Lily’s Impatience

(pp. 56-58 of the original text)

Piran, what a rejuvenating force

“Can you keep a secret?” asked Lily.

“Hmm, don’t know. I think so.”

“I have a special quality…”

“No one must ever know a secret! Obviously!”

“A special, well, let’s call it a fantastic quality!”

“Can’t say I’ve ever noticed it. I’ve always thought of you as pretty normal.”

“I feel the same about you!”

“Okay, okay. What sort of quality is it, then?”

“My special quality is that many experiences totally overwhelm me. Can really overpower me. If I let them. I plunge into another world, a distant dream. Impressions, an experience, discovering a special colour, a strange light, a smell, it can often be set off just by small observations, some scene that I see in the street or on a train. And I let myself fall into it unreservedly. Into another state of being. I get caught up in an extreme frenzy of feeling. If it wasn’t for my dreams…”

“That sounds as if you had to apologize for it.”

“It’s such a violent experience. A spiritual earthquake. Tiny little things may set it going. But afterwards you hardly trust yourself to cross the road.”

“I imagine that’s uncomfortable.”

“I can give myself up wholly to a feeling, work myself up into such a state; I can let a moment of emotional frenzy take me over. So that I disappear in it entirely.”

“Then you don’t mind at all about what’s around you, what’s happening there, or us and everyone else?”

“I know. I can be very unjust.”

“That sounds familiar to me. We’re all unjust at times, we work ourselves up into being unscrupulous, contemptible, mean. Not a special quality, if you ask me. Just part of human life, Lily.”

“When that happens I see nothing outside myself, nothing that could put me right. I’m blind, I’m not in control any more, but I’m fully conscious. Deep down inside. No one can get at me. You could try talking to me and every word would bounce off me. Ping! As if it hadn’t been spoken. I’m on another star. It’s enthusiasm. It’s…like a state of intoxication.”

“Sounds more like fantasy. Or rather ecstasy.”

“But you could also call it the opposite: you’re letting yourself in for the fullness of life. Without a safety net. With every fibre of your being. You’re still vulnerable. You stop being so damn clever and superior, keeping a sensible distance from everyone and everything.”

“Sounds good, but keeping a certain distance is a help. For instance, in preserving yourself. From injuries and nastiness. So that nothing horrible can take you over. Once, when people believed in the Devil, believed a demon like him could enter into people…”

“Oh, such stuff and nonsense! Satanism! Distance finishes you off, makes you cowardly, only half yourself. Oh, to do something real, radical! Letting yourself in for it entirely. Casting off that horrible, deadening unconsciousness. Oh, to begin something totally new! That’s what it’s about.”

“But we’re not alone in the world.”

“I’m not interested in what happens to other people at all. Often I’m not.”

Veronika remembered this conversation with Lily; they were talking in the graveyard of Piran in Slovenia, high above the steep coastline falling to the sea. She and Lily, along with some friends, were sailing from Trieste around the Istrian peninsula, then continuing south along the Croatian coast. Piran was their first day’s stopping-off point. They had chosen the island of Korčula as their destination. There were some friends of Lily’s on the boat with them, as well as Veronika’s husband Andreas.

When people talked about Lily at the time, it was always “clever Lily, lucky Lily.” Because she could beam radiantly like no one else, could be more enthusiastic than anyone else. “Lucky Lily” was not a sobriquet that she liked. But it suited her, for if anyone was going to find a special seashell, an ideal anchorage, or a restaurant somewhere unspoilt by tourism, then it was Lily. She had a special instinct, said her friends, she could sense what the group would like. Uncle Martin, who lived near Überlingen, had given them a small sailboat, a little yacht, as a present while they were still in high school. It had belonged to his youngest son, who had gone off to Toronto to join a religious commune, or had emigrated to somewhere else in Canada. Veronika had vivid memories of that sailing trip along the Slovenian and Croatian coasts, the longest they had ever undertaken. In the autumn after that, Lily began studying architecture in Bremen, and Veronika signed on as an assistant doctor at the Auguste-Viktoria hospital.

