What is the point of saving such “even” artistically misbegotten works? Because one hopes that these fragments will somehow combine to form from my whole, some court of appeals upon whose breast I shall be able to throw myself when I am in need?
—Franz Kafka to Max Brod
[Prague, end of December 1917]
For a few months, about ten years back, I regularly went to the liver transplant unit of a hospital in Turin, where I lived at the time. I’d take my bike, sail past the train tracks, and ten minutes later I’d slip my bike into the rack, among all the others. Then I’d step through the hospital’s sliding-glass doors. My bike would stay out there in that thicket of frames, wheels, and chains, along with the bicycles of doctors, nurses, and patients.
I took the elevator from the main floor, and at the third ding, I’d step out and walk to Surgery 2. Sometimes I knocked; other times the doctor was already waiting for me by the door in his white coat. He’d shake my hand and whisk me into his office. I rarely had to wait long in that hallway, that place of transit where a person’s complexion, the gurney going by, the tone of the voices indicated the treatment of a body, and hope or despair.
Only once did the surgeon not show up, and after an hour, I asked a nurse what was happening. Two emergency surgeries in a row, she said, and now maybe a third. She didn’t know when he’d be available, probably not before that evening.
I sent him an email the next day, and he suggested I come back the following week. Two livers had arrived, he told me across his desk when I was there again. Which meant the following process: preparing operating tables, surgeons, nurses. And the relay race of life and death connected to all this—
a human being had died, and another human being, as a direct result of this death, would be saved.
A helicopter took off with the liver just explanted from the body, the phones of three sick people started ringing, and then three families in three different parts of Italy hopped into their cars and raced to the hospital, each with a bag of clean clothes.
Of those three families, only one stayed in the hospital and started a new life with the horizon, finally, in the distance. Two families returned home a few hours later with the same battered liver from before, the sick still just as sick. They were the families in reserve, and they knew it: the liver wasn’t for them unless complications arose during surgery.
When I sat down across from him, the doctor didn’t give me all these details. He said only that two organs had arrived, and that’s why we had to postpone our meeting. The rest—the relay between life and death—was implied; his job was to make it happen. Then he said: “So let’s continue.”
I’d begun meeting with the surgeon because I wanted to write a novel about organ transplants. All it took was an email. His human curiosity and shared passion for books did the rest.
“Why are you so interested in transplants?” he asked the first time we met. I told him I didn’t know—no specific reason. “A sick relative?” No, no one.
The only incident I recalled was from twenty years before. I had driven my first girlfriend, S., to the hospital in Cuneo because while we were out, she’d received a breathless phone call from her mother. Her father had been notified that a liver was available. They’d been waiting awhile—my girlfriend needed to go to the hospital at once. I was eighteen years old and had just gotten my license, and what I remember most about that episode was the tension of driving her there, and the pride I felt for the decisive role I played in something so serious.
My girlfriend’s father recovered quickly, and he returned to a relatively normal life. He ran a paper manufacturing company and had a son who would succeed him but was still too young at the time. So after the father’s hospital stay, and by taking his daily pills (I remembered those pills, and that his sentence, so to speak, was to take them for life), he was doing all right fairly soon. I’d gone to visit him at his home after the operation, as this seemed like the natural thing to do. His daughter and I felt we were destined to marry, for the simple reason that it never occurred to either of us that we might break up.
He got back to working at full tilt, just as energetic and persistent as before. But his daughter and I did break up a year later, for no other reason than we’d gotten older. That’s why we stayed friends, and continued to have sex, out of attraction and because our bodies belonged together, would always belong together. Or so we thought. Then we lost track of each other, which was only natural. Years later, she wrote to me that her father’s liver had been rejected, and they’d operated again. He had a new one, and was back to being a lion.
Was that why I wanted to write a book about transplants? I told the surgeon I didn’t think so. Before he asked, I hadn’t remembered this at all. It might just be a hunch, I said, but maybe if we all knew more about transplants, if we understood them a little more, the world would be better off. And maybe we’d understand the politics of immigration, understand gang violence, even shyness, if only we could learn how each of our bodies would react when something foreign, an organ, was removed from them and inserted—forced, really—into someone else’s space.
To Max Brod
[Matliary, second half of January 1921]
Another postscript, so that you can see how the Enemy proceeds…. Here torture goes on for years, with pauses for effect so that it will not go too quickly and—the unique element—the victim himself is compelled, by his own will, out of his own wretched inner self, to protract the torture. This whole wretched life in bed, the fever, the shortness of breath, the taking of medicines, the painful and dangerous business with the mirrors (one little awkward motion and he can burn himself)—all this has no other purpose but to slow down the development of the abscesses from which he must finally suffocate, to prolong this wretched life, the fever and so on, as long as possible. And his relatives and the doctors and visitors have literally built some scaffoldings over this not burning but slowly smoldering pyre, so that without danger of contagion they can visit, cool, and comfort the tormented man, cheer him up to endure further misery.
