.
People at neighboring tables stared at us. Heinrich and Manfred chain-smoked. I was tempted to light up myself. Earnest looked helpless as if racking his brains for a way to protect me from their attacks. I was ready to leave it all: Vater Rhein, this town, this state, Germany. I wanted to get on a plane and return to New York. Stay in New York forever and never set foot in this country full of dogmatic idiots ever again.
The waiter stopped by our table. Earnest took two glasses for himself. Manfred and Heinrich moved in on me like two birds fighting over a crumb of bread. Each one tried to outdo the other in attacking me. Manfred tried to justify an attack on the US Air Base in Frankfurt.
“You fools. Two people ended up dead and one wounded. What was the point? Do you really believe you can change people’s minds by using such strategies?” I screamed. They never got a chance to answer. Earnest, a beer glass in each hand emptied them out over my opponents’ heads, in one swift move. The beer ran down my brother’s face and soaked his shirt. Neither Heinrich nor Manfred said a word. A temporary cease.

First published in universaltable.org/A Foot in Two Countries