Leavetaking and Vanishing Point by Peter Weiss


“I read of the world of the Russians and the French, of the English and Americans and Scandinavians, and nothing stopped me feeling at home there. I was akin to Gaugin in Tahiti, to Van Gogh in Arles, to Myshkin in St. Petersburg, to Lieutenant Glahn in the Norwegian forests and to Fabrizio in the Charterhouse of Parma.”

Being exiled is a training ground for a dedicated reader, rootless, inwardly alone and never without the lonely good company of a book. In Leavetaking and Vanishing Point, the twentieth century as the age of alienation finds eloquent expression. Peter Weiss writes: “For me there were no lost home and no thoughts of return, for I had never belonged anywhere.”

Cosmic and social unity is gradually displaced by commodification and selfish individuality, transformations accelerated during the industrial revolution. The wars of the twentieth century and the continuing aftermath: perpetual crisis, wars and persecutions make rootlessness a common experience for countless individuals. But even those fortunate to lead relatively settled lives are, to borrow Camus’s term, irremediable exiles.

Peter Weiss’s two autobiographies are possibly the best I’ve read on the emotional and intellectual manifestation of that feeling of not belonging and its concomitant desire for security, yet fear of loss of freedom. Like many lonely wanderers, Weiss turns to literature, both as reader and a writer. In these two spiritual autobiographies he recollects his tentative beginnings as an artist and reflects on the literature and experiences that provided a formative substratum. Without a home, all literature is foreign, but in what is strange or unfamiliar we can feel alive.

The Name Had Found Me

Quote

The secluded, the mysterious, this hiding away with myself and my games, that is still with me and stirs within me even to this hour, it makes itself felt every time when I get deep into my work. I was my own master, I created the world for myself. But somewhere lingered the premonition of a calling, of the calling that would at once resound, that would roll across the garden toward me. The expectation of this calling was always present somewhere and even today the calling persists, even today the fear persists that everything could suddenly come to an end.

Peter Weiss, Leavetaking, translated by Christopher Levenson

Nocturnal Worlds

“A popular tradition warns against recounting dreams the next morning on an empty stomach. In this state, though awake, one remains under the spell of the dream. For washing brings only the surface of the body and the visible motor functions into the light, while in the deeper strata, even during the morning ablutions, the grey penumbra of dream persists and, indeed, in the solitude of the first waking hour, consolidates itself. He who shuns contact with the day, whether for fear of his fellow men or for the sake of inward composure, is unwilling to eat and disdains his breakfast. He thus avoids a rupture between the nocturnal and the daytime worlds-a precaution justified only by the combustion of dream in a concentrated morning’s work, if not in prayer; otherwise this avoidance can be a source of confusion between vital rhythms. In this condition, the narration of dreams can bring calamity, because a person still half in league with the dream world betrays it in his words and must incur its revenge. To express this in more modern terms: he betrays himself. He has outgrown the protection of dreaming naivete, and in laying hands on his dream visages without thinking, he surrenders himself. For only from the far bank, from broad daylight, may dream be addressed from the superior vantage of memory. This further side of dream is attainable only through a cleansing analogous to washing, yet totally different. By way of the stomach. The fasting man tells his dream as if he were talking in his sleep.”

Walter Benjamin, Breakfast Room from One-Way Street, translated by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter

Crucified by Lassitude

“Luísa remains motionless, sprawled atop the tangled sheets, her hair spread out on the pillow. An arm here, another there, crucified by lassitude. The heat of the sun and its brightness fill the room. Luísa blinks. She frowns. Purses her lips. Opens her eyes finally, and leaves them fixed on the ceiling. Little by little the day enters her body.”

The word ‘lassitude’ is almost certain following the three opening words, or at least expected by anyone who is somewhat familiar with Clarice Lispector’s grammar and syntax, translated here by Katrina Dodson. A ‘bright stain of sunlight’ ‘takes possession of the room’ in which Luísa stirs.

I adore Lispector’s enigmatic, imperturbable characters and her serpentine prose. This short story, The Triumph, opens the Complete Stories, and begins, like her first novel, with a clock, an object that often features in Lispector’s fiction. Clocks also appear often in Kafka, in both his fiction and the diaries, unforgettably so in the highly-strung opening to The Metamorphosis.

Lispector’s writing is sometimes compared to Virginia Woolf’s, but it is always Kafka that comes closer to my reading experience. “As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realised that it was much later than I had thought and that I had to hurry; the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of the way, I wasn’t very well acquainted with the town as yet; fortunately, there was a policeman at hand, I ran to him and breathlessly asked the way.” The sentence is Kafka’s, but with a few minor changes in syntax could have been borne by Lispector. Both writers bring to the fore both the demonic and the dreamlike in ways that would be difficult to perceive without them.

Earth of Shadows

Yesterday I bought a bottle of Waterman’s Absolute Brown, a richer complement to my J. Herbin Cacao Du Bresil, and favourite KWZ Honey ink. A little research reveals that this is a rebranded version of Waterman’s older, more evocatively-named Havana Brown. It isn’t a perfect brown, but flows well in my Grey-Blue Pelikan M101N and the colour is agreeable enough.

Recently, I read that some former Omas employees have re-emerged as Scribo. I don’t know their pens, but enjoyed a frisson reading of their Classico Sepia ink. Could this satisfy my interminable pursuit of a bottle of Omas sepia? The quest is for something that resembles the deep, muddy brown from this note in Walter Benjamin’s archives, possibly black originally, but faded to a wonderfully earthy riddle of a colour, the shadowy umber from which Rembrandt’s self portraits emerge.

This photograph is taken from an enthralling Verso collection of Benjamin’s personal manuscripts and documents. I enjoy the swirl of Benjamin’s essays, but am equally fascinated by him as a reader and collector. It’s no surprise to me that “high-quality paper, particular pens, ink, and nibs, and, furthermore, specific spatial preconditions were important prerequisites for a non-resistant and smoothly running flow of writing. In a letter to Siegfried Kracauer, for example, Benjamin reports on the acquisition of a new fountain pen, an ‘enchanting creation’.”

The creation in use in the first photograph is a Pelikan 101N, one of a series inspired by vintage Pelikan pens from the 1930s. My picture doesn’t sufficiently capture the appeal of the design or colour, but, if that is of interest, there are better places for that. I generally prefer bold, music, or oblique nibs, unlike Benjamin who had “such a small handwriting that he never found a pen that was fine enough, which forced him to write with the nib upside down”.

Both quotes here are from Verso’s Walter Benjamin’s Archive.