The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues
FEB 2020 Issue
Books In Conversation

LANCE OLSEN with Andrea Scrima

People always live happily ever after until they don't

Lance Olsen
My Red Heaven
(Dzanc Books, 2020)

Lance Olsen is author of more than 25 books of and about innovative writing, including, most recently, the novels Dreamlives of Debris (Dzanc, 2017) and My Red Heaven. His short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies, such as ConjunctionsBlack Warrior ReviewFiction InternationalVillage VoiceBOMBMcSweeney’s, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. A Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, D.A.A.D. Artist-in-Berlin Residency, N.E.A. Fellowship, and Pushcart Prize recipient, as well as a Fulbright Scholar, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.

Andrea Scrima (Brooklyn Rail): Lance, you’ve written a novel that, in a nod to Ulysses (1922) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925) (but perhaps also to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)), takes place in a single 24-hour period—in this case, June 10, 1927. My Red Heaven—which borrows its title from a painting by the exiled German artist Otto Freundlich—is a paean to the Weimar era and a chilling anticipation of the ruinous events that would soon befall Germany and the rest of Europe and the world. What made you choose this particular summer day?

Otto Freundlich, <em>Mein roter Himmel</em>, 1933, oil on canvas, 63 x 51 in. Photo: Til Niermann. Courtesy wikimedia commons.
Otto Freundlich, Mein roter Himmel, 1933, oil on canvas, 63 x 51 in. Photo: Til Niermann. Courtesy wikimedia commons.

Lance Olsen: I think I was thinking less of Phillip K. Dick (whom I adore) when the idea for the novel surfaced than James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, who I feel are everywhere in My Red Heaven. In 2015, I stumbled on Freundlich’s abstract Cubist painting at the Pompidou. It was completed in 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor. For some reason, that painting all at once became connotative to me of the cultural energy of the Weimar era. It also gestures toward a collage aesthetic in its collection of apparently disparate forms on a surface that simultaneously unifies them and underscores their multiplicity. I found myself wanting to see what happens when that aesthetic is translated into a narrative architectonics.

Each chapter of My Red Heaven takes the form of a “narraticule” set in the consciousness of an historical or imagined figure living, working, and/or simply passing through Berlin’s remarkable intellectual and creative possibility space during, as you say, a single day in 1927. The idea became to create a broad canvas—in many ways Berlin is the novel’s disorienting and disoriented protagonist—that explores the resonant complexity of an historical moment.

I chose June because it holds Bloomsday, and hence Joyce, inside of it. I chose 1927 because it fell nicely in the middle of some of the Weimar Republic’s richest hours. And I chose the tenth because it happens to be the birthday of Anita Berber, the cabaret performer whose consciousness guides the first chapter—and hence for structural reasons.

Rail: Correct me if I’m wrong, but My Red Heaven also feels like a sideways glance at the current state of affairs in the U.S. 

Olsen: When I conceived of and began writing the novel, I believe I was thinking mostly of other things, the things I’ve just mentioned, with Trump’s early candidacy a sort of hazy joke at the gray edges of our cultural awareness. (I imagine there were many in Germany who saw Hitler’s early days in much the same light.) But as the 2016 election roiled into the wreckage it became, I saw myself refocusing, wanting in part to use My Red Heaven as a way to contemplate the parallels between the Weimar years and our own—how a grim populism can contaminate a country so gradually, so insidiously, and yet in the end so completely through a politics of paranoia, xenophobia, pit-bullish nationalism and alpha-male ignorance, not to mention all the rest, that most of its essentially decent but unthinking citizens come to understand what’s happened only when their democracy has already become something other than democratic around them and in them.

Rail: My Red Heaven trembles with that anxiety: its characters go about their day with no notion of the barbarity about to arrive in their lives in the near future. As readers, we know what’s in store for them; it’s hard not to want to go back in time and stop the clock. The book abounds with illustrious writers, artists, and thinkers who either went underground, perished, or escaped into exile: among them Hannah Höch, Robert Musil, Otto Dix, Hannah Arendt, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Werner Heisenberg. And, of course, Anita Berber, who appears larger than life in the book’s opening scenes. The different forms you adopt throughout the book—prose, newsreel, screenplay, lists, concrete poetry, and a kind of on-the-page art installation—evoke the unprecedented intellectual and artistic innovations of the Weimar years.

