Ulf Peter HallbergSee all fellows >
Sweden | 2014
Swedish author Ulf Peter Hallberg has lived in Berlin since 1983. Hallberg’s highly acclaimed essay-novelThe Flâneur’s Gaze(1993) describes Eastern and Western Europe after the fall of the wall. In novels likeGrand Tour, Legends & Lies, European Trash, The Meaning of Life and Other Troubles (with Erland Josephson), Hallberg has developed a cosmopolitan, existential style, shifting between settings in Sweden and abroad, mixing facts and fiction. His latest novel The Great Amusement Park, (2012), tells a family saga from 1887 to the present, in Copenhagen and Malmö, at the same time confronting Swedish 19thcentury writers Victoria Benedictsson and August Strindberg on the artistic and human problem of revealing the “truth” about yourself and others, in life and letters, and how different moral standards on these questions can mean life or death, as they did for Strindberg and Benedictsson. Hallberg has also translated Shakespeare, Schiller, Walter Benjamin and others into Swedish. He teaches creative writing and atelier de traduction at Études germaniques et nordiques, Paris-Sorbonne, and lectures in the U.S
A Midget in Paradise
I have come to believe that my aunt was the one who made me a writer. I called her ”Fasse”, Auntie. She was only 127 centimeters tall. When I started going on buses with her in Malmö in the 1960s people would cry out: ”Look, she’s a midget! Incredible how small she is. Just like a circus-dwarf!” And she would make them laugh, with her insulting comments, which took the interest away from her, pointing out some stupid detail in their looks, magnifying it, so that what they originally said about her was forgotten, and she came to be the comedian: The Great Midget. We would always laugh when we got off the bus, and people would talk about her, looking out the window, pointing at us. She’d say: ”They are noting; we are the special ones!”
Somehow, at Santa Maddalena, I came to ponder my notions of being a ”midget in paradise” in all the lovely discussions on art with Beatrice, Albertina, Nayla, Riccardo, Henry, Olga, Selma, Max and Tristano.
The first book I read here was Grisha’s Anecdotage. I was stunned by the loving style, at his description of your character, Beatrice, the mix of strength and fragility, grace and hardness, Eastern wisdom and Occidentally idealistic self-deception. I felt I was honoured to see you as Beatrice, the Sphynx, twice a day at least, and I listened to all the beautiful stories you told us. I felt the wonder of such youthful experience. I felt such hope, as in Shelley’s ”Prometheus Unbound”:
. . . Hope, till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates.
I felt such appetite for Life, such lust for people, hearts, intelligence.
I felt us all turning into particular stories. Through all the lovely conversations with Olga and Selma, on why we write, how we do it, and what life is about, perhaps. I could with mild irony see myself being turned into ”The Lawyer on the Lawn”, which Beatrice with a forgiving smile called me one day, knowing that my Ischian favourite jacket would soon be turned by Nayla, my much adored dress up Artist, into something more interesting. I received new jackets from Nayla or jackets were chosen for me by Beatrice, and I gladly changed identity to something a bit more fitting here. I have always enjoyed being someone else, a stranger to myself. And in paradise, apparently, all that is normal. It’s the habit here. Each evening I’d wear a new jacket, my favourite one sprung directly out of a Chechov play, staged by Wallace Shawn and giving me the part of Vanja – not Wanja on 42nd Street, but Wanja in Paradise.
I noted that Grisha also loved Chesterton, as I do. I had quoted at my Farewell Speech at the Sorbonne in April, speaking of ”The Return of the Flâneur,” Chesterton’s lovely passage about Dickens. ”In the most holy way he holds the keys to the street. His earth are the cobblestones, the streetlights are his stars, the walker-by his hero.” I had always felt like that, a big city romantic, loving the anonymity of the streets. But here I was in paradise, so I took to Grisha’s quote from Chesterton: ” Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” See, there was the connection to Auntie again, the Midget. And me, flying like an angel in and out of the magic tower where I had been installed, taking myself more than lightly.
I feel Claudio Magris has come close to something important in his lecture on Grisha: “Gregor von Rezzori is an extraordinary poet of the gap that, for modern man, has opened up between the I and life, and because of which it is no longer his life but, rather, a territory that he is unable to enter; to penetrate, a state of alienation that he loves with a passionate, disenchanted love.”
This was the territory I was allowed to enter, and to explore, in Santa Maddalena, in Grisha’s Tuscan tower, with shadows sharp as silhouttes cut from black paper, as he would say. The territory now being myself, a “midget in paradise.”
