Mr. Letterman keeps a secret

 

Mr. Letterman was the kind of man who found find intrinsic value in reflection and contemplation and had allowed this inclination to become the building structure of his life. This was why as an undergraduate student even with law school in mind he had chosen to study philosophy rather than economics and had concentrated on 17th-century philosophy which he found particularly intriguing because it answered to his own temperament. He had studied Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and had read Kant as well as Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith. He cherished reason and individualism as the core values of enlightenment.
He knew quite well how difficult it was to actually live an individual life as he understood it, starting with an education that gave a student time to acquire the ability to distinguish individual choices from prefabricated ideas. He had been a keen observer all of his life, and since the late Eighties had noticed the changes imparted by a growing globalized market on American cultural habits which had been in fluid transformation of very different heterogene cultural movements since the late Sixties but now were anastomosing into more or less one all-emcompassing stream of consumer culture. Since then, or so he was convinced, increasingly suggestive marketing strategies had been skillfully reducing individual freedom more or less to the act of choosing between different consumer goods. According to the logic of the market commercial success was the gate to freedom as it allowed access to consumer products, and striving for the possession of consumer goods had been accepted as the ultimate meaningful pursuit in life. People now spend most of their time working and earning money to spend on such consumer goods and if their work in itself happened not be meaningful, there was little time left to construct meaning from whatever was left over to their private discretion. Consumer goods as carriers of a lifestyle that few could integrate into their everyday routines were tailored to fill the void of the un-lived life while at the same time creating the desire to acquire even more goods, more things to throw into the abyss of time.
Mr. Letterman knew that poverty enslaves families, condemning generation after generation to a living on low wages and social security, that people as intelligent as he considered himself to be had to forego higher education and work hard, repetitive jobs, wasting their potential, that he himself, due to fortuitous social circumstances, had been allowed to develop. He knew that in low incomehouseholds – among other things – there was indeed also a lack of needed consumer goods from food to clothing to furniture to kitchen appliances to books. But he also knew that it was not the lack of consumer products that was most painful consequence of low incomes but the lack of education and access to the many sources of meaning that were reserved for those who knew how to decipher the code. Higher education was an expensive privilege. He was not fighting for social justice per se even though he was representing a fair share of pro bono cases. But he kept aware that he did not earn the privilege of an education that was denied to others and he kept a special kind of contempt for people with access to this kind of privilege who nonetheless proved incapable of making individual and intelligent choices.
For him, prerequisite to a mindful life was reading. And the prerequisite to reading well was education. He visited the New York Public Library during late lunch, sometimes just to sit down in the reading room for a while. Since childhood he had loved the gigantic stone lions who guarded the entrance to the Library, Patience and Fortitude. He loved the many different book stores of New York´s neighborhoods.He chose his books with care following his established interests and toyed with the idea to write a book himself if he should ever find the time, a book about the many stories that clients brought to him daily and which were a kaleidoscope of the many brilliant pieces of NYC of but like any passionate reader he was also curious about books and authors yet unknown to him. He loved to rediscover new as well as almost forgotten authors and frequently visited used book stores. He was a regular at Strand´s.
Saturday mornings he liked to stop by at Crawford & Doyle booksellers, a small old-fashioned independent bookstore on Madison Avenue between 81st and 82nd street close to the MetMuseum. After his visit to the book store he walked straight over to the Met where he spend whatever was left of Saturday afternoon, sitting in one of the courts and reading a new book while tourists and New Yorkers walked past him.
Crawford & Doyle booksellers catered to a eclectic  reading tastes, offering a selection of the New York Times bestseller list and the annually published most notable book list yet always keeping the discriminating reader in mind, and offering a plethora of topics including fiction, history, philosophy, biography, religion, politics, lyrics, social studies, art, children´s books and a fine selection of crime novels on the first floor of a space hardly larger than a spacious living room. The store was beautifully stacked with old dark wooden shelves and lower showcases and booktables stacked with books, leaving only small alleyways to pass through and two very narrow benches to sit down.
There was a gallery on the second floor which was, in fact, a book store within a book store, with collectible and rare books, concentrating on first editions of primarily American and British fiction. Mr. Letterman had found first editions of Frost and Yeats upstairs and a small volume of the Dubliners which he treasured and always carried with him as it fit perfectly in the pocket of his overcoat.
Crawford & Doyle was dependable and friendly like an old acquaintance. Customers were entering and leaving the store on Saturday mornings in a lively flow without interrupting the reader in the corner; they politely accommodated one another in the narrow passageways between the displays and conducted short, quiet conversations among themselves or livelier ones with the knowledgeable staff at the register. It was a store dedicated to the art of reading and thus to an enlightened public, readers like himself, in search of the path that was as individual as the reader, leading from one book to the next, choosing one, leaving out another equally deserving one, following an instinct that had formed over a lifetime of reading.
As many customers were regulars Mr. Letterman would see familiar faces on Saturday mornings and got to know the taste and habits of people who remained strangers to him yet at the same time were like family to him, serious readers like himself.  A Saturday morning regular for example was the small lady whose features were so delicate and who moved so lightly that she reminded him of a small bird. She had a special taste for all kinds of political fiction and quite obviously a voracious reading appetite. She would assemble sizable stacks of books to take home, carrying The Reader by Bernard Schlink on top of The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago, followed by Anthony Burgess last novel Byrne, postwar German author Heinrich Böll with a  short story collection titled The Mad dog, and on top of this formidable stack The Three-Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare who had just recently become a lifetime member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of France.

