Blesok no. 110, October-November, 2016
Living to Tell Stories
Marija Gjorgjieva Dimova
Living to Tell Stories
Translated by: Marija Spirkovska
Faced with the poetical challenge posed by the claim that all stories have already been told and what remains now is solely the quest for modes of narrative reconception of the familiar, of the aforesaid, contemporary literature makes a compromise to find its creative space among auto-referential considerations of literature, of its conventions and limits, and its reference to historical reality (historical events and figures). The novel Alma Mahler (2014) by Macedonian author Sasho Dimoski contributes significantly to this literary constellation by offering an authentic blend of thematic universality, modernist narrative techniques, and interdiscursive and intermedial relations.
The novel recounts the story of Alma Maria Schindler Mahler (1879-1964), the wife of Gustav Mahler, the late romanticist Austrian composer of Jewish descent, who was nineteen years her senior. Like him, she was an active musician (she composed seventeen vocal and piano compositions), although she abandoned furthering her career. Through its interest in a historical/real figure, Dimoski’s novel assumes an interdiscursive position towards the other, numerous (literary, cinematic, musical, memoir, epistolary, journal) textualisations of Alma Mahler, using them as a background within which it situates the story of/about Alma, both novelistic and peculiar (to her). Codiscursive relations are also indicated through the separate references in the novel to recognisable (auto)biographical and historical contexts, such as references to family tragedies (the suicide of Gustav’s brother, Otto, the death of Gustav’s daughter, Maria); premieres of symphonies (like the spectacular premiere of the Eighth Symphony in Munich in 1910); wars (“Wars took their toll, too. Or they will in the times ahead. I ran away from all those wars.”) (Dimoski 2014, 57), all counteracted by Alma’s intimate confession, as a confession of a single participant in and witness of these events. Indeed, such relations, manifested on various levels in the novel, are suggested through the division of its structure in eleven chapters, of which ten are entitled after Gustav Mahler’s ten symphonies, while chapter transitions are mediated by paraquotations, that is, intermedial musical quotations. Thus, titles and subtitles establish the framework that refers to Gustav’s professional chronology, which, in turn, frames the achronological story told by Alma. In a broader sense, this suggests the parallel that exists between the official and factual, and the unofficial, intimate dimension of existence, between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the spoken and the unspoken, but also between history and memory, art and life.
The model of confessional narration is complemented by other, typically modernist narrative techniques: defabularisation (the chronology of the fabula begins with the ailing health of Gustav, who has been taken by train to Vienna, and the foreshadowing of Alma’s lines: “Two more weeks to live. You know that.”); the personal perspective of the character (the fixed internal focalisation) and its technical equivalent – the interior monologue - albeit present in several scenes of dialogue, which the character evokes in reminiscence. The mid-consciousness – reflector and its perceptive-experiential horizon generate the discontinuity of the fabula, which traces the psychographic fluctuations of consciousness, its refined intellectual and emotional associations, which analeptically and selectively drive us toward the past: primarily towards scenes of Alma and Gustav’s life in marriage. However, the retrospective and reminiscent narrations have more complex hermeneutic and mnemonic functions. Namely, they serve to narrativise reality/the past in order to impose upon it the form of a tale, as well as to transpose knowledge into narration, so as to make sense of what is endured and experienced, and to re-evaluate it from an interpretative distance (“Was all this worth it, Alma?, she’d ask herself.”). It is precisely the hermeneutic confrontation of the character with her own past that is expected to provide a mnemonic prevention of ‘the fear of oblivion’. “One way or another, all stories come to an end. None remain open-ended… This life is nothing unless you leave your story behind in the best way possible” (Dimoski 2014 36), concludes novelistic Alma Mahler.
The associative-reminiscent return to the past and its retroactive interpretative conception opens the doors to universalisation of the personal story. Hence the introduction of the reflexive layer in the novel, which explores a complex of perennial themes, like: love, time, loneliness, relations between memory and oblivion, art and life, the meaning and meaninglessness of existence, personal choices, freedom. This layer lends the story an unambiguously transhistorical and transpersonal, aesthetised, and literary dimension, exposing the anthropological constants of the dilemmas and issues confronted by the main protagonist. In fact, the novelistic affirmation of the story about/of Alma Mahler may also be read as an affirmation of the ex-centric viewpoint – that which has been marginalised, positioned away from the centre (the privilege of the man, the husband, the father, the composer, the artist), the viewpoint of the great composer’s wife: “Four years of music and many more of silence. I learned to keep quiet” (Dimoski 2014, 75), reminisces Alma, who, in the name of marriage and family “closed all her talents in a little box and buried them ceremoniously”, giving up her own ideals and potentials, even her own self (“I just forgot about myself”). Therefore, her question: “What voices? Are there really voices other than my own?” (Dimoski 2014, 53) suggests the legitimacy of one’s own voice, one’s own perspective and story as a competitive affirmation of a different view of one’s own life and marriage, that is, the need to verbalise muteness and make sense of silence, which has been a concession accepted in compromise prior to the creation. “You have too much to keep silent about, Alma. You have a lot to say” (Dimoski 2014, 49), although personal choice entails freedom, but also responsibility.
