The unlived life is light, so light

Dear Marie Luise,

Circe’s Mountain: Stories (1990, tr. Lisel Mueller. Stories originally written in the 1950’s and 1960’s) is a collection of 12 of some of your strongest short stories.

In “The Landslide” (“Der Bergrutsch”, in Das dicke Kind und andere Erzählungen, 1952), one of my favourite stories in this collection, a couple escapes a natural disaster when they are about to buy a house by the sea in Italy. The highlight for me is the way the story is structured: as the narrator reminisces about the past, the accounts of what happened and what could have happened are delivered as if they were intertwined: life and death, one thing, hand in hand. “There are those of us who are alive. There are those of us who are dead and yet alive, like plants, perhaps, or like shells that open a little and let in the sea, or like the colourful algae in the tiny lagoon in the cliff. (…) And all of this would be no different today, except it would, because the future weighs less than the past, and dreams weigh less than experience, because the unlived life is light, so light.”

In “Long Shadows“ (“Lange Schatten”, in Lange Schatten. Erzählungen, 1960), another favourite of mine, Rosie is on vacation with her parents on the Italian coast. One day, she goes to the beach alone, and an infatuated boy starts to follow her. When he suddenly tries to sexually assault her, Rosie manages to stop him by the power of… her gaze. As if she were a kind of Medusa, Rosie’s gaze “must have contained something of a primal force, the primal force of resistance” against the boy’s “primal force of desire”. After this silent confrontation, both boy and girl walk away, casting long, separated shadows, as they walk. “The life instinct, desire and shame, the rite of spring, but without love, only longing and fear.”

“One Day in the Middle of June” (Eines Mittags Mitte Juni, in Lange Schatten. Erzählungen, 1960), yet another favourite of mine, centres on a woman who, upon returning home from a trip, discovers that a stranger had announced her death to the whole neighbourhood. On the very day the stranger had come, the woman was in Italy, and had swum out to sea, consumed by the desire to drown herself. While in the deep sea, she hears someone playing a flute, and decides to turn back to the beach. It’s a siren’s song, but one that calls her back to life – and to the desire to live: “this call from life, which pulls me up out of the water.”

In “Silver Almonds” („Silberne Mandeln“, in Ferngespräche. Erzählungen, 1966), we follow a working-class woman, as she goes through the preparations for her silver wedding anniversary. As the big day approaches, the narrative gathers momentum from the woman’s excitement, and, despite all preparations, it ends on a blessing that comes at random, from a place she had least expected it.

“Lupines“ (“Lupinen”, in Ferngespräche. Erzählungen,1966), another of my favourites, centres on two Jewish sisters during the Nazi regime. It’s 1943, and they have just been arrested. One of them, Barbara, jumps from the deportation train, while the other, Fanny, out of fear, stays inside. We never get to hear what happened to Fanny (we can only imagine it), but we follow Barbara, as she goes to hide in her brother-in-law’s apartment. “She would like to be nice to him; she is grateful, nothing more, though the thought of something more is hardly far-fetched between two such lonely people, a man and a woman waiting for the same day, through the fall and the winter and the spring, and still the day does not come.” She will risk salvation, clutching at a bunch of lupines, at the same place where her sister had picked flowers, many years before.

In “A Tambourine, a Horse” (“Ein Tamburim, ein Pferd”, in Ferngespräche. Erzählungen, 1966), we are somewhere during WWII, and follow an orphan girl who is raised by an older couple. One day, the girl misplaces a key, and, during a search by soldiers, this innocuous act leads to the murder of her foster parents. Everything plays out in the haze of the girl’s memory, intertwined with all that the child did not and could not understand at the time (but we can). The highlight for me was the story’s odd atmosphere, as if we were inside a fairy-tale where nothing made sense and everything was real. “She went through everything with a sort of cold courage, like someone who has been among the dead and returned to earth by some miracle.”

