Fiction: The Dissonance Quartet
AYEAR AND A HALF after the Nuremberg Laws went into effect, my father left my mother. I could never forget what he did to us, but I also never stopped thinking of him as my father, and now that his motives have become clearer to me — a letter from him received through the Red Cross a few months ago has given me proof — the conflict between us has come to an end. I include him in my grieving.
At the time, I was so shocked by his decision to leave a marriage which had lasted almost 24 years and was — I hesitate to write the word — happy, that I hardly felt the pain of his departure: it hurt for a moment, and then it was over, or so it seemed. Besides, every day brought so many new developments that none of us had time to stop and dwell on anything. Only once did I see my mother cry. Still, the separation was the end of her. She had lost the ability to make decisions or take action; she was practically paralyzed.
Since our family was not in the habit of finding correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm, we underestimated the Party’s rise to power, but of course so did almost everyone else. This attitude, erroneous (to put it mildly) as it was, might have been forgivable had it not led, quite apart from all the physical destruction, to the annihilation of moral standards in so many people, myself included, across the entire globe. It was like the plagues in the Middle Ages, and it will take generations to develop antibodies against further infections. I know for a fact that I, too, succumbed to the contagion.
Not long ago, I read somewhere that the conflict between fathers and sons has shaped the twentieth century — but even aside from this theory’s clear implication that fathers and sons are a recent invention, I can’t help feeling that we have made it all too easy to tear off masks and reveal the truth, and that this superficial proposition only gives cover to the perpetrators of the future. We all know how sons, in the throes of the violence called love, grow up and become fathers who are fated in turn to make enemies of their sons. What looks like a dialogue is in fact the eternal monologue of a fallen angel — a never-ending lamentation, railing against his own weakness and the delusion that he will one day be able to master that weakness and return home to the immortal spheres. A bookseller the same age as me, wounded on the eastern front, with whom I struck up a conversation once on one of my trips to a little town in the Odenwald, gave me a book of letters written before the war by a young German poet from a Protestant family (I can’t think of his first name now: maybe Jürgen, or Jochen), in which he vigorously attacks his father, a theologian. I could not entirely follow his train of thought and lines of argument, but at the same time even I was struck by the logical consistency of his tragic life, a course of events that the bookseller described to me.
We sons are not the younger parties; in the sequence of the generations we are older than our fathers. We partake of all of their experience, not vice versa. The misconception that life stories can be told in dates and years, or the misguided effort to tie these stories to biological circumstances like age and youth, crumbles before the sameness of the accusations and protests, the illusions, driven by nothing but hormones, that are handed
down unchanged from generation to generation.
My father came from an East Prussian minister’s family in which, since time immemorial, the oldest son became a pastor. But he broke with this tradition. He studied classical philology and philosophy in Königsberg, graduated at only twenty-five from Breslau, and met my mother there when she was twenty-three. She was from a pure and unassimilated Orthodox Jewish family near Poznán; he married her over her parents’ objections and took her back to Königsberg along with the three children born in quick succession, two daughters and me. He taught in Königsberg as an associate professor and later full professor of ancient languages and philosophy, not without making a certain name for himself.
My parents’ marriage rested on a courtly understanding between these two people who had outgrown their traditions and, without having fully renounced their religious background, found themselves at the center of a humanistic, purely secular culture. (But were they truly at its center?) In our house we felt bound to both their religions and beholden to neither. Mozart, Debussy, Stifter, and Heine, not to mention Buber, were our household gods; my read to us from the Bible and now and then, when he was in a good mood, improvised a translation from the Septaguint. The discussions that followed were gripping and had, especially for us children, surprises in store, due to my mother’s extensive Hebrew education. I had been circumcised, a fact which was explained to me on purely hygienic, medical grounds. Maybe this was just a trick on my mother’s part?
My happiest childhood memories are connected with vacations on the Curonian Spit, in Rossitten and Nidden, along the Baltic shore. Once, when we were trudging back and forth through the hot sand in our sandals, the taste of the sea on our glowing faces, hang gliders silently swooping behind us held in place by winds from the hilltops before disappearing into the depths and spiraling back up in the broad channels of a corkscrewing breeze — a Latvian soldier stepped out of a little guard booth hidden in a sandpit, bayonet fixed, as though the sun had hatched him then and there, complete with his weapon; he waited until we reached him, took our passports in silence, mutely reviewed our headcount, affixed his stamp, and vanished without a word back into his shack; we caught the boat in Schwarzort. The weekly market in Memel, where local farmers sold the exact same produce you could buy at the market in Königsberg, was nevertheless a kind of foretaste of another world. My father was Thomas Mann’s guest two or three times, there in his house in the dunes, having written glowing articles about him.
