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Writing is the food of the gods

Friederike Mayröcker's new book of prose "And I shook a darling" is haunted by the ghost of Ernst Jandl. By Christina Weiss

Telling stories is not in Friederike Mayröcker's nature. For the woman who was born in Vienna in 1924, the year Kafka died, writing has always been a kind of "writing-distress-blessedness". Some 60 books on, little has changed. Mayröcker doesn't use language as an instrument of linear communication. It is more about what she called in the title of her keynote book of 1985 "Das Herzzereißende der Dinge" or the heart-breakingness of things. The 'things' were language; language became a heart-rending object of affection. Writing for this author, without doubt one of the most interesting language artists in German contemporary literature, is an obsession.

People wanting to understand Mayröcker do best to abide by Peter Weiss, who delivered the following verdict on her most recent book: "all that is said, exists in the realm of the possible, but it could easily be so different. Somehow it has to do with something, but then it collapses, dissolves. Again and again it takes on a new meaning." This was the foreword to her new book "Und ich schüttelte einen Liebling" (And I shook a darling), a work that has been nominated for German Book Award 2005.

The book is a literary convergence on itself. As is always the case with Friedrike Mayröcker, the border between poetic speech and clear, narrative moments is fluid. But unlike her earlier books, this time she tears open fragments of biographical experience. These pop up as explanations in the text, as everyday experiences, conversations with her life-time companion Ernst Jandl, with friends and family get lost and blurred between fragments from Friederike Mayröcker's reading.

The glimpse into her life with (and without) Ernst Jandl - a life drenched in pain from the death of a friend - affects the reader like a journey at break-neck speed through experiences which reveal themselves on top of each other, next to each other in wild succession. The things she has experienced, perceived, read - the books she has read time and time again - the music she has listened to – then listened to again. The voice of Maria Callas accompanies the reading of this autobiography, as do the writings of Gertrude Stein. And in between, Mayröcker notes the mourning, the torrents of tears, the clouding over of the eyes, and the desperation at being left alone combined with and inability to cope with other people, except through letters.

It is a declaration of love, written with frayed nerves and "flurried thoughts". The writer is spellbound in her "abode". The place is full of notes "pinned up" on the walls, or "floundering in my lap" as she writes at her folding camp table. The book's leitmotiv is the poetic transformation of the experience of text, which tranfixes the reader and holds him in permanent emotion, in permanent contact. She does not permit a casual flick through the pages, or a reading which is not emotionally engaged. The leitmotiv, the ever-returning sentence: "Dann florte es um mich herum und ich schüttelte ein Liebling" (then it clustered around me and I shook a darling) also gives the volume its wonderful title.

The conglomeration of meaning in the word 'Flor' is so dense that all the book's emotional elements meet here. The mass of meadow blossoms, the opulence of wealth, conviviality, delicate gauze, velvetness, softness and of course the cluster of notes in her lap. And the mourning. In luxurious fullness she fans out memories of her darling, memories she weaves into an experience you can almost see and touch. "To shake a darling" also means to want to make him flexible, to shake something out of him, to discover something unknown about him. And the writing on the child photo: "And I shook a darling", the everyday variant.

Friederike Mayröcker shakes every word and sentence through and through, until she has absorbed everything that can come out of it, until she has encircled and savoured all possible meanings and her own inner relationships.

Fifteen times, the leitmotiv incises into the 140-page text. Other motifs also return offering strong knots of association to grip onto in the book's ever changing contexts, which the poetry of these images shakes and rings with varying tones. Like the "Lichtmütze" or cap of light of her friend, when he appears apparition-like from the afterlife. Like his "Flechtschuhen" or woven shoes, which they both loved, because they loved the word "Flechtschuhen".

Now the woven shoes lie dusty on the shelf and moths fly out of his jacket. The writer reminds the reader intermittently, often and insistently that "I am now writing figuratively". This suggests narrative passages in "everyday arrangements". But every story which she allows to ring out is granted a poetical openness through the figurative repetition and subsidence of the always different contexts. It is reminiscent of the style of Gertrude Stein, whom Friederike Mayröcker incessantly relates to.

Ernst Jandl, Gertrude Stein, Oskar Pastior, male and female friends whose literature, whose spoken words, whose letters, all accompany the biographical narrative, completing it by giving it atmospheric direction. For example: "and then Nina Retti rang and said 'and Pierre Michon is writing about the luminosity of writing and that makes me wake up and then my ego eyes me out of the ether and those are the most beautiful heart fragmentations and perfect happinesses of the heart." It is in the ether that she feels connected to "EJ" – she means, of course, Ernst Jandl. This is the centre of her writing. Writing, which she often connects with screaming - scream-work – screaming-prayer.

The book's pain and sadness is at its most intense in the following passage: "and my throat tightens when I look at the photo and I wipe the blood from my hair and I sink to the ground and I mistype and mistype ceaselessly, just as I ceaselessly make promises to myself, because my thoughts I mean my thoughts have lost control and I can't put them in order, because I am circling you, I say to EJ, I circle around you ceaselessly, and I am crying for you, have been crying for you for so many years now, I always escape again into a stumbling path, I stumble ceaselessly, my fingers stumble as well, so that I must reprehend myself and must return to the intensive path of my reading, not true, I will take myself by the hand and trace back, and without even the tiniest piece of literalness, as Jacques Derrida said."

Reading and writing as a magical ploy to get closer to a loved one after his death, and to discover oneself. Writing, which she refers to in another part of the book, as "the food of the gods", offers the chance to break out of the confines of daily life and on the wings of language, to intoxicate oneself with thoughts, and reveal oneself stripped bare.

When Friederike Mayröcker reads the texts of others she extracts from them her own elements and builds something of her own upon them. And this in turn is an ideal approach to reading her texts.


Christina Weiss is a literary academic and currently the German Minister of State for Culture and Media.

Friederike Mayröcker's novel: "Und ich schüttelte einen Liebling" was published by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt, 2005.

The article
originally appeared in Die Zeit on September 29, 2005.

Translation: Ruth Elkins - let's talk european