A crime occurred toward the end of my stay at the clinic Zelená Hora: Daniel Cohen’s manuscript was stolen. In an age when it seems like even God can’t wipe our fingerprints from any surface we touch, when evidence of our activities lingers forever, it is absurd to think of an entire manuscript—the product of years of work—gone without a trace. Add to this the fact that this manuscript was the follow-up to Cohen’s magnificent novel Stuck and we are left even more unsettled, perplexed. At first, it appeared that the manuscript was the casualty of a lovers’ quarrel, but that would prove too convenient, too simplistic to hold out against the steady trickle of evidence I encountered in my attempt to retrieve it, an attempt that was in some ways traced, in others mirrored, by Cohen’s own journey toward the truth. It’s tempting at this early point to say that this lecture is about the particular phenomenon of un-retrieved literature, which differs fundamentally from literature that has been destroyed on purpose, by accident, or merely left to decay. No! This is about that which is still out there, that which is between the lines of life.
It’s true that I’d just received word about the PEN Translation Prize, which provoked in me a sort of dialectical reaction of both a massive, voluptuous pride and a rather inexplicable sense of shame and depression, the latter far and away overshadowing the former. I say this not because it makes sense of anything or explains even a single sub-phenomenon within the greater or bigger phenomenon, but because it gives the thing a certain thrust, a velocity, or maybe to speak more visually, a shade or tint to the composition. In a strange twist of fate, it happened that the heady moment of the PEN announcement coincided with a couple of other events. The first was that my translation of the first novel I’d ever done, Anton Grassfeld’s Trending Toward Zero, was acquired and re-released in a large print-run by Penguin. This provided me with a handsome windfall—I won’t bore you with the financial details but will only point out that the sum far exceeds the total contract extended to me by the dean. The release of the Penguin version and the seemingly universal assessment that Grassfeld was the next Günter Grass or W.G. Sebald related to the second event: my receiving in the mail the day before I was set to leave the clinic a copy of Grassfeld’s second novel Ein Mädchen am Strand (A Girl on the Beach) which Penguin wanted to put out as soon as possible. In the span of twenty-four hours, one book had vanished and another appeared. Dr. Hruška, in what would be our final session, chided me, telling me that “of course” it wouldn’t do for me to have one thing happen without the other. Thesis, he said, always required me to produce an antithesis.
What would you expect from an introduction to literature course except books flying this way and that? One appearing, one vanishing, and despite the undeniable materiality of its existence Cohen’s book would have remained an airy nothingness had not Malvina vanished with it.
Permit me to spend some moments on Mädchen, on Girl on the Beach, since it will eventually spill out on Malvina’s trail. Before that, though, a bit of necessary context will keep the dean’s assistant off my back, at least for a little while. It seems that the dean has set her up as a sort of sentry, maybe as a way of ensuring that this will be my one and only contract with the college. They’ve had their PEN prizewinner now! Box checked. They can wipe their hands clean: a happy board of directors, a nice blurb in the alumni newsletter—a local news story. Don’t worry, I can defend myself, though most likely unsuccessfully, just as I defended myself (unsuccessfully) against Hruška, besting him time and again only to succumb to the inevitability of a creeping defeat. I was living in Berlin, Kreuzberg and was not much older than you are now. I’d come straight from college, plunging into that rubble-heap of a neighborhood still in the shadow of the Cold War. Absurd—right! Can you, who were born well after 1989, imagine such a place, a divided Berlin—an immediate post-partition Berlin, a Kreuzberg of Turks and anarchists, punks, drunks, artists, utopians and dystopians? Through a friend, I’d been introduced to Fabian, a West Berlin native. He spoke half-a-dozen European languages, proficient in at least half-a-dozen others. He had a room to let and I was happy to take it, despite the need to constantly attend to one coal-burning oven for heat and another to boil the hot water for my weekly bath. I’d brought a bit of money with me, but quickly burned through it despite the utter cheapness of everything in the city, including my room in Florian’s apartment, which cost me about $75 a month. Florian worked as a translator and by the age of twenty-five had already achieved considerable success, amazing given his inelegance. The only way I could explain it was that the German reading public had lost the sense or the taste for elegance, preferring something else, a little raw, a little awkward, a little stiff, somewhat listless or lifeless. Around the time I moved in, he got the contract for the first book to be published in German by Jan Horak, his post-1968 novel Rain, Rain. Little did I know how key this timing would be! When Fabian saw that I was broke, he offered to help me out, eventually introducing me to a group of Kreuzberg poets, from among whom I received my first job, Forest Poems by Ingrid Müller. It was a shattering, destabilizing experience and at the same time a near total ecstasy, a type of euphoria that erodes one’s sense of self and gestures toward absolute and blissful annihilation. At least that’s how it felt. It was a tightrope walk between total love and total desperation. Youth—I’m sure you know the feeling. And there’s no way to avoid it, despite all the warnings about propriety from the dean’s assistant. Love, sex, passion—dissolution, disintegration, demise.
