Issue 132, Fall 1994
Heinrich Zeitung Muller-Müller sat silently in the speeding cab and tried not to listen let alone overhear his wife complaining about the risk inherent in wet roads, about the traffic, heavy already, although it was early in the day, about the draft the driver had created by cracking his window, and the smoke of his cigarette which was inconsiderately circulating through the backseat before finding its way out into the street. “So you say,” she said, though he had said nothing. She regularly read his mind as if it were in print, as so much of it unfortunately was; for if he had not written at such length about his life in East Germany he would not now be defending himself in the press, whose schadenfreude at the present turn of events was not sufficient to satisfy them. They wanted— their readers wanted —endlessly, more: more dirt, more tarnish to the silver of his reputation. On second thought, perhaps he should upgrade the image so that the gloss would be gone from something grander—gold. Gold, after all, was the metal in the medal he didn’t get on account of the political imbroglio he found himself in, and dingy was indeed the life he now led. “See,” his wife said, “it’s just as I said: they can smoke up the taxi like a stupid tune on their radio, while we must sit and inhale it as if we were some bug on a bush being poisoned as a pest; but if we want to smoke in this public conveyance, they’ll complain as if speaking for their lungs, and lah-dee-dah their concerns about cancer louder than the tinny tunes they’re listening to.”
The smoke, he thought, is trying to escape to the West. “The driver can hear you, dear,” he tried to say mildly but sharply said. “He doesn’t understand a word; they make no effort; ich weiβ nicht is all they know in any language; isn’t that the same shop we passed a while back? is he really taking us to the airport? these people are all alike, at least in New York they get lost now out of ignorance. In New York they drive their cabs straight off the boat and still think they’re in Moscow or Cairo or someplace, and hang a left like they hung their last left-wing leader. But here, they think they know every cinder in the street. Look how he’s shaving the paint from those parked cars; you’d think he was in the refinishing business.” How, Heinrich Zeitung Muller-Müller wondered, was he supposed to sense the soul of society in the throes of its sweaty changes, when he spent his time holding his nose so he wouldn’t hear his wife’s laments which were, by now, as redolent with repetition as ripe cheese.
What was the appropriate quotation from Chairman Flaubert? #12. Practical life is loathsome to me; the mere necessity of sitting down in a dining room at fixed hours fills my soul with a feeling of wretchedness. Trapped in the taxi, inhaling his wife’s words as he so often had to, Muller-Müller was nevertheless comforted by the verification which events were providing him. The Chairman was always correct. In a world where all the trees had been felled, Flaubert’s stump was at least larger than the others. The cab shimmied down the off ramp toward the airfield, and his wife squealed almost audibly. I guess I should thank god she’s only imaginary, Muller-Müller thought; still, she does carry on like a cartoon. I’ll have to do something to deepen her nature, even if that means giving in to the feminists. “I’m made up, that’s what you mean,” his wife said, as if she were reading over his shoulder. “You can’t pretend that reality is a fiction, just because you lie about life all the time.” Oh, she would like to take the Chairman’s place, if she were given the chance, and put her own pronouncements in his position of authority; but Muller-Müller was determined on that score. Of all the cher maîtres, Gustave was the cheriest.
The wipers wiped away, sort of smearily, and the rain pattered upon the roof of the cab, kind of gently, and his wife would be required to say as they slid to a stop in front of TWA: “Well, we left the States without an umbrella to our name, and it’s rained the whole damn time we’ve been in Berlin, god, it’s as gray here as Vienna is, and I thought Vienna was the grayest gray place I’ve ever been, and now we’re going to get soaked again getting out of this car.” Who said writing is the best revenge? What good is 2L revenge which has to be taken again and again like a photographer from the Press? a Press which had been particularly annoying, flashing their pans at his person, blocking his path, the lights laughing at the hat he held over his face. “So I suppose they’ll all be here,” his wife said, “waiting like worms in their moist spoil of dirt.” It scarcely mattered to his wife that he made her out to be a nag. “Once I get going,” she said, “you” (meaning Muller-Müller) “have nothing to say.” He sat silently in the cab for a moment, fishing with his forefinger among his German change for pieces of the right size. Anything, a character (as the folksy old critics called it), or a situation, or a thought, a word, an expression like German change, might cause a text to turn a corner and disappear into significance, such as “the Unification of the Reich” — that was certainly a change, even if it was like remarrying your ex-wife. Unification —yes, there was a term which might scare the pants off most writers, and what were you supposed to do after your pants had been frightened into fleeing: run faster, screw, shower, sit on the stool? how long had it been since they had been unified, he and she? longer than Germany had been happily divorced; boy, some people learn none of the lessons of Heraclitus, namely, you can’t marry the same woman twice, and expect to live any way after that except sappily.
