Fafner from Wikimedia Commons
Maurice Sambert wants to write a book about authors' graves, but someone much more famous has already published one.
It has been a month since I drove with Maurice Sambert across Switzerland and along the Zürichsee to a hill south of the city to visit the grave of Thomas Mann.
Even though we were both young and interested in writing, we were not immediate friends. His preoccupation with graveyards, with writers who are tormented—his word, not mine—seemed excessively romantic. We lived for a month in a villa north of Zürich, on arts residencies with another artist, a German, who was feeling her way through the early stages of a project involving scissoring up Swiss maps.
One night in February, Maurice and I saw a movie together, which he chose. Leaving the theatre, walking in the rain across our small town to the old Sonne restaurant where we had a reservation, Maurice Sambert was unhappy. He disliked the movie, he disliked sports and he disliked American sentimentality. He waved his free arm, his left hand held his umbrella, and he was yelling his opinions in the rainy street.
We entered the restaurant and climbed the stairs. Wait staff dressed as peasants greeted us and pointed to our table for three in the corner. Maurice Sambert told me how he despised French films. It is all talking and feelings, he said with a shrug. We each ordered a beer and waited for our German friend, Anett, who arrived late but cheerful in a black skirt. She ordered a beer of her own, and we all shared fondue and a large salad. Maurice Sambert talked about his book, The Hues of the Night, which struck me as an absurd title. “It is about a man,” he said, “who is my age, and who walks around Prague for a night thinking.” In his broken English he compared it to Ulysses, then to Dante. “It is the first part of a trilogy,” he explained.
“And the second?”
“The second night is in Paris,” he said defensively, leaning back. “His lover has died in a plane crash on the way to San Francisco. Paris is his purgatory.”
“Where is paradise?” I asked. I had a hunch it was Florence or Rome, but I could tell immediately that he had thought about this and that the question haunted him.
We ordered more beer and passed the salad around and dipped our bread into the fondue. By this time we were talking about other writers, and because of the strain of my own project, I was admittedly drunk. In the corner of the restaurant, Maurice and I castigated each other while Anett sat delighted, rocking with laughter on the bench. Maurice and I left no middle ground. He took out what I assumed was a pack of cigarettes. I reached across the table for one. “But they are cigarillos,” he said sadly.
A week later, on a Friday afternoon, Maurice Sambert and I drove together to visit Thomas Mann’s grave on a hill outside of Zürich. I knew nothing about graves. I had drifted through them in many cities, but lacked the thing that made them resonant. I liked cemeteries for their gardens and their peace.
Maurice and I had become friends by then. We laughed about ourselves and our lives. As he drove, we talked about Thomas Mann, and Maurice told me conspiracy stories about Thomas Mann’s brother Heinrich. He talked about the graves of other writers he had visited and compared the cemeteries of France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Baltic countries. “Paris is too easy,” he said. “Everywhere you go it is another famous writer. It is no fun.” He listed the writers whose graves he had seen (Borges, Éluard, Joyce), his hand leaving the steering wheel to squeeze his forehead when the writer was someone who had been tormented. “I wanted to write a book about authors’ graves,” he said moodily. “But someone who is much more famous than me just published one in the fall.” We drove on in silence. “But when I am eighty,” he whispered, “maybe I will publish mine. I have already visited many more graves than him.”
We drove through Zürich and into the hilly countryside. I had Maurice’s cartoon map unfolded on my lap, but because I was looking at the scenery around us, we lost our way and entered what felt like an eternal tunnel. He drove faster and faster. The longer it went on, the more we laughed. We went crazy. There was a set of steel ventilating fans near the beginning, then two long, clear lines of fluorescent lights. It felt as though we were plunging through some perspective painting, and that it was not simply winter in Switzerland.
When we emerged from the tunnel and the signs made it obvious that I had made a mistake, Maurice reprimanded me and compared the map’s cartoon rendering of the countryside to the world around us. He wanted to do a three-point turn but there was no opportunity, so he made a number of turns onto successively smaller and smaller roads, until we rolled to a stop on a gravel path with a forest beside us. He looked at me. “My clutch is not good,” Maurice Sambert said.
We drove through Zürich again. The city looked fresh and historic. The grand buildings were painted in pale colours and the streets were clean and busy. Everyone looked polite, polished and upbeat. Determined to redeem myself, I shouted when I saw the lake between some trees. “Yes,” Maurice whispered. He swung his car around. A beautiful U-turn in downtown Zürich and we followed the Zürichsee. We drove along Seestrasse, with the lake on one side and the land rising sharply on our right.
