Exit stage left

By Sibylle Berg

Translation Kate Roy

It is a moment so perfect it makes your head ache, because it’s forcing you to do more with this fleeting perfection than just look at it and breathe it. The road is the breadth of a car and hugs the lake. A heavy, golden autumn, the sun fights the mist, the smell of wood fire hangs in the air. You don’t need sunglasses any more, and that’s a shame, because he feels more at ease with sunglasses. It’s like gliding on moss, past old villas, past the lake, to Bellagio.

The camera shows a man in his mid-thirties – styled like a young lord, side parting, dapper, his Burberry coat too warm, cords, sports jacket, a Reclam paperback (Flaubert) in one pocket – in the back seat of a taxi. He puts on his Gucci glasses and takes them off again, plays with the ends of his Hermès scarf (a fake), has fine beads of sweat on his face and the helpless look of someone who has lost his focus. Maybe he never had one in the first place.

Small birds in the oleander hedges. A tired old lido. A small, broken doll in a puddle.

Tracking shot: past a palazzo, standing empty, through the small town of Bellagio, about the most perfect it can be for a small town, whose every millimetre has been caressed by the feet of princes, kings or film stars, into a driveway, not gravel alas, it makes too much noise. The taxi stops in front of the entrance to the Hotel Villa Serbelloni. The villa, its largest structure dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, looks like a treasure chest with a lid, floating on endless waves. This one building is the size of several comprehensive schools.

Liveried men saunter about wanting to carry suitcases, there are no suitcases. He carries only a doctor’s bag, the one he was gifted by a Karen freedom fighter, to the reception, dumped like a car crash in the old palazzo. A bit of an Eighties feel, defiantly battling too much beauty, metaphorical shoulder pads and leggings. Beauty wins, thinks the young man, as he follows a bellboy up to the second floor. Of course, it had to be a Superior Double. The room as big as a football field, without the players, thank God, that would be all he needed, eleven sweaty men with the IQ’s of gorillas. The room beats him down, it is bigger than him in every way.

The camera shows Murano chandeliers, frescos, decorative work in lapis lazuli, the lake through the window, a boat disappears over the horizon, the young man sits on the bed and looks at his feet, paralysed: they sit like two unbaked bread rolls on the Persian carpet, in front of him.

He can’t die yet. How would that work? Here, in the afternoon, in the golden sun? And what if he wants to come back in those final seconds? He had imagined himself nonchalantly swanning his way around the hotel, chatting with oil barons, smoking cigars, celebrating his exit in style. But now: a blond, insecure boy in surroundings that are much too grand, floundering. In the last few years he had always managed to console himself by retreating more and more into defiance mode: I can go any time, he had thought. He can’t even do that, he realises now.

He stands up, this feeling of not wanting to move, of wanting to fall. His friends are coming any moment; he’s promised them a party. He’ll embrace them all. They’ll be surprised and they’ll cry. After that, he’ll do it: the injection, the saline solution, it will go quickly. So, down the steps, into the park. Finally, gravel.

Tracking shot: jetties, seagulls on piles in the water, summer houses grown over with grapes, on garden chairs, white metal of course, widows of millionaires from overseas with short silvery-blue curls.

He trudges through the park; his square-built body is prone to perspiration, beads of sweat under his straw hat. Aschenbach from Death in Venice? What could have gone so wrong? He had thought his life would never end. Thought he would be world famous and rich, that he would have an exceptional life, because he was exceptional. He was a child supported to excel, spoke four languages, by his mid-twenties he had his own newspaper, soon after, his own radio programme, he made films, rubbed shoulders with DJ’s, read about himself every day in the papers. A media Wunderkind. Everyone idolised him as the inventor of Med Art, a mainstream-appropriate fusion of media, art and wanderlust. He reported live from a hotel in Rwanda; while the locals were splitting open each other’s skulls, he took artistic photos. He was a guest of the Karen (the bag!), smoked weed with the rebel leaders. The old creative artist-types loved him, he earned lots of money, he met Heike Makatsch from Love Actually.

His downfall came, he didn’t see it for a long time, like Germany’s own decline, a murky process. The newspaper folded, the radio programme was discontinued, the financiers withdrew, and at a certain point he had to speak to receptionists. It took years for our hero to understand that his time had well and truly passed. The pinnacle of his life at 30, that was the Nineties, that was the time pop became art and split people into three camps: the ones who watched talk shows, the group in the grey area who considered Alain de Botton a philosopher and Coelho a poet, and the ones who ate Conceptual Art for breakfast. Now everything he could still have done would require inglorious effort. And that, of course, was not an option.

Cutback: the office space in an old colonial building in Bangladesh, staff, our leading man in a Bauhaus Barcelona chair, his friends around him; on the wall, a photo of Gilbert & George. A young actress wafts into the room and sings a song that Noel Gallagher has written for her. Our hero is busy putting the finishing touches on a lifestyle internet portal. Everything runs in parallel. Everything is a Project. A luxury goods fair, a talk show, a film, all up to the minute, hip, dashing and modern. So Bret Easton Ellis. The hero goes to the window, looks out over the slums. It’s important to him that he doesn’t lose touch with reality. In this moment, he is eternal.

It is 6 o’clock. The first guests are arriving: friends who aren’t friends anymore, who backed away from our hero when they saw him fall. The fear of being carried along with him is too great, their own precipice too close. But now, it’s party time. A former MTV VJ hops out of a hydrofoil, followed by a former editor-in-chief, followed by a former hit band, followed by a consultant for something.

Former MTV VJ: “Are there any stars here?”
Former hit band: “Whoah, is it overdressed here. Totally retro.”
Former MTV VJ: “Is there Wi-Fi?”