Mr. Letterman loved to cast a sideway glance at the birdlady´s finds and sometimes he let himself be inspired by her choices. It was through her that he discovered his love for Kadare. He read Ura me tri harqe, The Three-arched Bridge, first published in 1978 because he had spied it on top of her stack, and had continued with Përbindëshi, The Monster, an even earlier work from 1965, which took him some time to find and that he finally discovered in the used-book section of Crawford-Doyle´s just like before the reasure of an author-signed version of Nata me hënë, Moonlight, first published in 1985.
And then there was the girl mainly lingering in the art book section but sometimes straying to children´s books. She was mostly dressed in faded Jeans and an NYU-sweatshirt, wearing her straight dark blonde hair open and pushed back on just one side behind her ears. He had never paid too much attention to her because he did read little on the visual arts, and had no interest in children´s books but he had indeed noticed the girls just as he did notice the other regulars and had inscribed her on his inner map of a particular Saturday morning.

Then one Saturday, something strange had happened. Instead of in her usual spot in the arts he had encountered her in the non-fiction area between philosophy and history. She had taken a somewhat awkward turn to let him pass, misjudging the space between their passing bodies and with an abrupt countermovement had just so prevented herself from running the art volume into his rips . The abrupt movement almost made her drop both of her books, the art book on top of which she had opened another book, using the larger book like a small reading desk. This other book he recognized at once because he owned an earlier edition of it and was familiar with the new one she had been studying before he had interrupted her. After he had passed her unharmed, answering her apologies with a polite apology of his own, she went right back to reading. The book was „The Hedgehog and the Fox“ by Isaiah Berlin. Mr. Letterman considered this an unexpected choice for a girl who would spend most of her time in the arts and children´s book section. Isaiah Berlin had commented on this collection of essays, bearing the title of a fragment from the archaic Greek poet Archilochus. Berlin has said: „I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously.“ which struck Mr. Letterman as an appropriate motto for his own well intentioned life that was meant to be light and unattached to convention but that had also turned out a bit different than he had foreseen. A little lonelier than anticipated for example.
The girl looked like the serious kind of girl who preferred reading to going out, maybe a bit too serious for young men´s taste, he thought. She was pale and almost pretty and she squinted her eyed as if she was in need of glasses while reading.
He liked the The Hedgehog and the Fox . It too was an intellectual game in which Berlin divided writers into two categories: hedgehogs, who – like Plato – view the world through the lens of a single defining idea, and foxes – like Shakespeare – who draw on a wide variety of experiences and who pursue multiple ideas simultaneously that were all but incompatible with each other but coherent in themselves, representing Berlin´s irreducibly pluralist ethical ontology. Mr. Letterman suspected that he himself – unfortunately and despite his curiosity – was more of a hedgehog really, not least due to a certain shyness and his need to keep a steady view of life while the value pluralism that Berlin was able to embrace gave his own ethical system a spinning sensation.
He had been curious if the girl would actually purchase the book or had just been attracted by the whimsical title. It was a hardcover edition though and bound to be expensive, probably around sixty Dollars, and so, even if she decided against it, it might not necessarily tell him much about her intellectual preferences. Still, his curiosity was aroused, also she seemed vaguely familiar, and so he gave her a sidewards glance every once in a while.
After a while she closed the Hedgehog and the Fox carefully, but did not put it back. Instead she pulled out yet another book from the shelf, this one slender with a marbled green-greyish paper cover over a frayed soft cardboard binding and a light green title tag glued to the front like an old fashioned school notebook. There was no dust cover.

The first thing he thought as he looked at the small book was that he must have overlooked it (because he knew all the books in that shelf and noticed new books right away when he got to it), the second thought was that it must have been displaced because quite obviously it belonged in the used book section. The girl put the art book and the Hedgehog and the Fox down on top of the fairly low shelf and gently opened the marbled book in order to spare the book spine from damage. By the way she handed the book he could tell that she was used to handling books.

