Jan Rozner

353770

 

SEVEN DAYS TO THE FUNERAL

 
(an excerpt)

Day Five: Afternoon

The long, insistent ringing of the doorbell startled him awake. He got up from the sofa, and went over to press the button in the hallway as he hastily pulled on his trousers and slipped on his jumper.

Peter1, the writer, was standing in the doorway, dressed all in black, like a smart messenger sent by some otherworldly undertakers. “Hello,” he said in a mournful, subdued voice. He lived nearby, further down the same street on the hill above the city. Peter would turn up at their place only three or four times a year, and he wasn’t expecting him at all.

“Is this a good time? You weren’t planning to go out?” Peter asked. “No, not at all,” he assured him, adding: “I was invited for lunch and had a little nap afterwards.”

Had Peter come to offer his condolences, he wondered? Would he be the one to present them in the most clichéd way? Several days had passed and he had met all sorts of people but nobody had yet offered their condolences. It was as if they didn’t think it appropriate to express their condolences to him, since he was now, after all, able to feel liberated, unrestrained. Having sat down in the living room armchair and stretching his long legs far in front of him, Peter said: “You can imagine the impact this news has had on me…” He was sitting upright, rubbing his forehead with his hand. Then he said: “I had a call the very first evening.” So he wasn’t going to offer his condolences, although something of the kind was bound to follow, otherwise he wouldn’t have come.

“Your wife was an exceptional person,” he began, having taken a deep breath, and paused after this first brief sentence. Then he went on.

A kind of habit had developed, not just in Kultúrny život2, which had been banned for three years now, but lately also in the dailies, of marking the death of a prominent person not just by a black-framed obituary written by another prominent person who was still alive, but of accompanying it with brief “responses”, as they were called, solemn meditative pieces by other writers or, if the prominent personality wasn’t a writer, by other colleagues from their profession. Since Peter was also a banned writer, he had now come to deliver his “response” in person. Apparently deep in thought, he proceeded to outline a portrait of his wife, as it gradually formed in his mind, transforming it into articulate, cliché-free sentences. He must have worked on it at home, he may even have typed it up, not for his sake, not so that he could recite it to him here, but for future reference, so that – once the ban on him was lifted –- he could publish his notebooks, including the ideas that “had cried out to be written down” the other night, when he received the phone call.

He watched Peter intently, not because he expected to hear anything new or perhaps even unpleasant about himself, but because he was fascinated by these concise, perfectly-honed sentences and this whole, seemingly spontaneous, performance. As he articulated each sentence Peter would stare absentmindedly into a distant corner of the room, paying him only fleeting attention when he paused. Subconsciously he realized that it wasn’t for his sake that Peter had come, not at all; he’d come because he considered it his duty to his wife: there had been quite a few occasions in the past for which he should certainly have felt obliged to her – once, he recalled, when Peter was about to be torn to shreds by one of those campaigns in the fifties, she stood up and defended him fiercely, something many people had held against her for a long time – and now basic decency demanded that he should deliver a brief yet at the same time completely private eulogy, face to face; but there was also another reason why he had to come and deliver it, namely so that he could mention in his memoirs one day that not only had it occurred to him at the time but that he had delivered it, too.

Peter finished and he didn’t know how to respond. He kept nodding his head in agreement and said in a quiet voice, as if moved: “Yes.” Peter was silent, as if inwardly reciting the Lord’s Prayer. He also remained silent until he realized he too ought to say something, to express his appreciation; after all, Peter was also a playwright and expected applause. So he came up with the sentence: “No one has said a word about her since it happened.” He realized immediately that everyone he’d come across over the past few days had said something about her, starting with those who had come the first night. Peter took a deep breath and breathed out through his nose. He always did this when he was tense, when he was about to make a contribution to a discussion on one of his books, or when he was seething inside, about to explode. Now, too, he inhaled deeply, thoroughly, meditatively, as if sucking in everything he’d said about his wife from the air in the room where his words were still floating, and burying it in his memory.

The first part of his performance was apparently over, for he got up, straightened his waistcoat and began pacing up and down the room. That was another thing he did every time he came to visit, on those three or four occasions a year, and whenever he began pacing up and down the room, with those long steps and breathing heavily it meant he was focusing on something and collecting his thoughts. It was a stage transition to the next act, he thought. Finally, Peter came to a stop by his side, his head towering high above his, and all he could hear were the words: “And what you should do now is sit down on your backside and write, write, write.”

