Notes for an unwritten autobiography

15 September 2011 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel William N. Päiväkirja (‘William N. Diary’, Otava, 2011). Interview by Soila Lehtonen

Paris, 15 November 1897

Constance probably bought this notebook for housekeeping purposes, but forgot it when she left, so I shall take it for my use, and I am not going to tear a single page, because the paper is of good quality and the covers are made of calico. When I write in a small hand there is plenty of room for the text, and when I write in Swedish Constance will not understand, if she chances to see the notebook. She has promised to visit once or twice a week and continue to bring food and do the cleaning (we cleared up the differences of opinion that were related to her departure), even though she has now moved and married a retired officer, having been my housekeeper for nearly 30 years. The laundry she has delegated to Madame L., who lives in this house, although that lady is intolerably nosy and talkative, and she has six smutty children. I have decided to write my autobiography, so that posterity shall receive a full and proper impression of my work. (Let Prof. Schwendener from Berlin and Dr Louis Pasteur be content with minor roles!) I shall not begin until tomorrow, for today I intend to study the specimens of South American lichens Prof. D. has sent if there is enough daylight.

18 November 1897

For my autobiography: I was born in Oulu in 1822. My parents were John Anders N., and my mother, Margareta Magdalena F. My father was a merchant who later lost everything and he had nine children. I began University in 1839 and in 1841 I became a Master of Arts in Helsinki. In 1847 I earned a doctorate in medicine and surgery. From 1857 to 1863 I was Professor of Botany at the University of Helsinki. I resigned my professorship in 1863 and moved permanently to Paris, though no position or means of livelihood was forthcoming.

19 November 1897

I am adding to my autobiography: The first part of the first part of my magnum opus Synopsis methodica Lichenium appeared in 1858 and the second part in 1860.(The second part of the whole book is incomplete and still in preparation; in addition, I want to make corrections to the first part.) In a letter to docent Norrlin written years ago I said that perhaps when I am dead I shall receive appreciation in Finland, too!

27 November 1897

In the morning I went out to buy bread and milk, as I do every day. Today is Saturday, and although it is November, the sun shone from a blue sky. A crop-headed little boy cried out to me: ‘Good morning, Doctor, good morning, Doctor.’ The neighbours on the block call me ‘Dr William’, but fortunately they do not ring the doorbell to get help for their illnesses, for I have not served as a doctor since the Franco-Prussian War when I had to work as an ambulance doctor and a field surgeon. I cannot even take care of my own illnesses. I bought a newspaper and a bottle of Burgundy, which to judge by its expensive price is probably not too bad. C. visited yesterday bringing Navarin of lamb? and thick vegetable soup, so I have food for several days, perhaps the whole of next week. We did not talk a great deal, but I suppose that he is satisfied with her life as an officer’s wife (at home she calls her husband her ‘old man’). It was a great shock and sorrow to C. when her son Charles died of tuberculosis, only 28 years old, and I also mourned. Many people thought that Charles was my son (an impossible idea), but Constance had her child at the age of 19, when she moved from Nancy to Paris 27 years ago. I intend to leave the dirty laundry for Madame L. outside my door, as I do not want that nosy old woman to take even a peek into my home. Her eyes gleam like those of a bird.

21 December 1897

Pro memoria: During my research I discovered as early as the mid-1860s that the air of Paris air was so bad that the lichens were disappearing. The only place where they could still be found was the Jardin du Luxembourg, as the pollution of the air was less there than elsewhere. In a study I published a year ago I was able to relate that lichens no longer grow on the trees of Paris at all.

