do not inter me in a windmill,
and absolutely not beneath the
in your heart; then I shall not
become the prey of some white beast
and not for ever be interred
but slowly shall evaporate.
‘The kindling spark’, a very short story from 1926 by Kurt Schwitters, I read aloud in 1965 for Class Five of the Grotius Gymnasium School in Delft. It is a dialogue between Mr. Gross (a doctor) and Mr. Levy(the proprietor of a fashion shop). Gross is the acknowledged darling of all the ladies, he dances excellently, is good company, stylish and well-groomed. He has never had a sweetheart – in every woman he discovers something that displeases him. All this changes when he catches sight of a highly attractive young woman in the shop-window of a fashion shop. It is a mannequin, she is made of wax. He enters the shop and asks the proprietor if he may speak to the girl’s mother. The manager explains that she has no mother, she is a mannequin, he is her boss. Gross explains to him that he nevertheless wishes to marry her. Levy is not in favour of this, a discussion ensues, he loses the battle and says that in that case, they must marry in the shop-window. Gross agrees to this. Then the first sales assistant, who has been following the conversation says: ‘May I draw your attention to the fact that the lady in question writes shorthand using the Groote system?’ Gross says: ‘In that case, a marriage is completely out of the question, for I write shorthand using the Pont system. Good day to you!’
The next day I am rung up at school by the mother of a girl from Class Five. Her daughter is very upset because of the Schwitter’s story. I can understand that, on further consideration I regard it as a blunder on my part to have read the story aloud to children who are 17 years old. I offer my excuses.
Doctor Gross was the acknowledged darling of all the ladies. He danced excellently, was good company, stylish and well-groomed, in short, he was the acknowledged darling of the ladies. He was well aware of this, but it did not kindle any fire in him, never, for he weighed up everything coolly and objectively and found much in the female sex that was worthy of reproach. A man such as he could give any lady the run-around, but for that very reason it gave him no pleasure. Much to the despair of his parents, who dearly wished to cradle grandchildren. And yet, he too proved one day to be capable of combustion.
For one day Dr. Gross was out walking and thinking about nothing in particular and looking into the shop-windows of fashion houses. Just as he was standing right in front of a shop with ladies’ wear, the spark ignited. In an artificial arbour of paper embellishments and electric light he had seen a young woman made of wax and clad in a light spring dress, a faithful imitation of nature and full of allure and charm. She was simply standing there in order to sell the spring dress, but he did not see the simple, tasteful dress – he saw the enchanting maiden. He saw her true nature, straight through the dress, and the nature of this woman, her fine, calm being, her lovely, graceful movements, her silken skin, her exceptional beauty – all of this so pleased him that he was unable to contain himself, entered the shop and demanded to speak to her mother.
His first great disappointment was that this young woman had no mother, only a proprietor. So he asked to see the head of the establishment. Mr Levy, the manager, was a man of fine character, without much poetry about him. He assumed that a fine, young man would want to buy his wife or bride a chic costume, and was utterly taken-aback when Dr. Gross began by saying: “I wish to ask for the hand in marriage of the lady who is offering the summer dress for sale in the third window for 29 Marks 98.” – “I’m very sorry, Sir,” the manager replied, “but the lady is not for sale.” When he noted that the lady must be extremely valuable, he presented himself. “Delighted to make your acquaintance, Sir, the name is Levy,” the manager said, and Dr. Gross began: “I do not, by the way, wish to purchase her, only to be permitted to ask for her hand in marriage.” – “I’m very sorry, Sir, but as I said, I cannot part with this lady.” – “Why ever not?” – “She is, as I said, not for sale.” – “But, Mr. Levy, ladies are by definition not for sale, are they not?” – “You are mistaken, doctor, ladies are often actually for sale, but I regret to say that this lady is my property, and I am unwilling to part with her.”
“But, dear Sir, you can only have a human right to this lady, for a right of ownership like that of the time of the slave trade no longer exists today, thank heavens.” – “So?” – “For that reason, it is not your business but that of the lady in question whether she wishes to stay with you or not.”
“I am genuinely sorry, but one can indeed have the right of ownership like that of the time of the slave trade over ladies made of wax.” – “I too am sorry, but I do not recognise your right. Please allow me to go into the window, to confer with young lady in question and to openly declare my feelings to her.” – “I am terribly sorry, but furthermore fear that the lady made of wax will give you no reply.” – “That would also greaten sadden me, yet if she were to show her satisfaction through silence, that would be far dearer to me than many words, for I dislike talkative women.”