Study, study, study3. A great piece of advice, brilliant, thank you so much: the minute he comes home from the funeral he should sit down on his backside and start writing. He got mildly irritated, forgetting this was the kind of thing people in similar situations were usually told: you’ve got to find something else to focus on.

In his case, that meant writing and writing and writing. Actually, Peter had already told him something like that once, a few years after the war. It was after the opening night of a play of his, in a restaurant, with Peter’s young, smart and sophisticated wife by his side. Peter was charitably inclined towards him as he’d written a piece for the theatre programme about his new play, which had opened that night. On that occasion he started reprimanding him, sounding like a kind teacher: “Some people regard you as our best theatre critic and as quite a decent literary critic, but in my eyes you’ll never be a proper theatre critic unless you turn up at every opening night, and you won’t be a literary critic unless you write something about every single, at least mildly significant, book by one of our authors – certainly not as long as you write only when you feel like it.” That was some twenty-five years ago, yet he had gone on reviewing a new play only if he felt like it, and a book by a Slovak author only if he happened to come across it, because in addition to this, he’d also written about film and for a while, while on the staff of a daily newspaper, also on foreign affairs, he’d also written the odd reportage, even priding himself on some of his reportage work – in fact, not so long ago he wondered if all this writing, if collected, might not make quite a decent book – and, on top of all that, in the past ten years he’d rather enjoyed philosophizing with some sophistication on current affairs, citing various thinkers some of whom he’d actually read, as well as spending a lot of time sitting and drinking in cafés and wine bars and pubs, or just wandering the streets sober, and in all these years the only thing he’d never managed to do was precisely what Peter had demanded of him twenty-five years ago and what he was also recommending now: sit on his backside, sit on his backside and sit on his backside. And write and write and write, non-stop, ad infinitum, like a machine. Like Peter. All Peter ever did was write – short stories, feuilletons, novels, multi-volume novels, and plays in between … his biography was his bibliography. Peter had erected a pyramid of paper to himself, as someone who disliked him once said, and there was no shortage of those who disliked him, sometimes for rather obscure reasons, not just because he kept sitting on his backside writing, although that was certainly one of the reasons. From time to time Peter would take the liberty of keeping a mistress, provided she didn’t take up too much of his time. So it was quite logical that for the past twenty-five years Peter had thought of him as a shirker, an undisciplined sloth, an aimless dabbler. And he did have a point. His wife had also felt a little like that about him and had wanted to bring some order into his life. But now, in the situation he found himself, he really saw no point in sitting on his backside and writing and writing and writing, and that’s why he turned to Peter with a weary question:

“And what do you propose I should be writing? And what for?”

“What for?” Peter’s irritated voice resounded above his head. Soon Peter was sitting in the armchair again, repeating: “What for, you’re asking me, of all people?” He was so upset that his voice actually trembled. Tapping the table with the fingers of one hand he began to list everything he’d done lately, tossing a new card on the table with each tap: he’d revised the first collection of short stories, published after the war… he gave Peter an astonished look, for this was a mélange of wishy-washy metaphors over six hundred pages in length, yet Peter still valued it highly enough to be putting all that work into it now… Then there was this play he’d written in the early fifties … again, he gave him a baffled look … Peter mentioned the play’s title…. oh yes, he knew which play he had in mind, there had been something elegant about the way he’d managed to come to terms with socialist realism for the first time … but that was then, why on earth would he want to tinker with it now… However, Peter kept his trump card to the end: he’d recently written a new book of short stories set during the war and the Uprising. He and his wife had discussed it at the time, wondering whether he might choose a different subject this time… And right now he was writing some humorous sketches about his school friends in the city where he used to live. He had to admit it was a remarkable achievement, purely in terms of the sheer volume of work, and Peter concluded with triumphant theatricality: “I could also ask myself, what did I do all of this for? I did it so that I have something ‘for the drawer’. But one day I’ll take it out of that drawer, or someone else will.” He sounded proud. Unable to hold Peter’s stare, he lowered his eyes and his head sank deep between his shoulders. No, he wasn’t sitting despondently in an armchair, he was actually lying on the floor, limp after a professional knock-out.

