[Fiction] Curving Time in Krems, By Claudio Magris | Harper's MagazineTranslated by Anne Milano Appel | Harper's Magazine

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[Fiction]

Curving Time in Krems

The Stroll, by Jesse Mockrin © The artist. Courtesy Night Gallery, Los Angeles

[Fiction]

Curving Time in Krems

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Krems, whose splendor the Arab geographer al-Idrisi celebrated in 1153 as surpassing, in his view, that of Vienna, today resembles Vineta, the city submerged by the waters, among whose streets on the seafloor, legend has it, figures can be seen wandering about in ancient garments. A passerby emerges from a door amid the narrow passages; in the twilight, shadows step down from the tapestries into life. In Stein, even more drowsy, not far from the plaque that commemorates Köchel, to whom we owe the cataloguing of Mozart’s compositions, the pharmacist comes to life upon the rare arrival of a stranger; proudly showing him around the entire pharmacy, he vaunts the glories of Stein, not without expressing some criticism of Krems, an echo of the long-standing municipal rivalries between the two towns of the Wachau.

His is a fitting setting for the minor reversal of cause and effect that occurred in Krems that evening. A modest hotel renowned for its wine (praised by the emperor Maximilian, though actually considered by others to be too bitter) had been chosen to celebrate my fleeting glory of that day, the result of a lecture on Kafka given that afternoon in Klosterneuburg, the Viennese Escorial.

A lecture is always successful, by definition, since the occupational art instructs us to suggest seductive profundities while pretending to conceal them behind witty understatements. I had therefore been successful, like every lecturer, even in the illustrious setting—the monastery-palace houses the relics of Saint Leopold, Duke Leopold III of Babenberg, and displays the obsessive funerary pathos of Charles VI of Hapsburg, the dome topped by the crown and cross, the Hapsburg crown borne as a cross—and the organizers, joined by admirers and circumstantial friends unfailingly present on such occasions, had taken me to dinner, who knows why, in Krems. Snow had fallen, which made the oblivious old town even more deserted and induced one to experience the present, that evening, as if it were already the past, as insubstantial and silent as a memory, a soft emptiness whose whiteness did not seem to be a real mark but a hushed, distant image.

I was the luminary of the dinner, coddled by the deference of the small circle. A Triestine lady had joined the group, with inexorable determination, a woman married to an Austrian who for several years had been residing in Linz, one hundred kilometers away. Proud to establish a complicitous familiarity with the celebrated speaker, almost as if laying claim to a property right, the lady at one point told me that her cousin had been in school with me, a classmate, and that she often spoke of me, about us two, about our friendship. “Truthfully, she’s not actually my cousin, she married my cousin, let me see, her maiden name was . . . I can’t remember, wait, I have the last name on the tip of my tongue, it was . . . ”

I did not have female classmates, unfortunately. I grew up in all-male classrooms, surrounded by the sweaty odor of a military barracks; I therefore told her that there must be some mistake, but she insisted, trying to recall the name. I detest parapsychology, and it was certainly not with mysteriosophical self-satisfaction but only with surprise that I found myself saying in calm simplicity, as she kept grasping for that maiden name: “You must be thinking of Nori S., but you’re mistaken, we were not in the same class together and she can’t remember me, because she doesn’t know me. We never spoke to one another.”

I was astonished, even more than she was, to have given a name to that generic indeterminacy, but as she marveled, nodding and confirming, I had no time to consider where that simple, irrefutable certainty had come from, because the pleasure the loquacious lady’s patent lie gave me, her indubitable quid pro quo, was far more intense than the scientific morality that compelled me to reject the assertion that did not correspond to the facts. “Yes, of course, she’s the one, how did you manage to guess? Nori, I assure you, remembers you very well, she talks about you often.”

I deflected, half-heartedly but unequivocally, as I indulged in a joy as clear as the water of a mountain stream. The falsehood was blatant. Nori S. was in eleventh grade when I was in tenth; she was beautiful and unattainable, with her brown wavy hair that gleamed in the luminous air of the school’s large, wedged-open windows. All the boys had pined for her for years. We loved her, with the firm fidelity of a guard regiment. When she passed in the corridors, deep in thought and unaware of us, she made hundreds of destiny’s recruits understand forever the “beyond” that, as a famous poem has it, is written in every image; on her face, in her almond eyes, it was written even more plainly than in that famous poem.

