(Everything Living
Forever Is Screaming


I don’t know as much about nothing as I thought I did. This has become clear to me following my death on Tuesday.

I can confirm that nothing is very big. It seems to stretch out in all directions forever. Its texture is no-particular-texture, and its shape no-particular-shape. There isn’t any particular smell that I can identify, and the lighting seems to be even, without any particular source. There’s no sense of days or nights passing; no weeks, months, years, centuries, millennia, no flux or wane, no hot or cold, no winter or summer, no weather.

Food and drink obviously don’t make any appearance in nothing, nor are there any sights or sounds. There’s no punctuation. I pass the time by thinking, but no particular thoughts occur to me, and so it’s more a case of just passing the time by passing the time.

I don’t need a personal organiser. It doesn’t pay to plan ahead or think forward, and when I try to think back I feel a lazy vagueness gluing up my mind, as if specific memories were being drowned in an unknown quantity of thick, clear shampoo. If I ever had a personality, it’s pretty much gone, and that’s not, in itself, a problem. If I ever had hurts and struggles and victories, they’re blurring and just not particularly relevant any more. They might as well belong to someone else.

What time is it? It doesn’t matter, here in the middle of nothing. This is going to go on for quite a while, so I’m just going to settle back and get used to it. It’s not unpleasant. I’m living forever, after a fashion. That can’t be bad.

I remember a phrase I read somewhere: Everything living forever is sooner or later screaming forever. That sounds frightening, but so far everything’s under control. There’s nothing worth screaming about. Unless people really do scream with boredom.

Probably that’s how it will begin, the screaming. I’ll start screaming just to pass the time, just to hear a sound, a voice, my own. And then in a while the screaming will contain a little genuine agony as well. And some time after that – but really, who knows how long? – it will be full-on, full-throated terror, which will just go on and on and never stop. Possibly the volume will increase a little from time to time, but essentially it will become a fixed and permanent thing, or, rather, two things: the nothing, and the screaming.

The sun will expand, become a red giant, dry up the oceans then burn up the earth, and go out, and I will still be there, screaming in the dark. The universe will keep expanding until every individual body in it is infinitely far from every other, in an unimaginably cold void, and one by one the stars will disappear, and I’ll still be making this tiny, piercing screaming sound, somewhere out there, to absolutely no effect.

I’m not looking forward to it, but there’s no point in getting anxious either. At this point it’s all still quite a long way off.


Mephistopheles comes to different people in different forms. For me, he’s a film producer sitting at the head of a long table in a garden restaurant in the gay district of Tel Aviv. It’s a warm evening in June, and a dozen of us are gathered in a back garden punctuated by citrus trees. Propped between two chairs – one for my head, the other for my feet, very good for the stomach muscles – I’m wearing the green robe I keep for the character within me I call Agnes, loosely modelled on the late Louise Bourgeois.

I’m in Tel Aviv to sing, not as Agnes but in the role of Bianca Castafiore from the Tintin books. The dinner is supposed to be in my honour. But it seems a much more important guest is expected: a powerful film producer who’s birthed many Hollywood successes. Sure enough, when Mephisto arrives he greets his friends with beams and bear hugs before taking, like a birthright, the cardinal seat.

Mephisto launches into a monologue about how he’s decided to chuck in film production and become a forest ranger, but in Venice, so that he can still attend the film festival.

– But there are no trees in Venice! protests a drunken blonde woman on his right.

– Sure, but there are plenty of films.

Everybody laughs. Mephisto, by the way, is the man who birthed Betrayal Park, Avalon, and the Black Hulk sequel.

As I prepare my pitch I zone out of the ambient chatter (half-English, half-Hebrew) and chug at a chilled glass of Carmel Sauvignon.

At last the moment presents itself: my nervous glances towards the top chair have been noticed, and Mephisto himself is summoning me, magnanimously.

– Heinrich Faust, he says, pull up a chair! I’ve been wondering about your prosthesis.

I should explain that I have a prosthetic limb. Mephisto wants the usual story, which he’s no doubt already half-heard: the angry dolphin, the swallowed calculator, the botched operation on the tombstone and the near collision of the two naval helicopters.

I tell the tale as entertainingly as I can. When I get to the bit about stuffing the dolphin, Mephisto claps his hands in delight, and the whole table laughs along. This is my chance.

– I wanted to pitch an idea to you, Mr Mephisto.

The great man looks indulgent. This moment comes often, of course.

– Shoot, he says, making no effort to conceal a hint of weariness.

– Okay, I just wanted to know how you’d react if . . . well, let’s say someone comes to you with a really boring idea. He’s an author who’s had no success at all. He’s written a book about . . . about moss. Chapter 1: Moss. Chapter 2: Moss Growing. Chapter 3: Moss in a Room.

Mephisto snorts.

– That does sound boring! Me, I like Die Hard 3.

You can believe it.

– Okay. But wait, there’s a catch: this writer has sold his soul to Satan in exchange for enormous success. No matter how boring The Book of Moss is, it’s going to top the New York Times best-seller list for years. That’s written into the blood pact. The film rights are sure to be sold, and the film is guaranteed to be massive. What I want to know is, could you be compelled to back a project like that, if you knew it was going to be huge? How easily could you be controlled by the forces of evil?

