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Grammar of a Departure

Grammatik einer Abreise
by Peter Bichsel
Translated from German by
Madeleine LaRue
Issue 28 Online Exclusive

The train leaves at 4:03. The beginning of the journey depends on how far her room is from the train station, and also perhaps on how far the ticket counter is from the platform, and whether she passes the ticket counter on her way to the platform, or passes the platform first, goes to the counter to buy her tickets, then backtracks to the platform. In any case, it’s possible to depict the process with some complexity. It must also be mentioned how often she looked at her watch to check the time since two o’clock, must be mentioned that the frequency of time-checking increased. An observer could determine that the frequency increases exponentially, and might go so far as to describe precisely how she lifts her left foot at 2:07, a process unconscious to her, then puts the left foot in front of the right, and repeats the motion with the right foot, putting it in front of the left.

If she does become conscious of this process, she’ll call it walking, walking-to-the-wardrobe, for example, to take a jacket out of the wardrobe—and here again the possibility of circumstances: turning the key, opening the door, right hand, left hand, slipping the jacket off the hanger, wardrobe door. If she becomes conscious of the foot-lifting process, she’ll call it walking, but here foot-lifting is—she has gone back to her suitcase—not actually a detail of walking, but rather a detail of suitcase-packing. She won’t, when talking about her activity, talk about walking, but about suitcase-packing. “I’m packing my suitcase,” she’ll say.

You might wonder whether she says it to herself, or whether she’ll only say it if she has the chance to say it to someone else. In any case, at 2:07 she was still alone, had no chance, and must have had other reasons for saying, “I’m packing my suitcase.”

Whether she does or not, the difficulty of her journey depends on—not exactly on how difficult the journey is, but rather how difficult she finds it to start out on her journey. And the journey could be so difficult that she doesn’t just think “I’m packing my suitcase” to herself, but actually says it out loud.

Some journeys have been foreseen, after all.

And she says or will say or will have said—because there’s not enough time and not enough tenses for this process, and the process of travel, of suitcase-packing, of setting off, is always the past, a past, for example, that feigns the future—she will say, had said: “I’m—packing—my—suitcase. I’m going to pack my suitcase.” And in doing so she, who had the past on her shoulders, feigned a future by demonstrating a present, a present in which to pack her suitcase. And all around this action, which in fact was already the past—terrible past—and in fact the future—terrible future—was and is and will be and will have been, in order to finally for once let something become present in this process that knows no present, she says in present tense: “I’m—packing—my—suitcase.”

What I myself merely suspected is becoming certain to me: she could not have said anything else, and she must have said it loudly and clearly and maybe even several times: “I’m packing my suitcase, I’m packing my suitcase.” And what she said, and she knows this, was a gesture that allowed the present to arise, though not to correspond to the truth. For language, in its literary use, requires from the formulation “travel” the formulation “suitcase.” Travelers have suitcases, hikers have backpacks, shoppers have bags. But what she was packing was almost a handbag—its shape was indeed something like a travel bag’s, but it was too small for that. Because you only need suitcases for longer journeys, which might begin on the eleventh of September and end, for example, on the twentieth. Suitcases exist only for journeys that have something to do with the question, “When are you coming back?”

Without a return there’s no suitcase, and journeys with no return are timeless, not really taking place in the future and certainly not in the present.

Departure is a simple process, and not necessary to describe. Departure is a process you can observe at the train station, and there’s a line at the ticket counter, and you move forward in the line, and you say where you want to go and whether you want to come back, and there are people who it seems will never manage to buy a ticket, who go straight ahead, asking for a ticket to here—wherever Here happens to be—and back again, and securing their future.

She, however, has her room here, lives here, that’s what they call it—wherever Here is—and she’s going back at 4:03, back into a past, and she’s hoping to return from the future. Whatever faces her is always called the past, and grammar can bring no order to her life.

Whether the suitcase—as we must call her handbag—is packed, has been packed or is being packed, changes nothing, grants no time, and meanwhile I’ve become convinced that it couldn’t have been anything else, she must have said to herself, loudly and clearly, a few minutes after two o’clock: “I’m—packing—my—suitcase.”

