Face to face

Issue 4/1989 | Archives online, Authors, Fiction, Prose

Daniel Katz interviewed by himself

I’m awaiting Daniel Katz surrounded by the wooden walls of his study, in what was formerly an old corn-shed.

‘For me,’ his wife confides, ‘he knocked together a study out of a stall in the cowshed.’ Then she withdraws to her cowpen, where she’s translating Bellman’s songs from Swedish.

Through the study window I can see a bit of eastern-Uusimaa forest, the village lane, and the corner of the family’s reddle-daubed peasant hut. A little distance away, like this, the boarding looks in better shape than it does close-up. The family dog, a Lapphund, is lying on the sofa and keeping a trained eye on me: with no reindeer to herd, he’ll make do with me.

I run my eye over the bookshelves: a course in Arabic, causerie by the Finnish humorist Origo, Kai Nieminen’s poems, the Bible, the Koran, Isaac Bashevis Singer, a publication of the Law Society: Crime Detection, a couple of overdue Loviisa library-books about irradiation of the earth…

Hanging from a nail on the wall is a touched-up photograph of a beautiful woman, dated 1924 in the bottom corner; almost next to it is an old picture of a young long-nosed, dark-complexioned man in a Burberry and a Stetson.

Between the two dangles a thermometer. I glance at another touched-up picture of the author on a book-jacket and find similarities, apart from the touching-up. In the corner there’s a rather nice battered old cupboard, which I recognise as from Dalecarlia in Sweden. The door’s ajar, and, somewhat impudently, I open it: it’s full of wine bottles, cheap stuff, but with a twelve-year-old Chivas bottle among them – still with a few dregs in. I struggle with myself, I’m just on the point of giving in, when Katz drives into the yard in his Polish car. The roof-rack is swaying with a precarious-looking stack of long boards.

‘Were you early, or was I late?’ he asks as we unload the boards from the roof­rack and cart them into the shed.

‘Bit of both,’ I say.

‘Needed to choose some proper board,’ he mutters. ‘For the eaves…’ Then he gives me a hopeful look. ‘Helluva tricky job getting them up on your own. I suppose you can’t…’

‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘I’m a bad case of vertigo.’

‘Me too,’ he sighs. ‘Ah well, let’s get some coffee on…’

‘Thanks, but I’ve had a cup already. Your wife…’

‘Common-law wife,’ he says. ‘She’s against it, the wife-business. I’ve been popping the question for twenty-odd years now: no good. Not the whole time, of course – but every now and then.’

‘Quite …’ I mutter. Katz gives me a sharp look:

‘Naturally she’s managed to tell you the whole shoot about me already?’

‘Oh no, by no means,’ I lie.

‘You, see, I’ve reason to believe that her conception of me is not entirely objective,’ he adds. ‘She thinks she knows me … ‘

‘But you’ll make her wail!’ slips out of me.

Katz is overjoyed. ‘You know Schweik too?’ he exclaims. I nod, shyly. ‘The Good Soldier Schweik – that’s my favourite book. That and Ilf and Petrov’s The Golden Calf.

‘That as well?’ I remark, for lack of anything better to say.

‘Yes, that, definitely that! It’s got everything: intelligence, feeling, taste – in a word, all that’s meant by the Hebrew word “ta’am”. If you want to know what got me started as a writer, who got me going, I’ll tell you right out: Schweik and The Great Collective-Combine Farmer Ostap Bender. They gave me the nerve. Don’t ask me how or why. That’s just the way it was …’ Katz looks quite moved. ‘Then, dammit, I lent that Calf to someone – can’t remember who – and the tyke never returned it. Still feel deprived without it. You haven’t got a copy, I suppose, that you could lend me…?’

‘Unfortunately –’ I respond quickly, ‘– unfortunately I’ve lent it to my auntie, eighty years old, and she reads incredibly slowly. My only hope’s to get it back as an inheritance.’

‘If you want reading for an old lady, you could do far worse than that,’ Katz said. ‘Die laughing, she will. Guess what my mother was reading on her deathbed. You’ll never guess. Joseph Heller’s Something Happened – in Swedish, of course. When Heller came to Finland – he was here with that charming nurse, who then became his wife – I told him that. He said how sorry he was that his book had taken my mother’s life. As the evening wore on he wanted to know whether his book had tickled her to death, or bored her to death. I said I’d no idea, but she’d certainly never laughed at any of my books. In fact she scarcely put her nose into them.’

‘Is that really the case, then?’ I asked. ‘I mean, can I write that?’

‘No, don’t write it,’ Katz advised. ‘It’s the truth.’

Katz went to the shed, poking around in vain, looking for his axe. He came to the conclusion that he’d left it in the forest. Like a flash, he was striding across the road and had disappeared into the thick of the forest. I set off, following his tracks along an animal trail, and scrambling up a slope through the pines. Katz came diving out of a gap through a clump of firs, took a look around and swore.

‘I know it’s here somewhere,’ he grouched. ‘Can’t find a thing here – so damn thick it is everywhere. You could shake off a bailiff here – he’d never winkle you out, spite of it only being a bit of a forest. I needed to do a bit of thinning out yesterday, but I got broken off in the middle. If I’d been able to finish the job, I’d be able to find the axe now as well.’