Wait a minute. Was it wise to balance expect against except like that? and was the semi hidden, “happily ever after” reference a bit glib? He could cut it from the text, of course, erase it from the page, but it would sit in his mind like a rut in the mud, telling his Present where his Past had been. Looking back (and when writing, as when reading, one was always looping back, returning to the beginning in order to find the end), looking back (Looking Backward—wasn’t that the title of a Utopian tract by Edward Bellamy?), looking back he wasn’t sure he should have begun. Perhaps “metal of medal” was too cute. Was the tone right? What was the tone? soured gayety? cynicism through which, like lightning, there were flashes of hope?
He felt his wife’s impatience like another passenger. She wouldn’t get out of the car ahead of him, but would wait for her husband (he) to hold the door and hand her over the curb like a date at a dance. Where was women’s lib when you needed it? Too many hs maybe in that previous line (how many? five? could be worse; nevertheless, watch out for alliteration, it will do you in). Flaubert bragged in —was it #35? — that in some recent work of his There are only two or three repetitions of the same word which must be removed, and two turns of phrase that are still too much alike. Where were the reporters he feared would be waiting, or did such things happen only in that other—that nearly unmentionable medium—the one in which photos of photographers photographing photogenic moments were so popular? ganging up on some guy as he comes out of court or emerges from a cab to tackle a staircase which has occupied its life collecting steps, mike in his mouth, the newsies following him tread after tread,hounding him, holding the hem of his trousers in their teeth, cameras aimed like Uzies, and that mesh covered earmuff, initialed by a network, pushed in his face, the instrument to which he mutters, “No comment at this time,” and so forth. “Are you going to get the bags,” his wife commands. “No comment at this time,” he says, then “danke something schön,” I think, to the driver whose cigarette lets go its ash that instant on his valise: should he compare that small pale fall to the errant plop of some pigeon’s poop or directly to the character and consistency of his consumed life?
Was the Chairman simply upset with the banal repetitions which make up day to day existence —in contrast with the belly dancers he observed in Egypt, where the rippling rolls of fat seemed freshly jiggled just for his tourist’s eye? How different Constantinople and Damascus were from his tidy environment at Croisset, his blessed bachelor digs; but didn’t he desire such a pallid, undemanding, day to day existence, so that his imagination might run undistracted and unimpeded to its goal? Because nothing interferes with creative work more than phones and children. The misery of millions is inspiring. A flat tire ruins the day. Louise Colet wanted to wring a little passion out of Gustave; she wanted to feel his heart ache for her; she, after all, was his true love, wasn’t she? No. Of course not. A stupid question. Work was his one true love, of course, and her cunt a convenience. Can’t be kind, and survive. Flaubert conferred his letters on her, a gift which Rilke’s epistolary ladies understood far better than Louise, who was, after all, a dunce.
Couldn’t I contrive a Croisset for myself in the Hamptons maybe, or on a street in Queens? a walk up apartment over a pants press store, possibly, where they’d never find me, neither newshounds nor police? Who would look for anyone to live in Queens who had any control over their fate, Heinrich figures. Or maybe the Chairman is concerned because the French language, so vowel heavy it will blow away in a Boche breeze, or be intimidated by a rapid and guttural polonaise, doesn’t dare bear any more repetition than is already built into it—oh and ah and aay and eee everywhere like cattle lowing on the lea?
Dare I bear won’t do at all. Am I searching for the right word here, or merely avoiding the wrong ones? Try can’t survive. The French language can’t survive any more repetition than is already built into it. Try indigenous, The French language can’t survive any more repetition than is indigenous to it. Nice word: made of us, two ins and a dig. No wonder it strikes a basic bell. Yeah? well, what would really happen to French, the Frog’s croak, in that case? Does French have a face that can turn green from eating too many bon mots a minute? You can’t hurt language. It can absorb every stink footed invader and turn them, in time, into model citizens. Sure, we should treat our own language well, for it is, after all, our only muse, but each of us has a somewhat different tongue. My American, my vocabulary, the syntax of my mind, is not the same as Frank Sinatra’s, or anyone else you might mention. Henry James does not have the word snot in his vocabulary. No. Inaccurate. He knows what snot means. Probably he more than once thought, of a dramatic critic, “that snot nose,” but it is not a word one writes or utters. He is a gentleman. Dare we say, “of the old school”? He does not write sentences like “Geez, Louise, it’s okay, play with yourself if you wanna.”
