Photo credit: Anita Affentranger
When people tell me they can’t live without books, it always sounds to me like they’re owning up to a weakness. I’m not saying I’d like to live without books myself, but it might be worth striving for a state where books were increasingly superfluous until I actually didn’t need them and just occasionally would look at them on their shelves as witnesses of the long way I have come. Perhaps it’s an odd thing for a writer to say, but over the years I have become increasingly convinced that what matters in life can’t be put into words. As a young author, I copied out the lines from Thomas Bernhard’s Ritter, Dene, Voss
: "We give our whole lives / to making two or three imperishable pages / that’s all we want / but it’s as good as it gets."
Irresistible these words may have been in their pathos for a young writer, but it seems even then that I wondered about the power and deathlessness of literature. My own, principally. The first draft of Agnes
, the novel I wrote in 1993 at the age of 30, ends with the following words — themselves not without pathos:
I have no desire to say in my books, “this was someone, this was a human being, these were human beings.” All I want is to make a memorial for Agnes. Not because she was better than the rest of us but because it’s the only way for me not to forget her so quickly, to keep her by me a little longer, before she disappears into the distance.
Since then the protagonists in my novels and stories have always doubted literature or turned their backs on it. Agnes owns hardly any books; in Unformed Landscape
Kathrine is mocked for her bookishness by her husband Thomas until she finally “gave away or threw away her library.” When Andreas dissolves his household in On a Day Like This
, his small collection is not exempt: "He had taken the books off the shelves and sorted them into two piles. He looked through them a second time and pulled out a Jack London
book and the book about the au pair girl. All the others went in the trash."
The first-person narrator in “The Hurt,” one of the stories in the volume called We’re Flying
, burns his library, seemingly for no reason:
The next day I carried on. I was more methodical now, I stacked the books next to the stove and burned them one by one. It took all morning. Then I pulled the notes out of my desk drawers, my journals, the newspaper clippings I’d never gotten around to reading. I burned the lot.
In another story in the same collection, called “In the Forest,” Anja quits her bookselling job: "Anja has had enough of books. Ever since they’ve been living out here, reading strikes her as a waste of time, television still more so. She would listen to music from time to time." Thomas in To the Back of Beyond
goes even further: "He had given up reading as well, even the paper. He didn’t switch on the portable radio that was in his room, even music struck him as basically a distraction." And when Christoph, the hero of The Sweet Indifference of the World
leaves the manuscript of his novel in a bistro, he doesn’t even bother to go back to look for it: "I thought about looking for the bar where I’d left my rucksack, but I wasn’t sure I’d find the place, I wasn’t even sure it existed."
Writing is subsidiary. Reading is subsidiary. Literature needs life more than life needs literature. It’s always the lesser, sometimes a good deal lesser, it’s never enough. A writer who doesn’t write is not a writer. But one who has stopped writing, stopped reading, is conceivable. Christoph, the photographer and itinerant lecturer in my story “A Foreign Body” dreams of paring down his talks on a vast system of caves to silence and darkness:
If he’d been very concentrated and managed to focus his attention on the group, then surely it would be possible to get by without slides, and finally even without words, and just be in the dark and allow time to elapse for an hour or two.
In these terms, the ultimate picture would be one of James Turrell’s “skyspace” series, a hole in the ceiling through which one sees the sky; the ultimate music John Cage’s 4'33"
of silence; the ultimate text a mute lecture. The listener would register the space he was in, the other people around, himself. Perhaps he would hear distant sounds, a stifled sneeze, the footfall of a passerby, a busker, a door slamming. There might be a scent that would remind him of someone he knew. He would think about the place where he was, and what he was doing there, and whether it was a good idea to go and hear a nonexistent lecture. After a short time, his concentration would go, he would start to feel bored, and finally he would leave in disappointment. “You don’t preserve silence by keeping quiet,” Peter Handke
said in a conversation with Herbert Gamper, “but by finding a form for silence and not speaking and emptiness, you preserve silence and emptiness and muteness.”
I don’t share the privilege of my characters: not reading, not writing, going mute, to deny themselves to fiction as characters, and thus to escape it altogether. For years now I’ve had the notion of writing a story without characters. But even if my characters deserted me, leaving behind only the spaces they vacated, I will have to go on writing to try to capture their disappearance. Perhaps then my work will become even quieter, shorter, the language still more elementary.
It was never my intention to create worlds in my writing. Nor was it my intention to escape from reality by writing. I wanted to confront it. The things I wrote always referred to a world outside themselves. Directions through unknown landscapes was once my definition. Literature cannot replace reality; what it can do — for myself as author, for my readers — is serve as an instrument, an aid, a way of seeing reality more clearly. What literature can’t do is do our seeing for us.
Now I can discern why my figures turn away from literature, why my writing tries to make itself superfluous. If writing is a way of helping us to see the world more clearly, then the ideal must be one day to do without it. A piece would become more and more transparent, till it eventually disappeared.
The silence of an author can only come at the end of a long evolution which itself would have been impossible without reading and writing. The silence of a young man is preposterous, the silence of an old man is his destiny. By which I don’t mean a grave silence but a blithe one, in the Wittgenstein
-ian sense: “What one cannot speak of, thereof one must be silent.”
And so I continue to write, till one day I reach the point of silence, and my silence will become my last work. Perhaps then the old man will be reconciled with the young man, as happens at the end of The Sweet Indifference of the World
, when the two meet on a walk and it seems to the young man “there’s something linking us, something much deeper than language, as though we were a single being, a quadruped, both old and young, half-beginning, half-ending.”
And while I go home, I imagine ending up like him, slipping away freed of all obligations, leaving no traces. Falling down on an icy path, and, unable to get up, eventually giving in. The rhythm of my breathing settles, I no longer feel the cold. I think of my life which hasn’t happened yet, fuzzy scenes, dark cutout figures against the light, distant voices. The strange thing is that there was never anything mournful about this fantasy, not even then, it was something to be wished for, it had a clarity and correctness, like this long-ago winter morning itself.
(Translated by Michael Hofmann)
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the novels To The Back of Beyond
, All Days Are Night
, Seven Years
, On a Day Like This
, and Unformed Landscape
, and the short story collections We're Flying
and In Strange Gardens and Other Stories
. His award-winning books have been translated into more than 30 languages. For his entire body of work and his accomplishments in fiction, he was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, and in 2014 he won the prestigious Friedrich Hölderlin Prize. He lives in Switzerland. The Sweet Indifference of the World
is his latest book.
has translated the work of Gottfried Benn
, Hans Fallada
, Franz Kafka
, Joseph Roth
, and many others. In 2012 he was awarded the Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His Selected Poems
was published in 2009, Where Have You Been? Selected Essays
in 2014, and One Lark, One Horse: Poems
in 2019. He lives in Florida and London.