The Invention of Life

Author: Hanns-Josef Ortheil
Translator: Sharon Howe


Die Erfindung des Lebens (“The Invention of Life”) is a largely autobiographical story, which begins in the early childhood years of the author’s fictional alias Johannes in the 1950s. Johannes’ mother has lost the ability to speak following the loss of four sons during the war, and her emotional vulnerability and isolation affect him strongly, stunting his development and depriving him too of the power of speech. It’s only when he learns to play the piano that he finds a way to express himself, and a temporary separation from his mother, when his father takes him away to the countryside, enables him to finally blossom and find his own identity. This passage occurs early on in the book, and is one of the turning points of the story. It starts with the arrival of the piano at the family’s home, which stirs up painful memories of the past for Johannes’ parents but also triggers the beginning of his healing process and paves the way for his future as a gifted pianist and, later on, a writer.
If faith gave my childhood a foundation and a meaning, it couldn’t really help me as far as my muteness was concerned. Sometimes I try to imagine what would have become of me had my life continued in the way I have described up to now. Essentially, I was fit for nothing but to remain an eternal imbecile who ran away whenever others got too close, and who would never be able to understand or learn any of the things they absorbed so readily.

That I didn’t end up leading such a lame-brained existence was thanks to a spontaneous outside event, in fact it was pure coincidence, in the form of a sudden inspiration on the part of one of my mother’s brothers. This older brother was vicar of a large parish in Essen, where he kept his flock well entertained with his impressive sermons.

At that time, his study at the vicarage was occupied by a piano donated to him by his parishioners in the confident belief that it would be in daily use. Indeed, they had probably imagined His Reverence at the keyboard every evening, reflecting on his next sermons over a Bach chorale.

In later years, my uncle once told me that he had in fact always hated that piano. It reminded him of his piano lessons, he said, and the high standard his mother (and hence my grandmother) had expected of him, when in truth he had no aptitude and wasn’t the least bit interested. No, the real piano playing talent of the family, he said, was my mother.

To free himself from the burden of these false expectations, my uncle had suddenly decided one afternoon, at the sight of the untouched, unwanted instrument scowling back at him reproachfully, to part with it for good. He wanted it out of his sight, never more to be reminded of all the censure and heartache he had had to endure over his poor musicianship. And so he informed the parish council that he wanted to refurbish his study out of his own pocket in a new, more contemporary style.
One morning, the dark brown piano—a Sailer by make—was heaved up the staircase to our flat and pushed into the dining room by two removal men. I can clearly recall the sensation caused by the delivery of this new item. The neighbours gathered in the stairwell and we had to face their usual mockery, the irony of the mute family acquiring a piano giving them a further cause for cheap jibes.

Once the removal men had gone, my mother set about cleaning the instrument meticulously. She polished the wood with a pale-coloured tincture and then worked on each key in turn until the whole thing gleamed, giving off an intoxicating whiff of alcohol. I sat next to her on the floor, watching her; I had been told that Mother was a good piano player but I couldn’t imagine it, so I waited patiently for the big moment.

It was a long time coming, however. Having once cleaned the instrument, my mother closed the lid, ran her right hand critically over the wood again and then left the room. But she did so in a curious fashion, walking backwards one step at a time, her scrutinising and admiring gaze still fixed on the piano as if she couldn’t bring herself to look away.

I got up slowly and followed her, with the same backward, step-by-step motion. It must have been a bizarre spectacle, mother and son retreating as if from the presence of royalty, so that its highness might rest from the rigours of a long journey in the furniture van.
If I’d expected the cleaning of the piano to be a prelude to Mother’s playing, I was soon disappointed. Every day I waited for her to take the plunge, but all she did was open the lid each time and apply more tincture to the keys, so carefully you could barely hear a sound.

I was itching to sit at the instrument myself and see what it sounded like, but I didn’t dare as I wanted to give Mother first go. After all, Father himself would only give it a cursory glance of an afternoon, as if to make sure it was still there, and alright. It was as if a guest had taken up residence with us, and a discreet distance had to be respected until we were on more familiar terms.