This unusual background may have made me especially sensitive to the divergent forces that my parents tried to bind together in their marriage. And when I think of the love and respect they maintained toward each other and around us children, I have no doubt that their efforts were successful — even if history eventually undermined them. Now that it has all come to nothing, the fact that they tried—that they refused to play it safe by acting like everyone else and instead, by their bold example, rejected both nature and the society in which they lived — might well be written off as a mistake, as a scandalous provocation. But who can explain the deeper layers of understanding between the persecutor and the persecuted? Who can bring to light the buried longing in the hate that prevailed between my mother’s ancestors and my father’s, down through the centuries, and not just in Germany? At the university, my father always praised the work of Thucydides, whose book on the Peloponnesian War was the first to treat history-writing as a science; he saw history not as the result of some incomprehensible fate, fulfilled somewhere up in the sky beyond the various races and nations, but rather as a product of human factors. It is to my father’s credit, to a certain extent, that he underestimated or failed altogether to recognize those human factors when they appeared in their cruelest and most horrifying form. On the other hand, this failure also disproves the alleged objectivity and unprejudiced view of events that he prided himself on. He believed in the Good, in
kalokagathia, the ideal of noble and beautiful character, in the
vis mediatrix naturae — but he had misinterpreted the concept of Nature, and misunderstood Germany as well. He had no way to come to grips with the conflicts in which he finally saw us entangled, and himself as well.
I no longer feel those conflicts myself but I still remember the anxieties of those crucial years when I was growing up, the confufather
sion and exhaustion that would suddenly overwhelm me when I least expected it. My state of mind did not escape my mother’s notice, and she tried again and again to cheer me up with little kindnesses, as though driven by guilt, as though she felt there was something she had failed to do. The memories of her that remain etched into me through the fog of her death — in all their multiplicity: her dark eyes, the glass of milk she brought me in bed at night — make up a single, tender thing, scattered to the wind. But in my father’s case, I have stopped being able to bring his image to mind the way it was: whole and unbroken. I am no longer even sure what he looked like, not sure of his size or proportions, and every personal memory I have of our earlier harmony feels shattered by my doubt as to whether it ever really existed.
I was raised in a cultivated, humanistic environment and for a long time I wavered between scientific and artistic inclinations, until I eventually decided to pursue musicology at the conservatory, along with — to my father’s great delight — the cello. When the divorce proceedings took place both of my sisters had already left the house, the older one married to a lawyer who was a distant relative of my mother’s. The proceedings must have been terribly embarrassing, and they dragged on for some time due to the intrigues of the opposing lawyer, who tried to exploit the climate of the times against my wealthy mother for financial gain as well.
My father did not believe in this new era we kept hearing about, as he assured me over and over again when I was beginning my studies. Neither did his academic colleagues: One in twenty professors, at most, were Party members, at least to hear them tell it. The rest mocked and scoffed at the “hotheads,” and saw the whole thing that was taking place before their eyes, with its banners and fanfare as though all the battles had already been fought and won, as nothing more than an expression of youthful blindness, which, even if the masses succumbed to it, could never have any historical significance, though naturally it might lead to certain difficulties. When our conductor arrived at orchestra rehearsal at the conservatory one day in a Party uniform, and insisted on playing, after a
concerto grosso of Handel’s, the nationalist Horst-Wessel Song, he sent me and the two other players who demurred, both violinists, out of the room. The rest played bravely along. My father lodged a complaint, in vain. The indifference of the colleagues he consulted left him stranded. They all felt it inadvisable to take any further steps — this would only give what they all described as “a private matter” greater and more general significance than it deserved.
In a study of courage I read once, I came across this sentence: “Violent, revolutionary factions owe their success not to any mute panic in the unorganized masses but to the paralyzing power of the dominant ideology.” It may well be that scholarship and science, as conducted in the universities, have exercised — and will exercise — a
similar paralyzing and demoralizing influence on their disciples, in the long run. Nonetheless, the naïvete that my father and his colleagues showed that day — as though all of human destiny lay tucked away in Mozart’s quartets, in K. 465, and nothing remained to be decided — this naïvete does not mean that they lacked insight, or courage; their indifference merely expressed a deeper impotence, which at the same time was all that could justify and redeem them.