So what is a midget doing here? Writing, as Auntie the midget told me to, hopefully with some wit, some style, taking care of nothing else, free. Contemplating fellow writers such as Michael Ondatjee, who writes: “One of the great gifts of literature is its acknowledgement and recreation of place.” The tower, Grisha’s tower, Bruce Chatwin’s tower, John Banville’s tower, Michael Cunningham’s tower, Olga’s and my tower, and for the last week solely my own tower. No, definitely not! One other gift of literature is bringing back the dead. In Michael Cunningham’s essay on the tower, he describes an elegant little pitch-black bat that fluttered in through the bedroom window at night. And I have heard doors open, listened to feet marching up the stairs, though no one else was thought to be here, so it was those who live forever. Their friendly, curious glance at us, how we go about, what we do and write. That is how Benjamin’s Angel of History is turned right side up at Santa Maddalena, no longer glancing backwards with just a row of catastrophes lining up ahead. No, here in paradise, light falls on Memory, as on May 13, 2014, when we gathered at the pyramid, so close to Grisha on his 100th, and new signs are given to the living, signs of hope, of truthfulness, of working spirit. This is how paradise at Santa Maddalena is turned into a battleground of the self. Paradisian surroundings, encouraging the writer to live up to himself. The rest is up to us and what we face at the end of a page. So much less than our vision, but hopefully something to work on.
I enjoyed so many silences here at Santa Maddalena, silences with myself, the silence of the morning, of the afternoon, of the evening. Mechanical time out there somewhere at full stop, just me and the light of a newborn earth, telling me to write, to take that down, to praise, and dismiss, to live and hate, to be…
I felt paradoxically akin to Grisha’s image of the city of Paris in the garden here at Santa Maddalena, outside the tower – the light, the silence. In The Death of My Brother Abel he writes: “the essence of the city in its silence, as if it were not merely that certain forms, colors, images, sounds, noises, and smells worked together to produce its specific, unmistakable impression (the Parisian quality of Paris) but that the myriads of continual, conscious, half-conscious, and unconscious perceptions of a here and now with which the teeming human swarm out there, in the streets and buildings, experiencing themselves as “à Paris”, were weaving themselves into something objective, empirically ascertainable, positively material, which entered the people as it did the breathed air, the squares, the trees on the boulevards, and every single stone of this city; and if this aura of the Paris that is unmistakingly to be perceived as Paris first became truly free and perceptible in the silence, so that if one brought a deaf and blind person here without telling him where he was, he would instantly have to sense it as specifically Parisian”.
I would only add Paradisian and have another strong coffee in the coolness of the kitchen, often dressed in all the clothes I brought, when working inside the stone walls.
In Grisha’s writings I found so many echoes of lost worlds, corresponding with feelings, doubts and worries of my own. Sheer luck had brought me to this reading and writing existence, where I could question my own notion of Paradise Lost. So I just sat still so often, putting my pen aside, ignoring the computer, contemplating the afternoon light, being close to all that has been lost and that still is, at least here.
I sometimes at Santa Maddalena came to recall the morals of one of my heroes, Italo Svevo.
Why is it that I had to think of Zeno’s example here? And what’s the link to a notion of Paradise Found. And what about a midget in there?
Italo Svevo’s alter ego, Zeno at the end of the novel,Zeno’s Confessions, takes off from home in Trieste early one summer morning in 1915 in order to buy some roses. Beside a field of potatoes, his eyes catch sight of a woman and he buys roses from her father.
Zeno is already on his way back home when a man comes rushing by.
“Haven’t you heard? They say that war has broken out,” says the old man.
“Of course, I have! We already knew that! It’s been in the cards for about a year,” Zeno answers.
The man calms down and Zeno explains that there are many battle grounds in Europe now for those who absolutely must fight. There’s Flanders and manydepartements in France. Trieste is really an unsuitable place for such activities.
In Lucinico, however, Zeno stumbles on a platoon of soldiers poorly outfitted and provided for. He already can catch a glimpse of his own villa in the distance and is longing for his café latte when a guard shouts out in broken German, “Zurück!” That forces him backwards but then he stumbles upon an officer who shouts: “Was will der dumme Kerl hier?” Zeno finds all this quite impolite, but is impressed with the officer’s knowledge of languages. Without the latter, he, as a thirsty frequenter of the cafés in Trieste, would have probably been lying down on the shoulder of the road, shot dead. He begins describing how his café latte is waiting for him at home and mentions that the only thing separating him from it is the officer’s platoon.
The officer explains that Zeno’s café latte will be drunk by someone else and adds: “ Auch Ihre Frau wird von anderen gegessen werden.”
Did Zeno get it?
