As a rule, one can classify authors by the way they talk about the weather. Some would describe a meteorological event roughly as follows: “The clouds gathered into dark streaks of heavy, gray, low-hanging masses, and a wind whipped through the treetops, sending the birds to seek shelter with desperate cries before they fell silent in fear, and making people run ducking into their houses, already hit by the first pattering drops, which were rapidly multiplying into a pounding drumbeat, overwhelming the gutters with gurgling streams and flooding the rooftop parapets while the few cars on the road splashed wide sheets of water across the pavement.” Peter Bichsel, on the other hand, would write: “It started to rain.”
And yet Peter Bichsel can write “It started to rain” in such a way that we unwittingly find ourselves recoiling at the feeling of rain running down our collars. Given his druthers, Bichsel would only ever write stories as long as that sentence: “It started to rain.” Perhaps one day he will write a whole book of enchanting stories that make us roar with laughter and move us to tears, yet are no longer than “It started to rain.” The essence of Bichsel’s writing lies in a form of simplicity that expands and deepens and multiplies impudently, before our very eyes.
I spent last night trying to find this author’s primal narrative, his Ur-Story, just as Goethe once searched for the Ur-Plant that contained all other plants. There must exist such a thing, I thought. Every author eventually writes the Ur-Story that contains all his other stories. And just as Goethe hunted through the botanic gardens of Palermo for his Ur-Plant, so did I hunt through Bichsel’s complete works. First, it struck me how much more interesting and entertaining these were than the Palermo gardens, which had seemed a bit disheveled when I visited them a few years ago. Secondly, however, and in contrast to Goethe, I actually found what I was looking for. Bichsel’s Ur-Story is a little longer than “It started to rain,” but not by much. It appears in the middle of his least-known book, a bold little masterpiece, one of the few significant examples of the nouveau roman in German literature. Even today, the book lies in the shadow zone between Bichsel’s two sensational successes, the Frau Blum stories and Children’s Stories. It’s called The Seasons, and its composition, a play between fragments of speech and bits of narrative, has something enchantingly musical to it. It could have been written by John Cage, had Cage been from Solothurn. And there, on page 54 of the first edition, almost out of the blue and without any consequence for the rest of the plot, appears Bichsel’s Ur-Story. Barely a line long, it reads:
A drunkard lifts his head, looks at me, says, I’ll tell you everything, and falls silent.
Now, how wonderful it would be to be able to watch this story take root behind the eyes of its readers, growing ever more multifaceted, revealing the most various meanings as it played with the riddle of its own simultaneity.
To read the piece in its entirety, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 9.