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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

The Light Falls on Me

Richard Swartz
Traduction de Anna Paterson

Texte intégral

Och ändå är just ljus något vi ideligen tvekar om, ibland
in i det sista, om vilket som är det rätta eller sanna, och
om vi ändå inte hade blivit lyckligare med något annat
än det ljus som råkade stå just oss till buds.

1Europe’s light is distinct from light elsewhere in the world. The light in Africa and Asia is positively fiery in comparison, and in the Americas too, the light is different and more intense, as I myself have observed in North America, where a burning light can set the whole sky aflame, that American sky, which people there take so much more seriously than we do our European sky nowadays — or at least, take more seriously than what might be on the ground below it.

2Rather like the effect of our cooking fires, light with that burning quality changes the world it falls on, from first thing in the morning when it starts raising the temperature of landscapes to boiling point, until everything simmers and all firm outlines begin to vanish, initially becoming indistinct and soon afterwards starting to dissolve, so that by midday the flames of this not-European light have already cooked all it has fallen on.

3Those who are used to such light protect themselves as best they can. They keep still, well out of its way and dress in sheets of fabric rather than clothes. Newcomers soon succumb, first falling ill and later perhaps going mad.

4In Europe light of such fieriness is rare. Once only did I experience such light for more than a week, although “experience” is not actually the right word to describe what happened that summer in Istria. The light almost drove me crazy. Comatose, I was lying on top of my bed behind closed shutters, not so much to keep out the light but to exclude the burning sky, which made staying awake as impossible as sleeping. Outside, the powerful light set about bleaching the world in a grand laundering session using light instead of water. The world crumbled, dissolved by a light that made my head ache. I had visions rather like dreams at night, which replaced what had once been the real world. Still, I could not escape because I was too exhausted.

5Then the rain came, a cloudburst that brought back the world. While all that water was pouring down from above, everything was returning to its old shape and I felt better almost at once. It meant that I returned to Europe, although it might be more true to say that Europe returned to me.

6Away from Europe you usually know where the light is coming from, which means that you can avoid looking at just that area of the sky. A not-European sky allows itself to be observed only through half-closed, narrowed eyes. The mercy that there could be worth pleading for, is would be less — not more — light. Outside Europe it is precisely this light that dominates everything. Landscapes and people, mountains, trees and houses all seem to be where they are simply to serve as the light’s pretext for showing off and setting fire to the world at will. When you are in these parts of the world the sky above you is nothing but the light’s own estate, as if it were a great prince demanding that everyone and everything submit to him. In the sky the light sprawls as it pleases, without being confined by any walls.

7Here, where we live, it can be quite difficult to find the source of the light. Our European light often reaches us in roundabout ways. At times we come across it just by chance. Then it reaches us as a reflection or an afterglow, maybe falling on the wall of a house or in the narrow band across a floor. Without this indirect light there probably would be no Europe as we know it.

8For perfectly natural reasons a light such as this seems to lack warmth, evoking ideas and feelings in our minds rather than warming our bodies. It easily lets us free, though. At times it seems to illuminate the sky above Europe from a point somewhere below the horizon, leaving the impression that it is there only on loan for a while, a little like the way European cities in the past used to have — actually, still did during my childhood — brightly colored posters, stuck up on walls and wooden fences, advertising something that would soon be over and done with again. Light of this kind does not last. It soon fades and dies away, just as it usually did not take long for the posters to become ragged and for new ones to be pasted on top.

9Our European light is not very strong. In no way does it measure up to the sheer power of light in Africa or Asia or South America, and it hardly ever burns. The European light, weak and hesitant, somehow seems to look cautiously over its shoulder, exploring its surroundings. This light, which only in southern Europe occasionally behaves as if it were capable of filling the entire sky and dissolving the world, never really succeeds and is anyway far more closely linked to the earth than to the sky. This is a decisive difference. One consequence is that this light illuminates the foreground more than the background.

10Painters are of course much more dependent on light than writers. In European visual art is it is always possible to find something in the foreground that has attracted the artist’s attention, while the background is often left shrouded in shadows, painted in dark, dull colors, or reduced to a few brushstrokes. European museums are packed with just such foreground-pictures, which — had it not been for their very varying motifs — might have truly claimed to be nothing except images of our European light.