Mephisto begins to look uncomfortable. He doesn’t want to play my game; he doesn’t like the implications. He lays a hand on my prosthetic arm.

– You know what, Faust? The world is full of ideas. Everyone has them. Coming up with an idea is the easy part. The hard part is making it fly. Me, I would back Die Hard 3.

– So you’d wait to see what happened with Moss 1 and Moss 2, and if they flew, you’d back Moss 3?

– Maybe, Faust, maybe! I might make you change the title to Moss Hard 3, though.

Laughter again. Mephisto wins the round, as he wins them all. I didn’t say the writer was me, but whatever. I head back down to the far end of the table and drag what’s left of the Carmel Sauvignon out of the ice bucket.

I’ve pretty much forgotten this conversation when, two months later, I receive an email from Mephisto. He wants to back Moss, and already has two lawyers and a haematologist working on the contract.


Mosses, lichens and algae are some of the most ancient forms of life known to man, dating back over three thousand million years. Moss belongs to the plant class Bryophyta, which also includes liverworts and hornworts.

It would be less anthropocentric to say that man is one of the youngest forms of life known to moss. And yet that too would be wrong, because moss certainly doesn’t ‘know’ in the way that we mean when we use the word: that purely human form of knowing typified by, for instance, our tedious need to distinguish plants from fungus and photosynthetic bacteria, or our quibbles about the correct classification category of liverworts and hornworts.

Here’s a story which may help you to remember how to classify the various organisms. Hornworts, Fungus and Photosynthetic Bacteria are having an office party. It begins to rain, but this is no ordinary rain: parallel lines start slamming hard as lead bars into the concrete surface of the car park in which Hornworts, Fungus and Photosynthetic Bacteria have erected a small marquee and arranged a circle of metal-framed folding stools with red, white and blue seats on which puddles, drawn in the style of abstract manga artist Yuichi Yokoyama, now begin to form.

Suddenly Moss and Liverworts arrive in a 1985-vintage black Fiat Panda, a car I admire because the windscreen is a completely flat sheet of glass and not bulbous at all. The others are embarrassed because they realise they haven’t invited Moss and Liverworts to the office party, despite the fact that they all work for the same advertising company. On the spur of the moment, they count to four and shout:

– Surprise!

That’s the story. Now you will always remember the correct taxonomical relationships between these life-forms.

Anyway, as I was saying, in my view moss intuits. It has gut feelings, without, of course, having guts. Since the evolution that produced us began, essentially, with moss, we should respect our earliest ancestors. We should replace those Sunday-school ciphers Adam and Eve with moss: Old Father Moss, Dear Mother Moss.

By the way, moss does have genders: a female egg-producing part called the archegonium and a male sperm-producing part called the antheridium. But – unlike us – moss has a choice; it can also reproduce asexually. When bits of moss break off they can regenerate spontaneously, creating a new plant wherever they happen to fall. The reproductive options of moss are spongy and flexible.


One afternoon Mephisto invites me kite-flying with him. I’m a bit worried, because a thunderstorm is building up and I’ve heard it’s dangerous to fly kites near lightning. Nevertheless, I show up on time, wearing my bottle-green robe and driving my bottle-green Volvo from the year 1975.

Mephisto is already dangling his massive black kite in a violent thunder cloud, laughing insanely as the killingly white energy of billions of wild volts of electricity flows through him and discharges down to the underworld.

– I’m glad you could make it, Heinrich, he says. Here, take the string!

Later, the great Hans Magnus Enzensberger will write a poem about the scene:

Sometimes I regret

that compared to the power pylon

I vacillate.

The good-natured moss

disarms me

when I lust for revenge,

and the rhino’s thinking –

straightforward as it is –

I can only admire.

While I hold the kite string, Mephisto tells me that, should some cataclysm (all-too-probable, given our violence and shortsightedness) wipe humans out and leave a gap which only moss can fill, sphagnum will be perfectly capable of stepping into the breach, making a much better job of dominating the planet than mankind has.

Spreading quietly across forest floors, coating rocks and tree bark, hushing and softening everything it touches, this restful organism will create a world as classy and comfortable as ours is crass and spiteful. Inherently peaceful, the Age of Moss will see the world transformed into a well-upholstered library or a discreet hotel lobby. This is what Mephistopheles claims, anyway. Did I mention that his first name is Giorgio?


Moss might be silent, but it’s not a silence that can be bought. I once saw a television documentary in which a couple were building a charred larch structure on the Isle of Wight. Certain concrete-board sections of the outer wall looked ugly, and the couple attempted camouflage by applying a mixture of cow dung and yoghurt concocted to attract moss. But no moss ever came. Everything else in a house may have its price, but moss is unbiddable. Please bear this in mind, it will be important later.

My friend Chieko was studying to be a manicurist in a beauty college near a leaking nuclear-power station in Japan’s beautiful alpine Nagano region when she first discovered Peter Handke’s wonderful anti-theatre piece Offending the Audience. Now, the whole point of art is that it isn’t just about what can and cannot happen in a theatre; you can apply its conclusions to any domain of life, for art burns like a bright filament of possibility, a torch of eternal human freedom.

