Chapter Sixteen: My Life Without Me by Jasmina Tesanovic
16. Nobels and Writers
It is a literary party, in Iowa, inside a big house which resembles a barn. It is an event for foreign writers thrown by the sponsors of the Writers Program at the Iowa University, in 1997. I am one of these foreign writers, and our hosts have prepared such a huge amount of food and drink that I am expecting a crowd from the streets to show up and join us.
But no, it is all our business, and it is actually businesslike. Very “what’s in it for me.”
- So, you are a writer! A huge American woman, dressed with Midwestern bad taste, approaches me in her wheelchair.
- No, no, I am a woman who sometimes writes.
A Polish poetess intervenes. — Oh come on, don’t be so modest, this is our hostess! The Polish poetess beams violently at our benefactor.
- Where do you come from, asks the hostess, edging her wheelchair closer to me.
- Serbia, I say, apologetically.
She stares at me blankly. Gosh, I dote on Americans, because they just don’t know so many embarrassing things. Such as where Serbia is, and what it means to be Serb.
- Europe, bounces in my lively Polish translator. ( She was married to a much older Polish poet, and during the Cold War she had learned all the survival tricks of the East-West literary life).
- And you write poetry? relentlessly goes on the hostess.
- No, no, I just write whatever comes to me, God forbid poetry, I say modestly.
- My ex husband was a poet. I add.
- He said that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky could not live under the same roof.
Why is this hostess picking on me? There are 11 other foreign writers with their spouses from the same program in this house. Did I dress badly? Am I not eating enough of her food, or drinking enough?
- My friend is very modest! crows the Polish poet. She writes incredible stuff! She is a Nobel prize winner.
- Oh my God! my hostess exclaims startled and puts her hand over her mouth.
- Oh my God, I cry, startled too.
The Polish poet takes another glass of wine, looking at me ready to kill if I stop her performance.
- She is a feminist writer.
I feel relieved: at least that part was true.
My hostess seems relieved too. Her face lightens up and she spreads her arms up towards me.
- I am so glad to hear this! I want you to give a speech to this crowd here. I worked all day to make this feast happen, and not only me, all the women from the family worked while the men played cards.
I look at the idle men of the family, who are not in wheelchairs.
- Play cards and drink! And besides that Nobel, that’ s no good! We had a writer in our family who got a Nobel. He just drank, and he never raised a finger in the household. This is a big farm, this Iowa land needs to be taken care of, the cattle and the weather are unpredictable. The whole family needs to be alert to survive and feed the country.
- I know, I say with full understanding, my granddad had farmlands and was always like that. He never let my mom study opera because of the farm work..
The Polish poet stood up: Let’s make a toast to my feminist friend who will give us a speech!
By now I was toast myself. I stood up and gave a short but effective speech on families, duties, crops, women and poets.
My hostess was in tears while my host was in deep shame.
After I crushed down on my chair, staring blankly in front of myself from the shame of such public exposure, the host came to me:
- Thank you so much for your wonderful insight! You made my wife and daughters so happy. All these years in this family, it was all about men writers and politics, and women did the hard work.
- Not only here in Iowa, I promptly answer, now ready to lead Iowa from the US Middle Ages, if possible.
My hostess struggles to stand from her wheelchair. I wonder if this is some miracle. Shall I witness a miraculous cure by words?
- You see, my dear guest, she says. I am in this wheelchair because of food. My limbs have grown weak and my joints loose. I have been eating all these years while cooking. Instead I should have been writing, just like you.
- But… I try to intervene.
- Never mind the Nobel Prize! chirps the Polish poet, taking over the conversation — Let’s all sing a nice song together!
- Oh let’s! The hostess is delighted.
She stands up, holds onto me on one side and the Polish poet on the other and begins, with tottering steps and a tiny voice:
-Siiiiiinging in the rain…
That’s how I got my Nobel prize for Literature.
This is how I lost my Nobel prize: I was in this hotel where the prize winners for literature stay when they come to Stockholm. I was keenly interested in talking to the waiters there.
I was there with my Swedish friend: she was getting really drunk at the table, where we sat with the wives of the Nobel Prize committee. That table had far more information than the official one. We seemed a random company but still a happy one.