(pp. 63-65)

The real subject of the investigation

In Piran, Veronika and Lily climbed up from Tartini Square along the town’s winding alleys and flights of steps to the church and the campanile, looked out to sea, into the shimmering brightness above the Gulf of Trieste, and glanced down at the town. Then they went on up the hill to the old city wall. The dead were buried here outside the town. The sisters explored the various parts of the graveyard, which was laid out on several levels. A terrace higher here, above that another terrace higher again, beyond that higher still. They could hear children shouting on the football field next to the graveyard. The ball kept flying into the much-mended wire fence erected between the cypress trees.

The rock face fell steeply to the sea from the very highest part of the graveyard. Here you could see over the Adriatic all the way to Aquileia and Grado, thinking you could guess where Venice might lie. This place at the top of the graveyard was where children were buried. Lily and Veronica walked past the burial plots, reading the names aloud to each other, and working out, from what they could gather from the little gravestones, how long those buried here had lived: Augustin fourteen days, Nikola five and a half months, Alex two years, Jasmina two days, Luca eight months, Maja two weeks, Marko two days, Aleš ten months, Sandra six days, Jan three months, Dejan seven years, Darja seven years. After that Lily fell into deep melancholy. Veronika hugged her for a long time.

The light over the Adriatic. The view down to the water over the steep coastline. Little sport boats down there. Lizards on the wall. Seagulls soaring along the coast, children on sandy beaches in the little bays, the disused saltworks of Izola over there. Out in the sea, the buoys marking out a mussel farm. The coastal marshes: yellow, paler and darker strata of lime and silt, and up above them the line of the turf, above that the vines, a few old houses sheltered by high garden hedges. Far out, they saw a single swimmer.

It was hard to tear Lily away from the place where they had stationed themselves by the wall, with its view of the wide expanses beyond. That was when she told Veronika about her secret.

“Sorry, but it’s my idée fixe.”

Veronika retorted vigorously, “I don’t like it when you say such things.”

“And I don’t like it when you treat me like a terracotta statue.”

Blue-grey clouds hung over the limestone rocks. The two sisters walked down to the town hand in hand. Near the town wall they found an open garden gate, and fruit, vegetables, and grapes were being taken into the house. Veronika and Lily were amazed to see such a paradise beyond the narrow entrance in the white wall. Without more ado they were invited to look round the garden, and then they sat at the stone table under an arbour of vines with the elderly couple who owned the place. Their hosts spoke a little German, said they had often been in Austria, called Graz a beautiful city.

Fresh figs, fruity schnapps distilled from olive-sized dark fruits they didn’t know, the hospitable couple who willingly opened their garden to strangers and entertained them–that cheered Lily up again. She exuberantly ran down the flights of steps into the town.

Andreas and Lily’s friends were waiting for them in the Theatre Café on the pier. They had to listen to the weather forecast and discuss whether they could continue on their planned route to Rovinj tomorrow.

Next day, when the weather had not changed, the group walked along the foot of the steep coastline. The photographs hanging on Veronika’s wall in Berlin and standing on her desk at the hospital are from that excursion. Lily, proud child and young woman at once, in black shorts, an orange bikini top, the water reaching up to her knees. How she laughs! Waving a scarf above her head. Her breasts, her figure. Lily’s eyes, grey and green. Her long dark hair, her pale face, her freckles.

(pp. 81-82)

When philosophy does not know the answer

“I won’t be able to have children?” That was Lily’s summing-up. The outcome of  twenty-four hours in hospital. The outcome of many weeks. At the time Veronika had gone to the hospital with her sister. It was a few days after Lily’s twenty-first birthday. Veronika had been visiting her in Bremen, and they had been to the theatre to see the first night of a production of Verdi’s Falstaff in which several friends of Lily’s had walk-on parts. The first-night party was at the Due Emigranti restaurant in Böttcherstrasse.