He stepped a bit closer, randomly pulling out a book of his own and looking over to her again, smiling in case she should meet his gaze but she didn´t. She was fully concentrated on her book and did not look up or showed any other sign of awareness of his presence. He therefore dared to move a little closer still in order to identify the book and saw that the volume did indeed not belong in this shelf. The gilt letters on the title, partly obscured by her hands he deciphered as Ri- – o-nn- – Orph – -s and concluded that she had found a treasure, Rilke´s Sonnets to Orpheus. He knew the publishing house´s signature marble cover, a German Publisher called INSEL, the Island.
The girl became even more interesting to him now as she seemed transfixed by this new book, caressing the paper while turning the pages. Quite suddenly she looked up as if she had grown aware of his observing look. She looked directly at him and smiled. For a moment he was startled by her sudden awareness, but then he returned her smile. I am German, she said, it´s strange to read Rilke in English translation. She said this as if  they had been meeting before and this was just one out of many remarks that had already passed between them. Well, he answered, I envy you, my German is very limited and I would not be able to read Rilke if his work hadn´t been translated. That is a nice edition you found. Someone must have placed it in the wrong shelf.
She smiled again, lowered her voice and then continued the conversation  with an even more personal tone. -Will you keep a secret if I recited some lines from my favorite Rilke poem in German to you? Her English was excellent with only a slightly rough edge that gave away the German native speaker. He considered the question. He was curious and so he nodded. She briefly closed her eyes and, reopening them, looked straight at him again and started with a clear if still quiet voice, not at all like a schoolchild reciting a poem by heart, as he had half expected. Though clearly in verse it did not sound like a recitation of a poem at all, more like an intimate confession. He could make out single words, colors like Grün and Blau and simple words like Sommer and Sonne und Frau, and names of places places like Venice and Kasan, Rome and Florence, Kiev and Moscow, but the rest to him was like a strange music, beautiful and raw.

Und du erbst das Grün vergangner Gärten und das stille Blau
zerfallner Himmel
tau aus tausend Tagen
die vielen Sommer, die die Sonnen sagen
und lauter Frühlinge mit Glanz und Klagen
wie viele Briefe einer jungen Frau
Du erbst die Herbste, die wie Prunkgewänder
in der Erinnerung von Dichtern liegen,
und alle Winter, wie verwaiste Länder,
scheinen sich leise an dich anzuschmiegen.
Du erbst Venedig und Kasan und Rom,
Florenz wird dein sein, der Pisaner Dom,
die Troïtzka Lawra und das Monastir,
das unter Kiews Gärten ein Gewirr
von Gängen bildet, dunkel und verschlungen, –
Moskau mit Glocken wie Erinnerungen, –
und Klang wird dein sein Geigen, Hörner, Zungen,
und jedes Lied, das tief genug erklungen,
wird an dir glänzen wie ein Edelstein.

Es geht noch weiter, she said, after a pause, then realized that she had spoken German, repeated: – This is not where it ends, but I think this is good for now. He smiled warmly and bowed to her. She gave a small laugh and answered: – Now for my secret. He replied: – But that would be two gifts then, implying that the poem had been a gift and he had appreciated it, but she did not pay attention to him as if she was in need of depositing her secret whatever it might be with someone, just anyone, maybe the first person she met who liked Rilke.

He felt a bit uneasy, because the encounter had become personal and he did not know whether he wanted to be burdened with a private detail. – You see, she commented as if she had been following his thoughts, – the second one is not a gift, it is a fair and square deal. But don´t be afraid, it´s just an insignificant small thing I am going to tell you, quite childish really, and he felt ashamed that he had been nervous.

She continued with a hushed voice and in a slightly pedantic tone, her German accent now more apparent that she had recited the Rilke poem, – I cannot afford to buy this book, it´s really quite expensive. It´s a first edition, published in 1923, and it is absolutely beautiful. I do spend money on books as you can see, but this one´s out of my reach. So I took it from the rare book section down here and placed it in social studies because I figured chances are that most people interested in social theories and politics and history would not much care for poetry and so it would be awhile until it either found a buyer or the clerks put it back where it belongs and until then I can look at it. These editions normally go very fast. Now, there it is, my secret, and I am going to put the book back on the shelf right next to Isaiah Berlin because he was fluent in German and would be good company to Rilke. I hope you will keep my secret because then I will be able to enjoy this a little longer and all the more now because it is a shared secret now.
Mr. Letterman watched her shelving the book neatly, holding on to his own books tightly to steady himself. He was feeling troubled. He did not know whether he felt disapproval or interest in the girl or both he was at the same time curious and uncertain as to how the situation would continue, asking himself whether she would expect him to answer to her confession and what to say, and whether he was to be her accomplice in the crime or give her some fatherly advice. Surely this was not a grave violation of ethics, not as bad even as hiding a book at the law library to prevent other students from finding specific titles that were relevant for a semester assignment as was a bad habit of some of his fellow students at law school. Surely, there was something intriguing about a girl her age who knew Rilke by heart and seemed to know a bit about Isaiah Berlin as well, already knew this before she opened The Hedgehog and the Fox. Surely, he did not normally seek out young girls for literary conversations and confessions, and he felt at insufficient and uneasy and overall insufficiently prepared for such a situation, which in turn made him feel irritated and at a loss for words. But she just turned around, smiled at him once more, but now in a polite and distant way that betrayed nothing of the intimacy they had shared just a moment ago and with a small nod of the head, walked over to the register to pay for her two books. He looked at the shelf where the small grey-green volume nestled up to its neighbor, like an ordinary, out of the ordinary secret, a secret quite different than the ones he was entrusted with every day save Saturday and Sunday as a lawyer. When he looked up again the girl had left the store leaving him behind with their shared secret. Should he take the book out of the shelf like a good schoolboy and carry it back to the rare book section? But nobody had made him the guardian of the books after all and the clerks, as she had said, were bound to find it sooner or later, so there was no harm done, really. After giving this some consideration he still didn´t feel right about it, and he still felt angry with her for leaving  him with  choices that would put him in the wrong no matter whether he decided it one way or the other. Finally he turned his back on Rilke and Berlin and started browsing in the opposite shelf, in History. He pulled out Herodotus who was shelved properly and leafed through the pages until he found his favorite part, the story of Candaules and Gyges. When he had finished reading it and Candaules had been killed and succeeded by Gyges, he had successfully willed himself to forget about Rilke, and about the secret and about the girl. Or so he thought. Thus he kept the secret. Thus the trouble began.

