The unexpected physicality of a Stasi interrogator

Seeing his friend on the stage, in a theatre that stood on top of a swimming pool in an unassuming part of East Amsterdam, brought on an unexpected sense of pride. He knew his friend had been involved in numerous productions, both as a director and actor, so why this sense of pride? Either way, there it was.

His friend’s acting provided the sense of comfort and trust well-cast actors always bring to the stage when they’re on form. It’s the sense of trust that exists outside of a character’s likability or moral direction; a sort of artistic license that says: I will let you sweep me away to wherever you want to take me. It didn’t happen often since it required the transcendence of acting into something else, what certain people might call some kind of truth.

Knowing that it was a friend that led him down the satire led street of  “Allo’ Allo’” was an experience he didn’t know existed before, in that moment, it existed. But what was the experience exactly? Pride by association? An intimacy that elevated the perceived quality of performance? He couldn’t make sense of it as he sipped on a Duvel in the dimmed theatre. But the smile on his face was one of full capitulation to what was happening on stage.

He tried unmasking his friend beneath the cloak of his character. He clearly remembered numerous articles in the art sections of the Sunday papers where actors would say, “you must expose something of yourself to fully own a role”. He’d always agreed on an intellectual level, despite never having acted himself, or ever having an inclination to do so. He believed that it meant that any play, no matter if it had been reproduced on a stage hundreds of times before, had an automatic uniqueness since the actors always brought something from themselves into a role. While this said nothing about the quality of the Sunday paper actors, or indeed their plays, it did say something about live theatre and the inherent re-contextualisation that is part of its DNA.

After all, a play does not only consist of actors playing their parts, but inevitably also includes elements of personality that can peek out beneath the cloak of fictional storytelling.

And so, as he watched his friend perform, he couldn’t tell if there were aspects of his friend that he recognised, or if there were any previously hidden characteristics that he expressed through his role as a Stasi interrogator. But there was certainly an unexpected physicality that was present, which he put down to refined acting skills rather than a previously hidden feature of his being.

Although some of the sternness and directness, which he normally wouldn’t attribute to his friend – an ideological and morally convinced person with a diplomatic side that he tended to abide by unless he was engaged in an intellectual debate he did not agree with – did perhaps point to a side of him that had always been there, but which he’d never had the need to display. That the role was delivered without the glee that some actors fail to suppress in such roles was also impressive. Revelling in the opportunity to act out could easily take an actor too far, turning it into farce. And while Allo’ Allo’ voluntarily sits comfortably in the farce bracket, it was a balancing act his friend came out on the right side of.

After the play, when he met the amateur cast over some drinks, he gave his friend the credit he was due. They discussed art and what makes a good play and he remembered that he liked his friend for these conversations. A mutual appreciation and understanding had developed between them over the years.

And perhaps, he thought, his pride was located, somewhere in-between them, in this common understanding and shared experiences, and less attached to anyone’s individual qualities. And that in some way, his friend’s acting abilities became another layer of their friendship, another avenue of insight in which their relationship could exist and relate to.

After a couple of more beers he found himself in a cab, in that reflective state one can fall into on dark winter nights when yellow street lights flicker through the car window like a necklace of lit up butterflies.

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Beware the fallen mind

beware-the-fallen-mind

“He’s going to hold this against you for a long time you know,” she said from the backseat as she curved her small body into a ball on the backseat. The grey Catalonian clouds were hanging low across the mountains and our rental car.

“I know, I know,” I said as I clenched the steering wheel while my cheeks turned red. I observed her failed attempts at trying to block out the daylight that filtered through the thick clouds. The collective hangover was unmistakeable in the car.

For weeks I had thought about what to say at my friend’s extravagantly planned birthday party outside Barcelona, which had featured a number of confusing spread sheets and transport arrangements in the run-up. This was aligned with my expectations since my sentimental and nostalgic friend was well known for his limited abilities to stay calm and not overdo things. It is somewhat of an ironic trait since he’s easily the most frequent traveller I know.