Creating the novelistic story of/about Alma Mahler through the suggested interaction between the personal and the universal, Dimoski skillfully draws and interweaves two triads, which derive from the character’s reminiscent-associative narrations, and through which every existential evolution eventually occurs. The first triad is rendered through the establishment of the interpersonal relations: I - you (Alma Mahler – Gustav Mahler), I – I (Alma Schindler/Mahler – Alma Mahler), I – the Other/others (lovers, voices, stories, glances, truths). These relations are also overtly manifested through Alma’s appeals to herself (i.e. to the Alma of her youth and the current, “old Alma”, as she dubs herself), and through her invocations of Gustav, which often have an undertone of rhetorical questions. The novel also projects this relation at a higher level, as an archetypal representation of the male-female relation, summarised in Alma’s conclusion: “Women are condemned to presentiments in the same way that men are condemned to simplicity” (Dimoski 2014, 11). In fact, the I – you/the Other interplay is suggested as indispensable opposition and complement, which will verify the quest for one’s own identity, as well as for the meaning(lessness) of one’s existence. Not coincidentally, then, does the novel begin with Alma’s interrogative line “Who am I?”, mediating later Alma’s depiction of herself through the functions she performs in relation to the Other/others: “For a long time you were the only one who mattered. I was your shadow. Alma Mahler, the failed composer. Alma Mahler. Your deep shade. Your wife, lover, mother of your dead child, your governess, cook, nursemaid. Your fear and insecurity … I always needed someone else to stand by me … My whole life I had a dire need of sharing: to share myself with someone else and thus find my meaning … my need was like an illness, and I found my cure around others, when I took part in their existence, in their meaning. Hence all those men. Hence all those loves. Hence you” (Dimoski 2014, 7, 44). Indeed, the last chapter, entitled Finale, represents a sort of an epitaphic summary of Alma and Gustav’s life balances, yet, again, this is offered as a correlative sum of her life as opposed to his, which, in its turn, subtly tackles the relation between art and life, indicating that life obtains meaning through art. In a broader sense, this refers to the recognisable dialectic and relational character of identity – its dependence on relations established between I and the Other, which implies the paradoxical act of reference to the Other and differentiation of oneself from the Other, underscoring it as a mode of identity shaping. In Alma’s view, “things depend on each other. So do people. If it hadn’t been for you, I’d never be what I am … I was your barricade against things. Against artificial sounds. I infused nature in your notes … You were my barricade against the world – solely because the world of your events only ever sufficed for me” (Dimoski 2014, 9, 12).
The interpersonal triad interpenetrates the second, temporal triad, which, similarly derives from the reminiscent-associative testimonies of the character, and in which the present, past, and future correlate. The present, located in the moment of aggravation of the health condition of Gustav, who is transferred by train to Vienna, as a moment of confrontation with the real loss of the husband, indicates the return to the past (“This train will take us back to the beginning”, concludes the wife), to the certainty of what has already been endured, which, from a present vantage point, is enveloped by dilemmas of its meaning(lessness). Yet, simultaneously, the current moment also intensifies Alma’s rumination of the future, the uncertainty of the day and life afterwards, without Gustav. “Where will this day go and where will it take me? What will happen to me after this day?… Where then, Alma Mahler? … I’m sorry for thinking about such matters now. I’m sorry for you. The loss hasn’t happened yet, and here I am thinking about how life will thence proceed” (Dimoski 2014, 7, 59). Finally, the presence of these two triads and their inevitable and continuous interweaving in the novel, which is also suggested as a trajectory that everyone’s lives follow, is summed up in Alma’s conclusion: “I will live your memory through time” (Dimoski 2014, 16) (Underlined by M. Gj.)
The interpersonal (identity) and temporal triads, through which Alma’s evocations meander, flow into what she recognises as their lowest common denominator – love and music (“Love can’t die, Gustav. Neither can music. It will stay. It will thrive”) (Dimoski 2014, 16), which, in their turn, act as metonymic and synecdochical mediators in the intersection of life and art. Additionally, the equivalence between love and art is also supported by the fact that both are regarded as two forms of memory that will transcend the existence here and now, though leaving behind a trace, a rem(a)inder of what used to be, like two mnemonics occluding oblivion. “A simple truth, my dear. When people pass on, love remains to be lived. There is no dying love, there is only forgotten love, which, if forgotten, was never love to begin with … Music remembers more than any other form, for its form is always the same. It can’t be translated. It can’t be purified” (Dimoski 2014, 109-110).
