Last thing I did in 2017 was going to a show in Salzburg. It was advertised as a… circus. But… it wasn’t, really. It was more like theater. Silent theater. The show begins with people coming up on the stage, barefoot and in street clothes. Your usual trousers, short skirts, sweaters and vests, shirts of all sorts. And as they appear out of the darkness, as they step towards the light they start… fighting. They throw each other on the floor, they hold each other down, they grab at each other, pull arms and legs, push and lock their arms around bodies. It might have looked like it but it wasn’t violent. Even if they ran around with angry faces and clawing fingers, their fighting woke up in me something different. It reminded me of… lovers fighting. Of those embracings where you try to pin the other down but also, at the same time, give them enough freedom to attack you too, to grab you and jump on you. Yes, it was more of an erotic playing than a fight, a more visceral, impulsive kind of experience. Slowly, the fighting subdued and from the apparent chaos of the pushing and pulling more coordinated movements ensued and cooperation between the actors became more and more visible until it became obvious that they really know each other in a more tangible, concrete way. After all, try to imagine how it is like to climb over tensed bodies, to hoist yourself up on trembling shoulders, to tighten your hands over your colleague’s calves, to feel their rib cages pulsing, to feel them living and straining, to let yourself be whirled through the air and know that you will be caught before you hit the ground, that there will be hands right there where you need them to be. At the end of the show, one of performers held a little speech. She talked about how important it is to stick together. “Alone one is faster. Together we can reach further.” Yes. Looking at how exclusive the world seems to have become, at how hate plays an ever increasing role in politics and relationships between countries and individuals, her words could have easily been taken as clear political statement. Somehow, I chose not to go that way. I wanted to look at what they did on stage without relying on politics. It felt like such a waste. Just leave the bodies be bodies. Don’t politicize them. Not always. Not now. Let us be there together, as we can.
What’s in a year? Sometimes they go by and at the end you ask yourself what happened in it, what’s left of it? You look back and find some memories you can cling onto and try to be happy with them. You ask yourself whether it’s too little, whether you’ve been doing enough. Of course, you always seem to be busy, have plans and go places, see people and talk and try to make a difference or, at least, keep afloat. Things seldom go as planned, you realize your plans need to be adjusted, your goals scaled (mostly downward).
Not long ago I saw Hanif Kureishi talking about his last book The Nothing at Literaturhaus in Vienna. He touched on his writing method: getting up each day and writing pages and pages of stream of consciousness stuff - everything that comes to mind. After a few hours, he stops and looks back. He reads all he wrote and realizes that most of it is junk, worthless stuff.
“You know, it’s like sitting on Freud’s couch and you just spew out all that you can think of. But in all this useless gibberish you stumble, if you’re lucky, over little gems. They keep coming up and you start to realize that there might be something to it. That’s what counts! That’s what I’m looking for!”
Then he fishes up these bits and pieces and puts them aside and tries to come up with an image, to put some flesh onto it and slowly, he begins to see the bigger picture. And so he starts writing the next story. But he’s not done with playing the chance game. Because, once in the text of the story, he’s constantly looking for the unexpected.
That’s what he’s after. You might have an idea about where you want to go with your story but then, by actually writing it, by living in its world and feeding on its language you get to see that it can carry you somewhere else. It’s up to you to follow this path and venture into the unknown, flashlight in hand, or to stick to your plan and herd the story and its characters towards the place you already chose.
I’d like to be brave enough to choose the digression. After all, life often seems to run like that. Whether you planned for things to happen or not is less important. Why not dare life then? Why not go out of your way to meet the unexpected? Because it’s dangerous. Paul Valery once wrote that, “to enter into your own mind you need to be armed to the teeth.” Indeed. You don’t know what you’ll find there. You might step on the tails of sleeping fire-spewing dragons, you might summon monsters ready to spill out tonnes of abstruse junk. Are you ready for it? Would you ever be ready for it? … That’s what I thought…
Do you have what it takes to play the digression game, not on paper but in real life?
A year ago I ran almost two thousand km. This year perhaps two hundred. An injured Achilles’ heel is mostly to blame for it. I guess I could have found time, if I really wanted, and try to push it a little. A friend’s advice (she was talking about books and reading) - you’ll never find time, you’ll have to make time, set your priorities straight and you’ll be fine. She’s right. Perhaps I already did that. Perhaps my priorities have changed this year. For one thing, I wrote more. I brought out more. But I also gathered more stories. Not just from the books I read but from real people too. I am not as cautious as I used to be about stirring up people’s lives. We only live once. What use is there to hide behind fingers and try to be so gentle with the truth that it gets smothered? Right. No use. So… I want to be less of a gentleman and more of a peasant. I ask people questions and according to what they answer I adjust my image of them and want to ask more and get to know them better or retreat and go play somewhere else. There are a lot of real life stories out there. And some of them are really interesting.
