Sunday, October 28, 2007

we need an image

Kurt Schwitters with his guinea pigs on the balcony of his home in Hannover, late 1920s/early 1930s

failed autobiography

[I have to write a 500-word autobiography this week for something official. This is the sort of task to which I am fundamentally opposed. I have tried every way to go about this, but all I have is a graveyard of autobiographies, none of which I particularly like, though I do feel something ought to be done with them, since I am equally opposed to wasted effort.]

The small press Sun & Moon Books used to be on Miracle Mile on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, next door to the German-language Mastadon bookshop and across the street from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the tar pits surrounding the Natural History Museum. One sunny, 80-degree day in December over my winter break during my first year at Yale, my father and I walked to this block – the family weekend ritual throughout my childhood until I started commuting to USC for orchestra rehearsals in high school – to see what Sun & Moon was offering on remainder. We sifted silently through the paperbacks, my father sticking mostly to poetry, while my eye was caught by the cover of Every Man a Murderer by Austrian novelist Heimito von Doderer. I had never heard of von Doderer before, but I had seen August Sander photographs, and the one on the cover was a heart-stopper: a rotund, upright citizen, stood between his two smartly dressed, anemic adolescent sons. Everyone was pretty much the same height and everyone was absolutely bald. I snatched up this Biedermeier Laocoön and, while I was at it, a copy of von Doderer’s epic novel, The Demons (which had a more turgid but less arresting image by Oskar Kokoshka on its cover).

These books stood on my bookshelf for years, after my graduation and first job until just when the Guggenheim decided to reign in its budget by laying off a third of its staff. Living on unemployment for the summer before I started graduate school, I decided to take up cello again, practicing at the Brooklyn Conservatory and then going to the coffee shop across the street to read. This was the last extended period in which I read novels: Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Arthur Schnitzler, Thomas Mann, and, as it happened, von Doderer were my daily fare. I was a woman possessed: I inhaled thousands of pages about Viennese cafés, sanitoriums, prostitutes, demagogues, anarchists, amputees, armchair Nietzsche enthusiasts, night trains. I began to take long subway rides to far-flung boroughs because some tiny bookshop had another out-of-print von Doderer book by some other bankrupt small press, thumbing my way through the more readily available tomes by W.G. Sebald on my journeys.

[Here is where I got bored and broke off.]