This article was originally published on Domus 1065, February 2022.
For reasons that were a mystery above all to myself, in autumn 2016 I decided to move to the Baltic to write. I knew it would only be a stay of a few weeks, but long enough to flush out a novel that had been escaping my words for too long. Why the Baltic? I can’t say exactly, and at the time there weren’t more specific reasons than to get away from it all and install myself in the page margin. Where I went happened to be a sort of Minor Baltic, a wholly secondary arm of the sea: no Scandinavia, no fjords, nothing resembling a polar icecap. Just a restricted view, a small balcony, with its feet firmly planted in western Germany.
I spent two periods of about ten days each in Kiel, the second around Christmas. I had been there the year before on a fleeting visit for a book presentation. The journey meant going from Turin to Malpensa Airport, flying to Hamburg and then continuing another 100 kilometres north to the urban outpost itself, a stone’s throw from the Danish border. Two coach rides and a flight – 12 hours in all from house to house.
The house I departed from was an art-nouveau building in central Turin, while the final destination was a two-storey reinforced concrete structure built – as I recall – in the first half of the 20th century. From Kiel train station, where the second coach dropped me off, I had to take a local bus that skirted the Kiel canal. When the Holtenau lighthouse came into sight, I knew there wasn’t far to go. I was reaching the end of the line.
I still haven’t fathomed why I wanted to go there, to that minor arm of the Baltic, and neither could Frau Tekla whenever, of an evening, she would sit down beside me in the basement, while I waited for the indicator light on the kettle to turn off.
The apartment was little more than a large room, but everything about it made it feel like a house. A grey fitted carpet and an L-shaped layout made you think there were two rooms: a living area and, around the corner, a sleeping area. In practice, this translated into a bed and a bedside table on one side, and a desk and chair on the other. Two wicker chairs and a coffee table delimited a sort of imaginary lounge. On the cover of a book on the table was the lighthouse, which I couldn’t see from my window. I’ve never found out who lived in the apartment when I wasn’t there, but all they possessed was locked up in a wardrobe. All my belongings, instead, remained in my suitcase beside the bed or were scattered around the room and in the windowless bathroom.
For meals, I would go down to a small room in the basement where there was a large fridge, two electric hot plates, a kettle and a microwave oven. It was overseen by Frau Tekla, a Polish lady who had emigrated there because her husband had a job at sea. Together they had turned the building into a refuge for Baltic workers, a bit like a mission, with a crucifix at the entrance and a chapel next to the kitchen, a place to pray before returning to sea. I still haven’t fathomed why I wanted to go there, to that minor arm of the Baltic, and neither could Frau Tekla whenever, of an evening, she would sit down beside me in the basement, while I waited for the indicator light on the kettle to turn off.
Occasionally I would just appear there and the faulty German in which we conversed made us feel at home. Otherwise, I would stay shut up in my room writing, or I would wave to her whenever I went out for a walk. I would usually go and sit under the lighthouse to watch the ships sailing slowly down the canal to the point where the Baltic opens up between Scandinavia and the UK to become the North Sea. When I returned from my evening wanderings, Frau Tekla had already retired to her own apartment, and I would see her and her husband’s silhouettes on the sofa and the flickering TV in the semi-darkness of the room. I never wrote the novel I was expecting to flush out in that room at the edge of Europe. I had meant it to be a novel about forgiveness.
I ought to have told her that the point was not to write a novel about forgiveness but to go there to try to write one and fail, to accept that I had nothing to say.
For years I had collected stories, scribbled notes in my notebook, and met people who offered me tales of suffering and liberation, each in their own way searching for a rapport with their inner enemies. Each morning in that house on the Baltic, I would turn on the computer and type words that were never enough to become a magnet of meaning, to marshal what I believed I had to say. When I finished writing, I would walk along the quayside for kilometres to the large shipyards where they built military submarines to send to sea who knows where, in who knows what untold geopolitical conflict.
Virtually every morning, I would walk to a cafe near the lighthouse. I would sit at the window with a cappuccino, worn out by all my searching with words for something that probably ought to have been sought elsewhere, on a sort of inner blank page. In front of me, in the December chill, was a Christmas tree secured by stay wires all around to prevent the Baltic wind from carrying it away. Behind it, huge merchant ships slithered seawards like alligators.
The last time Frau Tekla wrote to me was three years ago to remind me, not for the first time, that I’d left my notebook in the kitchen, and that she’d be happy to forward it to me if I gave her an address. I can’t recall if I ever replied. I think I did, but without mentioning the notebook or providing a postal address. I ought to have told her that the point was not to write a novel about forgiveness but to go there to try to write one and fail, to accept that I had nothing to say. One thing I am sure of is that I sent her a postcard from Turin: she’d been wanting to go there for years.