9 March 1898

A gloomy, cold and foggy day, so contrary to my habits I sat in the café that is situated in a side street off the Quai d’Anjou and ordered hot chocolate with whipped cream, I had enough coins in my pocket, but the taste of the chocolate brought an unpleasant memory to my mind (to be excluded from the biography). In 1857 I walked along these same streets and decided to to kill myself. My brother Oskar put a bullet in his skull in St Petersburg, and it was said that he did so because of a woman, which in my view was extremely stupid. Uncle F. went mad, and one of my brothers did also, but my intention was due not to insanity, but to failures in life, and melancholy. I was penniless, I could not afford to eat every day, and my residence was a dark corner in the Latin Quarter, I did not know whether I would get the post in Helsinki or not I, and my magnum opus the Synopsis was not finished, nor had I made much progress with it because of lack of money and all kinds of difficulties. I had decided to leave my scientific papers to my brother Edvin and jump into the river. I stood on the Pont Marie one cold and windy day and froze, I had forgotten to put on my gloves and my hands were chapped as red and as raw as they were in my days as a doctor in the Helsinki lepers’ hospital, when I had to wash my hands constantly. I had a thin, threadbare scarf around my neck. On my left I saw the embankment of the Île Saint-Louis and the houses along it, in front of me far away the city’s skyline and the Notre Dame cathedral. I peered over the railings into the water, which flowed green and muddy, with slats of timber goodness knows what else floating on it. Suddenly I lost the will to jump, and went to a cafe to drink cocoa with the last of my money. A few days later I wrote to Elise about that I had intended to do, and after reading my letter my sister was so frightened that in her reply she threatened to take train and boat and come and rescue me, but I sent an express letter to tell her not to bother, that I was not going to jump into the cold and dirty Seine. Now I note: I shall not write my autobiography.

23 March 1898

I did not feel up to going to the park or the Jardin du Luxembourg, but walked along the side streets of Plaisance, which stank in the heat of sewage, horse dung, rotten vegetables, wet laundry and smoke. I smelt the stench of all life!

27 September 1898

Summa summarum: Thinking is a great deal harder than talking! I visited the Jardin library, and in the bay between the bookshelves was approached by a Danish woman who had heard that I was a Swedish scientist, but I put her right by informing her that I was Finnish, and answered her in French. The Danish lady was about sixty, quite tall, dark-haired and bespectacled, and she said she was a history teacher who dabbled in botany and chemistry, and was ‘extremely interested in the major achievements of natural science’ such as the theories of Darwin and Pasteur. She took a deep breath and asked if I was really the Professor N. who had devised the chemical method of identifying lichens, and said I was. Her French grated on the ears, but I did not begin to speak Swedish to her, and in nay case did not need many words, for despite the shortcomings of her linguistic skills the lady kept up her oration. From the achievements of science the amateurs of science attempt to distill a world view, which is precisely what reveals their amateurishness. I expect that swarms of similar people hover around the artists, since nowadays even the bourgeois want to refine their tastes, and they will not be content with sugary landscape paintings bought at Place Montmartre, even though this the kind of art they actually like. Years ago in a café I happened to seee how a lady’s face melted with delight and amazement like strawberry ice cream when she found herelf at a table next to a ‘well-known actor’, although this person had just slumped dead drunk with his head on the table. When I finally got rid of the lady my head was completely spinning, and even though she was not the worst sort, I reflected that women’s talk is a kind of leakage of the brain, in which particles of reason are mingled with the phlegm of frivolity.

24 November 1898

I had some business down by the Sorbonne, but as I walked through those quarters I remembered without regret the Hôtel Midi, where I lived during my first sojourn in Paris. I sat down at a café, for I had once again left my gloves at home, the weather was cold and damp, and I and was shivering badly. I ordered hot water and sugar and a drop of rum. At the other tables sat young men, probably students, in the discussion I made out many mentions of the words ‘our time’, and I understood that they were talking about literature, which ought to deal with ‘our time’. I do not know if they mean this year through which we are living now and the events of which we can read about in the newspapers (those events do not greatly interest me), or the whole decade, or the century. Although I do not know much of history, and still less of literature, I found their use of the concept amusing, as these young men would have waved their hands and demanded that history be served immediately at their tables. I could only hear a word or two of the discussion here and there, but soon their red-cheeked zeal began to infuriate me, because I amputated limbs torn and sewed up stomachs in Paris during the Franco-Prussian war, and there I had quite enough of history – the young men used to talk about the ‘the spirit of the age’ , indeed, that was all they kept talking about, fervently hoping that someone (an author, evidently) would tie up the ends of the threads with a satisfactory explanation of the causes and consequences. Outside it was raining and the wind had got up, tugging at the umbrellas and women’s skirts, and raising peaked waves on the surface of the Seine. The rum did not do me any good, because on the way home I fell into dejection as I thought about how my work and my days are sinking to the bottom mud of history.

