MARCH 29, 2021
I DREAMT MY MOTHER was a felled fir, hung with dewy cobwebs, that quivered as it tried to embrace me. I never felt such a need in her while she was alive. Overjoyed, I knelt to her on the forest floor, only to discover her intention — to reveal the shaft of pain devoted to her, shored up for me outside my waking life. I can’t remember whether it was before or after this that I heard Herta Müller dismissing fir trees as boring and arrogant. Though the timing remains sketchy, I sensed that the fir totem meant something. To infer a cosmic connection is one of the few liberties of love.
I like women who write in German. Who aren’t German. To come clean, I have only read one book by Elfriede Jelinek (Austrian) and one book by Herta Müller (Romanian). These are The Piano Teacher and The Fox Was Ever the Hunter.
One novel is no more than a plunging speed-date and, though I have never speed-dated, I predict I would be uncool — truffling for love as furtively and urgently in real life as while reading. Both books brought a pain to my throat in anticipation of the failings of my language to do justice to my hasty love of them. Ultimately, I fell under the influence of one more than the other and here is my attempt to understand how it won me over.
“To think about one’s own tactics is always a tricky business.”
— Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet
Influence, like the pull of a magnet or a lover, is invisible but strong. When a magnet meets another magnet, choice is dispensed with and the force with which they attract each other is violent and alarming. These women are not afraid to write what they want, and this makes me want more of them. When I read, I am claiming the magnet’s right of reciprocity: as each writer pulls me, I imagine I am attractive to her. As I grow to understand what each is about, I can’t help but feel she is doing all this because she knows it’s what I like. When someone gets you, they are showing you they can solve the clues you provide. It’s hard not to reveal all at once how much more there is to get. Watch out. You can take the magnet logic too far; you can find yourself preaching about cores of mountains only talking to cores of mountains. You can get thrown out of book clubs.
The Piano Teacher’s dust jacket copy goes something like this: Erika Kohut teaches piano at the Vienna Conservatory by day, but by night she scours the porn shows and fairgrounds of Vienna while her mother, whom she loves and hates in equal measure, waits up for her. When Walter Klemmer becomes her student, Erika spirals out of control in an ecstasy of self-destruction. I was easily sold: regret is addictive and mothers are never not interesting.
In The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, we are in Romania in the last months of the Ceaușescu regime, following Adina, a young schoolteacher; Paul, a musician; Clara, a wire factory worker; and Pavel, her lover. One of them works for the secret police and is reporting on the group. Win-win. Paranoia, for balance, is my hobby.
Both authors are intimately aware of the systemic cruelty and violence that irradiates their characters’ intimate relationships, and are attuned to the workings of the patriarchy, from which they steal their energy as it escapes in scalding spurts from the machine. Both writers are able to fix the unsteadiness of experience without pinning it down: both manage to keep a current of constant threat in their language without electrocuting us. From the first sentence of each book, we are aware of an urgency that belies massive resistance to — and entanglement in — oppressive systems. In The Piano Teacher, Erika Kohut meditates on these inescapable cycles of violence in a Vienna fairground, with teenagers on rides “like kittens, playing with the horror of the world before they themselves become part of that horror.”
Aggression and power, and their consequences for desire, are attacked by both authors. Jelinek (meaning “little deer” in Czech) is unflinching in a scene that serves to both generate and absorb her shock at the banality of familial violence:
The head of a four-year old is thrown back by a mother’s slap of hurricane strength. […] The mother has heavy bags to struggle with and she’d much rather see her little girl vanish down a sewer. […] The child is learning the language of violence, though not willingly.
We glimpse the depths of a degradation we can do little to stop, and wonder at the capacity of the cruelty available in us while Jelinek blithely hints that death is not its border. A ferocious mix of courage and pent-up violence creates a sense that what is said has to be said right now. Hope rarely rises to meet Jelinek’s observations. For such pluck, I could fall for her, she could be the one.
Neither book is cozy reading. Each exalts our frailties while screwing us down into our own muck: both writers appreciate a porosity between the dominance of language over us and its submission to us. Lack of language can offer creative freedom, and Müller demonstrates a particular expertise in the manipulation of silence, understanding it as an equivalent companion to text. As she put it in a 2014 Paris Review interview: “What gets said is one thing, but what isn’t said has to be there as well, it has to float along with what you’re writing. And you have to feel that, too.”