Ice fishing on Lake Willoughby, Sunday’s draft  

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So grandfather went out again in the morning and – coming back in from the cold -declared grimly that they should try and get some sleep

 as the ice was sound enough now, and they would go ice-fishing at nightfall and stay out in the bitter cold until almost midnight. Burbot mainly feed at night and that is when they had to set their lines.
Grandfather in the meantime put on single hooks with a gap between point and shank larger than ¾ of an inch. He stored them carefully in two 5 gallon buckets, each large enough to carry many sets of lines made from dowels. For each line they had about 8-ounce sinkers. Because together these were too heavy for the buckets, they were packed separately in rough hemp sacks. He packed two sleds with supplies, one for himself and Joe and one for Will who was old enough now to do his own fishing at a hole about 70 ft, away from theirs. He packed rope, ice picks and augers, a spud bar, two horse blankets for each of them and extra mittens.

As fishing burbot is done with hooks flat on the ground so they did not walk too far from the shore because the reef at the shore of the lake, as you know, falls off steeply into the main lake basin, deeper than any line is long that has ever been cast down the lake. 300 ft. maybe more. Nobody knows what creatures might be living down there, in the abyss of darkness but I guess they would not be a welcome sight in our world.

Burbot spawn on the rocks and boulders in 2 to 20 feet of water, and that is fairly close to shore, on the reef and the first drop-off at the base of the reef. But staying close to the shore was dangerous, as the edges of the ice can be much thinner and shallow water in general changes temperature more readily and the ice is unstable. And even when the ice had formed to grandfather’s satisfaction, we were aware that sometimes, not too often, the ice somewhere out on the lake from the depth of the basin, could shatter with the sound of a whip or a scream and rip through the ice all the way to shore with deadly speed. If you heard the whip you were to make for shore, leave everything behind, not care for catch nor supplies, just run. That’s why you would never put a good knife down on the ice, while fishing, and why you kept the ice pick in your belt as well. These things were hard to come by – alas not as hard as two healthy sons. So even if, by any chance, you had left your tools where you were not to leave them, you were still expected to run.

It was dangerous to go out there, and both, grandfather and grandmother, were weary to let Joe and Will join in, but they needed the extra hands to make enough catch or else they would starve to death.

Will and Joe did not mind the danger, far from it, they could not wait to get out onto the ice. They were boys, locked in a cabin for many weeks, safe some small outings, and they were missing summer and their freedom. They even enjoyed the idea of danger as much as any boy would, and they trusted above all that grandfather, who could walk on ice as fine as a sheet of parchment, knew when the right time had come for them to go out.

And the adults in their own way also were impatient and found it hard to wait for the ice to get sound enough, for the best time to catch burbot is their spawning season, a time when there was not only burbot but also plenty of whitefish and pike to be caught, while after the season passed the lake could look like a desert and you wouldn’t spot another burbot until next winter for they lived in the depth.

The lake had glazed over and the ice had hardened and grown without any snow, making the safest ice you could hope for.

And the most beautiful, too, though it does get very dark at night at your fishing hole, the ice becomes like a window into the lake. And if you are patient , just before nightfall, and despite the cold hold your position on the ice without moving, you can watch the burbot trough the ice as about a dozen males and females form a writhing ball several feet in diameter and dance what looks like an agonizing devil’s dance under water, rolling over the bottom of the shallows and muddying the waters under the black ice. 

Don’t forget, they are creatures of the deep. They have sharp teeth and they are mighty strong predators, skimming the shallows for crayfish, perch, minnows and even creatures almost their own size when it’s time to feed. Fearless they are. And they will fight back when they have fallen prey to your bait and hooks.

