Foreign matter

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The Autorenbuchhandlung bookstore and cafe on Savigny Platz.

The other evening I attended a book reading by a young author in a bookstore just off Savigny Platz. The store is located directly under an S-Bahn station, and every few minutes the whole room would rumble when a train passed overhead. The author, a Canadian named Sheila Heti, is on a book tour for her latest work, How Should a Person Be?, what she calls a “novel from life.”

My friend Melissa had alerted me to this reading that very day, so though I knew next to nothing about the author, and though Melissa couldn’t join me, a little time spent poking around Heti’s website made me decide to check it out.

Heti herself doesn’t speak German, which made me like her right away. She was introduced at length by a bookstore staff member, first in German and then in English, and he and Heti sat on two of three chairs facing the small audience of perhaps 30 people. There was a third person seated in the middle; only later did I figure out that this was an actress hired to read excerpts from Heti’s book in German.

Most elements of the conversation were translated in full by the staff member, except for the book excerpts. The discussion among the three of them was engaging and I learned that Heti wrote the novel based on her own life and real interactions that occurred among her small group of friends, all Toronto artists. Her characters, though named for real people, were meant to be viewed as fictional, though the conversations in the book are transcribed from life.

Heti said she managed not to lose any friends in spite of writing about them at length in her book. And then the actress read excerpts from the book, which struck me as a bit lengthy, especially when read in a language one does not understand. The first part she read aloud must have been fairly serious, based on the silence in the audience.

The actress, Jenny Schily, has a beautiful voice. She made the text sound lively and nuanced.

During these German passages I let my attention wander. We were seated in the café portion of the bookstore, and for a while I read the offerings on the mounted chalkboard listing the day’s specials in that lovely handwriting everyone must be taught in German schools. There was a stack of clean white coffee cups on the counter, and copies of Heti’s book in German were arranged in the glass container where cakes are normally displayed.

I listened to the rumble of the trains and the way the S-Bahn makes that singular high-pitched hum when it slows at the station, and again when it gathers speed to pull away. The windows rattled slightly each time. As the evening wore on they came less frequently.

I felt the way I do when I’m at one of M’s piano recitals, paying close attention to what he says to introduce each piece, and then letting my mind drift during the sounds that follow. It’s the same thing, really; another mysterious language.

After a further exchange between the interviewer and the author, the actress read another excerpt, a more lighthearted passage, it seemed. The audience laughed at the funny parts and I didn’t. It’s always such a disconnect when that happens, when the group around me breaks into a laugh at the same time, and I don’t, having missed the joke. I feel so singled out in those moments. If someone were observing the room they could pick me out: “Oh look, this one doesn’t understand.”

I love it when I do get a joke in German. Those I do are very short and situational.

At one of the Tuesday circuit trainings the rowers at their various stations all heard what sounded briefly like sleigh bells in the men’s locker room, and the trainer, in his unisuit, lifted his head and said tentatively, “Weihnachtsmann?” (“Santa Claus?”) I laughed at that.

I was in the women’s eight out on the Wannsee a few weeks ago and the coxswain asked the bowseat to take a few strokes to straighten our course, and she did, rowing a few strokes alone, after which she called out, “Ein euro, bitte!” I think I laughed because I was grateful to get the joke.

Here at the reading, the jokes were lost on me.

As the evening wore on there was more German and less English. There were times when I just let it wash over me, until an English phrase caught my ear. At one point the author said to the interviewer, seemingly out of the blue, “Interlude with fucking,” which got my attention, but then the actress started reading a passage in German and all was murky again. I watched the audience to try to gauge what I was missing, but they didn’t reveal much.

The dynamics of the room offered plenty to watch. One woman in the front row started the evening with a full wine glass, but after she’d drained it she took to twirling it excessively, to the point where I feared she’d drip the remains on her dress, or twirl it right out of her fingers to smash on the floor. There were occasional murmurs of laughter and the author smiled sweetly in appreciation each time. The interviewer leaned behind the actress to get a better view of the author’s face during these passages, to see how she responded to hearing her work being read by someone else in German and the occasional bursts of laughter from the audience. Heti glanced over at him and smiled a couple of times, as if to dismiss him, but he was German, so he didn’t take the hint; he just kept watching her, clearly enjoying the scene.

In my experience author readings last about a half hour, followed by about 20 minutes of conversation with the audience, ending with a book signing and chance to meet the author. Here the panel spoke to the audience for just shy of two hours, then halfheartedly opened the floor for questions, taking only one.

At first no one went up to the author to ask her to sign their books because she was engrossed in conversation with the actress sitting beside her. But then I saw others approach. I didn’t have a copy of the book so I didn’t get in line right away. I looked around at the artful book displays, but they all seemed to be in German. The interviewer walked by and I thanked him for the program in English. He asked if I’d seen the room of literature they offer in English, and I hadn’t, so he took me in another room and I was delighted to find the equivalent to Common Good Books in Berlin. He told me that alas, they had run out of copies of the English version of Heti’s book.

I got in line anyway. When it was my turn, I told Heti I’d have to wait to find a copy of her book. I told her that I’d been on her website, and how much I liked her essay, “From My Diaries (2006-2010) in Alphabetical Order.” It’s just that—a list of random sentences from her diaries, arranged alphabetically.

“Really? It wasn’t annoying to read?”

“No, not at all,” I said. “It was seventeen pages, right? I read the whole thing, and towards the end said to myself, oh no, I’m getting to the end of the alphabet.” I told her I loved how there’s so much you can’t know behind every sentence, but it’s enough for the reader to see that there’s a huge personality behind it all.

She looked relieved. She said she’d created the piece in an Excel spreadsheet, and we both laughed. “It’s rather brilliant, actually,” I said, or maybe only considered saying, not being one for doling out high compliments.

I did say: “It’s what made me decide to come tonight.”

I didn’t say: The piece is disjointed the way being at this reading is for me. Like living in Germany without German. So many sentences float by untranslated. So many laughs I can’t share. So much is beyond me. And then, a phrase. If I’m lucky, some context. Interlude with fucking. That’s funny. But maybe it’s more funny when you have no idea what came before or after. There’s meaning in the absence of meaning. This is my life. Thanks for showing me it too is art.

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