The mind can’t sleep, can only lie awake and
gorge, listening to the snow gather as
for some final assault.
It wishes Chekhov were here to minister
something – three drops of valerian, a glass
of rose water – anything, it wouldn’t matter.
The mind would like to get out of here
onto the snow. It would like to run
with a pack of shaggy animals, all teeth,
under the moon, across the snow, leaving
no prints or spoor, nothing behind.
The mind is sick tonight.
Holding a pair of darned socks and a hot water bottle, Albtraum stood outside the fat man’s room. The elf nudged the door open and peeked inside. By candle light he saw his old friend, wearing nothing but his y-fronts, seated by the frosted window.
‘Leave everything on the bed, Albtraum.’
He placed the things down with deliberate slowness and then, light of foot, stepped just out the door to watch as Santa continued to trace on each of the frosted panes the names of all the children who no longer wrote him letters.
Illustrated by Hannes Pasqualini
His sleigh alighted upon her roof. Despite the years, his descent down her chimney still sent butterflies up inside him. The rooms of the house, though changed, remained familiar. He placed his gloves on the bare marble mantelpiece where once he’d have found a plate of gingerbread and a picture she’d drawn, her name written in crayon, always brick red, the letters becoming smaller over time. Inside her room she no longer needed a nightlight; instead a lamp shone above her, asleep, her cheek resting on an open book: her eyelashes – quivering – scratched at the pages. A pair of silk stockings hung from the bedpost. She’d believed longer than anyone. But nothing lasted. He came closer, switched off the light, reached for her stockings.
The rain never let up. And all the while she could see him standing out on the street across from her apartment, looking up at her window, his blue umbrella always open but held so far back that the water got under his skin anyway. She fought the urge to shout down to him, to tell him to be sensible – to go home.
A part of her wanted to let him in, take off his wet clothes, run a hot bath, together maybe. But then she remembered the rain, and how much they were alike. He never did let up.
The Great War was firmer in his mind than the raised butter knife in his hand. He saw himself in the glint of the blade and hid it beneath a napkin. His daughter came in with tea on a wooden tray, printed with a depiction of a provincial French scene.
He walked forever before coming to a stone house just out of the woods. Stepping over a soldier’s boots, stuffed with lavender flowers, he went in – rifle on his back. There was a sad laughter coming from behind a closed door. And on the kitchen table, a glass of anisette on a wooden tray.
It was noon and the bar was closing for siesta. By the fountain, in the shade, his mandolin held against his chest, José stood waiting. The sun burned directly above as Mariana, the barista, stepped out into the deserted street. She walked across to the fountain and José began to play. He played her song; he played until his fingers bled. But as he played, the sun drifted, and so the shade departed, taking Mariana, without a glance, back to the other side of the street. Tomorrow the sun would burn again. Tomorrow José would be waiting.
illustrated by Hannes Pasqualini
There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things, and because it takes man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.
I believe – I know that writers need solitude, and seek alienation of a kind every day of their working lives. Powers of observation heightened beyond the normal imply extraordinary disinvolvement ; or rather the double process, excessive preoccupation and identification with the lives of others, and at the same time a monstrous detachment… The tension between standing apart and being fully involved, that is what makes a writer.
I steal into their dreams, he said. I steal into their most shameful thoughts, I’m in every shiver, every spasm of their souls, I steal into their hearts, I scrutinize their most fundamental beliefs, I scan their irrational impulses, their unspeakable emotions, I sleep in their lungs during the summer and their muscles during the winter, and all this I do without the least effort, without intending to, without asking or seeking it out, without constraints, driven only by love and devotion. Roberto Bolaño, 2666
When a man’s breast feels like a cage from which all the dark birds have flown – he is free, he is light. And he longs to have his vultures back again. He wants his customary struggles, his nameless, empty works, his anger, his afflictions and his sins.
Saul Bellow, Herzog
Kafka endevoured to be honest in his writing, in his profession and his love. At the same time he realized, or at least suspected, that a person who wants to live honestly chooses torture and renunciation, a monastic life devoted to a single god, and his sacrifices everything for it. He could not, at the same time be and honest writer and an honest lover, let alone a husband, even though he longed to be both. For a very brief instant he was deluded into believing that he could manage both, and that was he wrote most of his works. Every time, however, he saw through the illusion, he froze up, and stopped motionless in torment. He’d then either lay his manuscript aside and never return to it, or sever all his ties and ask his lovers to leave him.
Only fools – with whom our revolutionary and non-monastic age abounds – believe they can combine anything with anything else, have a little of everything, take a small step back and still create something, experience something complete. These fools reassure each other, they even reward each other with decorations which are just as dishonest as they are themselves.
I too have behaved foolishly in my life in order to relieve my own torture. I have been unable either to love honestly or to walk away or to devote myself entirely to my work. Perhaps I have wasted everything I’ve ever longed for in my life, and on top of it I have betrayed the people I wanted to love.