Olsen: Absolutely. To foreground that bleak irony that hovers over the whole, I use the future tense a lot as a way to underscore the anxiety I hope exists in every line for the reader.

For me, My Red Heaven is also a love letter to modernism. That’s why it slant-rhymes with Joyce’s collage novel about Dublin, with Woolf’s beautiful exploration through her narrator’s oceanic consciousness of London, and with various other modernist forms and visions in literature and the other arts, both in Germanic and, more broadly, in European and American cultures. I have always found kin in those who are out of step with their times, aesthetic and temporal refugees (often geographical, too), and, in many ways, not-being-at-home is the definition of the avant-garde.

When critics and novelists consciously engage with earlier work as I often do in my writing, thinking with it, against it, and through it, what they produce is a mode of saying thank you to that work—as well, naturally, as a way of killing their parents. I would never have become the writer I am without all the complexities, conflictions, and complications we call modernism. For the last I don’t know how many years I’ve taught an undergraduate course about it. Eduardo Galeano has a much better way of phrasing what I’m trying to say than I do: “History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.’” Our past, whether individual or cultural, never stays even as it never goes away.

Rail.: What fascinates me is the way these characters continually cross paths throughout the narrative: one particularly poignant example is the iridescent blue butterfly that flutters past a zeppelin window—first noticed by the young Billy Wilder, then the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld—a butterfly that was once Rosa Luxemburg, who “came to conclude that [. . .] the most revolutionary thing you can do is simply say aloud what is taking place in the vicinity of your life,” until it’s caught up in a twirling gust of air, comes to rest on a blade of grass, and is then crushed beneath the shoe of the elderly Georg Anton Schӓffer, who takes no notice.

Olsen: I don’t know why, but I have always loved books with the rich harmonics (we’ve returned, I suppose, to Woolf and Joyce) of reappearing characters, phrases, leitmotifs. They feel like they’re somehow making cosmos out of chaos. Rosa’s role in particular in My Red Heaven is emblematic of the artist, the writer, the intellectual: world witnesses built to send reports from the subjective and social fronts, who already know those communiques will almost always end up in some dead letter office. It’s the strangest impulse, isn’t it? We both have thousands of years of proof that art in its largest sense changes exactly nothing at a meta-level, over and over again, along with the cellular commitment to keep doing it nonetheless. That said, we also each have a lifetime of proof that individual pieces of art change individual human beings all the time—even if only, in most cases, for a few minutes, or a few days, or a week or two.

Rail: Lance, you and your wife, Andi, spend time in Berlin each year; the city has become a kind of second home for you. To what degree is My Red Heaven also a declaration of love to the city’s past?

Olsen: Andi and I adore Berlin for about ten million reasons. To a very great degree My Red Heaven functions as a declaration of love to Berlin’s past as well as to its present. To Berlin as an idea, too. It’s a city especially conducive to dérive because it doesn’t possess the orienting axes of, say, a Paris, or a New York, or even a Salt Lake City, where I teach. Rather it’s a gallimaufry space where on a single block the gentrified nineteenth century dwells next to the crumbling eighteenth dwells next to the frayed East German dwells next to the clean Bauhaus dwells next to a McDonalds, a trendy café, an untrendy Indian or Vietnamese or Turkish bistro, a currywurst stand, a chunk of leftover Wall (now graffitied and encrusted with bubble gum), a five-story bunker built by Albert Speer that couldn’t be blown up after the war because it was so massive, and was thus transformed (after an earlier iteration as Germany’s hottest site for techno raves and gay sadomasochistic festivities) into an art gallery. And I’m continuously struck by how in many ways the entire twentieth century happened there with a dark vengeance. The U.S., by contrast, is devoted to making invisible its atrocities, its amoral heart, as quickly and thoroughly as possible. It’s our inheritance, I assume, from the nineteenth-century doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Americans continue to swear an oath of allegiance to leaving their shit behind them while believing they are bustling ever forward toward righteous, inevitable happiness. Berlin—much of Germany—has dedicated itself to problematizing the act of remembering. I understand the difficulties with that gesture, yet I’m buoyed and grateful and absorbed by such serious cultural self-examination.