We ascended a path Indian file and arrived at a tiny plateau at the top of a hill. There we sat down on a mossy stone and had a smoke. Katz waved his hand vaguely at the forest. ‘It’s mine, this forest,’ he said, ‘– ours, mine and the bank’s. Not much of it, but still quite enough. I’ve never owned a thing in my life. It’s not the wood-supply I’m concerned about: no, this forest is inspiring. Scruffy, yes. When I was younger it’d never have come into my head that a forest’d mean so much to me. I did guess, once… I was living in Israel at the time. Head over heels in love – with a sublieutenant. I’ll never forget her. Her name was Chava… Chava Ullman. Or Ullstein… Lia Ullberg? She could fly, that girl: was in the air force. But she crashed my scooter into a ditch. I was on the pillion. We left it where it was and went into the forest. It was small – a mingy forest of Mediterranean pines: there’s nothing you could call a real forest in Israel. Undoubtedly what we had in mind was to get our hand in at a bit of loving slap and tickle under the shelter of that forest. So we wandered around looking up and down for a suitable hump. Then I saw a white stucco house down in a valley: functional, it looked like a miniature version of Vierumäki College of Physical Education near Lahti. That’s something I’ve always loathed, functionalism, it brings back the thirties and our own special brand of pseudo-fascism. That house too had the look of something stuffed with crew-cut low foreheads – civil guards with cold blue eyes and icily lofty ideals. And even so I was overcome by a ghastly homesickness. And all because I’d seen a forest and a civil-guard establishment! Nothing came of our little games. Shula left me for some captain or other. One or other of them’ll undoubtedly be a colonel by now, at the very least. I came back home, not so much through disappointment as because of an insuperable longing for a forest. Me! – born and bred in the city! Anyway, the forest was drawing me. Explain that if you can.’

‘Do you sit here often?’ I asked, taking in the splendid stand of pines that surrounded us.

‘No,’ Katz said. ‘But the common-law wife certainly does: she’s got a real lust to go berrying and mushrooming. Knows this forest like the back of her hand.’

Katz put his cigar out by carefully spitting on it till it was dead, and shrugged. ‘We all have our pleasures.’

We started to go back. ‘Let’s go straight ahead and take a short cut,’ he said. It wasn’t long before I realised we were lost.

‘We shouldn’t be here…’ Katz muttered.

From somewhere behind a depression came a strange wailing. We approached it, and we found the common-law wife crouching among some lingonberry shoots, cigarette in mouth, and crooning some Bellman songs.

‘You shouldn’t be here, should you?’ Katz pondered.

‘I’m working,’ she said. ‘Four lines done already. And half a cupful. Found an axe as well – it’s ours, isn’t it?’

Katz took the axe and scratched his head. For a moment or two we watched the smoking berry-picker’s nimble fingers at work, till she got fed up with our gawping and pointed eastwards.

‘If you go that way, keeping to the right of that rocky bit over there, you’ll come straight to the house or thereabouts.’

‘I know, I know,’ Katz bristled and started to clear a new short cut through a cluster of young spruce. He swung his axe dexterously as a Cuban sugar-cane worker’s machete, and in less than half an hour we’d reached the edge of the forest: we burst out onto the neighbour’s plot – right in front of the wide-eyed neighbour, who was raking up leaves in a blue-and­white tracksuit and iron-studded army-surplus boots. From the brisk Swedish­ language exchange that ensued between him and the equally astounded Katz I managed to pick up that they were discussing the question of identifying a drowned person, the problems involved in dating the drowning, and the employed.

‘Don’t forget the gag of froth in mouth and throat,’ the neighbour urged. ‘It’s an unmistakable sign of drowning.’

‘I’ll keep it in mind,’ Katz said. As we took the lane back to home, about a hundred yards away, I was just on the point of taking up the subject of the recent conversation again when Katz anticipated me: ‘He’s a policeman, you see – this neighbour of mine, Karlsson: a senior constable.’

‘Are you working on a detective story?’ I asked eagerly.

‘Not particularly; but knowledge never goes down the drain. And good neighbourship’s an excellent thing. Especially if the neighbour happens to be a policeman. Besides: talk – with a neighbour, for example – benefits your grasp of the living tongue.’

‘But you write in Finnish. How does talking Swedish advance your grasp of Finnish?’ I asked, somewhat perplexed.

‘Oh, in every way,’ he said. ‘It gets the old brain going – doesn’t matter what language you rattle on in, it’s all language. So I’d suppose, anyway. If the thought’s good and clear, then the words’ll find themselves, no matter what the language is… let’s take, for instance, the…’

He grew silent. I was still pondering over his assertion as we turned into his yard. Katz appeared to be doing the same, for as we went into his writing­shed he muttered: ‘”My words echo thus in your mind. But to what end, disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose leaves, I do not know.” What’s your view?’

‘Words can have some use, can’t they?’ I suggested. ‘Naturally, there are words and words… Some are serviceable – the colourful adjectives, for example, and numerals, the verbs “get” and “eat”… perhaps “bootmaker”?’

Katz brushed aside my suggestion with a wave of his hand: ‘Even at their best words are nothing but the pale shadows of thought. Bloody signifiers, or something or other. Would you like to hear what I think this writing business really amounts to? It’s like building a house with oval bricks. What does that mean? It means you use a hell of a lot of mortar, and you still don’t get much of a result.’

‘Mortar? Sort of between the words?’

‘Exactly,’ he moped. ‘You put one word on top of another, you steady them, you strengthen them a bit here, you weaken them a bit there. Trying to explain, straighten, justify. And then you’re supposed to get Thought out of them?! Feeling? Taste? Smell and colour? Sea? Forest? It’s different in music. A note’s a note, a chord’s a chord, a rest is a rest. From them you get melody and harmony and rhythm. And these contain woman and sunset… and cat.’

‘Cat?’

‘Cat, certainly. A tortoiseshell tabby she-cat. As a kid, I longed to be a musician. But I was too lazy to practice. So this is the result.’

Inside his hut, Katz forced me to listen to Prokofiev’s sonata for violin and piano, opus 134, from beginning to end.

‘Did you get my point?’ he then asked. I nodded cautiously.

Katz got out the last of the whisky, I got the tape recorder ready, and at last we were able to get started on the interview.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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