Suddenly Lily complained of stomach pains. Her face was pale, her hands cold. She ran out of the restaurant, fell to the floor of the toilet, writhed, whimpering and complaining, clutched the wrist of her sister, who was crouching on the floor beside her. It soon turned out that it was not nausea, not a stomach upset, and not food poisoning. Lily begged her sister to help her, get her away from there as fast as possible, not tell anyone anything about the scene.

They took a taxi to the emergency department of the Bremen-Nord hospital. “I think I’m pregnant,” said Lily, her face twisting in pain. Then, after hours of examinations–during which the doctors suspected severe colic, a breaking cyst on her ovaries, pyelitis, internal bleeding, a perforated appendix, or a stomach ulcer–and after an ultrasound of her intestines, gynaecological investigations, and an exhausting night, a young woman doctor had discharged Lily, telling her, “You probably won’t be able to have children.”

Lily stared sadly at her stomach. An atypical curvature of the uterus, she thought; what was that? It was beyond her to imagine such a thing, said Lily, trying to provoke the young gynaecologist. How could anything atypical develop in her, when she was such a typical, average woman? No, she had not been pregnant, the doctor said soothingly, at the most it had been a case of phantom pregnancy. Stomach cramps were nothing unusual at her age. She was discharged, with a few boxes of pills and an encouraging remark.

Veronika was convinced that Lily had been taking drugs. That her collapse that evening was to do with some such harmful substance, and that she had already been taking it for many months. Lily did not try to conceal it from Veronika. She claimed that those white pills were a new kind of psychopharmacological treatment, and told her sister something about their anti-depressant effect.

“I often get such throbbing pains in my temples. It’s hard to bear. I have to take something to help me. Promise not to tell anyone about it.”

Later, Lily visited several gynaecologists to confirm the diagnosis. But none of them would commit themselves: yes, the curvature of her uterus was very marked, but they could not say for certain whether that meant pregnancy and a normal birth were out of the question. Could she, Veronika wondered, discuss Lily’s drug problem with their father? Promise not to tell anyone about it.

(pp. 162-165)

Two irreconcilable principles

In the winter of 1995-96, so Welti said, a series of pictures was created in the studio, all with the same subject: Lily’s body under a striped blue cloth. The setting: a bare, well-lit room, a stretcher in the Institute of Forensic Medicine. A hand hangs down from under the cloth. The bloodstained bandage hastily wrapped around the head, the dark blue marks, the gash in her right cheek, bruising on her arm. Lily’s smile.

“Come here, Veronika, may I show you something?” called Welti, rummaging, as though he were very much at home here, through a stack of small-format oil paintings propped against the wall at the back of the studio. He held up picture after picture to show them to Veronika, but she looked only briefly.

In those pictures, which were really only cursory sketches, you saw a room, a window, the view of the scene outside–a wide landscape–broad floorboards, the frame of a tubular steel bedstead, mattress, cover, pillow. Lily’s face and the outline of her body remained charcoal sketches. In one of them he had tried to portray her face more precisely, two hanks of hair clogged up with blood showing under the white bandage, her mouth open in surprise. A whole series of unfinished pictures to which, as the journalist explained, he was adding five or six a day.

Veronika was both astonished and angry to see the man who was a guest here, with his casual manner, handling the family’s most intimate pictures as if they were unimportant objects of some kind. Yet she knew so little about the circumstances of her father’s life. She wondered how long he had been in contact with this Herr Welti, a pompous character who knew so much about the father of whom she herself was unaware. But she couldn’t get out a word to stop him.

“I asked your father why he doesn’t finish painting the Lily pictures. And he said, so coldly that it startled me: ‘Cézanne knew that a painting can never be finished. That every picture is only an inadequate approximation.'”