There was little doubt that – regardless of how confusing the lead up to the party was – I was expected give a speech at some point during the weekend. I had previously delivered presentations at various festivities he had organised, and even at one of his friend’s birthday party in Washington DC, which I unexpectedly ended up at in the spring. So not only did he expect a speech (without ever telling me so), it also needed to be funny, meaningful, sentimental while conveying an interesting aspect of our relationship that could provide valuable insight for a wider audience.

Normally I looked forward to such a task. I enjoyed the process, which tended to come easily to me once I planted the thought in my head and started writing. The pen tended to do the rest, and at some point a thought or line of thinking would emerge that was good enough to build on. So when I first started to think about what to say I wasn’t concerned. This was something I had the necessary skills to do, it’s not as if I was in the running to write for Saturday Night Live or anything like that, but something would pop out of my mind if I just gave it some thought.

I began pondering various angles, trying to consider my friend’s characteristics and our experiences together. There were certainly stories available. Unfortunately I became increasingly busy at work and when I found the time to think about my speech the only reoccurring thought was that I missed having him around. And while that might be worth pointing out to reaffirm and appease my friend’s melodramatic and nostalgic side, I knew it wasn’t sustainable premise for an amusing speech.

I also thought about how impressed I was that he had managed to settle in Washington DC and land the highflying job he now occupied. But professional respect and admiration is the main ingredient for the majority of failed Oscar’s speeches, so also that was discarded as a base for my presentation. Perhaps it wouldn’t be as straightforward as I had hoped… but I still had time.

As the party edged closer I became increasingly anxious. My inability to make a start became an appendix to my work stress, which evoked an acute sense of disappointment in my failure to deliver what I knew I was capable of. I knew I should just sit down and write, but somehow it felt beyond my abilities.

With only a few days to go I started thinking I could do what I always recommended against, and which very few people can pull off; I’d wing it. I would just stand up, and the words would come to me. After all, I had so many words in my head; surely a few of them would come out and play nicely to form sentences of adequate quality that a drunken audience might mistake for actual speech writing skills?

When the first evening of the weekend-long party finally arrived my friend’s sister expectedly introduced the first activity: everyone would hold a short speech and give a toast to my friend throughout the dinner. As expected no one volunteered, so she held the first one, which was as sentimental and sweet as one would expect. I started to feel uneasy and counted the number of people that separated my friend’s sister and me in mild panic: five.

Would I manage to come up with something in five speeches? I finished my beer and asked for another one, even though I knew that more alcohol would be of no help at that point. The speeches continued until a natural break in between courses provided a short break where I could leave the table to check on my girlfriend who had gone to bed early due to a cold.

I told her about the speeches downstairs but she told me not to worry about it. Unfortunately not worrying was not an option: I knew I wouldn’t be able to deliver; my mind drew a complete blank. If I stood up at that moment, not only would I not be funny, I wouldn’t even make sense.

So, rather than manning up, I told my friend that I’d do it tomorrow, which he accepted with a smile and a look that said: I have no problem giving you another day because I know it will be great. This didn’t make me feel better in any way, so I proceeded to drink seven different kinds of alcohol.

When I woke up at 11am the day after, I briefly wondered why someone insisted on stabbing my head with a pointed knife, before I realised that this was a seven different kinds of alcohol hangover. I had a quick breakfast before I ill-advisedly drove down to town to pick up my friend’s birthday cake. The Spanish winter sun burned my hangover eyes. I tried to get myself together by ordering a double espresso in an establishment in the small town, which seemed to struggle to decide if it wanted to be a US style diner or a Catalan tapas place. It didn’t help.

I picked up the birthday cake together with my girlfriend before driving back up to the house. Later in the day I watched Barcelona – Real Madrid, which helped me take my mind off my failed speech. Afterwards it was time for dinner and the people who did not hold speeches during the first night did, which meant that eventually I was the only friend of his who had not said anything. I felt completely drained of energy and kept a low profile before eventually going to bed at twelve, too tired and drunk to be concerned about my lack of presentation.