Rail: I’ve been living in Germany for more than half my life, and my appreciation for the work this country has done to come to terms with its dark history goes deep.

Olsen: Wayne Koestenbaum talks about hoteling as an existential position. We hotel when we enter a state of physically not-being-at-home that allows us to read, think, become curious, pay attention. Because of its unnervingly complex history, Berlin by nature hotels Berlin. It has become a mode of hoteling for Andi and me that we’ve found extraordinarily productive, both aesthetically and existentially.

Rail: Ultimately, of course, the beacons of intellectual life that fled Nazi persecution infused America with their creative power and changed the course of history here—Hannah Arendt at the New School for Social Research is one obvious example of the influence of German Jewish thought on post-war American intellectual life—but it strikes me that the Germany we’re left with is in some regards an amputee. 

Olsen: That’s a gorgeous way of putting it, Andrea. I see what you’re saying, and wonder—I simply don’t know enough to state this with anything like confidence—if there has also been at least to some small degree a partial reversal of that intellectual flow by means of the American and other expats who, like you, have moved to Berlin to make their lives there, reinfusing the culture with a new-found energy. In any case, unlike Arendt and the others we might have in mind from the Nazi years, many of us in the contemporary move comfortably, frequently, and relatively rapidly between continents, among myriad intellectual circles, keeping loose affiliation with them all, in a Heraclitean process that wasn’t available to the modernists. Add to that the infinite Borgesian library the internet provides, and it feels to me so many of us are living in a continuous diaspora, a state of endless post-geographical, multicultural, unrooted inbetweenness ever less dependent on family or country to shape ourselves. That grim populism I mentioned earlier is a clear fear-response to that deep-seated feeling that we are all, in a sense, becoming perpetual migrants.

Rail: It’s hard to fathom just how threatening intellectualism and cosmopolitanism can be to a particular segment of the population; why the gut response is so often racism, nationalism, parochialism, misogyny, antisemitism, and so on. History seems to repeat itself; forces that might have taken a different turn suddenly tip the scale toward calamity. Although John Maynard Keynes lamented that the Treaty of Versailles made no provisions for Europe’s economic rehabilitation following the end of WW I and is often said to have predicted the events leading to the next war; and although Luxemburg herself was convinced that if socialism failed, humanity would fall prey to inconceivable barbarity—I’ve never believed in the inevitability of Nazism. Or let’s say: I’ve never believed in the sense of historical fate promoted by Germanophobes and their deep-seated antipathy, as though the language itself led inevitably to fascism. Because we see this happening now, in a place we call home—where it also never before seemed possible.

Olsen: I couldn’t agree more. Americans love to use that narrative of inevitability with respect to Germany, I think, because it makes us feel better about ourselves, gives us a country to blame for the twentieth century, gets our myriad guilt off our shoulders by recasting history as a series of easy fated binaries.

But here’s the thing in a single image: A couple of days ago I forced myself once again to endure the highlights from a Trump rally, this one in Pennsylvania. He ranted willy-nilly for hours, attacking the media, calling his impeachment a scam, mocking Greta Thunberg for wanting to help slow down our environmental catastrophe, berating Elizabeth Warren for opening “her fresh mouth,” and claiming—I kid you not, this is an exact quote—“last summer at least 19 illegal aliens were charged in connection with grisly homicides, including hacking victims to death and ripping out, in two cases, their hearts.”

My deep apprehension is that it’s going to get worse here before it gets worse. My even deeper apprehension is that it’s already gotten worse here before it’s gotten worse . . . and somehow 42 percent of the population either hasn’t noticed, doesn’t care, or, still more horrific, applauds what’s happening because everybody likes a strong daddy who can protect us from the heinous Other while making sure the trains run on time. And, well, God help us all.

Rail: This brings to mind the darker underlayers of your book. My Red Heaven is a necromantic evocation of the time between the wars in Weimar Berlin; it brims with motifs that heighten the brevity and hallucinatory nature of life and time: things recede “from present to preterite”; a dying father is remembered with an “elated smile spreading across his wasness”; two condemned prisoners about to be executed on the guillotine are positioned face up “so they can see their futures flying toward them.” Some of the sections count backwards in time from a point six years hence, twelve years hence, while in another recurrent image, a portentous manifestation of the future in the guise of a black shadow scrambles across the ground and then flickers out as the respective character notices it and thinks “cloud.” The unrelenting pain that is history; the gathering of the Dead on the rooftops.