“But Sir, this lady is not a living being – I fail to understand what you actually want from her.” – “To marry her.” –
“You will not find any registrar to carry this out, for the lady is not on any list. She is a non-person! You simply cannot marry a figure made of wax!” – “That is my affair. How is it you claim to know whether a wax figure is a person or not? Have you ever been a registrar? Are there not numerous persons with wax parts, artificial arms, legs, teeth, noses, hair – why shouldn’t there be persons who are completely artificial? I could prove to you that every form must have a corresponding content. Either this wax figure is a person like all other women, or all other women are non-persons. For the other difference between a wax doll and a random roman is that the doll is considerably calmer, finer and more elegant.” – At this, the manager was at a loss. Then he thought of a subterfuge. He said that he as legal guardian was prepared to give his approval, but the wedding would have to take place in the shop window. Then Dr. Gross said. ‘It is a matter of indifference to me – I am the humble servant of my admirers.” – “But I must ask you not to undertake anything that would cause a crowd to have reason to gather in front of my shop, for we are an old, respected firm.” – “That goes without saying, Mr. Levy.” – The manager was desperate, he had played his final trump card and lost. Furthermore, he was afraid of Dr. Gross, whom he suddenly felt was insane. It was then, all of a sudden, that the head sales assistant said: “May I perhaps draw your attention, Sir, to the fact that the lady in question writes shorthand using the Gabelsberger system?” In a twinkling of an eye, Dr. Gross abruptly took his leave, with the remark: “If that is the case, then marriage is of course completely out of the question, for I write standard shorthand. Good day to you!” –
on sjølund’s plains so pleasing
On Sjølund’s plains so pleasing
down by the Baltic shore,
where woods with wreaths are friezing
the flower-strewn meadow-floor,
where silver streams now softly
glide past the ruin’s foot,
royal castle there once stood.
In golden halls so stately
where all did pleasure greatly
and jesting words were said:
King Valdemar had built there
his life against all ill there
until the world should end.
With hunters he went riding,
upon his milk-white steed,
o’er hill and dale, fast striding
but at the hounds’ loud baying,
the horn’s shrill calls far-flung,
they all forgot their praying
Long since deep in the earth has
in legends strange and terse has
his Hunt though been portrayed.
The farmer, poor man, crosses
himself aghast from fright
when hounds and hunters’ horses
tear past him late at night.
This week things were very busy at the cheesemonger’s market stall. I stood for some time behind two seasoned gentlemen who to my surprise were talking about the omnipotence or impotence of God. The weather was bleak, windless, a pale, weak sun. One of the men I knew vaguely – a GP. The other was unfamiliar, but I could see he was cultivated and wealthy. The GP said: ‘When in doubt, I choose God.’ The other one replied:
that was possible until 1945. It then emerged that millions of people had been annihilated. God had permitted this, the Almighty had not intervened. In 1945 it became clear that ever since his coming into being he had been a fairytale. Since then, I regard belief as a crime.
I was surprised that this was a topic of conversation in the thronging row of people at a market stall. I saw that a couple of lone old ladies were shuffling uneasily, and were considering following the urge of their feet – no cheese this week, then. Later though I saw small groups of cheese-buyers eagerly attacking each other and I gradually realised that religious strife had always existed amongst believers: the Hook and Cod Wars of medieval Holland, Catholics and Protestants, Shiites and Sunnis. But this time outsiders were also involved, unbelievers – and that is really something quite different.
Terwijl de andere bloemen toekeken
zag ik met bijna dichtgeknepen ogen
hoe de klimrozen leken te smelten.
Ik hield mijn adem in en volgde twee
blinkende torretjes op de rand van de waterput,
ze aarzelden, waren ineens verdwenen.
Onder de bomen stuurde ik de schaduwen weg
en ik tekende in een plots ontstane plas van licht
het pas gevonden nest van een winterkoninkje.
While the other flowers looked on
I saw with almost half-closed eyes
how the rambling roses seemed to melt.
I held my breath and followed two
tiny beetles on the rim of the well,
they hesitated, had suddenly disappeared.