We have to do more than differentiate between langue and parole. There is, of course, the historical language, packed in the volumes of its dictionaries, and there is that same language as it is used now. Within the current tongue, there are all the regionalisms and dialects, funny ethnic mixes, slanguage and the argot of the gangs. Then there is the speech of you and me, and if any one of us is to have a muse, and a source of inspiration, it will be shaped by our style. Without one — if our pages are indistinguishable from the pages of who knows how many other scribblers—if Jackson Pollock’s drips are no different from mine — if my leaps would satisfy Balanchine — if wines were as standardized as pop — if the grass is never greener on the other side —if our fingerprints, at least, our scars, our moles, our genes, don’t distinguish us —then we are without an identity, without a trade, without a soul; for there will be no way for us to prove we are we when one we can do the work of another —another? what other? —because even a stop sign should say STOP in its own way, and at its own corner, if it wishes to be regarded as real, because the individual is everything, isn’t it? and that’s why the Wall had to come down, and why Mozart couldn’t be Haydn, and why— if your sentences read like a cereal box or announcements on the sides of trucks — a chill should run hickory dickory up and down your now anonymous spine, since sameness is death, and why it is vital to understand that Muller-Müller’s lies were indisputably his, had his touch, and were undeniably deserving of praise.
She always packs too much, Muller-Müller shouldn’t have thought (taking the bags one by one from the sullen cabby, sullen not because of an insufficient tip, Muller-Müller didn’t suppose, but because the driver dimly knew he had been talked about, heard himself slandered in that American soldier boy tongue, the shadow of the sense showing, even if he couldn’t see its substance); no, Heinrich can’t have M and M (as he was surreptitiously called) think his sweet wife carted too many clothes about because to think so would have committed another cliche, supported one more stereotype, and made his prose predictable; nor would he have made such a commonplace complaint if he were writing her up fairly, because she packed with rare wisdom for a wife, and never brought winter clothes on safari or bought heavy things you had to haul home in sacks whose strength was every moment waning, and lug aboard the plane like a bum and his bag lady . . . embarrassing . . . well.. . he could see their reflections as he turned, valise under his left arm, garment bag hung around his neck and slung over his right shoulder by a strap, the small case swinging from his left fist so it whacked his knee when he walked, the large bag scudding along the cement (lending the illusion of precision to the prose) . . . wait —hung andslung won’t do, and brought and bought is suspicious . . . where is the wife? she’s into the airport clickety split, are any of these damn doors—whadya call it? — seeing eye, as if they had dogs by their sides barking once for open, twice for shut . . . yup, there’s the wife, she’s yattering with the press already; she pretends to hate the Filth Estate (as she calls them), says she despises journalists and loathes interrogations, when actually she eats them up .. . eats them up, when she wouldn’t eat what she called “those calorie coated German cutlets,” we were everywhere hospitably offered, making a lunch out of nothing but beets once, their juice like a ring of blood around her mouth . . .
Indeed, it was a dreadful mistake making up a name like Muller-Müller even if it sounded everso genuine, and even if the explanation of the hyphen, too, had the smell of the true blue to it: my mother, Sophie Müller, Muller-Müller would, with a sober smile, explain, married Hans Müller, hence the umlaut over Heinrich’s old man’s u like a tiara, and the absence of one in his mother’s nom de née; but nobody bought that story, except for Stimme, the German magazine, who apparently will print anything, especially if you allow them to pay exorbitantly for it. Muller-Müller prepares himself once again to tell the Press, who now are buzzing about like a bunch of ponces wanting to sell him a good time on their Rieperbahn, that he was really Fred Miller from Arkansas, and that he gave himself the name they knew him by (and sold his story to Stimme for an entire opera, man, not for a single song), in order to find out how it would feel to write under political oppression and public opprobrium, because he’d heard that such restrictions were great spurs to the imagination, that you had to suffer to create, and that once people believed he’d lived in Potsdam most of his life (though he did consider residing in Dresden), and was a Stasi spy from the age of five, when he turned his mother in for cooking cabbage according to a capitalist recipe; then, richly disgraced, he would compose, first, a reply, then a defense, finally an admission—each in inspired prose, and for an equivalent profit. In short, the works of Guilt would be followed by the works of Remorse, but these could be surpassed later by those which celebrated his rediscovery of God and the church, whether Catholic or Lutheran he hadn’t decided yet. But there was no need to get ahead of history, and Muller-Müller was happy to leave unchosen his future faith.