In her Nobel acceptance speech, Jelinek incorporates an improbable, frolicking, extended metaphor of language as a disobedient hairdo, through which she cheerfully assures us that she is resigned to its impish habits. “It simply won’t be tidied up,” she says. “It doesn’t want to. No matter how often one runs the comb with the couple of broken off teeth through it — it just doesn’t. Something is even less right than before.”
I am impressed by what each author is in control of (but of course I love them most for what they aren’t). I admire how each rises to unknowns in her own writing, how they are both prepared to walk boldly, blinkered, along the precipitous path that is mapped for them. Both are aware of their limited agency and the often-overrated capabilities of language.
“Sometimes language finds itself on the way by mistake,” writes Jelinek, “but it doesn’t go out of the way. It is no arbitrary process, speaking with language, it is one that is involuntarily arbitrary, whether one likes it or not. Language knows what it wants. Good for it, because I don’t know, no not at all.”
Müller admits a life for the words themselves: “I’m not hungry for words, but they have a hunger of their own. They want to consume what I have experienced, and I have to make sure that they do that. […] The language knows where it has to wind up. I know what I want, but the sentence knows how I’ll get there.”
It’s a speed-date. I have to choose who does what best. Quickly. I turn back to the books. In Müller’s depiction of the Ceaușescu regime, it is hard to tell the victim from the perpetrator. The same is true with our piano teacher narrator Erika Kohut. Within a few pages, Jelinek has established a vigorous pace for Erika, who, almost immediately after the novel begins, has pulled handfuls of hair from her mother’s head, leaving bald patches, and is preparing coffee after. If there is a point at which our continuation is guaranteed, it is via this savaging of the conventional notion of daughterly love.
In The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, Müller’s images can be as stark as they are unlikely: “All the lamb fur coats are white except for one, which is green, as though the pasture had nibbled through the coat after it had been stitched together.” Or: “When Adina stares at the poplars too long, they dig their knives inside her throat and twist them from side to side. Then her throat gets dizzy.”
I don’t know what a dizzy throat is, and I don’t care. What matters is the frisson I feel from the coupling of the wrong elements. In her poem “Essay on What I Think About Most,” Anne Carson examines the emotions attached to error:
In what does the freshness of metaphor consist?
Aristotle says that metaphor causes the mind to experience itself
in the act of making a mistake.
He pictures the mind moving along a plane surface
of ordinary language
that surface breaks or complicates.
In my own work, when considering whether regret can be addictive, I have found literary metaphors of regret that can allow for both pleasure and pain have been of most heuristic value. It is when elements come up against each other in unexpected ways that truly original metaphors can emerge. In Carson’s words:
From the true mistakes of metaphor a lesson can be learned. […]
such mistakenness is valuable. […]
Metaphors teach the mind
to enjoy error
and to learn
from the juxtaposition of what is and what is not the case.
I return to Müller. What is and what is not the case flickers through her novel, and I feel, as I read, pursued by a tidal wave powered by the force of divergent possibilities. It is no particular image that compels me to continue but rather a movement: a kaleidoscope turning. The disorientation and tickle of threat is unnerving at first. Poplars and their looming reincarnations inserted throughout the chapters are at once friends, invaders, guards, attackers, or a part of the landscape, which itself, in turn, is complicit in unseen atrocities. It is the unsaid, and the possibilities between that and what is said, that holds power on the page. Between each sentence a synapse is jumped, creating a charged void for the meeting place of what neither author nor reader expect, but still desire.
Müller’s writing is periscopic. “And so I started writing,” she says in the Paris Review interview, “and suddenly there was this rearview mirror, and everything started coming back about my life in the village.” Hers is an illusory world — shimmering, semi-permanent — but, nevertheless, a fierce, cold mirage. The breath of a curse clouds the mirrors between what is said and unsaid. The very incline at which we encounter the text is oblique; we read suspiciously. Müller’s controlled syntax convinces us through its rhythm of the said and unsaid, which beckons and-so-it-follows-and-so-it-follows-and-so-it-follows even when the sense of the writing predicts no such thing. That clauses are so casually disconnected is intoxicating, as connection exists somewhere; the reader’s perceptions of a city scene are cut at precise slants, perfectly angled out of lives lived elsewhere. I look again. And listen. Müller has an ear, too, and admits that reading her writing aloud is the only way to know if the words are doing the right thing.
Can she be counted in an oral tradition? In a 2011 New Statesman essay, “The Unbearable Brightness of Speaking,” Alice Oswald says of Homer, an oral poet:
The tendency of his grammar is therefore cumulative, like a cairn. Each clause is a separable unit. It might be placed loosely on another and held there with a quick connective, but it never loses its essential singleness; which is why you often find that one end of his sentence turns away from the other. […] [I]t’s as if the eyes of the clauses are looking outwards, elsewhere.
