The Insulation of the Uncomprehending
“If you are a writer you locate yourself behind a wall of silence and no matter what you are doing, driving a car or walking or doing housework you can still be writing, because you have that space.” – Joyce Carol Oates
After a week in Germany, dining at cafes and scribbling in notebooks, I was left to wonder this: how much French did Hemingway and his fellow Lost Generation expats actually speak?
I am guessing not much, and at least some academics agree. And far from this being a hindrance to creativity, I bet it helped, amplified the experience and the writing both. I will explain.
I have spent the last week in Kaiserslautern, a small town in the low west, off the Rhine and the major autobahn. To get to Kaiserslautern you fly to Frankfurt and drive, or take the express train from Paris, or the local commuter train from Strasbourg. But you go to Kaiserslautern for only one of three reasons: you were born there, you want to see a football match at the World Cup Stadian (a stadium so large that it seats more fans than live in the town), or you have business at the local American Ramstein Air Base.
I am of the third variety, but this mix of pressures – provincial and military – combine in odd ways, produce a bi-polar village. The locals have wisely created a monument of German efficiency known as “K-town”, a district of strip clubs and tattoo parlors and Irish pubs designed to quickly rob a young GI of his paycheck. But venture outside of this carefully constructed financial vacuum cleaner – or, better yet, avoid it entirely – and relatively unspoiled small-town Germany awaits.
Kaiserslautern is off of the main tourist route, so the centrum is not a carefully reproduced replica of a German town (suitable for photographing), but an actual German town. English, the lingua franca of modern tourism – not for the Americans but for waves of visitors from the Far East – is rare. Signs and billboards are German only. So too the menus. Few speak it, and then bravely but haltingly (though much much better than my German).
This means that the solitary language deficient traveler (me) walks in a virtual sound booth of incomprehension. In a full day of soaking in the city, I only opened my mouth to speak the most basic phrases required to order bier and zahlen for it; at the ice cream shop I was lost, and simply pointed.
This challenge does not stifle my desire to explore, but the experience is isolating, not communal, no matter how big the throng you sit in. You can only experience the city through empirical observation with your five senses; the background and history and story of each landmark can only be inferred.
My grandfather walked streets close to these nearly seventy years ago, marching to Berlin with the 100th Infantry Division. This humble and proper man, who I never heard curse in my life, carried a card in his wallet to the day he died that said “Certified Son of a Bitche.” He earned the title at the town of the same name, in France, just south of here. Why not take the train down and see? I don’t know; what would I find there in my sound booth?
Something happens to the interior of the mind when your vocal interactions operate at a sub-toddler level. The loud grow quiet and the quiet become contemplative and the contemplative (my natural state) retreat into a hermitage of rumination. With no competition, the voice in my head grows ever louder.
Which returns me to Hemingway et al. It has been hot in Kaiserslautern, too hot, 38 degrees Celsius, the hottest in over a decade. The Germans still go outside to the cafes and order pils and sit in the sun, but they look confused. This is what one does in Kaiserslautern during the summer, clearly, sit by the fountain and drink pils, but the heat is stifling. I know, I sat with them, sweat from simply breathing, drank my bier, and read and wrote. I sat in the crowded cafes completely alone, the surrounding talk a cocoon of white noise and my inner voice shouting. It is a creative voice. It wrote the start of a short story. It solved a plot problem in another. It has no competition, and so speaks with rare clarity.
Is this one reason why Hemingway fled to Paris? So his muse would shout, and not be drowned out by the comprehensible chatter of one’s own people? If journalism got him to Paris, I am guessing the vibrant interior voice (“the juice,” as he said) helped him stay.