Originally posted April 2018.
"What You Read" is a short story that 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.
Like a woman possessed, I ordered a short biographical account of Klepper’s life, his collection of church hymns and poems, and most importantly his diary. The latter had been written in blood between 1932-42, as life closed in on his family, and he grappled with his faith in the German Evangelical Church, which had capitulated to the Party. Der Vater had been the most important literary achievement of his life, he thought, having no idea that his diary would far overtake it in importance later on. Senior Nazis, even the Führer himself, it was said, had read it, because they saw it as an endorsement of rearmament and the militarization of German society. Klepper mused at their rabid hunger for self-reinforcement. Blinded by their own hubris, they could not see that it was a work of resistance, a tale of just rule that could not be a greater contrast to the violent, disorderly, power-gluttonous National Socialism.
Did you read it because your dead leaders had read it? Or did you read it because you knew of Klepper’s fate, and that there must be more to this novel than the story of a soldier king? Perhaps the contradiction of Klepper intrigued you. One who wrote about Prussian kings, whose life was broken by those who revered their mythology the most: the Nazis, your Party, your people.
Once when I sat with you over coffee in your apartment, decades after your return from Brazil, you lowered your voice to a whisper when you mentioned your neighbour down the hallway.
“I’ve had tea with her many times. She is very orderly and has the finest things, but she’s Jewish, you know.”
It was a jumble of ill emotions, including jealousy and disdain. But, soaring like a dark genie above it all, was the suggestion in your whispering that you had done something illegal. I didn’t know how to respond to this, and took another sip of tea to wash down the queasiness. Maybe that was the way you had read Klepper, as though it was something daring because his marriage to a Jew was against nature in your perspective.
Yet when first you read him in exile, you were not the same person as the one who sat before me now. Then you had left your home suddenly for an unknown and dangerous frontier, with a volatile husband who had hurt you, only because you were more afraid of what could happen if you stayed. I was certain that on that terrace you read Klepper out of fear and confusion, making a book choice that your fanatic husband would find acceptable, but that also offered refuge in what you saw as a dignified history far away from madmen and disgrace. In choosing Klepper, perhaps you also privately acknowledged your feelings of guilt and shame. And maybe this was so terrible that it led into the unfathomable darkness of depression that you spent so many subsequent years in.
You knew everything about your authors, and so you knew that Klepper coped with his family’s dwindling circumstances and the hubris of the times through his unflinching faith. In it he found the strength to resist spiritual crimping and retained his creative integrity, at least for a sufficient time to produce what would become his life’s work. Suicide or giving up went against his beliefs, until there were no other options. He stayed with God to the end, but you didn't, and now you regretted it.
“Of course God will take you,” I said unconvincingly, as you cleaned your teeth fretfully with a toothpick, after telling me that you didn’t think St. Peter would open those gates for you.
The truth was that I had no idea, as I didn’t presume that there was a God. I had come to the daunting conclusion that you had chosen the path of no remorse, and I grieved your tragedy as though it were mine. I tried to reassure you, because, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, if there was a God, he could do what I was incapable of, which was to know your many faces and to see them as one. Reassuring you was my reminder that what you read that I read wasn’t only about you. It was about both of us.