My Swedish author friend was desperate that night. Her long-term partner was quitting her, after betraying her for many years, and infesting her with some sexual disease. Only now had she found this out. Only now did she realized how dominant she was in their relationship, and how dependent he was. Now that he was splitting, she saw it all.
- I gave him everything! The best roles in my plays! He even played women’s roles if I decided they were better for him!
The wives of the Nobel prize committee seemed really interested in this confession. Some were teachers, some were publishers, some housewives. But they certainly never dressed their men in women’ s clothes for the stage. On the contrary, often they had to wear men’ s clothes to perform when their husbands were absent.
Tonight, they had to hear the stories behind the curtains: who really wrote those fantastic plays and who deserved the Nobel prize.
- I am very unhappy that Franca Rame didn’t win the Nobel prize along with Dario Fo, I commented. After all, they always worked and wrote and performed together.
- Oh I know that, said my Swedish friend, he was such a womanizer too, gosh like mine…I can even understand that part, but why didn’t he tell about the disease? Why do I have to have a disease now?
- Franca Rame did a great feminist play on abortion.
- Oooooooh, there was a sigh around me.
I wondered: what was the Nobel prize committee’s stand on abortion?
- Personally, I think a hot Mexican chili hurts worse than an abortion.
After saying that, bravely and drunkenly, I emptied my wine glass and my last drops of credibility.
There is always a special atmosphere when you meet so called famous people. The intoxication of fame makes everyone seem more important, including yourself. Somehow, among the famous, every word uttered has to mean something, to need an interpretation.
I once met Max Sebald. Even better, I spent hours and hours talking to him about everything. Today, I cannot remember a word of it. We met in 1989, during the very days of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was his guest in Norwich as a literary translator, in his international workshop. Sebald was still writing his book, or his books. He was not yet famous. He did not expect to become a Nobel prize favorite, or to be killed prematurely in a car accident in 2001. Sebald was an amiable guy who liked to talk about people and politics in an unusual way.
At the time, my own country was about to fall apart. I didn’t believe that would happen. I was a political idiot. His country Germany was re-uniting. He said mysteriously:
- Two Germanies should never be allowed to be together.
A dark and mysterious statement from a German emigre who had chosen exile. An odd remark in such hopeful times, but a reasonable statement for me today. I learned about the yearning of nationalist Serbs, who longed to create a Greater Serbia wherever Serbs might dwell, snatching those territories from other ethnic groups, and killing and exiling them.
WG Sebald was not a famous man as yet, just a man who knew too much. I knew he had a wife and a daughter, and that they had lived in England for many years. He was trying to recover some memory of the history of his country, to find some peace, to do history some justice.
Sebald spoke about a British police officer, coming to their doorstep on regular basis to check on them, since they were foreigners, since they were Germans. A strange story, to me, at the time. Milosevic was already in power in Serbia, and showing his worst traits.
Yet I could not guess that within couple of years Serbia would share the odium of Nazi Germany. In my life as a political idiot, I was often in the right places in the right times, and yet it was as if I were absent.
I had great luck to be with Max at such a crucial time, yet when people ask me what he said to me, what he did then, I have to admit that I don’t remember, I just don’t know. We were both friendly. We talked about literature, languages, history, exile, and the many things we had in common. But the passage of time proved that those were not The Things That Mattered. Instead, I will have to read his books, since I still can. He is not around to talk to, any more.
Another famous guy I met without the proper attitude was Joseph Brodsky. Brodsky just won his Nobel Prize, and he came to Belgrade to pay his respects to his Serbian translators, who had helped his work to reach the western countries. Translators had paved Brodsky’s way to the Nobel Prize, especially one, Petar Vujicic. Vujicic was the school friend of the Polish Pope Woytila, and a friend and translator of many famous East European authors, Czeslaw Milosz, Brodsky and others.
By chance, I myself had translated Brodsky’ s essays, too, from English. He came to Belgrade to give a reading, in Russian by the way (nobody really understood Russian, but we all faked that we did). Since Brodsky was an American citizen by that time, we translators were supposed to meet him inside the American cultural center. But I encountered Brodsky before his speech: because we were stuck together in an elevator.