Later, whenever he recalled this visit, he realized that the whole time Peter was listing all the things he’d written ‘for the drawer’, he’d been thinking of Peter’s wife, who had lately taken to visiting them on her own from time to time and who still admired him immensely even though after all those years she may have started to resent his affairs. She had revealed a number of intimate titbits of family information, mentioning, for example, that from time to time Peter made phone calls to a certain very, very, very highly-placed personage in Prague4 – but of course, nobody was to know about it as that might spoil everything; she was certain the two of them wouldn’t say a word about it – and that this highly-placed person had promised to sort things out for him. He and his wife had also known Highly-Placed at one time, but the latter stopped acknowledging him in 1968 even before he became highly-placed, by then he already considered his wife a shady character, some kind of a she-devil, a right-wing opportunist female Satan, but even had she remained in his good books they would have been unlikely to phone him in his current lofty heights. Peter was presenting himself as a shining example but he was only pretending to be writing for the drawer; in fact, he was daily impatiently waiting for Highly Placed to issue an order and as soon as that happened he’d be prepared to submit to a publisher the revised versions of his heavy old doorstoppers, offer another publisher the manuscript of his new novel set during the war and the Uprising5, to take the humorous sketches of his school days to the youth publishing house and the revamped version of his dusted-off early socialist realist works to the theatre, and everyone would be astonished and gob-smacked to discover that he hadn’t lost hope and that he had kept writing diligently in spite of the prospect of everything staying in the drawer. But he didn’t have Peter’s prospects and he couldn’t care less about what would happen in fifteen or twenty years’ time.

He kept a contrite expression on his face. Peter, who felt he had reason to be satisfied with the impact of the moderately indignant lecture that he’d just given, stood up again and started pacing up and down the room, returning to his first question: “And you need me to come and tell you what you should do? You’ve been writing reviews for nearly thirty years. You’ve also written a couple of quite decent critical studies of some authors and a few individual works…” – Peter even proceeded to list a few although he had himself forgotten some of them, consigning them to a past that was alien to him now. “Just pick an author, Slovak or foreign, it doesn’t matter, study his work, get hold of everything written about him, and write a decent monograph. And then write another.”

That’s how easy it was. Irritated by Peter’s doubtless sensible advice he was, however, unable to control himself: “But I don’t feel like writing that sort of thing anymore. The sort of thing I’ve written before. That’s all in the past, I don’t like it anymore. And I’m not interested in it anyhow.”

“Don’t be silly!” This time Peter’s anger was quite real. “Do you think you’re the only one in the world to whom this sort of thing has happened? Not so long ago it might have been a little more difficult for me to come to terms with what had happened,” – he found himself nodding unwittingly, compelled to show his agreement – “I also thought I was finished for a while, thought it was all over and I would never be able to write again. It took me some time to get over it but I did.” Yes, he was right, it took him some time but he did get over it. Peter’s son had committed suicide shortly before taking his school-leaving exam. Peter had been almost paralysed for a while but he had the disposition of a conscientious journeyman, one who always ends up returning to his trade after a while, as Peter had gone back to writing. But he was not like Peter, not a conscientious journeyman. He just wasn’t that keen on work. Perhaps he was a layabout, pulled in too many directions, perhaps he didn’t like himself enough and that’s why he succumbed to something one could easily succumb to in these cases, he seemed to have become alienated from himself, from the person he used to be and from what he used to do. Something inside him had cracked a long time ago and his wife was the only one who had noticed but she hadn’t been able to work him out either, and neither had he. There was no point telling Peter something he wasn’t able to articulate and explain properly, so he pretended to contemplate something for a while and then, without knowing quite what he was about to say, he just blurted out the first thing that came to mind: “Except perhaps something quite different from the earlier stuff… some fiction, for instance.”

As soon as he said the words he was ashamed, writing even a single page of fiction being the last thing he’d ever fancied doing. He was embarrassed to have blurted out such rubbish.

Naturally, Peter latched on to it. “What? Fiction?” And then he started picking at him with a sneer: “I see, so you do have a story in your head, don’t you? So what’s it going to be, a short story, a novel?”

“No, I’ve got nothing in my head. I was just blabbing. It was just an example.”

“Thank God for that. Look, you’ve a brilliant analytical brain. You’re good at analysing literature. You’ve proved it any number of times. That’s your profession. And now that you can’t spread yourself thin anymore, as you’ve done all your life, you can at last concentrate on one thing and you can really give it your all.”

He didn’t utter a sound. There was no point telling Peter what he didn’t feel like talking about. For Peter, life was a straight line, just like in his books. So he preferred to keep silent.

