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01/10/2007

Thomas Glavinic's novel "Isn't That Me?" - an excerpt

Excerpt:

(Chapter 8, pp. 75–84 of the German edition)

In the corridor there's already a little altercation between Else and me. I didn't remember to have the winter tyres fitted, she says. My official stance is: this is only November, there's no snow in sight anywhere around and none's expected. But the fact is she's right, it ought to be done.

Still half asleep I shower, facing the wall. As usual I couldn't get to sleep until nearly four in the morning. And I'm not used to early rising. I swear quietly, and curse myself for letting people persuade me to go to this family reunion. At least I don't have a hangover, I've been on the wagon for the last two weeks, entirely inadvertently, I'm a drinker on occasion and I haven't had any occasion for it recently.

The drive to Graz passes pleasantly. Stanislaus soon goes to sleep, then Else closes her own eyes, and I do what I always do driving the car: I give my thoughts free rein. I keep to a steady speed of 150 k.p.h., I stare at the road and I think.

Now and then I get good ideas at the wheel. Not today, I'm too tired. I concentrate on reducing my own handicap with regard to the length of time the drive ought to take. At the beginning of every journey I estimate the time of arrival; without exception it's a conservative estimate, tacitly factoring in the possibility of a breakdown or a rest stop. Of course I do the journey faster, and then I'm pleased: five minutes off my handicap, ten, twenty, the more the better.

I drop Stanislaus and Else off at my mother-in-law's in Graz, and drive right on. I'm early, no need to hurry, but I like to have half an hour to myself before these family reunions.

Since time immemorial my family has met at the Gasthof Wurm in Frauenkirchen, a little place in southern Styria. A high street, three side streets, a few shops (ladies' fashions, ladies' hairdresser, fuel station), and then you're out of Frauenkirchen again. Who first thought of coming here, and who found this inn, family history does not relate, but anyway "we" have been meeting here on Sundays since before I was born. By way of leisure pastimes Frauenkirchen can offer a swimming pool and a few footpaths for ramblers, and for some years now a brothel, which is the subject of vicious comment every time we visit. I can't say whether guests eat well at the inn or not. I was coming here when I was just a little boy, I know the cuisine, I always order the same thing: a pork schnitzel beaten out as thin as possible. They know me here, I'm our Thomas, and anecdotes of the old days are always rolled out.

I sit down at a table near the bar. Gertraud the landlady recognizes me, comes over, shakes hands.

"OUR THOMAS! Oh, that's wonderful! And how's things going, then?"

I say fine, in return I ask how she is, I order a coffee, read the paper.

The door is pushed open. An old man drags himself into the room. He walks incredibly slowly, I'm afraid he might collapse right next to my table.

"Evening, Reverend Father! What'll it be, Reverend Father?" shouts Gertraud. "Glass of red, Reverend Father?"

The old man sits down at the bar. I don't hear him utter a sound. Gertraud puts a glass in front of him and pours wine into it.

"How's the back, Reverend Father?" she shouts. "Doing better now, is it? A bad back's a terrible thing, Reverend Father! My dad, he's always had trouble with his back too!"

The old man drinks his wine in silence. It's quiet in the room. Now and then you can hear the clatter of crockery in the kitchen.

"Another glass, Reverend Father? Like me to top you up right away, would you, Reverend Father?"

The old man says nothing. Gertraud refills his glass. The man drinks, withdrawn, brooding quietly. If I hadn't repeatedly heard evidence to the contrary, I'd never have believed he was a priest, he looks the precise opposite.

And he's drained his glass once more.

"Fill it up again, shall I, Reverend Father? You're welcome! Want to pay now, Reverend Father? Three glasses of wine, let's see, that comes to two euros seventy, Reverend Father! Thank you, Reverend Father! See you again soon, Reverend Father!"

The old man has finished his third glass too. He hasn't said a word. On his way to the door he casts me a glance. He has a lined face and bushy eyebrows. I don't avoid his glance, I look him in the eye. You give way, I think. He looks aside. Gertraud passes him, doing the rapid goosestep that obviously comes as second nature after twenty-five years as an innkeeper, and holds the door open for him.

"Goodbye, see you soon, Reverend Father! Thank you very much, Reverend Father!"

