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April 2023 Issue [Essay]

The Melancholy Universe

Michael H. Parkinson reappears on the No. 56 streetcar

Illustration by Xiao Hua Yang


The Melancholy Universe

Michael H. Parkinson reappears on the No. 56 streetcar

i. norwich, summer of 1974

He received my address from a Hungarian poet, young at the time and since deceased, who decades later became notorious for racist right-wing statements. In the autumn of 1973 he sent me a letter from England. He wrote in an elaborate style, spiked with broken Hungarian. He informed me that he wanted to travel to Hungary to brush up on the language. He invited me to stay at his house in Norwich for a month. If it suited me, I could host him in Hungary the following year. I was a graduate student in English and eagerly accepted the offer. Michael H. Parkinson, an instructor at the University of East Anglia, was twenty-nine years old at the time, seven years my senior.

I arrived in Norwich via bus in late July 1974. Faithful to our arrangement, Michael raised the Hungarian book in his hand—a volume by György Moldova—although there was no one else waiting in the station. He wore a coarse jacket of rust-brown tweed, and the collar of his light-blue shirt was frayed. It was freshly laundered, but faded from much laundering. We introduced ourselves. Relieved that I was the guest he was expecting, Michael laughed in delight. But this was no ordinary laughter: it was a loud whinny that broke off as suddenly as it began. He would often repeat this performance—his way of releasing tension. For example, when he found after a lengthy search a volume containing a needed quote, I would hear it from his room at the far end of the house. A year later, in the winter of 1975, in the upper tiers of the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest, he broke into applause after the first movement of a symphonic work, and, realizing he was alone in this, let out another whinny. Those few members of the audience who had not already been looking in our direction turned their heads to do so.

Upon our arrival, Michael gave me a tour of his house on Lilburne Avenue, which looked relatively new. He showed me my room, the bathroom, and the kitchen. Then he took me outside to look at the small garden surrounded by his L-shaped house. I had seen English gardens on an earlier visit to the country—his garden bore no resemblance to them. The lawn was a jungle of weeds. It was also littered with garbage, mostly kitchen waste. That was where he tossed out everything, and from time to time, during a general housecleaning, he packed it all into large garbage bags. Compared to the chaos outdoors, the house itself possessed a surprising air of puritanical tidiness, even his study, which was bursting with books. It was the residence of a man who was content with the bare necessities, and considered even these not very important.

He taught comparative literature, and had been working for some years on his doctoral dissertation. He focused on the work of Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. I had never heard of this Swiss author, active in the first half of the twentieth century, about whom Michael spoke abashedly, as if apologizing for his devotion to a subject unfamiliar to me. Nor was Ramuz known by anybody in England, he said, except for himself. He spent his days tracing the footsteps of an unknown. Possibly this was his way of trying to become invisible.

I had a feeling that the same desire accounted for his decision to learn Hungarian. He intended to delve into a language few people in England understood. In 1956, at the age of eleven, in response to news of the revolution, he had lived for months in a Hungary within his mind, resorting to a map of this distant country that must have seemed as foreign to him as the land of the Mohicans. He began to study the language—at first by himself, later through a summer course in Hungary. That was when he obtained my address. Occasionally he would start speaking the language in front of his friends in Norwich, taking pleasure in not being understood. At times this stunt proved rather tedious.

He studied Hungarian with the same perseverance that he devoted to Ramuz. With similar persistence he would, every once in a while, on a sudden whim, embark on an endless hike, often in the late afternoon. Later, in a letter, he wrote, “My enjoyment of long solitary walks seemed to indicate that I was once more able to be alone with my own thoughts and remain relaxed.” Even his handwriting seemed to evince a vast inner solitude. His script was without any telltale characteristics and yet this very shortcoming made his handwriting instantly recognizable. He did not drive, but when he later moved to Nigeria for two years to teach English he made an effort to learn. As he wrote to me, his greatest feat was driving the car round and round an enormous tree.

To sally forth with determination but without a fixed goal: this was Michael. He was the most melancholic man I have ever known. Possibly Sir Thomas Browne may have been more so, though back then I had not yet heard of this seventeenth-century English physician-philosopher whose tomes I eventually came to devour, seeking out the oldest editions, and who, like Michael, had chosen Norwich as his place of residence. Michael never spoke about him, although he might as well have inscribed upon the wall of his study what, three hundred years earlier, Browne in his treatise Religio Medici had expressed this way: “considering the thousand dores that lead to death doe thanke my God that we can die but once.” A few hours spent in Michael’s company sufficed to make one sense the deep melancholia that suffused his entire being. He embarked on lengthy hikes without having decided on a destination. He loved merry-go-rounds and giant Ferris wheels. We once took a bicycle trip from Norwich to Great Yarmouth, where in the amusement park along the beach he seemed happier than I’d ever seen him.