This made me a little dizzy in the throat because Müller’s clauses also appear to be looking outwards, elsewhere — but look closely, and they may also be accused of spying on each other; maybe they know things about each other that we don’t. Gaps and silences create a space for betrayal; the unsaid is a cleft between clauses that must kept open and electric. Moving from one to the next requires a leap of faith and the reader leaps between these voids, exhilarated from the effort and fitter than s/he was before. Müller forces me into Syntax Parkour, and I fucking love her for it. The benefit is the creative freedom of a readerly complicity, the deep thrill of puzzling out a coded love letter. I am ever aware of the question of what is and what is not the case, and feel no need to look for answers.
“I need a mirror, when I cut hair I have to be able to see myself as well as you.”
— The Fox Was Ever the Hunter
I cannot tell if the net effect of strapping periscopes together could equal a prism. What Müller intends beams out of the safety of the text and bounces back from another sentence, paragraph, chapter, so that all perceptions and intentions are clues to solve future or past interpretations. This is not just syntactic posturing; it helps me experience the watchful, uncertain confinements of an oppressive regime. Müller places me askance enough to get me in there, behind a mirror, so I can feel my way (almost haptically) around the prism, as the diffusion and refraction takes place. I got the feeling that Müller had really done her homework on me. Had she read my diary? How else could she know how I feel about the internal structure of concepts? Let’s take the concept of desire and how my authors make use of it as a concept, since, according to cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, making variations on a theme is really the crux of creativity.
Hofstadter and I are interested in how concepts are formed and the influence they have on our thinking (thus, writing), because what is imaginable is strongly influenced by the internal structures of a concept. He says in his 1982 essay “Variations on a Theme as the Essence of Imagination” that organization of the mind consists of
thousands, if not millions of overlapping and intermingling implicospheres (the implicit sphere of hypothetical variations within a concept) at the centre of each of which is a conceptual skeleton. The implicosphere is a flickering, ephemeral thing, a bit like a swarm of gnats around a gas-station light on a hot summer’s night, perhaps more like an electron cloud, with its quantum-mechanical elusiveness, about a nucleus, blurring out and dying …
Erika Kohut is no stranger to the concept of desire but does seem a stranger to romantic love. If we rely on concepts rather than frozen perceptions, love becomes complex, irksome, human. After working on the neuroscience of motivation for some years, I imagined that the conceptual skeleton of desire might comprise wanting and liking. According to Hofstadter, “[t]here is a way that concepts have of ‘slipping’ from one into another, following a quite unpredictable path. […] This slippage affords us perhaps our deepest visions into the hidden nature of our conceptual networks.” When concepts reach out or slip into what they are not — when desire reaches out, wants what is not desirable — as with metaphor, real originality is born. It is how these writers engender this slippage that make them almost irresistible to me as thinkers.
It is sometimes unclear whether Erika is the source or a conduit of the violence that centers on her. If she is merely a conduit, she is sometimes a gleeful one. Unlike Erika, we wince as she slams her musical instruments into the shins of fellow travelers on the streetcar, understanding that such violence comes from the struggle between the pressure of society’s clichés and personal freedom, between wanting and liking.
The ancients realized that Eros, romantic love, was most accurately characterized by absence and pain. When conscious of being in love, writes Anne Carson, “[y]our new knowledge of possibilities is also a knowledge of what is lacking in the actual.” While “wanting” can be associated with desire, the hedonic pleasure of liking is as integral to romantic love.
And so, pressed by Jelinek, our fine, talented pianist narrator pushes herself to demonstrate that she can want what she does not like. Garbage “nestles into the profiles of her shoes” as she treads in dog turds to get closer to the Turk-like man and the ambivalent woman fucking in the meadows by the fairground. Erika will not be put off from demonstrating her wants, though the existence of her wants is inaccessible to her. But she won’t be put off, and neither will we. Even the desperate urge to piss into the dusty earth doesn’t deter her peeping. We are encouraged to accompany her through a landscape of danger and contamination, into distaste and disgust and back again. Jelinek uses us to discover how Erika might be put off. We inhale as Erika sniffs the semen-filled tissue in a peep show. The further Jelinek squashes us into the wipe-clean corners of the seedy voyeuse’s world, the more acutely we vicariously experience Erika’s plight and feel ourselves relieved to be able to distance ourselves from it.