Cut: ten people at a table at the poolside Restaurant Mistral. One Michelin Star, famous for chef Ettore Bocchia, like the Italian version of the “Naked Chef” but fully clothed. Inventor of Cucina moleculare – fat-free mayonnaise, pasta you can’t overcook and Nouvelle Cuisine that doesn’t make you fat. Simply brilliant. Perfect staging, a view out over the lake. Lights on the opposite shore, an evening haze. The hero sits surrounded by his former friends, the seven courses of the tasting menu are spun out over three hours. They laugh and talk excitedly about Projects.

here’s something on the go with 3-D and DJ’s, playing at the Ritze, the boxing club and bar in Hamburg. And right now, the consultant is doing autotests for Tyler Brûlé’s former magazine, and they’re all making a racket and enjoying the seemingly choreographed movements of the wait staff. He sits there and is quieter and quieter and thinks: It’s as if I had already gone. This final defeat gives him strength and he jumps up and cries: Let’s try one more thing together, something great, a web blog with Japanese robots. A brief silence at the table, then someone orders a coffee.

Tracking shot: The last ferry sets off for Menaggio.

One of the band members checks his emails. The consultant is loading songs onto his phone, for a moment the hotel seems overcome with disgust (how do you show that?). The hero leaves. No one notices. That’s the worst. In his room, that mocks him with its “I’ll still be here when you’re a distant memory,” he checks his bank balance. The cash he has on him will last for one night in the hotel, his overdraft would last him a little longer if he found something cheaper. Here, in the town.

The hero thinks about all the princes and kings who’ve been here in the last 200 years. Arriving with their hordes of servants, whole corridors rented, and rooms just to spread out the clothes on the beds. Romy was here, and the hotel staff had to sit with her late into the night because she couldn’t bear to be alone. The hero thinks about what it might be like to have two embarrassed waiters sitting by his bedside. He feels very close to Romy.

Cut: Restaurant Mistral. The tables being cleared. The staff retiring to their rooms. The lights going out. Crickets dying.

The morning after a sleepless night the hero discovers the minibar. A small cognac doesn’t make anything better or easier, but it makes the focus less sharp. Accompanied by the slight nausea that a drink in the morning brings, the hero adjourns to the breakfast room. He takes a quick look at the enormous Murano lights, at the frescos on the ceiling and at the couples at the tables, older for the most part. No socks and sandals here, only immaculate hair, faces relaxed by wealth and cashmere throws. Sickened by all this bourgeoisie, he goes into the park, sinks down on a leafy wall, looks out at the lake and senses that he won’t find the courage to die today either. A gardener walks up to him. With the wisdom of experience, he addresses the unhappy hero, a gentle conversation begins, during which it turns out that one of the gardener’s relatives has a house for rent. They could go there right now and take a look at it.

Tracking shot: A pick-up truck heads inland, the hero fights his nausea. A tall, run-down house stands in a shady hollow, some of its windows are cracked. The gardener and the hero enter. In the house it’s damp and cold; in every room, old mattresses, old beds, broken chairs.

My cousin will be here any minute, the gardener said. Our hero sits on a damp mattress and stares at a tin bucket. Why is it there? An hour later an old man comes in, obviously drunk. He talks unintelligibly, pulls a schnapps bottle out of the pocket of his sports jacket, offers it for a sip, takes one himself, shakes hands and collects what is almost the last of the young man’s cash. He leaves the bottle behind.

Cut: Evening falls, dark, cold, our hero has been sitting on the mattress for hours, incapable of moving. At sunset, the landlord comes back; they drink together in silence.

The hero wakes early, at five, with a headache and a bad taste in his mouth. The landlord is gone, the hero looks around for a sink, a basin, finds one in the kitchen, brushes his teeth and makes himself a coffee with vodka. Afterwards, he walks into the town, which takes a long time because he keeps stopping, standing, groping for a thought that refuses to come. In the town, he goes into the one and only shop, buys a croissant, steals schnapps, and takes himself to the gate of the Hotel Villa Serbelloni. He stands there, silently, staring at the entrance, then turns away, goes back to his house, where he spends the rest of the day drinking and holding monologues that distress him so much that he speaks too quietly and can’t really understand himself.

Tracking shot: The trees have lost their leaves. Three weeks have gone by. Our hero staggers through Bellagio; he looks bloated. He pauses and looks through the iron gate at the Villa Serbelloni.

The hero no longer knows what has been. He doesn’t know what will come. When he gazes at the Villa Serbelloni something reminds him of dreams past.

The most perfect hotel manager in the world, Signor Spinelli, is just welcoming an old Cuban widow, Louis Vuitton luggage is being unloaded. Age doesn’t have to be a burden when it’s tied to money. He has no more money. He breathes in the November air; it already carries a little frost. He has no friends, not even a last copy of his old newspaper. Nothing to remember him by. He’ll disappear without leaving a trace. But there’s still time before he goes. There’s another bottle waiting for him in the old house, now ice cold, not that he feels it.

Cut: In the lounge of the Villa Serbelloni a trio plays “Ave Maria,” in the old wicker chairs sit smiling older people with good taste and refined knitwear. At the pool, there’s a woman in a chic suit; barman Mauro, fluent in six languages, is conversing with an old factory owner, the sun has gone behind a chintz curtain, life stands still in its best moment. For the next 200 years.

 

SIbylle Berg, “Der Abgang.”   First published in DIE ZEIT 45 (3.11.2005)
(https://www.zeit.de/2005/45/Italien/komplettansicht)    © Sibylle Berg