Apparently not, because he asks, in order to stall for time, if he can’t at least be given permission to fetch his coat and hat in Lucinico.
The officer shouts that Zeno can go find his fate in Hell, and the corporal is given orders to follow him there. The corporal is a Slav and speaks quite decent Italian. As long as he is in the officer’s field of vision, the corporal shouts, “Marsch!” at Zeno, but a little farther on he becomes quite friendly, even familiar. He advises Zeno to look for the Platzkommando in Trieste, from where he might be able to get a special permit to return home.
But Zeno answers: “All the way to Trieste? Without my coat, my hat, or my café latte!?!”
This is something to concentrate on: “Your coat, your hat, and your café latte!”
This is something to focus on, and that is also why I learnt so much with Beatrice’s and Grisha’s Santa Maddalena, where I arrived deadly sure that paradise was not for people like me. I learnt something about daily routines and good manners.
All of which made me conclude that if we concentrate on our coats, our hats and our caffé lattes paradise is near.
The day I arrived to Santa Maddalena I was welcomed and led into the kitchen by Albertina. Already her name told me I was in the last part of Proust’s ”A la recherche du temps perdu”. On my fifth day I asked Henry which door to use, I felt I wanted to leave, perhaps for half an hour. But I didn’t use it until much later. There was no need for that. I felt that midgets were safe and sacred here. Was it Beatrice who told me that, or was it the wind? I think it was the breeze that comes at six, when I always found such joy in the sunlight creating such beautiful patterns on the carpet in Grisha’s tower study.
I came to Santa Maddalena with a notion that I would never be let into paradise, and if by mistake I would try to sneek in, it would prove the wrong place for someone like me. I had expressed this notion in the last story ofEuropean Trash, about the Hungarian born painter Endre Nemes, who fled the Nazis before the Second World War, and ended up in Stockholm, during his lifetime always outside the Swedish society of artists, though well-known and quite respected by some, even getting the title of a professor, he was always strangely regarded as not belonging to the Swedish system of art, a burglar into Swedish artlife, strangely disconnected to intimacy or idyll, a Central European with so many scars in his perception, so much dead fish in his non-realistic canvasses, surreal paintings, with their problematic mixture of elements, often dark. A Being Different and Out of Place. In my story Endre Nemes is let into paradise by Saint Peter, because when asked the painter is at least capable of telling a good story. But pretty much at once Endre Nemes comes running out of paradise, with bulging eyes, whilst God is screaming:
“No one gets away with saying that being inside paradise is a bore without being punished! We’ll see what you do now while suffering for eternity.”
“I’d rather have that . . .” Endre Nemes calls out.
And while he is running, he feels how much – inside paradise – he was all the time longing for the atmosphere of Café Boulevard in Prague, where the waiter, without the blink of an eye, could greet a man who had been gone for ten or twenty years – who had survived trench warfare and two equally blitz-krieg marriages – with the words: “Good day, Publisher Reichmann, will you have a cappuccino with mineral water and the newspaper, Bohemia, as usual?” And he imagines his good friend in New York, the old Jew Isaac Verständig, who survived the concentration camps in Eastern Europe and every morning for sixty years, while shaving, greetedhis image in the mirror with a joyful, triumphant “Heil Hitler, Meschugge!” in order to emphasize that without a good sense of humor you can’t even survive prosperity.
I felt like Endre Nemes before, when someone showed me something paradisian. But I find it is never too late to learn new things, and why not about paradise? On one of my last days at Santa Maddalena I decided to walk to Donnini through the valley, never touching the main road. This was the most beautiful passage of all my walks here, taking me past Riccardo´s and Nayla’s house, into meadows and vineyeards, along paths that lead to nowhere, to bushes growing wild and the forest putting a full stop to everything. While I was lost my brain was activated, leaving the notions of the novel I had worked on all the time in the tower. I felt so grateful for everything that had happened to me at Santa Maddalena, how I felt I was different to when I came, inspired by Life itself. And I felt an urge to express this in words that would substitute for the reading I had promised to give the following day. While choosing other paths to enter Donnini my head was sketching this. And so I finally arrived to the piazza in Donnini, where my wordly task was to withdraw cash to pay for Corriere della Sera and other things I had enjoyed. Both Bancomat-machines being broken I ended up at the café. I was finnally treated by the barkeeper to two cappuccini I could pay two days later, he told me, so I was in some way regarded as trustworthy. Maybe because of all the coffées I had enjoyed with Henry and all the stamps I’d bought at the post office. By being allowed to incur debts, I felt I was accepted in Donnini.