By the last morning it was all over. There was a point before we all said our goodbyes where I could have grasped the last straw to say something, even if it wasn’t a proper speech. It could at least have been some kind of summary of what had taken place over the weekend. But I didn’t even do that, and in the end all that was left was to say goodbye and start the journey back. Which is where we were when my friend curled up in the back seat and brought up the fact that my lack of a speech was not only something internal to me.

I drove in silence on empty Catalonian roads with my three hung-over and half asleep passengers, listening to Teenage Fanclub’s With You:

Who knows what we will see

Who know what we might find

Step over the fallen tree

And beware the fallen mind

A couple of weeks later, back in London, I read an interview in the FT with Zadie Smith where she quoted Salman Rushdie: “our lives teach us who we are”.

And even though I was still disappointed by my own inability to deliver the speech, I also concluded that it was a failure I needed to accept. That disappointment in oneself is part of life. But as I drove in silence towards the Monastery of Montserrat, the redness of my cheeks was entirely built on self-loathing.

The Easter poem (and egg fighting)

eggs

A few weeks ago I found myself in a flashy London-apartment in Sloane Square. A number of Bulgarian people were determined to celebrate Easter by painting eggs, and then fighting with them. As a Swedish pacifist I relished the challenge, but soon found myself out battled, and slightly mocked, by a Russian friend with much more experience in egg fighting than myself. In addition to the egg painting, and fighting, numerous beers, and a particularly appalling bottle of sparkling rose, were consumed.

Before the event I had been challenged to write a poem about eggs. This being my year of failure, I naturally accepted, spending 20 minutes of Saturday morning trying to get my head around an egg. I then subsequently read it to the gathered Bulgarians, and one Spanish anarchist with wild hair. It was not my finest moment, and the awkwardness of presenting an erratically put together thought-piece on an egg in front of strangers with violent egg traditions, was challenging. But in the end, there seemed to be a general appreciation for the effort. So I thought I’d share it here as well:

Egg poem for Bulgarian Easter
You never had a home, egg. Perhaps you never expected one, always on the move, even before there was life. A Bulgarian Easter token, a canvas for over-worked people needing an output, a clean slate for other peoples’ ideas. Maybe you had bigger dreams, egg. Greater ambitions than becoming an alternative art space. But as you were transported from your mother, your life was chosen for you. We created the logistical process to get you here, our shiny example of supply and demand. But I don’t want to be an example, you might say. But this is not that kind of story. And you can’t speak, egg. This is a narrative on Goliath winning, of industrial machines, of watercolours produced by children in a Chinese village. And as we look at you, ready to unleash our uneven artistic pursuits on your bare skin, all that is left for you is to raise the hands you don’t have, and try and see the beauty in the part you play. In bringing people together. The life which could be you, will never be. You’re an Easter egg, in a flamboyant colour. The opposite part of hallelujah.

Then a friend of mine read a poem in Bulgarian, which was intense enough to send shivers through some people. Since my attempt was neither shiver friendly, or wildly intense, I gave her the victory. The Bulgarian Easter egg poem champion of 2013 victory. Next year I’m going for gold!

Disappearing epiphanies (losing something which could be something)

Sometimes, when particularly interesting ideas, feelings and thoughts come to me I have a strong urge to write them down. So I can make sense of them, expand them; maybe use them for something (like my endless notebook notes?). However, most times when these epiphanies (for lack of a better word) appear, I don’t get the opportunity to write them down. They tend to have bad timing, like many other things in life.

Examples of the problematic timing are; location (work, tube or shower), wrong state of mind (drunk) or wrong time of day (reading in bed while falling asleep). The main problem is not the places these thoughts appear, lots of things occur at impractical times, but that they are fickle and need careful nurturing. Because when I decide I need to write something down, the decay of this very thing immediately sets in. Thoughts slowly blur, sharp emotions lose their edge, phrases I think about lose their shape and disassociate themselves from each other. It’s like watching a bruschetta being eaten by hamsters (I would imagine).