A sense of vertigo came over Veronika. But Welti was still talking. He said that at the time when the Lily pictures had been painted, her father had also created several large-scale self-portraits, pictures over two metres high, one showing him with his torso bare, in the forest; one, wrapped up warm in the snow, against the background of a glacier landscape; one, in front of a leafless tree in the meadow, her father holding a cow’s halter, behind him larch woods, walls of rock, peaks in the glittering ice–anti-idylls of the Engadine.

Welti turned one of these pictures to her. It was called The Self-Portraitist Conceals His Own and depicted her father in a bright green suit, with a long beard: a strange figure in the wide mountain landscape, flourishing mountain pines in front of him, enormous glaciers in the background, a flock of sheep grazing, two little girls playing, in front of them the old man leaning to one side, perhaps even bowing slightly. The children’s socks, slipping down their legs, were shown in great detail. Their father’s gaze was dark, turned in on himself.

Another picture showed an emaciated old man from behind, looking back at the observer. He is trying to stride out with his left leg, but a shackle around his right ankle, firmly anchored in the ground, prevents him from moving forward.

Welti took several sheets of paper out of his bag, including the handwritten list of the pictures that gave their respective formats and the years when they’d been painted. Veronika skimmed the titles; in the five months of this year alone her father had painted the following works: Released From the Force of Gravity, Oh My Connective Tissue, Field Hospital for Those Gasping for Breath, Mea Culpa, Tunnel Effect, Emergency Exit, The Spreading of Evil, In the Hospice of War, Adam Refrains from Eating the Apple in the Garden of Eden, No One On Board, Love Devotion Surrender, Alarming Search for Carbon, Who Has No Ego Problems?

As she studied the list, marvelling at her father’s productivity over recent years, he came back to the studio, gasping for breath, with a bottle of wine and three glasses. He had difficulty opening the bottle, and put the spiral of the corkscrew in place several times, but his hand shook and the corkscrew slipped off.

“Believe me, when I’ve looked at those pictures I’ve often regretted not being able to meet Lily in person,” said Welti. “I’m sure I would have liked her. And there’s that series of photographs…very good photos…”

“Are there going to be private photographs in the catalogue as well?” Veronika asked her father. “Photographs of the family, of us?” As her father, still busy trying to open the bottle, did not reply, Veronika told Herr Welti brusquely, “There’s no question of any such thing. Take them straight out again.”

“Veronika, don’t get so worked up,” said her father irritably. He had just broken the top of the cork. Welti offered to deal with it, and solved the problem with consummate ease.

“But you must discuss this with me, Papa. See if I’ll agree to it.”

Her father tried to calm his daughter. Handed Veronika a glass of wine, removed a few crumbs of cork from her glass with a swift forefinger, and wiped his finger on his trousers.

“I drink to my daughter Veronika! To her happiness. Her long life. To her children Thomas and Maximilian, whom I shall very soon embrace.”

“No, let’s drink to Lily,” snapped Veronika. “To Lily’s long life.” She kissed her father’s cheek. “To her happiness! Cheers, Lily! Don’t you put up with anything!”

Welti was taking photographs of this scene. Veronika shouted at the journalist, “Stop that idiotic photography of yours at once! I do not give my permission to the publication of family photos, and we won’t be discussing the matter any longer.”

Embarrassed, the two men raised their glasses, nodded awkwardly to one another, made faces as they praised the wine. Then Veronika’s father turned away, bent over a table and tidied a stack of drawings, putting them in a portfolio. Once again, Veronika saw pictures of the dead Lily with her hand hanging down from the stretcher.