I didn’t and still don’t know the backstory between Fabian and Ingrid Müller, though I know there was a backstory, most likely a long one. That such an affair would begin between me and Ingrid was bound to lead to friction, though the type of friction that would remain, at least for a time, undetectable. In retrospect, what seemed like friction now appears to be deliberate sabotage, starting with Grassfeld’s Trending Toward Zero, continuing with Horak’s Blue, Red, Gray.
Trending Toward Zero—the dark, postmodern descent into West Berlin of the 1980s with the anti-hero par excellence, the Romanian-German Emil Hofer, at once a street thug, a German ethnic-nationalist, a leftist-anarchist and the lead singer of a Kreuzberg punk band called The Nihilists. It was a disquieting work, a disgusting work, actually, a work that I felt dirtied by, sullied when rendering it into English. Still, there was no denying its magnificence, its cold, brutal beauty. Despite this beauty, as I said in my “preface” to Horak’s Blue, Red, Gray, I would have abandoned the book half way through if I didn’t really need the money. It was Hofer’s performance of “Burn Down the Synagogue/Torch the Mosque” that made me throw down the pen. And I threw down the pen, I did, but eventually I picked it back up at the behest of the editor Phil Jones, who made a series of polite entreaties followed by a set of hostile demands, including the threat of a lawsuit over breach of contract. “We’re not paying you to be a literary critic,” he wrote, “just to translate the damn pages.” As it happened, following the release of the English edition almost all of the critics read “Burn Down the Synagogue” as a brilliant piece of cultural commentary, many comparing The Nihilists’ performance to Oskar Matzerath’s performance in the “Onion Cellar” in Grass’s Tin Drum. Professional opinion concluded that Grassfeld had produced the great challenge to pre-unification society of the Kohl years. German sales of the book surged in the aftermath of the Communist collapse. The English version caught fire as Berlin itself caught fire, becoming part of the nostalgia machine that linked 1920s cabaret to the punk rock scene in SO36 to the current techno-design ethos—from bohemian counterculture, in other words, to the ecstasy-techno capitalism of today. I can’t get into that now, not this evening as the sun sets behind us. No. The horrors and the hypocrisies of the current state of affairs are too much here, the city, Berlin, unrecognizable after my seventeen years in Prague submerged in Jan Horak’s world.
I’ll admit another thing, which I’m sure you have all already assumed—but it’s a foundational point: even with the honors and accolades, by the end of translating Horak’s Blue, Red, Gray (and even after the PEN award) I was broke, basically penniless. One of various reasons for my expulsion from the clinic was my steadfast refusal to pay my bill. The windfall from the Penguin re-release of Trending Toward Zero provided a bit of fuel—and then Mädchen am Strand arrived at my door. Under these circumstances, I had to consider it. It was irksome to me that I needed it, needed to return to the valley of Grassfeld after standing atop the Promethean heights of Horak. When I had finished Horak, I had vowed to myself that I would never translate another word.
