Autumn’s child

17 November 2011 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from Bo Carpelan’s novel Blad ur höstens arkiv. Tomas Skarfelts anteckningar (‘Leaves from autumn’s archive. The notes of Tomas Skarfelt’). Introduction by Clas Zilliacus

When I took my first walk here in Udda, along the road down to the end of the bay, my legs wanted to go left up to the forest, while I strove to walk straight ahead. It was an unsteadiness reminiscent of being slightly drunk. A slight vertigo I have already noticed before. Trees soughed through me and the water of the bay tasted almost like salt on my lips. All sorts of things try to pass straight through me nowadays. I am becoming a general store. The few people I know go there and choose, and I try to sell. Most of it is old memories with attendant dust. They are in no chronological order at all, and make involuntary, rapid leaps, like kangaroos. Even when I went to school they hopped around. They forced me to learn my lessons by heart. They continued to skip over me at university and added an extra complexity to my studies in general history: concentrate of reign lengths.

And if I followed my legs and gave not a damn about my dead straight road? Digressions from what was planned provided me later on with my best experiences, and coincidences were grains of gold. Improvisations were lucky throws, or disasters. Afterwards came the restrictions, the constructions, the architecture. Now only that squared-paper notebook remains with its pitfalls. The uncertainty is sometimes imperceptible, but is there: Am I not superfluous? Are not my legs somewhat irrational?

Entangled in such questions, as in a magpie’s nest or in Kafka’s Odradek, I go forward, a dry leaf among a large number of other dry leaves. I reach the empty beach and hear happy voices echoing far away: Finnish children in ‘swimming costumes’ and Swedish tourist children in ‘bathing trunks’. Come on! the Swedish ones shout to the Finnish, but no one comes on, only the autumn wind. Chaos lurks in treetops and above the waters.

I turned and quickly came back. Now my legs walk straight and in harmony with my I, as it is called nowadays.

I annotate myself.

A black spider or something similar crept hairily across the rag rug in the hallway. It gave me a thrill of horror. First I wanted to crush it under my foot. What if it should bite me through my sandals? After that came the thought of picking it up in kitchen roll. Then it approached its hiding place somewhere. It squinted upwards, stopped, cringed. I seized a dustpan and brush which luckily stood in a corner of the hallway, managed to sweep it up, and tossed it out on the lawn.

My house invaded by unknown creatures, insects, reptiles, sprawling bats, mysterious creepy-crawlies of the dark. Odradek with his absence, his laughter of autumn leaves, his immortal, mocking and poisonous daily life, a thread spool of incomprehensibility, without form, without meaning, immortal, small as a child, overshadowing my fear, homeless, for the most part mute. ‘Am I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children’s children? He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.’

Almost painful. Odradek’s muteness and survival, eternal as nuclear waste, gives me the sense of an ill-controlled rage in myself. A scratching sound from the old Persian rug under the living room table: Is it Odradek? The dust’s sharp dust-path from the window, sharp as a sword, shadows as signs – of what? A mysterious mass murderer in a dark gateway who beckons you? A shadow only. An old man clad in white who is glimpsed for a moment, on his way from the sauna to the hawthorn hedge, without leaving any blood-dripping traces? The attic stairs with their dark devil’s gorge that opened on what lacks time and space: emptiness. Odradek: death’s messenger. Out of nothing a dry laughter, like autumn leaves beneath the trampling foot. Have I left grandmother’s ball of wool up in the attic, with the knitting needles stuck into the red body?

What have I expected of the autumn? Serene beauty? Deepest insight: that life is in balance? That the best part of an author’s work is the one that contains nothing private? Do the black spider, sticky flies, fear, Odradek belong to the private?

I suffer from shortness of breath. I go out and walk aimlessly along muddy roads, past dark forests, they are not for me, not yet. I defend myself. The eye clings tightly to the detail, as though the detail could save me. But the soul sees.

The genius is characterised by his openness. Society’s rules do not apply. Mozart writes his coarsely jesting letters to Bäsle, turns a somersault in his inner being, gathers darkness into the greatest weightlessness, ignores court etiquette and established rules, creates without bothering about intentions and programmes: for him music is the breath of life and the foreboding of death. The melancholy, the insight into life’s brevity run through his music like a dark thread. The humiliations he must endure he answers with serene joy. Take the slow movements of his piano concertos: pure, often smiling sorrow. He makes use of everything, landscapes, journeys, insights, humiliations, successes, family life, penury, he gathers it all into something irrelevant: it is the music that guides him and shapes his destiny. He does not drag his ‘I’ into his creation, he rests on his wings in clear air. Down on the earth his heavy I walks about with gravy stains on his velvet jacket. Life is what it is: a mass of adiaphora. Something goes always at his side, yes, almost inside him: the world in all its richness. All the eyes that are trained on him, the hidden jealousy and the incomprehension, the coolness, the envy, he passes by, as if he were moving around a city he himself had built: houses, taverns, squares, wide landscapes, cathedrals. He does not expect anyone to be able to see that city; that is the secret of his loneliness: no one would believe him. It gives him sorrow. He brings it together with his joy. Major and minor: the same light, cruel world. The childishness he is accused of forms part of his maturity. He was born wise, aging, sad-hearted: courageous. He could eat too much of life, but life keeps him between its hands, meets his gaze: I am not the opposite of Death, I am his brother and confidant.