But departure is easy, even when it’s a special, very particular departure, a departure, for example and in this case, on the eleventh of September in the year 1971 or 1981 at 4:03. Most people—we’ve all seen this for ourselves and I don’t need to describe it either—most people raise their right foot and put it on the train car’s lowest step and draw the left foot back and put it on the second-lowest step, unless they’re older or have mobility problems, in which case they, like children, put the second foot next to the first and start again from the beginning. But even if this motion has a function within the voyage, it has nothing whatever to do with traveling, because who even realizes that he’s lifting his foot as he lifts it, and anyway it’s not even called foot-lifting, but simply boarding the train.

She, however, very consciously lifted her right foot, and she did it so adeptly, so easily and naturally, that no one noticed that she was not boarding but lifting her foot: one foot lifting, the other trailing behind, her left hand grasping the handle, elbows somewhat bent, lightly and with inconspicuous strength. She imitated boarding, she played at boarding. She played it so adeptly that anyone could have taken it for boarding, for genuine, ordinary, and unreflective boarding—what fell to pieces for her was for us a perfect whole.

What falls to pieces for her is for us a perfect whole.

What will fall to pieces for her—in a day, in two days or three days—will forever be a perfect whole for me.

The wholeness of time-checking, the wholeness of suitcase-packing, the wholeness of going-to-the-train-station, of boarding-the-train, the wholeness of travel, and the process of departure is indeed describable, but not worth describing. Processes fall to pieces when described.

Except I have reasons for writing about this departure, since I carried her bag to the train station for her—or not, now it occurs to me belatedly that I didn’t—but I could have. I should have, I simply forgot to, or the bag, or the handbag, or the suitcase was too small for me to even notice it. So I didn’t carry the bag, but I went with her to the train station, and the story is not important enough to share, and I’m writing it only for myself, have written it only for myself. For everything about a departure is clear: timetable, ticket counter, platform, destination.

But when you walk next to someone who doesn’t walk at all, but puts one foot down in front of the other—which everyone who’s walking does—then you yourself begin to put one foot down in front of the other, and then there’s no more destination, only the present, the present of putting down feet—and only the past, the past of having put feet down.

Only that, and I remember only that, and my walking falls to pieces too, whenever I think about it.

Have I already said that I love her?

Didn’t I say that I’m thinking of her?

That I imagine she has arrived, been greeted by a nurse in white, perhaps with a hug, no doubt with a cheerful smile, maybe with the words “Here comes our darling,” maybe with the words “Our sunshine!”—because she is cheerful. I imagine that then the door behind her fell to pieces and she stood in the half-darkness and looked around her and recognized everything, for she’s been here before, and here she is again, and after here she’ll come back, come back after her return, which is not here, where she lives.

Here, where she lives, in her room, she’s packing her bag, a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, soap, lotion, the clinic doesn’t allow people to wear their own nightgowns, and it doesn’t matter what they wear, and the nurse will say: “You must be tired from the trip, we’d best go straight to sleep, but we look well, it seems we’ve put on a little weight.”

She’ll still resist this We, she’ll smile, go to bed, she’ll be afraid of falling asleep because she’s afraid of waking up, because she’s afraid of not waking up. Maybe she’ll arrive a day too early, maybe two. She’s never more than three days early.

And then she won’t wake up, but only open her eyes, won’t get up, only lift her leg, and then it’ll all be a matter of grammar: I—you—he—she—it—we—they, am, was, have been, will have been, will have been being.

And a departure is not worth describing, and I’m describing it only because I cannot understand what happens when she packs her suitcase to go by the 4:03 train to the clinic, to wait there for the next thing to propel her forward.



© Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main 1985
Reprint courtesy of Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin

Original text: Peter Bichsel, “Grammatik einer Abreise,” from Der Busant: Von Trinkern, Polizisten und der schönen Magelone. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1985.

Peter Bichsel (b. 1935 in Lucern, Switzerland) is the author of more than thirty-five books, including an eight-hundred-page collection of his newspaper columns. The winner of numerous literary prizes, he is considered one of the most important short-prose stylists of his generation.
Madeleine LaRue is associate editor and director of publicity for Music & Literature. She lives in Berlin.