Now we can leave behind the encampment and set out on the path. The first step along this path requires a detour, the purpose of which will become clear by the end of the session today. Grassfeld calls his book Mädchen am Strand, the easy translation of which is “Girl on the Beach.” After reading the book, it became clear to me that the title was a mistake. It should have been Mädchen am Rand des Meeres or “Girl at the Edge of the Sea.” When I wrote to Grassfeld and suggested it, he fired back that I should leave the creative part of the work to him. He added that he looked forward to receiving my “draft” so he could make the “necessary corrections.” It should be said that I received the communication en route after Cohen’s manuscript, after Malvina. It was in the same hotel room in northern Italy, in fact, where I received the note from Grassfeld, that I also got the email from the dean. With pleasure, I wrote back to Grassfeld and told him that I’d never touch another of his words for as long as I lived. I even added, uncharacteristically, “Go fuck yourself.”
Girl on the Beach—we need to start here, to start with the central triangle upon which the whole system can be assembled. One corner of the triangle is a German novelist named—horribly—Anton Grassfeld, a forty-eight-year-old former Berlin bohemian now living in a large Kreuzberg apartment with his British wife Susan and their two kids Rolf and Cassie, ages fifteen and ten. Grassfeld is thin, tall. He wears thick rectangular glasses, has a short beard with graying whiskers. He’s on vacation with his family for three weeks on the Italian Riviera in the town of Finale Ligure. The second corner of the triangle is Renzo Romano. He’s the opposite of Grassfeld. He’s short, stout, tanned, brash—in typical Grassfeld (author) fashion, something of a stereotype, a cliché, the type of stereotype that ultimately fractures the book and allows some of its internal energy to seep out. It has to be said that Renzo was a point in the triangle, particularly because he connects the third point—bringing the third point into the same plane. The third point is, of course, Anita, a young woman from Senegal, seventeen years old, a beach vendor in Finale Ligure, where Grassfeld is on vacation and where Renzo runs his business, a business that pays the way for Senegalese women to come to Italy to walk the beaches and sell his wares, first to slowly pay off their debts to him and then, finally, to earn a modest living, most of which is then sent back home to support family or to pay for the next relative’s journey across the Mediterranean. After the season, when all debts are paid, Renzo’s women fan out—some to other businesses he owns or has connections to, others somewhere else entirely. The beaches are just part of Renzo’s empire. Sure, he earns money on the goods—hats, sunglasses, scarves, bags, umbrellas, towels and so on, maybe a hundred thousand euros a year, depending on the year and depending on how many beaches he can manage to control in the complex dealings with property owners, local politicians, and the mob. Equal to this—or even greater than this—is the profit he obtains from the human migration, from the hundred or two hundred women who when all is said and done pay Renzo about three or four grand each. In a given year, therefore, he pulls in maybe half a million euros from the beaches, a lot of money, yes, of course, but only a small fraction of his total worth, which also includes businesses and real estate throughout Liguria, Tuscany and Turin. And Milan. Renzo is from Milan, where he lives most of the year with his wife and son Carlo, a student of law at Milan University.
Carlo is tall and thin with a long, narrow face and a Roman nose, dark skin, dark eyes. He’s good looking, but in a gawky, gloomy way. Probably having to do with having a dominant father, he is reserved, pulled back from the world. He’s a good student, though not excellent—a fine student, an average student. Now twenty, he had a phase at seventeen or eighteen of wanting to be a poet, but couldn’t break free from the most obvious word, phrase or image. He fails, he fails to shatter the commonplace or to harness the commonplace in the pursuit of some notion that pushes toward what he might call, in one way or another, in one form or another, beauty. After a year or two of wasting energy to move beyond his God-given limits, Carlo surrenders to them. He finds tranquility there, a type of calmness that comes from recognition of inevitable mediocrity. It’s a position that typically results in a certain softness of character, a mushiness of form—but not so with Carlo. Carlo remains on the whole austere, serious, a bit forlorn.
Anita sells shawls for Renzo by walking back and forth along the miles of Ligurian coastline each day with her fabrics draped over her arms and bunched in a basket on her head. She lives with two older Senegalese women in a small apartment about twenty minutes walk outside of town, an apartment with one small bedroom that the three women share, a bathroom and a kitchen. It wasn’t her but her mother who was supposed to come to Italy. Her mother was strong, sturdy woman. She’d raised Anita and her two younger brothers alone after their father had died.