11Outside Europe the opposite is the case. Who would there take an interest in the foreground? How could it even be possible? The light is shining over the background; it is not the front of the stage alone that is illuminated, but the backdrop. Outside Europe the source of the light is, of course, that great blowtorch right above in the sky and so the light wipes out the foreground and exposes the background, more often than not making people who live in places other than Europe turn inwards rather than focus on the world outside.

12Here in Europe, the light makes us see what is under our noses. Only the foreground is invested with meaning. What is close by, that is to say, what is comfortable and familiar (or things that should be so) become more important than the greater context in which we find no such familiarity or comfort. We have a tight world nearby, easy to investigate with the senses. It is this very closeness that allows us to see how even these familiar things become brittle, how every day new cracks appear where none should be. This superficial fracturing gets to interest us more than what is held in place below the surface coating and keeps it intact despite its narrow, almost invisible, cracks.

13Meanwhile the most appalling events take place in our European background. Back there the ashes are stirred yet again, new graves are dug, but our light is too feeble to reach all these murky goings-on. It fails to shine on things we don’t want to know about and which are on their way into obscurity or already hidden in darkness.

14Here in Europe there is simply too little light. To prove to myself that I am right about this, I need only open my kitchen window: on a winter’s day, such as today, the light is etching fragile, yet severe, patterns, an effect aided by the snow in the yard, patches of white that from the fourth floor look like pieces of a torn sheet. The frail light picks out reflections and shadows in just a few shades, or so it seems at first, but closer inspection reveals an endlessly shifting range of many of the main colors that belong to European foregrounds — black, brown, gray and off-white.

15Though there is nothing special to be discovered, I can easily sit for hours at my kitchen window and look out over this yard.

16Particularly during the winter I find myself longing for a kind of light and warmth that is different from what is on offer in Europe. But at these times it is normally enough to pull out from my shelves a South American novel and start leafing through it; whitehot light flows from the core story of these books, blinding me and wiping out what is presumably argued on the pages — light which turns most things into background features. Under such intense illumination, the family becomes more important than its individual members, instinct more important than rational thought, fate more important than freedom, tradition more important than psychology, blood more important than snow and the sun, always at the same place in the sky, determines the shape and perspective of everything and all colors fuse, disappearing into this white, glowing, all-consuming furnace.

17But all this is alien to me. I hardly find it even interesting. Worse still, I find it boring (this, I imagine, is the most European of my responses). I am bored despite the fact that until the end of our lives light is something we can never take for granted. And still light is constantly preoccupying us, as we are never sure if we got the best or enough of it, something which makes us wonder if we would not have been happier with some other kind of light different from that at hand.

18“Mehr Licht” — “More light” — is, regardless of rumors to the contrary, what Goethe did not say on his deathbed. Besides, he died sitting in an armchair. Someone must have figured that all truly famous people have a phrase ready when the moment comes. But, in this case at least, it is an invention. Even so, this desire for more light has taken on a life of its own, surviving him who never asked for it in the first place.

19What might be the idea behind this fable? Are we to imagine that Goethe asked for more light in order to disperse the darkness gathering around him? Or that the old poet, who at that point in time was already looking into another world, had become full of wonder at how much more light there was compared with the world he was about to leave?

20Or is it that Goethe is asking not so much for light, but for what cannot easily be had in isolation from it? The heat from the flame in the hope that it will keep the chill of death at bay?

21As for me, I think he was cold. Goethe had seen enough light; his entire life’s work had been created in just that European light, which is caught in all he wrote to such a degree that it is impossible to get away from it.

22The same European light, weak and pale as it might be, is falling over my writing too.


Further Reading:
Room Service: Reports from Eastern Europe. Translated by Linda Haverty Rugg. New Press, 1998.
A House in Istria. Translated by Anna Paterson. New Directions Publishing, 2002.

Table des illustrations

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Born in Stockholm in 1945, Richard Swartz studied history and Slavic languages and literature at the University of Stockholm and wrote his doctoral thesis as an exchange student in Prague between 1970 and 1972. Since 1976 he has been East European correspondent for Svenska Dagbladet. He lives in Stockholm, Vienna, and Sovinjak (Istria) and writes for several international newspapers, including Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. With his reports and analyses, he rapidly became an important voice in Eastern Europe and was declared persona non grata by various communist states. Swartz has received various journalistic awards for his work. In December 1996, Room Service was chosen by the Darmstadt Academy for Language and Literature as book of the month.

Anna Paterson (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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