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Authors: Peter Handke

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

My Year in No Man's Bay

BOOK: My Year in No Man's Bay
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T
here was one time in my life when I experienced metamorphosis. Up to that point it had been only a word to me, and when it began, not gradually, but abruptly, I thought at first it meant the end of me. It seemed to be a death sentence. Suddenly the place where I had been was occupied not by a human being but by some kind of scum, for which, unlike in the well-known grotesque tale from old Prague, not even an escape into images, however terrifying, was possible. This metamorphosis came over me without a single image, in the form of sheer gagging. Part of me was numb. The other part carried on with the day as though nothing were amiss. It was like the time I saw a pedestrian, who had been hurled into the air by a car, land on both feet on the other side of the radiator and continue on his way, as cool as you please, at least for a few steps. It was like the time my son, when his mother collapsed during dinner, stopped eating only for the moment and then, after the body had been taken away, went on chewing, alone at the table, until his plate was empty. And likewise I, when I fell off a ladder last summer, immediately scrambled up it again, or tried to. And likewise I myself again, just the day before yesterday, after the knife blade snapped back and almost severed my index finger, revealing all the
layers of flesh down to the bone, while I held the hand under the stream of water, waiting for blood, methodically brushed my teeth with the other hand.
 
 
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hat era of my life was marked by a daily back-and-forth between feeling trapped and serenely carrying on. Neither before nor since have I had hours of such complete peace. And as the days went by, and I, whether panic-stricken or serene, remained focused on what I was doing, in time the “end” that still gagged me now and then was more and more firmly replaced by this metamorphosis thing. Metamorphosis of whom? What kind of metamorphosis? For now I know only this much: at that time I experienced metamorphosis. It proved fruitful for me as nothing else has. For years I have been drawing nourishment from that period, with ever-renewed appetite. For me, nothing can sweep that fruitfulness from the world. From it I know what it is to exist.
 
 
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ut for some time now I have been waiting for a new metamorphosis. I am not dissatisfied with the shape of my days, am even pleased with it. By and large, what I do or leave undone suits me, likewise my surroundings, the house, the yard, this remote suburb, the woods, the neighboring valleys, the railroad lines, the hardly visible and all the more palpable proximity of the great city of Paris down there in the Seine basin beyond the wooded hills to the east. I would like to stay as long as possible in the exquisite stillness here.
With my work, too, my writing, I should like to continue as long as I can, but with a different point of departure. Never again will I return to the law, to which I remain grateful, for the problems it poses have often stimulated my mind, and its thought patterns have in many respects paved the way for the profession of my dreams. I shall go back neither to that water tower in New York, the United Nations, nor to my partner's office, with its view of the vineyards along Austria's Southern Railway.
I would be more likely to put a sudden end to everything here, my living, my writing, my walking. As always, I am tempted not to go on, to break off the game from one moment to the next, and let myself
tumble, or run head-on into a wall, or hit the next person I see in the face, or not lift a finger ever again and never speak another word.
My life has a direction that I find good, lovely, and ideal, yet at the same time my ability to get through a single day can no longer be taken for granted. Failing, myself and others, even seems to be the rule. My friends used to comment that I took small things too much to heart and was too stern with myself. I, on the other hand, am convinced that if I had not found, time and again, a new way of covering up my lifelong pattern of failure, but had admitted to it even once, I would no longer exist.
I was already failing long ago, as a young man, whenever I slipped away early from all those social gatherings to which I had looked forward more than anyone far and wide, and my ultimate failure grew out of the notion that my work and my life with others—why do I shrink from using the word “family”?—not only could be integrated with each other but actually belonged together in the best interest of my undertaking. Meanwhile, my house is empty once more, probably for good. I accepted everyone's leaving me, and at the same time I wanted to punish myself. I failed yet again because I did not know, or had forgotten, who I am. Almost fifty-six now, I still do not know myself. And at the same time the wind off the Atlantic has just sliced into the damp winter grass outside my study, which looks out on the yard.
 
 
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his new transformation should come without the misery. That gagging, two decades ago, which went on for a year, with moments now and then of blinding brightness, should not be repeated. It also seems to me that something like that occurs only once in a lifetime, and the person involved either perishes, body and soul, or shrivels into a living corpse, one of those not uncommon desperadoes—I recognize them by the language they use, and they are near and dear to me—or, of course, he is transformed by it.
At times back then I thought all three had happened to me. After that year I could taste the light as never before, yet I also no longer felt my body, at least not as mine, and I still terrified the world with my old rages, which now, unlike earlier, were ruthless, and at the same time unfounded.
I was afraid the added light had made me lose my diffuse love. On my own I could certainly still be swept with enthusiasm, again and again, helped along by stillness, nature, pictures, books, gusting wind, as well as the roaring highway, and most powerfully by nothing at all, but I no longer took much interest in anything except certain thousand-year-old stone sculptures, two-thousand-year-old inscriptions, the tossing of branches, the gurgling of water, the arch of the sky, or at least I felt it was far too little interest, and far too infrequent.
I hardly lived in my own time anymore, or was not in step with it, and since nothing disgusted me as much as smugness, I became increasingly irked with myself. How much in step I had been earlier, what a fundamentally different sort of enthusiasm I had felt, in stadiums, at the movies, on a bus trip, among complete strangers. Was this a law of existence: childlike being in step, grown-up being out of step?
I enjoyed this being out of step yet longed to be in step; and when the former pleasure actually fulfilled me for a change, I found myself aglow with passion for those who were absent: to validate the fulfillment, I had to share it with them at once and widen it. The joyfulness in me could find an outlet only in society, but in which?
 