I can’t spend much more time on Anita’s mother—the path to the manuscript and to Malvina doesn’t necessitate such a wide detour. If it had, if the search had required, in other words, an act of courage or bravery or selflessness or simply anything that took a bit of daring and boldness, anything that would have made me uncomfortable or scared or even disquieted—though in truth I was disquieted—it’s unlikely I would have made it to the end, to the endpoint of this railway line of desire. And you will be surprised, I think, what we’ll find there in that nowhere station. Anita’s mother fell ill after her older brother vanished into the countryside. The younger brother went to live with their grandmother. Anita went to Renzo.
This is all disgusting on some level. I’m sure you’re feeling the disgust as it creeps in. The refined genius of the German male narrator named Grassfeld, the prepossessing but dull and perhaps artistically stifled youth, Carlo, who is trying to conform to the expectations of his rich father, Renzo, a figure on the borderline of capitalism and criminality. Only someone like the (real) Grassfeld could write such a book, a blend of Goethe and Thomas Mann with the shadowy zones of Hesse, the coarseness of Günter Grass, the lyricism (at rare but undeniable times) of Sebald. Grassfeld (real) is a kind of demon child of German modernity, a Frankenstein-like product of a tradition sunk in the moral abyss. But not totally. No. And with literature, it seems to me—not that I’m an expert, as the dean is quick to point out—with literature it seems to me that the small bit of contradiction that shades or distorts the rest could very well be the whole thing, the only thing, the thing that matters. Matters, I like the sound of this word here—matters. But you can judge for yourself; bear with me.
And with literature, it seems to me—not that I’m an expert, as the dean is quick to point out—with literature it seems to me that the small bit of contradiction that shades or distorts the rest could very well be the whole thing, the only thing, the thing that matters.
Carlo arrives in Finale for a weekend on the beach in July after completing a number of major exams. Instead of staying at his family’s villa off of the road to Borgo, he decides to occupy their apartment overlooking the beach so he can go to sleep with the sea in his ear and wake up to the sight of that vast expanse of blue. On the day of his arrival, he takes a spot at the Bagni Garibaldi, the private beach directly across from the apartment, which also happens to be directly across from the Hotel Marconi, where Grassfeld and his family are staying—and thus, as you would expect, they also rent umbrellas and chairs at the Garibaldi. And the Garibaldi is part of Anita’s daily route. She would traverse it, back and forth, at least half a dozen times per day.
Grassfeld, who has been in Finale already a week before Carlo arrives, has taken note of Anita. And I use “taken note of” quite deliberately to imply the coolness—or the feigned coolness—of his gaze. It is something like the German word Wissenschaft—science—and how it’s extended to nearly all domains of inquiry, as if “to inquire” necessarily means to inquire with a certain adherence to a methodological paradigm and with appropriate methodological rigor, that the one who does the inquiring has tools, principles, methods, concepts—a Wissenschaftler, a scientist. Here, the artist as Wissenschaftler, Grassfeld (character) props up the back of his beach chair, takes his notebook from his canvas beach bag, clicks the lead out of his mechanical pencil and jots down a few notes about a young “African” woman selling a turquoise shawl to his wife and a coral-colored, lace-fringed beach dress to Cassie, his daughter. He notes, “beach vendor, deep black skin, young, captivating, transfixing eyes, skin on neck—luscious—regal posture, ‘noble savage,’ I—full of civilized savagery.” In the evening, he walks down the promenade to have a drink at the Ristorante Garibaldi. He orders a beer and guzzles it down. He has a scotch on the rocks, sips it. He can’t get Anita out of his mind. Out come the notebook and the pencil. Click, click. It’s a story about a German man on an Italian beach who fantasizes about a black African beach vendor. I know I might get in trouble with the dean’s assistant for writing this, but it felt to Grassfeld like masturbation, yes, like pleasuring himself in some dusky peep-show, some dingy, back-alley sex shop, in the back of which are kept the rooms of young women. No! An upwelling of some vestige of civilization forces Grassfeld to stop the story, to put down the pencil, and to tear up his pages. He can’t go through with it, can’t bring himself, in other words, to climax. He considers his life, his literary success. He’s published six novels. He’s won prizes, given readings at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Back in Berlin, he’s something of a celebrity, hosting a monthly literary program at the Volksbühne’s Roter Salon. What does the fame matter? The ripping of pages—and he thinks of himself as pages—is nothing less than a crisis of selfhood. Class dimensions, sexual politics—yes, all of it. He takes another drink, another scotch. But he can’t stand it, any of it, him, his past work, his life, the very fact that he is sitting impotently at a table at the Ristorante Garibaldi listening to Italian rock ballads and drinking mid-level scotch. The word “German” crashes over his mind. He hates the word—despises it and yet it seems to consume him, to subsume him into its etymology, its history. The ways she displays her garments, the eyes, the cheeks, the roundish face, the sea of color draped around her. He needs her story, her story, not some false progressive self-flagellation of a middle-aged, middle class author yearning for the third-world ghetto. Her story. He would tell it, a work of biography, or assisted autobiography, he would redeem himself by suppressing his ego and allowing her voice to reign.