Only for a moment did I see my father as a coward and feel the wave of contempt that such characters evoke; to preserve my own self-respect, I could not see him as weak underneath his mask of strength. In the arguments we had in my imagination, I leveled accusations that let me feel strong and self-satisfied, and thus I could deflect in turn the suffering and humiliation of the destiny unfolding before me — a destiny we shared, in truth, and which joined us together rather than separating us. I knew that the first time the new laws demanded he leave the family, he rejected the very idea of it. But then, in the end, he left us after all. It struck me as the start of a kind of public self-immolation. I do not know the conversations that took place between my parents before the separation; I never once heard a judgment pass my mother’s lips. Her stiff, almost petrified look was one I would later see again, in people who had witnessed the successful suicide attempts of close relatives or loved ones: those who had absorbed the suicide’s struggle, and defeat, into the features of their own faces.
After all that has happened, it seems tasteless now to examine myself for traces of my father’s or mother’s predispositions, and to speculate about how much my mixed origins had to do with my special sensitivity to the outer world. As a child, I once saw a powerfully built, healthy looking man on the street step on something slippery, lose his balance, and, trying in vain to catch himself, flailing his arms in the air, fall so badly that he lay there stunned, and from the expression on his face it was clear what terrible pain he was holding back — he had broken his leg. This unexpected transformation of a man, one moment standing tall and confident and the next moment wracked with pain and helpless on the pavement, stuck with me. The ambulance came, the man was carefully laid onto the stretcher and carried away — an everyday event, one would say. Since the law classified me as a Jew and cellists were in demand, I had little trouble, after the formality of a tryout, in finding a position with the Jewish Kulturbund in Berlin. I rented an apartment in Friedenau and my mother gave up the lonely house in Königsberg and moved in with me.
It was in Berlin that I saw my father for the last time. After a performance of "The Bartered
Bride" under Józef Rosenstock, an event worthy of comparison with any performance on any stage in the world, which for a few hours left everyone who took part in it intoxicated, musicians and spectators alike — intoxicated with the magic potion of a world where every dissonance only serves to enhance a higher harmony — suddenly, as I was leaving the theater through a side door, there he was. After a short, cool greeting — we did not shake hands — there was silence, sharp and painful as the stab of a nail. Since he stayed in the shadows, I saw only the familiar outline of his form.
As everyone knows, a person’s voice does not change, any more than the whorls on his fingertips. Still I was startled when he suddenly said: “You still here? Make sure you get out.” Strangely, those words he blurted out, in such a brusque, curt tone, did not make me feel the least bit angry; all the anger seemed to be within them. He had dragged his image into a kind of obscurity or confusion, making himself incomprehensible to everyone around him, maybe even to himself; these words only deepened that obscurity. I took a few steps to the side, to see him better. He looked ragged, gone to seed, as though he had been spending nights on the street; he was unwashed, unshaven, his clothing shabby; I had the impression that he smelled. It is only reluctantly that I write down these observations, since they might seem to prove that I held a low opinion of him and even enjoyed a certain schadenfreude. Perhaps these feelings did well up within me for a fraction of a second. The good Herr Professor, once so well-groomed and civilized, so concerned, not without a certain vanity, about his outward appearance. But I quickly regained my composure and said, “But Father....”
Being called this must have made him feel even more confused. He interrupted me: “Shut up, you don’t understand what’s going
My mother was not the sort of person who could cross a border knowing that she would never come back.
on.” Then he turned around and walked away. My cello clamped under my arm, I walked in the opposite direction. And I never told my mother about seeing him that night.
There is not much to say about the years of my emigration. They meant taking leave not only of my mother; the older of my sisters had already gone to Amsterdam with her husband and two children, and after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands they were deported to the camps. My mother and other sister met their fate in — — . Even now I blame myself, senselessly, for not having been able to force them to leave the country. My mother was not the sort of person who could cross a border knowing that she would never come back.
I left Europe with nothing but my cello, but once I arrived in the U.S. it no longer gave me any pleasure to put the Bach gigues and bourrées I had practiced in Königsberg and Berlin on a music stand in Kansas City too. I discovered my gift for massage by accident, and started to use the trained strength and dexterity of my hands for different ends: not trying to turn notes on the page into music (the fact is that with all my efforts, I had never gotten farther than being an orchestral player, third chair), but pushing and palpating the paralyzed muscles of children with polio. After Salk and Sabin developed their vaccine and the epidemic died down in the States, my work came to include the physical therapy and rehabilitation of accident victims of all sorts.
For many years I could not understand why it was so easy for me to abandon the cello, until I saw Casals on TV, in the classroom with his students. They were practicing Bach. He let them play, interrupted them to say something or play a passage for them, his pipe in the corner of his mouth, and I discovered — as the final confirmation of my own loss — that the old master was not initiating his students into the clever tricks of instrumental technique. He was giving them, with the cello, a new fatherland.
