Category Archives: Writing

Hayfever, brainfog. Despite the discomfort it’s a relief to have an excuse for not being able to connect things in my head. It’s a bit dreamlike, walking through the park – which is full of blooming flowers these days – but not like the grey dream of the past couple of years. I feel better.

I told myself before I left Vienna that it would take two years to get over it. Now how would I know that? I didn’t think it when I walked past the building sites in the North Harbour that winter day when she told me the Russian had moved into our flat. I hoped a crane would drop a breezeblock on my head, or the wind would sweep me into the freezing water. It was a pleasure to imagine.

In dreams, as everyone knows, things and events are often out of joint. Yet sometimes there are lucid moments when you can almost see through the dream and have the power to change it, for example when you can suddenly fly where you want. I’m starting to think one can sense one’s future in the same way. You sense where the dream is going and bide your time until the right moment.

The only real question I’ve asked myself in these past two years is whether it was fate or chance that led me here. But now the question seems wrong, and unsolvable, it only led me in circles.

The difference between writing, say, an email and typing in this journal, even if you write the same sentence; there’s an abyss between them.

And from the depths of falseness God answers, and my world seems vanishingly small. No matter where in the world I am.

*

Yesterday I went to see the building where Kierkegaard wrote The Sickness Unto Death and his autobiography. It took me a while to spot the plaque. His flat was above a tanner’s business, and he was bothered by the stench of entrails in the gutter on the street below. His solution was to move to the neighbouring building, where the smell was just as bad. Today the tanner’s business is a skincare clinic.

MAY

The North Harbour, where my flat is, is a massive construction site, with half-built corporate buildings, a metro station, ugly modernist apartment blocks – and behind it hundreds of shipping containers stretching out to the Sound. When I stick my head out the window I count five cranes. On the street are two scaffolds and stormwater protection works. I hear the tok-tok of a train pulling into the station and an underwater thudding: they’re building another artificial island to make room for more buildings and prevent flooding when the rising water comes.

I go to the Aldi by the station, walk past the Little Mermaid and around the ramparts. I last about a week at a time here before I pack my rucksack and cycle to my parents’ place in the posh part of town, near the city’s biggest park, my crows, and the zoo, where I walk about looking at the animals in their cages.

*

My mind’s muddled after all this time alone. I don’t know if I’m good or bad, how or where I should live. I’m starting to think in Danish. Unnerving as always to live among Danes and listening to how they think. I passed an ad for a political party on the side of a bus stop today:

Community.

Community.

Community.

That hasn’t changed, I think to myself. But it rings extra hollow now.

*

Now a quiet evening sinks over Copenhagen, with that sweetly melancholic Danish light the old painters captured so well. It makes me so uneasy I have to go out and bike halfway around the city.

*

A dream last night. I was in a sort of compound: a mix of a festival site and a slum. Someone took the food I was carrying and threw it up a stairwell, where rats swarmed on it behind a corner. I tried to get it back but had to retreat. I left through a gap in a fence, where I saw my wallet, which had been trampled into the mud. I hadn’t realised I’d lost it.

*

Please God, I said when I walked by the church yesterday, out of nowhere. Please God. It made me feel better for the rest of the day, even if it seemed false as I said it.

A few words come now and then as if from far away. What a relief it would be to speak in proper solitude rather than in this lame dispersal. Rilke said to write as the first man. What did he mean?

I take the laptop to the park and sit at a bench, open a bottle of beer with my lighter, and look at the artificial pond with its spurting fountain. Pink-footed geese graze on the lawn around me, which is covered in their droppings. There’s a palace on the hill on the other side of the pond. I write a few lines of a translation I’m working on, then click over to this journal. What to say?

This park was constructed in imitation of the French and British styles, with tree-lined avenues and little Romantic touches: pagodas, a waterfall, grottos. All carefully manicured. Danish poets walked around here waxing lyrical in the nineteenth century. Now it’s full of tourists and lycra-clad joggers.

*

Malinka Stalin, they called him, his Russian friends in Vienna: Little Stalin. He turned up at her dancing class. During lockdown he invited her to the park to dance. She’d be gone for hours. He gave her Russian delicacies. I cycled over and watched them dance. How naïve I was. She watched me let it happen. I thought about fighting it, but what was there to fight for, exactly? I was always elsewhere in my head. Can I blame her?

After I left and he’d moved into our flat, into our bedroom, I became convinced he was a Romeo spy. It gave it a sort of logic. Now I have no idea where they are. I’ve learned that these kinds of convictions tend to get blurred over time. I’ve missed her terribly, but I guess those feelings will get blurred too.

APRIL

Woke up at dawn as usual to pee and lay trying to sleep for two hours while the mind turned and played its usual sordid tricks. I must have had a hundred little thoughts, memories and fantasies.

As soon as I’m idle – which I am much of the time these days – the first thought is about S. and her Russian in Vienna. Amazing how the mind bites into things and just won’t let go.

*

On my daily walk in the park to give raisins to the hooded crows and jackdaws I went through the little wood instead of around it. Still the pair of big hooded crows that always find me first flew up to me. It was the highlight of my day. I know to turn away while they eat; they don’t like to be looked at. Some of them will hide their raisins in secret places.

