Saturday, January 31, 2009

New York/New York

I had booked the Hotel Earle because Bob Dylan once slept in room 331. From the moment I first stepped out and into Washington Square Park, I was smitten with New York. It was a Saturday afternoon in late September, a sultry, sun-drenched day so rare in Germany even in midsummer. The sun was hotter and the sky bluer, more radiant than back home. At a time when all German cities turned into graveyards, Washington Square Park was full of manic activity. Blasting radios battled each other for dominance, senior citizens played speed chess with youthful contenders; dope peddlers, fire eaters, and aspiring folk singers all competed for the public’s attention. People of all races and ages danced to Parlament Funkadelic.
In Berlin every thinking person around me was depressed. As I watched the children on the swings shrieking with delight and hyperactive dogs engaged in rough and tumble play, my earnest, sullen self faded away and a new upbeat person emerged. I would never have to feel miserable again, not if I could experience Washington Square Park’s anarchistic exuberance any time I wanted to.
I discovered a bounce in my step and skipped the next ten blocks uptown. I walked upright, no longer with slumped shoulders. I made eye contact. I grinned when someone smiled or complimented me. Life in New York, as in a Mediterranean city, happened in the street. The street mirrored my mood. Since I was in high spirits I encountered only smiling faces. “Hey Babe, wanna come along for the ride to Florida,” a truck driver said. “Another hour unloading and I’m ready for takeoff.” “Great hair cut,” a hip black woman shouted. “Ola Mami,” a Latin-American teenager said smacking his lips.
14th Street was the Mecca of the less well-heeled New Yorkers. People were looking for bargains in the many 99 Cents and discount stores. Men sitting up high on ladders were watching out for thieves and enticing the shoppers to come inside. “Ladies and gentlemen, our prices are the best. Come on inside and see for yourself.” Many people lost their money in games of dice. The children’s clothing stores with their frilly dresses, the smell of Comida Criolla and Cuchifritos, the sounds of Salsa, the mix of English and Spanish, the entire human razzmatazz of 14th Street made me feel intoxicated with life.
At home I had been chided for my hyperactive Zappelphilipp ways. My parents always said: “Don’t walk so fast, don’t talk so fast, don’t wave your arms so much. In New York, everyone walked and talked fast. In New York, I was normal.
It was love at first sight—irrational and fatal. Could one fall head over heels –unsterblich—in love with a city just as much as with a person? Mubarez from Pakistan worked at the reception of the Hotel Earle. On my fourth day in New York he said: “You can become a New Yorker and still be yourself. You belong here. Stay.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Gift That Fails-- On the Lack of Literary Success

Translated from Wilhelm Genanzino The Extended Glance (Der gedehnte Blick), München Wien 2004. Find the entire text in DIMENSION2,08

During the early 1950’s William Faulkner recommended a second occupation to all his fellow authors. Faulkner said in an interview that the shoemaker, carpenter, and baker trades were best suited to them, that manual labor was a wise counterpart to the more intellectual writing profession. He was concerned with the economic crisis in the lives of writers. With a stable secondary occupation, they could avoid the risk of not having enough money for food and shelter. In 1932, twenty years before this interview, Faulkner’s European colleague, Robert Musil, was in serious economic trouble, so much so that he felt compelled to go public and ask for help. In I Can’t Go On, he intended to tell the literary world: “I am writing about myself for the first time since I became a writer. The title tells all. It is the bitter truth (…). I believe that apart from the suicidal, few live such precarious lives and I will not be able to evade their hardly enticing company. This is my one and only attempt to resist such a fate.”
Musil did not have to publish his appeal. The Musil Society, an aid organization willing to support him with continuous donations, was established in Berlin. Musil was a widely admired author at the time. The first published volume of Man without Qualities brought him abundant fame and respect, but not enough money. The Rowolth Publishing House pushed for a sequel. Musil gave in and wrote thirty-eight chapters for a second volume published in March of 1933. A few months later, Musil left Germany and returned to Vienna. Another recently formed Musil Society there helped him out regularly although it was never enough. Musil was not able to shake off his dependency. Six years later, when he emigrated to Switzerland he became dependent on the help of strangers there as well. The Geneva priest Lejeune and the Swiss Aid Society for German Scholars contributed to the Musil household for years. It’s an interesting fact that Musil considered his failure to support himself unethical, but failed to take any action. In an interview, he stated: “Not to be famous is natural. Not to have enough readers to survive is shameful.”
The quote is revealing. Musil did not say: “Not to have enough readers is shameful.” He said instead: “Not to have enough readers to survive is shameful.” The social dimension, being able to live from one’s writing, was not Musil’s main theme. He did not consider the social aspect of literary life important enough to deserve its own failure. The best writer’s confidence is disturbed by the fact that writing should even exist as a social problem. These authors’ self-esteem is noble on the inside, but to the outside world it is uncompromising and unmoved. The stronger the inner noble feeling the more adamant is the denial of the external reality. Only raw, ethically irreconcilable isolation survives.
We can find these constructs of literary life today. The German writer Undine Gruenter, recently deceased in Paris who was unsuccessful and uncompromising all her life, made this journal entry on April 28, 1989: “To be sure, if I am badly off, because I have no money, from a social point of view it’s my fault. But I will not change my life because of this. I would rather continue to produce my 150 pages a year. Hopefully I will get better at it all the time.”
To live a common double life is out of the question for these authors. No need to consult Faulkner. Examples of double lives can also be found in German literature. I need only mention the two old prototypes, Joseph von Eichendorf and E.T.A. Hoffmann, lawyers by day and practicing romanticists in their spare time. Let me also cite Kafka, Döblin, and Benn. We cannot imagine them without their civic professions. Musil could have easily followed Faulkner’s suggestion. He had a second profession. Highly qualified and holding a degree in engineering from the Technical University in Brünn, he could have worked as an engineer anytime. But for Musil, writing was an absolute, internal, and all-demanding occupation. His work had to express his integrity and his aesthetic honor.
Honor expresses the desire for originality and purity. Purity is an inconceivable and pathologically malleable notion. Purity always demands a higher absolute purity and so becomes infinite like fame, which knows no boundary either. Because Musil’s contemporaries did not share his notion of honor, they were second-rate pretenders in his eyes. He belittled Joseph Roth, Leon Feuchtwanger and Franz Werfel in public. He ridiculed Thomas Mann as the writer whose pants had the most immaculate crease. No other author set himself apart more and no one paid a higher price for doing so. We might say Musil’s undeserved lack of success stems partly from his mockery and arrogance.