Ice fishing in Lake Willoughby, about 1790, new chapter, excerpt

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Aunt Melissy and Uncle Joe Hyde, Westmore, Lake Willoughby


“As you know the town was chartered by the authority of the State, Aug. 17th in the year of the Lord over 150 years ago.” I said, imitating Uncle Joe’s voice. Fiona smiled a bit. Encouraged, I continued:” It was then granted to Capt. Uriah Seymour, Abraham Sedgwick and their associates, being 65 persons in all, with the usual reservations and appropriations in the Charters or the grants by the Legislature. None of the original grantees or proprietors ever settled on their lands.”
All of Unce Joe’s stories started like a history lesson. Maybe to put Aunt Melissy’s suspicion over too wild a tale to rest only to sneak it in later. If Fiona was bored by the beginning, she did not let on. The patches on her dress now were of a saturated blue and orange, shining.
“There is no record of the exact time, nor by whom the first settlement was made.. But we do know that some six or seven families finally came to this town from Windsor and Orange Counties and made a settlement, among whom were Jabesh Hunter, Allen Wait, James Lyon, Jeremeel Cummings, Lot F. Woodruff, Dave Porter, Abel Bugbee and my grandfather, Joseph W. Hyde. The town had not been allotted at this time and they settled on such lands as best suited them, and others came too and made a beginning.”

Fiona listened contentedly. Stories were rare in our every day lives and even though I could by far not do it as well as Uncle Joe Hyde, who would pause artfully now and then, and whose blue eyes delighted in the fact that he had someone listening to his old stories gave it a special mellow flavor.

“But soon the cold season came and the Great War broke out between the Colonies and England. The settlers were surrounded by a howling wilderness a long distance from any other settlement, their numbers were few and not all were of kind disposition for you had to be rough at heart to survive on the land even though the soil is rich and productive and well suited to farming. The settlers were a hardy and industrious band of pioneers; like my grandfather they had come a long way into the wilderness, some single men on their own, some had made the way with young families. Each of them knew loss, especially loss of wee ones who passed on into the peace of the Lord before their first birthdays and left young wives sad and dreary. 
Their labors on the land were not ordered and peaceful like today, but it was onerous work, with no time for rest, not even on the day of the Lord, their privations were many, but the hope of better times coming and faith in their Lord cheered them on and enabled them to endure the hardships until the War came. Some had even build commodious barns and comfortable dwellings but though all of their hearts were fierce and brave, most were still forced to abandon their homes not yet into the second generation and retreat. Their numbers were scattering, the frost destroyed their crops and the fear of the British and of hostile Indian tribes filled their hearts with fear. So they held a council to see what it was best to do in their perilous situation, and most families decided to surrender at discretion and most left very soon for some of the lower and more thickly settled towns in the State.”

Fiona embraced her legs and listened to me intently. I had given up imitating Uncle Joe but was still using his words. My history teacher in Summerville would have been fascinated as I spoke like a gazette from the early 19th century.
“It took over 30 years until the town was settled again. But my grandfather was among the few and scattered who stayed on, all these years. So did my grandmother who was a small, fearless woman and could hold her own among the men, and she worked like one, too. So my father was born, and was the only surviving child among 12 children who all perished before their 15th birthday. The family lived in a wee wooden cottage for all of the married life of the parents, sometimes with up to four or five children, from cradle to grave, right here on the old clearing where my father later built the stone house. Maybe it was because the cabin was so tiny and surrounded by dense woods, maybe it was because they respected the land they lived, didon very little farming, really just working a small garden patch, and made their living mostly on hunting and fishing, that the enemy overlooked them, and also the tribes who roamed the hills let them be, maybe they were just too insignificant to be noticed, and so they did survive the wild days and years when they had no company but each other.

My grandfather taught my father all there was to know about the lake and he knew as much about fishing and hunting as any Indian. They lived well enough on trout, rainbow smelt, burbot, yellow perch, longnose sucker, lake chub, common shiner and whitefish.

My grandfather took my father and his older brother Will out ice-fishing in winter. They mainly fished for burbot, a fish rich in cod-liver oil which my grandmother extracted and made the children swallow measured out by the spoonfull each morning. It left an ill, fishy taste crawling up from the stomach all day long, but she would not let them leave the house without it. You know, the liver of the burbot is huge. I was told my grandfather would cut it out of the fresh kill and eat it raw, but my father and his brother refused.

When Will died, last of all the brothers and sisters, just shy of his fifteenth birthday, my father became fearless. He said, Will had been his only friend, all others had died too young or had been too sick or had been girls and not fit for the rough hunting and fishing trips my grandfather took my father and Will along on. There had been babies who died before they ever learned to walk and talk, a sister – Abbe – who was funny and quick-witted and who had lived almost nine years and was still missed, but it had always been Joe and Will and they had taken each other’s company for granted even when all the others left them, some not leaving behind more than a shadow. Even when Abbe had taken sick with a high fever and passed on after having been delirious for two days and nights and then unconscious for another day before she faded at nightfall of the third night it had still been the two of them who brought Abbe flowers in summer and put them on her grave as they remembered that she had loved them, still the two of them who did not contract the fever and had lived once again.

Will had been his best and only friend, they had been thick as thieves and one knew what the other was thinking without ever saying it out loud. They shared a bed all their lives and woke up the same minute every morning, Over time they had grown sure that it was this bond that protected both of them from harm – and they had been their parents’ pride because bringing up two healthy, strong boys out 12 children was still an accomplishment in the wilderness by the lake.