During the time I was visiting the surgeon, I had just begun a new relationship. My decade-long love affair was crumbling, and then one January night, it ended in a moment of apnea. After two years of indecision, fighting, astronomical distances in bed, I came to a halt while doing laps in a pool. I couldn’t breathe. The lifeguard shouted to me, leaned over the water, wanting to know if I needed any help. I waved him off, then dragged myself to the end of the pool, then to the locker room, then into the car and home. Four days later, a van came for M.’s boxes and her few pieces of furniture.
My early notes for the transplant novel coincided with the beginning of a new love. After M. left, the apartment felt abandoned, with all its visible subtractions: the missing paintings, the chasm of an absent desk beneath the window. Unable to revive the place, I let it die. I moved into the small apartment with a balcony where E. and her twelve-year-old daughter lived. I couldn’t bring myself to get my life back in order, and so I wound up embedded in someone else’s already perfectly organized life.
In spite of the minimal space and that intimate, absolute coexistence of daughter and mother, they made room for me with a kind of cheerfulness. The daughter, watchful; the mother, solicitous on two fronts, her every gesture protective of her daughter and of me—two castaways beached on the sixth floor. And at the same time she was giving herself and her daughter—the two of them—the chance to reconstruct something resembling a family.
So the first notes on transplants were from that period. The beginnings of a novel? I don’t know—I don’t think so. I was working to finish a different book, which had been frozen for too long and would ultimately end in apnea, along with my previous relationship. The main character of that novel had gone to Russia to learn more about his grandfather, who’d fought on the Russian front, on the Ukrainian border, in the ranks of the fascist army, and had then gone mad when he returned to a life of peace. For over a year, I couldn’t get him off the steppe; whenever I opened my laptop I found him there, frozen, lacking the courage to go home. My new love—my new life within an already functioning, prearranged life—helped me bring this book to a close, as though love and writing were directly linked. Both could exist only if you could see the horizon from somewhere, the promise of a future. My main character would meet a young woman with a baby girl, and everything would be set back in motion. He’d return to Italy, fly from 1943 to the present, landing in 2010.
At the same time, or immediately after, I began jotting down my thoughts on transplants. I started going to the hospital and meeting with the surgeon, developed an interest in physiology, bought and read medical manuals, which I have to admit I didn’t fully understand.
The surgeon was patient with me. More than once a doctor or nurse interrupted us. He’d stop, answer their questions, then go back to our conversation.
One day we heard someone knock, a couple with two children; I caught a glimpse of them through the crack of the door. The surgeon stepped out, and when he returned, he told me this happened quite a bit, that patients’ families would come to thank him. They brought gifts, bottles of wine, flowers. He had a room full of ex-votive offerings. He’d restored their loved one’s life, and they wanted to show him they were grateful.
He wouldn’t accept any gifts before the outcome of the surgery was clear. Those gifts held too much desperate hope. If there were postoperative complications—if the organ didn’t feel at home, so to speak, in its new body—relatives might hold him accountable. What if the transplanted organ were to rebel, if it turned against the body it was supposed to save, even threatened to kill the patient? Then the family could say: You take our gifts, and then our son dies like that?
I often asked myself why the doctor was willing to answer my questions. What were his reasons? Why did my questions matter to him? One day, he told me the point was to want to live, to want to live at all costs. Or not. “Perhaps that’s of interest to you,” he said. Before authorizing a transplant, he said, the so-called “candidates” underwent interviews with a team of psychologists and doctors. The people who wanted to live at all costs—you could tell right away, he said, just by hearing them speak—those people would survive. The ones who didn’t really want to wouldn’t make it. There were people who were clinically compromised, who wound up with a bad organ, too, and they’d go on to live another twenty years. You could tell it in the interviews—they wanted to live, and they would live, even without a heart. And then there were others, in better shape, who didn’t make it.
Was this, he wondered, what tied writing to his profession? Creating the conditions, the habitat, for a man or woman to be able to survive in a hostile environment? And who was it, he asked me, who survived in the writing—the characters? The author, I said, poking myself in the chest. I was the one trying to survive in a hostile environment (life), and I needed a transplant of artificial life (a story) to be able to go on a little longer.
To Max Brod [Matliary, end of May/beginning of June 1921]
This by and large out-of-the-world life which I lead here is not in itself worse than any other. I have no reason to complain about it. But if the world shouts a ghoulish cry into my gravelike peace, then I fly off the handle and beat my forehead against the door of madness which is always unlatched.
