Robert Menasse 

Forever Young

My father was horrified when I told him that I wanted to get married and that the date and place had already been fixed. He shook his head with his typical facial expression, a mixture of disgust, incomprehension, and resignation. As long as he put on this face with me, I knew that, in his eyes, I still couldn’t be seen as an adult.

It wasn’t so much the fact of me wanting to get married that upset him. Nor did he have anything against the woman I wanted to marry. What bothered him was the wedding date. This one of all days. “How can anyone get married on this day?” he called out and shook his head. What were you thinking of? He tapped his forehead. Nothing at all, you thought of, as usual. I protested that one day was like any other. . .

“One day like any other? This day!?” 
“I don’t understand what you are talking about. We want to get married, we want to get married as soon as possible and November 9th is the next opening the city hall of Ischl has.”

Robert MenasseThat wasn’t a good argument even though it was the best. Nothing more had been behind it when we agreed on this date.
With funereal voice my father said how everybody would be overjoyed, how the entire family would have a good time, cheerful and boisterous, and would always remember what a happy day it had been . . .
Well, hopefully!
He asked me to reconsider. The 9th of November! All he wanted was to give me another chance! I should think about it whether this was really an appropriate day.
I said that I had thought about it long and hard. I wanted to get married and would do so on the set date.

“The 9th of November,” said my father, emphasizing every syllable, “is the anniversary of the so-called Reichskristallnacht . . . and my son wants to turn it into a day of joy, the happiest day of his life.”

Bah! History!
Why did I recall this, years later, in Paris during a conversation with my childhood friend Michel?

We were sitting in a Café near Les Halles. I was depressed in a harmless way and happy because Michel displayed once again his talent for enumerating so many objective reasons in favor of depressions that anybody who wasn’t depressed had to be regarded as unhappy. A sunbeam pierced the huge glass pane, hit my face which became hot now. I closed my eyes. I opened them again amazed at Michel, who had gone on talking, when he suddenly said that after the childhood pap, simply stirred and mixed with varying amounts of raisins, and before the unavoidable depressions of adulthood, only youth was the time when it was possible to experience, a conscious, and therefore contradictory, that is, genuine happiness. Our youth, he said, was a play of light and in the end, happy is only he on whom fall, in later years, not only the unavoidable shadows but also a ray of this light.

It is difficult to talk about a weekend in Paris, really talk about it the way storytellers do if most of the time is spent with a professor of philosophy who makes a savory celebration of his disgust of life and is incapable of striking a match in a polite gesture of offering a light without developing at the same time a thesis about coldness. I spent almost all breaks between the conference lectures with him. The time of boring lectures we passed in cafés, and on evenings I was all the more in his clutches since I was housed in his guest room. It was a friendship that was so artificial, as he claimed, that it encompassed the entire world – it rested on two years of our schooldays which he, the son of a French diplomat in Austria, spent at the same boarding school as I. It was a time, and here I have to agree with him, which no doubt imprinted our psyche with an unhappy bend. This was the only link to what we later, after meeting again when mellowed somewhat by age, decided to call “our friendship.”

But how could I not talk about it when a sunbeam penetrates the window pane of a Paris café coinciding with the strange statement of the “youthful plays of light,” which together, like two hammer blows, tear down a wall that just a moment ago seemed a permanent dividing line of life: misery on this side, cynicism on the other, or vice versa.

Childhood is the time of innocence, which is rightfully forgotten to make it possible at all to live later as an adult, I said, and Michel waved it aside. I could have stop right then. But I had to talk about it. Plays of light, I said, listen. It so happened that I spent my childhood in Bad Ischl, a small town in the Austrian heartland, the favorite summer place of the former emperor of Austria. Every year thousands of people from all over the world visit Bad Ischl to vacation in a place famous for catering to tourists but which is willing to commemorate only one tourist: the dead emperor. His old empire has shrunk to the size of this small town which has made the commemoration of the past its basis of business. And my childhood empire was not even as large as this: I remember only vaguely a street which ran alongside a river, a quay that marked the confines of my world like an archaic border. I didn’t know what was on the other side of the bridge, behind the scene of a row of villas on the other side of the river. The town of remembrance provided its children no opportunity to experience something that they might remember later on.

“I know Bad Ischl,” said Michel, “the town with the highest suicide rate in Europe.”
“That I didn’t know,” I said.
“Neither do I, but I can’t imagine it otherwise.”

“At any rate,” I continued, “I have a dark memory, dark as a hall, of a visit to the movie theater . . . because it was supposed to be the first in my life. One day, our teacher, Mr. Zeger, came into the classroom and declared with the expression of a Santa Claus that we would be taken to a movie the following week. Our outburst of joy was resembled the howling of American Indians. I was eight years old at the time and the movie theater in Bad Ischl was not yet called ‘ino’[cinema] but ‘Lichtspiele’[plays of light]. For days my fellow students and I plagued the teacher to finally let us know what we would be seeing. However, he stoked our curiosity, our anticipation with his absolute silence. We were unable to get more out of him than the information ‘“a movie, an exciting movie! You’ll see.’ Finally one student, a teacher’s pet, reported that Mr. Zeger had told him that the title of the movie the class would see was ‘Battle for the Martyr’s Stake.’

Finally, at the movie theater, we first saw a short about the Olympic summer games, which had taken place in Rome more than a year before, then another short film about mountain climbers, which we sat through bored. When would we finally get to see the Indians? Battle for the Martyr’s Stake?

Never. The light went on in the theater, my memory was dark, only this much was certain: We saw the movie ‘Battle for Mount Matterhorn’ –  no Indians, only the drama of the first conquest of a mountain in which, as one can look up today in any encyclopedia, at the forefront of which was an Austrian Nazi actor.”