Under the trees I sent away the shadows
and I drew in a suddenly created splash of light
the newly found nest of a winter wren.
12.11 norwegian babysitter
In 1986, Nico Scheepmaker hears a story about a girl that was frightened by a malicious Norwegian babysitter who tells her that each human being is only granted a limited amount of voice during his or her lifetime, and that you thus end up with a shortage of voice if you talk too much. The story seems familiar to Scheepmaker, he has read it somewhere only recently. He searches in his impenetrable room full of books, files and loose papers – metres high. He is obsessed by the story of the girl and her Norwegian babysitter. He is quite sure he has read it not more than two days previously. He looks in all his books, newspapers and files of the last two days. Finally, he suddenly recalls Conversations with Jean Piaget, the famous Swiss child psychologist. Apparently, Piaget has a room just like Scheepmaker’s, he says to his interviewer: ‘As you know, Bergson has established that disorder simply does not exist! There are only two types of order: geometrical order and vital order. My order is clearly vital!’
The interviewer asks if he is actually able to find anything in that utter shambles. Piaget says: ‘If you have to search, you search. That takes up less time that tidying every day.’
The interviewer asks: ‘But what if the room is cleaned?’
Answer: ‘This room is never cleaned!
‘But your wife?...’ ‘She is kind enough to leave it alone!’
I have no proof, but think that Nico Scheepmaker has probably frequently searched through his chock-a-block room for the girl and her babysitter. With the support of Bergson’s two kinds of order and Piaget’s certainty that no cleaning will ever take place.
Yesterday morning around sunrise I was splitting the day’s portion of firewood. More or less by chance I was wearing boots with steel toecaps. Luckily for me, for when the axe broke, the heavy head ended up on my foot – no injury. My first reaction was indignation, fury even. Strange, I ought to have been glad I hadn’t been wounded. Earlier in the week I had also met with setbacks. Two of my five chickens had died. I’d seen it coming – they were old birds. In my chicken coop the most frequent cause of death is a fox or polecat – old age is a rarity. Active perpetrators have my preference, with old age it’s hard to feel indignation, only resignation, a dull feeling. Finally, someone had made a dent in my car in the parking lot. It was a respectable citizen, his card was stuck behind a windscreen-wiper. Even here I felt dissatisfied, I’d much rather have groused about an unknown perpetrator.
These three incidents – the splitting axe, old age, the dent – completely vanished at the pleasure I felt this morning when I read in the newspaper that a wolf from Germany had killed two sheep near a small village in East Groningen. After this act of nature, it had returned to Germany. The name of the village is Hungry Wolf.
‘Your head’s like a sponge,’ ma says. I never know if this is a compliment, that it sucks up information at an impressive rate, or a criticism, that the holes in it are so large that information passes through without a squeeze.
I’ve done a lot of squeezing over the years. I have seven language systems to keep functional. The magnificent seven. No room for any more. Hasn’t been for years. They are my stalwart band of wayward warriors under their English commander. If the commander forgets a word, they can provide a clue. Or rather a clew, to lead me through the maze.
I’ve just seen the first boat in this year’s single-handed boat race, Silverrudder Challenge, pass by on the sound. Half an hour later another comes past. Rush hour.
I want the Danish word. It refuses to come. I try to latch onto the word in the other languages. Lacunae. Holes. Desertion. I’ve been monoglotted.
I sit still. Breathe slowly and deeply. I see rowing boats, those we could hire as kids and sail for half an hour on the pond. We would be called in when our time is up: ‘Come in Number 3!’ One by one the boats come in, their names alongside their numbers on the prow: myldretid, rusningstid, rushtid, Spitzenzeit, spitsuur, heure de pointe.
On 18 July 1970, Clive Barnes wrote a review in The New York Times on two interpretations of ‘Hedda Gabler’ by Henrik Ibsen – by Miss Worth (in Ontario) and Miss Smith (in London). He found them extremely different but equally valid. The latter was directed by Ingmar Bergman, whose interpretation ‘eloquently scales down the play to a point where heroism is an illusion and tragedy a lapse of good manners’. Bergman’s ‘total concern is the sad littleness of life’. No heroics, no passion, like that of the Hedda played by Miss Worth. ‘Miss Smith is something both more wary and more vulnerable. She is suburban rather than patrician […] and there is a dry bitterness, a kind of sad humor, to her portrayal that in context is both sardonic and pathetic.’