Chieko was very taken with the idea of offending the people who make one’s entire profession possible, and so she began to integrate some of Handke’s insults into her patter as a manicurist. Like many jobs, manicure and pedicure have their theatrical side; for instance, it’s normal for the beautician to improvise some kind of calming monologue during her work on cuticles and corns, to place the customer under a kind of mesmeric spell. The mesmeric state, and not the perceived increment in beauty, is the real reason the customer comes back.

Chieko began working in insults from Handke’s play, which she had downloaded from the Internet and rendered into Japanese using an imperfect machine-translation tool. And so she would be complimenting a customer on her beautiful half-moons, when suddenly she would slip in:

– You don’t think. You think of nothing. You think with. You don’t think with. You are toothless. Your mind is open. By saying this, I am sneaking into your open mind.

The customer would usually be paying attention to Chieko’s tone of voice, which was invariably soothing, and would fail to notice the freight of insult.

Moss is this sort of person too. Even when it disapproves, privately, of your actions, moss can be a friend, a comfort, a deep-green shoulder to lean on.

I happened to be visiting a shrine today, a shrine on the top of a mountain. A sequence of red gates led me to an open area under immense pine trees where the ground was mossy underfoot. Ahead lay the shrine, with its angry guardian foxes and silly dangling bells, hanging like the testicles of a tomcat. But instead of approaching the ropes and ringing the bells, I decided to worship the moss instead. I fell to the ground, soiling my purple robe.

We already have people named after moss: the racing driver Stirling Moss, for instance, or the model Kate Moss. But these are human celebrities, brash, rushed and loud. The true beauty of moss lies in slowness, stillness and silence. Understanding this, the wisest humans ever to have existed – Japanese monks – created moss gardens, the most beautiful places on earth.


Giorgio Mephistopheles takes the kite string back into his hands. The thunderstorm is passing now, rumbling like a bowling ball passing down the alley.

If moss does come to dominate the planet, Mephisto tells me, it won’t be due to conquest and conflict; there will be no lichen genocides or algae atrocities along the way. Moss will mingle in a generous and comradely way with everything living and dead, organic and inorganic, even the occasional creature that grazes, nibbles and tugs hungrily at it: reindeer, caribou, deer, slug, fungus, moose, mouse, cow, sheep, rabbit, squirrel, antelope, bird, Arctic vole or ice worm.

By the way, how are you doing?

I only ask because I care about you. You know that’s true! I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.

Are you comfortable? But really, are you sitting in optimal comfort? Do you have the things to hand that you need? If not, I can get them for you! It’s no trouble, none at all.

Would you like me to soften and retract the excessive skin I see nudging over your cuticles? By the way, you have beautiful half-moons! They’re a sign of nobility, some say. By the way, you are a fuckhead. Yes, isn’t this weather gorgeous!

How’s your little problem? You remember, you were telling me about it last time. That tingling thing, the discomfort that didn’t quite qualify as pain but still worried you? And worrying just made it worse! A trapped nerve, wasn’t it? You were worried it might be a heart attack or multiple sclerosis.

I believe your little problem makes you deserving of special consideration and a bit of extra care and attention from those around you.

Think how much more pleasant life would be if everyone gave you just that little bit of extra consideration, the way I do.

Yes, I am also pleased about the new statue of Hans Magnus Enzensberger the city has erected outside McDonald’s. It’s high time.

Do you remember how you stumbled on a staircase, on that bad day you were having? You told me about it last time. You’d just wished your ex-lover a happy birthday after five years of scrupulous silence, then taken a train to Duisburg, where you had a big wiring contract to fulfil.

You were late getting into Duisburg because a selfish suicide had thrown herself under the ICE train. Yes, me too, I hate it when they do that! Why can’t they just take a Walther semiautomatic and end their lives that way? Deutsche Bahn ought to hand out free Walther SSPs to all suicides. Think of the time it would save!

Anyway, as soon as you arrived in the city, and were in a place safe enough to check your Wi-Fi, you discovered that your ex-lover had blocked you on all social-media platforms. You believed it meant that she really hated you.

You contemplated throwing yourself immediately under the 20:55 ICE train to Wiesbaden, but luckily you had second thoughts about it. I say this because I was on that train myself, heading home for a weekend with my parents, who are both ill with kidney disease but can afford only one dialysis machine between them, which they haul along behind them everywhere they go in an enormous shopping trolley. I attribute their illness to a secret history of drug-taking which one day I hope they will own up to.

Instead of committing suicide you misjudged the position of the final step in the cheap hotel lobby, a small error with big consequences, as it turned out, because you fell into the path of a Segway being ridden by a black police sergeant straight out of a Fassbinder film.

For the next few days you had to be wheeled around in a wheelchair. For some reason you decided to go to Wiesbaden, where your wheelchair happened to collide with my parents’ dialysis machine, just by the plinth of the statue they’ve recently erected to Arno Schmidt.

You now have a prosthetic leg to match your prosthetic arm.


