Curried Dragon

Diagnosing a fractured family.

by Michael Hofmann

The last time we lived together as a family was in Edinburgh in 1971, which was when we broke three ways, into three unequal parts like Gaul. My father chose a new academic posting at the University of Ljubljana in Yugoslavia (and a bachelor duplex); my mother and younger sisters (two of them initially, soon to be three) were found a flat in Klagenfurt in Austria; and I got a scholarship to Winchester, Alfred’s whilom capital of Wessex, a boarding school in the south of England that had turned out generations of cabinet ministers, not far from Southampton. It was a tripodal existence, but, look! it moved, it turned like a rusty propeller. In fact, creaking complaining moving made it possible: my father drove over the mountains like a hard-currency smuggler, lugging crates of Radenska mineral water and cuts of Lungenbraten and Tafelspitz back to his ungrateful dependents, and cheap Supraphon records, and occasional “pop” items on fantastically thick slabs of vinyl in fantastically thick cardboard sleeves, all made in India—two or three hours if the Loibl pass was open, more like six if it wasn’t—to spend time “at home” with the family, initially five days a week, by the end occasional difficult weekends and abrupt tempestuous departures. I, having nowhere else to go, rode the Tauern Express every holiday, a little over twenty-four hours each way, three times a year, over ten years sixty days, London-Dover-Ostend-Cologne-Munich-Salzburg-Villach-Klagenfurt and back. At least for those sixty aggregated days I wasn’t in either place.

There were reasons for everything—there always are—but the reasons seemed both narrowly conceived and impossible to oppose. Curiously, the family as such had no say: it was not just disenfranchised; it was disbanded, dissolved, sent packing like the rump of the Long Parliament. We might not be able to predict what would happen, and how we might react to it, but the status quo was not an option. We seemed no longer to be allowed any interests in common, which involved merely being together, only separate and divergent individual interests, which this arrangement, if it worked, could finesse. Ex uno plures might have been our motto. My father, recently turned forty, wanted to have time to write, and to be closer to Germany; I at fourteen was thought to be too old to change languages and school systems; while my mother and sisters shouldn’t have to learn Slovenian, a language spoken by about two million people. Everything duly held what it offered: my father wrote his books, I got my spiffing English education, my sisters were spared Slovenian—but we all suffered, with the possible exception of my father. The sum of the parts was a lot less than the whole had been: not surprising, as Ljubljana remained my father’s turf almost as exclusively as Winchester (alas) was mine. For the five months a year of school and university holidays, we continued to function as a family, or perhaps to go through the motions of being one—my parents didn’t completely separate, I wasn’t exactly orphaned—but it was as though we had agreed, in the face of some sporting challenge or tremendous ultimative need, to be dropped and glued together.

The arrangement partook of the mingled sadnesses of exile, bereavement, divorce, hospice, bankruptcy, downsizing, banishment, prison, castaway, quarantine, and perhaps some others that for now escape me. (Oh, yes, that other contemporary trauma: moving house.) Perhaps the best or only thing that could be said in its favor was that no one experienced all of it, from every angle—not even my mother, who put on the brave face and feigned continuity. I experienced it as reduction and duress, forced removal and forced return (though which was which I soon couldn’t care to say), breach of trust, diminishment, alienation. It was “home”—after all, it was where my family was living—and yet I had never seen it before, and instantly wanted nothing to do with it. An upstairs flat in a Neubau some way out of town on a dull plain with a view over the once-a-day airport, with rustic neighbors who still (for the nitrates?) pissed against their walls at night, nasty oom-pah-pah radio music from the people below, tall and stupefying maize fields that gradually had bits taken out of them for light industry, for housing and ribbon development. Austria doesn’t really do sprawl, it’s too small and much of it is too steep, but this was unmistakable sprawl: not town, not village, not city, no amenities within walking distance, no park, river, cinema, cafe, my father the only driver and his car the only car. My sisters going to school there made friends or frenemies (unerringly, with girls whose fathers had absconded or died), but my parents and I knew literally no one in the town, and we all as Germans, and I with one end of my life moored to the baffling six-hundred-year-old Winchester, would have felt abstruse and incommunicable. No contacts and no life, we were driven in on ourselves, and away from each other, into our separate cells. Hateful large double-glazed picture-windows (with nothing worth looking at outside them), central heating, whitewashed walls that came off on your back, parquet that you had to be careful of. No room there was mine, but I got the temporary use of my father’s study. A wall of mainly German books, a desk, a typewriter, a lamp, an abstract painting, a much-washed cotton sheet laid over the bobbly flattened-out sofa that felt uncomfortably like tweed. At least I was spared homesickness. After a couple of days, from a spontaneous overflow of misery, I burst into tears in the corridor.