Both loved fishing with their father, but ice-fishing they loved best of all. It took a while until the lake froze over in winter because it is so deep, and my grandfather went out every day to test if it was safe to walk on the ice after the frost had come to stay and the ice slowly glazed over. They knew that fresh burbot with its brown and green mottled skin was waiting for them under the ice, deep down, and as they were subsiding on dried fish and meats they could not wait for the fresh catch even if it meant fresh cod liver oil. They say, said Uncle Joe Hyde, that burbot tastes a lot like lobster and they call it the “poor man’s lobster” and, by the good Lord, (here Aunt Melissy would cast him a stern glance) I have never tasted lobster in my live but there is no fish as delicious as freshly fried burbot.

Note: This chapter is based on a historical article in the Vermont Historical Gazetteer, edited by Abby Maria Hennenway. Orleans County – Westmore Chapter: By Calvin Gibson and Alpha Allyn. Published by Claremont Manufacturing Co., 1877, pgs. 365 -373.

Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht, dann bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht

ImageIch erinnere. Ich träume. Ich erinnere. In einer fernen Stadt, einem fernen Kontinent träumte ich von einem längst verblühten Garten in Deutschland. “Die Veilchen nickten sanft, es war ein Traum.” Und von dem Gärtner, der diesen Garten mit Bauernhänden bewirtschaftete wie ein Feld.

Ich erinnere. Seine Hände, muskulöse, braun gefleckte Altershände, die Form dieser Hände, ihre erdschwere Stofflichkeit, ihren festen Griff, dem meine eigenen Hände kaum Kraft entgegenzusetzen haben. Ich erinnere eine unbeholfene, steife Umarmung, seine gedrungene Gestalt unter rauem Tweed, den von Zweifeln unberührten Klang seiner Stimme. Und einen Garten, seinen Garten.

Von Zeit zu Zeit träume ich von diesem Garten, in dem mein Bewusstsein sich entfaltet hatte wie fadiges Unkraut, träume von sauber geharkten Kieswegen, dem blank gescheuertem Betonboden der Terrasse, auf dem Ameisen in der Mittagsonne militärische Exerzitien halten, träume von der gnadenlosen Ordnung, die mein Großvater der Fülle des Sommers Jahr um Jahr abtrotzte, träume von mit Paketschnur abgesteckten Beeten, in denen er Gemüse und Blumen in geometrischer Ausrichtung hielt, sich Tag für Tag mit muskulösem Rundrücken hinabbeugend, um jedes zarte Blättchen keimenden Unkrauts unfehlbar auszureißen, sehe in Form gestochene Rasenflächen, kurz rasiert wie die Köpfe von Rekruten, giftgrüne Nylonnetze über Apfel-, Birnen-, Pflaumen- und Kirschbäumen, Stachel- und Johannisbeerbüschen, Erdbeerreihen und Himbeerranken.

Höre die genussvolle Litanei botanischer Ordnungsbegriffe, assoziiert mit flüchtigen Bildern. Solanum tuberosum, die Kartoffel, vier zartspinstige, weiße Blütenblätter, violettgesprenkelt wie die Triebe der gelagerten Knolle; Brassica oleracea var. capitata, der Weißkohl, im Wind tanzende, gelbe Bechersterne; Daucus carota, die Möhre, schäumend wie die Gischt der Schafgarbe in den Sommerwiesen; Cucumis sativus, die Gurke, sechsblättrig geteilter, weißer Schleier über fruchtig grünem Grund.

Bete ihm lautlos nach, dass Apfel (Malus communis pumila) Birne (Pyrus), Pflaume oder Zwetschke (Prunus domestica), Aprikose (Prunus armeniaca), die im nördlichen Klima nicht gedeihen wollte, Kirsche (Prunus avium), Erdbeere (Fragaria ananassa), Himbeere (Rubus idäus) und Brombeere (Rubus) allesamt Rosengewächse (rosaceä) seien.

Zierrosen, in Reih und Glied entlang des Rasens gepflanzt, liebte er als Sinnbild dieser üppigen und doch kultivierten Fruchtbarkeit, während er die Blumenbeete im Übrigen der Pflege meiner Großmutter anempfahl, der Blumengarten – Frauensache, nur hier und dort eine Korrektur, eine Rüge, ein schneller Schnitt.

Mit seinen Rosen sprach er, schmeichelte und schimpfte, streifte Maden einzeln von ihren Blättern und ertränkte sie in einem Eimer Laugenwasser. Drohte Frost, hüllte er jeden Rosenstrauch vorsichtig, bedacht, keinen Trieb, keine späte Knospe zu knicken, in Sackleinen, schüttete Torf und Schredderspäne an, kontrollierte jeden Morgen sorgenvoll, ob sie die Nacht gut überstanden hätten. Sein äußerstes an Zärtlichkeit gegenüber einem Geschöpf.

