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This report is taken from PN Review 173, Volume 33 Number 3, January - February 2007.Drifting through Gräfelfing
About five o'clock on a late autumn evening somewhere in Germany. Still bright, though it won't be so for much longer. Other people seem to have given it up already. Once more, I'm investigating a wonderfully ambiguous area where woodland dips into suburban streets and then backs out again - at just the point where the path leaves a small informal parking-place and splits apart through various fields and woods. The last time I visited, it was busy with children on bikes, dog-walkers, bafflingly eager hikers - but now it's thoroughly deserted.
I stop as soon as I leave the public thoroughfare. A long empty field stretches away on the left to a row of distant houses. Lines of trees mark the various horizons and an offshoot of the forest waits patiently just behind me. Utter silence. Or that casually interrupted silence which invests every routine sound with an almost intolerable depth of significance. A woman's voice, evidently talking to a child; someone inexpertly playing a keyboard; the inevitable dog barking once or twice, though without any effect of aggression.
Why does this distillation of nothing very much produce such an intense, almost ridiculous happiness? How can it be so easy? A couple of long, slow minutes of immaculate, accidental bliss drift by. Then, confusingly, the wish that existence could go on like this forever begins to give ground to almost its direct opposite: if only somebody, anybody, would turn up and provide me with a reason for snapping out of the trance and getting back into normal life. Yes, yes. It'll be dark quite soon and even our capacity for Nirvana evidently has its limitations.
But what of that keyboard? The moment, perhaps, in Chekhov's Lady with the Lapdog when the male lead gets on the train and seeks out unbidden the provincial home of the woman he had had a holiday fling with, and whom he (most unexpectedly) cannot dismiss from his mind. He finds the right address and, approaching the house, he hears the sound of a piano playing inside. Her again, of course.
Why does this sudden glimpse out of the corner of the eye (or, just possibly, ear) generate such a powerful effect? Something, I think, to do with the fact that this female character who formerly loomed so large in the story is here experienced as a mere speck - quite literally, as noises off - but we already know the profound dimensions of this particular speck; and so we receive a sudden, illuminating persuasion of the fact that though the broader world is full of such apparent mere dots, these dots are in reality beings of equally profound dimensions.
There is (as usual) a similar effect some where in Proust. The jealous Swann, attempting to catch Odette out, most untypically ventures down the lane behind the street where she lives - and sees a lit, shuttered window (with, as I recall, more vague noises behind it), which he takes to be conclusive evidence of an unfaithful assignation on her part. However, he merely disturbs two indignant old buffers who were having a blameless late-night chinwag (which so nearly went completely unrecorded!) for nearly all the houses in all the streets are occupied, including the ones next door to the few that seem crucial to oneself. Everywhere else is also the site of a huge, life-sized main plot of its own.
Here caution finally prevailed, and I went off in search of the actual text of a translation of a haiku by Masaoka Shiki (1867902: from consumption) which I thought I knew did something similar. A long walk - a shower - the emptiness suddenly shattered by windows banging shut everywhere. A wonderful effect of instantaneous multiplicity - and all done (somewhat unProustianly) in a mere seventeen syllables.
I'm not sure, however, that my memory hasn't intervened here uninvited. Of the two versions I could find, the first (R.H. Blyth) gives: 'A summer shower! / What a number of servants / Closing the shutters' - with, in addition, a title: 'On a Journey'. Whereas the second (Burton Watson) calls it 'At an Inn' and offers: 'Sudden downpour - / and all these maids / hauling out storm shutters'.
Both clearly have the same idea of there being only one building involved: a wayside hotel, seen (as it were) from the inside. And yet it must be one of these versions (Blyth's, I suppose, since he also gives a brief, evocative commentary) which my memory had morphed into its preferred phantom. However, as it evidently doesn't quite exist yet, why not try to bring it finally into being? What I thought Shiki had said was something much more like: 'Sudden Summer rain. / And on all sides the sounds of / Windows slamming shut.' So. Now it does at least exist. A translation, obviously - but a translation, one wonders, from what?
This report is taken from PN Review 173, Volume 33 Number 3, January - February 2007.