If that was home, school was barbarous, nineteenth-century refinements on a fourteenth-century idea, largely unheated, foul food, narrowly prescribed hours, days, weeks; work and sport, competition and hierarchy; panoptical supervision and furtive, misguided lust. (If I had seen Lindsay Anderson’s If betimes with my supposed lookalike, Malcolm McDowell, then my life would have been different. When I finally saw it at twenty-one or whatever, it looked like my seedtime with added Kalashnikovs, and a woefully lost opportunity.) Everything was duress, josh, and jostle. We ate at long tables, in long black gowns, slept eight or ten to a room on iron hospital beds, made in the English fashion with pairs of taut sheets under varying thicknesses of woolen blankets—could I bring a duvet, my mother asked, and was laughed to scorn for being so hopelessly “continental”—did our homework together in a lofty Georgian building called School. The place was safely inexpressible, but just in case, it had its own language and rules and affectations, called “notions.” In that dyslexicon, legs and breasts were supposed to be “lempers” and “brempers”—not that we saw much of either.

My life had split apart into two grim halves—each one mysteriously reduced—an unappealing new home and an ancient and intractable school. English and German were kept in balance, the old stones of Winchester and the aluminum window frames of Klagenfurt, the demands of one and the abeyance of the other, distrust of family and distrust of peers. Winchester was the place of and for achievements and competitiveness, Klagenfurt was a puddle of backwardness and mediocrity (after all, it wasn’t even good for mineral water, was it?). Winchester had rules about clothes and forms, and most of all, time; Klagenfurt didn’t. The best thing Winchester had to offer was outdoor space—the foggy playing fields, the water-meadows, the flintstuck walls, the grand elms and planes. Klagenfurt at its best had absolutely nothing, so I took that: darkness, my watch doing its aimless rounds, a feeling of almost hallucinating with tiredness, reading till it got light, and waking at lunchtime (after lunch, the others, such as they were, napped). It was then that I became nocturnal and scruffy and solitary. And made the fatal discovery that for me, life could all too easily be elsewhere.

One problem was filling so much time alone. But that still left an aesthetic deficit. I couldn’t just read. This is where art comes in. The arts, even, forsooth. There was a guitar, which I lay no claim to playing. It kept me company; I don’t know how it came to be there. The strings were in conventional order, and I’m left-handed, but we’re not talking Hendrix here. I spent hundreds of pointless, harmless hours noodling on this untuned, perplexing thing. Chords—a very few chords. Harmonics. Accidental sub-tunes. Something to make a slide effect. If I wasn’t tone deaf already (once, when we were all trebles, I was told to “stop screaming” by the boy in choir next to me), my experiments would certainly have made me so in short order. When one foolish afternoon I switched all the strings round for left-handedness, I was left feeling dizzy for days afterwards. A mistaken refinement on that wretched guitar was a mandolin, which my poor parents bought me. I wanted it, or thought I did, but hadn’t ever bothered to take one in my hands, or try it out. I had no idea how taut the thing was, the four pairs of double-strings, the tiny narrow fretboard for my weak and in every sense un-dexterous fingers. I didn’t know that “mandolin” was also the term for a ruthless and rather dangerous slicer of foods, but it wouldn’t have surprised me. It was like playing cheese wires. I had imagined something loose and noble and easy and capable of a lolloping baritone melancholy, not this high hysterical folksy brittle thing that needed probably to be strummed like a balalaika.

And then there were the T-shirts. Again, I can’t remember how they first entered my life, the blameless 2.99 cotton T-shirts and the little tins of Dylon (and once a stinking, sulfur one of a sister-product or antidote called Dygon) from English hardware stores, boiled up with water (and quantities of salt as a fixative), with a T-shirt in it, turned and twisted and bundled up with string, like an ingrown string of sausages, filled with stones, re-used string (for a sort of double-dyed effect I was proud of) and unpredictable patterning. It was a mixture of cooking and chance and picture-making. I don’t know what stage I liked best, the optimistic conniving of the knotting-up and tying down; the cooking itself—the bumpy little saucepan (I wonder what else it was ever used for?), the stick for stirring, the deepening color, the corpse of the white T-shirt gradually coloring up; or the unwrapping, the unpicking of string and emptying out of stones and seeing what had come up. I must have had my way with twenty or thirty T-shirts. I haven’t done it of course for many, many years, but I have no trouble recognizing it as an artistic—perhaps proto-artistic—process: the furor, the incomplete mastery, the chance element, the developing intentions, the solitude, the risk, the consolation, the making, the unpalatable outcome. Mostly, it takes a while to confront things directly. Five years later, in that same godawful flat, I wrote my first poem. It was called “Calm and Reasonable Complaint”:

The fourth day of the year must have marked
the beginning of our new way of life.
For lunch there was curried dragon.
It will all take some getting used to.

Originally Published: July 2, 2012

COMMENTS (2)

On July 13, 2012 at 3:42am Flaco Y. Viejo wrote:
Resonant yet fulgent. Is this not the life we all lead? Perfect formulation
of the larval process. Change the names, the towns, and doesn't it fit?

On August 2, 2012 at 9:31pm Kushal Poddar wrote:
I wonder how Tony Hoagland would have written about
splitting thus. Perchance he would write In Praise of
Their Splitting Three Way.

I couldn't help but be proud of them,

that man and that woman ( and those children) setting
off in different directions, (yet staying together)
like pilgrims in a proverb

—him to buy his very own toaster oven,
her seeking a prescription for sleeping pills.

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This prose originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

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Biography

Michael Hofmann’s annotated translation of Joseph Roth’s letters was just published by W.W. Norton; Impromptus, his Gottfried Benn translations, is expected later this year from Farrar, Straus & Giroux

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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