A Room to the End of Fall.When my notice heralding the narrative of novelist Theresa Ollivante’s disappearance was first published (see the chapter, Thought Police, page 414 of Sister Morphine published by Salt in 2008) ...
... the announcement concluded that:
‘... when, even the Press have so far failed to uncover clues to solve the mystery of her disappearance, tantalisingly, the publication of a full account of her astonishing story must be delayed until the next edition of this work [Sister Morphine].’Theresa evidently empathised strongly with Chekhov’s disillusioned bookish captive, but she herself denied at the time a Freudo-Marxist view of alienation to explain her own anomie and other related neurotica. Her attempt at a conclusive account of her ordeal of abduction and imprisonment and of her remarkable escape are now compressed within the quire of pages that contains her narrative, A Room to the End of Fall.
This earlier commentary observed that, frustratingly, the occasion of Theresa’s disappearance, corroborated by a number of witnesses, had been more closely documented and reported more faithfully than the bizarre circumstances of her discovery.
In Thought Police there is a sketch of the scene outside Theresa’s city apartment house, the day before her disappearance, that gave rise to the narrative’s working title. A police patrol car halts beside her as she stands immobile in an unseasonal flurry of snow, dressed in a thin housecoat, staring fixedly at a drain cover where the snowfall had melted in a perfect dish-shaped concavity.
The cops are friendly and polite.
They had merely put to her one question: ‘Something on your mind, maybe?’
‘No. It’s nothing,’ she answers dryly with a false smile. ‘Unless, perhaps, you’re a deputation from the Thought Police.’
A day later she vanishes without a trace to reemerge half a decade later.
In Thought Police in 2008 there are quoted a few key passages from her diary into which she had copied extracts from Chekhov’s sinister cautionary tale, The Bet, whose unnamed young hero has himself incarcerated voluntarily for fifteen years in a well-stocked library – in solitary confinement – to win a bet of two million roubles wagered by a banker.
‘The prisoner (writes Theresa), in four years, amazingly, reads over six hundred volumes and when, after fifteen years of confinement in which he imbibes the world’s classics, he emerges into daylight, his appearance is almost spectral. His face is yellow, his cheeks are hollow, his hair is streaked with silver, and no one can believe that he is only forty! He is a skeleton with the skin drawn tight over his bones and long matted curls like ... like, well, like my own, if I’m honest. But what does the prisoner declare upon his release that I would not myself assert were I to meet that hateful unconscionable banker!?
‘ “Your books have given me wisdom. All man’s unresting thought from the ages is compressed into the small compass of my brain. I know that I am wiser than all of you. And I despise your books, as I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage ... as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor ...” ’
But, despite her valiant efforts, she hesitantly draws our attention to the paradox that arises from her attempts to synthesize the estimated two million words she wrote in those years of isolation, a period not dissimilar to the length of incarceration suffered in Sachsenhausen concentration camp during WWII by the son of the Norwegian polar explorer Nansen.
The published diary of Nansen fils runs to 600 pages yet his bulky edited volume, recording in detail those years of daily witness to unimaginable horrors, amounts to only one-third of the original manuscript.
Like the wartime diarist, Theresa has found the task of distillation is more time consuming than the task of composition. As she says, despairingly, ‘It’s as though I have all the concordances to the Bible and Shakespeare but not the Works themselves.’
Secret cellars: sinister cases of abduction and imprisonment.
Since those decades-long, repeated draftings of A Room to the End of Fall (there is even a variant screenplay, The Chute), three notorious cases of abduction and imprisonment of young women have come to light. A schoolgirl, abducted aged 10 in 1998, and imprisoned in a secret cellar for more than eight years, until her escape in 2006. The case of an 18-year-old daughter, held prisoner by her father in a locked windowless dungeon in the basement area of her family home, and emerging to freedom in 2008 after 24 years of captivity. And as recently as May this year, the escape from captivity of three kidnapped women held prisoner for up to decade or more in complete subjugation and restraint only yards from the freedom of a suburban American street.
The prevalence of this crime is explored by the Austrian Nobel-prize-winner, Elfriede Jelinek**, in her searing essay of 2008, Im Verlassenen (The Forsaken Place), in which she analyses the phallocentric base motives that drive the abductors, while at the same time virulently indicting her fellow countrymen, ‘Austria is a small world in which the greater one holds its rehearsals.’
In essence, her argument is an attack on the droit de seigneur assumed by the patriarchal male, and the notion of rights of possession, to the extent of an immurement of one’s love-object in an oubliette with no bars between which the abductee can glimpse the sky. ‘No bars, no iron rods exist here. It isn’t even possible to see through something, through which one could take a look, to see no world.’
‘Keine Stäbe, keine Gitterstäbe hier vorhanden. Es ist also nicht einmal möglich, zwischen etwas, durch das man hindurchschauen kann, auch keine Welt zu sehen.’
The irony here, of course, is Jelinek’s conscious re-echoing of Rilke’s The Panther:
... it can take in nothing more.
He feels as though a thousand bars existed,
and no more world beyond them than before.
Irony? Well, I’ve always considered it a supreme paradox that this cultivator of heightened sensibilities should, upon fathering a daughter, have given up the infant to her grandparents to dedicate himself to the pursuit of his art ... in other words, leaving the child in a ‘forsaken place’, the oubliette of the patriarchal heart.
|Elfriede Jelinek Horst Bienek|
The Abduction of a Bluestocking by a Bluebeard?Well, here is an opportunity to categorically state that the sinister ‘forsaken place’ of A Room to the End of Fall is not the setting for the abduction of a bluestocking by a Bluebeard ... however, Theresa Ollivante’s ‘forsaken place’, like the isolation cell of protagonists in certain German folkloric precursors – Cellar-boy Kaspar Hauser, Rumpelstilzchen, Rapunzel, et al. – is, nevertheless, so fiendishly sealed off from humanity that my captive is doomed, as Chekhov puts it, to spend the years of ‘... captivity under the strictest supervision ... [the captive] should not be free to cross the threshold ... to see human beings, to hear the human voice, or to receive letters and newspapers.’
Only Germans, I may add, in contrast to a Russian’s choice of a library for incarceration, have the apt maxim for such furtive concealment.
Eine Leiche im Keller haben.
(To have a corpse in the basement.)
For, as Chekhov measuredly remarks, in The Bet in 1888 ...
The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral, but if
I had to choose between the death penalty and imprisonment for life,
I would certainly choose the second.
To live anyhow is better than not at all.
*As I remarked in an earlier post, a kinsman of mine, Horst Bienek (1930-1990), is author of Die Zelle (The Cell, 1968), which is derives from his own imprisonment by the Soviets and relates a prisoner’s struggle for mental and physical survival in the face of solitary confinement, sickness, torture, and an uncertain fate. A first person narrative and a classic of prison literature, Die Zelle uses stream of consciousness to agonizing effect. The truly excellent English translation is by Ursula Mahlendorf, who describes the work as an example of Lazarine Literature, a term attributed to French poet, Jean Cayrol, interned in Gusen concentation camp in 1943. The figure of Lazarus appears many times in Cayrol's work. Having escaped death himself, Cayrol was fascinated and inspired by the story of Lazarus who returns from the dead.
**It is indeed curious, to me at least, that Jelinek’s English publisher (Serpent’s Tail) was my own, insofar as it published one of my earliest works of fiction, The Cheated Eye (1998).
Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence,
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011)