A Speech for Aglaja Veteranyi

Context N°23

Werner Morlang

Aglaja Veteranyi (1962–2002) was born in Bucharest to a family of circus artists who toured Europe relentlessly until finally settling in Switzerland. She worked as an actress, performer, and artist as well as a writer, and only published one novel—the searing Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta—during her lifetime, though other books have appeared posthumously. She committed suicide in 2002. The following text was written by her friend, the critic Werner Morlang and spoken at the Neumarkt Theater on February 16, 2002 on the occasion of a memorial tribute.


No, this isn’t meant as an obituary. We always know better in hindsight. Anyone wanting to seize hold of what’s incomprehensible will never be at a loss for explanations and blueprints for analysis. Aglaja’s end seems to point back to a troubled beginning, lack of security, disorder, and early sorrow in abundance, childhood traumas held in check by this “work horse,” as she liked to call herself, making such extreme demands on her vital energy that her unhealed wounds finally burst open, with fatal results. We recall Aglaja’s dark statements about how life itself was just too much and how hard she found it to simply accept, let alone love herself. We recall that indecipherable, abruptly startled look that would show in her eyes now and then, and we reproach ourselves for having paid too little heed to such signs. And then there’s the real sign—her novel and her short prose pieces are everywhere pervaded with jagged passages; we took note of them, no doubt, but not of the actual disasters that generated them. Even in the story of the child stewing in the polenta we merely observed how a circus girl managed to banish one vision of horror through another, thus underestimating or overlooking the twice-experienced fear and the violence she was inflicting on herself through the play of her thoughts.

Nonetheless, I refuse to comb through Aglaja’s texts for pathological elements and to view her life as a tale of woe, doomed to failure. Her sad end should not be taken as a verdict pronounced upon a life story that was by no means unhappy in itself; I’m sometimes even inclined to speak about Aglaja as an outright success story. Illiterate for years, thanks to her family’s itinerant lifestyle, Young Aglaja made a plan for turning this uneducated girl into a writer, set about the job energetically, and through her eighteen-year career as a writer created the incomparable polenta girl. It made me angry that most of her obituaries talked about “a promising talent.” Aglaja’s novel is not a literary debut, not a journeyman display of ability; no, this book succeeds completely in what it sets out to accomplish. At almost the same time as she began learning the German language, as an act of revolt against her background, there rose up in Aglaja the desire to become a writer. Even on vacation, in all the hubbub of an Italian beach, she worked zealously on her written exercises and immediately showed them to her friend and mentor Hannes Becher for examination and correction. She presently produced a novel titled The Pan Flute, which remained unpublished, and over the years she made a career out of writing prose pieces that unfolded in every imaginable direction. She was able to say, not without some pride, that she was one of the German-language authors most often published in anthologies—long before the polenta girl.

The energy, even the determination, with which she acquired the German language was tangible in the literary quality of her sentences right to the end. Of course, her writing wasn’t immune to failure, but whatever she put down on paper was filled with intense energy. However laconic, unembellished, or elementary her sentences might sound, they were always always unmistakably her own, or—to use one of her favorite expressions—they were never “borrowed goods.” Every sentence was a forceful, compact unit, yet contained within a tight structure. She herself would talk about the “heartbeat” of her prose. Her texts contain nothing beside the point, nothing ornamental, no loose ends; instead, they lunge dramatically at the full effect. Anything lukewarm, rickety, or mediocre struck her as despicable, and I remember that she once rejected a title I’d proposed with the disdainful comment that it was tasteful, all right, but “pastel.” On the other hand, she could hardly contain herself for delight when I passed on to her the word wolkenleise (quiet as a cloud), used by Else Lasker-Schüler. Aglaja was very taken with evocatively formed words and sentences, her own as well as others’, which she would copy onto blank postcards and send around to her group of friends. If a literary text didn’t find favor with her, she would call it “thin” or would say, “The air’s gone out of it,” a judgment she did not spare her own work when it wasn’t up to her standards. She took criticism in her stride, and her way of dealing with literary matters was, as always, straightforward. Though it is a stimulant and purgative often resorted to in the cruel terrain of literary competition, not once was I ever able to detect in Aglaja the slightest envy of her fellow authors. On the contrary: she was always championing writers less favored by success, all the more because it hadn’t been very long since she herself had needed to hawk her texts around while being considered “merely marginal.” After the polenta girl appeared, of course, she had recognition lavished upon her, and she hardly had any reason to feel insecure. She took note of her success with gratitude but didn’t wallow in it. As she put it, her earlier fear of landing in the gutter never left her.