The artist Agnes Martin was taught by the same Buddhist scholar – D. T. Suzuki at Columbia University – who so influenced John Cage, imbuing the composer with the serenity and observant acceptance which runs through his mature work like a watermark. Martin’s drawings are often no more than sheets of grids with slight geometrical variations, coloured by the paper they’re marked on. Their muted austerity has a calming effect, and when you see several together their small differences, notated across empty staves, start to form semi-musical patterns of repetition and variation.

I’m absorbing this ‘empty music’ at a museum one afternoon when I’m interrupted by a girl who looks like an art student.

This happens to me often in public places: since I signed with Mephisto Management my profile has grown with extraordinary rapidity. Pretty much everyone knows who I am: ‘the moss man’. My Book of Moss enjoyed a worldwide success as phenomenal as it was inexplicable, and when The Moss Film came out very few stones were left unturned, promotionally speaking. Those who haven’t read the book or seen the film may have visited Mossworld, the theme park outside Barcelona; following its enormous popularity, replicas are currently being constructed in the Tokyo docklands, on the outskirts of Rio and Riyadh, in Istanbul and Shenzhen.

The art student is caramel-legged and flip-flopped, with a shapeless pink and white shift string-fastened around her slim waist. Her dark hair is twisted into braids at multiple points, the haphazard arrangement pleasingly patched together with plastic clips and improvised ferrules of brightly coloured electric tape.

– Excuse me, I hope I’m not disturbing you . . .

She is, of course.

– Not at all.

My eyes are exceptionally pleased by her. The more I look, the more hungry they become.

– You’re Mr Faust, the moss man, aren’t you?

Her teeth, the animation of her brown eyes.

– Yes, I am.

I can have whatever I want. Management has explicitly promised that.

– What’s your name?

– Gretchen Mitsukoshi.

– And you’re – let me guess – an art student?

– I was. Now I’m trying to succeed as a painter. I was wondering if you had any advice for a beginner?

I say what I usually say: The important thing is just to start. And then continue.

Gretchen smiles. Casually I extract a website address from her, then return to the sterile abstractions of Agnes Martin.

Later that day I screen-record a time-lapse video of Gretchen Mitsukoshi painting an installation for her grad show. I load the clip into iMovie and slow it down, discarding all but the heart-bumping scenes in which Gretchen turns smiling to the camera, shows a glimpse of profile, or bends over her paints, her loose top clearing small breasts.

I isolate a precious second in which Gretchen is sitting in a lotus-like position, one bare leg dropping casually from the vertical to the horizontal. I tremble and sweat over my digital editing tools, slowing and slowing that second down. I want to make it last forever.


Man is a grasshopper who leaps up from the grass only when imbecility is dangled in front of him like sugar. I was this kind of insect once.

Once I had a thirst for knowledge, and once I had a lust for fame. Oh yes! I was one of those wretches over whom gods and demons wager.

Doctor Hanamaru (that’s God’s real name) is in his office listening to Mephisto the devil giving one of his regular reports of the utter idiocy and revoltingness of mankind. But Doctor Hanamaru begs to differ. He points to his favourite human being as a possible exception.

– Sure, sure, but what about that Heinrich Faust? He’s pretty smart. He’ll achieve great things one day. Maybe he’ll even help humanity pull itself out of the mire.

– Not so, says Mephisto. Faust is a grasshopper like all the others, happy to press his nose against a cake of sugar, ready to ram his greedy exoskeleton up against the first piece of idiocy we care to dangle.

– I rate him more highly, insists Doctor Hanamaru, pursing his lips. Faust has studied diligently, and is on the point of turning base minerals into precious metals. You should see him with a microscope. He’s even created a little homunculus, a man-like creature, in his laboratory. I see a lot of me in Faust.

Mephistopheles scoffs, hiding his dark red face. Like many a loving parent, Doctor Hanamaru has an Achilles’ heel: he projects his narcissism.

Just at that moment I amble along, oblivious to the fact that enormous beings are discussing me in the vicinity. Under my breath I’m singing a song that, with a little amplification, will reveal itself as ‘How to Get – and Stay – Famous’, from Momus’s neglected 1997 album Ping Pong:

Lord, tell me how long it’s going to take me to get famous?

Will it take a week in vaudeville, a season in pantomime

Two years on the West End stage, a decade or maybe more?

Because I can’t afford to wait until I’m dribbling, bald, toothless, spineless and brainless

I don’t believe in your afterlife and your posterity

But, if they exist, I must be at least half the way there

And Lord, what if it takes a decade?

I am no longer young

Show me the road to fame, Lord, show me that road

Or just the road to the next whiskey bar

Mephisto cackles and Doctor Hanamaru wipes away a tear.

– He doesn’t believe in me right now, says Doctor Hanamaru, but he’ll come round in the end, just you wait and see!

– I’ll tell you what, says Mephisto, if you believe in this idiotic grasshopper, put your money where your mouth is. Let’s make a bet.

I’m still singing. I know all the words to this lament:

And Lord, what will it take, what will it take to get me to be and to stay famous?

Am I going to have to sell my soul to the stylists and the tailors of this world

If I’m not to go down in history as one of the failures?