Michael was a childless bachelor. His entire family consisted of a mother and an aunt, who both idolized him. They lived in St. Albans and called every Sunday. He filled his life with friends. On Saturday evenings we would get together at the home of one or another of his university colleagues. “They range from the tolerable to the delightful,” he once wrote. I have forgotten almost all of their names, but I do remember Janine Dakyns, who always gave us a ride. Also Thomas Elsaesser, originally from Germany, who founded East Anglia’s film studies department. I was happy to discover that he went on to write the definitive monograph on Fassbinder. Decades later we ran into each other at a party in Amsterdam, where he reminisced about his years in Norwich. He mentioned that W. G. Sebald, who taught in the German department and was around Michael’s age, had usually attended those Saturday night get-togethers; I had no recollection of him. Michael’s university colleagues had clearly been fond of him, though I had the feeling they were treating him with special care, mindful of his underlying melancholia. “The gradually approaching thesis deadline made me vulnerable,” he wrote in a letter to me, after struggling with the project for years. But I knew that the true source of his vulnerability was existence itself.

He was twenty-nine years old, but to me he seemed ageless. He was both a child and an old man. He had no lover. He seemed to be the very embodiment of asexuality. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that he had completely repressed his sexuality—which of necessity had to manifest itself elsewhere, in other ways. In any case, he kept his physical distance from the world and its provocations. Even though he moved among us, and not entirely without skill—he had a sense for practical matters—it was as if he lived under a bell jar. His was a life of innocence, like that of a solitary fool of God. Perhaps in another century he would have been a hermit or a pilgrim. As it was, he became a university instructor and sequestered himself in his library. He worked at an inconceivably slow pace, and talked about his work wherever he went. That was his way of concealing the truth of what he was actually gleaning from his mountains of books: the strangeness of his life, perhaps, or its brevity.

In December 1975, a year and a half after my visit, Michael spent a month in Hungary—part of the time in Budapest and part in Debrecen with me. We spent Christmas together. He got along splendidly with my grandmother. Using an aluminum comb, she attempted to straighten out his unruly hair; these occasions made Michael radiant with happiness. One morning he set out on a walk. It was late when he returned, with mud all over his boots and clothes. He was carrying a map of Hajdú-Bihar county that he had found at an antiquarian bookstore back in England. It dated from before the First World War. Michael enthusiastically related how, though he had found none of the old roads, he nonetheless followed the indications on the map. He trudged through fields soaked by rain and snow, and at one farmhouse a watchdog nearly attacked him. He had also come upon Soviet army barracks surrounded by barbed wire that he had to walk around. I was petrified. Had the Russians stopped him and asked for identification, how would I have explained my English guest arriving, on a December evening, at a military base in the middle of the countryside? Sitting at the kitchen table, Michael could not understand my distress and laughed, eating heaps of the poppy-seed noodles that he tasted in Hungary for the first time in his life. I gaped in disbelief at all that food disappearing into that skinny body.

We kept up a correspondence for a while. In increasingly infrequent letters, he told me of his years in Africa, his walking tours of Switzerland where he followed in the footsteps of Ramuz, and evenings spent with our acquaintances at the university. He also told me about his mother and aunt, at whose house I had stayed for a night. In March 1989 he moved to a new address—on Portersfield Road—and his mother and aunt moved into his former residence. I was unable to tell how this proximity worked out; I did not visit Michael again in Norwich.

That same year, The Modern Language Review published an article he wrote, a review of a German volume of essays on nineteenth-century French lyric poetry. The article that followed his was a review of a French publication, titled Mélancolie et Opposition, that dealt with the melancholia evident in nineteenth-century literature. It should have been written by Michael. After all, he was truly afflicted with melancholia, and lived in a state of permanent opposition to the world and to himself. But he never spoke of this. He was no rebel, nor did he ever pass judgment on anything. His very existence was an act of criticism. He proved a tough morsel to swallow for a world that, already in the Eighties and Nineties, was doing everything it could to distract people with superfluous things. In this global collusion of distractions there was no longer any room for Michael.