A few men in orange work clothes sit down at the regulars' table and start playing cards. They're in high good humour, shouting and roaring, their fists thunder down on the table, sometimes there's a hoot of laughter. It's getting too much for me. I fetch the Discman from the car and put the headphones on.

I listen to Foyer des Arts. I revere Max Goldt, but unlike most people I've discussed him with, I revere him not just as a writer, I think his music's magic too.
Cut me from the womb of Earth / Cut me out and throw me far / Throw me so I'll fall for ever / Those who fall, or so they say, have time, have all the time there is / And hear such lovely music.
Someone taps me on the shoulder. It's the landlord, Johann. I take the headphones off.

"What you listening to, then?'

"A House Made of Cary Grant's Bones."

In fact I'm not, the song is called Caesarean Section, the Cary Grant song comes earlier, but I enjoy the expression on Johann's face. I shake hands with him.

"Well now, our Thomas! How's the chess going?"

I force myself to crack a few jokes, but I'm too tired to be witty. I played blindfold chess with Johann twenty years ago. That meant that he was looking at the board, I sat at another table without a board and with my back turned to him. I'd taught him in advance how you note the moves, how to describe them. He called out his move to me after he'd made it on the board, and I called mine back, whereupon he carried it out on the board in front of him. We spent a whole evening playing that one game, he lost, and next day he was telling all his guests about this thirteen-year-old who could play chess without looking at the board.

Half an hour later everyone arrives one by one: Granny and Grandpa, Ivetta and Fritz, Aunt Anneliese, my mother and Gottfried, and for once the four from Milan too: Ricki and Livio, Lisa and Lonnie. The scenes of welcome, in which the landlord and landlady play an almost equally prominent part, go on for a good ten minutes, and then amidst civil but patronizing greetings on all sides we sit down at our table. My family is in the habit of appearing at inns like the Sugar King's entourage, they're convinced that their visit will give rise to unbridled delight in one and all. And they like to be on familiar terms with the landlord and landlady. It shows that as guests they're not just any old nonentities. I mean, everyone at our table has a place in my heart, but I just can't help marvelling at this constant recurrence of the same course of events.

Suddenly the inn is full. Waitresses are hurrying around in folk costume, children's high voices rise, dogs bark, glasses clink, there's a smell of smoke and cooking oil. My family asks after Else and Stanislaus. I tell them, truthfully, that Else would have loved to come, but it's too stressful with the little boy because he's always running around. They want to hear news of him. I provide it at length, because you like to talk about your own child. Parents whose sole subject of conversation is their children are a pain, but in this company I know how much they all want to hear about Stanislaus, so I talk until the drinks are served.

My Granny asks if I dropped in to say hello at the Bibione Francesco this summer. I say no, which upsets her. I explain that when for once I go away for five days on my own, and out of lunacy and nostalgic curiosity I end up in an unfashionable resort on the Adriatic, I don't feel like going to introduce myself at the hotel she and Grandpa visit twice a year.

"But you ought to have said hello to Francesco," she says.

"Granny, why would I go into a strange hotel and introduce myself to some member of the staff just because you two know him?"

"But Francesco is the MANAGER!"

"Granny, why would I want to introduce myself to a hotel manager?"

"Why, he's a friend of ours!"

"So I go in and say, hello, I'm the grandson of the Schneiders from Graz? And then what?"

"Then you've introduced yourself."

"Granny, I don't go around just introducing myself to members of hotel staff."

Her feelings are hurt, she tells me that's silly, and since she's about it she tells me my hairstyle is silly too. It was news to me that I even had a hairstyle.

I lean over to my mother and tell her that Granny's not pleased with me.

"You ought to have said hello to Francesco?" she says. "That queen?"

The food comes, everyone cheers up except for me, because my schnitzel is too thick. We're sitting in the big dining-room, all the other tables are occupied too, the country folk are tucking in all around and the place is correspondingly noisy, for the inhabitants of south Styria are in the habit of conversing exclusively at the top of their voices. Wherever you look, you see mouths wide open and large pieces of meat disappearing rapidly into them. The conversation at our table is also conducted at high volume because of the background noise of lip-smacking and bellowing and clattering crockery, but it doesn't seem to bother anyone.

