Monday, September 17, 2012
Hermann Lenz: Seltsamer Abschied / Strange Departure
Looking for good prose, hungry for the beauty of quiet sentences, I took Hermann Lenz's novel Seltsamer Abschied off my shelf. I last read it in Essen, Germany, in 1991.
I found the quiet sentences — more about them later — and I was also flooded with memories.
I was working on a book about standing as metaphor (I'm still working on that book) and had come to Essen in part because the Folkwang Museum had a sculpture by Nam June Paik that I wanted to write about, one that recreated a section of Stonehenge with televisions and electrical circuitry and video tape of the actual site. Here are a couple of photos of the piece.
I had come from Cologne, from stimulating conversations with Zarko about his work, and I had a lot to think about. Long hours of welcome solitude translated into experiences like this one:
23 May In the train — the sight of the halfmoon in a clear sky elicited a deep melancholy. I wanted only to be alone, to be immersed in the forms of nature, to be creatively engaged, to be undisturbed, sunk in contemplation. I wanted sadness and the pleasures of sadness. I wanted, consciously, absolutely nothing. In me was only the clear halfmoon through the train window that then disappeared at a curve in the tracks and yet was, surprisingly, still there, inside the train, a perfect mirroring, and then, only then, the moon disappeared.
There's still a ticket for public transportation in the book, good for 4 trips. Paid for in German Marks.
The novel is about a writer named Eugen Rapp, a writer who is aging and whose life work has not been especially well received, a writer who is unsettled by uncertainty and yet secure in the quiet life he leads.
The first sentences, in my translation:
The painter, named Bretschneider, stood in the attic room with its new coat of white paint, looked around, and said: "There's a sign on the wall: Smoking Strictly Forbidden! Even if you can't see it."
Eugen nodded, and Herr Bretschneider looked at the corner where he had had to paint over the dark accretion of Eugen's pipe smoke three times.
Eugen's wife is named Hanne (as is Lenz's) and this novel, in the third person, is a gently ironic self portrait. As the novel nears its end, Hanne hears that a young and very well known Austrian writer, Stephan Koval, has said in public that Eugen is one of his favorite authors. Ultimately, Koval arranges for his own publisher to take on Eugen's work. Egon visits him in Frankfurt Kronberg and is moved to see a basket "in which a colorful pair of child's pants lay next to a book, one that Eugen had written."
They sit together on a roof terrace and drink wine and listen to the quiet evening. They hear young voices and someone calls up to the terrace: "Are you Herr Koval?"
Stephan stood at the railing and looked down. — "Yes," he said — "Won't you come with us? We are going to climb over the swimming-pool fence and go skinny dipping." — "No, I don't want to do that," Stephan answered and was asked, from the darkness, what the message of his 'Kaspar' was. — "That life is hard."
In a protective tone of voice he answered, upright at the balcony railing; demanding respect. The way he had established distance without destroying the sense of connection, this was the memory that remained when he was back in Stuttgart.
There is more about a growing friendship, about Koval's young daughter, about the essay in the newspapers that bring readers to Eugen's books and changes his life, and finally about the departure from the attic room and the family home.
Peter Handke, of course, is the young Austrian author of the play Kaspar (translated into lively and provocative English by Michael Roloff) and Eugen is none other than Hermann Lenz.
Four years after I read Lenz's novel, I visited Peter Handke in Chaville, France, where he lives, and on December 21, 1995, he wrote to "Lieber Hermann, liebe Hanne . . . Inzwischen war hier ein Mormone und Deutsch-Professor aus Utah-USA, der Deine Bücher schön in sich hatte; er war in Germany sogar bei einer Lesung von Dir." (In the meantime a Mormon and German professor from Utah-USA was here, a man who had your books beautifully in himself; he even had attended a reading of yours in Germany. —from the volume of letters between the two authors called Berichterstatter des Tages).
This morning, once again, I have this book beautifully within me.