It sounds convincing, but it wasn’t quite the case. I know. I was there in London. And saw Miss Smith in action – Miss Maggie still-going-strong Smith, to be more precise. She was electric on stage, dominating it by refusing to do so. And since I was brought up to believe that ‘heroism is an illusion and tragedy a lapse of good manners’, I was surprised that I could be so convinced by any play whatsoever, with my built-in distrust of ‘theatricals’. More means less if a concert by one classical guitarist on stage seems more powerful than a symphony orchestra at full throttle. Bergman took liberties with Ibsen, because he had his own obsessions and demons he wanted to get across. Miss Smith did the job.
I talk to the fluorescent man about exemption. His clothes are luminous, he can be seen from a great distance, he is entitled to exemption. In our neighbourhood, the secondary road N436 is being serviced, all motorised traffic has fallen silent – where there was always a din, everything has gone quiet. All the intersections are being watched over by luminous men and a single woman. I am a local resident – the term residential exemption applies to me. While I talk to the man about his family, where he lives and his mother, I realise for the first time that striving to gain exemption is of great importance in our kind of society. An official invalid does not have to pay parking money. A policeman has discretionary powers – in specific instances he is allowed to act as he sees fit. If you deal in apples, you eat apples. A car comes along, the controller makes his excuses, he opens the barrier, there is a woman behind the wheel, she delivers newspapers, she is allowed to cross the N436. He explains to me that a newspaper is a vital necessity, it is entitled to exemption. I ask him who decides that. His answer is: I do. A quarter of an hour later, the next car comes along, I see to my dismay a Polish number plate. I see him listen to the driver, he shakes his head, his lips do not move. The car turns round and drives back again. The man comes over to me again, he says without a trace of triumphalism: foreigners, I couldn’t understand them. That’s how it is – anyone who can’t be understood won’t get exemption.
Le danger du succès, c’est qu’il nous fait oublier l’effroyable injustice du monde.
Il ne faut pas croire que la paresse soit inféconde. On y vit intensement, comme un lièvre qui écoute.
Le lièvre se blottit dans la haie, regarde les chiens dépistés et, tout à coup, sent que quelque chose le serre à la gorge: le collet.
the danger of success is that it causes us to forget the frightful injustice of the world.
So wrote Jules Renard on 13 January 1908 in his journal. When I read this, I happened to have a friend who had invented something which led to his becoming rich. I knew that he used that money to support people who had been devastated by some frightful injustice. On the quiet, he didn’t advertise the fact.
That same day, Renard wrote:
one would be wrong to think that laziness is unproductive. In such a state one lives intensely, like an alertly listening hare.
It occurs to me that I never see a hare any more. As I sit at table, I look outside across a large expanse of land. Earlier I often used to see hares frolicking, running, leaping over each other, lying there deathly still – that’s all over. No one is able to explain to me how this has come about, I can’t even blame the hunter, for there isn’t one. No hare, no hunter.
I leaf a bit through the journal. On 8 September 1907 he writes:
the hare snuggles up in the hedge, keeps an eye on the hounds that have lost the scent and, suddenly, feels something seize it by the throat: the noose.
In Woerden I am reading aloud short stories for eighty women in a small room – I’m the only man. I’ve been invited by the Woerden branch of the Dutch Association of Housewives, which has been in existence for eighty-five years. I’m well-prepared, I start with a story about a young man who is lying in his antique boat in a harbour that is designed for this type of boat. In a similar craft alongside is a female neighbour – they look at each other through the portholes. Her husband notices this, his jealousy is not destructive, in such a case he exerts himself a little more in matters of the heart. Not in vain – he regains pride of place. He cannot relax, however, for the neighbour is still there. But precisely this neighbour is content, for he is fond of women who are faithful. The housewives also approve, for all eighty of them clap their hands.
In the interval it would appear that I have been mistaken – only seven-nine have done the clapping. The one exception comes up to me in the interval and asks if I can’t pep things up a bit. After the interval, I have a story about a religious community in the Nevada desert. A strictly observant Buddhist couple live there in a plain tipi. One evening a tarantula enters the tent, the size of a hefty male fist. The woman is paralysed with fright, she mouths to her husband: ‘Kill it!’ He does not do so, she knows as well as he does that the whole of creation is sacred, that the taking of a life is the worst possible sin. The following day, she annuls their marriage. Now all the housewives clap. I can hear it – this time it really is all eighty of them.
