At a time when we were completely at a loss about how to pay our young family’s bills, my wife ‒ girlfriend at the time ‒ was awarded a grant for 3,300 euros to make a documentary film in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, about the way group dynamics had developed during the campaign between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004. It was only 2-1/2 years since the new currency had been introduced, and 3,300 euros felt like 45,000 schillings. That seemed an amount so large that neither of us would ever have to work again. We stayed in Santa Rosa for three months; my wife worked on her film while I watched our son, not even a year old yet, and read John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, followed at once by Roberto Bolaño’s monumental posthumous novel 2666, which had just been published. The scale of these great works stunned me. “I see myself more as a reader than as an author,” Jorge Luis Borges used to repeat all the time, but if he hadn’t written that, I wouldn’t be able to quote it now. It’s not enough, then, to be a good reader. And it’s also not enough just to claim that literature has had a determining impact on my life. After all, any random little maxim can have the same effect if read at the right moment. Follow your heart. And the next thing you know, you’ve given notice on your job and become a writer. Or not. Genuine literature is not content just to influence the course of one’s life; rather, it has to alter that life itself, change the molecular structure of being, the oscillations in the membrane of every individual cell.
Then I recorded an album of old songs along with Gary, the Spanish teacher at the middle school in Santa Rosa, in his studio out in the sticks. I’d written them in my emotionally troubled adolescence, but they’d never been accepted for our school band’s play list. After the election victory of George W. Bush, who now had four more years to destroy the world ‒ Trump wasn’t even imaginable at the time ‒ we flew home with a layover in Washington, where we wanted to stay for two days.
We made our pilgrimage to the White House, and our son barfed through the tall fence in a sharp, projectile-like beam from his baby carriage into the Presidential garden. Some nearby security man instantly reached for his walkie-talkie, but fortunately nothing more. We took off for the subway. In the station at Vienna, Virginia, the boy threw up again. The bystanders looked away discreetly and took a different exit. My wife thought we should go to a hospital, but I thought that was an overreaction. When we got back to our little bed and breakfast, the boy vomited yet once more. After the fifth time, I gave in and called 911. Even before I’d hung up, we heard sirens on the street. There was a knock on the door just seconds later, and nine firefighters and a female physician came storming into our dingy room. Immediately the child was expertly positioned, given a quick preliminary examination, and carried down to a huge fire engine on the double. My wife was allowed to sit next to him on the stretcher, while I sat in front like a schoolboy who’d always dreamed of being a fireman. In a few minutes we arrived at the hospital, the ninth-best in the United States according to a sign on the wall. We sat adrift in the waiting room with our semi-conscious child. Only then did I realize that there was something serious wrong with him. But before I could get nervous, George Clooney called us ‒ at least that’s how my wife tells it ‒ and walked with us to the emergency room. We told about our visit to the White House and the first attack which had happened there. This is serious, the doctor said, it can last for four years. I grew calmer, felt that I was in good hands with a Democratic doctor capable of irony. In the next hour our son was x-rayed, given an enema, catheterized, had blood drawn, and was examined from tip to toe in ways that seemed totally unnecessary to me, all the while growing visibly weaker. Finally they brought us into a large, family-sized room on the ninth floor with a magnificent view of Washington illuminated by night. Our son was given an IV, my wife laid herself next to him, and they both fell asleep at once.
I wandered around the floor, found a small kitchen, and made myself some tea. Then I read the letters of thanks on the wall from children who’d been treated successfully here, hopeless cases who’d escaped death and were now back in kindergarten or school. Eventually I met up with a night nurse. I asked her if it wasn’t time to take down our information; we had good health insurance, even a supplemental travel policy, so there shouldn’t be any problem. Later, she said. I hadn’t completely given up on the idea of flying back the next day, and was hoping the drip would help my son recover enough to travel. The doctor doing morning rounds would decide that, meaning there would be enough time for us to fill out all the admission forms. It was clear to me, though, that we would have to travel to the airport as quickly as possible in the morning, if we were allowed to at all, so I asked again if it mightn’t be possible to write down our address, insurance information, and all the rest now, at night, when there’s nothing else going on anyway. The young nurse, not unattractive but completely uninterested, lacking even a whiff of American enthusiasm, shrugged her shoulders and handed me a small piece of pink paper from the pad by the telephone. I was supposed to write my information on it. I couldn’t think of any address except my parents’ in Linz, and our insurance information was in my suitcase back at the bed and breakfast. She didn’t ask for it anyway, perhaps because she knew she’d never be sending us a bill. The following morning, meaning just a few hours later, we went on our way. I don’t remember anything about our trip back to our room or to the airport; only the flight itself sticks in my mind. Somewhere over the Atlantic my wife began vomiting while our son slept in his little bassinet against the wall and I watched Spiderman 2.