Olsen: I sometimes feel, especially here in the U.S., that each of us is like a fly that’s accidentally wandered aboard a 747 in Los Angeles and is now airborne somewhere over the Pacific in the middle of the night, in a storm, thinking in its little fly-thoughts that the bit of banana peel it’s feasting on in the galley is all time, the whole beneficent universe. That plane, wildly insignificant compared to the turbulent blackness around it, is our country; that turbulent blackness, history. Remarkably many Americans are willfully oblivious of chronology and the myriad forces carrying them along. They honestly think it’s all about them, all about their tiny fly world. Not long ago in a survey course on American literature I asked my students where and when, roughly, the Civil War occurred. A hand went up with a certain unnerving sureness and the answer arrived: the ’60s at Columbia University. Civil War, Civil Rights—it all happened out there somewhere before last week and is therefore superfluous. While that anecdote is undoubtedly hyperbolic, almost cartoonish, the point it carries isn’t. By warping temporality, injecting an always ironic and painful awareness of larger futures into My Red Heaven—I have Franz Kafka at one point say: “People always live happily ever after until they don’t. Every story is also always about night.”—I wanted My Red Heaven to serve as a 264-page reminder that we all exist as sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious, yet always doomed historical beings subject, in part, to violences we can, if we really put our minds to it, barely fathom.

Rail: Particularly now, as we watch events unfold in the U.S., it’s hard not to wonder if humans aren’t subject to the same obscure laws as schools of fish or flocks of birds: moving collectively according to some ineluctable pattern that overrides individual will. Which brings me back to the multi-dimensionality of your book’s narrative. Figures from one chapter suddenly turn up in the next, but on the periphery: Werner Heisenberg, whose wallet is stolen at Alexanderplatz, appears as a nondescript man in a “shabby olive tweed jacket” the appearance of whom reminds Nabokov of the “proliferation of proliferations” that writing entails (“The problem with writing, Vladimir has come to understand, is the part involving writing”); Käthe Kollwitz, working on a lithograph of a mother and child, suddenly gazes out the window and down at a taxi passing by on the street below carrying Mies van der Rohe: “jowly, fleshy nosed, protruding lower lip—perhaps smoking a cigar stub, perhaps picking at his thumbnail.” The book brims with polyvalent perspectives; everything seems to be interwoven with the causality of everything else.

Olsen: You’re describing the effects of collage at an existential level. What’s beautiful to me about that form, the aesthetic embodiment of Nietzsche’s perspectivism, is its emphasis on the plural and incommensurate. Collage not only refuses to privilege one voice—which is to say one vision—over another, but it celebrates profusion as a way of being. It’s a mode of juxtaposition that allows visions to clash with, converse with, harmonize with—and even ignore—each other. At its best, this was often at the core of the modernist project. One need only recall Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), Eliot’s Waste Land (1920), Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (1938)—polyphonic works that invite the reader to pass through a succession of contradictory and ambiguous attitudes about the world, emphasizing how each is both tenable and arbitrary. From one point of view, Heisenberg changed the course of physics in the twentieth century; from another, he was just this unremarkable guy in a shabby olive tweed jacket patting himself down in a train station, figuring out his wallet has just been lifted by a pickpocket. Sometimes we reduce a novel to its thematics, implying that’s where we go to find meaning, and that’s all well and good. But I’m intrigued by structuration as meaning, how form always suggests philosophy.

Rail: The form suggests the impossible-to-imagine simultaneity of everything that’s happening right this very moment. But it also suggests the inherent conflict in opposing ideologies striving to occupy the same space, doesn’t it? Because at some point, something has to give.