Lord, teach me the boy-band dance routines

Above all teach me to be tame, bland, blind and blameless

Because that’s the hardest thing of all, to be aggressive and yet remain harmless

To edit out my impure thoughts when you know so well, Lord, that I’m shameless

Principled, amoral, provocative, confrontational and shameless

– My Faust is all those things, says Doctor Hanamaru proudly, and more. Notice that he’s addressing me, not you, Mephisto. He may be talking about selling his soul, but this is essentially a form of prayer. It’s the kind of thing I hear often at the Wailing Wall.

Mephisto sighs and rolls his eyes.

– He’s just priming the pump, Doctor Hanamaru.

The song continues:

And Lord, how long did it take you to get famous?

After you’d created this fantastic planet and all the animals

That creep about upon its surface

It must’ve taken a million years or more before

Anyone even thought to give a name to the nameless

And then, in the blinking of an eye the backlash came

The cynics crowded round saying you didn’t even exist

Oh, fashion is fickle, Lord, you know that more than I do

The backlash always comes, no matter what you’ve done

Created a world or that difficult third album

Doctor Hanamaru, sentimental and stirred, mouths the words of the refrain:

– Don’t ask me, I have no idea, all I know how to do is how to hide and disappear.

– Withdraw all your benefits, says Mephisto, and then see whether Faust doesn’t curse the name of God. I’ll bet he betrays you within seconds.

– Okay, says Doctor Hanamaru, the bet is on. As long as Faust is alive, do your worst. Lead him as far down the spiral of despair as you dare, as far up the corkscrew of fame. Man has to make mistakes if he’s going to get anywhere. But I’ll soon lead this man to clarity. He’ll be mine – and stay mine – in his final hour.

I’ve got to the part of the song where the narrator – a ‘swan in cellophane’ – compares himself to God:

Lord, tell me, how long did it take you to get famous?

You who sent your dearly beloved son down to walk the planet earth and be amongst us?

You who chose to give him sensational powers so he could do tricks much better than ours

And work miracles to impress us?

Lord, you did it for the publicity, I know, I understand

But then the backlash came, we turned on your son and he was slain

No matter what you’ve done, the backlash always comes

Created a world, given your son, or your difficult third album

Doctor Hanamaru, weeping openly, fills in his refrain line again:

– Don’t ask me, I have no idea, all I know how to do is how to hide and disappear.

– Lord, I say, if that is all you can say to me, share with me the secret of your immaculate obscurity.


I’ve found a transcript of my first German press conference. It happened at Tempelhof airport. I’d just touched down after a bumpy flight from Bern. As the small plane approached the big city, I could feel Berlin pulling me in, like an octopus.

Lurking below my podium was a malignant grey spider with flashing eyes. It spoke.

Press: Are you a little embarrassed by the lunacy you cause?

Faust: No, it’s great. I like lunatics.

Press: You’re in favour of lunacy?

Faust: Yeah, I think it’s healthy.

Press: Is that a Swiss accent?

Faust: It’s not Swiss. It’s Zürichdeutsch.

(The spider laughs.)

Faust: Zürich is the capital of Austria, as you know. We write half of your German literature there.

(More laughter.)

Press: In Munich people are handing out bumper stickers saying ‘Stamp Out Heinrich Faust.’

Faust: Yeah, well, I’m also starting a campaign. The slogan is: ‘Stamp Out Munich.’


Press: But seriously, what do you make of the Stamp Out Faust campaign?

Faust: How big are they?

Press: A psychiatrist recently said you’re nothing but a Swiss Karl Ove Knausgård.

Faust: I sold my soul, he just sent his to the public laundry.

Press: Would you please give us a sentence?

Faust: Life. Death. That’s two.

Press: There’s some doubt that you can write.

Faust: If you don’t read, why should I write?

Press: How much money do you expect to take out of this country?

Faust: Ten euros.

Press: How do you write with all that hair?

Faust: I’ll answer when I find my tongue.

Press: Are you bald, that you have to wear that wig?

Faust: It’s worse than that.

Press: Are you for real?

Faust: Come and have a feel.

Press: What do you think your writing does for people?

Faust: If I could answer that, I’d become a literary agent.

Press: What about all this talk that you represent some kind of social rebellion?

Faust: It’s a dirty lie.

Press: What do you think of Beethoven?

Faust: Great. Especially his poems.


Press: Have you decided when you’re going to retire?

Faust: Exactly one hour before I die.


I have realised that my love of moss is a love of death. Moss is, in a sense, death diluted.

Acres of moss are arcs of emptiness. When I speak of moss, I am actually speaking of my wish not to negotiate the complexities of everyday life.

I could say the same about fame. Fame and moss are related in that they both remove one from the need to tangle, on a daily basis, with the messy negotiations of human life.

Fame, death and moss are all, in fact, the same topic: a refusal to struggle. When you refuse to get up every day and wage the daily battle, it can only be because you are dead, or famous, or living in a soothing world of ambient green moss which stretches on all sides for vast distances to the horizon.

By becoming famous for writing about moss, and by selling my posthumous existence to the devil, I, Heinrich Faust, have scored a triple whammy: I have combined moss, death and fame into a sort of existential sandwich. I have then munched into my sandwich, only to be disappointed that the ingredients all taste the same.

What is it that frightens me about the daily struggle and the messy negotiations of human life? My picture of life is that people are doing, daily, what they don’t really want to, but feel they must, to sustain themselves materially and to meet expectations.

