I am, so it would seem, a man of letters.
I came to think this the case so long ago that I do not recall a time when I felt myself to be anything else...
Nobody suspects a thing. Perhaps I am the only one who knows. I sometimes wonder why it should be, then, that I have not yet written a single book? This question is not one I can answer. Nonetheless I am convinced that writing is my vocation.
I do not know what real writers look like: in all my life I have encountered not a single one. In my complete ignorance of what constitutes a writerly appearance, I put on weight until I struck the eye as corpulent indeed. But soon enough I overheard a scrap of conversation between two passers-by, one of whom, discussing some littérateur or other, remarked that this littérateur was very lean and looked utterly emaciated. I grew uneasy: my corpulence was such that it would not, in all likelihood, so much as occur to any of my future readers that I was, in fact, their writer.
I began to grow terribly thin. This happened of its own accord, without the least effort on my part. Before long I had become so scrawny that certain acquaintances, evidently assuming that I was someone else, ceased to bow in greeting to me.
Without intending to, I made the purchase, at an antique shop, of a large vintage writing table. Which, inevitably, led me to acquire a decent armchair as well: it would hardly do to write whilst sat on some uncomfortable little perch. My room came at long last to resemble a littérateur’s sanctum. Calling at the city library to cast a glance at other writers’ portraits, I found myself astounded: what myriads of volumes they had penned before me! I must set to work at once.
But doing so in my parental home was practically impossible. My family, long since bankrupt, had contrived to weave themselves a cosy little nest in the environs of Trieste. A nest where my numerous sisters, some virgins, others widows, raked my mother, father, and wretch of a brother over the coals from morning to night. Father, for his part, still fancied himself the deputy burgermeister’s assistant. Mother would prowl my sisters’ bedrooms toward morning, sniffing out unbidden guests. My brother, meanwhile, was gradually metamorphosing from a boy who had suffered the misfortune of being run over, a cripple and the darling of the family, into a sullen invalid who enjoyed nothing more than to spend his nights on the lookout for half-drunk cavaliers crawling unsteadily out of Mother’s window—this so he could thwack them with his crutch and wake Father with his screams.
Now many miles distant, I can still conjure this tableau all too well. Father, like some stubborn old nag long since kicked into the stable-corner, snorts at the strains of the battle trumpet, snatches up his faded frock coat, jangling with absurd decorations, boots our ancient nurse out of bed, and, proudly thrusting out his jaw, solemnly grunting, marches out across the garden. The whole family are there already. My brother foghorns the ghastly news for all to hear. Mother, endlessly smoothing down her already long night-dress, shrieks. My sisters scream with laughter and take turns peering atiptoe through the window of Mother’s bedroom. At length everyone disperses. My father, still in a state of indignation, does not allow our nurse back into bed, and she falls asleep on the rug, curled up at his feet.
The morning, however, finds the whole family assembled: emerging with no hurry from their rooms, everyone primly takes their places in the parlour for the morning meal, lateness for which during our childhood days always incurred a solemn thrashing.
Writing anything in such an environment was completely unthinkable. It was, furthermore, precisely at this time that my live-in lover absconded with the local pharmacist, despatching to me a box heaped with her underclothes a week after her departure. These I hung about my room, and there they remained for a month, gathering dust, before vanishing one day, filched by my jealous mother. As I made my way down the corridor that evening, I saw my mother beyond her half-open door, under the dull light of a flickering lamp, in the act of pouring her long, pendulous breasts into an immense brassiere she had pilfered from my room. Inhaling the odour of another woman’s undergarment, and licking her flabby chops as she did so, she just about fastened the brassiere, her fingers all ajitter, and sought to discern in a grimed mirror something long vanished, long forgotten by all except for her.
Another month later, my lover sent me a coloured postcard showing her amongst a gaggle of disrobed girl-friends and beside a mustachioed man with an English pipe.
This was the last straw: my patience was at an end. It dawned on me that, were I to remain even a few days more at my parental home, listening to the shrieks of my relations and receiving further missives from my erstwhile love, I would never bring my book into being.
I dropped everything and boarded the first available train, forgetting to enquire as to its final destination. In the several years since I last travelled on them, the railways had stretched their tendrils incredible distances. I sat with eyes closed in the wagon-lit, indifferent to the advance of scenery beyond the window. Abruptly, inexplicably, an incident I witnessed during a short-lived attempt to take a course at the University rose unbidden to my recollection.
The professor’s speech (extract)
A handful of lectures at the University were delivered by a renowned professor. He was a man advanced in years. His heavyset body seemed to get in his way. Each time he clambered onto the rostrum, he would misplace his trademark folder and, with it, the theses of his gusty speech. Or he might upset the decanter of soda water put out for him by a solicitous steward, or, his trouser cuff catching the corner of the wooden platform, curse and rail against the world.
The professor had the bad habit of forgetting about his audiences, which tended to hang on his every word. He would argue aloud with himself, discoursing on his life, on his detractors as well as his devotees, and upbraiding the school he himself had pioneered. But it was precisely these shocking revelations which afforded his lectures their popularity. The entire University gathered to listen to them. Ultimately, we concluded, the professor was indifferent to the opinions of the scholarly community—and to those of humanity at large: he had grown so weary of his own fame that he could at long last permit himself to express the things he held up as singularly important.
And so, having packed the auditorium, as per usual—packed it so tightly that not a single person more could have squeezed in—we awaited yet another sensation. The professor, we were sure, would not disappoint our hopes. The antics he pulled, the surprises he sprang on us during his performances—none of it could ever be second-guessed. He was unpredictable. Which was precisely why students adored him, while colleagues found him insupportable. The University looked on, expectant.