The early sunlight quivers in each cypress,
Drifts like a long blond shadow through the grass
And, shivering, streams through high panes of glass,
Brightening the boudoir of the greying countess.
Each day's the same as that which has just yielded,
– Hear the bird trill above her though confined –
Once more her styled, white-powdered head's inclined
Over bright-tinted needlework, fine-gilded.
At always the same hour someone's admitted
Who bows in silence and sits down to play,
And from the faint spinet's old heart each day
A tired sonata's faded scent's emitted.
Over the yellow keys she sees hands stalking,
– The themes expire yet constantly revive –
And through a window views the bridge, the drive,
The tiny coaches, those who are out walking.
To see the original poem, go to here
Septembers himmel er så blå,
og lydt vi hører lærken slå
Den unge rug af mulden gror
men storken længst af lande for
Der er en søndagsstille ro
en munter glæde ved at gro,
Og koen rusker i sit græs
mens bonden kører hjem med læs
Hver stubbet mark, vi stirrer på,
står brun og gul og gylden,
og røn star rød og slaen blå,
og purpursort står hylden.
Og georginer spraglet gror
blandt asters i vor have,
sa rig er årets sidste flor:
fra træets trætte kviste,
Snart lysner kronens bladenet,
og hvert et løv må briste.
Når aftensolen på sin flugt
om årets sidste røde frugt
den tungt og mildt os minder.
At flyve som et forårsfrø
for sommerblomst at blive
er kun at visne for at dø,
Hvis modenhedens milde magt
da slår bag falmet rosendragt
September’s skies are tall and blue,
its clouds gleam white and drifting,
and loudly trills the lark, anew
its springtime song uplifting.
From rich dark soil young rye has grown,
its green blades upward thrusting,
the stork though long since off has flown
with sun its wings encrusting.
A Sunday calm is everywhere
midst trees and roof-tops reigning,
a zestful growing fills the air,
past summer’s joy retaining.
At grass cows tug and munch away
with juice their mouths are swimming,
while farmers harvest home the hay
that golden sunshine’s skimming.
Each stubbled field we gaze on too
is golden, brown and yellow,
the rowan red, the sloe dull blue,
the elder’s purple mellow.
And dahlias of motley hue
midst asters now brim over,
their final flourish says adieu,
Red apples will have loosened soon
from branches tired and weighted,
And tree-tops their thick crown have strewn,
each leaf to earth gyrated.
When evening sun drops down behind
black branches, fades and dwindles,
year’s last ripe fruit it calls to mind,
fond memories it kindles.
Like some spring seed to swirl and fly
and be some summer flower
is just to wither and to die
if fruit you can’t empower.
If though from life itself you gain
mature mild strength unfleeting,
when petals fade you will retain
a rose-hip heart full-beating.
I am the trout that vanishes
Between the stepping stones.
I am the elver that lingers
I am the leveret that breakfasts
Close to the fuchsia hedge.
I am the stoat that dances
Around the erratic boulder.
I am the skein of sheep’s wool
Wind and barbed wire tangle.
That make the swallows’ nest.
I am the stonechat’s music
Of pebble striking pebble.
With his eye on the lamb’s eye.
I am the night-flying whimbrel
That whistles down the chimney.
I am the pipistrelle bat
At home among constellations.
I am the raindrop enclosing
And autumn lady’s tresses.
That penetrates the keyhole.
I am the otter’s holt and
The badger’s sett in the dunes.
At spring tide among flotsam.
On top of the burial mound.
Jeg er ørreden der forsvinder
Jeg er glasålen der nøler
Jeg er harekillingen der spiser morgenmad
Jeg er lækatten der danser
Viklet ind af vind og pigtråd.
Jeg er den sortstrubede bynkefugls musik
Af rullesten mod rullesten.
Jeg er den lille natflyvende regnspove
Der hvisler ned ad skorstenen.
Der er hjemme blandt stjernebilleder.
Jeg er regndråben der omslutter
Der trænger igennem nøglehullet.
Jeg er den sodsværtede hagl
Grævlingegraven i klitterne.
Jeg er grævlingen der drukner
Ved springflod blandt strandingsgods.
Jeg er odderen der omkommer
See Amergin Glúingel here