There is no regret, only memories, some bittersweet, some funny. He looks back and smiles, all the time listening to the breeze blowing through the bare branches of the trees. He sees the present, but his reality is in the past, although he no longer reads it as the past, rather as a possible future, or, better, a transition between futures. The present, the spectacle, he does not care much for, there is nothing there to inspire him, to make it worth more attention. In a strange way, he’s immune, to the air du temps, to the vagaries that pass for real in most people’s daily lives: he’s sheltered, wrapped, in voices, melodies and faces that are no more, but still more alive to him than the background noise “they” call now.
She observes his decline, but admires his energy, the way he polishes wood, cleans his boots, prunes the bushes, looks after the car. There is more, but she’s careful to spare those moments, those fragile bridges to the couple they once were. She observes him, does not let him out of sight too long. Best for her, is when he is at his desk, surrounded by Beethoven or Mozart, writing one of his weird and lofty stories. Then, his mind may be far away, but his cherished body is there, visible, close to her, she knows he’s not going to disappear, through the mist. Yet she cares about where his mind is: what would she do if, one morning, he did not recognise her? What would happen to both of them if he lost his sense of time, his sense of humour?
He took a last look at the now empty apartment: between those walls he and his companion had spent some very happy hours, but also known doubts, and even fear. Times were changing, now was the right time to go home, to retrace their steps. Looking for his lost dream had been the goal, and he had failed, in some ways. Looking across the avenue, out of the bay window, he did not concede defeat. The task remained incomplete, the story unwritten. His search would continue. He would miss this place, the city, the tree-lined streets, the vast parks and the lakes. How beautiful the country was, there, on their doorstep. Yet he aspired to escape, to hide from the beauty, to a different world of silence, and peace. He knew she was happy to go back, to her friends, to her garden. Life would be simpler. He drove carefully out and took the direction of the Autobahn. They had a long road ahead of them, landscapes they knew, places where to stop on their way. His wife was smiling, on the radio he overheard news about election fraud and forbidden demonstrations. In the past year they had not paid much attention to what was going on, elsewhere in the world. At least he had not, perhaps she was more attentive to the voices, out there, to the ripples that did not reach him. She switched the radio to classical music. The landscape was changing, they were leaving. He would drive for another hour, and then his wife would take over: they were organised, relaxed, thoughtful. He thought of their journey, back to the city from the west, three years past. Then the landscape had been frozen, the trees delicate structures of glass. He’d hoped then to discover the truth, the elusive reality behind the dream. But it was not a complete failure, contact was made, he could still hear far away voices, from a past that may have been his, theirs. His wife would soon be driving. Suddenly he was relieved: they had made their move, it was not the end of their search, only it would have to be done from a little further away. He smiled at the thought of their long rides along the Oder, the endless forests, the small villages nestled in the hills. They would go back, later, he was sure of that.
The place, their place, was so familiar, ramshackle, a little dusty. He walked to the bottom of the garden, inhaled the now moist and cool air, the small hollow was overgrown. He thought he would have to install a fence at the back, to guard against foxes and stray dogs. He laughed: this was so different, in its suburban quiet solitude, the city was far away. They would start clearing the brambles and dead plants, empty the shed of rubbish. They now had plenty of time, to plan, to decide, to work and shape the place the way they wanted. There was no rush. They would take the time to unpack, to clean the house, to make this space liveable. A place where to love, and write again, he thought. His wife was walking toward him, handed him some tools. Pruning was the word. He would have to prune, go back to bare essentials. He wondered about the gnomes, the small people, were they still around, or had they followed him to the city, and lost their way? He smiled at the idea of furtive shapes haunting the large avenues at night, perhaps hiding in the parks. No, he was sure they were still around here, spying, mocking, planning their next trick. A grey heron flew by, majestuous. It was getting dark, he must have been dreaming awake. His wife had gone back to the house, downstairs was lit. He would start working tomorrow, spend some time in the garden, then inside. As he started walking toward the house he heard a familiar chuckle. There you go, he thought, they are here all right, the mischievous lot. He would have to fix the outside light on the terrace. So many little and not so little tasks awaited him. He was looking forward to the evening. And the day after: the beginning of a new year.
The avenues are deserted on this clear evening of May. Furtive passers-by appear to avoid each other, all is silent.