Olsen: I’m reminded here of Jean-François Lyotard’s notion of language games, which he appropriated from Wittgenstein and slightly re-imagined in his larger definition of the postmodern as the collapse of metanarratives and the concurrent proliferation of micro narratives. In the absence of metanarratives, we must become alert to difference, to diversity, to the absolute incompatibility of our beliefs and desires, our ideologies, with those of others. When we converse with someone else, we enter into a network, not of truths, but of language games, always-already aware of the multiplicity of communities of meaning, the innumerable and incommensurable separate systems in which meanings are produced and rules for their circulation created. One might argue that such relativism gives the lie to the possibility of ethics, but for Lyotard injustice comes to mean the imposition of one set of language games on another. Ethical behavior amounts to allowing multiple language games to be played, keeping the conversation going. Murder is unethical precisely because it violently terminates the possibility of language, the possibility of play, the possibility of conversation that is and should be unresolvable. I’m not sure I’m fully comfortable with Lyotard’s position. It’s probably too certain of itself by half. Yet I do respond to the perhaps admittedly quixotic idea that opposing ideologies can inhabit the same space without something having to give. Of course, well … do you recall Jean-Martin Charcot’s (Freud studied with and was greatly influenced by him) delightful observation: “Theory is good; but doesn’t prevent things from happening”?

Rail.: No, but it reminds me of a conversation I had with my late father many years ago about theosophy and other esoteric belief systems: “No matter how you look at it, though, if you go outside and walk into oncoming traffic,” he said, “you’re still going to get hit.” I feel we’re at a kind of cusp right now, where one system of belief is about to overpower the other—and we’re about to get “hit.” The years of the Weimar Republic were also a cusp—between a rich cultural and intellectual pluralism and the moment it was abruptly, violently snuffed out—and it’s hard not to feel the echoes of our present moment in American history. We see the choice between oligarchy and dictatorship on the one hand and, on the other, the vision of an equitable society gradually escaping our reach—and it looks like we’re about to veer off in a very wrong direction. To what extent does the title of the book name this vision of a fairer, more humane socio-economic order: the modestly regulated capitalism currently vilified as “socialism,” our very own “red heaven”? Because—and I’ve scoured the book—among the things that are red are: Anita Berber’s hair; her lips, her dress, and the space she occupies when Otto Dix paints her; Adolph Hitler’s gums; the wine he dunks a teaspoon of sugar into; the modernist building the Nabokovs live in; money, in the mind of Mies van der Rohe; the face of Ernst Herbeck hanging upside-down from a tree; the shared color of song in a dream he has that night; the scarf and suspenders of a young Black jazz musician playing a banjo; Emil Jannings’s bowtie; the Red Army soldiers who start a fire in the wine cellar of the Hotel Adlon; the “fives” in a mathematics professor’s dream from last night, “so beautiful, so red”; the colors in Otto Freundlich’s geometric painting, which you’ve described at length; and, of course, the politics that got Rosa Luxemburg murdered.

Olsen: I wanted there to be—although I’m not sure this comes across—an inherent tension in the title My Red Heaven. On the one hand, I hoped for exactly what you suggest to resonate in it—the possibility, which maybe always seems so close, yet so far, of a fairer, more humane socio-ecology. On the other hand, I wanted there to be the suggestion of a bloody heaven, Hitler’s heaven the color of his gums. Structurally, the novel is divided into four sections that start with “Underpainting,” then track down Freundlich’s painting from the top: “Reds,” “Grays: Greens: Whites: Blues,” “Blacks.” Apparently Freundlich, a utopian, wanted his viewer’s eye to travel in the opposite direction, from those blacks suggesting hell, through the midrange suggesting the colors of earth, and finally to those reds suggesting some more perfect realm. But my novel ends with an image that quite literally turns the last page nearly completely black.

Rail: Yes, those last several pages, a work of concrete poetry in their own right, are devastating. In a sense, your book mourns for the Germany that might have been—the logical continuation of the revolutionary intellectual and artistic tendencies prevailing during the Weimar era. Are you also mourning for an America that might have been?

Olsen: The older I get, the more I realize I’ve been mourning all along for an America that never was. The gap between the ideal and the real here has always been heartbreaking. Under Trump, it has become nothing short of devastating. So we began by talking about My Red Heaven as a love song at its core, but it is also an elegy, a lament for the dead who were never alive.

