Leutenegger Remembers Kleist now Dead These 200 Years

Via Signandsight, here are the opening paragraphs of Gertrude Leutenegger’s essay which first appeared in the NZZ last month, in a translation by lp (I wish they would give translators there whole names). You can read the full piece here.


Just one drop of forgetfulness

The author Gertrud Leutenegger has a very Kleistian afternoon on Elba, when she encounters the Marquise von O in the waiting room of a very strange eye doctor.

In the middle of the hot summer day I met the Marquise von O… in Portoferraio. My left eye was inflamed from the changing winds on Elba, from the sea water or the blazing light, anyway I had an appointment with an eye doctor at the Piazza della Repubblica. The horseshoe bay of Portoferraio was deserted at this hour. I glanced one last time at the row of houses which rose up like the steps of an amphitheatre, and stepped through the Renaissance gate into the inner city, not without first checking my punctuality against the clock that was set into the walls of archway. Suddenly I felt uneasy about having an appointment in the quiet of noon. The doctor’s surgery was in a grand house from another century, I had to climb three floors, all of which seemed fast asleep. Then in the semi-darkness I caught sight of an open doorway where my doctor was waiting for me in his white coat. He led me into a small waiting room where the shutters were closed against the midday heat, and immediately disappeared again. At an advanced age, he cut a very aristocratic figure.  All the more peculiar, then, his wrinkled, grimy doctors coat whose collar, I could see even in the poor light, had a yellowish stain. Instinctively I took this as a sign that the eye doctor lived alone, nor was there any sign of an assistant.

I sat alone in the shady waiting room with its faded dusky pink paintwork. On one wall hung black framed portraits of people born blind, as it said beneath them, the centre one, a little larger and flanked by the smaller pictures like an altar piece, showed the face of a woman with a thick mass of hair pinned up, her eyes directed straight towards the viewer yet disconcertingly absent, one pupil slightly to the side as if she were looking away into darkening depths, which in no way lessened the expression in the other eye that radiated constancy and pride. I suddenly felt as if I were standing before the Marquise von O…. Briefly I scanned the portraits on either side of her, a young man with a bowl haircut, who had narrowed his eyes so tightly that only small strip of white was still visible, and a boy with black curly hair, one eye gently closed, the other open but clouded by a grey veil. Immediately I turned back to look at the Marquise and her stupendous talent for conceiving a child as in a dream. Not a sound filtered through to me in the waiting room, I neither heard the doctor going about his business nor talking to anyone else. Perhaps he had just lain back down to sleep. The eye doctor had been highly recommended to me, he was Sicilian, it was emphasised, and had had this surgery since time immemorial, something that now filled me with doubt more than anything else.

At last the door opened. The doctor hinted at a courteous bow and had me step into his cabinet. It was lined with dark red wallpaper and small, narrow horizontal pictures, like votive panels, of deformed, swollen and contorted eyes, hung one above the other. Old-fashioned instruments were laid out, uncovered, on a wheeled table, disinfectant nowhere to be seen, the minute chair on which I had to sit was rusty. After I had described my ailments, the doctor stared long into my eyes, without the help of a lamp. Then he wrapped some cotton wool around a toothpick, used it to wipe an eyelash from my eyelid, said: I have to turn your eye around, and without further ado stuck his bare fingers right into it. Frozen in horror at his method of treatment, I allowed him to continue for barely a second longer before impulsively yanking his arm away, shouting: I won’t stand for this! But he insisted: You mustn’t resist! And already he was delving into my eye again with his fingers, I leapt to my feet, excuse me, but this is impossible! Then there’s no helping you, he said. And he seemed to be looking at me with a peculiar air of contemplation.



This article was originally published in German in the Neuer Zürcher Zeitung on 19 November, 2011

The writer Gertrud Leutenegger (born 1948) lives in Zürich. In 2008 her novel Roman “Matutin” was published by Suhrkamp.

Translation: lp

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