“To remember means to reconstruct, as in telling a story … Memories are like literary works, created in the very moment of remembering, constructed in the psychodynamic conflict between wish fulfilment and self-delusion”, emphasises Phil Mollon in the study Freud and False Memory Syndrome. It is precisely the interplay between memory and (re)telling, which suggests that memories are structured according to the rules of story-building, and indicates the mnemotechnic dimension of story-telling, as well as of writing (down), which is also demonstrated in the story of Alma Mahler as a character in the novel, and about Alma Mahler, told/written by novelist Dimoski. This intersection illustrates the act of narrative reanimation of personal memory, which is also projected as a universal and memorable experience. If the mnemotechnic functions cannot be reduced merely to storing and reproducing information, then memory, too, cannot be merely a passive reflection of the past, but rather its meaningful and active reconstruction. Consequently, memory is not reduced to references to the empirical material, contained in the biographical chronology. Hence, Alma’s memories evoke the experiential dimension of the past, in the same manner that Dimoski’s novel, as a whole, is not a novelised biography of a historical figure, but, primarily, a novelistic, re-interpretative vision of the timeless dimensions of personal drama. In addition, memories refer to the past, but the act of remembering transpires in the present, thus implying the relevance not only of what is remembered (its content), but also the reasons and contexts inducing the remembrance, which confirms the inevitable (re)interpretative interplay of the past and the present. “I create memories that I will bring everywhere with me … Nothing remains after people go, Gustav. What does remain is only other people wasting their days in remembrance of them” (Dimoski 2014, 15, 22). Therefore, memory, reconstructed in/through the story, is the sole compensation for the absence, the past, of the Other. Thus, Alma contemplates, “people tell stories so that some future generations can remember someone’s dreams and stars, someone’s aches and joys, and, thus, learn” (Dimoski 2014, 36). Against this backdrop, one may begin to understand the novelistic and novelist’s interest in a historical figure that is only available through textual traces and remnants, which are then subjected to interpretative transcontextualisations. It is exactly the novel Alma Mahler that testifies to the conversion of Dimoski’s memory as a reader into an authorial, novelist’s re-interpretation and re-contextualisation of a historical persona and a personal drama. In fact, memory, addressed by and demonstrated in the novel, is also illustrated at a higher level through the novel and its author. This, in a more general sense, confirms that, indeed, literature is a mnemonic art par excellence, in the same way that the novel is still a privileged memory-writing, or ‘memory of memory’, as Andrei Bely terms it (he also names the author a ‘sum of citations’), which enables all that has already been recounted to obtain a narrative legitimacy anew. Indeed, these are the terms in which Dimoski’s own explanation, found in the short foreword to the novel, should be viewed: “Stories exist for the sake of story-telling, and story-telling is nothing but rewriting the past in an eternal present … It is in the collision between life and art that the story becomes worthy of retelling” (2014, 125). Narro, ergo sum.
1. Translator’s note: In the absence of an official English translation of Sasho Dimoski’s novel Alma Mahler, all quotes from it have been translated into English for the sole purposes of this essay.
2. All quotations have been extracted from the following edition: Sasho Dimoski, Alma Mahler, Skopje: Kultura, 2014.
3. The thematic and narrative aspects of the novel have been supplemented and enriched by language and style traits with remarkable success. The novel consistently articulates an intensely poetised, lyricised emphatic expression, also found in the intonation-punctuation patterns (the emotional amplitudes suggested by the line: “Gustav?Gustav?Gustav!?Gustav!Gustav!!” (Dimoski 2014, 21) serve as an illustrative example), and the stylistically marked syntax, where elliptical constructions predominate.
4. Mollon, Phil. 2001. Freud I sindrom lažnog sijećanja. Zagreb: Naklada Jesenski I Turk.
5. According to Alma Mahler’s confession, based on her experience, “names matter none. What matters are experiences. There were countless cities. Countless faces. Figures, ways, moments” (Dimoski 2014, 57). It is telling that, in the Macedonian language, this union between remembrance and memory, and feeling and experiencing is implied in the dual meaning of the verb ‘remember’: on the one hand, there is the reflexive form of the verb, ‘se sekjava’ (‘remember, recall’), which conveys the sense of remembering something that happened, and, on the other, the non-reflexive form of the verb, ‘sekjava’ (‘feel’), which conveys the sense of feeling, a sensory perception, and experience of certain stimuli. This duality is signalled in Alma’s confession that, in her memory of the past, “what matters are experiences.