For instance, from the sofa where I am currently lying, covered with a cheap Chinese sleeping bag, I can hear daily life going on around me through a thin metal shutter. Sparrows are chirping and cars occasionally pass, the rainwater hissing off their tyres. Today is a Sunday, so I don’t hear the logistics company across the road playing its corporate music, nor do I hear mothers taking their kids to school.

School! That awful place where, for years and years, you’re forced to breed silkworms in a doll’s house, so that you become a silkworm later and live in a doll’s house! Remember the anxious tedium of homework? Three different types of pointlessness each night, eating up any hours of freedom you might have had after a tiring day of simulated pointlessness, marching up and down corridors wearing your uniform.

Marching up and down in that awful grey uniform, when you could have been lying between two chairs, supported only by your iron-hard stomach muscles (on which you balance a glass of schnapps), wearing a monocle and a replica of the dress in which Otto Dix painted the journalist Sylvia von Harden!

Marching up and down like a Prussian soldier, when you could have been out in the forest hunting for hedgehogs with a net and three perspex boxes! And collecting moss for your little prisoners to eat!

And yet later, when you were free, how disappointing it felt. You were free to pick out your own clothes, yet ironically you chose to dress like a Prussian soldier. Instead of toiling over homework you could watch television, eat ice cream, masturbate or take pictures of your cat and post them to the Internet, but these activities felt hollow. You wanted, of course, to march up and down.

What you discovered, gradually, was that only by structuring your own life pitilessly could you achieve anything fulfilling. Only by applying yourself to something arbitrary and pointless – and yet, crucially, of your own devising – could you escape the emptiness of unstructured diversion. In order to transcend pointlessness, you needed to become the merciless organiser of pointlessness.

So you took to inventing games with simple rules and restrictions. You could write something, but only allow yourself a sequence in which vowels and consonants alternated strictly. You could make a piece of music, but only use the sound of objects in the room. You could cross the city on a bicycle, letting strangers wearing a certain colour of hat determine whether you turned left or right.

Nevertheless, when you speak of moss, you are actually speaking of your wish not to negotiate the complexities of everyday life. You would like me to bear this in mind, because it will become important later.


When word reaches the management company that I’m pining for Gretchen Mitsukoshi, a series of six glass cubes is constructed in the laboratories at Mossworld Barcelona. Separate travel arrangements are made for Gretchen and myself, and a select public is invited to peer into the cubes from a surrounding gantry canopied with fern. All around, like the green-screen backdrop on a sound stage, the moss undulates to the horizon.

In the first cube Gretchen is waiting for me in the art gallery, exactly as I saw her that first day. The articulated floor is a zigzagging birch parquet. Agnes Martin reproductions hang on the clear plastic walls, their small size providing the audience with a relatively unobstructed view. The scene plays exactly as it did in real life, except that instead of turning back to the walls at the end of our conversation I step closer to Gretchen, kiss her lips, and begin to run the tip of my tongue along the edge of her milky teeth. As our mouths mingle, my fingers explore her complex hairstyle and the delicate structures of her slightly sticky-outy ears, each one punctured in two places by a silver stud.

In the second cube we’re in a Leonard Cohen song. It’s ‘Take This Waltz.’ We’re in Vienna, of course, and the cave at the tip of the lily is a nightclub folly decorated with crinkled crape and draped velvet. It looks and feels like the inside of a humid vagina; the clitoris is a pink chandelier. Gretchen sits on a chair with a dead magazine, waiting for me to emerge from the hallway where love’s never been. Lust quickly moves us to a bed where the moon has been sweating. We’re both fully clothed, but my penis chafes and strains at Gretchen’s panties. She utters a cry filled with footsteps and sand.

In cube three Gretchen is dressed in a pink yukata, crouched on the gravel of a nocturnal play park, a white sparkler in her hand. The hanabi celebration draws fireflies, of which I am one. I circulate in ecstasy, zooming closer and closer to the sparkler’s cold light, then land on one of Gretchen’s parted thighs and manoeuvre until I’m able to note the fact that under her yukata Gretchen is naked. Her sex – a series of complicated floral folds – is clearly visible in the pale-yellow bioluminescence emitting from my abdomen, where the enzyme luciferase is igniting magnesium and oxygen.

In the fourth cube everything is in black and white. Gretchen and I are sitting around the walls of the Theatre of 13 Rows in Opole, Poland, watching Jerzy Grotowski’s 1963 production of Tragiczne dzieje doktora Fausta by Christopher Marlowe. But if you look into the cube from a different angle, we’re actually sitting in the Polski Theatre in Poznan watching Grotowski’s 1960 production of Goethe’s Faust. Since neither of us understands Polish, the action unfolds in a series of yowls, songs, intonations, ululations, hymns, gestures and acrobatics, as, for instance, when Faust – who has just one hour left before he must render his soul to Mephistopheles – falls between the two long wooden tables which are the only props and catches himself using just his legs, one on each table. Gretchen and I glance at each other, impressed.

