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daniel levin becker

The Pleasure of Telling Ourselves the World: An Interview

The Pleasure of Telling Ourselves the World: An Interview

Is your predilection for short prose also a matter of the pleasure you take in beginnings? Each of your publications implies a new beginning, and the structure of your texts is marked by restarts.

Beginning is awful. Nobody has an easy time finding a beginning. There are no exceptions. Now, the author of short prose is damned to restart over and over. He knows how to do it. Or rather, he’s used to the pain of it. The novelist, on the other hand, requires a single beginning and then he has to work with it for three years. That seems more comfortable to me.

Is the novelist less rushed?

In sports there are long-distance runners. Ten thousand meters. Marathons. It’s marvelous. If I were a runner, I’d run marathons. But I would always come in last, because I would take too much pleasure in the journey. I’d be too slow. Now, you could say that the novelist is the long-distance runner and the writer of short prose is the sprinter. But that’s not true. The writer of short prose is not a sprinter, he’s a long-distance runner over a short distance. When Johann Peter Hebel starts one of his stories, you have the impression that it’s going to take two hundred pages. You get comfortably settled in and then after twenty lines it’s over. But it began like a great novel. Writing is managing time, it’s a question of patience. Reading, too. Reading is lost on impatient people. . .

To read the entire piece, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 9.

Wit and Wile and Love

Wit and Wile and Love

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.

There Is No America

There Is No America

I heard this story from a man who tells stories. More than once I told him I didn’t believe him.

“You’re lying,” I said. “You’re rambling, you’re telling tales, you’re taking the piss!”

He was unmoved. He went on calmly telling his story, and when I shouted, “You liar, you rambler, you daydreamer, you traitor!” he looked at me for a long while, shook his head, smiled sadly, and then said, in a voice so low I was almost ashamed: “There is no America.”

To make him feel better, I promised I would put his story in writing:


The story begins five hundred years ago in the court of a king, the king of Spain. A palace with velvet and silk everywhere, and gold, silver, beards, crowns, candles, lackeys and servants, courtiers skewering each other at dawn after throwing down their gauntlets the night before. Sentries sounding clarions from the tower. And messengers hopping up into their saddles, messengers jumping down from their horses, friends of the king and his fake friends, too, and beautiful ladies, and dangerous ladies, and wine, and all around the palace people who paid for all of it without question.

But the king himself lived this way, without question, and no matter how you live, in splendor or in poverty, in Madrid or in Barcelona or anywhere else, in the end every day is the same, and you get bored. Which is why people who live somewhere else imagine that Barcelona must be beautiful, and people who live in Barcelona would prefer to leave and go Somewhere Else.

The poor imagine how nice it must be to live like the king, and their tragedy is that the king believes that poverty suits the poor perfectly well. 

The king gets up in the morning, goes to bed in the evening, and all day long he’s bored among his problems, his lackeys, his gold and his silver, his velvet and his silk. He’s bored among his candles. True, his bed is magnificent, but after all what else is a bed good for besides sleeping?

Every morning his lackeys bow to him deeply, every morning as deeply as every other morning, and the king is so used to it that he no longer even looks at them. Someone hands him his fork, someone else hands him his knife, someone else pulls out his chair, and whoever speaks to him says Your Majesty and many other pretty words, but behind them there is nothing. 

Nobody ever says to him: “You idiot, you ass.” They won’t say anything today that they didn’t already say yesterday.

That’s how it is, the life of a king. . .

To read the entire piece, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 9.