I was dreaming there at my table on the piazza, the way I always get lost in thoughts, looking at people, phantasizing about them. I was enjoying so much how everyone was dressed up on Sunday, especially the woman from the supermarket Coop, with her two children, looking so relaxed and fresh and happy. She had always looked a bit tired and worn-out when I bought my cheese. But also a man with a white Al Capone-hat and big dark sunglasses, sitting at the door, watching the seven men in front of me, who were commenting on everyone who came by, after they had left. The seven men were the judges and the jury of everything, but I didn’t feel good about their standards. I had a slight feeling that their comments after the people left were very different to what they said to their faces, and I felt that Auntie and me, and all other Midget writers, would favour a perspective which did not make this division, which would be true to the feeling and the senses. Not to create a gap between courtesy and gossip. To speak the truth, as in the old fashioned sagas.
Suddenly a big truck arrived, parking on the middle of the piazza, getting everyones attention. I read:
EDELWEIß. MERCEDES-BENZ BIKE TRUCK
58 Destinations, 8 stretches, 80.000 kilometres.
Men were riding on bikes from LA to New York City, from Bogoto via Buenos Aires to Santiago, from Munich via Moscow all the way to Bangkok, and from Perth to Sydney.
Everyone of us there on the piazza in Donnini admired that truck and thought about the big wide world.
Especially White Hat Don Corleone at the entrance seemed so baffled by the truck, with all its promises of a world afar. And so did the members of the Donnini jury Measurement of Life and Fate. Only the woman from the Coop and me felt different it seemed. She walked up to White Hat Don Corleone and with her fingers tipped at his hat so that it fell down on his nose, and this way all that male power was struck down to nothing. I looked at the guy driving that truck, and the NYC cap that he had on, and I felt like tipping on that one too with my fingers. As a midget I knew I was connected to the powers of that woman from the Coop, of her laughter, her intrepid joy in teasing the pretentious Don.
I started walking back to Santa Maddalena, feeling that I had been much further than Santiago, Bangkok or Perth by being in Santa Maddalena and Donnini. In a garden I saw a peasant eating his own cherries with such a happy look on his face, and I waved at him and said Salve, which made him laugh – like Catullus – and take me in as someone belonging to it all. Who knows, Greece and Rome, that might just be something in the hills and valleys and faces here.
The next morning I decided to change from Grisha’s little study in the tower, where I had been working on my novel, and where everything was connected to that, and walk up to the larger one at the top, to try to find some words for the experience at Santa Maddalena.
I loved playing with the dogs in the garden, to kick the old worn-out football far out on the lawn or throw a piece of wood for them to catch. I spent hours doing this with my favourites, Jamaica and Josefine. Their eyes and vivid gestures took me back to life, when my brain was exaggerating things. I was so worn out when I came, from travelling and lecturing. I slept through dark nights, behind the shutters, where I could dream again and get into my own rhythm, where there was only time for writing – for my novel, and where everything outside paradise could be neglected and forgotten. Limitless time for art, so wonderful! I felt the dogs knew everything about me, and I could always tell them what was going on inside me. This is why Santa Maddalena can never be mentioned without the dogs, first the living: Rosina, number one, then Carlotta, Jamaica, Josefine, Giulietta, Paride. Then the names of all the loved ones carved into marble like everlasting poetry: Alice, Giudetta, Teddy, Tom Boy, Philippine, Ba Bar, Celestine, Mini, Romeo, Esther, Desdemona, Bramble, Jaafar, Spiro, Abigail, Isotta, Omar, Fool.
One evening I heard you say something so tender, Beatrice: ”No matter how bad a boat trip, how stormy the ocean, with water coming into the boat from a dark open sea, the dogs are never afraid with me.”
That goes for us too, Midgets, growing into geniuses perhaps, with you, Beatrice, we are not afraid.
We midgets are in fact like dogs: amused, honoured and happy. Running wild in the garden, trying to catch the holy piece of wood.
I see paradise now as a place of good manners, style, intelligence and generosity, and I intend to take as much as I can into my own life and try to pass it on to others. Grazie, Beatrice!
So who can end this report, and sum it up, but Grisha:
”On occasion when I gaze out my tower window at the rolling Valdarno hills that reach to the gray-blue distant Pratomagro, I fill my lungs with air and feel alive.”
I closed the windows and the shutters, Carlo drove me to the airport, and I enjoyed his eyes, so clear and bright, and how he greeted a man on a tractor who came to work in the fields that morning and said to me with such pride: ”That’s my brother.”
There is something solid and sacred about Santa Maddalena, and I miss it a lot out here. But the vision of angels in paradise, flying lightly at dawn, is something that remains, be it in Sweden or Berlin.