Mit annähernd religiöser Ehrfurcht war er seinen Rosen verbunden, das war selbst für ein Kind ersichtlich. Und doch war seine Liebe nicht von einfacher, tröstender Art, war sie nicht großmütig und mild, sondern streng, nicht annehmend, sondern fordernd. Niemals war es einer Rose erlaubt, in den Sträuchern zu überblühen, Rosenblätter, die sich aus den Blüten gelöst hatten, las mein Großvater täglich einzeln aus den Beeten. Aber auch Blüten, die nicht die gewünschte Größe erreichten, die den Augen meines Großvaters in irgendeiner Weise makelhaft erschienen, sei es durch fehlende Symmetrie, ein welkes Blütenblatt, unerwünschte Färbung, wurden abgeschnitten. Die welken Rosen, Rosenblätter und Zweige mischte er in einen gesonderten Komposthaufen, gemeinsam mit Apfelschalen und anderen Obstabfällen aus der Küche meiner Großmutter sowie dem Herbstlaub der Obstbäume. Die nährstoffreiche Erde, die er so produzierte, wurde im Frühjahr wieder in die Rosenbeete verteilt.

Was mein Großvater anstrebte, war nichts Geringeres als Perfektion. Er nannte es auch “Reinheit”. Seine Rosen glichen den Abbildungen in den Gartenkatalogen, in denen er im Winter blätterte. Ich besitze eine alte Fotographie aus den siebziger Jahren, in nunmehr vergilbten Kodakfarben, auf der eine einzelne Rose zu sehen ist, die in ihrer formalen Symmetrie beinahe unwirklich scheint. Die sommerliche Wildheit von Heckenrosen oder die lieblichen Zerstreutheit einer Bauernrose sprachen nicht zu meinem Großvater. Schönheit war für ihn gleichbedeutend mit Ordnung, alles musste von Ordnung durchdrungen sein, einer unbarmherzigen, unabwendbaren Ordnung, die es aufzudecken oder herzustellen galt. Seine Ordnung. Seine Ordnung. Ein unaufhörliches Mahlwerk.

Das Möbiusband

K fährt vorsichtig mit der Spitze ihres Zeigefingers an der goldenen Schlinge entlang. Der Anhänger ist das kunstvolle Modell eines Möbiusbandes, ein mathematisches Fingerspiel. Ihr Großvater, Nicolai Rieper, hatte es für seine Frau anfertigen lassen, lange vor Ks Geburt. Es … Continue reading

Die Radbruchsche Formel und Restitutionsansprüche

Notiz: Radbruch zum gesetzlichen Unrecht und der Natur übergesetzlichen Rechts. Nach der sogenannten Radbruch’schen Formel entschied das BVerfG 1968,  dass die Akte der Vermögenseinziehung unter den Nationalsozialisten nicht isoliert, sondern nur in ihrem Kontext der Vernichtung von Menschen zu bewerten seien und der BGH, dass diese Akte “niemals Recht, sondern von Anfang an das Gegenteil, nämlich krasses Unrecht waren.” Allerdings legte der BGH zugleich dar, dass die alliierten Rückerstattungsgesetze – auch wenn sie faktisch einen weiten Ausschluss konkreter Rückgabebegehren bewirkten, rechtmäßig waren – da sie die wieder  herzustellende Rechtssicherheit als eines hohen Gutes des Rechtsstaates zu schaffen geeignet gewesen seien. Die Frage bleibt bis heute: wenn das Unrecht so krass (Wortlaut der Entscheidung) war, dass die Unerträglichkeitsklausel Radbruchs zur Anwendung kommen konnte (und daran besteht kein Zweifel), wie anders als durch vollständige Wiedergutmachung konnte ihm auch in rechtlich hinreichender Weise geantwortet werden?

Und weiter: der Rechtsfrieden, der derart wieder hergestellt wurde, war nicht der Rechtsfrieden derjenigen, die ihres Lebens, ihrer Lebenswerke und ihres Vermögens beraubt wurden. Wie die Erben Max Sterns es formulieren: Rechtsfrieden auf Seiten der Opfer des nationalsozialistischen Regimes kann erst mit Befriedung der Ansprüche durch Restitution geschehen.

Sehen wir in die Passage des BGH, mit welcher im Jahr 1953 der Rechtsfrieden der jungen Bundesrepublik mit den Folgen einer umfassenden Aufarbeitung und Restitution aufgewogen wird, so bleibt der Eindruck einer gewissen Hast. Hier heißt es in einer für eine BHG Entscheidung recht nachlässigen Sprache (siehe: “Rechtswirrwarr”): “Dadurch, dass der nationalsozialistische Staat in der Lage gewesen war, seine Akte des Unrechts viele Jahre mit allen ihm zur Verfügung stehenden Machtmitteln durchzusetzen, waren deren Auswirkungen auf allen Lebensgebieten so weittragend und tiefgreifend, dass nur ein neuer Rechtswirrwarr entstanden wäre, wenn die Rechtsordnung über die nun einmal entstandene Tatsachen einfach durch Nichtbeachtung hinweggegangen wäre. Die Entwirrung des durch jene Unrechtsakte geschaffenen Chaos konnte vielmehr nur durch eine besondere gesetzliche Regelung vorgenommen werden.”  BGHZ 9,34 (44 f.) = NJW 1953, 542

