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from the April 2006 issue

On Literature

A writer friend of mine told me that a few weeks ago he had had to exclude the most gifted of his students, a young man from Swabia or Baden or Württemberg - neither he nor I can really tell these regions apart - with the significant name of Stefan Hegel, from the course for young writers he had been invited to give by a foundation with connections to a large corporation, because this Hegel kept on interrupting the readings of the texts under discussion, sometimes raising objections at every third or fourth sentence, shouting out, standing up or bursting into tears of horror, disgust or despair. Several times, he said, this Hegel had simply grabbed the book or the pages my friend or, more often, the students were reading from, simply in order to stop them; twice he had even suffered a blackout.

The writer had noticed him even before the course started, he told me, namely when he was going through the applications that the woman from the foundation had sent him, after a preliminary selection, for the final decision, because this Hegel had submitted an eighty-fourpage, closely printed manuscript, the sole content of which was an explanation as to why he would never be able to write a story or a poem. If I understood my acquaintance correctly, what this Hegel was more or less trying to do was to demonstrate, using a single example, namely a journey in an aeroplane or, to be more precise, one moment during a flight from London to Stuttgart he had made a few days previously, why it had become impossible to put into words what he, or any other person for that matter, saw, heard, smelt, thought and felt - tangibly or emotionally - simultaneously in one single second. First of all he discussed in detail two tiny samples from texts by authors from the past for whom such a comprehensive picture (which, moreover, was not intended as realistic in the usual sense, but rather condensed the reality experienced into a poetic essence) had still been possible, and then went on to show, through a rigorous analysis of the same few sentences in terms of the development of the language, that they could not be written with the same intention today and would be given a completely different meaning if the reader thought they came from a contemporary author.

In order to demonstrate the infinite extent of any potential subject, this Hegel then went on to describe - with a precision my acquaintance said he had never before come across in his reading - every item of what he simultaneously observed, thought or felt as a passenger in an aircraft, managing at the same time to find, beside or behind every feeling, every impression, every association, one more attendant detail which he had, if not consciously observed, then at least registered at the same moment. Thus his description continued until it broke off after eighty-four pages, just as it had reached the cover of the in-flight magazine, folded over roughly in half by the net on the back of the seat in front, and was about to go on to designate the colour and shape of the two-and-a-half letters of the name of the magazine that could be seen.

If I have understood my acquaintance, the writer, correctly, all this Hegel had managed to do up to that point - on the eighty-four closely printed pages, that is - was to distinguish between four smells and record some visual features of the seat in front, which was in his line of vision. So you get an idea of the extensive or, to be more precise and at the same time do young Hegel retrospective justice, the infinite nature of what could have been described, if Hegel had not brought his attempt to put into language the reality of one single second to a premature end. My acquaintance was undecided as to whether the abrupt end was a result of the author's giving up or, on the contrary, of his conviction that he had sufficiently proved his initial assertion.

For all his sympathy for the author's dedication to detail, my acquaintance said, he had not found the manuscript entertaining, it was too monotonous for that, but he had been impressed, indeed overwhelmed, by the precision of his descriptions, the brilliance of his formulations, but above all by his deadly earnest, his single-mindedness. (If I were to reveal who my acquaintance is, you would realise how difficult he is to impress, never mind overwhelm.) It was magnificent, he said, monotonous, yes, but magnificent, the best thing he had read for a long time, and therefore he had not hesitated to accept this Hegel onto the course, which, by the way, was held in the South Tyrol, not far from Roverda, where Goethe encountered his beloved Italian live for the first time. During the course my acquaintance only managed to have a more or less normal conversation with this Hegel when there was no literary text being read. The reasons Hegel gave for his behaviour had exclusively to do with language and literature. Although he went out for a walk with him two or three times, my acquaintance never managed to establish any other motivation, either of a biographical, social or political nature. Despite his sinceresounding assurances outside the seminar room that he would not interrupt the next reader, during the sessions this Hegel found it impossible to control himself, so that eventually my acquaintance had no option but to expel this thorn in everyone's flesh, who was so infuriated that he became abusive and spoke scornfully of my acquaintance and his writing.

What distressed my acquaintance most, he said, was the fact that this Hegel was by no means always wrong in his damning criticism of the texts that were read out; there was no doubting the soundness of his judgment in matters of literature. But what could he have done? my acquaintance asked. After all, he felt an obligation towards the other participants as well, especially given the fact that this Hegel refused to engage in discussion, at most he would repeat his critical pronouncements over and over if anyone tried to contradict him. As he had feared, he went on, even after Hegel's disappearance the course never really got going, either because he still found it impossible to relax or because his students lacked talent. And now he was annoyed with himself that in his anger he had given the eighty-four-page manuscript back to Hegel, not without some hurtful comments of his own. After he had returned home, he had tried to ring him up and had written him a letter, though without receiving any answer. My acquaintance seemed to have been drained by this to an extent that was quite out of proportion to the incident. He looked tired and seemed to have aged, though of course I don't know whether his appearance really was due to the course alone. Since then, my acquaintance said, he had not written a single line, he had not even managed to write his report on the course, for which the foundation was waiting. On the other hand, lethargic phases are not that unusual, even for such a prominent and important writer as he is, and the course, as I said, finished only a few weeks ago, so that I have hope that he will soon be back at his desk and might even write something of his own - and incomparably better than my attempt - about this Hegel, who would himself be a suitable subject for a work of literature.

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