Sometimes I go through the place at the other end of the park where people take their dogs, and watch the dogs jump at each other and their owners. They seem stupid compared to the birds, who can easily do without me. It’s the only place where I see Danes chatting freely to strangers, as if they can only do it through their dogs.

*

Every day these past two years the mind has liked to imagine their various scenes together: S. and her Russian. The mind loves imagining that. Lately it’s come up with encountering them in one of those pretentious Viennese cafés. What happens next in these scenarios is usually vague, as in a dream where whatever you do is ineffectual.

*

When I’m not at the mercy of the mind I try to think about fate and chance, but I’m never sure what I’m trying to get at. Why exactly did I end up here? It’s hard to see beyond chance. Fate always seems to trump it. You understand backwards and live forwards, they say. But my memory’s getting unreliable.

*

Took my bike on the train to try to get to Havreskoven forest. Cycled through a typical dead Danish suburb and got lost several times along a motorway, as usual. The strong headwind blew my cap off. It’s still cold here. Ended up on the outskirts of the forest. The ground was still covered by dead leaves and needles. Almost nothing had sprung out. Even the evergreens looked wan. A couple of stagnant ponds. No waterfowl, hardly any birds. I wondered if the ground had been polluted by the nearby factory I’d seen on the way. I did see some ravens by the side of the motorway picking at rubbish on a grassy verge on the way out. It’s the first time I’ve seen them in the wild. The way the sun brings out the purple in their feathers. I should have stopped there and gone back. But one never knows exactly what to do.

My God, my God, if nights like this lie ahead of me grant me at least one of the thoughts I’ve now and then been able to think. What I’m asking for now is not so unreasonable; for I know that they come directly from my fear because my fear was so great. When I was a boy they hit me in the face and told me what a coward I was. That was because I was still bad at being afraid. But since then I’ve learnt to be afraid with the real fear that only increases when the power to produce it increases. We can have no idea of this power except in our fear. For it’s so wholly incomprehensible, so completely opposed to us that our brain disintegrates at the point where we struggle to think about it. And yet, for a while now I have believed that it is our power, the whole of our power, that is too strong for us. It’s true that we don’t know it, but don’t we know least what is rightly our own? Sometimes I think about how heaven came to be, and how death; because we’ve distanced ourselves from what is most valuable to us, because there were so many other things to do first and because we were too busy to safeguard it. The passage of time has now obscured this, and we have grown accustomed to lesser things. We no longer recognise what is ours, and we are appalled by its sheer magnitude. Can that not be so?

— Rilke, Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (tr. Needham)

Out of artifice

I felt it as artificial, that sitting down to write a book. And that is a feeling that is with me still, all these years later, at the start of a book—I am speaking of an imaginative work. There is no precise theme or story that is with me. Many things are with me; I write the artificial, self-conscious beginnings of many books; until finally some true impulse—the one I have been working toward—possesses me, and I sail away on my year’s labor. And that is mysterious still—that out of artifice one should touch and stir up what is deepest in one’s soul, one’s heart, one’s memory.

— V.S. Naipaul (via here)

I am unable to think, in my thinking I constantly come up against borders; certain isolated matters I can grasp in a flash, but I am quite incapable of coherent, consecutive thinking.

— Kafka, from a letter to Brod

Turning knowledge inside out

“The time has come for us to be able to write and send messages within our mind,” as a friend tells Renouard. But the future may be even more efficient than that. “We will do a Google search exactly as we go looking through our memories, by a simple act of the mind which, like memory, will require neither the hand nor the eye as intermediary,” he writes. “We will use this inner Google to look up words and phrases in a foreign language,” he writes. “The memory of which our brain is the organ will no longer be an individual memory.” Renouard’s vision of the internet is one that is capable of doing a lot of our feeling and knowledge-gathering for us, and it’s persuasive because we can all cite examples where we’ve felt that happen, from auto-completes to self-driving cars.

*

The internet is a canny repository of many false sensations. Friends aren’t friends, followers don’t follow, links are digressions not connections, truth is a partisan cudgel in the hands of countless memelords. […] The internet, he writes, has turned knowledge inside out: Books, once our chief repository of wisdom, are now walled-off and inaccessible, “a distant and secret refuge protected from the curiosity of readers.” Information gives us more things to contemplate but hardly lets us think about them: “The last fortress of our involuntary memory will have been conquered by the recollection machine.” The internet will wreck our privacy, but our morality will simply adapt to it. The internet never forgets, but we’re now free not to think.

*

At one point Renouard himself sounds a skeptical note about all this. He asks, “What is there of a person in his traces, even if we reach a totality, a saturation, in the Great Downloading?” The internet tempts us into thinking it’s everything because it gives so much. It confounds our senses because it mimics them so well; it conflates truth and fact by making both seem porous. And it demands we still live with it. We’ll need tools to better navigate this, and one more irony about the internet is that that the internet is unlikely to provide such tools. To that end, Renouard makes a statement that’s indisputably true: “We aren’t mature enough for this invention.”

Mark Athitakis