“Long Distance“ („Ferngespräche“, in Ferngespräche. Erzählungen, 1966) is a humorous piece, where we follow a love relationship through a series of interconnected phone calls between the various characters: the two love birds; the boy’s father, sister, and aunt; and one of the girl’s friends.

In “Thaw” (“Schneeschmelze”, in Lange Schatten. Erzählungen, 1960), yet another of my favourites, we follow a fearful night in the life of a couple who believes that their adopted son (who may be dead already) is coming to kill them. Fear is mingled with guilt, and the image of the son reads almost like a ghost who is already among them, enacting its revenge from the inside out. They close all the doors, then change their minds and leave everything open again – as if they wanted him to come back. Maybe they want to see him again; maybe they want to die; maybe they want to kill the boy, or kill its ghost, kill the memory of him – forever. “Come on in, gentleman, all the doors are open, go ahead and shoot, it’s what my wife wants, and it doesn’t hurt.”

“Christine” (“Christine”, in Lange Schatten. Erzählungen, 1960) is another dark piece centred on the ravages of memory. It follows a couple who, many years before, witnessed the murder of a girl, the eponymous Christine. They didn’t do anything at the time, for fear that the murderer might do something to them or to their children. The husband never forgot the fact, and broods over it ceaselessly. He can’t forgive himself, and keeps asking why he has ignored the child’s cry for help: he gestures to his conformable, middle class life, and wonders, for this, for this?

“X Day” (“Der Tag X”, in Ferngespräche. Erzählungen, 1966) centres on a day in the life of a woman who is certain that a nuclear disaster will happen, and that day will be the last day of life on earth. She may be a modern-day Cassandra, or just a lunatic. The narrative gathers momentum, as the woman’s anxiety increases, and we feel that we are trapped with her on an endless cycle of fearing an end that is forever coming.

In “The Fat Girl” (“Das dicke Kind”, in Das dicke Kind und andere Erzählungen, 1952), the narrator receives the unexpected visit of an unknown girl who enter her apartment out of nowhere, materializes in front of our narrator, and introduces herself as “Fatty” (“die Dicke”) – hence the title. The narrator starts to feel that she detests this child and wants to throw her out but is unable to because she’s somehow also attracted to her. When the child finally leaves the house, the narrator, overcome by an urge to run after her, decides to follow her. The narrator watches from a distance, as the girl falls into the ice near the riverbank, and the girl’s sister calls her “fatty”. “I was watching a long struggle, a terrible wrestling for liberation and transformation, like the breaking apart of a shell or cocoon, and now I wanted to help the girl, but I also knew that my help had become unnecessary, because now I knew who she was.” Who is this girl? Is she real, or a ghost – or a memory of who the narrator once was? Is the narrator looking into the ice as if into a mirror? The narrator seems to be in two different timelines at once, seeing something and remembering something else; or dreaming, haunted by a ghost; or perhaps she is locked inside the memory of a memory, reliving it from inside out.

Finally, the title piece, “Circe’s Mountain” (“Am Circeo”, in Lange Schatten. Erzählungen, 1960), is something between an essay and a short story, told in a series of journal entries written by a widow struggling with grief. “Friday. Here, under the fig tree, one could begin to live again; to live, meaning different things for different people and meaning, for me, to love and to write. Except I don’t mean the act of writing itself, which is torture, but the special looking and listening that leads to it.” It reads as a diary of a stay in the underworld, as the narrator struggles to survive loss by living through it. “Not to go on as before, this is the wish of everyone who has not chosen his new beginning but has had it imposed on him, with no inkling of how and where it will lead him.”

In most of the stories, you are telling us something brutal, but you are doing it with great kindness. The narrative flows from psychological detail to landscape descriptions, and then back, seamlessly. The lived and the unlived are blurred, as if they were one single reality – and your stories were caught in-between, halfway through time and timelessness.

Yours truly,


The Lantern Parade, c.1918, by Thomas Cooper Gotch

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