After the end of the war there began for me a time of grieving without end. As long as the hostilities lasted in Europe, I could hide my grief in the dim light of inconsistent hopes and conjectures about the fate of my mother and sisters, but I soon received reports of their cruel and merciless end, which at least gave me the certainty of suffering. Those with a better developed sense of hate may be luckier — they can contain and limit their sadness. Those who are deprived of memorializing graves encounter the dead everywhere: when elevator doors close, when traffic lights turn red, when catching sight of the sea. I was overcome with nervous agitation. It took another eight years, in any case, before I decided to travel to Germany. The reparations proceedings gave me a pretext to go, and over the next ten years I visited Europe twice more, with France and Holland as my original destinations; I crossed the German border at Strasbourg and at Aachen.
The country I set foot in was no longer the land of my mother, and the “iron curtain” that divided it in two ran through me as well; I felt its presence even in Cologne. Behind the curtain lay Königsberg, Breslau, the Curonian Spit with the dunes near Rossitten and Nidden between the Lagoon and the Baltic Sea. I read their new names on a map: Kaliningrad, Wrocław, Rybachy, Nida; like the memories of my father, everything there had become nothing more than a story, a tale beginning “Once, long ago…” — but strangely foreign, as though torn from an earlier text that I no longer understood.
Since I had Americanized my name when I was naturalized and Michael Schwabe had become Mike Shoap, since I signed all my papers and documents with this new name, there must have been some confusion among the authorities about my identity. That is the only way I can explain why it took so many years for me to receive a letter that was written to me in the last months of the war, before the Russian troops took East Prussia. The sender had entrusted it to the Red Cross. From the official letter that accompanied it when at last it was delivered, I learned that my father had probably died in the course of the fighting around Königsberg. Although his body was never found, the house where he had lived for five years, according to the police registry, lay in the part of the city that the Russian artillery had thoroughly bombarded. The street name meant nothing to me. And my father’s name was not to be found among the thousands in the great treks of those days from East to West.
On the envelope, in rushed handwriting: “To my son Michael Schwabe.” Inside, he wrote: “Since I never gave you an explanation of my behavior, and you never asked, here it is in brief. Leaving you and your mother might have seemed like either a villainous deed or a
patriotic act. It was neither. When it was too late, when I started to understand my own hubris, I also saw my weakness: I could not save both you and myself, so I chose you. By leaving, I wanted to enable you to get out of the country in time, the country you loved as much as I did. Something terrible had to happen to you, had to hit as close to home as possible, to strike the monstrous blindness from all our eyes. Your mother refused to leave. She trusted me to protect her, but I knew that when things went bad I wouldn’t be able to. And at my age, I could not face the prospect of playing the martyr in a foreign country. The way the lawyer conducted the proceedings, against my will, ended up ruining me. Until my early retirement I never changed any of the formulations I used in my lectures, even though I knew that kalokagathia had reduced us all to hangman’s assistants. I had no allies. I could never find out what my colleagues really thought. My behavior was also meant as a signal for them: if the age demanded atrocities, I did not want to withhold my tribute; I wanted to bring the dictator’s inhumanity into public discussion, and I could not do it any other way. I wanted everyone to see how I — who loved your mother and you and your sisters so deeply, as everyone knew — met my public demise. I wanted people on the street and in the university to point their fingers at me when I walked past. You saw the results for yourself, that time in Berlin. It didn’t do any good. At best people saw me as an idiot or a clinical case. They’re coming, the Curonian Spit is in their hands already. I couldn’t do anything to hinder the beginning and I won’t survive the end. There is such a thing as Fate. I have reread my Thucydides again and again but he doesn’t give me the answer. Have I been misreading him all this time? In the years to come there will need to be new sciences, new knowledge, until one day history can be written and taught again. The history of Germany is the history of my impotence. It is some consolation to me that you became a musician: during the night, let music be what saves us, don’t forget. Whatever happens I am staying in Königsberg. If this letter ever reaches you, then there is no one else I can ask, include me in your grieving.”
The more time passes, the more I know that my fate means nothing — it is hidden in the fog of an age of destruction, a fog that no new Thucydides has come to burn away. When I think back to my family home, my memory is the echo of an echo while the original sound has been lost. The history of my parents and our family is the history of a powerless world, whose glittering victories now seem to have merely held the seeds of even more terrible destructions. What remains is grief. If people still trust, still go about their daily business behind levees they wrongly believe to be safe, the treacherous waters of the ocean will nonetheless surprise them in their sleep and flush them like rats from their homes.
To judge my father would be a betrayal of my mother, who always bound herself to him in love. Even if the world should mock him, or consign him to oblivion, I, his son, shall cast no stones to raise higher the mountain of rubble under which he lies buried in the city whose new name is his epitaph.
1944 Diary by Hans Keilson, translated by Damion Searls, was released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on June 6, 2017.