I worked on the book in waves for a couple of years. I kept taking notes, wrote a few pages, met other doctors. I also took an interest in plant grafting, but then abandoned this—it felt unproductive. But I never abandoned the project.
In the meantime, my old home—the one I’d shared with M.—died entirely, and we made a new one. We moved my furniture and E.’s into an empty apartment, and we started a new life, all three of us. We started from scratch, the two of them plus me. We put a single last name by the intercom to make us a real family. We got married, and it was a happy marriage. We took more family photos than couple photos, because this was the heart of the matter. Taking the broken pieces and building something complete.
The years went by. We made plans and promises every day, partly out of love, partly for upkeep. We moved to Berlin, took more family photos. One day, in a restaurant, a waiter told us E.’s daughter looked like me, though we had no genes in common. E. and I felt proud of ourselves: we’d made it—our artificial family had become a natural one.
But I couldn’t write anymore; the transplant novel hadn’t even begun and had already shut down on me. At home, tensions grew. I started to step aside, to keep to myself. To think in terms of “me” and “them.” If they were both home, I went out. I could feel the hostility radiating from E.’s daughter. Or was it me who was hostile? I couldn’t say, but I do know that little by little everything was going back to how it started: they were the family; I was the transplanted organ, inserted into the body of another. We made an emergency move from Berlin back to Turin; we were on the brink of collapse.
During that time, my transplant novel started to die a painful death. I’d try to write, but the words were lifeless. I spent my days in my office, filling up pages with sterile sentences. I kept tapping away on my keyboard, but it was all useless. I was home less and less. The crisis had seemingly blown over. But I still felt like a foreign body in that family, in the generations of Turin’s Catholic bourgeoisie that E. belonged to. Shut up in my office, seven minutes from home, I’d ask words to provide me with a different life—but what life?
Then my novel died outright. I noted this one evening; there was nothing left to be done. I saved it on my laptop, in my “Incomplete” folder, my small graveyard of unfinished books. I wrote the final date, January 21, 2015. I went back home, sat down at the table; we ate in silence. A few hours later, in bed, when E.’s breathing grew heavy, I let myself fall into despair. I hugged her from behind. In her sleep, E. stroked my arm, while I soaked her back with tears. Then I loosened my hold and dissolved into dreams.
I never reopened that file, not until recently, as I started to write this. The last note was a dialogue with the surgeon, and afterward, the definitive white silence of abandonment. As written:
ME: Doctor, I’m not interested in metaphors. I want to understand how a transplant works, the mechanics of it. What happens when a foreign organ is inserted into a new body?
DOCTOR: That body tries to destroy it.
ME: And how do you keep it from being destroyed?
DOCTOR: By administering an immunosuppressant—an anti-rejection pill.
ME: So the body will stop trying to destroy the organ?
DOCTOR: No, the pill is only a peacemaker. The body will always try to destroy the organ. The organ is—will always be—the enemy. An unwelcome guest.
[Franz Kafka’s diaries, november 30, 1914]
I can’t write any more. I’ve come up against the last boundary, before which I shall in all likelihood… begin another story all over again that will again remain unfinished. This fate pursues me.
The graveyard of books I’ve never finished takes up 38.8 megabytes on my desktop. All the projects I’ve never brought to a close. As I’m writing this, six novels lie in that small digital graveyard. Some are only a few pages of notes, fragments, passages of dialogue. Or photographs, images, web links to check, audio files. Others have dozens of pages that waited awhile for others to arrive, but they never did. At a certain point, the writing just stopped, came to a standstill in the nothing of the page.
Simply put, there came a point when the novel was gone. The words stopped. And my every attempt to bring the text back to life, to make it breathe through my sentences, was pointless. The novel had gone out. All that preparation, of characters, events, travels, actions, dialogue, toward some final design, ended in a desert of meaning. Men and women had nothing more to say, to tell one another. There were no more trips they wanted to take. No more consoling gestures, no more actions producing reactions that could make a man or a woman get up off a chair. No questions demanded answers. No one wanted anything more. Everything ended in surrender. White flag, white page.
I’d just sit staring at my screen. I talked about it with friends, asked for help. All they said was “Think about Kafka—he almost never finished anything.” And then they’d change the subject because there was nothing more to say. “Yeah? Well, why didn’t he?” And they didn’t know, and I didn’t know, and no one knew. And the conversation had already moved on.
That unconditional surrender of things and people was too lifelike not to hurt. Didn’t I write because life wasn’t enough—so I could at least force life into the meaning of a sentence? Didn’t I write because I couldn’t seem to accept that everything I said and did had no direction other than the senselessness of endlessly doing something? What was I doing with my life—my memories, my pain, even my happiness—if I couldn’t at least shape it into a story?