A couple of weeks later we’d found a more or less affordable apartment in an old building in the fourth district of Vienna, leaving the elitist luxury of the inner city. My wife began cutting the film she’d started in America, but Vote Faith didn’t turn out to be the success we’d been hoping for. A good thing for me that I hadn’t invested all that much energy in composing the Oscar acceptance speech. The film was shown once to a small audience in the American Embassy and once to a few friends at our apartment. And that was that. So we weren’t going to be able to live from film sales, but an instructor in the comparative literature department dropped out on short notice and I was given a second course to teach, which guaranteed our financial survival. In addition, I kept on having the good fortune, over and over, as if by some miracle, of getting jobs as a copywriter. I wrote for a lamp manufacturer, for the cultural bureau of the City of Linz, for a tourist office. Little by little my customers turned into regulars, so the money flowed more steadily if not in larger quantities. Now that writing had become my profession, I couldn’t manage to pull myself together in the evenings and work on my literary projects.
I said to my wife not long ago that all my other publications meant absolutely nothing to me; it was as if they didn’t even exist, since the only things that counted were actual literary works in print. She didn’t reply, and I felt misunderstood, though I soon forgot the episode. Until I was given a trip to Crete as a birthday present. […] If I was going to write, I’d better get on with it, and nothing could be better than a concentrated start at a place where nothing could distract me.
A week later I was lying in a hammock in front of Vangelis House. Only one of the other four rooms was occupied, unfortunately by an Austrian, but so far he hadn’t bothered me. An older man who vanished into the mountains with his camera early in the morning and didn’t come back till evening. In the first two days we exchanged a few words at breakfast: he came from Linz like myself, was retired from Voest, the big steel mill, and was a passionate landscape photographer who’d been familiar with the southern coast of Crete since the seventies. I was happy that I hadn’t been saddled with a windbag for a neighbor, for it was important to me that I should approach my work with concentration.
The first day I read what I’d written so far. Eighty or so pages of my novel about a writer were more or less finished. After reading through the work for the first time I was motivated but dejected at the same time; the part I’d thought was finished was of course unusable, by and large, and about twenty pages pleased me more than I was expecting. By the third day, after I’d combed through the manuscript twice and made some notes, I was all out of excuses. It was time to compose. But how was I supposed to write sitting all alone on the shady terrace without being constantly pestered? When the whole day belonged to me with no limitations, a sea of time before me as endless as the deep blue surface of the water before my eyes? How was I supposed to start when no end was looming, no one was calling me to practice diving head first from a big boulder, no one was asking if I’d like to share a piece of cake with some coffee or if I’d rather have some freshly squeezed orange juice? I was missing my family; vacation time without them made no sense, and everything reminded me of the splendid summer we’d spent here the year before. We should be experiencing the same thing now, again, as a family, so what on earth was I doing here all by myself?
The other Austrian and I took our seats at different tables on the fourth morning, as usual. We read, he occupied himself with a manual for identifying Mediterranean birds or plants, I worked through my notes once again. I had deliberately not brought along a book so I wouldn’t be prevented from working ‒ a really stupid idea, though, since it’s almost always literature that inspires a writer far more than life itself. Kalimera, he nodded to me, and then took himself off in a complete hiking outfit, while I moved with my slips of paper and my new black notebook to another table against the wall, somewhat protected against the wind, and wanted to begin writing.
By evening I was frustrated. As perfect as conditions were here, I’d done nothing more on the fourth day than correct and rearrange the text, without making any headway with the story itself. I grabbed a beer from the refrigerator, crossed something off my list and sat down on the terrace, now in darkness, from which I could see white spume faintly gleaming in the immeasurable blackness of the sea.
Well, neighbor, how’s it going? the Austrian asked as he took a seat beside me. (He was holding a beer, too). I didn’t mind this a bit; what else was I supposed to do in the dark?
Right, you’re in the room next to me, I said.
And at 57 Hasbergersteig, he added.
My parents lived at number 15. That was where I’d lived from the time I was nine until I was nineteen, and of course I’d continued spending time there after moving to Vienna, though I had never noticed this man. On the other hand, how would I have? I didn’t go to church and wasn’t part of the St. Magdalena social scene in any other way.
