I remember the first time I picked up a novella called “Unhappiness” by the still unknown author Frank Keane. I had envisioned an 80-year-old, at the end of his life, writing about his regrets and inner turmoil, and yet I was surprised to find that the man behind the words was only 33 years old at the time of writing it and 35 by the time I found it. It was only about 10.000 words or so but the language haunting, poetic and beautiful, sometimes erratic and difficult to grasp, but moved me in a way I had not yet experienced.
This, ironically, is pretty much how I’d describe who he was.
After a fair amount of research I found his address and sent him a brief letter, stating that I found his novella and would very much like to translate it for a German audience. That I hoped I would somehow do the piece justice by mirroring his use of words. It didn’t take long before I had an answer back where he asked for a meeting to discuss the matter further.
I showed up early, but he was even earlier. The café he had chosen was virtually empty at 2pm on a Wednesday, so it wasn’t difficult for me to find him. He was of slender build, about 6 ft tall with handsome features and thick, dark hair combed back, holding a cup of tea between his hands, staring into it like he was looking for the meaning of life.
As soon he became aware of my presence and looked up, I couldn’t help but notice his his large, luminous, intense, steely blue eyes with a hint of grey. He stood up and offered a handshake and a vague smile before asking if I wanted something to drink. When I confirmed that a hot tea would be nice, he merely looked over to the elderly man behind the bar and this alone seemed to be enough to get his attention. A minute or so later, a cup of hot water and a selection of teas arrived in front of me.
‘I come here relatively often,’ he offered before I had a chance to ask, and leaned back in his chair, cocking his head somewhat, in a very obvious attempt to give me the once over. ‘Thank you for coming at such short notice. I wasn’t sure if my request would arrive in time,’ he added, referring to the letter I had received the same morning that requested a meeting that afternoon. It was pure luck that it got to me in time.
‘Thank you for getting back to me.’
‘You’re much younger than I had envisioned, taking your profession and command of language into consideration. What’s your story?’
‘I’m more interested in hearing about you,’ I said, trying to diverge attention from me to him who was, in my mind, a much more intriguing character.
‘You are clearly a journalist through and through, taught to focus on anyone but yourself, but I’m passing the ball back to you once more. I can play this game all day, but I can tell you now that I will refuse to talk about me until I learn about you. Who are you, Marlena Jacobs?’
Being 23 years old at the time, I had no idea how to answer that question. When I started giving a, clearly, dissatisfying answer about my likes and dislikes, he stopped me.
‘That’s not what I meant,’ he said mildly. ‘I mean, who are you… inside?’
I started getting uncomfortable, for I wasn’t used to being taken apart within five minutes of meeting someone. Growing up in England with an English mother and a German father meant that “how you feel” wasn’t exactly among the daily topics of conversation. My mother died when I was sixteen and my father moved back to Germany as soon as I got married to Earnest, to work in his brother’s dental surgery – that had been passed down by their father.
‘I feel like an orphan,’ I started and he leaned forward, suddenly interested. ‘My father is alive, but we are estranged. I’ve made decisions based on his disapproval, both to feed it and prevent it. I’m not alone in the world but spend a significant amount of time feeling like I am.’
‘I can relate,’ he said with a sight. ‘My relationship with my father is the most prominent reason for most of my decisions in life. I have written him yards upon yards of letters, trying to make him understand me, to no avail. Sometimes I think he keeps up his disdain just to spite me, even when he may actually not feel that way.’
It had only been about ten minutes since we met.
‘I make you feel uncomfortable,’ he stated and looked me dead in the eyes, the colour had seemingly changed from the aforementioned blue-grey to a darker, velvety brown. If it was the light, I couldn’t be sure, but there was definitely a change. ‘I apologise,’ he added after a relatively long silence.
‘About the novella,’ I said to change the subject. ‘It really resonates with me.’
‘After I’d read it a second time it became clear to me that the three characters represent the three parts of the human psyche; The uncontrollable urges of the unconscious, the social façade of the ego and the observant gaze of the superego. It’s basically a tale of psychological self-destruction.’
He sat back in his chair, his facial expression showed he was slightly stunned, like he hadn’t expected me to get it. Then his features softened, the hints of a smile appeared in the corner of his mouth and he nodded in approval.
‘It should be read,’ I said. ‘The depth of emotion and despair, coupled with the profound symbolism of both, should appeal to the highly educated and thinking part of the German population. This is why I would like to translate it, if you would let me.’
‘I would very much like that,’ he said and offered up another handshake to seal the deal. ‘You intrigue me, Marlena Jacobs. I have a feeling this partnership will be most fruitful.’
Within half an hour we parted ways and I gave him my card with my phone number and e-mail address. He took it without a word, kept his distance and only touched my shoulder before turning on his heel and walking off without turning back, thus marking the end of our first and defining meeting.