I’m a disciplined writer, a strong-willed writer. Every morning, I get up before dawn and sit down at the table with a cup of coffee. I’m convinced that positioning myself so close to the end of sleep leaves the door open for dreams. That from there, from the table where I’ve sat down with my hands just above the keyboard, I can see dreams, can tap into the primordial chaos of dream life while staying on dry ground in my ordinary reality. My cup of coffee, the hum of the refrigerator, the feel of the cold floor beneath my feet. In short, I’m convinced that the source of writing—even more than the stories—is an exact point, a precise time between the end of night and the start of day. A fragile space that vanishes in an instant, leaving nothing more to say.
To achieve this, I’ve always written in the kitchen. Because it’s here that I can see dreams better while still grasping hold of life. Every time I’ve tried to set up an office over the years, to furnish a space where I can write, it hasn’t worked out. My words have never come to life there. Every time, after getting that “writing room” ready, after setting my desk the proper distance from the window, putting the proper books on the shelves for the proper landscape to write in, then sitting down at the proper time of day—every time, I’ve then moved to the kitchen. And it’s there, among the leftover bread crumbs from dinner, the tablecloth pushed to one side, that the words have reappeared, famished, hungering after those crumbs.
And the office has been left for photos, when photographers would come by and want me to pose as a writer. “Stand in there,” they’d say. “It’s the perfect shot, with that view, the buildings out front, the trees, Pasolini’s books behind you, your notebook, your Parker pen lying on top.”
Over time, I gave up on having an office. My writing method seemed infallible: in the kitchen, with the door open to dreams. I just needed to stop when the garbage trucks arrived. They were easy to hear, with their relentless accelerating and braking, and then the crash of empty dumpsters, the mechanical arm dropping them on the sidewalk. These trucks were my allies; I relied on the complicity of the garbagemen, on the garbage brigade. Their process that told me: Time to leave—fall back, everyone’s holding life to account now.
I always trusted this. When I heard the dumpsters hit the asphalt, I stopped writing. And yet, in spite of my well-tested method, at a certain point, some novels just died on me. But why? It was the right time: the kitchen supplied the reality, sleep brought on dreams. Yet words refused to appear, to step onto the screen. Where are you? I felt like shouting at them in that nothingness. Why have you abandoned me? Why are you condemning me to silence?
And I’d end up sitting there in the kitchen, waiting for the garbage trucks and their relentless call. Hoping they’d come as soon as possible. Please, garbagemen, please have mercy on me. Please let me stop.
And when I finally heard them, I’d shut my laptop and raise my hands in surrender.
I’ve always tried to avert the premature death of my books. I’ve tried in every possible way to escape what my friends called “the curse of Kafka.” Kafka, the abandoner par excellence. The man of unfinished novels. I’ve always thought that at least he, Kafka, had the answer as to why one didn’t finish after having begun something. Up to the very end of his life, he kept on not finishing. And wasn’t asking his most trusted friend, Max Brod, to burn everything or nearly everything he’d ever written—wasn’t this, too, perhaps eliminating that final close, that last ending, which death, as it comes, fixes in place?
I even sought help from geography, trying to remove myself physically from that curse. Not being home seemed like an option. This is why I’ve traveled a great deal. I’ve hidden in other people’s homes to overcome the curse of Kafka. I’ve written in Genoa, Paris, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Montpellier, Bucharest, Moscow, Lisbon. There’s an entire world map of my absence from home, an escape route, a way out.
Sometimes it worked. Other times, relentless Kafka came knocking at the door.
To Max Brod [Berlin-Steglitz; postmarked on arrival: October 25, 1923]
So if I do not write, that is due chiefly to “strategic” reasons such as have become dominant for me in recent years. I do not trust words and letters, my words and letters; I want to share my heart with people but not with phantoms that play with the words and read the letters with slavering tongue.
On March 4, 2016, I decided to stop writing, or at least to stop trying so hard. If a novel came pounding down the door of the page, I’d let it in. Otherwise, I didn’t find it all that important to try. Thanks—but no.
Up to that moment, I’d structured my life around a living-writing binomial, and I never thought it could be otherwise. What would I do with my life if I didn’t glean details from it that I turned into a story? What would I do with myself if I had to wait for the final ending, death, to make sense of every day I had lived?
Becoming a so-called professional writer was natural for me, yet in a way, this couldn’t have been a greater miscalculation on my part. It meant turning my search for meaning into a career, for profit. Writing even to pay the rent. Writing for a living became true in every sense. If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t eat, and if I didn’t write, I’d go crazy.