For a seventeen-year-old boy, a beguiling eighteen-year-old girl is more inaccessible than a Hollywood diva is to a professor. Though in general I don’t overrate myself, neither do I unduly sell myself short. Nevertheless, it is, has always been, and will always be unthinkable to bridge the distance between me and Nori, a distance that exists between every foot soldier snapped to attention and the flag that is raised high in the sky and the wind. In our common love for Nori, we learned the universality of Eros, who pursues generality, the absolute, the divine, the Being that unfolds before everyone’s eyes like a clearing in the woods of Monte Nevoso or the sea spread out in front of Miholašcica. In that love professed without individual exception we were all brothers, as we were before death and the future that awaited us, impenetrable thanks to the excessive light of youth that love radiated. The only one of my companions I envied a little was Stefanutti: though obviously not noticed by Nori in the least, his unrequited love was well known and everyone teased him for it. He was the official unhappy lover, so to speak, the delegate of us all. He evidently had a vocation for representation, which would later lead him to the benches of some assembly—a position certainly lower than the deputy of Nori’s lovers, but still representative.

I envied him because the teasing and general ridicule in some way put him in a public relationship with Nori, albeit one of rejection and privation, while I was not in any relationship with her, not even an indirect, negative one. The fact is, I knew Nori but she didn’t know me, just as I am able to recognize the face of the president of the United States while mine is totally unknown to him. It was therefore impossible for Nori to have spoken to the lady about me, because Nori was unaware of my existence; we had never exchanged a single word and I could not therefore be a direct object of her sentences, which were undoubtedly as lyrical as the flight of seagulls. I enjoyed the irony of the situation, because the lady flaunted her acquired cousin’s acquaintance with me, thinking that such familiarity might make a little of my brief glory that evening rub off on her, whereas the very idea that Nori had talked about me—untenable though it was—was a field promotion, an Olympic laurel.

So as she protested and reiterated the truthfulness of her words, I told her that I was happy and that I was grateful to her for the lie, even though I knew it was a lie, and for the rest of the evening I surrendered to the pleasure it gave me. I let myself be lulled by the fantasy as if by a piece of music, not at all bothered by my awareness of its unreality.

That evening in Krems, however, was only an ironic, tender prelude to my return match. Almost a year later, in Rome, a friend, talking about former high school classmates of ours, told me that he had run into Nori a few weeks earlier while on vacation, at the seashore, and that she had remembered me, recalling various things about me. At that point it was too much and, despite the late hour, I called the number of the hotel on the island where they had accidentally run into each other and chatted on the beach. As I waited for the hotel to put me through, I realized how bizarre the phone call was, and when I heard a female voice, I stammered my name in confusion, saying that a few months earlier, in Krems, her cousin, Mrs. So-and-so, had told me that she . . . and so I had taken the liberty. . . . But I was immediately interrupted by the voice at the other end of the line, which greeted me with warm familiarity and began talking to me as if we were old friends.

Had I therefore become Svevo’s vecchione, the old man who many years later catches up with a young woman he’d glimpsed one evening, only in memory settling an account left unresolved, indeed not even kindled half a century before, because the light of life in the present is clouded by the anguish of living? The faint summer breeze drifting in from the window, close to the phone, was a wind of infinite spaces, in which everything is present and concurrent, the rotation of a planet and the light of a star that comes from far away. Perhaps the Danube near Krems was the ocean that tightly encircles the world, waters that flow and at the same time return, shores that are forever reflected in its waves.

Time is the lord of causality: a cause produces an effect and therefore precedes it. But from an effect we go back to the cause that produced it: the familiarity on the phone was therefore the effect of a mutual acquaintance that must have existed in the past and therefore conditioned the present familiarity, reaching back in time to create, decades ago, something that had not then existed. Yes, time is a causal order, but if the cause propagates in space-time with a speed never greater than that of light, I told myself, clutching at vague, school-day recollections and clarifications sought without much success from physicist friends, restricted relativity affirms—I think this is what it says—that two events which cannot be linked through a causal signal traveling with a speed less than or equal to that of light cannot be ordered in absolute time.

So are the confidences shared with the cousin from Linz and the chat on the phone the cause—or the effect? perhaps both? so confusing and so fascinating—of my acquaintance with Nori that will occur forty, no, almost sixty years ago, and has the Danube’s water that flows to Krems already emptied into the Black Sea? To avoid confusion, it would be sensible to reform the grammar books and reduce all verbs to the present infinitive. Even Nori’s passing in the school corridors—like Parmenides’ Being—was it not nor will it not be but only is?

Time is an extension of the soul, said St. Augustine—my soul, which extends to embrace times when I did not yet exist? I wish that it were Nori’s instead and that it embraced me as well, the smallest point in the great sphere of the heart, in which everything is and to which everything returns.