At the Kilchberg village train station, we hopped out and stared at the map on the wall.
“There is the church!” Maurice Sambert cried.
We drove up the winding road to the hilltop.
Maurice pulled over and we got out again and looked up and down the two-lane road. It was sunny, and we were on the hill with the church and a bell tower above the Zürichsee, surrounded by the Alps. It was bright and pristine. We were the only ones there. The sun shone on the water and the snow.
We passed through the black metal gate and wandered through the sloping cemetery. When we found the grave of Thomas Mann, Maurice clicked a photo, and I looked at the odd things that were on the tombstone. There were modest tributes. Pebbles, a branch with some burrs, a pine cone and a dry leaf. They were arranged together as an homage. I found a stone and set it there too. His dissident daughter was buried beside him. His grave did not have the ostentation of some of the others. There was no statue or elaborate cross, or even a space for a small garden in the summer. His tomb was an austere block: THOMAS / MANN / MDCCCLXXV / MCMLV / KATIA MANN / MDCCCLXXXIII / MCMLXXX.
We left the cemetery in a more sombre mood and drove into Zürich. I looked at the buildings, the waterways, the churches and cafés. Maurice Sambert walked alongside me, smiling. He had been to Zürich many times. None of this was new or fascinating to him.
Inside the Café Odeon, Maurice and I had beer and nachos and Maurice talked about his year living in Prague, when he taught literature, and when he was unhappy. Sitting with a second beer, I lamented to myself what would be lost. I wanted to remember Maurice Sambert’s Prague with fidelity. It was strange, tragic and lonely, but it has passed into and out of my memory. It seems to me now as though his whole Prague was tinted yellow. It was an imaginary city, as all of our representations are, though no less valid for that. “It is possible to be sad in Prague,” he said. “There is no sea. None,” he pouted. “In the summer, all of the tourists come and still I was sad.” He had a theory about Kafka, about his work and the specific terrain of Prague, but even that I have lost.
When we left the Café Odeon, we walked through the rain to find our restaurant. That morning he had just finished writing a review of the theatre in Paris. “Paris is ruined by the Parisians,” he murmured, relishing the cliché.
“Why do you love graves?” I finally asked him. He turned back to me in the darkness of the street with a look that expressed his shock at my not knowing and his apprehension at its consequences. I felt embarrassed for lacking sensitivity. He waved me under his umbrella. “You didn’t bring a jacket or an umbrella,” he said. “It is February in Zürich. You are too much in your project.
“We spend all of our years living in different places,” he explained. “We live in different houses, in different cities, we travel around, trying different cultures, and all we are looking for is the place where we want to die. Then we stay there and wait for it. We wait to be taken. For these writers, it is the final decision they make.” I understood the full aesthetic implication of what he was saying. That last decision was the one that would resolve all ambiguities and hypocrisies. My own view of writing and reading was very different. I did not believe in the same accumulation of meaning, from book to book, and I did not believe in progress and pinnacles as Maurice Sambert did. I did not even believe that ambiguities were there to be settled, but rather that they were equivalencies, and should be left that way. I believed that works came from long epiphanies of sustained attention and effort, and that writers did not sweeten with age. I couldn’t think of anyone who peaked with their final effort. Most writers I could think of became more banal, commonplace or dilute at the end. For novelists, the power and risk was in middle age. We stopped at the restaurant door and faced each other. “Where they chose to die—it is their final judgement,” he said with a pout.
We went inside the restaurant where it was loud and lively. The right half was a bar and the left half had tables that were shared and covered in red and white checked tablecloth. Maurice Sambert wrestled his umbrella shut and we joined a round table that had four people already sitting at it. Using his menu as a shield, Maurice pointed at the dish across the table that he wanted. Both of us ordered a beer. A couple of vegetarians sat down next to me.
There was something I wanted to know. Now that we were friends, I felt I could ask him. “You have lived in Brussels for five years now.”
Our dinner plates arrived. Maurice compared his plate unfavourably to the plate of the man opposite him. He did not mask his disappointment. He disliked his chicken.
“Do you want to die in Brussels?” I asked.
I considered everything I knew about him. I knew he considered publishing and writing in Belgium to be a war, but less of a war than it is in Paris. And I knew that he liked his apartment, and that his neighbourhood was like a village, which appealed to him. The vegetarians beside me struggled with the menu. They finally settled on a plate of french fries.
“I don’t know,” Maurice Sambert cried out.