In the late afternoon of the following day, he calls Anita over to the umbrella. Susan has gone with the kids to the water. Does he need something, Anita asks him, a dress for his wife, another shawl? Nothing like that, he says, and tells her about being a writer, a novelist, that she’d made an impression on him as an artist. He tells her how he’d started a story about her, or not about her precisely but about a woman like her, modeled on her, on his imagination of her. She’s an archetype, a catalyst. He tells her that in the end he’d ripped up the pages, that it dawned on him that for once he should drop the veil of fiction and write something real.
She starts to tell him her story. And then that evening they meet and she talks more, and the next evening, more. Yes, and the evening after that, again. Days between these evenings he spends on the beach making notes, outlining, listening to parts of the story again and again from his recording device, the one he carries with him to record his thoughts at particular moments of insight when pen and paper are not at hand.
Her voice, too childish to be lilting, too modulated to be dramatic, but altogether enchanting—and, yes, Grassfeld (character) uses this precise word and so we’ll put it in quotes, “Enchanting.” There is, as you can imagine, an orientalist quality, the voice heard time and again becomes a seductive chant, intonations come to the ear as musical notes, as vibrations, in other words, speech, words, at times breathless and perfect and at others forced, wrong, and nearly incomprehensible.
Enter Carlo and the Shakespearean quality starts to build. He sees her talking to Grassfeld under his beach umbrella. She’s more relaxed than when walking back and forth at the edge of the sea. She smiles. Her beauty strikes him at once. Of course, he knows she’s one of Renzo’s women and in a sense, he thinks, doesn’t that sort of make her his, his woman? Carlo approaches her on the promenade after the day’s work. He’s Renzo’s son, he tells her, though Anita doesn’t know Renzo directly. She’s heard of him, but deals with Ricardo, one of Renzo’s guys. He, Carlo, saw her talking to a man under an umbrella, he says to her, a tall man with a short beard and short brown hair, etc., etc. You get it. Clumsily, Carlo tries to pick her up, to invite her for a walk through the town in the evening, for an ice cream, an espresso, or a drink on one of the many terraces facing the sea. Carlo’s soft eyes, his gentle manner—Anita likes him, likes him more than she likes Anton Grassfeld, whose basic stiffness and intensity often make her feel ill at ease.
In the evening, they sit on the piazza and drank tea and coffee. It’s too late for others of Renzo’s women to be out. They are never out at night, save for the few who work the after dinner shift selling trinkets to tired kids and baubles to tipsy women on vacation. But not Anita. Not now—she suddenly feels far away from all of that. As she sits there on the piazza in the cooling summertime air, it seems to her as if she’s melting—melting back into a person, a young woman from Senegal with memory and history, a daughter, a sister. Beyond the gaze of any and all, beyond culture and world, nobody sees her, nobody but the gentle Carlo, and who could tell at that precise moment just how tyrannical this Carlo could be? Or maybe she knows. Most likely it’s Grassfeld (author) who doesn’t know, doesn’t want to know, despite the textual hints, even though the other Grassfeld, the character, despite his suffocating jealousy, sees the wolf in schoolboy wool.