So I automatically (so to speak) became a writer by trade. I took the easiest path, occupied my place within a crowded world already set up for this. All it took was one well-received novel to get the ball rolling. I began a routine that was largely standard by the 2000s. There were so many of us with the same ambition. I started writing for newspapers. First reviews, then regular columns. Traveling, reporting, trains, airplanes. Rarely at home: my rhythms dictated by packing and unpacking my suitcase.
Literary festivals, reviews, book tours, on beaches or in the mountains during the summer, bookstores, theaters, schools, breathtaking landscapes with the author, author cocktail hours, author dinners. Whenever I arrived, I’d take possession of my hotel room, climb up onto a stage. Talk, applause, get off the stage. Go to a dinner, talk, eat, return to my hotel, sleep.
Posing for photos was a corollary of this trade, and it was inevitable. I started even before I was thirty, learning to pose, to look at a distant point just over the photographer’s shoulder, and to set my gaze in the only manner possible, a writerly one. There were so many of us, our photos all alike. Drawn-out gaze, expansive thoughts, so sweeping. And then the photo on the page beside the interview, or on the poster. Because the writer knows. Knows more. Writer, tell us something wise. Writer, make us laugh. Or cry. And I’d say something wise, or funny, or moving.
The morning after, in the hotel, I’d wake up feeling so sad, I’d be choking on it. Meaninglessness was sitting there at the foot of my bed, staring me in the face.
Through this inordinate miscalculation, I surrendered to a ceaseless search for meaning. It was my trade. Receiving applause, someone waiting at the train station, the airport. “Good afternoon, Mr. Bajani. Welcome,” from a well-dressed concierge in a hotel I could never have allowed myself in the past. Being interviewed, saying something meaningful and not saying it alone, having a public, thinking of it as a community. Wasn’t this the end of loneliness? Wasn’t this the compensation I deserved?
Except in order to keep having this, I had to keep writing. If I didn’t write, the light went out. The carriage turned back into a pumpkin. So I began to torment myself with words, to flay myself for a story, so I could earn a bit of meaning.
And I looked at the photos they were taking of me. Leaning against a tree, bucolic gaze. A defunct factory behind me, the postindustrial writer. Or thoughtful, in the same pose as every other writer on earth, hand beneath my chin. And the more I looked at those photos, the more I thought, What does that person have to do with me? What does he have to do with that twenty-year-old boy who tore out his own beard, pulled chunks of flesh from his own face, because physical pain was the only way not to feel the hurt inside? Who rode his Vespa for hours alone, out in the countryside, because the noise of the motor silenced the buzzing of his thoughts? What did the writer in that photo have to do with the boy trying to find some respite from domestic violence, from a father’s fury, a man who’d decided not to live in his own hell but to drag his wife and two children down with him?
What did that luxury hotel, that “Good afternoon, Mr. Bajani,” have to do with that boy tapping on a keyboard, trying to find some peace inside a sentence? What did applause have to do with a boy who was uncertain how to live, and how this moved his hands over the page, dividing his pain into lines of poetry? And the cocktail hours, the literary festivals, those snacks of meaning offered like peanuts along with a spritz, for an hour with a sea view? Come one, come all, take your seat, snack on this guy, too, and he’ll help you live a better life.
And me, climbing up, and all of us, climbing up, considering our look before it’s offered, clearing our throats before we speak, preparing to see the effect our voices have on others. Speaking, declaring, shaping our sentences, looking for approval, for applause.
[Kafka’s diaries, January 24, 1922]
Hesitation before birth. If there is a transmigration of souls then I am not yet on the bottom rung. My life is a hesitation before birth.
I decided to quit writing while I was staying at a baroque villa on the Regnitz River in Bavaria. For eleven months, twelve of us—writers, composers, and artists—were to live in an austere but charming villa in the historic center of Bamberg. The city of nearly eighty thousand is one of the tourist centers of Franconia, a German region known for its wine and its hills. The historic center is one of the few the 1945 British and American bombing raids didn’t destroy. The river runs through this center, the sunset painting purple evenings on the water.
At the entrance to the villa, our twelve names had been painted on the steps, announcing to the citizens of Bamberg and to passing tourists: Inside are twelve artists. Beyond this door, artists are creating, letting their imaginations roam. For an entire year they’ll write novels, compose sonatas, paint masterpieces.
Periodically, the villa was open to the public. About once a month, in the afternoon, the front door opened, and men and women stomped on our names and took their seats in the performance hall. One by one, each of us would climb onto the stage and give an account of our work to the townspeople. Here’s what we’re doing in here, we’d say. Here is our trade.
Except that for eleven months, I didn’t write a single line. I’d get up early every morning, open the window overlooking the river, turn on my computer, and sit staring at the screen, waiting for a sentence to make an appearance. When the morning was over, if no sentence had arrived, I’d close my laptop and walk along the river until I was exhausted. If there was a sentence, I’d delete it.