(pp. 171-176)

O quam tristis

On an altar in the cathedral of Trient in Upper Italy, there is a statue of the Virgin Mary larger than life-size. A monstrous glass shrine, and inside it an aristocratic lady whose eyes are reddened by tears. She represents the Mother of God. Her cheeks are red with weeping. She inclines her head to one side in mourning, her gaze is fixed on the ground so that the observer can get only a narrow glimpse of her eyes. The Mother of God wears a high-necked dress with a long cloak over it reaching down to the floor. The colours of the valuable fabrics, silk and richly ornamented brocade, are slightly faded now. Two angels mourn at the statue’s feet, one of them wiping tears away with a handkerchief.

The surreal aspect of this statue is the point of a slender dagger about thirty centimetres long thrust into the elegant lady’s breast. “To be anatomically precise,” Zinnwald lectured them, “we would have to say that the knife is aiming straight for her breastbone. Yet the Mother of God retains her dignified attitude. An intriguing contradiction: someone has stabbed this lady in the breast with her dagger, yet her physical expression is one of heroic composure. There is a documentary aspect to this glass shrine. Mary full of sorrows–an almost life-size scene taken direct from ordinary life, a figure like the statue in a cabinet of waxworks, like a shop-window dummy that might be standing in a fashion store. You find such dioramas in museums where stuffed animals are displayed behind glass. The only difference is that there are no candles and lights in museums and waxworks shows, and no pious sinners kneeling on hassocks in prayer.”

“There’s that work of your own…” stammered Welti. “I’ll remember the name in a minute. Maybe I should go to Trient myself.”

“Yes,  if you want to write about it, then do go to Trient, Herr Welti. Or anywhere you like. My work is called Stabat pater. And for me, this is how the famous prayer runs:

At the Cross his station keeping,

Stood the mournful father weeping,

Close to Jesus at the last.

Through his heart, his sorrow sharing,

All his bitter anguish bearing,

Now at length the sword has passed.

Veronika was making for the stairs, but her father stopped her in the doorway.

“Five minutes’ patience, if you please, Veronika; this is important to me. Won’t you sit down? And Welti, you might like to make some notes of what I say, if you don’t want to go all the way to Trient.” Veronika turned once on the threshold and stood by the doorframe.

“We see only Mary, the mother of Jesus, standing beneath the cross; that is true of pictorial representations in the history of art from the Middle Ages to the present day. Sometimes John the Baptist stands there with her, or we see a few other figures. However, we never see the mourning father under his son’s cross. Even if Joseph may not have been the physical birth father of Jesus, for several chapters in the Bible the master carpenter is definitely regarded as his father. But a time comes when we hear no more about him. We may well wonder where St. Joseph has gone. Surely it is legitimate to ask: did the father of Jesus not grieve when his son was nailed to the cross? Why does no one tell us, why does no one paint a picture of Joseph mourning? Millions of times, in countless variants, we see the mother of Jesus casting down her eyes, suffering, mourning, weeping over her son’s murder. But I have yet to find a mourning Joseph in any church, in any museum. And strangely enough: no one has ever noticed that fact!

Just think of the Pietà, a touching scene depicted by all the masters, great and lesser, in the history of art. Some of them even painted it several times. But why is there no depiction of the mourning father in Christian iconography? The father in pain, his dead child on his knees. Didn’t fathers grieve for their children in those days?

Is there one who would not weep,

Whelmed in miseries so deep,

Christ’s dear father to behold?

Can the human heart refrain

From partaking in his pain,

In that father’s pain untold?

I would happily range farther afield: it is remarkable that Christians pray to a God who is a father and watches his son being murdered. Who does not save him. Let this cup pass from me, says Jesus; no, I’ve changed my mind. In those words the son begs and prays on the Mount of Olives. No answer. When it’s already too late, he asks: My God, why hast thou forsaken me? None of that does any good. He has indeed forsaken you. Now you will die, and we will make it look as if it’s in order to redeem mankind.”

Zinnwald had talked himself into a frenzy, with Welti making all kinds of faces by way of comment. “And even supposing,” Zinnwald went on, “supposing not Joseph but God in heaven is the father of Jesus, why do we never see him in mourning either?”

