I know almost nothing about a man named Carl von Ossietzky, almost nothing save for an image of him as an obsessive writer living on coffee and an occasional slice of cake. I know a few other facts, important ones that I’m not going to mention, because what I really want you to do is focus on an image of Carl von Ossietzky huddled over a typewriter in a cold Berlin office in 1927.
I like to think of this as the romantic image of a writer, the impoverished, fevered kind of writer with ink on his fingers and a ream of paper constantly under his arm. He wears a disheveled suit with a notebook in the pocket and it’s filled with lines of writing which mean nothing to anyone else but him. He always seems to need to be somewhere else, but that somewhere else is a fictional state which can’t be defined as anywhere specific and so becomes a transitory phase, somewhere is always anywhere, and anywhere is never quite the nowhere that he needs to be. This man is my dream writer, not because he writes, but because every second of living is consumed by being a writer.
Occasionally people will ask a writer what their influences are? My fevered, twitching dream writer will probably mutter something about having once read Camus at a train station in Paris. The questioner will nod, satisfied that the answer was such a distinguished writer, but my dream writer’s answer wasn’t Camus, his answer was the train station. Specifically his answer was the act of reading Camus at a train station in Paris, but even that wasn’t really what he meant. What had influenced him was being stuck in Paris, sheltering in a train station with his threadbare coat pulled tightly around him against the cold, reading the only book he had to pass the time, the book just happened to be Camus. This moment had never left him, he had never forgotten what it was like to be so disconnected. He’d never forgotten the sound of foreign voices as the people passed him by, indifferent to how alone and vulnerable he felt at that moment. What he meant was that whenever he wrote, whatever he wrote, he was always trying to write the cold he felt in his bones that night when he sat in a train station in Paris, reading Camus.
The night before, he’d been warm, sitting in a cafe by the Seine with pink flowers around the windows, half drunk on wine he’d never paid for. A cool breeze would skate across the floor every time the door was opened and travel up the legs of his trousers. He wasn’t actually warm at all, but whenever the dream writer recollects the scene, he remembers the glow from the candle and the way it lit the intoxicated faces around him. The conversation was animated and his drinking companion was talking about art and paint, brushstrokes and light. The dream writer remembers the moment when his companions’ left hand was resting on the table while the other mimed the beauty of applying paint to canvas. The hand was still, shadows flickered across the skin as the candle’s flame danced with the breeze. All the dream writer wanted to do was trace his finger across those gently rising, soft lilac veins, to feel the warmth of the blood and the delicate bones under the thin skin. Instinct had told him to do it, his mind’s eye had already touched the hand and their fingers now sat entwined. The imagined image was quickly replaced by a snap of reality, the awkwardness of the moment as they both sat there, not knowing what to do and so the dream writer did nothing but stare at the hand as the conversation continued.
It was purely instinct, entirely a reflex, a reaction to the kind of temptation that had always perplexed him. It hadn’t been meant as an advance, it wasn’t even entirely a sign of affection, it was simply a desire to touch something that was alive. This man didn’t merely breathe, a heart didn’t simply beat in his chest and keep his organs working, it pumped blood, radiant blood and its energy consumed you. This man was inspiration, a muse in human form and he drew you in so completely that all you wanted to do was touch him, to feel the passion that coursed through his veins and sat glinting in his eye like a diamond. You wanted to touch him in the hope that you might understand, in the hope that his warmth would never allow the cold to find a home in your bones.
The dream writer left Paris and returned to Berlin where he traipsed the streets of the city of stone in search of an intangible something that he believed he’d never quite find. Until one day, when he found himself standing at an S-Bahn station listening to a faint but graceful tune. A melody from his childhood drifted through the cold station and as he heard those familiar tones, he suddenly understood. His breath caught in his throat and his knees buckled, because in that moment he knew exactly what he was searching for. He suddenly understood why he was always standing at train stations in the cold, because the dream writer knew then that the cold had always been in his bones. He’d always been lost and he was searching for home.