She was in no way conceited about her work as a writer, which she would pursue in public places like cafés whenever her scarce time allowed, and afterward, as far as I know, type the day’s yield into her computer that same evening. Having been made “official” in this way, her texts gained sufficient validation in Aglaja’s mind for her to distribute them among her friends or use them at readings. Because of her many different activities it wasn’t always easy to arrange a meeting with her, but when it happened, she devoted herself to it completely. On occasions like this, Aglaja was—and I don’t know any other word to describe her intense vitality—totally “present.” She seemed always to be living at the height of the moment. She might be happy or sad but never artificially elated or downcast for no reason. She loved it when life could be woven into stories and was no less excited to hear them from others than to tell them herself. Her concise approach to literary expression was matched by quick wit in conversation, with which she would interrupt a pleasant chat expressly to delight, amazing her interlocutor with his or her own gales of laughter. Even though Aglaja held an utterly endless number of readings and appearances after her book was published, she considered each of them a serious obligation and was as happy about playing to packed houses as being surrounded by a gathering of well-heeled elderly ladies, perplexed by what she called their “whipped-cream souls.” [. . .] I seldom knew her to be preoccupied, reserved, or introverted. Even in good times, however, something would often come into her face that somehow dampened this personality otherwise overflowing with life. It was as if her conspicuous lip-pursing were somehow revoking the openness of her being and the wonder in her ingenuous eyes. She was uninhibited and bashful, intrepid and apprehensive at the same time, as if she were being haunted by some pivotal experience from her childhood: a fatal combination of fantasies about being all-powerful and feelings of inferiority.

Aglaja couldn’t stand hearing circus life romanticized, yet she put the circus child on public display. She rebelled fiercely against having to grow old and having to die, and she would occasionally refer to Canetti on the subject. That said, she hoped she would manage to grow old gracefully; her devout wish was to live two or three hundred years. Whatever her age, she would never have relinquished her childlike outlook, the wellspring of her literary imagination. The very first of the many favorite quotations she favored me with came from Henry Miller, she claimed, and it reads: “The most important thing of all is to gain conscious deliberation and then develop the courage as an adult to do what children always did when they still didn’t know anything.” She would often dwell in conversation over the loss of childhood boldness and imagination in the lives of adults and was very deeply touched during a reading when a member of the audience objected that you would never be able to tell that her protagonist, in this early draft of her follow-up to Polenta, was thirty-seven. Because the book, at least in its first version, was about the death of Aglaja’s aunt, who for many years had taken the place of Aglaja’s mother. In an effort to gain some distance from the prose of the polenta girl, she incorporated herself in the third person as Anna, but the fact is she wasn’t having any great success in making this character at all convincing. Aglaja also complained that the text was turning out too gloomy. After a time, though, she found her way back to the first-person, along with Polenta’s mystifying cheerfulness, and for as long as she was granted time to work on this new version, she was very satisfied with the results.

Was it fear of having to part with her anarchic, childlike nature that brought about what she called the “breaking point” in her inner woundedness? On good days she would tell me a story, her exuberance brimming over, about how she was once coaxed to go with a child she didn’t know into a certain room, how the child then lay on the floor, bared its belly, and made motions like a friendly dog for her to pet it. This episode is included in one of Aglaja’s last stories, titled “Café Papa,” but there the innocent love play is transmuted into a murderous “SLAUGHTER OF GEESE.”

Aglaja is dead. It’s hard for me to talk about Aglaja in past tense. Sometimes it hurts to read her work. But I’m looking forward to the time when all that’s wonderful and heartening about her writing and her having lived will rise up anew.

Translated by Vincent Kling

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