So, I spent half an hour with Joseph Brodsky in this small iron claustrophobic cage, discussing elevators and poetry. I knew who he was, and he didn’t know me, or that I had translated his work. He asked me: who is your favorite Russian poet? I answered without hesitation: Gennady Aigi.
Brodsky was startled, almost offended. This old Chuvash poet, who never left his village, and never wrote in any other language but his own, was a sore spot for famous Soviet authors in the West. They knew how great a poet he was. They knew that Aigi would never be able to claim his proper fame, because of his political and geographical circumstances. They felt it was not right.
Brodsky was surprised that I knew of Aigi, that I read him. — Which poem do you like? He was testing me.
- The one about snow, I answered readily. It was an innocuous, beautiful, minimalist, maximally meaningful poem about life.
- Who are you? Brodsky asked me.
- I am your translator, I answered, and the elevator started with a jump.
Many years later, when Brodsky had been dead for a decade, I was at a party in the US, in Maine. A fancy party with famous people: musicians, authors…. I felt quite important myself, thinking that I should use this occasion to scare up some autographs. I was holding too much food in my hands, a glass of wine, speaking simultaneously, and endlessly to people. You know how superficially tiring cocktail parties can be: a moving hustle, a stage for making contacts, a business. So finally I lost my grip. The lovely carpet was stained with my red wine.
I knelt, and I found myself face to face with a maid, was was already scrubbing away my misdeed.
- Oh madame, she said, please don’t worry, this is my job.
- Oh I am so sorry, I said, I must help you. Where do you come from, I asked, noticing her Slavic drawl.
- I am Russian, she said.
- Really? I am Serbian!
- Oh, she cried, are you a writer too?
- Yes, I said.
- So am I, she said, all lively. I came here with my cousin, you must know him, his name is Joseph Brodsky. I stayed on here, when he died.
I felt like weeping as we both scrubbed away on all fours. I dipped my fingers into the red stain on the Persian carpet. I put the wet finger behind my both ear lobes, for good luck.
- To him! I exclaimed.
My fellow the fellow Russian maid did the same.
- To his poetry and his soul!
We quickly embraced and parted.
When I had my daughter, I was really happy that she was a girl, because she would grow to be a woman, and I was a woman. That would help me to raise her. A simple as that, as pragmatic as that, as true as a mother tongue can say.
After she was born, I went out to see my good friends and enjoy a glass of wine. I felt so proud and so rich. Everybody could tell that I had a baby, my face was glowing and my bust was bursting. Everybody was asking me: so, is it a boy or a girl? What is she like, what is it like to be a mother?
As if nobody had ever had a baby before, I was boasting and giving out details. I knew that all new mothers were terribly boring, but it was different now that I had a mother’s fame, too. I had to struggle not to show photos, to reveal morbid details, and female intimacies. I was gliding actually very successfully, light-hearted and witty, when I met Danilo Kis. This renowned Serbian writer was at the time living in Paris. Kis sat next to me, amused. He knew my husband, the father of my daughter: a poet.
Like poets, they had things in common: they both were extremely charming and bohemian. They both drank and smoked themselves to death from lung cancer. They were kind to people they liked, lavishing them with praise and honors and soulful sincerity.
Also, I really liked his books.
Kis said to me:
- I am so glad you have a daughter. My friend Rasha will be a happy man. It is so hard for a man to get a son. A son is somebody who takes it all away from you.
I agreed without thinking: yes it is so hard to have a son. But as a woman having a daughter — would that mean somebody who takes it all away from me? Not that I minded. But men did mind. Fathers did: they dreaded and hoped that a son would come. Poets were openly dreading, kings were openly hoping.
Kis was another king of literature whose premature death made him miss a Nobel crown on his head. Just like Sebald. And just like Italo Calvino, whom I never met, but translated. I did meet Calvino’s widow however: she disliked me as much as I disliked her. She spoke about her yacht, most of the time. Once, years before, during the wars, she had refused to give me the rights to a Calvino book, because my feminist publishing house lacked the proper sums. I found the money to get the book, and did the translation for free. I told her so. A small revenge that she didn’t bother to notice, for she went on speaking about her yacht.
I must say I have learned to understand the widows of famous men only too well. It’s better when they speak of their yachts than of their husbands.