The approval of the father, it’s a tired subject, to be sure, but we can’t seem to get away from it. If word got out that Carlo were seeing Anita there would be hell to pay. The progressive aging post-punk German hipster versus the racist Italian businessman—tired, fine, maybe, but still somehow captivating. The problem with the whole thing was that Carlo has fallen in love with her. Grassfeld sees it. Despite the years of erosion of the sharp edges of his emotional being, he can tell. He knows the look of it, a vision of life that awakens in him those dormant feelings. There’s a dinner scene, a family dinner. They are out at a restaurant with outdoor seating tucked away in a quiet square. The kids are drinking Cokes. Grassfeld and Susan are sharing a carafe of sparkling rosé. Allow a quote:
Between sips of wine, Grassfeld gazes across the table at this seemingly strange woman, who just happens, rather randomly it seems, to be his wife of almost twenty years. He watches as she takes a drink of her wine. Her face contorts slightly as she swallows and then returns to its normal emotionless expression, the type of expression that seems to create a common bond between the English and the Germans, a way of being that made it seem next to impossible that such emotionally tempered people could ever have fought two world wars against each other in a period of a mere thirty years. But why think of war on such a night? He’s beyond that; Germany is beyond it. Berlin is a world city, a Weltstadt, as far as possible from Nazi Germany, from Hitler, and hadn’t Berlin always been hostile territory for the Nazis? Goebbels couldn’t stand it there, the crime, the dirt, the polymorphous perversity of the metropolis. Berlin was different from Germany. Berlin was better than Germany. Susan had come to Berlin as a photographer in the late 1980s from London, via New York. To Grassfeld, she seemed to have traversed the globe. She was in complete control of her being. Energy, she had a type of energy that created, created without trying to create a thing. There was a war of sorts, a war over the dynamics of the forces in this energy field, a field that unfortunately also included Rolf and Cassie. To be caught in the middle of fixed objects—egos of planetary dimensions, one small and compact, the other diffuse and massive. They had once lived on the edge, on the precipice of something, beyond which was something else entirely. Beyond was oblivion, that’s how he thinks of it, thinks of it as a completely empty space, a type of interstellar emptiness or the fiery inferno of the underworld. Elemental might be a better way of putting it—like the photograph in his office at home in Kreuzberg of the same street in the summer of 1945, the burned out, bombed, shelled ruins of civilization, a world utterly destroyed. Their building had been the only one on the block to escape destruction. They had moved into the top floor in 1988, moving out of a squatted house a few blocks away on the canal. The new building seemed to have existed for decades as a refuge for the drunk and the insane, caught between East and West in this Green Zone of the Cold War. They, Grassfeld and Susan, had risen together to become stars, he as a writer, she has a documentary filmmaker. They bought the place in 1993, renovated it largely by themselves a year later, renovated a second time with the help of a fancy architect in the early 2000s, just after Susan’s first big deal. He drinks more rosé; she does the same. The waiter sets down a large plate of antipasti—Cassie and Rolf dive right into the choicest selections of meats and cheeses. Grassfeld takes a piece of grilled zucchini, Susan a marinated mushroom.
I’ll stop the quote there—I think you get it. Estrangement, alienation, the divergent courses of two adults moving through time. He has fallen in love with other women at least half a dozen times over the past twenty years, sometimes for months or years, others for the duration of a single glance. He’s had three affairs. One was a weekend tryst in New York while giving a series of readings following the publication of the translation of his third novel. The woman was the journalist who interviewed him for the Times, a dark-haired Midwesterner. After that, there were a few months with Ingrid Müller, a poet from the Kreuzberg scene. Toward the end of it, right before it blew up, Grassfeld had even considered (for the first and only time) leaving Susan. Finally, and most significantly, there was a relationship of many years with Pepi, a Czech writer he would meet in Prague, occasionally in Dresden or Vienna, perhaps three or four times a year. Susan, too, had strayed, first when she was away on trips for work and then, increasingly, closer to home, culminating with a torrid embrace of a Serbian cinematographer in her home studio while Grassfeld served drinks to their party guests in the living room. Storms weathered. Foundations shook but didn’t crack, or cracked but structures didn’t crumble. In the end, you could say that these affairs didn’t matter. What mattered, at least for Grassfeld, was the dissipation of energy, the ennui, the boredom. He and Susan were haters of the banal—or perhaps I should say they hated tiredness, enervation. Loudness, noise, being immersed in sound, textures, body, crowd, masses—punk Berlin, anarchist Berlin, the artist’s Berlin.
