In June 2012, Rachel McNicholl moderated a panel at the Dublin Writers Festival that included Swiss novelist Arno Camenisch. She asked the participants what expectations they have of their reader. Camenisch redirected the conversation by saying that, rather than placing an emphasis on either writer or reader, the text itself has expectations. The editors of CONTEXT asked him to expand on his remark.
How long have we been stuck here on this chairlift already, asks the author. Just over two hours, says the reader, and is it still too high to jump off, asks the author, yes, says the reader, but you can try if you want. Jump into the snow, and you’ll break your legs.
The author lights a cigarette, do you want one too? No, thank you, says the reader, I no longer smoke, actually. Have I told you I’ve no head for heights, asks the author, three times already, says the reader. Is it the custom in this region that the chairlift is switched off in the evening, with people still in it, asks the author, you should know, you’re from here. In this fog, says the reader, that can easily happen, getting distracted briefly, it’s only human, don’t go thinking it was deliberate.
The author pulls his cap down over his ears. Are you not cold, asks the author. No, says the reader. Do you smoke when you write, asks the reader. Yes, says the author, I should be at my desk right now, you should write in winter, with warm feet and a cool head, and not in spring. And you, do you smoke when you read, asks the author. Are these cigarettes strong, asks the reader. I don’t know, says the author, they’re bad for you anyhow, a bit short, but good.
Do you like the snow then, asks the reader. My daughter, says the author, said to me, I like you as much as the snow, and for Easter she wants crutches and a pair of glasses—but with windowpanes, she said. I love skiing, says the reader, my ex-wife too. I’m gradually beginning to doubt they’ll get us down from here, says the author. To doubt is merely human, says the reader. Even when you ski you fail, says the author, failing is what distinguishes art, isn’t it, says the reader, there’s no art without failing.
It wouldn’t have taken much more for us to reach the top, says the author. There’s always a difference between what you want to attain and what you do attain, says the reader, oh really, says the author, and this difference is failing, says the reader, failing produces art—the art of failing. Thank you for your remarks, says the author. And this old chairlift—will it be able to hold us, asks the author, this seat—I have to say—is a bit shaky. You often find chairs fall with people in them, says the reader. And at that point we break our necks, says the author. Very possibly, says the reader. At least you won’t outlive your texts, says the reader. Yes, you’re right there, says the author, nothing worse than that, it’s best when all that remains of the author is the text. Exactly, says the reader.
What do you want to do now, asks the author. You’re asking the wrong questions, says the reader. Oh really, asks the author, should I ask how your mother is? No, no, says the reader, think more practically, it’s just like with a text: what’s it about? With a text, asks the author, with respect, do you really want to talk about texts? Naturally, says the reader, we’re stuck here anyhow. Well, if you like, says the author, what the text is about is what the text wants, there’s nothing else to it, says the author, happy now? It’s you that’s saying it, so don’t be asking me what I want, says the reader, it’s not about what the reader wants. And it’s not about what the author wants either, says the author, the only question is: what the text wants. It opens up your brain, as only via this question can you get to the text behind the text. It’s really nice we ran into each other like this, do have a swig, we need to drink to that, says the reader, holding the little bottle out, do me the favour, it will warm you up nicely. The author drinks and gives the bottle back to the reader. To us, says the reader, raising the bottle.
And didn’t you also say, says the reader, that—for you—the art of writing was to say something without naming it. You wrote that in an article in that literary magazine, didn’t you? Thanks for the quotations, says the author, that’s very observant of you. And then the author can feel free to go skiing and get stuck in the chairlift on the last journey up in the fog. It’s then up to him whether he wants to go skiing, self-determination is supreme, says the reader, but the texts need to manage without the author, they need to stand on their own. Yes, where would we be, says the author, if the author were to start explaining his texts, let’s talk about the weather instead. The weather stands by you, says the reader. The author lights another cigarette and holds out the packet to the reader, no, thank you, says the reader, I no longer smoke actually, my ex-wife no longer smokes either.
Do you play an instrument at least, asks the author. I used to play the trombone, says the reader, and you? As a child I played the drum, says the author. Oh, says the reader, looking straight ahead. A good text is unpredictable, you said that too, or didn’t you, says the reader. Did you hear something, asks the author, there’s something there. There’s nothing there, says the reader, it’s the ghosts you’re hearing. Beside my washing machine at home is a ghost, says the reader. Have you a washing machine, asks the author. Yes, says the reader, taking a new little bottle from his inside pocket. Here, do have a drink, says the reader, it will help you. The author puts on his ski goggles. My ex-wife always said: if you drink, you’re also allowed to be drunk. Is that you praying, asks the reader. No, I’m just cold. Why have you stopped talking, asks the reader. Aha, I understand, says the reader, what also distinguishes a good author is knowing exactly when not to say anything. Don’t look at me like that, says the reader, you said so yourself.
So you don’t want to say anymore, the reader asks. The author shakes his head. Which would mean: those were your last words, asks the reader. This morning, when I drove up the road to the skiing area, I lost my tailpipe, says the author. That’s interesting, says the reader, I understand, it’s all a question of attitude, you are your text, you wrote that once too. Now stop, says the author. No, no, says the reader, say nothing for once, after all you yourself said that there’s also nothingness. You can’t see the ground even, haven’t you noticed, says the author, looking up again. And nothingness begins where you make the cut, says the reader, it’s not so important where the notes begin, more crucial is where the notes end. Have you quite finished, asks the author. No, not quite, says the reader, you did after all also write that what it’s all about is not what is, but what isn’t, the groove is in the void, now I understand, says the reader. It’s not about understanding everything, mumbles the author. What did you say, asks the reader. Nothing, says the author.
Arno Camenisch writes in both Rhaeto-Romanic and German. He is best known for his award-winning trilogy of novels, beginning with The Alp, already excerpted in Harper’s, and continuing with Behind the Station and Last Last Orders, all of which Dalkey Archive Press will publish over the next two years.
Translated by Donal McLaughlin