I wouldn’t have recognized you, the Austrian explained, but the name Kutzenberger seemed familiar to me when I saw it in the guest book. Are you the son of Privy Councilor Kutzenberger? That I was. Are your parents in Vienna now? Yes, they were. My parents had relocated to Vienna the year before, since both of their children ‒ meaning their grandchildren, too ‒ lived there. Besides, their large house with so many flights of stairs no longer made sense at their age.
Do you know the family which moved into our old house? I wanted to know.
I don’t know any of the new people, he answered. Since my mother died, I don’t hear anything at all about what’s going on in St. Magdalena. I might sell the house in the near future. Had ours been easy to sell? No, it hadn’t been. Even though our house on Hasbergersteig had undoubtedly been in the best possible location in Linz, and even though my parents lowered the asking price, it took almost two years before it was finally sold. When the sale was complete, our relief was so great that there was no chance of even a whiff of nostalgia about leaving our home city.
Are you thinking of moving to Vienna, too? I asked. He merely shook his head, took a sip of beer, and looked out into the dark nothingness that had risen up beyond the terrace. Finally he raised his glass and told me his name was Friedinger. Not Herr Friedinger, not his first name, either, just Friedinger. Kutzenberger, I replied.
I went to the university in Vienna and lived there a few more years, but no, I’m not planning to move to Vienna, Friedinger explained. Maybe I’ll just stay here in my house or rent an apartment in the center of Linz, or else I’ll travel to Denmark for a time.
Denmark, I said. My mother-in-law is Danish. Friedinger laughed. My daughter too, he said.
Your daughter is Danish?
Well, she lives there, anyway. Complicated story. He fell silent and looked pensively in the direction of the Milky Way, which we couldn’t see because of the light bulbs in the terrace fixtures.
They’re nice people, I said, just to have something to say.
Complicated story, he repeated. Then: Somebody should write a book about it. Could it be that everybody around here is hawking their life stories in the hope of finding a ghost writer?
A few years ago, just after we’d moved to the outskirts of Vienna ‒ 2007, then ‒ I got to know an elderly Jewish widow whom I met in the Leopold Museum. I’d just finished leading a guided tour through some Impressionists from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The group was dispersing slowly when a lady came up to me, dragged me over to a Monet, and forcefully proclaimed: The one I have at home is better! We remained standing there while she told me about her flight from Nazi Vienna, her new beginning in New York, her husband, who’d been concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, his death many years before, her mansion in Manhattan (much too big), her art collection. She said she had no children and no heirs, and told me she very much wanted to set her life story down on paper but didn’t know how to go about it. I must have given her my card, because the next time I heard from her was when I was standing in our old apartment surrounded by moving boxes. She was back in America, she told me on the phone, thanked me once more for the nice time she’d had in the museum, and talked to me about her life for two full hours, while my wife packed books into cartons. She repeated several times that she had no heirs and that she’d like to write the story of her life, but I didn’t react. I told her at one point that her story reminded me of my grandmother’s life; she, too, had had to flee because of the Nazis ‒ not from Vienna to New York but from Berlin to Indonesia via Amsterdam. It made no impression on her, not even the realization that I must be Jewish, too, if my maternal grandmother was. Once in a while, though very seldom, maybe no more than two or three times, I mentioned this to other Jews and could clearly notice a difference, a kind of well-disposed Welcome to the club. The wealthy widow with no heirs just kept on telling me more, details that were certainly not uninteresting about the way emigrants lived in the second half of the twentieth century, but there was no possible way I could ever write about any of it until I’d presented the story of my grandmother’s life in book form.
If every person carries the material for a book inside, then that was the book I would have to write. No one else ever would if I didn’t, even if many others were far more qualified than I, knew more about the history of National Socialism and especially more about what life was like for the Chinese minority in Indonesia. My grandmother had married a Chinese Indonesian. I’d even made an attempt one time to start a book about my grandparents, but I didn’t get very far, because it seemed unfair to me to write about my mother’s parents but not about my father’s just because my maternal grandparents led a more exotic life than my father’s parents, who’d hardly left Austria. The only solution, then, would be a book about each set of grandparents. Like any other human being, like any other vertebrate animal, for that matter, I was descended from two families and had four grandparents: that was the first sentence I’d come up with.