I have to skip ahead a bit—but I’m sure you’ll be able to draw these textual threads together. At the critical moment of Girl on the Beach, with Anita’s improbable relationship to Carlo blossoming into some perfect, delicate idyll, Grassfeld makes the most repulsively obvious play: money for sex. It is not totally unnecessary to add, despite the exploitation of the proposition, that in general Anita wasn’t repulsed by Grassfeld. At times she felt afraid of him for some vague reason, she found him frigid, perhaps too plain, too devoid of color, or stark, that might be a better word here, stark, sharp, too contrasting, too many angles and not enough curves. Classified. Formalist. I’m adding this terminology—words to capture her subtle responses, the way she behaves and moves and acts when she’s around him. He wants a moment of possession, that’s all, not a life together, not a love affair, though he might love her in some way, the most repulsive way possible. One moment of possession for three thousand euros or more, a whole lot of cash compared to the price of even the most expensive of European prostitutes. But for Grassfeld, this isn’t about prostitution—or not only. It’s a sort of bestial humanitarianism, if that makes sense. It doesn’t make sense. Desire rarely makes sense—as college students, you know this all too well.
Three thousand euros or more—the book is unclear about the exact amount. Whatever it is, it’s enough to pay off her debt to Renzo, enough to destroy Carlo, to turn Carlo against her, enough, apparently, for her to risk everything, including that the report would travel back to Dakar and her mother and her brother out in the countryside. Three thousand euros for the erasure of a life, a life still quite traceable, a life in wan outline—or to see it from the other side, a life thrusting forward, a person reborn from spectral traces.
Only a writer like Anton Grassfeld would hold us in the moment before the sexual encounter, relish in the monstrosity of it. Fine, let’s get to it. Grassfeld has his way, has sex with Anita. The novel undergoes an abrupt shift in pace—it starts to careen. The relationship with Carlo crumbles. Carlo drives her mercilessly off the beach, Grassfeld confronts Carlo in the Ristorante Garibaldi, they argue, they fight, Carlo grabs a steak-knife from the table and cuts Grassfeld’s cheek, nothing terrible, but enough to need six stitches. Susan finds out about the affair. Rolf overhears her shouting at Grassfeld. Susan takes the kids and leaves. The story cuts.
It is years later. Grassfeld is in his office at home typing a story about a family vacation in Italy, about falling in love with a young woman, a beach vendor from Senegal, about paying her for sex, about a jealous lover named Carlo, about a man whose life falls apart in a single page of prose. Susan knocks on the door to tell him she’s on her way to the airport. She’s taking the kids to London for her father’s ninetieth birthday. He’s got a deadline and needs to stay behind.
Then he’s on a train, moving in and out of sleep—Berlin to Munich, Munich to Innsbruck, Innsbruck to Verona, Verona to Venice: to the depths of the wild Adriatic. He takes a vaporetto across the lagoon to the Lido and makes his way to the Hotel des Bains. A bellhop leads him through the dim and dingy interior to his room on the second floor. Yes, I know, I’m running out of time, but we’re nearly there, give me an extra five minutes, ten tops. I can’t possibly start this whole thing over next week. Wait, yes, he’s exhausted but at the same time overcome by memory of a great conflagration of desire—a type of primal desire that he’d experienced only once before. He feels disoriented. Maybe it’s the dust; maybe it’s the long trip or the strange quality of the room’s light. He picks up the telephone to call the front desk to see if there have been any messages for him. There’s nothing in the line besides a soft whooshing sound and what seem like distant voices.