I talk to Lisa and Lonnie for a while. She is twenty-three, he's twenty, they tell me stories of their daily life in Milan. For some time all goes well, but then the talk around me gets so loud again that I can't help hearing it. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's withdrawn his favour from the city of Graz because its politicians wanted to strip him of his honorary citizenship after he refused, as governor of California, to pardon a man on Death Row. Suddenly everyone at the table seems to be quarrelling, although they are all of the same opinion: Schwarzenegger showed those stupid Graz politicians what was what. Schwarzenegger is a hero. Schwarzenegger is great. Strangers at the table next to ours turn round and join in: yes, absolutely correct, Schwarzenegger did the right thing. Someone from another table calls to my Grandpa to say he went to school with Arnie. My Grandpa drinks to him and smiles his subtle David Niven smile.

I tell my mother one of my favourite jokes, the one about the child murderer. She's overcome by a fit of laughter. My Granny tells her off, says she shouldn't laugh so loud, Granny feels embarrassed for her. My mother duly takes note. She is the oldest of the three sisters, she was the first to have a child of her own, she had to put up with more than the others from the start, and she seems to be used to it. All the same, I don't understand her. When someone talks to me like that I turn nasty.

100,000 sold.
!!!!!!! Terrific! Congratulations! !!!!!!

My Granny has her eye on me again. She wants me to go into the inn kitchen and say hello to the old landlady.

"Granny, I'd rather not."

"Now, now, go along and say hello."

"I don't feel like it. Why would I go to the kitchen? I'm sure she has a lot to do."

"There's always time to say hello. Run along now."

"Ana happa-happa-happa, brm-afa," I mutter, turning away. It's a quote. From The Sopranos. Like believing in God, it helps; I have great art to support me at this moment. I'm not alone, you don't have to be alone even in Frauenkirchen.

With dessert we clink glasses again. Unfortunately I have to drive and mustn't drink, so putting a bottle back in ten minutes would be just the thing now, particularly as the Schwarzenegger discussion has been revived and is spreading from table to table. There's no one in the dining-room who doesn't have an opinion, there's hardly anyone who isn't proud of Schwarzenegger, about three hundred people here are talking about Schwarzenegger. I laugh hysterically.

Ivetta digs me in the ribs and jerks her head to the right. I see Bärbel standing near my grandparents. Bärbel belongs at the inn too, she's a couple of years older than me and played with me as a child. It's a long time since I saw her. We shake hands. I turn back to Lisa. I catch scraps of the conversation between Bärbel and my Granny: Vienna … a little boy aged two … writer … four books … great success … After a while Ivetta digs me in the ribs for the second time.

"Bärbel's so pleased to see you again! Talk to her, she's pleased to see you!"

When the activity dies down a bit Johann and Gertraud come over to our table. They stand behind my grandparents and talk to them. I am gradually drawn into the conversation. Gertraud says: "And there's me sitting in the TV room watching the news and I see someone and I think to myself I know that man and IT WAS OUR THOMAS. I call Hansi HANSI come quick and then we watch the news item and it's just wonderful. THOMAS, WE'RE SO GLAD ABOUT YOUR SUCCESS!"

I smile the smile I've copied from the greatest star writer of the Western world, but it doesn't help me here.

A man at the next table, face like a butcher's, joins the conversation, I don't listen, he's talking to Gertraud. Certain words are dropped: writer, television, books.

"A writer?" cries the man. "What sort of stuff do you write, then?"

I make out I didn't hear him. My mother says, "Novels!"

Before setting out I sit down with my grandparents again. My Granny takes a copy of my book How To Live out of her handbag and asks me to autograph it. I ask who it's for. She says I just have to write, she'll dictate.

"For Dr Weinstödl, chief physician, with deep and heartfelt thanks for the nursing care – what's the matter with you, go on writing – with deep and heartfelt thanks for the nursing care you provided for my grandmother Judith Schneider in hospital. – What is it? Write, for goodness' sake! Yes, like that. And sign it. Legibly! Yours sincerely, Thomas Glavinic, author. Add that! Yes, there we are."

*

Translation: Anthea Bell
Copyright Hanser Verlag
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