Issue 215, Winter 2015
Last spring and summer, I was reading the stories of the Swiss writer Peter Bichsel. I began reading them in Vienna. The little book—a hardcover, but small and lightweight—was a gift from a German friend at the start of my trip, to provide me with something to read in German, since I wanted to improve my facility in the language. I had brought with me from home a paperback thriller by a very popular German writer, but I wasn’t enjoying it: the plot, so far, was tiresome, the main character unpleasant, and the tone sarcastic. My friend thought she could find something better for me, and she was right. I continued reading Bichsel’s stories on the train from Vienna to Salzburg, and then in Salzburg, and then on the train to Zurich, and then in Zurich, Berlin, Hamburg, and Cologne, and on each train I took to go from one city to the next.
In fact, Peter Bichsel regularly writes about reading and about train journeys. He will also sometimes begin a story, or remark in the middle of a story, “There are stories that are hardly worth telling,” or “There is almost nothing to say about X,” and then sometimes follow that with a “but”: “But I have wanted to tell this story for a long time now,” or “But it has to be told, because it was the first story in my life, the first one that I remember.” He then goes on to tell a lovely, quiet, modest story, a story that glows with human kindness, or love, or some combination of compassion, understanding, and honesty. (Or am I, these days, finding this quality so marked in his stories because I am seeking it?)
I was reading his stories as I traveled, but I was also distracted by all that I saw and experienced, so that I did not often think about his stories when I was not reading them. But then I particularly thought of him and his stories after an experience I had in Salzburg. I wanted to describe this experience, but I wanted to say, near the beginning of my story, that there was not much to tell, because, really, so little happened: there was a scene, one that involved a peculiar character, and later a coincidence.