Inside the spacious auditorium the small orchestra is waiting. The soft light illuminates the stage, the delicate wooden surface of the violins and celli. Soon, rapid steps are heard. The conductor enters, and the musicians stand up, as one.
The conductor salutes the orchestra, and, smiling sadly, bows looking at the empty seats: the auditorium is empty. Turning back to face the musicians his composure is calm, religious. A small gesture of the hand launches the first movement of Fratres. As the notes fill the almost empty space, we hold our breath. We, and thousands of others across the world, are not there, but we are, all the same. We watch the concentration on the faces, transfigured, of the musicians.
We are not merely attending, this is a communion. Outside, the illness holds the city in its grip. Its shadow obscures the Spring sky.
“Erwin Stein, a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, arranged a version of Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony for only 15 musicians for the legendary “Society for Private Musical Performances” in 1921. The institution, founded by Schoenberg, presented symphonic compositions arranged for small forces to an audience interested in contemporary music – also because the privately financed association naturally did not have a large-scale orchestra at its disposal.
For different reasons, namely health considerations, the large orchestras cannot perform during the corona crisis, so it looked like the Berliner Philharmoniker’s European Concert, traditionally held on 1 May each year, which was to be held for the first time under the baton of chief conductor Kirill Petrenko, would not be able to take place either. The keenly anticipated trip to the scheduled performance venue of Tel Aviv was cancelled, as was the concert tour planned for afterwards. And yet Kirill Petrenko and members of his orchestra performed on the scheduled date and at the traditional time of 11 am. The venue – in keeping with the general “stay at home” slogan – was the Philharmonie. Due to legal guidelines, no more than 15 musicians were on stage at the same time, taking into account the required minimum distance, all performers were tested for the virus – and of course spectators were not allowed in the auditorium. However, the European concert was also conceived as a media event from its very beginnings. So the 2020 concert, with live broadcasts on television, radio and in the Digital Concert Hall, ultimately reached a large audience around the world despite the extremely unusual circumstances. And in Erwin Stein’s arrangement, the main symphonic work of the concert, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, could also be performed.
However, the programme of the first half of the concert was changed: instead of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei and orchestral songs by Mahler based on poems by Rückert, they performed compositions by Arvo Pärt, György Ligeti and Samuel Barber for string orchestra. Pärt’s work Fratres, inspired by Gregorian chants, is one of the most famous pieces from the post-war period with its appealing harmony and structure and its ethereal sounds. Ligeti’s Ramifications, with its unusual string playing techniques and ingenious timbre effects, also brings to mind those instruments that could not be played in the European Concert on this occasion. And Barber’s Adagio, considered one of the saddest pieces in the history of music, expressed the worries and hardships of the present situation. The performance could also be understood as a message of support from the European Concert to Barber’s home country, the USA, which has been particularly badly affected by the corona crisis.
In its original version, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony also uses smaller forces compared to the preceding Symphonies 2 and 3. In contrast to the monumental substance of the previous works, the composer intended in this work to write a musical “humoresque”. Although it does not lack darker elements or irony, the symphony contains many cheerful and comforting passages. The finale, whose soprano solo was performed as originally planned by the celebrated singer Christiane Karg, tells of “heavenly life” in the unmistakable Wunderhorn style.”
They have room, at least just enough to sleep, dine and read. Green is the garden, as the rain falls. They have time: to plan, to work, to love. They have plenty of memories, to edit, reshape, immortalise. They have books, some read, some to read, plenty of them.
The furniture may be in pieces, the rooms strangely expecting the new. They smile, they laugh, they love. They have friends, and peace.
I wrote this back in 2014 as I was working on the beginning of the novel still titled “The Page”. This work carried on over the following five years, and should have been completed here in Berlin, but was not. Some 40,000 words later, it lays still, unfinished and unedited. Should I take another look? There are so many inconsistencies, and plenty of confusion about characters. In this post, one of them, the historian Gabrielle, who, at the time, was central to the story, accuses the author, and other character, Julian, of being an amiable fool, and a fraud. Indeed it felt like a personal accusation.
I then moved on to write “Viktoria Park”, inspired by Berlin, and events further East that are still unravelling today. “Francis’ story” should have followed but was abandoned quickly, as I found myself under increasing pressure from a variety of sources of inspiration. The bulk of my production has been, from then on, short stories, and even flash fiction. I am pondering now what my writing priorities should be.