As for me, I couldn’t take my eyes off the piano. From the moment it arrived in our flat, I felt a special connection to it which was bound up with its peculiar status. In one way it seemed to belong to my mother and her past, but at the same time it was an alien being which had penetrated our closed circle and not yet found its proper place. It was like some prima donna, demanding to be pampered and indulged but unable to earn its keep. It was as if we didn’t know what else to do with it but polish and stare at it, when it would have been the ideal means of bringing life and sound into our silent household at last.

After a while, all this began to get to me. I couldn’t wait any longer, and I couldn’t understand why Mother went so over the top with the cleaning and polishing. The brown, usually closed carcase was already so shiny you could see your reflection in it. Sometimes I would slowly crawl over to it along the floor and touch the two cool metal pedals; then I would push the lid up slightly and kneel up to survey the parade of black and white keys. It still had a faint churchy smell, a smell of mystery, wood and incense. I closed my eyes and breathed in the strange odour; yes, that was it: something about it evoked the holy mass, the hissing sound of the organ, the angels’ wings, the singing of the congregation. How wonderful it would be to strike those keys—what rejoicing there would have been in our flat!
The big moment came entirely out of the blue early one evening, when Father and I were sitting in the kitchen leafing through our newspapers and magazines. I remember it well: it was getting a bit too dark to read, with just a pale, diffuse overhead light illuminating the kitchen. The kitchen door was wide open, when all at once we heard Mother playing. It came rippling towards us along the hall, a big sound that grew steadily louder, as if something powerful had suddenly breached the walls of silence, and the outside world, shut out for so long, had burst in triumphantly at last.

Looking back, I know that I have never experienced a more powerful or beautiful moment. All at once, everything changed. Suddenly life became real to me: there it was, fresh, mind-blowing, thrilling, as if poised to grab me forcibly and release me from my dream-like existence. It was like an epiphany, instantly intoxicating—yes, that music was a force I was drawn to instinctively, for it sang and spoke of freedom and happiness, making me forget all my suffering at a stroke.

I stared at Father and saw that he was dumbstruck, mouth open and eyes wide as if the music had sent him into shock; I saw him shake his head in disbelief, run his hand through his hair and press the back of his hand to his lips, not knowing what to do… the flow of sound seemed to hit him in a way that compelled him to resist.

All this lasted four or five minutes, during which our rented flat was transformed into a palace with vast corridors and mighty halls; at the far end of all the chambers and passages was the concert hall, the blue salon, where a virtuoso was performing, a brilliant pianist from a foreign land—Russia or the Orient—who had come specially to enchant us with her playing.

We remained seated, motionless, until at length I saw Father grip the table with both hands. I’d never seen him so helpless and it scared me slightly. But the flicker of fear was outweighed by the happiness the music inspired in me: it felt instinctively like an escape into the open, to that better world I had so far only gained a vague notion of during mass. Was it difficult to play like that? Or was it something that just came with a bit of practice?

I was about to creep over to the dining room when it all broke down. I heard a few more chords, followed by loud, dissonant strokes, and finally individual notes, some very high, some like a reverberant pounding from the depths, as if someone were taking their rage out uncontrollably on the instrument. Then it went quiet, and we heard Mother sobbing and rasping; it was like a wild, demented song, as if she had lost her senses or hurt herself. And yet it had a strange affinity with the loud chords and notes; it sounded like a different kind of music, a demonic kind that was now forcing its way inexorably through the angelic sounds of before, bent on destroying them.

Father stood up at once and signalled to me clearly to stay put in the kitchen; it was evident that I wasn’t to witness this terrible thing under any circumstances. For a moment I agonised over whether to do as I was told, but then I got up and ventured cautiously into the hall, sliding along the wall until I reached the door of the dining room. I only wanted a quick look inside, just for a second; surely they couldn’t just shut me out like that? Why were they abandoning me?
It was the most harrowing sight I have ever seen. Mother was still sat on the piano stool, but had pushed it right back from the piano. She was doubled over with her head bent low, crying bitterly, while Father tried to hold her and pull her to him. Without moving from the spot, he held her shoulders and squeezed her awkwardly, his face rigid, as if turned to stone; he was grinding his teeth, his lips pressed together tightly, and his gaze was directed not at Mother, but up at the ceiling. He was trying with all his might to control himself, and the effort made the veins in his temples stand out—pale red runnels that suddenly furrowed his smooth skin, ageing him in an instant. Why doesn’t he cry out? I thought. Go on Father, just shout and holler as loud as you can!