26 November 1989

Solitude is not dispiriting or sad, but it is sometimes boring, and conclude that this is due to the company in which I am alone.

27 November 1898

Today a pharmacist, D. (there have been many pharmacists in the circle of my acquaintances!), invited me to dinner at his home on Sunday. I went with some reluctance, as the D.’s live in a street off the Avenue de Messina where I had to travel by omnibus, and what was more, Dr D. did not belong to the same botanically cultured group as, for example, the pharmacist Dr R., who at one time did much to help me (my relations with him have broken) – Dr D. is just an ordinary, successful, wealthy pill-pusher. I accepted the invitation none the less, because he assured me that there would be no other guests apart from myself, and that his family had an excellent cook. The dinner was indeed first-rate: Potage velouté aux champignons, Filets de poisson en soufflé, Bifteck sauté béarnaise, Pommes normande en belle vue, vegetables, cheeses, and so on, and good wines. When we rose from the dinner table I had to pay for my meal with some culture! The children’s nanny and Madame D. led into the drawing-room two little girls with curled hair and decked out with bow-ribbons, whom they planted in front of the grand piano to play duets, and after the first piece I applauded, but when they began to play a third I began to fret and wondered when it was going to be the little girls’ bedtime, which fortunately arrived at the end of the fourth. I do not know what error led the D.’s to imagine that I was a lover of music, but luckily I managed to catch the omnibus.

22 March 1899

Whence these strange desires: today I felt an inclination for tobacco when at the window I smelled someone smoking a pipe in the yard, yet I have never smoked, perhaps as an undergraduate I tried it, I cannot remember, but tobacco would not have been good for my bad lungs. The spring flowers in the tumbler have faded, but I cannot bring myself to throw them away. It is pleasant to sense the odour of leaves and grass wafting in through the slightly open window, but I do not have the strength for walking, only for writing my article.

25 March 1899

In the morning I went out to buy bread and milk, but when I returned I could barely climb the stairs, for I was short of breath, and I had to stop several times to lean against the wall, but when I had rested for a short while I felt better. I remembered that one spring and summer I had some frogs in a glass terrarium. They ‘sang’ nicely, but in the winter they died. In April I would be able to buy them again, but obviously I won’t manage to look after them. I had boeuf bourguignon for dinner, it was good, but so heavy that I felt a little nauseous. For the last few nights I have been warm enough with just my coat on top of me, but because of the cough I keep a woollen scarf around my chest.

26 March 1899, Sunday

In the morning I looked out of the window and saw the L. family walking to church, the children had been washed and combed, but there are so many of them that they fill an entire row of pews. I managed to go and look at the flower beds in the yard. There are lots of crocuses now, and they are of many colours! My neighbour Madame R. told me that our baker has won a competition (perhaps at a department store or in a newspaper), and his prize is a trip to Buenos Aires. I wonder what a baker will do in Buenos Aires; the wheel of fortune spins in curious ways. I am tired, and towards evening the cough is worse, but I have no fever.

27 March 1899

It has rained all day, but the air is warm (+17°C), and the rain is merely drizzle, so it will do the plants good.

28 March 1899

Are ‘they’ happier than me, is ‘happiness’ anything more than smug satiety? Perhaps my soul is reminiscent of a dried raisin, but I cannot hate myself, for I have no one else. Annoyingly the letter I had just written (to send to Brussels) got splashed with soup. The letter must be written again, I shall do it tomorrow, for I do not want to give the wrong impression of myself.

Translated by David McDuff


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