I’d taken a lot of notes before coming to Bamberg. I’d even written a story three years before, for a Roman literary festival that I thought would work as the first chapter for the book I wanted to write. A novel titled “The Forgiveness Machine.” The same title as the story. For three years, I’d tried to write this and failed.
I’d read a magazine article about the American artist Karen Green and her installation The Forgiveness Machine. In 2009, in a gallery in South Pasadena, California, Karen Green had exhibited an actual machine that was more like a giant toy, designed to forgive. Visitors were invited to write down on a piece of paper what they were seeking to forgive—a person, an action. The machine took the piece of paper and pulverized it into a final snow at rest. Pulverized, the words, the name, brought forgiveness. And, finally, some peace.
What struck me, though, wasn’t so much the peace following this forgiveness, but its reverse. Some people (I read in an interview), about to slip the piece of paper into the machine, paused. They couldn’t do it. That toy, a supposed game, was suddenly serious. What then? they wondered. What then—what would become of me if I actually forgave this person?
Reading that article, I was paralyzed. Renouncing the crumbling of words in the name of forgiveness, those people were saying: And what will become of me if I renounce my enemy? Forgiving him, renouncing my enemy, means renouncing a reason, albeit an antagonistic one, to live. Can I be without him or her? Can I truly exist in peace, survive without saying, It’s all his fault? That’s what the visitors to the gallery in South Pasadena seemed to be saying, those who’d decided against inserting a word, a name, a sentence, into the machine. Can I do it?
Living without an enemy—that was the point. After I read an interview with Karen Green in a women’s weekly magazine, I thought about my father. His life, and consequently ours, had been a constant hunt for the enemy. Every person connected to our family had systematically fallen victim to that skeet shooting. Hadn’t we all been paralyzed by the terror of his obsessive search for the enemy? Didn’t his every threat—screams, smashed objects, wall punches—hold the same allusion: Maybe you want to become my enemy too? Relatives, friends, first they’d appear, and then they were entered into the registry of enemies. And suddenly they disappeared, never to be mentioned again. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, work colleagues. Poof—gone. If we—my mother, my sister, or I—ever mentioned them, we might end up on that list as well. No abatement, no pity. A scream, then silence.
For eleven months, looking out on the Regnitz River, I wasn’t able to write a single line. I re-read Karen Green interviews, searched for information online, other photographs of the installation. I tried to create a chorus of pardoners and a chorus of executioners. I did interviews, took photographs.
But none of this ever became a story. At night I’d see the lights on late in the others’ rooms. I’d catch sight of the writers behind their curtains, silhouettes huddled over keyboards. In the darkness of my room, I’d curse them, curse myself, curse writing.
A photographer came to take pictures of me in my Bavarian room. I wore a nice shirt, raised my hands over the keyboard, pretended to write. He snapped the photo. I changed clothes, put on a T-shirt, and we went someplace else. He snapped another photo.
I made one last, desperate attempt. I’d record what I had to say. If the words wouldn’t come from my hands, maybe they’d come from my mouth. Every morning for a month, I’d go down to the baroque villa’s basement with my digital voice recorder. Every morning, when the recorder’s red light went on, I’d start talking. I spoke slowly, searching for the right words, forming the sentences in my mind. Morning after morning, I said everything I had to say. At the end of each session, exhausted, I’d return to my room, and sleep for two hours. Extracting words from my body was brutal, tearing them from my flesh. And it was useless—the body holds no words.
After a month, I was done; I saved hours of my voice on my laptop. I tried to listen to myself. I turned myself off. I tried to transcribe my voice. I re-read what I’d transcribed. The delirium of a desperate man—it had nothing to do with literature.
At the end of my residency, I thanked the director and her staff for inviting me. I said the past eleven months had been crucial, because I’d decided to stop writing. I’m not so sure they considered this to be such a great outcome—here was a place designed to support writers in their writing—but they couldn’t help but hear my gratitude, and I their affection, their professional esteem, and their compassion.
Before leaving my room on the Regnitz, I wrote all the organizers of the literary festivals who’d invited me to present my books in the following months. I apologized, but I couldn’t do it anymore. I canceled every event. And I asked my publishing house not to schedule any more.
I took one last trip to Nuremberg, a half-hour train ride from Bamberg. I walked down the stairs of the villa and stepped on my name. I took the local train. I walked in Nuremberg’s historic center for a few hours. I ordered a beer, ate some currywurst. I returned to Bamberg and packed my bags to leave forever. I was free.
To Max Brod [Planá, postmarked on arrival: September 11, 1922]
Fundamentally, loneliness is my sole aim, my greatest temptation, my opportunity, and assuming it can be said that I have “arranged” my life, it was always with the view that loneliness can comfortably fit into it.