Welti tried to calm him down. “Herr Zinnwald, you would truly have made a fine preacher. Upon my word, I had no idea you knew your Bible so well! But I have a feeling we ought to leave the theological discourse to the Bishop of Chur,” he said with a grin. He bent towards Veronika. “Sounds like heresy, don’t you think?” Veronika turned away, annoyed.

“And there are depictions of the mother of God with seven daggers in her heart. The seven sorrows of Mary. However, we never see a father’s heart pierced by seven sharp knives. People say, with some justification, that Christianity is a patriarchal religion. But the patriarchalism stops short of mourning. We see only Mama suffering.

I would like to see a sorrowing Joseph by Leonardo, Dürer, Holbein or Cranach; by Giotto, El Greco, Correggio, Titoretto, Titian; by Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, and above all by Mantegna. And a Joseph in great pain with seven daggers in his heart. Painted, carved in wood, chiselled in stone, cast in bronze…”

Veronika had taken her father’s arm to go downstairs with him. He had already moved a step closer to the door when he turned to Welti again and said:

“Do you know that I painted a St. Sebastian once? Not a handsome poofter of a youth with a gracefully draped loincloth. And I didn’t paint him from in front but from behind. I corrected the Christian traditions of painting. The back view of St. Sebastian for the first time in the history of art. A fat fellow in a shirt and the trousers of a business suit, extra broad suspenders, and all the little arrows going through his body, dying his shirt and trousers red with blood. But he doesn’t waver.”

Welti beamed: “I know that picture, one of your most outstanding works. That irony, that Gothic S-shaped sweep in the attitude of the body, so sensuously convincing. And in Balthus we find the theme of the Pietà reversed: the naked girl on a man’s lap.”

“I think that’s about something else. I discussed it with him at the time. There’s that famous painting by Max Ernst, The Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses. But it’s too satirical for me.”

“Do you know,” asked Welti, trying to draw Veronika back into the conversation, “that picture in the National Gallery in London: A Satyr Mourning Over A Nymph? The painter was Piero di Cosimo. Ever heard of him? Ah, a gap in your education! Instead of the dead Christ, we see a naked woman lying before us. A very beautiful young woman, apparently intact but dead. Breasts like…two little globes. But then we see it, a stream of blood running from her throat. The satyr, very hairy up to his hips, bends over the dead girl in deep grief. Even the hounds in the picture are sad.”

Zinnwald was not listening, but looking at his daughter, who was still standing in the doorway, supporting herself with both hands on the frame. After a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Veronika…I just wanted to say…”

“…that one day,” Welti interrupted him, “we shall have to compare your father’s work with that of Rogier van der Weyden. And then one should mention the hyperrealism of Holbein’s Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb in Basel. Well, it seems to me we’ve strayed a little way from the subject. Item!” said Welti, looking to Veronika for understanding.

“We have not! protested Zinnwald. “On the contrary, we are in the middle of the subject. It has long been a wish dear to me. It had to be said some day!” He raised his wine glass, looked Welti and then his daughter in the eye, and said, “To my very good health!”


Klemens Renoldner

Born in 1953, Klemens Renoldner studied literature and music. He worked as a dramaturg in a number of renowned German-language theaters (in Vienna, Munich, Zurich, and elsewhere). Later, he was curator of literature at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Berlin. Since 2008, he has been director of the Stefan Zweig Center at Salzburg University. Renoldner's novel Lily's Impatience, one of many books he's authored, was published at the end of 2011 to wide critical acclaim.

Anthea Bell

Anthea Bell is a freelance translator from German and French. Her translations include works of fiction and general nonfiction, books for young people, and classics by Freud, Kafka, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Stefan Zweig. She has won a number of translation awards in the UK and the US.

Lilys Ungeduld. Copyright (c) Folio Verlag, 2011. English translation copyright (c) Anthea Bell, 2012.