One thing I started doing this year was to go to the Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations. A friend of mine organizes them and they involve people (usually, either a local or a visitor to the city) sitting together at a table in a Viennese coffeehouse and talking to each other. What about? Well, you get a menu of questions, which are not intended to be exhaustive nor exclusive but which point out the kind of conversation that is expected to be had. Namely, a real one. It requires honesty and readiness to delve inside yourself and willingness to bring out the truth about yourself. Why would you do that? Why not? If you’re there and want to try it, why not just be there for yourself too and try to reach inside yourself a little deeper than usual. Yes, you have your friends and you can talk to them too. But even with friends you have to strap yourself a bit. You wouldn’t always be honest with them because you know them and you know what kind of reactions you’d get from them if you start telling them whatever goes through your head. So, you try to scale it down a bit, to keep a balance. There are no restrictions with a stranger though, not with a stranger willing to hear, anyway. So you talk about passion and about your comfort zone, about temptations and fears, about love and friends. Real conversations. Nothing about rock stars or fashion, nothing about sports or gossip. That doesn’t guarantee an interesting conversation, of course, but there is always something to learn from them. Even if that something is only… patience.
Another thing I began this year is collaborating on projects. I always wrote alone and was never even able to conceive doing this kind of work differently. But, lo and behold… it is possible. It is something that has to do with trust, of course. It’s like inviting someone inside your head for a visit, a visit which could take a few hours to a few weeks (depending on the project). You are there, naked, in front of them. They can see your weaknesses and your insecurities, they can see where you struggle to keep up and where you hide your dirt. And you have to trust them. But you get something in return. A lot, actually. You get readers who care for you in a way most readers don’t. They try to bring up whatever part of you is better and show it to you and tell you how you can make more out of it. That comes back tenfold.
There is advice and there is advice. And sometimes even the smallest advice helps. Perhaps the one giving it doesn’t even know that what she does has the capacity to change one’s life. Not long ago there was an event I attended and part of it implied a couple of guys playing some music. A sax player and an accordion. At one point, by pure coincidence, I saw the sax player open a door and thought - how odd… he grabbed the door handle through the pocket of his jacket, so as not to touch the bare metal. He played wonderfully during the evening but that image stayed with me. So, when I got home, I googled him. And found out he has an interesting life. Born in Odessa, he travelled the world on cruise ships playing, even if learning the instrument better was not his goal there. He wanted to see the world. And he saw a lot of it. During one trip he even contracted a dangerous and uncommon virus which almost cost him his life. He got to live in Vienna as well and he finished his jazz studies here. During his years at the conservatorium, he realized that he reached a plateau and whatever he’d do, he would not be able to get further. He realized he’s somehow stuck in his development even if he knew that he could do better. Why? What kept him? At one point, his teacher told him to just try not to raise his shoulders while he’s breathing in when playing. Nobody thought much about this but… that did it. Just like that he was free to leave the plateau and go further, learn more, be better. Indeed, even the smallest advice helps. Even the advice that is not given as advice. Just the right words at the right time could change one’s life. I know, I know, it could go both ways: you could also, with a couple of words said in passing, bring one down and keep them there even if that was not your intention.
So, to come back to the gentleman/peasant distinction. It might be very interesting and would give one the chance to discover unexpected things about one’s friends or acquaintances or even about complete strangers but it can also lead to misunderstandings and worries and regret. I will take my chances, though.
Until this year I was not sure what to do with myself. I had no idea where my strength were, if there was something I was good at all. I knew I could do a lot of things already but there was none which I would really be passionate about. As if I would not allow myself to feel strongly about something for fear of focusing on the wrong thing. Now, it seems, I would not make a very big mistake if I were to focus a bit on writing. Stories, essays and what not. The hard work just started. But at least I know now what to work on. An achievement which is nothing short of a breakthrough. Thus, I want to try my hand at all sorts of stories. I am looking forward to playing with formats and ideas. What I hope for is to become faster, to have enough exercise so that, when I sit down to write, I’d be able to do just that. And with the help of the others, I could even go further.
Since I began this with writing about theater, I would like to end it on the same note. Just a couple of months ago I had the chance to see yet a different kind of play. Here I was, in the Schauspielhaus, in Vienna, with a couple of friends. The play begins and, after something that looks like an introduction - a dancer moving about on the stage on the sound of carnival music - one actor takes a mike and starts telling about her life: how she got to be an actress, why she likes what she does, what she thinks about the profession, about her colleagues, about her friends, how she likes living in the city where she lives, what does she do in order to make it better, to make her life better and to also improve the life of the people around her, what she thinks about politics and about her husband, etc. etc. While she talks, there are images of her, public and even private, which are projected on the screen behind her. OK, that must be the introduction then, I thought. It was a nice story, though I felt a bit uneasy to learn about the details of her private life. But now, let’s go further, should we? Let the play begin! And here she is, the second actor, mike in hand, cutting herself open with words and images projected on the screen. I was a bit confused as I found out about her unrequited love stories, about her life choices and about her mistakes. It felt even more personal than the first and I wasn’t sure what to believe. Is this it? Is this the play? Or are we going to get introduced to all the actors first? If so, if each of them would take around ten minutes in order to talk about themselves, there would be no place left for theater. Suddenly, I realized that… this was the theater. The emotions I was feeling were the emotions that I usually look forward to when I watch or read a play. This is it! And what’s more, it’s real, true, visceral. Even if the insights into these lives I was being offered in chunks of ten minutes were completely fictional, I would have still been happy to have been there. But they seem to have gone beyond the fictional, into the real life, into being open and honest about who one is. They hurled themselves towards us, the spectators, expecting us to catch them, to be there, arms open stopping them from hitting the floor.