From my portable radio comes his music, his string quintet. Whatever is around me, walls, ceiling, furniture, the table with the paper and the pen, withdraws into insignificance: what he speaks of is the wonderful peace and the dark unease that pass through our lives like a stranger, in a sky-blue cloak. The tragic has its own clarity. We listen to his spiritualised, fervent sorrow: the shadow that follows us. The nameless in me becomes a way to the world, life, human striving: the universal. The spontaneity is a building built of light. All that polyphony! As though I travelled, flew over a radiant, constantly changing landscape. The pause, the lingering in Mozart’s music: the music really interprets silence more than anything else. Emotions? We, the listeners, can squander them. Time? It is the eternity of the moment. Spontaneity? It is that of the man of experience, the old man’s return to his childhood: true maturity.

There are autumn days that only want to be filled with music. If you want to emerge from your worn-out I, listen. There is a note of sorrow there that you cannot avoid. It is your treasure.

Autumn’s child already hears music during the summer as flashes of light in the waters of the womb. He listens with his head, that large head tilted towards the warmth, in the dimness, and the faint notes, like a mist almost, fill it with a vague, unknown longing, a darkness, almost.

Autumn’s child is born and lies so quietly, cries, perhaps, but soon falls silent, with large eyes sees the twilight that surrounds him like a blanket. He grows and listens to the wind that walks along the street with ever louder steps. Now the lamps are lit, swinging and swinging out there, and autumn’s child sits inside in a circle of light and knows that darkness is his confidant. No light is as strong as light in darkness. Autumn’s child knows that, it is his secret, which he himself does not always acknowledge. He is like a shadow with two forms, one from the light, the other from the darkness. Autumn’s child looks round: Was someone following, someone who stopped when the child stopped? Is there not a sense that something got lost when autumn’s child was born?

Autumn’s child sees how the wind tears at the trees and thinks: I knew it. And the clear water has a light, bitter taste. So he grows, autumn’s child, with autumnal gaze, and sees the light film of ice on the water, and hears how the cranes cry their longing and fly far away. Autumn’s child remains, leaves are torn from the trees, the rain falls. The gentle twilight trudges off along the muddy road that leads straight into the forest, where it vanishes.

Autumn’s people move like flickering candles among confiding gravestones, over green grass that still glistens, and already in gateways they see candles lit in the windows of others. They hesitate, then go into their lives with autumn eyes, those that follow the clouds and the living’s sorrow, the almost invisible, tender. But when the winter’s icy wind picks up, they know: It is the darkness that has infected the light, tempered it to a glorious triumph.

Autumn is my season. It came early, lingers for a long time, a whole life almost, until one morning it gives up and looks straight into the light.

The first snow fell in a great joy and gave the autumn darkness the airy, dizzying light that made the children turn their pale faces upwards: out of a nothingness fell, swept, swirled the flakes from the swaying cones of the streetlights and then settled quietly on the black asphalt, now we could scrape together the first snowballs, heavy and sodden. But here in Udda the snowfall came imperceptibly in the twilight and powdered the frostbitten grass with its dry chill.

All that then was expectancy and anticipated Christmas is now crystal-clear, brittle and enduring. No streetlights light up the darkness that presses in and now rests heavily on black water and the outstretched, claw-like branches of trees. The silence is great, the loneliness almost empty of feeling, the ground untouched. My early winter world accommodates itself to old age and says: I send you airy flakes through the darkness, merely as a reminder of what is to come; they will fall into your sleep, just as in your childhood, but tomorrow perhaps they will be gone. Signs only, winter signs! If you go out to the yard perhaps you will feel their wet chill on your lips. You turn, go back into the warmth. Rightly so. Soon enough the darkness will come, and the ice will settle, the year, the years will draw to a close. Like you.

It is a day like this. It is a weight that cannot be effaced. That weight is here, it descends on me like a dead body, pulls out my I, disembodied, a wisp of smoke, a whispering in the corners of the attic. I sit with Odradek, it is just a forgotten ball of wool with two knitting needles stuck in it, no little bat faces, death’s heads, I watch the light that falls like an ironing board from the broken gable window, but the tree behind it there has died its winter death and cannot stretch its arms inside and seize me. The emptiness in me spreads out like the finest dust in the air that settled in layers behind old objects; I am one of them.

It is a room like this. It is a weight that belongs to the mortal body, the skin, the arms, the stumbling legs, the sluggish eyes, the hands that hang like gloves: an empty day. It weighs me to the earth, down into the earth, down into the fire, wants to take me over, annul my I.

It is a struggle like this, invisible, as though in every hour, in every room, in every moment I forced myself to return, from the emptiness, the exhaustion, to return, get up, take the decisive steps away from the ball of wool, the bats, the attic. I push open the door to the darkness of the stairway where time beat me timeless. Vertigo grips me. I must sit down inside my fear, feel how a sense of calm from somewhere gives me back my eyes. Here is the hall, here the kitchen, here my work table, here my text, it is my text, it says to me: Go out to the yard, breathe in, see how far November has come, has it stepped into you, have you no season of your own? All of them? Do you see in autumn spring’s arrival? The smell of earth, of approaching ice.

Strange, all beauty.

Translated by David McDuff



  1. Piri

    I wish the whole book was translated into English… or would be translated soon :)

  2. Pike

    I was intensively reading the finnish translation of this book, when my dutch husband asked me : is it a good book ? NO, I answered, it’s far BETTER !
    I am very grateful for this piece of english translation to be able to show the author’s style of telling that moved me so much.

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