“OK, I won’t bother you with that any longer,” Peter was obviously about to move on to his next point because he was pacing the room with resolute steps again, “but please don’t get upset about one more thing I’ve got to say to you.” As always, as in every debate, he’d planned it all in advance, points one, two, three. Now it was the turn of point three. Peter sat down again and nervously started drumming his fingers on the table, as if feeling shy and fidgeting, for obviously, something unpleasant was about to follow. “Why should I get upset, out with it,” he encouraged him. And so Peter started on point three: “You know what happened to me and believe you me, it was quite difficult for me, too.” He believed Peter.

“And I know very well how you feel… This sort of thing always takes it out of you. It’s hard to get back on your feet. But you have to get over it. And sometimes it involves a bit of alcohol… that’s obvious… except that just now you ought to be extra careful.”

Why just now? Because there wasn’t anyone to keep tabs on him, because there wasn’t anyone to consider as he went staggering from pub to pub in a semi-conscious state, without the thought in the back of his mind that someone was waiting for him at home? Or did he need to be extra careful now so that people couldn’t say he could now finally get pissed to his heart’s delight because he was free, that he could do whatever he liked now that he was rid of his wife?

He said: “Yes, I know. It’s occurred to me too.” For it really had occurred to him that people might start saying: he’s really happy to be free to get pissed to his heart’s delight.

Having ticked off point three, Peter got up. As he put on his coat he apologized and explained why he wouldn’t be able to come to the funeral: “It’s not because I’d have to take a train in the morning and then take a train back at night, that’s not what it’s about.” He nodded, for he knew what it was about. Peter could drop in to see him to first deliver his eulogy, second to tell him what he ought to be doing, and third to warn him not to start drinking outrageously. What he couldn’t afford to do was attend his wife’s funeral, where quite a few people might see him. He could not go to his wife’s funeral one day and phone Highly Placed the next. That might ruin everything. “I have to go to the office every day and there’s a meeting on the very day of the funeral.” He knew Peter didn’t have to go to work every day; he’d been given permission to work at home two or three days a week. Shaking his hand he said approvingly: “Of course, you’ve got a job.” And he thanked him for coming: he said he imagined that very few of those in our – he meant writers’ – circles would dare turn up here. He didn’t want to demean his wife to the point of admitting: you will probably be the only one from those circles to turn up here.
 

1 Peter Karvaš (1920-1999), Slovak playwright, theatre critic and fiction writer, whose work was banned after 1968.
2 The weekly Kultúrny život (Cultural Life), one of the main proponents of “socialism with a human face” in Slovakia, was banned in 1969.
3 A quote from Vladimir Lenin, often used in communist Czechoslovakia
4 A reference to Gustáv Husák, a Slovak communist who after being imprisoned in the 1950s, moved in the circles around Kultúrny život in the early 1960s but did not oppose the Soviet-let invasion of Czechoslovakia and made a career after 1968, becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and later the country’s President, and rarely helped any of his former friends who had lost their livelihood.
5 The August 1944 uprising against Nazism, known as the Slovak National Uprising.

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JÁN ROZNER (1922 – 2006) was a leading Slovak journalist, literary, theatre and film critic and theorist, and translator from German and English. Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 Rozner and his wife Zora Jesenská, an eminent translator of Russian literature, both active proponents of the Prague Spring, were blacklisted and lost their jobs. When Jesenská died of cancer in 1972, her funeral turned into a political event and everyone attending it faced recriminations. In 1976 Ján Rozner emigrated to Germany with his second wife. He died in Munich in 2006. The above excerpt is from Rozner’s unfinished autobiographical manuscript Sedem dní do pohrebu (Seven Days to the Funeral), which was published posthumously in 2009, followed by two further volumes of memoirs in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

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About the Translators:

 
JULIA SHERWOOD was born and grew up in Bratislava, which was then Czechoslovakia. After working for Amnesty International in London for over 20 years, she became a freelance translator in 2008. Her book-length translations include Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book by Daniela Kapitáňová, Freshta by Petra Procházková, Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki’s Lullaby for a Hanged Man (from the Polish) and, jointly with Peter Sherwood, Peter Krištúfek’s The House of the Deaf Man. She has also translated work by writers such as Uršuľa Kovalyk, Balla, Michal Hvorecký and Leopold Lahola among many others.

PETER SHERWOOD taught at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (now part of University College London) until 2007. From 2008 until 2014 he was the first László Birinyi, Sr., Distinguished Professor of Hungarian Language and Culture in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has translated the novels The Book of Fathers by Miklós Vámos and The Finno-Ugrian Vampire by Noémi Szécsi as well as stories by Dezső Kosztolányi, Zsigmond Móricz and others, along with works of poetry, drama and philosophy.

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