Eventually we lost touch. His last postcard, a reproduction of a nineteenth-century etching of the Pont Neuf, was dated December 28, 1989. There was no reply to the letter I wrote back. The next time I received news of him was more than a decade later, in a new millennium, on the No. 56 streetcar in Budapest.

ii. the no. 56 streetcar

Beginning in the Nineties this was the line I took each morning. I would usually read a book when I managed to find a seat, as I did on a spring day in 2001. I had recently bought The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald, who some months later would die in a car crash. Sebald had lived in England since the late Sixties, and taught at the University of East Anglia starting in 1970. When his novels began appearing in the Nineties, I read them one after another. I started with Vertigo, followed by The Emigrants. When The Rings of Saturn appeared, its jacket copy especially piqued my curiosity, as it indicated that the book was about Sebald’s 1992 walking tour of Suffolk. Eighteen years before him, I had roamed around that region myself—not on foot, but on a bicycle. I was looking forward to retracing old memories.

Seated on the streetcar I opened the novel. Right away, in the second paragraph, it was as though I had been struck by a jolt of electricity. Sebald opens the book by narrating his hospital stay in August 1993, exactly one year after his walking tour. In his room on the eighth floor, his window was draped with black netting. He would often lean against that window, gazing out, and find that everything appeared utterly alien to him, though he lived in this city. He compared his situation to that of Gregor Samsa, who felt similarly when he looked out his own window on Charlotte Street. Gregor, transformed into a “horrible vermin,” trying to immerse himself in memories of his past, finds that after a while he is unable to see clearly even the hospital across the street. To quote Kafka:

If he had not been positive that he was living on Charlotte Street—a quiet but still very much a city street—he might have believed that he was looking out of his window into a desert where the gray sky and the gray earth were indistinguishably fused.

When Kafka wrote these lines, the work of Sigmund Exner, a Viennese physiologist who studied insect vision, was still well-known. In 1891, he published a photograph that had been taken through the extracted eyeball of a firefly by means of a microscope and a complicated system of lenses. The image is recognizable but blurry. Gregor’s vision of the world is fractured, indistinct, like that of the melancholy fly whom, William Blake laments, “some blind hand” might brush away, ending in an instant its “summer’s play.” Kafka does not tell us whether things grew blurry for Gregor because his vision had mutated into that of an insect, or whether he had become so immersed in his past that everything he now saw was filtered through memory. How does Gloucester put it in King Lear? “As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ gods: / They kill us for their sport.” Perhaps Sebald had a foreboding that his days were numbered. He sensed the presence of extinction.

There in the hospital, Sebald thinks of Michael Parkinson down below, in the city fading in the dying light, “still alive in his small house in the Portersfield Road.” He characterized Michael, this bachelor in his late forties, as “one of the most innocent people I have ever met.” Sebald describes how conscientiously Michael immersed himself in his work, and how, on account of the modesty of his needs, “some people found his manner to border on eccentricity.” While people around him acted as non-stop consumers, justifying their existence in this manner, Michael hardly ever went shopping. Sebald only ever saw him wear a navy-blue or a rust-brown jacket with leather patches.

“But then without warning last May,” continues Sebald—and this could only have meant May 1994—“Michael, who had not been seen for some days, was found dead in his bed, lying on his side and already quite rigid, his face curiously mottled with red blotches.” According to the inquest, “he had died of unknown causes,” to which Sebald adds, “in the deep and dark hours of the night.” Not much later, to the great shock of their colleagues at the university, came the death of Janine, “who was so unable to bear the loss of the ingenuous, almost childlike friendship they had shared, that a few weeks after his death she had succumbed to a disease that swiftly consumed her body.”

As I rode in the streetcar in Budapest, I could not take my eyes from the printed letters of Michael’s name. I read and re-read the two pages on which he appears, returning always to that name. At the last stop I remained seated for a while before getting off, as dazed as if I’d been hit over the head. Among the passersby I felt myself to be in possession of a special secret. It was as if I had stepped into the world of Sebald’s book. Or as if the book had opened up and poured its contents into the world around me. Sebald’s writing tends to offer the possibility of such a passage. He writes about so-called facts, the truth of which he at times even attempts to substantiate by means of photographs. But then it turns out that the truth of his facts is only realized when Sebald draws them into his spiraling fantasies, and they resurface as unverifiable memories. (A recent biography of Sebald, which makes a great deal of his freeness with fact, establishes that Michael actually died in April 1994, not May, from a drug overdose; the inquest could not determine whether it was intentional.)