J’ai donc choisi ces colonnes pour m’exprimer, plutôt que le blogue de notre auteur. Ce n’est pas que je me méfie de cet homme charmant, mais, ici, je me sens plus libre. Mais, d’abord, permettez-moi de me présenter.
Je m’appelle Gabrielle, qui est le nom qui, je crois, autant qu’on puisse s’assurer d’une ressemblance à telles distances, est le plus proche de mon vrai nom, dans une langue encore peu parlée dans votre monde. Je suis historienne, enfin, l’une de plusieurs spécialistes, dans cette partie de votre galaxie. Mon secteur particulier, ou, comme il est peut-être plus précis, mon intérêt propre, c’est l’histoire du vingtième siècle. À ce titre je suis restée dans votre voisinage, disons, pendant quelques années. Mais, me direz-vous, pourquoi ne pas nous dire les faits tels quels sont? Eh bien voilà: je suis arrivée chez vous un peu avant la guerre de 1870 entre la France…
As they prepared to leave and go home – a long way away – they started fantasising… There would be an island, a secret garden, a view over the old church, new colours and space for dreaming and loving. Perhaps even a shortcut to the lake from their porch?
They would have to invent a way to travel easily to the island, and there build a shelter. But would a shelter be needed? Wasn’t their place already basking in an eternal summer?
There is the city by the wide river, beyond it there is only the immense steppe, to the sea. There was a turning point, they say, a combat of titans.
Here, the river is slow and narrow, feeling its way to the Elbe. There are, all around, woods and and lakes: water reigns. I walk those streets, haunt those memorials, read the grafiti on the walls of the Reichstag, carefully preserved, that remind us of those who walked all the way from the city by the wide river, to meet their fate here.
I live here, and think constantly of the long road, from the shore of the Volga.
Image: Soviet War Memorial, Schönholzer Heide, Berlin
She appears suddenly, soon swept away by the camera, behind the violoncellists. Even at a live concert, he has difficulties in seeing her more than fleetingly. Yet he knows her face, a medieval beauty, inspired, aloof, as if out of a distant past. He basked in the symphonic beauty, Tchaikovsky, Alban Berg, Mahler… She’s there, not all the time, over the years she appears not to have changed much. Is she a spirit? Is she the soul of the orchestra? When did he notice her first?
Lost in a dream, he listens, enthralled, expecting an angel to appear.
I remember the first months in the city, I was puzzled by people wearing black, as if in mourning. Months and years passed. Slowly, I wore darker clothes, without knowing why. Not only during the grey season, all the time.
Did I forget Spring would come, clearer skies? Did I ignore the cheerful chorus of the winged friends?
No, like so many others, as if in a dream, I became untouchable, a silent ghost, sometime observed in the deserted streets, wrapped in darkness.
The people Marcel loves are people in motion. Like Albertine – always speeding off somewhere on a bike, on a train, in a car, on a horse or flown out of the window; like Marcel’s mother, perpetually on her way up the stairs to kiss him good night; like his grand mother, striding up and down the garden every evening for her constitutional even when it’s pouring rain; or like his friend Robert de Saint-Loup, whom we first glimpse scampering along the top of the banquette in a restaurant to fetch a coat for Marcel, who sits huddled and shivering at the table. Marcel is the still centre of all this kinetic activity, he is like the flying arrow in Zeno’s second paradox, which is shot from the bow but never arrives at its target because it does not move. Why does Zeno’s arrow not move? Because (this is Aristotle’s explanation) the motion of the arrow would be a series of instants, and at each instant the arrow fills that entire space of that instant, and this (Zeno would say) is a description of stillness. So if you add all the instants of stillness together you still get still. No one would deny that Proust’s novel streams with time, and with arrows shooting in all directions. But you could also think of the whole novel in your mind as one big stopped instant, since it takes Marcel the entire three thousand pages of the story to get around to the point of beginning to write it. On the last page he shoots his arrow but he does Zeno one better, he shoots it backwards, since you have just finished reading the novel he is proposing to write. It gives me a bit of a headache to think about Zeno and his paradoxes for very long, although I enjoy his deadpan delivery. Here is a shot of Zeno-antidote from that devoted Proust scholar, the filmmaker Chris Marker (Sans Soleil): “That is how history advances, plugging its memory as one plugs one’s ears… [but] a moment stopped would burn like a flame of film blocked before the furnace of the projector.”