More than seven years have passed since that March day in 2016 when I walked out the imposing front door of the Villa Concordia in Bamberg. Since then, I’ve stopped thinking about the small graveyard of my unfinished books. Or at least I’ve stopped doing it with the same tortuous hope as before, when knocking on the door of a failed book meant contemplating—anticipating?—that one way or another, someone would eventually open that door for me, and I could bring the book back to life.
Since then, my periodic visits have only been commemorative, for appeasement’s sake. A ritualistic gesture, a walk among the headstones, a changing of the flowers. That much was necessary, a polite gesture, honoring the dead.
I’ve opened the folder on my desktop, made sure everything was in its place. “The Forgiveness Machine”(2013–2016), “The Book of Transplants” (2010–2015). Another novel, untitled (2014–2015), focusing on a local pharmacy in Rome, the broken dream of a pharmacist from southern Italy, from Puglia, ruined by debt in the era of Big Pharma. Another novel, untitled (2009–2010), a lot of notes and not much writing, a sort of biography of Stalin’s son who committed suicide, or so they say, because his father disowned and publicly humiliated him. Detained in a Nazi concentration camp in Oranienburg, on April 14, 1943, he fled toward the electrified barbed wire, knowing how it would end, in machine gun fire. Then there was “The Persecution of the Doppelgänger” (2007–2008), the story of a man’s persecution, for the sole reason that this man resembled his persecutor’s worst enemy.
Then, finally, a novel from an earlier time, untitled (2005–2007), my first real failure. The main character was a boy who loved hockey and whose father worked with businesses that had gone bankrupt. Almost every afternoon, the father brought the boy with him to do inventories of the businesses that had shut down, the employees having abandoned the buildings on the spot, without warning.
The father and son spent hours like this, in bombed-out landscapes, everything left as it was before the owner’s announcement that the company had gone bankrupt. Pens lying across paper, children’s photos sitting on desks, barrettes clipped to drawer handles.
The father would list what he saw in monotone, and the boy wrote it all down on a notepad. Then the father would come up with a sum, an economic value of that jumble of failed things.
Afternoons went on like this, in deserted hangars, exterminated by things. Often, rats had gnawed their way into the vending machines.
The novel—with the working title “The Book of Failures”—was set in the winter. Snow everywhere, outside the buildings. And freezing inside, because like everything else, the electricity had been cut off. The father and boy slowly went from room to room, two clouds rising from their mouths.
The boy couldn’t stand his father, perhaps due to his age, or his pent-up anger. One day during a fight, he’d shouted that his father was nothing but a gravedigger making money off others’ misfortunes.
At night, the boy would pull on his skates, his hockey pads and helmet, and get on the ice. Here, grace, speed, and violence intertwined. The boy was unbeatable in that dance on blades. But it always ended in a fight. The boy would yank off his gloves, hit someone bare-fisted, hurt him. And get ejected, every time.
The father would watch, and feel troubled. But he never commented. The next afternoon, he’d take the boy with him to do more inventories. There was a silence between them that was hard to decipher. There was also a care to the father’s work that moved me as I wrote. And that legacy, the dignity, even, of giving value to what had failed—this perhaps was something that neither of them could understand.
Since my German residency, since March 2016, every time I poke my head inside that graveyard of failed novels, I do so with affection rather than frustration. And even now, as I’m writing this, there seems to be some kind of justice—beauty—to this gesture of mine, this writing. Giving value to what has failed.
As I type these pages on my computer on an early summer morning, I feel I’m wandering around inside those desolate, bombed-out hangars. Except there aren’t any pens lying across paper, no pictures of sons and daughters in silver frames—just these stories left unfinished, gone bankrupt for reasons that will always remain a mystery. Pharmacists, persecutors, the forgiven and the forgivers, surgeons, patients, young hockey players, they’ll just stay put, their gestures never fully making sense.
Now that I’m doing this inventory of my own, it feels like there’s a reason for all this senselessness. Simply, that it, too, has a right to citizenship. It’s not a graveyard but a habitat, a microclimate, the only place possible for these missing stories to survive, to live together, without having to apologize for not being able to end. Living like everybody else, with extreme effort, sentences unfinished, gestures unrealized, caresses ungiven.
Don’t I, after all, teach my students about the relationship that exists between inventory and invention? Don’t I tell them every day that there’s no vision other than what arises from taking stock, from the inventory, the list of what remains? That inventing is nothing but sitting there, just like a father and son inside an ice-cold building, and pronouncing, in monotone, all the life remaining on the table, after the end has dropped like an ax? That you have to be brave when you write and hold only half-lives in your hands?