Intangible realities shape our most mundane experiences. Take, for instance, vivid dreams. These can overwhelm the mind for days; I sometimes awake from a dream feeling giddy, almost feverish. A dream once caused me to become infatuated with a woman I had barely noticed before. A dream once helped me find the answer to a matter that had tortured me for days with its seeming insolubility. I can never quite dismiss dreams of this sort. They can’t truly belong to “reality.” Yet I have remained their prisoner for hours or even days. They have frequently proved more real than all that has happened to me during waking hours.

Michael’s name, when I caught sight of it in The Rings of Saturn, affected me in this way. The book led me back into my past. I understood now why Michael never replied to my last letter. I felt intoxicated, as if the certainties of the world around me had become unstable. But in the meantime I experienced a growing awareness of my own being and existence, of my possessing a center that, like a dream, would be futile to try to define. Having become unsure of my surroundings I focused on finding my self—a being from which I had always been inseparable, yet one that I had never been able to glimpse with such immediacy. And all the while I couldn’t stop thinking of Michael.

Later, once I calmed down, instead of reading on I began to leaf randomly through the book. I imagined that I might appear in its pages, as that twenty-two-year-old Hungarian Michael took to meet his colleagues on Saturday evenings. Of course, that would have been too much to ask for. But the age of twenty-two does figure in the book. At one point on his walking tour, Sebald visited Michael Hamburger, a poet and translator who had emigrated from Germany in 1933, at his home on the outskirts of Middleton. When later reading Hamburger’s memoirs, Sebald discovered that the two men had both encountered Stanley Kerry, who taught German at the University of Manchester, at the age of twenty-two—Hamburger in 1944, Sebald in 1966. For Sebald, this intersection of their lives at the same age must have had a particular significance:

No matter how often I tell myself that chance happenings of this kind occur far more often than we suspect, since we all move, one after the other, along the same roads mapped out for us by our origins and our hopes, my rational mind is nonetheless unable to lay the ghosts of repetition that haunt me with ever greater frequency.

Reading the book as a friend of Michael Parkinson’s, I could not help but feel that I—also twenty-two years old when I met him—had similarly become entangled in Sebald’s web, spun from the ghosts of repetition. I was entitled to this feeling all the more considering that Hamburger had been only twenty, and not twenty-two, in 1944. Sebald, his close friend, was surely aware of this. For him, changing the facts was more important than clinging to them. In the words of Heinrich von Kleist: “Probability is not always on the side of truth.”

Sebald was willing to sacrifice “reality” in favor of a more dreamlike reality of another sort, which he held to be more truthful. Describing his journeys in The Rings of Saturn, he proceeds according to the “logic” of chance. He allows everything he encounters, everything he sees, everything that momentarily crosses his mind, to stand by itself, without antecedents or consequences. It may be the skull of the melancholic Thomas Browne, or a herring, or the description of a sea battle in 1672, or George Wyndham Le Strange, who participated in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, or Swinburne, or even some unknown individual fallen into oblivion beyond the reach of history: for Sebald, each constitutes a potential component of a personal universe with a private entrance. This universe possesses no directionality or purpose, has no history in the sense of a red thread running through everything and pointing ahead; it shows no visible coherence, no laws. It has no reality. And yet at times it can be more real than everything else. At such times, one crosses its threshold with an eagerness that nothing can diminish, and one’s own so-called reality seems a disappointment. This new universe proves not a whit less dramatic and fateful than what we believe to be the familiar one. It is like a vast crime novel, full of millions of suspicious pieces of evidence but lacking a detective to make sense of it all. Everything bears the suggestion of conclusive proof, but the case never goes to trial.

Such a universe provides no well-mapped itinerary. It creates the impression of an impassable labyrinth, but without Ariadne’s thread or a Minotaur. Instead, Melancholia squats in the center, a center that keeps splintering. Anything may happen here. A man who is twenty years old may become twenty-two. Someone we believe to be alive may turn out to have been dead for some time—only to produce a more profound effect on us than any living person. Or, sitting in a streetcar, reading a book, we find a reality weightier than anything we would see looking out the window.

In this universe everything tilts just a bit, just enough that the trappings of the ordinary universe remain visible while losing their coherence. Here there are no connections, but still one has an unmistakable feeling that, thanks to some distant and unidentifiable force, things are not unrelated.

Michael H. Parkinson never answered my last letter, and then he did. He addressed his message to me without a word. What else could this be but melancholia seeping into our works and days, before unstoppably flooding everything?

 is a critic and a professor of art theory at the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest. This essay is adapted from his book A melankólia dicsérete, originally published in 2017.