The Jewish widow (her first name was Sophie, and I’ve forgotten meantime what her last name was) called me one more time, shortly after we’d moved. I was standing in the garden of my in-laws’ summer house looking out at the Baltic. She was in Vienna and wanted to meet, wanted to show me the scenes of her youth, which was almost eerily easy to do, she said, because nothing had changed. The ice-cream store at the corner of her old house still had the same flooring, the same mirrors on the walls; only the owners were new, though they were just as anti-Semitic. You could walk through Vienna for a week with a map from 1935 and wouldn’t notice that the map was generations old. Even the buses and streetcars still drove the same routes. So when could we meet? I still had two weeks of summer vacation here in the north, I said. Sophie felt personally insulted; that was too long, because she’d be back in New York by then. She was going to leave a gift for me at the desk of the King of Hungary Hotel on Schuler Straße in the center of town.
A few years later, I was in the King of Hungary because I was writing an article about the image of Vienna in Latin American literature, and the great Argentinian author Julio Cortázar, in his novel 62 / modelo para armar, had set a number of scenes in the triangular area between the Hotel Capricorno on Schweden Platz, Blut Gasse, and the King of Hungary. So I visited that hotel, trying in vain to capture the ramshackle, Transylvanian mood of the novel, and I was no more successful in finding any indication that Cortázar had stayed there in the sixties. I was briefly tempted to ask the concierge, who was already annoyed, if a lady named Sophie had left a gift there for me, Stefan Kutzenberger, some years before. But before the words came out of my mouth I became aware of how strange the question would seem, especially after I’d just asked to see the guest registers and pictures of the rooms before renovation, so I left. My article was never published, and I never heard another thing from the rich Jewish widow in search of an heir and biographer. Why had I never picked up the gift? Why hadn’t I thanked her for the trouble she’d taken to leave something for me? That was the least I could have done.
My dodging Sophie was surely explained by the disloyalty I knew I would have felt if I’d gone into more detail about her life than that of my own Jewish grandmother. During my first days in Vienna, when I was living in my grandmother’s apartment ‒ a bleak, new building in the sixth district ‒ we enjoyed a smooth-running, amicable domestic life, almost like college roommates, but when she kept telling me funny, interesting anecdotes about her life, I never understood this as a hint to involve myself with her story. Looking back on it now, I can see she was obviously interested in preserving the story of her odyssey through the twentieth century, because my Viennese grandfather and grandmother (as my brother and I called our grandparents living in Vienna, as opposed to the Linz grandparents) were well aware that their lives had been emblematic of a century eaten up by wars.
One afternoon in the eighties they took seats at a table in their rented apartment in Benidorm on the Mediterranean Coast in Spain, where they usually spent the winter. They had set up a recorder, and grandfather had inserted an empty tape, a BASF LH-EI 60. Although the cassette was brand-name, it held a cheap ferric-oxide tape for playing and recording on Position I (Normal). This upset me a short time later, when I was given a whole package of those tapes. I was twelve or thirteen at the time and wanted to record music, for which chromium tapes (Position II, High) were much better suited. My grandfather placed one of those ferric-oxide tapes into the opening and pressed the record button so he could finally start doing what countless people over decades had been urging him to do, which was to record his life. And because grandpa and grandma weren’t getting anywhere, it was up to me to do it. Over and over, well-meaning people, mostly passing acquaintances, had also been urging me to write my grandparents’ life story. After just a few sentences around that table in Benidorm, grandpa stopped the faintly whirring machine. He rewound the tape to check if the machine was operating properly. It was. First grandma’s voice and then grandpa’s came through loud and clear as they asked one another where they should start. When they heard how strange their own voices sounded, they were embarrassed, began laughing, and stopped the project before it had even started.
Whenever we see ourselves from outside, we’re seized with acute discomfort. Even the mirror the barber holds up to show us the back of our own head after a haircut, leaves us a bit baffled: Is that supposed to be me? And the irritation of seeing ourselves in profile: Who does this nose belong to? It’s a similar feeling when we read something we’ve written. Old pieces can catch us unawares, either positively or negatively, but what we’ve just now been working on, whatever’s right in front of us, is downright baffling: Is this how I am? I don’t want to be like this! Mushy and unlikeable. What a shocking discovery: we don’t sound the way we hear ourselves, we don’t look the way we picture ourselves, we don’t write the way we’d like to: in short, we’re not the people we think we are. With this before his eyes, or rather in his ears, my grandpa did the one right thing—he put a stop to the autobiographical project.
Friedinger, Deuticke, 2018.