In the fifth cube, the whizzing electrons of a colour TV image are making a kind of 3-D soap opera in which I am fucking Gretchen, who is simultaneously telling me that she has just accidentally killed her mother with the sleeping tablets I gave her by mistake, thinking they were birth-control pills. This news makes me lose my usual self-control and I orgasm inside Gretchen (under normal circumstances I practise coitus interruptus). After the commercial break we learn that Gretchen is pregnant, and her brother is furious about it. Mephisto and I, playing ourselves in the soap opera, slay Gretchen’s brother in a sword fight. Gretchen goes mad, drowns her newborn son and is sentenced for murder. I try unsuccessfully to rescue her from death row. She won’t come. But just before the episode ends, a booming voice from heaven announces that Gretchen has been saved. The audience breaks spontaneously into applause, because in the pilot the voice from heaven said the exact opposite.

In the sixth cube there is just moss, and perhaps a little birdsong. It’s remarkably relaxed after the Sturm und Drang of cube five, and Gretchen and I decide to stay here for as long as possible, mating without interruption on the soft green sward.


The Scottish writer James Hogg was known as the Ettrick Shepherd. In fact, Hogg was a shepherd’s assistant. Out on the drizzling hillsides of the late eighteenth century he scraped a fiddle and taught himself to read using the Bible and newspapers. In fact his most famous novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, is an exact juxtaposition of the Bible and newspapers, being a report of how the devil makes a Calvinist, convinced his soul is saved, into a murderer.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner describes how a character called Gil-Martin befriends Robert Wringham, a righteous puritan assured that whatever he does on earth, he’ll be one of God’s elect in heaven. The shape-shifting Gil-Martin (either the devil or a figment of Robert’s imagination) goads Robert to murder several people, including his own half-brother. The story is told twice, first in an ‘objective’ version by the editor of various posthumous papers and then in the increasingly deranged account of Robert himself.

Particularly impressive is the scene in which Wringham’s mother, a bigoted adulteress, flings a Thermos flask filled with the sins of the unsaved into the North Sea. It’s impressive because in the early nineteenth century the Thermos flask did not yet exist; it was invented by Sir James Dewar in 1892.

The visionary Hogg was lucky; one result of the arrival of the cultural period known as Romanticism was that shepherding became a key occupation, comparable to banking today. Sir Walter Scott decided to collect rustic ballads, and Hogg was one of the researchers chosen to record the songs sung by old men who lived on hillsides. Following the salon success of Robert Burns, Hogg moved to Edinburgh and began publishing poetry collections with titles like The Mountain Bard and Mador of the Moor. As a kind of noble savage and son of the plough, Hogg was able to fuck many women, despite the fact that only two of his four limbs were his own.

Blackwood’s Magazine ran a regular column in which Hogg was stereotyped as an idiot savant. People in the cities wanted to know about the countryside, and people in Germany wanted to know about Scotland. Everything rustic, bucolic and pastoral became highly fashionable. By which I mean that everything concerning moss got connected to everything concerning fame.


Thank you for your patience. Now my story really begins. The architectural part of it, anyway. They say the only good thing about fame is being able to get a table at a restaurant, but being able to build your perfect house is much better.

Right from the start, I had in mind an almost impossible house. I wanted it to stand on top of the mountain Ludwig Hohl describes in his terse, oblique novel Ascent. Two alpinists are climbing a glacier in Switzerland. One, daunted by the endless danger, turns back. The other, knowing that it can only end badly, continues recklessly towards the top.

Of course, building a house on the summit of a mountain is the most difficult thing you can do; just getting the labourers and materials to the building site each day is a Sisyphean struggle involving crampons, oxygen masks and ice picks. That, of course, was part of the appeal: the difficulty, the pointlessness and the promise of utter isolation that such a structure would offer when it was completed.

The house was going to be my most tangible reward for the worldwide success of The Book of Moss. I was going to use the money earned by my popularity with humanity to stand apart entirely from humanity. It’s not an uncommon paradox; the celebrities we love mostly hate and fear us, as evidenced by their high fences, their heavily armed bodyguards. As for me, the mountain would be all the bodyguard, all the fence I needed.

But which mountain? Hohl had not been specific; his mountain was an amalgam of a thousand generic jagged alps. I would have to select a mountain that stood for all the others. There was only one choice: the Matterhorn. My house would stand on the very peak, 4478 metres above sea level.

The Matterhorn has always terrified me. I find the mountain – vast, stark, dead, angular, permanent – terrifying the way I used to find planetaria terrifying as a child; they confirmed beyond all shadow of a doubt that I was tiny and insignificant, and that within a nonsensically short time frame I’d be dead. Space carried on forever, but I didn’t. Only my death was as endless.

The Matterhorn, as depicted in an array of googled images, is mostly aggressive, angular, sharky. It’s vast and hard, and yet not too vast or hard for today’s vast and hard humans. The mountain, as depicted today, looks like something Zaha Hadid would design; something cold, technological, steep, raked, capitalist. Something filled with the triumphalist imagery of sport, and achievement, and challenge. Is that cocaine on the Matterhorn’s slopes? Is it made of steel? Has James Bond skied down the south face yet?

(By the way, Ludwig Hohl was kicked out of school for talking too frequently of women, cigarettes and Nietzsche.)