Her hair, who knows why I remember it darker, one luminous though moonless evening that descended over the sea, a glow still on the horizon; the surf breaks white on the shore, recedes and returns, it is there, the bright smile of her face and of the world. In Miramare, once, they had taken all the school’s senior classes to visit the well-known physics center established in the park of the enchanting, kitschy castle from which an improvident, committed archduke had set out to become a Moorish emperor. “In conformal field theory physics that generalizes Einstein’s relativity”—a lecture by the distinguished scientist was part of the educational outing, the high school principal had said—“there are today geometric entities that call to mind Parmenides’ concept of eternity . . . ”

The voice reemerged mellow and self-assured from the distance of time, a rustling of leaves in the sea breeze that drifted among the cypresses and oaks planted by Maximilian and Carlota in that park, an island of the blessed and the dead. The voice scattered in the echo of remembrance, waves rippled in concentric circles in the park’s lake into which, listening or not listening, one or the other of us would occasionally throw a rock. The sound waves that at the time had dispersed those words among the rocks and foliage, beyond the marble sphinx at the foot of the castle gazing at the sphinxlike sea, beyond the auditory canal and eardrum that had transmitted them to the judicious, well-mannered neural synapses of the listeners, grateful for the soporific opportunity afforded by that talk, as by any beneficial lecture, had spread even farther, into the dark woods that fringe and nearly enclose the white, melancholy castle, except on the sea side, and had gone further still, through the years, branching out from that moment in time like the paths branching out in every direction from the park’s central fountain, and now they had reached me beyond the depths of time, echoing in vibrations of another kind—heart waves. Today, now . . . what does it mean? The eloquent speaker kept repeating that today and yesterday, now and tomorrow, before and after exist only in the brain, a capricious dictator that puts the before here and the after there.

When, then, now? Forever, which is sometimes only a second, the White Rabbit says to Alice. Wonderland and behind the looking glass are everywhere, that is to say, forever, which has neither an end nor a beginning; there is no other place, no other instant. If things are as that professor was saying, as he will say, not only verb tenses but also temporal prepositions and adverbs should be abolished. Conformal field theory, geometric entities, before and after that exist only in the head—and, in this despotic head, a big muddle and great confusion.

Now, Nori and I now . . . A bright smile on her face; the water flowing limpidly, clouds at the bottom of the sea, hearts transparent. The words expand until they embrace the vast sea behind the lecturer, the straight line of the horizon curves, the vault of the sky closes it. . . . If in space-time, according to the speaker, the sky is represented by a curved line rather than a straight line, in the case of large enough masses it can also be a closed curve or rather a circle. But then everything returns, everything is, and I have already been, I am already at the mouth of the Danube as I follow its waters to reach it.

Yet Krems, at least for those approaching Vienna, comes after Dürnstein; Trieste, once Austrian, became Italian when the flags with the double eagle were taken down from the public buildings of the Adriatic coast in 1918; the Berlin Wall fell in 1989; and the Big Bang happened fourteen billion years ago, they say. A year is the time it takes the Earth to orbit around the Sun and a day the time it takes to rotate on its axis, but when there was neither Earth nor Sun what do years and days mean, what could exist and happen in those years that weren’t? In any case, over the years, wars began and ended—ended where? The scars are still there; tattoos engraved on the body throb under the skin, that of the world and of each of us. The globe is smooth, the hand strokes its polished, multicolored surface, under the blue of distant waters and islands there is bleeding and putrefaction. The meridians cut that sphere like orange wedges, the ship cuts the line that cuts through time. For a moment—what does that mean? no, not a moment, several minutes—the prow is on November 25 and the stern on the 26th, yes, no, the opposite. The date-change line, a love that advances and another that retreats—in time, of course, where if not? Can it be that love, too, is purely a convention like that line, that meridian that you can’t see, that isn’t there?

Each meridian a wedge, same meridian same time in Trieste, Dresden, the Lofoten Islands, Luanda, Skeleton Coast Park. All the tips of every wedge come together at the South Pole as well as at the North Pole, all the times of the world together—at what time did Amundsen first set foot on the South Pole? It’s not true that time will be abolished, as the Apocalypse promises or threatens when speaking of the future, a verb tense, not the abolition of time but a proliferation mingling clashing of all possible and concurrent times; life—or death—is a whirling dust mote.