“Weittragend und tiefgreifend” war in der Tat die Aufgabe, die sich der jungen Bundesrepublik in der Aufarbeitung seiner jüngsten Vergangenheit stellte und welcher sie jedenfalls in den fünfziger Jahren nach wohl inzwischen einhelliger Auffassung nicht nachkam. Zu stark war der Wiedereinzug von unter dem Nationalsozialisten tätigen Funktionären in die Ämter der jungen Bundesrepublik. Bequemlichkeit, Wiederaufbaueuphorie, eine fehlende Auswahl alternativer, fachlich kompetenter Anwärter (weil diese ermordet oder vertrieben worden waren) – dies sind die nachsichtigsten Erklärungen der Dynamik jener Zeit. “Weittragend und tiefgreifend” – wie im Grundsatz vom BGH erkannt – wäre das Maß für ein hinreichendes Gesetz gewesen, die aus dem Unrecht resultierenden Vermögensverluste zu restituieren. Wenn das Unrecht derart krass ist, dass die Radbruchsche Formel der Unerträglichkeit zum Tragen kommt, so bleibt das erlittene Unrecht als unerträglich im Sinne Radbruchs bestehen, wenn ihm keine ausgleichendes oder doch wenigstens ausgleichende Gerechtigkeit anstrebendes Recht zur Seite gestellt wird.

Ein Gesetz, dass dies nicht bewirken kann, so bleibt zu argumentieren, hat auch nicht die Kraft das “krasse Unrecht” zu befrieden.

Der Fall Eichmann: Strafrechtliche Verantwortlichkeit für staatlich legitimiertes Handeln

Der Fall Eichmann: Strafrechtliche Verantwortlichkeit für staatlich legitimiertes Handeln.

In der letzten Wochenende-Ausgabe der “taz” (vom 15.03.14) erschien ein Interview zum Thema Restitution von beschlagnahmter Kunst während des Terrorregimes der Nationalsozialisten in Deutschland, das auf zwei langen, anregenden Gesprächen mit der taz-Redakteurin Petra Schellen beruhte, die mir Gelegenheit gab, zu diesem Themenkreis umfassend Stellung zu nehmen. In diesem Interview ist unter anderem in den biografischen Hinweisen von diesem Buch “Nachtwachen” die Sprache, auf das ich seither mehrmals angesprochen wurde. Auf der hier verlinkten Webseite “nachtwachenroman.com” finden sich für den Interessierten Ausschnitte aus dem Roman. Vielen Dank für das Interesse!

loopholes and the art of legislation

When we arrived at the cottage we were basically frozen. Courtesy demanded to offer someone who came to the cottage door a cup of tea – but I would have offered it regardless of etiquette because the girl was in … Continue reading

Die Strafprozessordnung als Mittel zur Restitution von NS-Raubkunst?

Jenen, die mir im Zusammenhang mit meinem kurzen dpa-Interview zu der von den von Herrn Cornelius Gurlitt beauftragten Rechtsanwälte eingelegten Beschwerde gegen die Beschlagnahme der Bilder aus der Schwabinger Wohnung, geschrieben haben:

Vielen Dank, dass Sie sich die Zeit genommen haben, Ihre Meinung zu dem Vorgehen der Ermittlungsbehörden im Fall Gurlitt zu artikulieren. In der Tat halte ich die Strafprozessordnung nicht für das geeignete Mittel, eine Restitution von NS-Raubkunst auf rechtsstaatlichem Wege zu erreichen. Wie Sie dem Artikel auch entnehmen konnten, plädiere ich hingegen dafür, dass wir den Erben der rechtmäßigen Eigentümer endlich durch entsprechende Gesetzgebung die rechtlichen Instrumentarien zur Restitution bereit stellen, um erlittenes Unrecht jedenfalls so weit wieder auszugleichen, wie das durch die Rückgabe der Bilder an die Erben geschehen kann.

Dass ich fordere, dass dies mit rechtsstaatlichen Mitteln zu geschehen habe, ist in meinen Augen eine demokratische Grundforderung, die ich gerade in Hinsicht auf die Erfahrungen unseres Landes während des NS-Regimes für unerlässlich halte.

Vielleicht können Sie selbst durch engagierte Meinungsbildung bei Ihren Vertretern im Bundestag dazu beitragen, dass ein Gesetz zur Restitution von NS-Raubkunst verabschiedet wird. Ich weiß aus meiner Arbeit mit Jugendlichen, dass auch unter jungen Menschen der Wunsch zu einem Ausgleich des maßlosen Unrechts, das jüdischen Mitbürgern während des NS- Regimes zugefügt wurde, weit verbreitet ist und nach wie vor viele Menschen eben gerade nicht der Meinung sind, dass “dies alles lang zurückliegt”.