Wheezing, the professor mounted the rostrum. On this occasion the decanter with the soda water was not to fall. By force of habit, the professor opened his folder only to slam it shut again. He produced his round spectacles, flung them onto the lectern. One of the lenses cracked. It begins! we thought, and held our breath. But he failed to notice the cracked lens. In fact he forgot his glasses altogether. He looked us over with long-sighted, bloodshot eyes and pressed his bulk against the lectern.
“Like all true anarchists, we strive to obliterate longstanding traditions, strictures, constraints. The Russians even have a march which says as much: ‘There are no obstacles for us’. We all dream of chaos, free fall and anarchy. But! We only dream. Because chaos, we sense, will bring us to destruction. And death, as everyone knows, is what we fear more than anything else. Indeed it is. Yes!” He froze, staring into space.
“When we are born, we emerge from non-being, and the brief span of time allotted to us before we return into nothingness is one we hope to prolong. To extend. And the fear of sudden and soon-to-come death hovers over us. Which is exactly the reason we make terrible anarchists. For what is anarchy—but death. Yet anarchy is also the sole form of authentic life. No sooner are we born than we fall into this nauseating paradox. Dying is frightening, living no less so. Because only life itself, this damned life of ours, throws up reasons to die in the first place.
“Now then”—he jerked up his head suddenly and surveyed the auditorium—“all is not as dismal, my high-browed listeners, as you might think. Humanity has long since come up with a ruse, a little trick to escape this paradox, sickening in its familiarity. We humans kill the anarchist in us. We run scared and die of horror—you and I included. And our instinct for self-preservation, or our fear of the unknown, call it what you will, ostensibly comes to our rescue by furnishing us with illusions. This self-deception is simple in nature. We believe that performing the same actions year in, year out, day after day—rising at a certain hour, praying, discharging our professional duties, reading the newspaper, adhering hard and fast to some time-honoured routine—will enable us to keep at bay the dread unknown which looms perpetually over our heads.
“We are akin to shamans who exorcise and ward off evil spirits. The spirits do not disappear, but our fear, our inmost fear, momentarily recedes. The trick, the ruse concocted by humanity goes by the name of regimentation. The regimentor, that fabricated saviour, kills the devil-may-care anarchist. This is how we foster traditions. Tradition is the basis of any regimen. The English royal court bears only a faint resemblance to the ritual life of Japanese society. The life of the devout Jew entails keeping the six hundred and thirteen commandments. We see the limitations we impose upon ourselves as our salvation. We use them to shield ourselves from the truth which bores unceasingly into our skulls. It’s just a little ruse, do you hear me?” The professor had raised his voice now. “Just a tiny little trick!” And now he was shouting. “But how sweet and steadfast it remains, this illusion of ours, whilst we continue to believe in it. And how vulnerable we all become when our own brains destroy it, laying it bare and tearing it asunder stone by stone.”
The professor brandished his hand: the soda decanter crashed to the floor, shattered, deafened us. The professor froze. He swivelled clumsily, as if about to step down from the rostrum. And then, with an abrupt half-turn towards us, he intoned, slowly and distinctly, “Fear reigns over our lives. Ponder this at your leisure. Fear alone induces us to live. To make discoveries, to perform deeds and exploits, to bustle and stir. In reality, all our endeavours unfold in the service of a single, profound, intrinsic goal: to drown out, to forget—forget forever the horror that bursts from our being. But we are not destined, alas, to partake of the joy of oblivion, to know the bliss of insensibility.”
He shuffled from the rostrum, took a few steps towards the door, returned abruptly.
“By the way,” he said in a low voice, “when one of you blurts out that night terrors torment me, don’t believe them: this rings ludicrous. Does the night really hold greater terrors than the day? are the monsters of nightmare really more frightful than we ourselves, blinded and shuddering with dread?.. We alone pay ourselves nocturnal visitations. It is not you, my listeners and dear colleagues, who are my nightmare. My nightmare is me.”
He fell abruptly silent. Then he began fidgeting, as if looking for something in his pockets. But now his gaze alighted on the folder lying on the lectern. He slowly produced from it several leaves of paper—inscribed, we assumed, with the theses of his speech—and crumpled them into a ball which he tossed, unsuccessfully, in the direction of the wicker bin. The leaves uncrumpled on the floor and we saw, for the first time, that they were blank. He fished out a comb, coiffed his thinning hair, thrust the comb back into his pocket. With a bow to his disconcerted audience he quit the lecture hall, leaving the door agape.
Some of us, eyeing one another in bewilderment, snaked out after him. Emerging into the corridor, the professor strode towards a broad staircase finished in marble. He leant with both hands upon its antique banisters, the pride of the University with their fine silver inlay. He glanced back at the throng which had spilled out of the auditorium in his wake. Something flickered in his eyes: effortlessly hoisting his bulk over the famous banisters, he took wing, soared unhindered for an instant—and vanished the next, whilst spiralling swiftly through the wide stairwell.
Shaking off the shock that had beset us all, the fastest among us rushed headlong down the stairs several steps at a time. The ground floor was quiet. No one had heard the sound of the impact. The University windows framed a slow snowfall. Soundlessly moving his lips, a porter was reading Gone with the Wind.
The professor’s body was nowhere to be found.
The translation from Russian for this piece was performed by Mr. Leo Shtutin.
Cover photo by Hansjörg Keller.