 
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n keeping to myself, I risked withering up. The next metamorphosis was becoming urgent. And unlike that first one, which had sneaked up on me, I would set this one in motion myself. The second metamorphosis was under my control. It would begin not with a narrowing but with my purposeful and at the same time prudent effort to open myself wider and wider. I wanted nothing dramatic, simply a steadiness of resolve that would dictate one step after the other.
Wasn't what I had in mind a simple opening-up? Didn't I see in my imagination a series of doors, which, though closed, would be child's play to open? But easy for me, with all my years?
A scientist has described the state of certain living beings on the verge of their metamorphosis more or less as follows: they stop eating; attempt to hide; rid themselves of all wastes; feel restless.
All that has been true of me, more or less, for quite some time. Disorder and dirt in the house literally bombard me; I hardly get hungry
anymore; I no longer merely play at living in hiding; for the time to come, it seems absolutely appropriate. But above all I am restless. In anticipation of that effortless opening of doors in the offing I am strangely restless.
 
 
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hus I become aware that my planned undertaking is dangerous. If I fail at widening myself, I will be finished, once and for all. That would mean the end of my homey seclusion; I would have no choice but to get out of here. I would have freedom of movement, of course, but I would no longer have a place of my own.
On the other hand, I have always felt drawn to failures and the down-and-out—as if they were in the right. I see them, from a distance, as positively ennobled; or as if today they alone among us were figures with a destiny. And thus I travel in my dreams to the harbor farthest from the world, dissolved into thin air as far as the others are concerned, a mere breeze brushing their temples.
 
 
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his morning there was a constant whirring up in the cedar, as if it were already early spring, and yet winter still lies ahead, with its rigid cold, with the pinging of small stones skidding over the frozen woodland ponds, with flashes from the belt of Orion, sweeping all night across the hills of the Seine; though snow would be eventful for this area—the occasional overly thin icicles, with not a trace of snow far and wide, usually congeal from frost on the roofs.
I am determined to pursue this new metamorphosis here, in this landscape, as a permanent resident. I do not know what I need specifically for this enterprise, but certainly not a journey, at least not a long one. That would merely be a form of escape now. I do not want to forget how close beauty is, at least here. This time the departure will be initiated by something other than a change of place. It has already occurred, with the first sentence of this story.
As I turn from the cedar back to my desk, I have before my eyes the empty, creased outline of my rucksack in the corner of the room, almost close enough to touch. But for as far into the future as possible I want
it to remain empty; at the very most I may sniff the inside now and then, trying to pick up, for instance, the scent of that trail that led from the Julian Alps all the way across Yugoslavia to the bay of Kotor. And the sturdy shoes left outside around the house on the stone, wood, and concrete thresholds must weather there, unused, getting stiffer and more brittle with every downpour and drying wind. The laces have long since disappeared, or when I pull on one of the remaining ones, it breaks off. The dead leaves that the wind still stirs up in the middle of January tend to accumulate around the shoes left out there. Their insides are also filled with leaves, and sometimes, when I reach into them or step into them for a short walk through the yard, I expect to find a hibernating hedgehog. Occasionally I go around the house and rub polish into my worn-out mountain, valley, and highland shoes, deep into the cracks, and then make a second round to polish them.
 
 
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ut this story is supposed to focus on me only as one subject among several. I feel compelled to affect my times by means of it. As a traveler today, unlike earlier, I could no longer affect anything. Just as one can exhaust the possibilities of places, regions, entire countries, I have exhausted the possibilities of being on the road, of traveling. Even the idea of roaming, no matter where, without an agreed-upon destination, which in a transitional period offered me something tangible, has closed itself off to me with the passing years. A kind of openness beckons, and not only of late, in the form of staying here in this region.
 
 
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hat does not mean that no reference to travel will be found in my notes. To a great extent this is intended to be a tale of travel. It will even deal with several journeys, future ones, present ones, and, it is to be hoped, still journeys of discovery. True, I am not the hero of these travels. It is several of my friends who will endure them, one way or another. They have already been on the road since the beginning of the year, each of them in a different part of the world, one often separated from the other, as also from me here, by entire continents. Each knows nothing of his comrades, making their way through the world at the
same time. Only I know about all of them, and my spot, downstairs in the study, with the grass almost at eye level—a moment ago, in the mild air, a January bee buzzed over it—is where the news from them comes together and is collected.
Nor do my friends know that I have plans for them; they do not even guess that the fragments from them that find their way to me from time to time, and in the course of the year are supposed to keep flying in this direction, will create news, connections, transcendences, yes, for moments at a time, actual vicarious participation. My friends do not guess that they are on the road for me—one of them does not even know that in my eyes he is on a journey at this very moment—and that I am traveling along with all of them, from afar.
Such vicarious traveling forms part of the widening that I, while remaining a permanent resident here, have planned for myself and for this region. A conventional rally brings people from all directions to a central point at a specific time. This will not be that sort of rally. And yet I have in mind for my undertaking a kind of rally that will reveal itself as such in the end. This is to be a story about my region here and my distant friends. Yet I am not even certain whether this is my region, or whether those travelers are my friends.
BOOK: My Year in No Man's Bay
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