Time or rather death. V. died in ’96, no longer an adorable little girl but still a child even after years of illness that racked and twisted her without undermining her insuppressible dignity, the charisma of what she had been and therefore is forever. That date, a watershed of life, not just of hers, the sluice gate of a dam on the river that blocks the waters’ flow.

V. is no more—what does that mean? Is Shakespeare perhaps no longer a poet but only was one and now isn’t anymore? What do his hardened arteries or who knows what other ailments have to do with his being a poet now and forever? And others, friends, male or female—friendship, another name for love, a fervent, risky walk together, loving is a gamble but it is forever, and therefore now. . . . Some friends no longer walk beside us, they have taken another road that leads elsewhere, although it’s not known where. Maybe they stayed a little ways behind, maybe they stopped at an osmiza to drink a few glasses of Terrano; before long I, too, will turn back or move on and I will find them. If there is some Terrano and prosciutto left they are certainly still there, there is more than one osmiza in which you are better off than in this world. If afterward (after what?), there were welcoming osmize rather than angels blowing trumpets in the clouds, it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe there I could be a little more daring, after all, there the years don’t count—though when do they count?—and even an awkward boy might find the courage. . . . I never really spoke to Nori before that night in Rome and then only on the telephone. I wish I had; maybe there, on the other side, I would be less fearful, that fear that is always, more or less, present in these things, when they really matter. I wish I had spoken to her even before; had kissed her, and so kiss her . . .

To love, synonymous with to be, a defective verb that only knows the present infinitive. Special conformal transformations—more than the conclusion of the lecture, they were practically an obsession on the part of the speaker at Miramare—project the points of space-time from the finite to infinity, in a diagram that Roger Penrose (apparently another one of those luminaries who explain how before and after function) terms the light cone at infinity. In this cone (he says, has said, will say), future and past times appear strictly equivalent to one and only one point.

Eternal life, perhaps? So say those of another persuasion who claim to demonstrate something that can’t be seen, though at least they don’t claim to prove it like the Pythagorean theorem, whereas the professors, so cocksure and confident with their algorithms, logarithms, and black holes . . . and now LUCA too, our Last Universal Common Ancestor, ur ur ur forefather, the protobacterium, or maybe not, but in any case the oldest progenitor of all single and multicellular living beings, of all of us, including fungi and amoebas. What does it matter that no one has seen him? God too, no one has seen him either, even John the Apostle, the Beloved one, says so. No one has ever seen the black hole in which a star collapses, nor can you even say that first there was a star and then a black hole, because it is only the brain that plants a first here and an after there, and so if the brain is not there, even if it says so, the professor at Miramare proclaimed, there is no before or after, nothing, cosmic dust that does not exist, gnats that the aged eye sees hovering in the air but that are not there. The star shines white and collapses into a black hole, Nori’s hair is white and was, is—will be?—dark brown, no, not so dark, we’ll see. The professor who had a bone to pick with before and after was excited, delighted by the power that the hippocampus, that capricious seahorse nestled among the brain’s lobes, held over Cronos, over that deposed sovereign Time sitting on a throne like a rickety stool. For that matter, the professor with his Romagna accent was one of the most likable of all the ones we had to listen to, us raw recruits spurred on by the officers to slog away in the battle for life—I beg your pardon, for science.

Eternal life, then? Yes, but here and now. It made an impression on me, hearing that said and written by the one they call His Holiness, who always seemed uncomfortable and awkward in his white garment but who nevertheless had the courage to be himself rather than the vicar of God. Well then, that man, that former successor of Christ, writes, wrote, eternal life now and forever but especially now, not an imaginary existence that carries on after death, an infinite continuation of yesterday, today, tomorrow, and who knows what, with punishments and rewards, as many faithful want to believe. This is eternal life, that they may know You—at least so said the one who proclaimed himself His son and said so just before he died.

To know, to live the truth. True, authentic life, filled with meaning; lived also in time, in time illuminated by a value that cannot be destroyed by anything or anyone, nor altered by the flow of sand in the hourglass, swiftly inverted then always full again when it had seemed empty. Does forever mean living or dying? The hourglass’s chamber glows in the light that passes through it, tinged rusty gold when the hourglass is filled with sand and pale pinkish-yellow when it empties.

Clear light in Nori’s immortal eyes, in that gaze that never ages. Fleeting life, eternal life; our contingencies, wrote that old poet among the cliffs and shores of Grado, mask the eternity of God; the wavelengths of light, numbers and fractions, become the blue of the sea, the red-violet of evening, the luminosity in Nori’s eyes. The opaque grain dies underground, the gold of the wheat stalk bends in the wind. Eternal leaf of the peepul tree, not far from Benares and the Ganges, under which a beggar prince dispelled the sorrow and fear of dying. In the dying leaf, he explains to the disciples, are the sun that warmed it, the cloud that quenched its thirst with rain, the land that nourished it; the leaf gives back the things and events that formed it and are, continue to be that leaf. Eternal impermanence, the eternity of everything.

