Saturday 26 November 2022


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The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
It did not read like a love story, he thought, but it was a love story. It did not even read like a story, not that he likes stories, but it was a story. And he still liked it. It was not just a stream of invective, though it certainly was a stream of invective, and he has nothing against streams of invective, especially literary streams of invective, quite the reverse, he likes them, he even, and he wonders if the word is correct, collects them, if it is possible to collect streams in anything other than a lake. A lake of invective, perhaps, that doesn’t sound right. Fiction always is an essay in time, or on time, though neither sounds right, the act of reading is a linear act and the act of writing is a linear act, no matter how clipped and disordered that act may be in either case, no matter how you cut the strands, all fiction at base is an offence against time, an offence whence springs the hope and splendour of fiction, he thought. There are two strands in this story, he thought, though he wondered why he called it a story, the time of the telling and the time of all that presses upon the telling from the past. The novel, let him call it that, consists entirely of a monologue spoken, if it is even spoken, by a young German woman to a Dr Seligman, a rant of Bernhardian dimensions or proportions, neither of these words seem right, vulgar, surprising, hugely funny, ultimately sad. He could feel the spoilers coming on. Dr Seligman does not speak, or if he speaks he speaks between the paragraphs and his words are not recorded. He is like the auditor in Beckett’s Not I, not speaking but by his silence the enabler of the saying of all that is said, without him the tremendous disburdening, if that is a word, of the voice could not occur, without this receptive silence there would be no story. We might think at first that Dr Seligman might be a psychoanalyst, but he is not a psychoanalyst, nor even a counsellor, though she was sent to a counsellor, Jason, after threatening her workmate with a stapler, of all things, and fair enough, a counsellor who did not keep silent, who could not play the auditor, who shut her down by speaking. “When we are actually forced to talk about ourselves, things always get so awkward, because there is really very little to talk about. … People like Jason only live off making others feel bad about themselves by pretending that they know the way when in the end they will drown just like everyone else,” she says. Dr Seligman is not a psychoanalyst, though he could be to the body what a psychoanalyst is to the mind, whatever that is, a body is more personal than a mind, after all, if indeed there is anything personal at all about a mind, history is an offence on a body by a body, all the rest is stories, and here come some spoilers and it is not too late, even now, even if you have read this far, reader, to stop reading, he thought, I will accept not complaints if you continue, at least no complaints in this regard. What, though, is sayable and what is not sayable? When the Jewish Dr Seligman does not throw her out after her initial provocation-test recounting invented sexual fantasies involving Hitler, if a fantasy can be invented or can be anything but invented, the hurdle at which Jason fell, he begins to gain her trust and she begins to disburden herself to him of her unhappiness, her discomfort, since childhood, with her identity, or, rather, with the identity imposed upon her as all identities are imposed. “And I think that in a way that’s all we are: other people’s stories. There’s no way we can ever be ourselves,” she says, demonstrating, incidentally, how her monologue changes register so often on a comma, passing from vulgar to reflective within a sentence, if not back again as well. Since childhood she has been repelled both by her mother’s body and by her own, she says. At this point, he thought, he might compare the splendid Volckmerian rant with the splendid Bernhardian rant, each filled, he might say, with loathing, each skewering the rot in society, if you want rot on a skewer, each exposing, among other things, the indelible mark of Nazism upon a nation. The Bernhardian rant, as it progresses, though, he thought, rings more wrong, if that is the right way to put it, that is Bernhard’s genius, the narrator’s loathing is seen to be self-loathing, the ills of the world have their bastion within, so to speak, but the Volkmerian rant, as it progresses, rings more right, he thought, that doesn’t sound right, and this is more disturbing, even, what begins as self-loathing spreads out and shows us what is wrong with the world in which the loather sits and soaks, or whatever. All crimes are crimes of identity, he thought, a provocation of his own that he doesn’t really know how to think about, though perhaps he is right. We get everything wrong. “That’s where we differ from animals: with very few exceptions they always look the part, like perfect representations of their species, dignified and in just the right shape.” Bit by bit the monologist’s story is revealed, and we learn of her relationship with K, a relationship that broke all the various taboos with which identity is ring-fenced, though what the difference is between ring-fenced and plain fenced, he does not know, at least in this instance, metaphors aren't fussy. The pact was to remain impersonal, to play out their frustrations and harm upon each other, to use up the harm, to reflect and to become the other in the mirror, but when K. says, “Be with me always,” the monologist, call her Sarah, monologist is a stupid word, if it is even a word, ends the relationship forthwith. When she later hears of K.’s suicide, she completes the journey to deciding to become him, I told you it was a love story, though not the sort you expected, which is why she is delivering her monologue to Dr Seligman, a plastic surgeon who “is fitting a German woman with a Jewish cock,” you were warned about the spoilers, a process paid for with Sarah’s inheritance from her grandfather, the stationmaster at the last stop before Auschwitz. The Holocaust lies at the root of harm. Volckmer lambasts what she sees as the German delusion is having ‘dealt with’ the Holocaust by ensuring “that we remained de-Nazified and full of respect. But we never mourned; if anything, we performed a new version of ourselves, hysterically non-racist in any direction and negating difference wherever possible. Suddenly there were just Germans. No Jews, no guest workers, no Others. And yet we never granted them the status of human beings again or let them interfere with our take of the story.” The victims remain victims, their myriad stories still overwritten by a single story outside their control, Jews still trapped in the German national myth, still othered to the extent that they are Jewish, those losses, those bodies annulled still not seen by the Germans as their own bodies, not properly mourned as their own bodies, writes Voclkmer, or Volckmer seems to write, at least to him, the distance between the story and the body is a scale to measure shame. Guilt is a ritual, he thinks, though he has not yet thought the thought to its end, a ritual that seems to address but actually conceals shame, to address is to preserve, after all, but what else is there to be done? “It takes several minds to be beautiful,” says Sarah, writes Volckmer, and, he thinks, when the desire to be otherwise has more power than identity, when we lose our footing and begin to swim, can he never purge himself of these metaphors, when we submit to or we welcome the urgent undoing of what we are or are seen to be, if there is a difference between them, then, he thinks, though it is not him who thinks the thought, he merely reports what is thought, we can be many things at once or no things, open to whatever. Sarah remarks, writes Volckmer, there comes a time when “someone has split you into two versions of yourself.” This chimes with Bachmann, he thinks, though chimes is not the right word, when she wrote, in Malina, “I am not one person, but two people standing in extreme opposition to one another, which must mean I am always on the verge of being torn in two. If they were separated it would be livable, but scarcely the way it is.” It is hard, he thinks, to find what is livable.

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