Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Swan (Part 5): In the Vicinity of My Heart

V. In the Vicinity of My Heart

Lottie, of course I ask myself if I do you a disservice—I must ask myself because I can't ask you— but I suspect the shadow of doubt makes me that much more determined to know your secret heart. Death leaves me with few choices: examine what you left, or throw out the whole box as if your secret heart had never existed.

          What we choose to leave out is more important than what we include in a story, according to Ernest Hemingway. He made up a name for this idea, the Theory of Omission, but it's also known as The Iceberg Theory.
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. 
                       Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
          Our iceberg—with all our underwater omissions—is a mystical structure, and the massiveness of the untold, like all of the unknown, is cause for horror. Let me know you.

23rd March, 1977—Dear Henry

On my way to the hairdresser I circled Russell Square and went through part of London University grounds where students were gathering with placards for one of their endless demonstrations. University fees are going up. Hidden around the corner I noticed a van of police. I suddenly remembered the revolution, starting in Kiel, after the 1914-1918 war and how I went to buy vegetables and found suddenly one machine gun crew at each end of the street and I had to dodge from one house entrance to the next. Whenever I was in the open and exposed to an exchange of fire, I sheltered behind the large cabbage which I held in the vicinity of my heart. Funnily enough I did something similar during the next war when I did welfare work in the East End of London: there was a German air raid from a clear sky and I opened my umbrella and caused great hilarity amongst shelter wardens. I really ought to write my Memoirs!

This cabbage you hold in the vicinity of your heart to shield you from machine gun fire, the umbrella wielded against bombs, your charm and gently self-deprecating humor, these qualities empower you. They protect you by concealing you.
          These two stories have been repeated in letters and memoir form. Clearly you valued your unique attitude to fear and danger. Brother Henry, to whom your letter is addressed, had more dramatic war stories than you. He had been in the US Army fighting the Germans: he took part in the Normandy invasion, was wounded, interrogated Julius Streicher and other prominent Nazis at Nuremberg, and served in the OSS and the CIA. That you should write to Henry about your comparatively tame brushes with death in a boastful way—"I really ought to write my Memoirs!"—suggests you may have felt it was your lightheartedness that made your stories particularly worth sharing.


The fence that separates our garden from next door's is the traditional catalyst for all kinds of emotions, and not only those unpleasant ones aroused by threats and scoldings to which most children have been subjected at this critical spot borderline.

          Quite early in life pleasant emotions were evoked by the sight of a certain red dress flickering beyond the lilac hedge. As time went on it gathered friends of different coloured dresses and they all grew up. So did the neighbour's phloxes ad hollyhocks and one was apt to get them all a bit mixed up when taking hasty glimpses through the profusion of tangled flowers.

          With the increasing frequency of visitors our neighbour's irritation about bare patches along the hedge increased. But as is so often the case, this had some other reasons as well: the old sinner indulged in the trapping of songbirds in a hidden corner of his garden. We used to hook the trap to our side of the hedge, release the birds an then hook the empty trap neatly back in place. Nothing would offend us more deeply than the trapping of songbirds.

          However, the strongest curses ever hurled at our heads were concerned with a different species of birds: One neighbor's chickens were in the habit of squeezing through our hedge and we punished them for this continued invasion by putting them in a sack and taking the up to our roof. One is resigned to the fact that human beings, capable of soaring, quite frequently remain earthbound, but in the case of the chickens we had often been annoyed by their refusal to use their wings. From our roof we launched the high into the air. With terrific squawking and cackling they would swoop downwards like hawks over the weeping willows and rose beds into Frau Peschke's arms. In the deafening noise we mainly caught the words "filthy murderers." But the chickens could fly superbly and my brother shouted after the reproachfully, "We told you so!"

          We knew two families who became enemies for seven whole years because of livestock filtering through the garden fence and they did not make it up until teenage Romeo and Juliet began to dissolve the animosity by smiling at each other over the selfsame fence.

          In our youthful minds all elderly neighbours became strangely identified with some lovely and old-fashioned plants or shrubs in their gardens. In the end the porter's old wife in her bonnet could no longer be separated from the columbines on her trellis nor the old councillor from his trailing clematis nor the old schoolmistress from her pompon dahlias which appeared year in year out in the same spot, our favourite hunting ground for earwigs.

          What would we give to feast our eyes once more on the ancient bergamot tree beyond the neighbor's fence where three gardens converged! Alas, the ground is now smoothly covered with asphalt.