He’s outside, walking away from the massive hotel, which seems to Grassfeld less like a hotel and more like a hospital, a clinic, a sanatorium. Could it be, he thinks, that I’m sick? Could it be that he somehow made his way into this place and slipped into a crack in time, some sort of mnemonic trap? Down on the beach, he watches the gentle waves slowly pushing their way onto the sand. It’s late autumn and there’s not a swimmer in sight. A cold wind swirls around him. Peculiar, he thinks, that what appeared beyond doubt just hours ago on the train now seems to be loosening and breaking apart. The “real”—he’d always had a fondness for the real, which meant an aspect of existence that bordered on the grotesque, the perverse, the raw edge of desire. It could have been the loneliness or isolation—or something much deeper, external, the bleeding of ink from one surface to another, turning words into smudges, into amorphous forms, blobs, accidents.
The gray evening deepens. Out of the corner of his eye he sees a small figure moving quickly back and forth from the edge of the sea to another figure sitting higher up on the sand. He’s drawn to the movement—back and forth—and he sees as he approaches that it’s a little girl three or four years old gathering rocks and shells from the seashore and bringing them back to her mother, who is sitting directly on the cool sand in a pair of blue jeans and a light purple sweater. From about ten paces away it hits him: Anita. He’s sure of it—maybe too sure, because how could it be Anita, really? Maybe the best way of describing it is that it is Anita and it isn’t her and yet at the same time it most certainly is her, undeniable. “Diya,” she calls, “come to me, it’s time to go. It’s getting cold.” “No, mama, I’m not finished yet.”
“Anita,” he whispers, so quietly that it’s swallowed up in the gathering night.
He moves closer until he’s practically standing above the woman. She still can’t see him, can’t feel him there. “Diya, mama’s cold. It’s time to go now. It’s time for supper.” “Just a few more minutes, mama, just a few more shells and stones.”
Grassfeld sees the pile she’s made, ordinary rocks, pieces of sea glass, a few clamshells. For twenty years, he’s been returning here, to the Hotel des Bains, the perfect intersection point, capacious enough to house these many crosscurrents. Just imagine for yourself such a place. In a space for five hundred guests, there were just six: the real Grassfeld, the character Grassfeld, Anita, her daughter Diya, myself, and (you probably guested it) Malvina. Malvina was there precisely for the reason I was there, to fold the present together with the past, to merge a written story—Cohen’s manuscript—with reality, to turn flesh and blood into ink, ink into body, body into spirit and soul, to inhabit multiple worlds, to transcend the limits of Cohen’s imagination, and mine.
The dining room is full of used dishes on tables and newspapers written in every European language—German, Polish, French, English, Russian, etc. Across the large hall, Malvina sits at a table and pores over those typed pages. Diya is across from Malvina playing with sea glass in a wide glass bowl. The child seems at peace. Greens, purples, reds, frosted whites—the pieces of sea glass slip through her fingers and strike the bowl. I approach, careful not to startle her, concerned that Malvina would see me coming and try to bolt, or worse, to destroy those pages.
“What’s it about?” I ask.
Malvina looks up at me. “What’s it about,” she stammers, “about, well, that’s hard to say. One could start by saying that there’s an old hotel on the Lido called the Hotel des Bains. It’s been shut down for decades, just slowly crumbling. On the other hand, there are guests at the hotel, some existing in our time, others from the past—characters who would be like ghosts if they weren’t at the same time corporeal. And then there is a third type of guest, like Diya, who’s not now or then but of some other time, a type of time parallel with our time, time both counterfactual and actual, and she, Diya, is an orphan, even though both of her parents are here, her mother Anita and her father Anton Grassfeld. But they can’t find her, or she them, though at times and in unexpected ways they intersect—like earlier, a page or two ago on the beach when Grassfeld saw Diya playing on the edge of the sea and you, Sy Kirschbaum, stood some distance away in the shadows, watching silently and alone.”
by Seth Rogoff
Seth Rogoff is the author of the novels Thin Rising Vapors (2018) and First, the Raven: A Preface (2017). He is currently working on a collection of fictional lectures, the first of which appeared in Epiphany Magazine (fall/winter 2017), and a non-fiction book on the politics of dream interpretation. He has been a creative writing Fulbright Fellow in Berlin, where he lived for ten years. Since 2015, he has lived with his wife and two children in Prague.