#40. A proper name is extremely important in a novel crucial. It is no more possible to give a character a new name than a new skin; it’s like wanting to turn a Negro white.
However, though the wily Heinrich had been tripped up and exposed before he had got fairly started down the road of his ruse, things did seem to work out for the best, because Heinrich Zeitung Muller-Müller became famous as a fraud of an especially intriguing kind: as a non-German who had climbed the Wall from West to East to take up residence in a country covered by thick clouds even on a clear day, rather than being merely another native born police spy in a left wing Nazi State where there would have been more spies than victims spied upon if most of the spies hadn’t been spying on other spies, which is always a necessity, since once one decides to be a spy, I don’t care if it’s for God, you have sold your soul simply to fill a file, and will consequently make mischief for the rest of your life as if it were your profession.
Fortunately Fred Miller was only a liar and a cheat, a con artist with inadequate skills, and aims quite beyond his reach, so he could be viewed with amused sympathy, and even with some surprise, because (though he had finally been forced to admit that he wasn’t German, hadn’t climbed the Wall from West to East, hadn’t lived in Potsdam or considered residing in Dresden either, had spied on no one, turned up no secret traitors to the State, couldn’t even speak the language, having had his Ozark-smoked American prose put into not very convincing Plattdeutsch by an old school chum, Trevor-Groper, who himself was no bargain, a klutz in fact, who wrote German with an English accent because he thought it lent his fibs about being a Rhodes Scholar and an Oxford don a whiff, like mint, of verisimilitude) .. . yes, because (as I had begun to say before I interrupted myself) Muller-Müller had expressed the East German’s initial idealism, and told a sympathetic story of progressive involvement, disillusionment and betrayal, so convincingly, he became a hometown hit, representing brilliantly the pain of confronting the truth at last, and then writing (as he alleged) those daring subversive works which circulated only in manuscript (since, even if they were merely imaginary manuscripts, their readership was real enough): the story of the peasant who builds a hutch for his rabbits, for instance, a story so plainly put, so simply arranged, but told nevertheless in such an Aesopian way the reader understands the hutch to be society itself and each little round rabbit-dropping a bureaucrat; each of his brave tales passing from furtive hand to furtive hand, causing the anger of the populace to rise like yeast; and then, in the last act, with the authorities in furious though futile pursuit, the author bravely escaping to the West disguised as a steamer trunk. It was a saga to be cherished, and, as always, the truth had nothing to do with it.
#1. By now I have come to look on the world as a spectacle, and to laugh at it. What is the world to me? I shall ask little of it, I’ll let myself float on the current of my heart and my imagination, and if anyone shouts too loudly perhaps I shall turn like Phocion, and say, “What is that cawing of crows?’’ Indeed, one thing which M and M discovered when he encouraged his imagination to go over the Wall to the East and take up residence in the mind and heart, not to say belly and loins, of a German writer, was the dread which he knew the feeling of his new importance should engender in him. As hard as he tried, and as many words as he wasted endeavoring to create the condition, he never really felt threatened by his imaginary manuscripts. He could put himself in the place of someone who watched his words in the workplace, lest he get reported to his superiors (that was like avoiding boy/girl jokes in the U.S.A.), or he could identify with someone who kept his political nose clean in order to keep his job and avoid contretemps (if you were gay in the U.S.A., you remained in the closet, because society would now pretend to tolerate fairies, if, like fairies, they were mostly invisible and very quiet and not inclined to flutter); but that a line of verse or a little scene in a small hotel (where Lily reveals the secrets of left wing sex to Karl by making him a present of her manifestos) might excite any body’s political libido, was a fact his inner self could not believe in.
It was true that, in the States, if you wrote about kikes and niggers, or your characters beat up women, you would get a lot of flack, and maybe face a lawsuit —nowadays only fat white balding old boy prots with a classical education are fair game —but a little legal wrangling over a case you might just win was scarcely the same as a life and a livelihood which might be suddenly snuffed; nor would your friends fall under suspicion if you spoke your mind, as if you’d been corrupted by them, and although your wife might not be kept on at the daycare center, she wouldn’t just disappear one day in a puff of police.