So, when I finally get my plastic pen and red notebook ready, all that’s left is a frustrating feeling of losing something which could have been something. I need to protect my thoughts better, prioritise them. Now they’re like a load of laundry I’ve forgotten to take out of the washing machine, wrinkled and muggy, a blurry mess of colours and fabrics which you can vaguely see promise in, but which you no longer remember how to assemble.

Fortunately these ideas and thoughts seem to continue to materialize in my mind, despite my inability to gather them. They are my own private rainbows. Perhaps I’m destined to run after them, never quite getting there, always dreaming of the promise they might one day become clearer. And stay a bit longer.

Apparently I have Will Self on my side:

Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever.

From Advice to Writers

There will be no fruit at all

Whatever you do, write something every day, even though most of it turns out to be terrible. And it will be terrible, yes, quite terrible indeed. Maybe there will be a small insight somewhere, a sentence or thought, which could be polished into something which isn’t terrible. But even this might be nothing more than wishful thinking. Which is a great song.

Some writers give this as advice to other writers, at least the first part of the first sentence in the first paragraph. So I abide. For the first five minutes when I get to work, as I wait for my in-box to load, when I get home from work, when I’m on a crowded tube train. Sometimes there is something there, other times it’s like watching paint dry in the shape of words. I’ve never actually watched paint dry, but if I would have it would probably be just as fruitful. Meaning there will be no fruit at all.

When there’s nothing the only thing left are words refusing to organise themselves into meaning, into something that says something. Writing something doesn’t necessarily mean that you are saying something, just like sending an email doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve communicated anything. Words are not enough, something needs to be there, in-between them.

But where does there come from?

Probably from a place where you don’t yet feel comfortable, where there is darkness, guilt, regret and other emotions that make up the foundation of any drama. A place you hesitate to go even by yourself. But when you do go, perhaps just before you go to bed, you realize it’s all there, a wave of potential meaning where your words can swim as they please. But then there are other people, and there is yourself, and it’s no longer clear who or what you’re trying to protect. But it’s something, something not ready for everyday writing.

Then your in-box loads and you’re off into another day at the office, far away from the foundation of drama.

The men and women who kill darlings with butcher knives

The calm and methodological tone of great writers, their pacing and wording that make pages and characters and events seamlessly flow forward. Who write the words the rest of us don’t find, those that we fear to write down, the ones at the core, that risk alienating and hurting, the ones that sting hearts and display our own weaknesses. The ones who have the voice of enough life, the ones that have worked through enough, anything, to be able to pick the perfect words. The men and women who punch holes in every balloon they come across, who kill darlings with butcher knives and hide from the outside world knowing that it is their internal world that is all that matter.

The ones who manage to keep a tone and a character with a firm hand through a story with all its events and shifting moods without losing the sense of identity. The ones I read and feel defeated and inspired by at the same time. The ones writing about my own life with better words. Who draw own lines in the sand where I put down my feet, carelessly stealing all the thoughts I wanted to put down and doing it with better words and with such ease and pose. Karl Ove Knausgård is one of them. He is from Norway and as I read the second part of his manic six part odyssey into his deeper inner self I find myself wanting to underline the entire novel. But since it is in Swedish I’ll treat you to two sections I underlined while recently reading Jonathan Franzéns autobiography The Discomfort Zone instead:

“I was a small and fundamentally ridiculous person.” p. 30

“My father, my rational ally, who by his own testimony had married my mother because “she was a good writer and I thought a good writer could do anything,” and who’d chafed against her romantic nature ever since, encouraged me to be a scientist and discouraged me from fancy writing.” p. 103

Poetry

In an interview in a Norwegian literature program Joyce Carol Oates says that she covers up her laziness with a great memory. How she, one of the most productive writers around, can claim to be lazy is beyond me. I sit in my sofa and wounder what I can cover up my laziness AND poor memory with.

Today was going to be a day of writing, I was gonna let the literature current take me into the unknown. Turns out the literature didn’t want to go anywhere. It stayed in the sofa, at least Chelsea won against Man Utd. There were no words, nothing to be found, nothing came out. But you are writing this, you might think.

But its not poetry or fiction, is it?