Eternal loss, eternal being; the blossom dies in the fruit, therefore it is the fruit, wrote a brilliant, occasionally pompous professor of Jena, demonstrating that even the greatest of philosophers can be a poet. You die and you become, said that poet of Weimar all the more poet than him, whose academic salary he increased, moreover, in his capacity as adviser to the Duchy, though sparingly. Die and become so that you really are, if you don’t want to remain a hurried, obscure guest in an impervious land. The oleanders in my garden—pink, white, red, every year others—the same. Afraid to die? King Aun the Elder you are not dead, the saga says, but have been resurrected in King Egil. Drink up, old king, life gives what you take. It is you who empties and refills the glass.

Words—of whom, of others, of no one; words are like the air and the seasons, they don’t belong to anyone. Great confusion, too great for the small head that contains it. The universe in a walnut, so easy to crack, just slam it on the table with a little force. But in the meantime the kernel matures, it becomes more tender and tasty and even under the shell it understands and grasps something. I too now understand a little the paradox of the twins, the young one who aged, the one who went to live in a mountain lodge. Nori is younger than those her age who have not lived at the seaside as she has; she has the sea in her, maybe she doesn’t know it, she doesn’t remember when she was sea and sea creature, like everything that lives. Her years are the sprig of flowers she holds in her hand, sea poppies, I think, her eyes—I can’t see their color, but they’re light, luminous. In any case she is there, here, in the cone of light, a bright, ultramarine blue. From Malfa, offshore, behind the white of foamy crests in the boundless blue, you can see Panarea and Stromboli, black Stromboli, its beaches black; in Greek glaukós means blue but also, according to some later authors, an azure that darkens, a blue that is almost black but gleaming, eternal life in the light of that gaze. I had seen it in Krems, too, when . . .

Future and past tenses, a single point, a single time . . . a present infinitive? Perhaps we perform in two cabarets, one linear and one circular, illuminated by light that shines down from the apex of the cone that Professor Penrose is so fond of. Many years ago, in Trieste, there was a cinema on Viale XX Settembre with two large screens in two adjacent theaters, separated only by a few steps leading to the rows and seats. The film was the same and the two screens were needed to accommodate the often large audience. From every seat in either theater you could see both screens, if you wanted to, one in front of you as usual and the other at an angle. The sequence of the film was the same on both screens. But nothing would have prohibited them from starting the projection on one screen half an hour earlier or half an hour later than on the other screen, so that different moments and events could be seen unfolding concurrently, the protagonist dying on one screen while battling and falling in love on the other, his story beginning or continuing after its end. Could this, or something like this, be the light cone at infinity in which there is neither temporal nor causal order, a region outside of time? Of course, I know very well that I am a point of ordinary space-time, a point that physicists and cosmologists would consider negligible. But some mathematicians may be treating me with instruments strictly intended for topological geometry; there’s no guarantee that a point is aware of the compass that draws it or the point set that starts from it, let alone the conformal transformations of the group that handles it inconsiderately.

It may therefore be that, between that evening in Krems and that phone call from Rome, I was catapulted out of ordinary space-time into the region outside of time and then vice versa, because there is no doubt that at this moment my time is rectilinear, like the pen with which I am writing, an arrow racing without return toward the end, in the irreversible dissipative process that constitutes writing and life, afflictions of the mortal course.

If the arts and sciences had their goddesses and Urania was the muse of the study of the stars, Nori could be the muse of transports, as Henri Poincaré calls the dynamics of those temporal shifts. There must indeed be a superior deity, because—the scientist in the park at Miramare informs us—no shift à la Poincaré, however large, transports us out of ordinary space-time, and for any physical system in ordinary space-time, infinite time and the speed of light are needed to reach the light cone at infinity, whereas what happened to me between Krems and the phone call from Rome took, modestly, only a few months. The transformation to the light cone at infinity, in the timeless region, is only possible for physical systems with no mass and, although I may consider myself satisfied with my still quite agile physique, I cannot deny having a mass. But perhaps I transported it back from the cone of light to that of shadow, and Nori, now, has never noticed me . . .

 is the author of many books, including Danube and Blameless.


 

 received the Italian Prose in Translation Award for her translation of Magris’s novel Blindly.


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