Das Leben ist Kurz
by Martin Mosebach
(Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2016)
In the United States Martin Mosebach, the liturgical essayist, is well known. Martin Mosebach, the novelist and writer, is far less known. After all, it was only two years ago that one of his novels, What Was Before, was translated into English for the first time. Mosebach has now published Life is Short: Twelve Bagatelles, a collection of his shorter and shortest fiction. If it were only translated, it would be for the American reader an ideal concentrated introduction to the style of Martin Mosebach.
Life is Short gathers previously published short works. In general, I would categorize them as “prose poems” rather than short stories. Rather than presenting a narrative or character, the miniatures in Life is Short describe an object, capture a mood or a moment – often in an indirect, indeterminate way. One thinks of such remote antecedents as Arthur Machen’s Ornaments in Jade (1897) or J-K Huysmans’ Drageoir aux Épices (1874). Mosebach’s style, however, if “poetic” in the use of sound and images, is more restrained and precise. And, as in Mosebach’s novels, here and there is satire and even comedy.
As to things, Life is Short offers numerous descriptions of objects as diverse as a bicycle, a pigeon egg or the wreckage of an (apparently) abandoned barber shop. Mosebach endows mere things with new significance, even (in the case of the bicycle) a life of their own. As William Carlos Williams put it:
“So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow….”
But has not this kind of imagery always been a particular excellence of the author? One remembers so well the sacred cow in Das Beben, or the descriptions of a nightingale and later of the cockatoo in Was Davor Geschah.
These “bagatelles” also capture fleeting, uncertain and sometimes deceptive moments of life such as a boy’s exhilarating bicycle ride downhill after a hard day at school or the glimpse of a mysterious stranger sitting in a train compartment by a rider standing on the platform. If life is short, even more brief are the few moments that allow us insight into in it.
Some of the pieces in Life is Short assume the form of a short story. A tale of an artist and her friend discussing the components of a still life unexpectedly turns unsettling, even menacing. A visit to a dying deserted French town climaxing in a mysterious late night conversation leaves the story’s narrator perplexed as to what he as seen or imagined.
Yes, life is short – but art is long. If you want to get to know Mosebach the artist, this is a good place to start. But what of Mosebach the Catholic advocate, the inspiring writer on the liturgy? In the following brief final section of “Vinusse: Eight Wine Labels and a Prologue,” the author does more explicitly present liturgical and theological themes in an anecdote that takes place in his own backyard, near Frankfurt. It’s a tale that also leaves us with a kind of commentary on the meaning of this little book.
The Wine of Sacrifice
The biretta of the monsignor hung from the hat rack in the foyer. Its glowing crimson pompom was the only sign of baroque pleasure in color in the severe scholar’s dwelling. The old theologian regarded not as old-fashioned ballast, but as extraordinarily meaningful, that, as is often the case in the Rheingau, a vineyard was attached to the rectory. In this way a gift, the purity of which he well knew, entered the gothic chalice with which he offered the sacrifice.
The walls of his study were covered up to the ceiling with brown rows of books. The complete edition of Migne’s church fathers, bound in black-waxed linen, was ready at hand. The afternoon sun created small foci of light in the wine glasses that stood before us.
“This wine is the best that wine can become” said the cleric. “Firne-wine. Once upon a time these wines were desired but today nobody understands anything about them. People believe they have gone bad. And indeed they taste totally different. In many of my Rieslings the Firne sets in just after six or eight years, with others only after twelve or fifteen. The wine grows darker and there develops a taste of fine Spanish snuff tobacco: a hint of turpentine, a breath of noble resin pervades the wine like a marriage, made only in the imagination, between wine and incense. Maybe the wine, impatient and desperate at having to wait for its use in the Sacrifice, undertakes itself an attempt at auto-transubstantiation.
He hadn’t joked, but nevertheless smiled.
“Wine, after all, has been meant for sacrifice from the beginning. When wine was offered in the room of the last supper in Jerusalem that was done not out of the inspiration of the moment but in conscious remembrance of the mysterious, almost prehistoric priest-king Melchizedek, who had likewise made an offering of bread and wine. The matter of a sacrifice is not at our disposal. It is very true: visible things are not the final reality, but a kind of writing, by aid of which the invisible appears. An alphabet has letters that cannot be switched. Like all heresies, the idea arose early on that other substances could replace wine. Around 200 A.D. there was a sect in the Near East – the Aquarians – that in the Christian sacrifice used water instead of wine. To his everlasting fame, St. Cyprian of Carthage put the Aquarians’ madness in its place. Although my Firne – wine is only twenty years old, the Firne endows it with an ancient character. Therefore, with it I greet Saint Cyprian and his struggle against godless anti-sensuousness.”