By Elizabeth Bachner
In life people drift more, there’s less closure, there’s less follow-up, there’s even more murkiness — which is a lot of murkiness. Novels have a terrible intimacy no matter what — because of what’s exposed when you write one. Because of what happens when you read one. Because of all the people involved in getting the novel from me to you or from you to me, whether I’m the writer and you’re the reader or vice-versa, or we’re the novel’s producers or its publishers, or we’ve been hobbled into versions of ourselves as its characters. There are all these people, real and imaginary, breathing against our faces in any novel, not just accidentally jostling us like people in a crowded bar, but knowing us, or making us know them. In a novel, writing it, reading it, buying it, selling it, we can’t escape each other. A novel stays there. In life I think that people can actually forget about each other, one-sidedly, even. In life we can move on. Maybe.
I’ve been thinking again about Ingeborg Bachmann, how she burned to death alone in an apartment in Rome. She was in her forties, she wasn’t done yet with her trilogy of novels on styles of dying. And then there’s that scene in the first chapter of Malina, the chapter called “Happy with Ivan.” The protagonist tells us that years before she ever met Ivan’s children, when she knew even less about him than she knows now, “he told me: I’m sure you’ve already understood. I don’t love anyone. Except my children, of course, but no one else. I nod, although I hadn’t known, and it’s obvious to Ivan that it should be so obvious to me.” That’s one of the (many) scenes in the book that gets me most — that feeling of, not just heartbreak and disappointment, but the swallowing it down and hiding it. “I nod, although I hadn’t known.”
I keep thinking about the apartment in Rome where Ingeborg Bachmann died in 1973, her lit cigarette. Lately I think about that apartment when I think about novels or when I think about love. In 1600 Giordano Bruno was burned to death in Rome, for writing that the stars were suns. In real life our universe is minor, there are other galaxies extending billions of light years in every direction, there are billions of people wandering around and I guess maybe some of them are loved and others aren’t, and some of the loves match up and others don’t. There are a lot of suns. If we got exposed to the full force of our own sun we would all burn to death, but yet it is faded and minor and so distant.
I’m not frozen inside either, I’m trotting and galloping and burning, I’m almost 100 degrees and even though I’m minor, there’s so much of me here that eventually each of my systems will give out and I’ll be inchoate atoms in the plotless universe again. Which happens to everyone. Would we really be happy with no books? Or writing ourselves happy books? Could Kafka have written a happy book, an Exsultate Jubilate, if he’d wanted to? Maybe he wrote a happy book and burned it, and we don’t even know about it.
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