There is a mask of bitter irony from behind which we are invited to pillage Erika’s desires without her involvement. We are told: “If there’s one thing [Erika] doesn’t want, it’s being clung to.” Erika sticks rigidly to Carson’s tenet that “[a] space must be maintained or desire ends.” This applies twofold: Erika keeps her feelings out of the way to persist with what she wants. For Erika, a self-mutilator, one slice and the tendons of desire can be wrenched through the skin. By the end of the book, wanting and liking are undifferentiated, as she begs Klemmer to humiliate and debase her utterly.
Erika Kohut’s ecstasy of self-destruction floats credibly around the conceptual skeleton of desire. If desire were a stiff matrix of associations, rather than an intermingling of conceptual implicospheres, we as readers could not incorporate the friction between wanting and liking, or countenance the possibility of regret as a motivating stimulus. By imagining implicospheres and conceptual slippage, we are “extending our abilities to see further into the space of possibilities surrounding what is.”
Hofstadter goes further: “Strange though it may sound, non-deliberate yet non-accidental slippage permeates our thought process and is, I believe, the very core of thinking.” Müller believes the words and sentences know where she wants to get. To this, Hofstadter says: “By non-accidental, I do not mean to imply it is deliberate. […] [S]ometimes a slippage can be non-accidental yet still come from the unconscious mind.”
Surreality also takes its pleasure in collating the unrelated. Müller lets us observe an officer’s wife who dutifully serves her husband, though ghosted by lost love: “Sometimes, she said, her mother feels the woman’s head is sinking farther and farther into her neck, as if a staircase were running from her throat to her ankle and she were climbing down the steps carrying her own head.” Surrealism, for Müller, certainly does not mean accidental. As she put it in her Paris Review interview, “surreal scenes have to be checked against reality with millimeter precision, otherwise they don’t function at all. […] The surreal can only work if it becomes reality. So it has to be proofed against reality and built up according to realistic structures.”
Realities are different depending on the language used and the cultures in which that language is embedded, and the Romanian culture and language Müller describes are crawling with superstition. In Romanian, unlike German, Müller admits that cursing is an art, a kind of magic, and she uses the magic of curses and superstitions as charms to enhance the realities of her fiction, so that we feel the narrowest gap between words and life. In her long childhood days alone tending cows in Romania, Müller claimed to eat every weed she could find, thinking that, once she’d tasted the plant, she would be a little closer to it and that she could change into something that was more like the plant so that it would accept her, narrowing the gap between people and things.
“I picked the flowers and paired them up so they could get married,” she says. “I was convinced that they had eyes and that they moved at night and that the linden tree near our house visited the linden tree in the village.” When the interviewer asks her why she has “ma[de] up new names for plants […] [l]ike thornrib or needleneck instead of milk thistle,” she replies: “Because I didn’t feel the plant listened to the name milk thistle.”
Such is the stoicism of Müller, who drags into a shifting, paranoid regime, like a sackful of old toys, the impossible certainties of childhood. In her artistic homage to superstition, she maintains a stranglehold on bewilderment, and I feel her powers at their height when she confesses the certainty of what she had decided was right in childhood, which need not be relinquished in the writings of an adult. It is as if Müller says, I want to present you with things that I think speak to each other, without knowing the language myself. I don’t fully understand what I mean by that, but I hope you do. She never presumes about her reader. This is very attractive.
Around the mutant superstitions that grow out of the Romanian earth Müller pours the paranoia and rumor of the regime. Ceaușescu exists everywhere. Causes are kept hidden deep in the psychological subsoil while consequences overgrow the field. It is impossible to escape the images of the beloved son of the people. The light from the black inside the dictator’s eye falls where it will: the café, the park — even in the water, one can detect the black from inside the eye of the dictator. Müller uses a phrase: ALL THAT SHINES ALSO SEES, suggesting infinite ways of being surveilled, but also offering the hope that reflection may give a new way of seeing.
Chinese Whispers for the eyes: this notion epitomizes the book. “And wherever the light from the black inside the eye falls, people feel the place where they are standing, the ground beneath their feet, they feel it rising steeply up their throat and sloping sharply down their back.”
