It is twenty after four, in the early part of the summer, and the city is rising. I watch the city rise; the sun lags behind, as it always does—that sluggish thing—as though it needs the city to rouse it. Seen in a global context, my city is small, hardly worth mentioning, so small that you have to be careful not to inhale it inadvertently when drawing the first breath of the morning. 1.8 million people—what is that in comparison with Mexico City (19.2 million), Shanghai (18.9 million), or Greater Los Angeles (17.8 million)? So I’ve chosen to live where my city is at its most citified, on the Reeperbahn, the notorious nightlife district of the old St. Pauli dock area, two blocks from the harbor, which is, incidentally, the second-largest in Europe. The traffic comes in like the tide. Laps gingerly at my coast at first, then swells, surges and breaks, and will ebb away in twelve hours. It follows the pull of the moon, of course; what else would you expect? The sky brightens, as imperceptibly and inexorably as time itself, and the contours of the seagulls stand out in sharp relief against it. In the morning, the seagulls screech in front of my window; I regard that as a privilege. At night the drunks screech down on the street—there’s no clear dividing line between the two. With one final big yawn, the city inhales the last night owls and exhales the early birds. The transition from the one to the other is evident only to the keen observer.
I am a keen, slipshod, unreliable, and partial observer. I am embedded. I am a part of my city like a piece of laundry whirling round in the washing machine, on the “hot” setting in the full cycle, washed and spun, tossed together with all kinds of others of every shade and hue, and then get hung out to dry on the clothesline just a bit more discolored than the time before.
The intensity of a personal city wash cycle can, of course, be adjusted, but I prefer mine set on hot, and sometimes even hotter than that; I am not some delicate fabric that needs to be washed by hand in cool water. My part of town is decidedly rugged. In place of the trees that in other parts of the city provide a solid frame for the majestic nineteenth-century homes, we have a profusion of neon.
“The city is a remarkable and unique amalgam of landscape, nature, and a construct that is loved the way humans are loved,” Alexander Mitscherlich wrote in 1965 in Die Unwirtlichkeit unserer Städte (‘The Inhospitability of Our Cities’), and his pamphlet—as he called it—has lost none of its relevance forty-five years later. “The extension of the self to one’s home town or to the city one has elected—or selected—to live in…had all the characteristics of membership in a clan.”
My roots are in Hamburg, and I’m a member of the clan known as the St. Paulianer. I was born in Hamburg, in a tepid suburb—verging on the comatose—but I sought out my clan, or it found me. Yes, I do, I exclaimed, defying any sense of reason, when I moved into this apartment fifteen years ago. It consists primarily of windows, through which so much city—complete with sky, seagulls, noise, and neon ads—watches me live my life. What can I say? It’s love.
Sometimes I miss the scents of trees and wet grass I recall from childhood. Would I want to trade them in for the weird vegetation of my urban biotope, which day in and day out flits about my ears, reveals itself to me, chats me up, listens to me, muses, yields, revolts, and for the good times and bad we have together? Certainly not. The country welcomes day-trippers with open arms, but the visitor to the city remains a mere visitor. A visitor grins at the camera while posing in front of the most irrelevant things, so long as they’re nice and big, while we members of the clan take pity on him with a condescending smile. The German word for that kind of guy is Landei, which means a hick or a yokel.
Mitscherlich tells us, “Indisputably, the affection that is shown to a city, or a section of town, or some remote corner of it, is a result of psychological, that is, affective processes. When all is well, the city becomes the object of love of its inhabitants.” We city folk foster a long-term relationship with it, based on values deep within us. The hick who ventures into the city, by contrast, doesn’t make it past a meaningless flirtation, the way women tourists fall for the bronzed activities director at their vacation resort and their husbands are smitten with some fiery-eyed exotic beauty.
“[The city] is an expression of a collective creative power and vitality, spanning generations; it has a youth, more indestructible than that of any dynasties, which endures beyond the lives of the individuals who grow up here. The city becomes a comforting casing at times of despair and a radiant setting in festive days.” Mitscherlich depicts the city as a living organism, and with a mixture of tender and angry compassion describes its vulnerability in the face of crass, uninformed interference by bureaucratic city surgeons. “Cities used to grow slowly, and the people who lived there had a profound understanding of their functionality. It is actually inappropriate to continue using organic imagery to describe the growth of cities. Cities are now being produced like automobiles.”
Of course nothing in the city remains as it was—that is the very definition of the city. I still hate them—those city surgeons—who keep amputating frivolously, everywhere they turn. I’m certain that their own suburban villas are all marked for historical preservation and thus spared from their pruning, while they don’t even stop in to see their patients before heading to the operating room. My part of town, which is my home—to the extent that I have any home apart from writing—is being torn apart and gentrified. Vacant office buildings tower up into the sky and sprawl out like carcinomas where our—my—city once was. Just moments ago there was still a tumult of people and ideas here, then—abracadabra—they’re gone in a puff of smoke, and only wind and façades are left to gather for a chat in which everything has already been said over and over. The city’s face is heavily made up to lend it a youthful appearance, but this face lacks expression; it is a lifeless Botox face. The hipsters and kaputniks, the mommies and kiddies, the nitpickers and loafers: the tide has washed them away. Perhaps new ones will come; perhaps that will take too long for my liking. I am still clinging to this, my coast, like a mulish Robinson, and don’t want to accept the fact that all this might be part of the essence of the city as well. That the soul of the city is as transient as our own. Probably that’s why I don’t want to accept it. Incidentally, Hamburg has a long tradition of being wiped out either by widespread conflagrations and wars or, when no catastrophe steps in to intervene, by tearing itself down on its own, in the name of innovation and commerce. For every limb that is amputated, though, a new one seems to sprout up in some other spot. I guess I should learn to have faith in that.