I felt myself go ice cold, unable to move. The imaginary palace had turned into a dark movie; an alien horror had taken possession of my parents and nothing could be done to save them. I couldn’t remain hiding in the hall any longer; I had to help them now. So I took a deep breath and went towards them, though I had no idea what I could have done. I stopped just short of their intimate circle, my arms hanging by my sides, not daring to touch them, as if I might harm them, or be similarly stricken by their grief.

The only thing I could do for now was to stay close by them and wait till they were in a better state. I couldn’t see Mother’s face amid her loosened shock of hair, so I looked up at Father, and sure enough, his stony expression was slowly coming back to life. He seemed to be over the worst, and I saw him start to move again, stroking my mother’s hair over and over with a chalk-white hand. Then the hand moved to his trouser pocket and pulled out a hanky. Fortunately, Father always had a large handkerchief on him; though he seldom used it, he would always put a fresh one in his pocket early each morning.

His hand was still shaking a little as he held out the hanky to Mother, right in front of my eyes; I could see that trembling handkerchief of Father’s just a few inches away from me—a gesture that gave me a sharp pang and moved me almost to tears. And yet I was at a loss to understand what was going on. Why had Mother started to cry so suddenly, and why were my parents so transfixed by the music? After all, they were used to hearing music all the time, music on the radio, music in church. Yet I had never seen it make them cry before. I guessed it must have something to do with the past, that dark, blighted past; something bad must have happened to have put such a terrible end to Mother’s piano playing.

As Mother couldn’t see the hanky herself, I took it from Father’s hand and held it out to her, touching her side with my hand. She straightened a little and ran her right hand through her hair. Now I could see her face again, as her long dark hair fell away to either side like twisted, tangled vines. She looked dazed, as if waking from a hideous dream. To my relief, she recognised me and took the hanky from me quite matter-of-factly, dried and rubbed her eyes, then hugged me as if we had finally found each other again after a long odyssey.

As for Father, he left the dining room and went over to the bathroom. I heard him running the tap and drinking from his cupped hand, and I knew his next actions would be to wet his face and rub it dry with a towel. I could picture it all exactly: that at least was something I could be sure of.

Meanwhile, Mother stood up and blew her nose one last time, then paused a moment, as if she’d had a bright idea. I could literally feel it forming and taking root in her mind. It was born of her despair, the piano and me, and it was the single second that would determine the rest of my life.

As she got up from the piano stool, she pulled me closer to her, closer and closer. All she needed to do was pivot and guide me slightly for me to understand what she meant: she wanted me to sit on the stool in her place. I sat down and dangled my legs as I used to on the bench by the Rhine; now I was sitting in front of the black and white keyboard I had stolen a look at many times before. Was I supposed to play it now—was that her intention?

The black and white keys stared back at me, as if waiting to see what would happen next. I wanted to signal that I was ready, so I placed both hands carefully on the keyboard, fingers spread wide, without pressing a single key. While my hands hovered, ghost-like, on the keys, my mother bent over me and struck a key with her right index finger; three or four times she tapped on the white ivory, then all was still. I reached out with my right index finger and struck the same key, turning briefly to look at Mother: yes, she was happy for me to go on. And so I began to wander slowly up the keyboard with my right index finger, one key at a time: first the white ones, then just the black ones, then white and black alternately. When I got to the top I went all the way down again: first white, then black, then white and black alternately, till I had covered the whole keyboard.

But I didn’t stop there: I continued with my left index finger, touching first the white keys then the black ones. I was oblivious by now to everything else around me, and only had ears for the music: it was my music, I was making music—at last I had found something that would make people notice me.
Later I was told I had carried on hitting the keys for nearly two hours, and would have gone on longer if the neighbours hadn’t protested. All the little quirks and habits I had developed so far seemed to feed into my playing. I memorised key combinations and tried out new variations, giving them animal and plant names and sketching out great maps in my imagination where each animal and plant had its own particular place. It was as if I’d been set the task of making a list with hundreds and thousands of entries out of my own head, and which I alone could differentiate.