“Luis Trenker?” asked Michel.
“Yes.”

“I announce before history the first ascent . . .”

“Be quiet and listen! From the standpoint of history, in a harmless way, that is, as plain anecdote, this visit to the movies was the following: the short about the Olympic Games also showed the last leg of the hundred-meter run –  in slow motion. We children were children in the truest sense. . .”
“Pap creatures!”
“Yes. So naïve, we believed slow motion was a separate Olympic event, which to master became our greatest ambition. We practiced for weeks ‘running in slow motion,’ and if this would ever have become a competition, we students from Bad Ischl would have been unbeatable, afflicted as we were with the conditions of gravity.”
“And then?”
“Then we got older. That is young. One is young as long as one tries to appear older. And . . .”
“Finally, a beautiful saying!” said Michel. His speech was already slightly slurred from the wine. He was barely receptive anymore and the story was not over by far, rather it was over, but it wasn’t told yet.
“At any rate,” said I, “for example, at the age of sixteen I had no opportunity to go to the movies and pose for eighteen. I was incarcerated in a boarding school, in a locked educational institution, held as a child, cheated of my youth. Like you.”
“Like me, yes, held as a child. Condemned to remain a child forever, and intensified through an aging body.”
“No, Michel, no! This is exactly what I want to tell you, that this is not true. The crux of the matter is that we became young only very late, but in return we remain so forever.”
“Merde!” he said and drank. Then: “Forever young? Hear, hear!”
“Well, when I turned eighteen and was finally able to leave the boarding school – you had long gone back to Paris with your parents – I was nothing; too inexperienced to make myself believably older before the experiences of the elders and, at the same time, already too old to be happily disinterested in them. It’s a strange experience to begin ‘life’ at a time when no contemporaries seem to be found anywhere, not even in the mirror image.”
“That, my friend, was different for me in Paris.”

“You can tell me about this later! But when the gates of the boarding school, where I had been locked out from reality, opened for me, when I was able to walk into freedom and into the university, I was immediately encircled by nothing but veterans: former student leaders, former commune founders, former revolutionary poets, former self-liberators, former creative spirits, who now went about as dogmatic ghosts. My bad conscience was boundless. I had made the most unforgivable mistake of not to having been twenty already in the year ’68. It was impossible to get away from those veterans, there was no alternative. What was there? Student fraternities? Upper class daughters wrapped in Hermés scarves? No, there was nothing reasonably run-of-the-mill against the mainstream of the run-of-the-mill. Being simply ‘affirmative’ was never as impossible for a thinking soul as it was then. So I sat in lecture halls, which doubled mostly as the veterans’ waiting rooms in which they sought to ‘hibernate’ until ‘the business’ could be shifted out into ‘the street’ where they believed themselves to be experts capable of leading the movement once more. But nothing moved. Not even in the slow motion. What I learned then to the point of nausea was reminiscences, exploited as shamelessly as the emperor in Bad Ischl: WE, the veterans, made history! We intervened in the course of history! We, with our beards and steel-rimmed glasses, have world historical significance. Admire us and let yourselves be fucked by us so you learn what freedom is!”

“And! Did you let them fuck you, Monsieur Ischl?”
“Let’s forget about this! I would have forgotten about it if it hadn’t been for November 1989. Then I really learned what history is. As I witnessed the liberation of people from Stalinism, I experienced my own liberation. All previous thinking turned completely inside out, knowledge, reality, in my conscious lifetime. A historical event is after all nothing else, or? Now, finally, after all, we, who had been too late for the sixty-eighters, we had our own great historical experience. We are, if we are reasonably anything, the eighty-niners. With that year, our life story took root in history, our thinking became the thinking of the age.”
“Pathos, my friend, but you are right.”
“Yes. And here comes what I wanted to tell you: No matter how old ‘I’ am today, the ‘I’ is an eighty-niner, who can pass himself off as a few years older with the plausible excuse that he is already many years older. Do you know where I was during the night of the 9th to the 10th of November 1989?”
“In front of the television, I presume!”

“Precisely! I sat in front of the television set, unable to tear myself away from the images which showed the massive triumph of the individual. The storming of the Berlin Wall. THAT was a first ascent! The climbing toward a height which only a day earlier would have meant certain death. A mass of people, but that’s the wrong word, a face that became en masse the face of every liberated human being, a face that said ‘yes’ because it had decided in favor of a future, a face that moaned and wept. It was my wedding night.”

“What do you mean?”
“Yes, my wedding night. Nothing else happened during that night. The great love of my life who had just become my wife. . .”
“Elisabeth?”
“Yes. Elisabeth and I sat together in the hotel room and stared at the images on television. It was our belated, yet happy, wedding with our contemporaries.”
“And then?”

“That’s all. The next day we left the bridal suite, pretty puffy-eyed from tears and a good deal of champagne, left the hotel. We had gotten married in Bad Ischl, yes in Bad Ischl, because . . .why? I wanted to bring the beginning of my life as an adult in harmony with my childhood. And this small imperial town was my childhood, which, to my mind, was after all a much nicer place for this occasion than the stuffy city hall in Vienna. But how measly all this seemed all of a sudden, on this day when my generation was supposed to reconcile itself with history. A heavy snowstorm the night before made us stomp along the quay, not in slow motion, nor with the measured steps of the veterans, but in real time, toward the ‘Emperor’s Promenade.’ By then everything had lost its meaning or had taken on a different one. We stomped through yesterday’s snow – and we were the first to leave our imprints in it.”

“Wonderful!” said Michel. “Really wonderful. Let’s have another drink!”