Writing, oh yes: writing is by its very nature impossible in the city. How could writing get done when just being there takes up all your time and energy around the clock? The city is a collective concern, while writing is a highly solitary one; the two are diametrically opposed. How in the world can people write when their significant other keeps peeking into the room and trying to get them to do things together? Where can you carve out the empty space you need to populate it with worlds of your own when you’re already surrounded by too much world? “Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself,” Kafka tells us. Where Kafka encounters cold abysses yawning open, other writers may enter lush jungles or nice gentle mountain ranges, but the only way to roam through them is in complete solitude.
The city, properly understood, would be at variance with writing, if writing were not twofold, if we did not breathe in life and breathe out books. “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live,” Thoreau says. He is also right. To complement my ludicrous washing machine metaphor harmoniously with more housewife lingo, writing is going through the world like a very big vacuum cleaner. I go through as much world as I can and vacuum it up, and when doing so I have to make sure not to forget the corners and the top shelves and that narrow space under the couch.
Because even the city does not always yield up everything I need, I go out and travel. To lose myself to the world with abandon and to subject it to a thoroughgoing process of questioning. The world is like Schrödinger’s cat; its infinite probabilities collapse into a reality only in the presence of an observer. I travel a great deal, always a bit farther than I actually dare; the realities become truly interesting once you’re really led down the primrose path. I always come home all tattered and torn—and more on the ball.
My home city is a travel destination. My actual home is writing. When I return there, I have an archive of vacuum cleaner bags, brimming over with world, where Kafka has his unheated abyss. I enjoy picturing this archive as virtually endless halls, built bombproof into a mountain like the futuristic fortress of a 1970s James Bond film villain who indulges in fantasies of world domination. I make my way through these halls along my strands of thought, empty my vacuum cleaner bags, and have a look at what has held fast and is now useful to me.
Picture me in a kind of royal bathrobe, my diadem askew, a vision of disheveled grandeur, a Shakespearean king with a Monty Python twist, or, if you like, as Blofeld. I am Blofeld, stroking the white cat on my lap, and with unrestricted dominion I create worlds out of dust, out of the echo of all the things and people I shake out of my vacuum cleaner bags. Once in a while, Blofeld suddenly touches down next to King Lear—along with a disconcertingly strong cat presence: that kind of thing happens. Anyone who thinks this image is too abstruse should rest assured that in reality, writing is even far, far more abstruse. It is the most solitary, agonizing, perplexing, complex, amusing, and joyful thing I know of. An outrageous thing to require of somebody, and being asked to write about it is still more outrageous, because it is really no one else’s concern; it is very personal. Be off from my fortress, I declare with an imperious Blofeld gesture, and startle the cat.
I don’t like to write in the city. During the winter I live in a village in Austria. It’s a vacation resort in the summer, and in the winter it’s a spot of perfect beauty and virtually perfect stasis. There it is as empty as I need it to be. I populate the emptiness with stories, or—let me put it this way—I sit back and watch my stories while populating the emptiness. Graham Greene has compared writing a novel to flying an airplane. At first, while still on the runway, you have to give it all you’ve got when pressing on the accelerator, but once you’re airborne, the flying happens all by itself. I couldn’t agree more. Once the cruising altitude has been reached, I become a passenger, and the airport to which I’m headed is not always a sure thing. But you’d better keep your seat belt fastened—it could turn out to be a bumpy ride.
So here I am in my village, in my Blofeld bunker archive, aboard my long-haul aircraft, on an expedition through my abysses and jungles. I write a lot. Always reach a bit farther than I actually dare. Writing becomes all-absorbing once you’re really led down the primrose path.
My own individual self steps back graciously and as far as possible to make way for the stories. I am a haughty sovereign and servile subject all in one. I’m both a mad scientist and a Petri dish, with story cultures growing in my nutrient solution of language. Writing is like Schrödinger’s cat; its infinite probabilities collapse into a story only in the presence of me as an observer. The village, defined as absence, leaves me at ease. Leaves us at ease. My protagonists are in some way physically present, and it is only when a book is finished and they all promptly walk out on me, after the long months we have spent together, that loneliness descends on me, and becomes longing for the company of the city.
In order to write in the city, I have to seal myself off from it hermetically, as best I can, and try to construct my own village within me. Anyone who is left at ease by the city has failed to understand it. At times like these, I am hard to reach by phone. I’m an out-of-the-office message. The major unease of writing cannot put up with any other sources of unease around it; it is an uptight, overbearing, hypersensitive diva—at least mine is.
In the unease of the city, I recover from it. I draw a deep breath once more. At ten to seven on an early summer’s morning, the city has risen over itself, and the light squanders itself in golden hues on worthless façades, the last seagull like an accent on a vowel that I have yet to understand. Blofeld’s cat—or is it Schrödinger’s—scratches at the door of the balcony. In any case, the cat is out of the bag—and incidentally, curiosity does not kill it at all. It roams about over roofs and through backyards, like me. All you have to do is put a little bowl of milk in front of me, and I will lap it up and purr and try to tell a story about it in due time.
Translated from the German by Shelley Frisch