If being offensive to folks was the only way to get attention back home (being offensive had become almost a moral obligation), and being inoffensive was the surest way to stay out of the State’s sight in the East, neither was strictly speaking connected to writing well. #3. An artist who is truly an artist, who works for himself alone, unconcerned with all else — that would be a wonderful thing; such an artist would perhaps know immense joy. You can help your neighbor mow her lawn but can you really help your fellow man ? No one, however strong, can do that alone, which is why we join parties and form groups and enlist aid and support some cause. Nor are such things always futile. I know of a few old buildings which have been saved that way, of improvements made to parks, and a few restrictive laws changed. But the truth is destroyed when you organize it, as are good intentions, too. A writer should be wary of the world, as if it were a place of poisonous ivies and venomous snakes.
The problem with repression and threats to one’s life, like the cowardly and self serving fatwa against Salman Rushdie, dependent as they all are on the devoted ignorance and murderous compliance of the masses, was the persistent distraction which distressed the soul, the obsessive thought of fear and revenge which possessed the mind, especially for those to whom politics had always been important, and religion, too, so that they were already weakened by the need for belief, with the consequence that to sit down to write was to sit down to brood, to mull over, ruminate, only to throw up, like a cat, the grass just chewed.
#30. In our day I believe that a thinker (and what is an artist if not a triple thinker?) should have neither religion, country, nor even any social conviction. Absolute doubt now seems to me so completely substantiated that it would be almost silly to seek to formulate it,
Muller-Müller’s wife—what was he calling her today? Louise? — was now really miffed because the little crowd of cameras she had so winsomely approached were merely waiting to make a raincoat commercial. Herr Muller-Müller was no longer news, nor was Fred Miller either. He was being kicked, but not escorted, out. He would not have to recite his intentions again. And at the airline counter there was a long sloppy line of sad, disgruntled, or impatient faces. He found the queue’s frazzled terminus and let down his bags between spots of umbrella water. Louise lurked a little way off, perhaps signifying her disdain for the loser, alas, she felt she was linked by loops of stale leftover love to, or maybe she was just dismayed by the line, or still annoyed by their total fall from fame, and the embarrassment of her mistake. “Loops of stale leftover love?” Geez. “Why don’t you change our marks back into money,” he semi shouted at her, pointing to an icon which directed tourists to a Currency Counter. “Our dough doesn’t rise, now you want me to punch it down, nevertheless,” Louise said, snatching his billfold from his proffered hand. “That’s all you’ve got left? I’ve most of my money in my purse where it will stay.” “Hey, I always pay for everything,” Fred said, “I’m still playing the captain of this houseboat.” Louise’s look said she was totally tired of his whiny badinage. She had once characterized his usual frame of mind as one of “smug self pity,” but he had rejected this description, calling it a psychological contradiction. Actually, it was peculiar to be pestered by a person who was so completely in your power that you could alter her breast size with a word. Small would do.
Lines made Miller gloomy. He always ruminated while standing in them, staring into the space he hoped to reach, counting the backs ahead of him without really noticing what he was doing. At first it was the petty patter of his wife, then it was the failure of the press to hound him, maybe the rain, and now this line of lumpen luggage bearers, which had lowered his nose to the level of his socks. There he saw a pair of bright yellow pumps with high heels, a sturdy walking sandal whose wool sock oozed between its thongs like molecular pudding, a badly bitten bluish ankle, and lots of little wheels on which trunks trundled, or larger ones, their rims wrapped with rubber, which racked bags, and robbed porters of their livelihood. #4. To be stupid and selfish and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless.
Louise was at the Airport Bank exchanging one kind of money for another, which wasn’t what he wanted to call creativity. Nor was it creative to jimmy a pfennig or two from the transaction. Fred felt about bankers the way everybody who wasn’t a banker felt about bankers. You were only creative if you added new life to life. Otherwise, you might be inventive. But by “new life,” Fred didn’t mean new like the two tikes who troubled his sight, both military brats, their mother a Gretchen, their father a Yank in mufti, or the babe in arms up the line he would certainly be seated by, and expected to coo at, too, as if kids were some sort of blessing instead of one of the world’s many plagues. No, by “new” he didn’t mean additional. More people meant more pain, more strife. Nowadays, you had to earn the right to nibble at the celery. And Fred Miller wanted desperately to prove he deserved to be, as if existence were a prize handed out in advance of the deed. However his desperation frequently led him to do things like lie, commit fraud, write slop, look for an angle, call himself Muller-Müller, cultivate critics, bad mouth the competition which denied him his just desserts, which yielded him at best but external goods: a few bucks, a bit of glory, a moment of renown, a session in the sack with some young climber who took him for a sturdy rung on the ladder of literature — and left him feeling guilty and a failure, because, of course, that’s what he was. He was another lout in this unmoving line.