Cahiers du Cinéma
1978i listen to bob dylan's mournful "shelter from the storm" day and night. i find it hard to go to school because i don't want to interrupt whatever that music does to me. i light candles for the souls of dead artists, i keep the window open for visiting ghosts and i want to make love to the woman from norway who lives next door and sings in the shower at night. When i meet her on the stairs i look her in the eye and wonder if she knows that i drank her blood.1983a january morning. an open army truck on the way from nowhere to nowhere. i am one of six soldiers who lay on top of our own packed parachutes trying to doze in the freezing cold wind. there's an unknown lightness when we fall out of a helicopter hours later like hunchbacked wingless birds. on the way back we sleep again, drunken from too much air and abandon, waiting for the next time when we'll be allowed to leave our coffins and jump.1988the woman for whom i've flown half way around the world doesn't want me in her life. i move into a shabby hotel and live on tequila for a week, writing like mad then burning it with a grim face. when i look in the mirror, i have no shadow. this is la plata, argentina, city of the missing and nobody finds me odd. the huge schnitzels are called milanese. melancholy flies around the coniferous buildings like a bat out of hell.1992i’m a scientist now. i can say ‘particles’ faster than you can think it. My fingers look like tweezers, always probing. to balance mind and body, i keep raw meat in the fridge of our lab. sometimes, there’s blood on the floor. one day, a transsexual post-doc from iceland finds it and calls the police who don’t believe him. the idea of changing one’s sex scares me. i dream of copulating elephants: their sperm turns into a giant white lake.1999i realise that i don’t grow older, as was to be expected. i don’t read or write for an entire year until the alphabet is unfamiliar to me. i learn to listen instead, keep the mind still: one winter day, i open the window and can hear the lament of the snowflakes as they slowly drift across the city. when i sit down to write up their secret, ink disappears and the screen stays dark. some things must not be told by anyone, i understand that now. i decide to travel light, into the next millenium.2000can’t stand the sun any longer. my eyes are transforming. i take a job as a receptionist: young people go in and out of the hostel all night long. i appear at dusk, nobody knows where from, and i disappear at dawn, nobody knows where to. to reaffirm my reality, I steal pencils. still, sometimes, i don’t know why i exist: it’s the hardest exercise of all to accept that there may not be a reason. that year, i write 365 poems and every one of them begins with the word ‘now’. they expire daily like fruitflies.2003we’re in germany now. i’m married and she knows nothing of my condition. i view matter more deeply than ever before: unlike an artist but like a spider who looks at its cobweb masonry not coldly but with a sense of craftsmanship. my theory is that only the shaped life is worth watching. i talk to my wife about it and she looks at me sideways like a judge who’s formed an opinion but is bound by law to keep her mouth shut. when i feel alienated from her, i focus on her fine feet and imagine they’re webbed.2007people are universes. liking them is akin to liking the moon - it doesn’t really do them justice. my favorite word is ‘vielfältigkeit’. students pass through my hands like caterpillars: largely unconscious of their surroundings they feed voraciously on me as i feed on them, oblivious of becoming butterflies as they dolefully devour their own substance. every moment counts down to another. moths are marvelously, bravely ugly and stealthily silent. people are pink pebbles.2010this morning, someone died inside me. i’d like to say he was a stranger but he wasn't. i knew him well. i had helped him carry his bag up the stairs. i knew his mother. once, i slept with his girlfriend, who cursed him for leaving after he'd got her pregnant. he was a friend with strong teeth and a thirst for truth. he liked to go to sheepdog trials because, he said, sheepdogs would make wonderful nannies if they had a better grasp on storytelling. now that he’s gone, my tale can begin all over again, like a film. there’re no miracles, there’s only metamorphosis. that’s the one.
Editor's note: A shorter version of “Cahiers du Cinéma” was published in Fictionaut.
Link to Speh’s podcast of the piece.
Speh comments on the genesis of “Cahiers du Cinéma”:
I wish I could say I made any of this up-to some readers, fiction deserves higher praise than memoir. And yet, while everything here happened just as I describe it, happened to me, not to some other fortunate bloke, these lines more than other autobiographical pieces that I've written, make me wonder who I was then. Perhaps this is the meaning of remembering: getting to gauge the gap between who we are and who we were. Really ‘we,’ because like vampires "we don't die, we multiply" in the course of our lives.
What’s with the vampires? While this piece came to me in a series of early morning dozing sessions with many scenes passing across my inner screen behind closed, fluttering eye lids, the idea to bring in the undead came only after I had finished writing the fragment '1988' with the sentence "when i look in the mirror, i have no shadow." I had recently seen Polanski's "Dance of the Vampires" again where the 'fact' that vampires have no shadow motivates an important scene. I then found the vampire metaphor in every one of these fragments, most prominently and meaningfully related to the back story of the fragment ‘1988,' the military dictatorship in Argentina that had only ended recently at the time of my stay.
The title stems from "Les Cahiers du Cinéma," a famous French film magazine for which many of my cinematic heros - Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol among them – have written. In the first ten years covered in my piece, I was particularly susceptible to the magic of the French film. My best friend and I used to go to see them two or three times a week – pretty much any time possible or until our money ran out. I don't know what this did to our impressionable (German) psyches but I know it made us prefer black clothes, read and discuss philosophy we didn’t understand but love nevertheless, and generally helped us neutralise some of the more germanic influences around us.
In the second part of the text (after 1992, written a while after the first part) the vampire metaphor gives way to a more general account of metamorphosis, owed perhaps to the increased subtlety of perception which is unavoidable as one’s life unfolds, gained at the price of reduced potentiality. I’m still cruising through different stations of my own life here but the narrator is drifting away from me until, in the last segment, he is exposed and killed. There will be no sequel to this movie.
I like commentary, perhaps too much. Does a commentary compromise the integrity of a piece? Should creative writing stand on its own feet only? Concerned, I think of the proverb with which minimalist movie maker Eric Rohmer begins his 1983 film "Pauline à la plage": 'a wagging tongue bites itself.' – I hope not.
I - The Stone Listens
II - Clouded Symmetry
III - Like Falling Hats
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