It is 2007. Faber, a student of post-modern detective author Charles Thornton, is in Berlin investigating an unpublished Thornton novel and events leading up to Thornton’s death in 1996. ‘The Poet’, a supposed friend of Thornton’s, pays an unexpected visit to Faber’s apartment.
Another photograph was uncovered, courtesy of the Poet. When the straggle-haired bohemian had appeared at Faber’s apartment door, his crumpled corduroy jacket tasting ripe in the humidity, he seemed curiously out of place. His conformist individuality was perfectly suited to Prenzlauer Berg and to the neo-Communist café where they had met, but on the quiet streets of Neukoelln he was visibly uncomfortable.
The Poet’s photo revealed a room, sparsely furnished and poorly arranged. The gloom was broken only by a crescent of light which shone from a desklamp at the centre of the frame. Surrounding the hunched figure of Charles Thornton was a halo of sixty watts, an author outlined in twilight.
On the third floor, the Poet stood at the kitchen window and looked across the courtyard to the graffitied building opposite. “Weiss ich gar nicht,” he said. Faber had switched into rudimentary German. He hoped that this courtesy might loosen the man’s lips.
“The last decade of his life,” Faber said, “inside that concrete cube, all alone.”
“All alone except for his photographer,” replied the Poet. It was unclear just what had prompted the anonymous face behind the camera to snap this frame: Thornton’s expression was neutral, his typewriter—though uncovered—was not loaded with paper, and the darkness literally obscured the possibility of a nighttime reading session.
“I didn’t want to tell you this.” The Poet moved away from the window , scraped past Faber and turned right into the living room. “But this photo was taken by his secretary Helga. It landed in a box in my basement when she left Berlin six years ago. Charles Thornton,” he concluded, “did not have many friends.”
Faber had reached the middle of the room. The Poet sat and gazed at the picture on the coffee table in front of him. “Are you saying that Thornton and Helga, they—?” Faber stepped between the table and the sofa and sunk into the neigbouring seat, as far as the second-hand cushions would allow.
The Poet said: “I don’t know whether they were lovers, but then whether they fucked or not is not really the point… if there is a point to any of your digging, Mr. Faber.” The indignation was this time unfeigned, but any vitriol he felt had long since been replaced with melancholy. “They were partners—as long as I had known Charles, he had been hers, and she his.”
Slowly manoeuvring the photograph across the table, Faber examined its borders as though there might be a perfume or a voice described imperceptibly at the edges of the frame. Helga had, behind the lens, captured a moment of serenity at the apex of Thornton’s breakdown. At that time Thornton had been working on the last Delaney novel, and though Faber had only managed to wrangle from his publishers an outline of Delaney & the Devil’s Interval, those years had evidently been close to unbearable for both Charles and Helga.
“I leave this with you,” said the Poet. “Any time you want to come up to Prenzlberg and bury yourself in a dead man’s world, let me know. My basement is your basement.” As he rose a smirk grew from the corner of his mouth to his left cheek. Faber thanked him, rose too, and waited for the echoing footsteps to decay in the hallway.
* * *
Across Faber’s desk were strewn Delaney novels and literary companions, his own notes, newspaper cuttings and cassette tapes, derivative fiction started but never finished and—finally—the photograph of Charles Thornton. The ex-pat author, the post-modern dean of detective noir, the mysterious émigré: Faber had used each of these descriptions numerous times in his academic papers, but none was sufficient to describe the man in this dog-eared picture, wrapped in a figurative and literal gloom. Somewhere out of shot, the indistinct Helga had turned Thornton’s voyeuristic tendency back on himself. Helga, he thought. Until today you were just a secretary.
He grasped for a cassette perched at the top of a small stack, but his wrecking ball hand toppled them and they clattered onto the desk. A neon pink post-it note protruded from one of the cases. Faber picked it out of the rubble and inserted the tape into the Dictaphone. He clicked PLAY and Thorton’s voice made the room instantly smoky.
“I suppose it comes to every generation, or at least to those who have lived through such a turbulent time and lived on — or should I say survived? — to tell the tale. It is only so far along a certain path that we can go before we reach thorns and stingers crowding over, under, and around us, impeding our progress so that we are compelled to stop. To stand still, only able to glance through the twists of green at that which lies ahead.
“We live in a post-satire world, someone once said. I forget who. Research is not my strong suit. But whoever passed on to us that particularly uninformative nugget of information was, to all intents and purposes, correct. Everything is post something, and we’ve come so far along this particular timeline — which cannot be altered, erased, reordered or accurately described — that we can only define ourselves by that which we succeed. Time pushes on against us, anticipating both physical and cultural decay to such an extent, that the modern has been twisted into an absurd, caricature-like, defiantly meaningless post-modern, no matter that defining one’s cultural existence as ‘meaningless’ is a paradox as big as they come.
“Post-modern. It is a prefix which signals the arrival of those thorns and stingers and the end of progress. Fin-de-siecle, one used to call it. But at the turn of the 20th century, when we were still kind enough to lock away famous homosexual men for their private indiscretions, at least a few of us were smart enough to know that we weren’t smart enough to know very much. I never thought much of his dramas or poems but it’s clear that old Oscar knew this: all is forgiven if you spread yourself — like a shameless veneer of credibility — just thinly enough around a room of half-baked writers.”
A click followed by a change in the pitch of the static signalled the end of the entry. As he replaced the cassette tape, the neon note told Faber that the recording was from “ca. Aug. 1993.” Lichttrager Verlag, Thornton’s publishers, had confirmed that a full draft of Devil’s Interval had been submitted by January 1994.
This picture had surfaced, had made its way organically from Helga via Thornton to the Poet and—at last—to Faber, and it was a clue, something of substance bearing the burden of something with none. Digging in a desk drawer, Faber pulled out a business card, corners frayed but text still legible, and he wrote down the Hamburg address printed on the front of it. It was time to pay a visit to Helga Schnatterer. [continues]