If those long cathedral masses were like a foretaste of salvation, then playing the piano was even better: it was the real thing. This devout youngster was no longer a dumb, helpless imbecile but a piano player who now had a regular occupation. That very evening of my first encounter with the piano, I stowed all my toys away behind the curtain in the hall and arranged them on the pale wood shelves. The only other thing I would still take an interest in was my comics; otherwise my life would revolve entirely around the piano.

Playing the piano was a release, putting an end to those humiliating days spent moping around the flat and being sneered at in the local shops and businesses, or brushed aside in the playground. At last I had found a way out of my imbecilic existence, at last I had a concrete plan with a definite goal: from now on, I would practise morning and afternoon, I would prove that I too had abilities, and one day I would become a good pianist, and later perhaps an even better organist.


It was much later that I heard Mother play properly; before that, she became my first piano teacher. It must have been quite something to behold: mother and son sitting in front of a piano, exploring the instrument together yet unable to speak to each other.

First, the lid of the dark brown case would be opened. From above you could see the entire machinery: the white felt hammers, the taut strings. You could pluck the strings or hit them with the hammers, you could slide all five fingers along them in a rippling glissando, or you could grasp them randomly with both hands to invent your own ecstatic sound sequences. The inside of the piano was like a miniature orchestra which could be made to hiss and roar, and you could play free compositions on it until your fingers grew hot.
Much more difficult were the finger exercises, which we started with straightaway. For the first few months I didn’t learn a note, but repeatedly copied the short phrases and melodies Mother played to me. We begin with short motifs for the right hand, then bass exercises for the left, and after about a month I could play with both hands together.

I immediately understood that I had to fix the motifs and phrases in my head and keep playing them, first in slow motion, then gradually faster, but so that the finger movements could still be observed. If I was sloppy and played too fast, Mother would pull my hands away from the keyboard and play the passage again at a steady tempo.

It was a hard training regime which took a lot of patience; indeed, it was like a sport designed to strengthen every finger so that it could perform ever faster and lighter movements. After a while, I started doing the exercises outside my piano lessons too. I would catch myself moving my fingers while leafing through my comics; even during mealtimes I would sometimes drum them rapidly on the spot, as if constantly in action.
Only later did I realise that Mother had based her tuition on Czerny’s Finger Exercises. From this textbook she put together a short programme of drills, though not in Czerny’s recommended order. And yet I can’t recall ever having seen those notes during my first few months of tuition. There were never any notes—Mother kept them hidden from me, and I only discovered them years later, with copious highlighting and Mother’s own specially compiled lists.
Besides practising these short pieces, my greatest pleasure was freestyle. This would take place after my training sessions, and gave me the chance to try out something new. I could invent my own little melodies and construct my own pieces, I could do whatever I liked without anyone interfering, not even Mother, who would withdraw when I started improvising.

Often I would spend more time on this than on my practice itself, and I believe to this day that it is through improvisation more than obsessive practice that a soul becomes infected with music. It was through improvisation that I found my way around the piano without any commands or rules, and developed a strong, emotional connection with it. These sessions usually took the form of a dialogue with the instrument, and there where special moments when I would even combine playing the keys with reaching inside it. This I would do standing, my left hand deep inside the case and my right on the keyboard.

Decades later, I went to a Keith Jarrett concert where he too began the performance standing up, one hand plucking the strings of the grand piano, the other accompanying on the keyboard. I closed my eyes and suddenly I could hear myself playing as a youngster. I can still recall that hot surge of emotion, taking me right back to my childhood. For a moment I was even afraid I might lose the power of speech again. I had to get up and leave on the spot—I virtually fled the place, even though I’d been looking forward to that concert intensely for months.

It’s only now that I realise how ideal piano practice was for me back then. It meant the end of those boring, wasted hours at the playground, and the beginning of a rigorous training schedule, the fruits of which were plain to see. Those two hours each morning and afternoon were no ordeal for me; they were the best and most important part of the day.

What’s more, I could see and feel the pleasure my parents took in my achievements. Sometimes Mother was so thrilled that she would come into the dining room while I was improvising and listen for a while, then at some point she would start to clap. Mother clapping! Mother smiling! Had I ever known her so pleased with me before, and so approving of what I was doing?

I was no longer a thing of insignificance, unworthy of notice: no, now I was a piano player who played to compensate for his lack of speech and as a vehicle to express himself.

From Die Erfindung des Lebens © Luchterhand Literaturverlag, 2009