          In the widespread branches of a tree we had erected a little hut with waterproof library where such volumes as Robinson Crusoe, The Last of the Mohicans, and others, all with bent covers, were available. Girls were dragged up to do the cooking. Some dish was always simmering gently—mostly potatoes in their jackets, cooked in glowing ashes and served with butter and salt. The potatoes were obtained by spearing them with long spiked poles through the barred basement window of the Witch "Quickenquax."

          The witch took a dislike to us from the day when we dressed her cat in a fetching little red wool coat with a tied bonnet in which outfit it glared down from the forked branches of a tree. The Witch "Quickenquax" accused us behind our backs of robbing her of her meagre fruit harvest. Here my elder brother took action in the form of a practical joke in reverse, generously financed by my father. Next morning when the witch peered out of her window she beheld an abundance of little red apples being tied to every branch.

          One of our nextdoor neighbours and fence-friends had a charming little baby sister who was sometimes handed over the fence to be carried about in our arms. Immediately and invariably after the baby went over the hedge, the mother's face appeared at an upper window. We loved the baby dearly. A great part of conscious childhood happiness is interwoven with this tender delight in very young children. One member of our gang even went so far as to get married to the little creature later on.

          One deserted looking window next door tempted us to some cautious catapult practice. When nothing happened our practice got increasingly concentrated until my father received a note saying "As I know that one word from you will put an end to this..." We were told to go at once and apologise and pay for the broken panes out our pocket money. Some of our friends went with us, others joined us further along and when the little man opened his front door he was confronted by some 17 strapping boys, all anxious to apologise. He completely took the wind out of our sails by saying, "I know you want to pull my leg but let me show you something you don't see every day," and he led us to his big water tanks where there was a nest of sticklebacks and many other things which appeal to boys. He offered help and advice in case we wanted to start an aquarium of our own. We frequentlly called on him from then on.

          We often played on the old garden wall bordering on the street and revived some well-known entertainment: concealed in the top of a young chestnut tree we would let own a sand-filled purse on a thin piece of thread until it rested on the pavement. Every time an enthusiastic finder would bend down to pick it up we quickly hauled in our thread and added to his disappointment and dismay by the sobering application of a fine waterspray from a rubber ball.

          Other people's gardens were equally delightful and so were the goings-on at their fences and hedges. Our favourite was uncle Henry's garden right out in the suburbs. He really was a great-grand-uncle, aged about 90, who invariably treated us with the inexplicable distinction and cheerful courtesy like beings from another world. He had been a mature young man at the time of Napoleon. Sitting in his beautiful and very old-fashioned "country" house, he used to smoke his pipe and regale us with innumerable anecdotes which provided us with a vivid picture of a past century's joi de vivre and love of gardens. He was inseparable from his fruit trees, constantly bustling around them, and one never quite knew where uncle Henry stopped and the apple tree began.

          One day he said, "I don't know but every morning my ripe coxes seem to have vanished." I got permission to hide in Uncle Henry's garden at dawn and did not have to wait long before there was a commotion and a very ancient woman scrambled over the fence and picked gathered all the apples lying in the grass into her apron.

Karl Foerster's house and garden, ca 1910
     When I gave a shrill whistle she hurriedly climbed back, holding on to her loot but leaving behind one slipper.  Uncle Henry filled the slipper with sweet briar and heliotrope, adding a little note "no offence meant" and sent it, securely wrapped, next door to be delivered in person. Sullen silence for two whole days. Then a basket arrived full of gorgeous ripe plums. And in it lay Uncle Henry's little note.

Karl Foerster (1874-1970)
[Lottie's uncle, the renowned landscape architect]
Translated from the German by C. Heckscher
January 1963

Karl's house and garden now, open to the public
           In 1963 you translated this charming vignette from your Uncle Karl's memoir, about his own childhood in the 1880s. But it could have been written by you, so similar is it in style to your own. Why did you anglicize your great uncle's name, Heinrich, changing it to Henry? For whom did you translate this text?

          When you write about the church organs, instruments that are, in fact, larger than life, they assume Biblical proportions, make tremendous physical demands of you—they are at once gigantic and frail, breathing and wheezing. The 17th-century organ builder, godlike, continues to play his pranks on young organists...for 300 years.

         But I gather only from pictures that your organ teacher was also a close friend of William's.

And you were closer.

No comments:

Post a Comment