[Note written by Franz Kafka, Kierling sanatorium]
Here it is nice to give… because everyone is a little bit of a connoisseur, after all.
Since March 2016, the graveyard of my unfinished books has stayed exactly the same. For seven years, no other text that hoped to be a book has gone inside. It’s just stayed there, like a parallel bibliography to the novels—in the midst of those failed attempts—that I managed to finish. Would I have written those novels that I published without those others that failed? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter—what matters is that those failures have a place to stay.
My marriage to E. didn’t survive my German residency. You might say it didn’t survive my exit from writing. I tried to prop it up, using sentences as permanent scaffolding. As long as I kept trying to write sentences—no matter how clumsy—to keep us inside a story, the relationship could endure. But the moment I let go of writing, I had to come to terms with what I still held in my grasp. I had to take stock, an inventory. “What happens, doctor, when an organ’s transplanted into a different body?” That body tries to destroy it, and will always try, until the very end. The surgeon had said this, but it never made it into a story; it happened only in life.
Our marriage ended like many marriages, with a courtroom, rage, pain, and the division of assets, reasons, and faults. This happened to us, too, one September morning in 2018. First we said our names before a judge, and then we left, bruised with hostility and pain, and walked back to our bikes. And we went our separate ways, leaving the monumental building behind us that was dedicated to human justice—to the law—that attempt, anyway, at justice.
When E. left, when she rounded the corner on her bike, I called my lawyer friend. “Come on, Andrea, it’s over,” he said. The divorce was only a formality. “Yeah, right” was all I said, and hung up. It was clearly not over, clearly an unfinished act, a love story that, in spite of the legal steps, would keep trying to end every day, colliding every day with that official ruling. It had only been cropped, an intermediate ending, a failed, unfinished ending.
I stopped being a professional writer, as I’d promised myself, at the end of my Bavarian retreat. I took on two jobs to make a living. I stopped giving readings; I turned down every invitation to get on a stage, to provide thoughts like little beach snacks, to receive applause, have my picture taken, pretend to know how to live or at least how to think. In the meantime, three years ago, my son was born, and I married for the second time.
Every day, for months, while my son slept, between the hours of 4:00 and 7:00 a.m., I wrote another novel. So I fell once again into writing, and will probably keep falling. I stopped being a professional writer, but I haven’t stopped writing. I surrender to the trap of words because silence is overwhelming, and crushes my temples. So I have to break it with a sentence, shatter it, carry some words to safety, outside myself. Every time I do this, I think it’s the last time, and while I’m doing it, I also feel like doing it is a failure. But perhaps it’s worth it to reach this limit, to fail this way, to write only when not writing would be dying, to write only when I can’t do otherwise.
During his final days, in the Kierling sanatorium, Kafka couldn’t speak: his tuberculosis of the larynx had grown worse, was choking him. So he wrote small notes and passed them to Dora Diamant or his friend Robert Klopstock. “Often offer the nurse wine,” “Max has his birthday on May 27,” “One must take care that the lowest flowers over there, where they have been crushed into the vases, don’t suffer.” Kafka’s extreme writing: notes passed to a woman and to a friend, when he was dying. Isn’t this Kafka’s ultimate exit from literature, his surrender to life? Kafka shook off literature the way a dog shakes himself after the rain. The naked words of life remain when faced with death. When faced with silence.
Our pediatrician says I talk too much to my son, that I have to give him some space. That at age three, he just doesn’t need all that stimulation. “Have you ever tried to be quiet?” he laughed over the phone, after our families had just had dinner together. “Why don’t you try?” And so I’ve tried: I practice not talking when I’m with my son. While we play, I hold back the avalanche of words I’m tempted to drop on his head. “Don’t worry—he knows you exist,” the doctor told me.
That silence—or at least trying to be silent—is all I have learned, that jump into the void, which writing can’t do. That silence—I’d like never to break it; I’d like to feel that I didn’t have to roll it up, like coiled rope, to make a story of it, a thought, a request for help. I’d like not to write anymore.
I sometimes watch my son playing by himself. I keep my distance, in the doorway to his room. Now and then I’ll call my wife to come and see. We stay there awhile, watching. Then she goes back to what she was doing, and I stay where I am. There’s a piercing intensity to the sight of your son learning to play by himself. An absolute loneliness, which he knows how to inhabit. And a different loneliness, yours, in the doorway to his room, which is harder to maintain. Every time, I feel the urge to walk in, to say, Amore mio, and save him, and save myself, with those two words. But I don’t—I hold back, try to keep these words to myself. My unfinished words. It takes more strength, more courage, to hold them back than to go into his room and finish the story by saying, Amore mio. So I keep quiet.
But then I go in and say, “Amore mio.” And once again I fail, and once again I’m human.