Rail: As far as I can tell, most of the characters in your book are real persons whose lives correspond roughly to the fictional events you portray in My Red Heaven. Walter Benjamin did indeed commit suicide in Portbou, Spain, a day before the small group of émigrés he was with, including the young Hannah Arendt, was allowed to cross the Portuguese border; Emil Jannings starred with Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel (1930). One notable exception is your serial killer Carl Fischer, who fabricates sausages out of his victims.

Olsen: There was a spate of serial killings in Berlin, mostly of prostitutes, during the ’20s and ’30s, along with the strange phenomenon of so-called murdered-women series of lithographs, paintings, and even films (think Nosferatu). Maria Tatar examines this trend in a book called Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany (1995). Tatar places these abounding representations of female mutilation and homicide in the context of the gender politics of cultural production of the period, but also as a precursor to Nazism: the growing cultural ability to dismantle, disavow, and ultimately erase victims with an impersonal, machinelike, amoral efficacy. Carl Fischer is an amalgam of several of the serial killers Tatar discusses.

But Fischer also points to another impulse in the novel, which I think about through Linda Hutcheon’s notion of historiographic metafiction—self-aware fiction, in other words, that doesn’t attempt to realistically (and therefore naively) re-present the past, which can never be re-presented in any meaningful way, but rather to problematize the very idea of pastness: how it is re-presented, why, by whom, and to what purposes. I hope I generate enough characters (not only Carl Fischer, but also the pickpocket, sommelier, and myriad ghosts) that never existed, and take enough subtle liberties with the historical record—fiction, as opposed to historical texts and journalism devoted to facts, and hence to surface realities, devotes itself to the five senses and deep consciousness, areas to which history and journalism have virtually no access, and hence is a troubled and troubling manifestation of yesterday from the start—that this problem of pastness becomes part of the reading experience.

Rail: It certainly did and does, and it’s a stirring reminder that history—both the recorded histories of past eras and the history we experience on a day-to-day basis in momentous times—is a malleable narrative we write and rewrite as we try to make sense of our lives and times.

Lance Olsen. Photo: Andi Olsen
Lance Olsen. Photo: Andi Olsen

white silence : frozen music

an excerpt from My Red Heaven
lance olsen

Piloting through thronged Alexanderplatz, Werner Heisenberg contemplates bird nests.

Heedless of the tiny silver star descending above him, of the horns, motors, carriage wheels, creaking vegetable carts, the square’s warfare of noises, he moves in a spotless white silence on his way to catch the nine-thirty to Leipzig. This evening he will deliver a lecture at the university that will summarize his findings. Afterward, he will dine with several senior faculty members to finalize his new post as department head and professor of theoretical physics.

He is acutely indifferent.

Or, no, that’s not quite right: he cares very much, just not about that new post. He cares about how his new post translates into leaving behind his mentor Niels Bohr at the University of Copenhagen, into returning to Germany’s viscera and a sweep of unexpectedness.

Werner knows Werner thrives in such shaky, adrenalized spaces.

(Circumventing a duet of men in black fedoras basking in their own cigar smoke, dodging a soldier still in uniform, tin cup between his veed legs, bee-lining through a data-point cloud of boys in brown pants tucked into their socks playing tag among all this life, Werner is immune to the fact that in two years a virtually unknown graduate student in philosophy will cross the very same stretch of Alexanderplatz, bee-lining on a slightly different trajectory, en route from Vienna to Cambridge to be examined on his thesis, a thin volume titled Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Some in the examination room will later report the more they listened to Ludwig Wittgenstein speak, the shorter they felt.)

Werner moves in a spotless white silence, contemplating bird nests while composing his lecture:

I mean by wave packet a wavelike disturbance whose

Wave packet signifies a wavelike disturbance whose amplitude is not the same as

By wave packet is meant a wavelike disturbance whose amplitude is appreciably different from zero only in a bounded regi —

He had planned to put the thing together on the overnight train. Instead he found himself tangled in a Berliner Tageblatt article. Amid recent restoration of the capital’s cathedral, workers exposed a palimpsest of bird nests aggregated beneath the decayed roof. They had been built over several centuries. Time itself had become a solid residue. Years had turned into an avian archeology you could touch, cup in the palm of your wonder.