In the wire factory where Adina works, Müller’s surrealism feeds rumor and superstition to paranoia, keeping it plump and sleek. Desire barely dares breathe. The supervisor, Grigore, chooses workers to accompany him in greedy lovemaking, quick thrusts in a laundry pile. When the factory cat comes to watch their coupling, the women shoo it away, their rubber boots above their heads, because they know they will be reflected in the its eyes, and “the cat will carry their thighs through the factory, naked in the lair and spread wide.” For only one week of the year, after the cat has eaten her slippery, blind young, does the reflection disappear, and “because there are no images in the eyes of the cat during the real week of mourning, each of these encounters remains a rumor.” Rumor glints at the center of Müller’s concern with what is real and what isn’t.
Müller’s understanding of Hofstadter’s definition of the “accidental” gives her writing a flash strong enough to illuminate the whole implicosphere of a concept: a sparse, passionless still of what can viably slip into desire. She shows us the guts of the process, an X-ray simultaneously capturing what may and may not be desire’s target:
She wants to go, but he is holding her hand. She feels a small shiny wheel spinning in her throat. […] [S]he doesn’t know whether the shiny wheel is her desire for the green lamb or for the man with the reddish-blue flecked tie. But she has the feeling that if the wheel in her throat is spinning for the green coat it’s also catching on this man.
I was in Texas when I read this sentence, in the shade of a tangerine-colored stuccoed wall, the other side of which was the interstate, where tyres pounded by freakishly close. The noise of the traffic muffled my gasp. Sometimes magnets travel a great distance to slam into one another. I think I held the book to my chest, but no one needs know about that. Looking for the origins of love, we ache to pinpoint (together!) where our volition took a turn. Once in love, we yearn to go back when we could have helped it, even when we are glad we didn’t. This passage, with its wheel and its throat, is exact without being tethered, both unexpected and desired. It gave me what John Carey, in his 2005 book What Good Are the Arts?, calls the “feeling of knowing” that comes from the most poetic thinking. It made me remember Robert Frost and what poetry can achieve: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, a poem should ride on its own melting.”
Müller’s writing knows about its own melting. Her prose is a fun-fair, a series of chutes and slides between the sharp edges of mirrors. Her syntax, metaphor, and simile all force “the imagination has to keep fitting things together that rational thought would keep apart.” In Carey’s terms: “It has, that is, to keep ingeniously fabricating distinctness — or whatever approximation to distinctness it decides to settle for — out of indistinctness.”
Müller does not try to convince only using what is but relies instead on what her translator Philip Boehm calls “the honesty of the deceit — and one charged with considerable energy.” Through sheer effort of imagination, I, the reader, become part of the blending of the elements of metaphor, experiencing what Carey terms the creator’s possessiveness.
Realizing that I was choosing one over the other spooked me into more questions. Is it style I should look to to decide this? Am I really asking who is coolest? Because if either writer’s style is an attack on reality, we must scrutinize their battle plans as well as their spoils. Can we substitute how we write for how we fight? Does coolest mean the potential winner in a fight? Must I hold off meaning and appeal to rhythm? Is the frank prose of Müller too stark compared with the musical flow of Jelinek?
Enough. I already had my answer.
Those who don’t feel the need to speak always get me. Writing in what is not her mother tongue, Müller had accessed a special creative crawlspace: her silence, and the writing about rumor and superstition in The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, satisfied me in a mystical way, in a way that the hyperreality of The Piano Teacher perhaps didn’t. There is a nobility in accepting that the very inability to communicate fully and finally is a condition of literature’s existence. I hadn’t expected a noble speed-date.
So, with her many ways of examining what is and is not the case (FYI: falling in love might be a toggling between the two), it was Herta who influenced me most. It took time to decide — an impression can only be seen once the force behind it has been removed. When Herta made me gasp beside the freeway, when she freeze-framed desire as anticipation for me, in the shade of an orange wall in Texas, she won at speed-dating.
Now I feel the thrill of choosing one over the other. The thrill is partly knowing I am wrong about choosing only one, especially on the basis of a single book (I still rate The Piano Teacher a 10). To avoid the dip of regret, I turn my mind to me and Herta and our future. I don’t go so far as to calculate a love percentage, but I do I make a list of capitalized words as they appear in The Fox Was Ever the Hunter. After the first few, I am convinced. I tell myself I am happy with my choice, as I am forced to face perennially the question of whether loving one thing more than another is possible, or ever enough.
This essay will be forthcoming as part of Under the Influence (Gorse Editions), edited by Joanna Walsh.
Rachel Genn works across Manchester Writing School and the School of Digital Arts. Formerly a neuroscientist, she has written two novels: The Cure (2011) and What You Could Have Won (2020) and has contributed to Granta, 3AM, Aeon/Psyche, and The New Statesman. She is currently working on three short volumes on the subject of longing.