Review: Circe's Mountain: Stories by Marie Luise Kaschnitz Print E-mail

circe-lilli-ladewig(Northeast Series V, No. 3, Winter 1990-1991)

The Art of the Felt Story

Autobiographical fiction like clothing often attracts our attention not by the quality of the cloth but by the attitude of the wearer. That is to say writers who base their fiction on their own lives seem most honest about themselves when they are attuned to what Willa Cather called "the range and character of [their] deepest sympathies." Because they have discovered an awareness of their own sensibility by way of art and made such knowledge primary, they can make the best stylistic choices for their work. We feel a writer's stories of personal growth as truthful when the felt depth of the experience equates to the formal quality of the telling.

Easy to say, hard to do. Such accomplishment, though, prevails in the stories of Marie Luise Kaschnitz, a German poet, autobiographer, fiction and travel writer, who died in 1974. This book, her first fiction published in English, shows that her most dramatic work came from that later period in her life when she had become more experienced at reflecting on her heart's truth and had practiced her narrative craft enough to express that truth to readers.

The power of reflection is seen in a late 1940s story which follows—quite naturally—the insanity of the war. "Thaw" tells of a woman's maniacal certainty that today (any given day after the invention and use of the atomic bomb) is the last day of the earth's life. The story lives out her fear of the end, not the end itself.

"Christine" also captures a quality of the past's dominion over the present. In it a woman relives the senseless murder of a girl she and her husband had witnessed many years ago. Her husband has brooded on the murder ceaselessly, and the woman feels his preoccupation with it has ruined their marriage. She decides that a women's role is to make sense of things (processing the guilt) while a man holds on to the dream (that it should not have happened). This knowledge she comes to, comes to ease the pain for her but it also further polarizes her and her husband.

Though the narrator in many of these stories uses places and people from Kaschnitz's life, not all are autobiographical. But the best work emphasizes the author's self-growth and awareness, in astonishing, affecting, epiphanic tellings, emotionally dovetailed yet temporally disjointed. These are tales dogged by the past, in which earlier events in a woman's life constantly haunt an as-yet unlived or uncommitted-to present, held hostage by the fear of eventually coming to grips with loss.

Kaschnitz's interplay between new life and memory announces itself at the beginning of the autobiographical tale "Circe's Mountain."

"Friday. . . . Here, under the fig tree, one could begin to live again; to live, meaning different things for different people and meaning, for me, to love and to write. Except I don't mean the act of writing itself, which is torture, but the special looking and listening that leads to it."

Curious path indeed—to learn to live again one needs not only the "torture" of writing but also the experience that "leads to it," as if to say writers are twice-cursed by their art: All tales are twice-told: first lived and then when told lived again.

But though the writing is torturous, that which the writing recalls hurts the most. Here, it is the memory of the narrator's dead husband, whom she cannot forget even though her "special looking and listening" confirms a world, alive and sensual, pulling on her now. Or better put, the story recalls the memory amid a sensual world: the narrator is continuously drawn to seize this day for itself, while the world seems to stage any reminder of the past it can to make certain she not forget him.

Part of her current life is loving their daughter, a painful reminder of their family ties. "Knowing that she is all I have now, I also know that I no longer have her, cannot demand anything from her, not even understanding for my crippled state, my self-hatred. I have to hide the fact that I belong to you, a dead man, and therefore to death."

Early in the story (really, it is more a reflective essay on surviving loss, which skillfully uses the tools of narrative art), she recognizes that she is caught in Circe's clutches, here made mountainous by a rock-face likeness of the goddess which towers above the island she inhabits and which represents the allegiance she feels still to their spousal togetherness. Her husband, an archeologist, had taken her everywhere in the ruins of Mediterranean Italy, and this summer she is reminded of their experiences again in towns, on boat rides, out in blue waters.

But through the "torture" of revisiting places and writing about her memories, she begins to unhinge herself from his hold, from death's hold, feeling that her wonder at life can still accompany sadness and loss—the guilt survivor's feel—without obscuring the importance of what is remembered. "Not to go on as before, this is the wish of everyone who has not chosen his new beginning but has had it imposed on him, with no inkling of how and where it will lead him."

Knowing that Kaschnitz did marry an archeologist, who became famous, and with whom she and their daughter spent nearly half her adult life in Italy does not make the story any truer. But the fact clarifies her autobiographical yearning to find salvation thru writing, to ennoble the Ulysses within her to outfox the sorceress. It also confirms her desire to understand the tricks time has played with her life, something which only those who live long and think reflectively can do.

This narrative play with the nature of time marks Kaschnitz's most creative work. Nearly half the stories echo the Circe-symbolic, ruminative, past-obsessed tale. A gifted translator, Lisel Mueller has chosen to stress Kaschnitz's versatility by including a variety of stories, not just the kind I've touched on. But for me, the author's ability with time and memory is her keenest gift.

To rival the title story are two gems: "One Day in the Middle of June" and "The Fat Girl." These are part heroic, part fabled tales, that both feature a woman who must find in her desire to live now a way to alter certain prophecies which insist that she cannot outlast the desperate moments of her past.

The narrator in "One Day" returns home to Germany from Italy to find, to her landlady's astonishment, that she is not dead. It seems a woman had come bearing tidings of the narrator's demise: in fact the whole neighborhood was alerted. The narrator is fascinated by this foretelling, and she discovers that on the very day, the moment this Cassandra came with the bad news, she, the narrator, had swum out to sea with a death-wish she repressed then and only now recalls. In deep water she was pulled back by her daughter's flute-playing on shore. She finds also that when people in the neighborhood mentioned a daughter to the prophet, the sorceress disappeared.

"The Fat Girl" tells of a woman who one day meets an obese girl and, after hearing of how her older sister torments her while the two are ice skating, rushes to observe the sisters at the rink, to see if the story is true. When the fat girl tries to pull herself out of the ice after her sister has knocked her down and ridiculed her, the narrator says, "I was watching a long struggle, a terrible wrestling for liberation and transformation, like the breaking apart of a shell or cocoon, and now I wanted to help the girl, but I also knew that my help had become unnecessary, because now I knew who she was." Who is both the fat girl before her, this day, and herself once long ago, for she too had endured similar ridicule by her older sister when she was young.

Kaschnitz's writing fantasticates our sense of how and why time passes. (A moral principle for the artist may be implied in her use of narrative as a way to heal emotional wounds.) She is also adept at sculpting the vertical dimension of time with greater depth and luminosity. She writes fearlessly with a knowledge that her stories must lead to a metaphysical truth (is this only true for fiction writers and autobiographers?), one that teaches us what was, will be. To experience life fully, Kaschnitz suggests, we must find that closure lies in a dissolving present, in that passing moment, a day or a decade later, when any event potentially will finish its course. Her stories discover those temporary ends where our will and our fate are most cleverly intertwined.

The most apt metaphor I know of about the vertical nature of time comes from Margaret Atwood's novel Cat's Eye. On page one Atwood suggests a way to understand the richness of experience in time by imagining water. "You don't look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away."

Kaschnitz's stories are like springs, feeding the wells of narrative art and emotional truth. After reading her I feel I can look down now into time with fear and wisdom (certainly with more wisdom than fear), and expect to find neither bottom nor surface.