Generations of jackdaws and swifts had constructed comfort by pilfering people’s hair strands, yarn snags, yard trash, candy wrappers, broom bristles, wedding rings, sock scraps, fish ribs, leather gloves, peppermint gum, promissory notes, bills of sale, even tiny bits of banknotes for 1000 Russian rubles, fortunes from three thousand kilometers away.

There were snippets of orchestral compositions.

What might have been bits of diaries or encyclopedias or medical textbooks.

An architecture of frozen music.

This region is, generally, in motion, and also changes size and shape — i.e., the disturbance expands.

The velocity of the electron corresponds to that of the wave packet, but this latter cannot be exactly defined, because —

— because the recipes, the concert tickets, the packaging: it is as if all Berlin were in those nests: its sociohistorical substructures, overlays, overlaps, its pastness a splendid geological formation.

Werner imagines describing to Bohr the snarls of eighteenth-century love notes — I wake filled with thoughts of toxicating evening which we spent yesterday has left my olce amor, a thousand kisses; but give none in return, for they set my —

A transcendence of theory proved by sparrows.

Werner imagines Bohr’s and his mutual enchantment, for here is tangible documentation that allows us, on the one hand, to see complex natural connections, and, on the other, to see how we can speak of them only in a batch of blundering parables.

Werner and Bohr will take delight in proof that the physicist’s objective is to fall through the visible into the invisible, down, down, down, through brick walls and tea cups and parquet floors into shivering atomic fog.

Just last week his mentor leaned over his hefeweizen at the bar and shouted at Werner above the babel: You know, don’t you, Heisenberg, that some subjects are so serious one can only joke about them?

Then Bohr winked.

Werner blinked, rattled.

Swimming deeper and deeper into the conversation with himself, he somehow fails to notice someone — perhaps that attractive young woman to his left? one of the boys dodging, ducking, laughing to his right? — bump into him, beg his pardon, and vanish back into the fleshy commotion.

Late to his own accident, Werner reflects rather on how the rest of Europe can cackle all it wants about Germany’s buckling in the war.

The truth remains: its science is second to none.

He cuts right, through the colossal domed railway station’s main doors, and only now, only as he steps into the vast echo and thrum of the huge half cylinder, commences mounting the steps toward his platform, does he startle and stop.

His back pocket, he realizes, has become infinitesimally lighter than it was three minutes ago.

(Reaching for that lack automatically, thinking my wallet, he is immune to the fact that in seventeen and a half years he will stand behind another podium in another mahogany-lined room, this one at a physics conference in Zurich. An American in the meager audience of professors and graduate students will finger a pistol in his pocket, weighing the pros and cons of murdering him. The American’s name is Moe Berg. A mediocre catcher on the best of days, average as he will prove to be in baseball, Moe will excel in Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German studies. During the offseason, he will complete a law degree at Columbia University and take a position at a Wall Street firm, from which the Office of Strategic Services will recruit him to attend that lecture one December evening and ascertain whether or not the physicist before him gives an indication the Germans are hatching an atomic bomb. If so, Moe has orders to shoot him. But Moe will hear nothing, and so will leave the lecture leaving history alone.)

Werner, a good-looking man in the shabby olive tweed jacket, pauses on the stairs leading up to the platform from which his train will depart.

As if working through a perplexing equation, he carefully pats himself down: first his trousers, then his jacket, next his various pockets, some real, some fancied.

Pedestrians spill around him.

A black shadow scrambles across his feet and flickers out.

Werner thinks cloud.

He reflexively raises his head to spot a large bird rising into the building’s steel framework.

A warbler, perhaps.

Perhaps, he speculates, a pigeon.


Andrea Scrima

Andrea Scrima is the author of A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil, 2nd ed. 2018); the German edition (Wie viele Tage) was published by Literaturverlag Droschl, Graz, Austria in 2018. The German edition of her second book, Like Lips, Like Skins, will also be published by Droschl in the fall of 2021. Scrima has works in several anthologies, including Wreckage of Reason (Spuyten Duyvil) and Strange Attractors (University of Massachusetts Press). She is the recipient of a writer's fellowship from the Berlin Senate for Cultural Affairs and writes a monthly column for 3 Quarks Daily. She is editor-in-chief of the online literary magazine StatORec.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues