There are still some people whose life has been changed by a book.
Gunther knew two men who suffered from Nabokov’s Lolita.
One lived his life according to the book, while the other only wanted to.
He also knew an intelligent woman who, when she was asked what type of man she preferred, always answered “like Sherlock Holmes.” When asked “Which one?” she would answer “Any one.”
Gunther knew that in Russia there were people who tried to live according to Dostoyevksy. Things always turned out very badly for them.
Why is it that if you live your life according to the best works of the best writers things always turn out the worst?
A keen observer of life, Gunther was convinced that not only the acknowledged masterpieces, but also obscure works can influence one’s life.
Sometimes, even a book cover can have an effect.
The story begins when Gunther found himself in a hospital as a result of a systemic incident.
The murky diagnosis was unpleasant and involved the end of his life. Gunther lay facing the wall, ignored the nurses’ intimate glances, and waited for yet another test.
His first neighbor in the double occupancy hospital room prayed out loud. The prayers frightened other patients walking in the hall, so after a few days, he was moved elsewhere.
The second neighbor was quiet and read constantly. Gunther almost felt sympathy for him.
- You write books? – the Reader asked after he heard Gunther’s surname mentioned during a routine doctor’s visit.
- Yes – said Gunther.
The question irritated him. Questions about writing always irritated him. He always just wanted to pick up the nearest object and…
And each time, Gunther hesitated because he knew that in these days no one wrote anything of quality in jail.
- You wrote just those three, or more? – the Reader asked.
- Just the three.
Gunther was already forty-five years old.
By that age, other writers manage to write six or seven books, and the younger classic writers manage to die.
Gunther didn’t like this thought.
The doctors said that they would need money to extend the boundaries of his life.
Gunther had enough money to live by, but not enough to save his life.
- What do the doctors say? – asked the Reader.
- Nothing good.
- That’s very interesting – replied the Reader. – I’m Walter Schultz.
The following day, Gunther was discharged. To wait for something or to find some money.
Gunther, lying in the hospital bed, drenched in sweat, knew he would find no money.
The reader Water Schultz was discharged on the same day.
Walter Schultz asked Gunther for his telephone number. Gunther hesitated, but it would have been awkward to refuse.
Walter Schultz promised to call.
Readers never called Gunther: his books were read by intellectuals.
Walter Schultz telephoned. Thirty days later, when, having taken account of his own means, Gunther realized that he did not even have enough money to live by.
The Reader said: I have a financial proposal for you.
Gunther had no trouble finding Walter Schultz’s apartment.
In a prestigious red light district. Near the station.
Someone had decided to paint a 19th century home bright pink.
The living, breathing gems of the red light district were visible through the windows of the flat.
An informed observer could recognize traces of a French bordello in the décor of
Walter Shultz’s flat. There were nine framed antique erotic postcards hanging on a dark blue velvet wall. Up close, you saw nine plump, completely naked women in various diffidently lascivious poses.
- They’re French – said the small, dark host, stroking his little beard.
Gunther remembered that he had no beard while they were in the hospital.
The women in the colored French postcards were neither seductive nor obscene.
They were sympathetic and funny.
- Imagine if it were your grandmother – said the host. – A fascinating collection. I purchased it in Belgium – explained the host, following Gunther’s gaze. – There should have been ten in this set, but I only found nine. One is missing.
- Probably the best one – said Gunther, looking at the nine postcards and trying to imagine the position of the tenth woman.
The reader Water Schultz’s library was impressive: several thousand volumes in six languages.
I am arranging them according to Warburg. – said Walter Schultz. – Are you familiar with this method?
- Yes, of course – replied Gunther, looking at the books.
He had read about Aby Warburg. In his library, Warburg introduced an element of error in his classification: interspersed among books arranged by subject, you could find volumes on a completely different topic. The harsh inconsistency aroused unexpected associations in the reader. Warburg refined his method until he ended up in a madhouse. The library and its classification scheme remained, teasing and altering people’s minds.
- Whiskey? – asked Schultz.
- No, thank you.
A bassoon hooted indifferently behind the wall.
- Cultured neighbors? – asked Gunther.
- They never speak – answered Walter Schultz. – Have you heard of anthropodermic bibliopegy?
- Books on skin disease?
- No – replied Schultz, taking a small volume from the book shelf. – Do you know what this is?
- A book.
-And bound in…
- Human skin.
- Human skin?
- This is not the finest example of anthropodermic bibliopegy. Although, it’s quite expensive.
- Which are the best?
- When there is a nipple and a tattoo on the binding.
- German. But the most expensive ones are French… From the time of the Revolution… Made from the skin of guillotined aristocrats. Eighty thousand.
- I’m offering you eighty thousand.
- For what?
- For your skin.
- You want to peel off my skin?
- After what?
- After that. Forensic exhumation is not necessary – said Schultz. – Whiskey?
- Cognac – Gunther was wondering if he should leave, but he stayed.
- I have prepared a contract for two books. Don’t hurry. Think about it for a week. If you agree, then get a tattoo around each nipple with your name and the title of your books.
- Which ones?
- The second and the third. Unless you’ve written a fourth.
- Then the second and the third. Your cognac.
Gunther wanted to leave as soon as possible. Schultz made no move to stop him.
The door unlocked automatically.
At that moment, a man with a bassoon came into the landing and Gunther ran down the stairs.
Anxious prostitutes stared at him through half-closed eyes from the other side of the street.
Sometimes they too need glasses, thought Gunther, although this is not an occupational handicap.
At the moment, he was still able to think, but when the problem dropped down into his belly, his head became empty.
Even though he reached his home unharmed, he lay in bed for two days after.
As he lay in bed, Gunther sold off all of his possessions.
In his mind.
The total was barely ten thousand.
Then he thought about various literary contracts.
Frequently, a person offered something ephemeral: a soul, dreams, laughter, a voice in exchange for love, glory, and money.
Walter Schultz’s proposal was tangible, without a shadow of nauseating mysticism.
Two days later, Gunther decided to call.
And the strange Reader was overjoyed.
- Good – said Gunther.
- Did you get the tattoos?
- I will.
Gunther was viscerally disgusted by tattoos.
- A friend has come to visit you – said the nurse.
- I have no friends – said Gunther. He held the notion, as many writers do, that an author does not need any friends.
They are a distraction.
Although, even women did not distract Goethe.
A pleased Walter Schultz stood in the doorway carrying a bunch of grapes.
- How do you feel?
- Can you have grapes?
- Are they poisoned?
- Yes. And washed.
Schultz’s arrival lifted Gunther’s spirits. They sat quietly and ate the grapes.
- Spanish? – asked Gunther.
- Spanish – said Walter Schultz as he moved from the edge of the bed to a chair that the nurse had brought. – Imported from Israel.
After that, they rarely saw one another. Each Christmas, Gunther received a greeting from Schultz.
Walter Schultz wrote his greetings on colored French pornographic postcards with pictures of plump women.
The postcards cheered Gunther.
He received six of them. He did not get a seventh.
Or the eighth.
On the feast of the Epiphany, Gunther telephoned Walter Schultz, but no one answered. He called again.
After a week, he went to the pink house by the station. He reached Schultz’s door and rang the bell, but no one opened the door.
Upon hearing the noise, or perhaps off on a personal errand, the man with the bassoon came out of the adjacent apartment without his bassoon.
He was about fifty years old and had a coarse appearance.
- Excuse me, Schultz used to live here…
- He doesn’t live here.
- He moved?
- You can call it that.
The bassoonist nodded.
- A few years ago.
Outside, there was a snow storm and layers of snow fell on the sidewalks raked with tracks made by playing children. Gunther promised himself that if he did not break his back today, then tomorrow, the day after at the latest, he would buy himself a new pair of shoes. The yellow suede ones.
Lying on his back near the stairs of an English basement, Gunther cursed, but was afraid to move his legs. He thought that now he wouldn’t have to buy the yellow suede shoes. Through the glass door he saw a tattoo artist below tattooing a mermaid on some idiot’s shoulder.
Gunther moved his legs. This meant he could stand up. Even climb down the stairs.
The tattoo artist lifted his head.
He recognized me, thought Gunther. Then he asked:
- How much to have a tattoo removed?
- Can you come back in a few hours?
- How much to have a tattoo removed? – Gunther asked again.
- Depends on the size.
- Show me – said the tattoo artist.
- Gunther took off his sweater.
- I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to remove the tattoo, I want another one.
The artist examined the area.
- Two words. On the left side.
- You already have a tattoo on the left side – the tattoo artist said, reading aloud the black words encircling the nipple: Günter Grass. Katz und Maus.
The artist looked Gunther straight in the eye.
Gunther felt uncomfortable because the glance lacked restraint.
He recognized me, thought Gunther.
- Place the second tattoo a bit higher.
- No problem. What will it be?
- Walter Schultz.
- Walter Schultz?
- Walter Schultz.
First Published in The Vilnius Review (Lithuania)
Editor: Eugenijus Ališanka
The Vilnius Review publishes the best new writing from Lithuania translated into English. Each issue contains translated extracts from the most interesting recently published works of prose, and verse by the country's best poets. The magazine also publishes book reviews, criticism and in-depth
articles on current issues relevant to the Lithuanian literary world.
Undinė Radzevičiūtė writes in a style which has been aptly named "accupuncture prose". Coupling biting wit with sarcastic yet objective minimalisms, Radzevičiūtė, in her latest book Baden Badeno nebus, creates a dishearteningly real landscape full of bold individualism. Her themes are often politically inspective while remainging personally ambigious. Radzevičiūtė has also writen two other books, Stekaza and Frankburgas.
Translated by Ada Valaitis
This story was published in Issue 11 of The Literarian.