Originally posted March 2018.
"What You Read" is a short story which will be released in ten parts in this blog. It is inspired by the work I did for “The Pendulum”. It revolves around the question of what the books we read say about us.
Yet this small victory hadn’t saved you from harder things to come.
“You cannot describe depression,” you said, and then went on to describe it. “It is a terrible thing; you don’t want to see anyone, or do anything. The day has no beginning and no end. One cannot wish it upon anyone.”
Our conversation prompted me to read Effi Briest, and to learn of her world of paranoia and superstition that grew out of her confinement in a relationship and in a place she didn’t want to be in. Her fear that she was being haunted by the unrequited spirit of a Chinaman, who had come to the North Sea shores on a trading ship and died in her husband’s house, nearly drove her mad. You knew what it was like to stand on the brink of madness, and could take Effi’s predicament to yourself. What had begun as a titillating novel about someone else when you were a youngster, became a terrifying mirror.
You kept to your superstitions, such as spending considerable periods of time holding a pendulum, a tiny magnet tied to the end of a piece of silk string, over the image of your son whom you were certain had died in the Brazilian wilderness. You insisted he was dead because the pendulum had told you so, and again I furled my eyebrows at the ferocity of your pain. I didn’t like superstition, but something in me couldn’t reject the possibility that the dead Chinaman and the tiny magnet might just have some power over us.
The part you didn’t tell me about yourself was the part I learned from reading about Effi’s life, and what surrounded us in your apartment. Your sterling silver, the gold-rimmed plates and your blue satin bathrobe that hung in your oak closet, struck me as much as anything else each time that I visited. From the beginning, like you, Effi only wanted the best or nothing. Her desire was your desire, and it was this that attracted you to your husband and his ideology, which became the nemesis of your soul. It made you question whether you really were a victim, and wonder whether, like Effi’s critics, you had deserved what you had got.
It was a mystery to me that an independent thinker like you, who saw the injustice of Effi’s fate, could marry a man whose ideology dictated that you and other women could only become heroes if you became slaves. Yet the answer lay in the story of Effi Briest itself. He had offered you the best, “only the best”- you said, he'd said - and you followed him in pursuit of this as he and his comrades grabbed land and murdered its owners in Poland, and eventually drove the family to ruin pursuing megalomaniac dreams in exile in Latin America. You didn’t tell me all of these things. Instead, I found them out myself in archives and among eyewitnesses.
At over one hundred years of age, when death faced you each day, you asked the same question as Effi had on her deathbed: “Will God take me?” For both of you it was a rhetorical question. Neither of you believed that he would, because you saw yourselves as justifiably guilty, not as innocent victims. Suddenly, I thought I understood why you said that the Pope should be shot. He was the anointed keeper of the entrance to God's house, from which you believed you had been expelled forever.
Through Effi Briest I was able to distil the source of our guilt, which had trickled down from you, to the generation between us, and eventually to me. Was this just or unjust, and must the sins be paid for by the suffering of the generations? If I had been deeply superstitious, I would have said that we had no choice but to accept it. Yet I am only mildly so, and continue to seek another way of framing the question.