The Matterhorn, in today’s representation, isn’t the warm, integrated natural shape seen in yellowish 1950s postcards, framed with gorgeous pine trees. Today it seems to say: ‘Fuck you, losers, I’m the proud winner of the mountain race!’ It’s often depicted with a plane flying by, or behind adventurers with pickaxes and bad sunglasses, or as a theme-park model under construction by humans, or as a twinkling film-production-company logo, or with a nightmarishly huge suspension bridge attached to it, or like a bloody fang in the sunset.

Does the peak of the Matterhorn stand in Italy or in Switzerland? Can I get Peter Zumthor to design the House of Moss, my pinnacle lair? Does moss even grow at 4478 metres above sea level? Is Piet Oudolf available to make me a moss garden? With whom should I negotiate the planning permission, and which construction company would be best suited to the impossible building? When I move in, where will I buy milk?


Gretchen is lying naked and tummy-down on the tatami mat beside my sofa. Her disorderly black hair is spilling into the pages of two gardening books. She is excited about the Matterhorn house, and especially the courtyard garden.

– Heinrich, she says, which is stronger, moss or grass?

– What do you mean, stronger?

– I mean, which will drive the other out, if we don’t intervene? These books are giving me contradictory information. In Natural Gardening in Small Spaces by Noël Kingsbury, it says:

Mosses tend to appear of their own accord if conditions are right, but while they can coexist with very small flowering plants and some ferns, they may well be swamped by grass or other vigorous larger plants – making careful weeding out of seedlings an important part of moss gardening.

Whereas in Gardening with Grasses by Michael King, it says:

Where drainage is poor, the grass is quickly invaded by moss.

– So which is it? Is moss swamped by grass, or does moss quickly invade grass?

I tell her that it’s natural that a book called Gardening with Grasses will take the side of grass. I add that the secret of writing gardening books is to sound confident and authoritative. In all probability, nobody knows anything at all about moss, but the knack is to sound sure and inspire confidence in the publisher and readers. Because gardening books sell more than all other books in the world put together, and they achieve this impressive feat by striking a note of authoritative reassurance.

– But won’t people check?

I explain that it’s highly unlikely that an editor, proofreading the manuscript of a gardening book, will set up an experiment to see if a claim about moss is true. Editors don’t have that skill set. And the fact that moss grows only when and where it wants to makes fact-checking doubly unlikely.

– I suppose you’re right, darling. You’re so clever! But what about the readers, couldn’t they check?

The same goes for the general gardening public, I tell Gretchen: if moss cannot be coaxed with a mixture of cow dung and yoghurt to grow on charred larch or concrete board, then it’s perfectly possible that nothing at all can ever be said about moss, or, rather, that anything at all can be said about moss without fear of contradiction.

– That seems very likely, says Gretchen. How exciting!

I tell Gretchen that this was my approach when writing The Book of Moss. I neither feared nor brooked any contradiction whatsoever. Gretchen laughs.

– What a wonderful thing, to be able to say anything at all! But didn’t moss experts raise their voices in dismay at some of your wilder claims? Like when you said that moss is able to kill and eat small mammals, make modest purchases in a shop, or dance on a windy day?

(She’s joking. I didn’t say any of those things.)

– Not at all. I found that there were no moss experts in the world. I created the profession with The Book of Moss.

Gretchen looks at me lovingly.

– So you did, my darling scholar! Just like Sherlock Holmes. Oh, Heinrich, how lucky I am to have you!

Gretchen’s adoration makes me a little grumpy, because it reminds me that her love has been purchased for me by Mephistopheles. This is not real devotion, but something hollow and robotic, the meaningless triumph of someone who leaves his computer chess game at the easiest setting.

– You shouldn’t get your hopes up, I tell my beautiful but hollow girl-robot. On top of the Matterhorn, cruel winds are constantly blowing across sheer marble cliffs. It’s highly likely that nothing at all will be able to grow in our garden.


In Episode 21 of Season 3 of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, journalist Murray Slaughter falls into a blue funk when a colleague wins a Pulitzer Prize. The years are passing quickly by and Murray has nothing to show for it.

Laurie Anderson makes a guest appearance at the newsroom, setting up a keyboard stand, donning a white suit and – after a round of applause from the studio audience – intoning her spooky, hypnotic number ‘White Lily’, which goes:

What Fassbinder film is it? The one-armed man comes into the flower shop and says:

– What flower expresses days go by, and they just keep going by endlessly, pulling you into the future? Days go by endlessly, endlessly pulling you into the future?

And the florist says:

– White lily.

But my memory may be playing tricks on me, because that episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show aired in 1973, and that year Laurie Anderson was still drawing underground comics and writing reviews for Artforum.

Be that as it may, Laurie and Mary travel to Munich to visit Fox, the working-class homosexual in Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends, played by Fassbinder himself. Fox has just won 500,000 marks in a lottery, and is finding that some of the gay snobs who used to snub him are now keen to flirt with and fleece him instead. Fox sets them a test: whoever can seduce Murray Slaughter (ostensibly a straight man, though that’s never a given) will get half of his windfall.

Murray is at first flattered by the attention, but tells the Munich homosexuals he has a wife and kids back home in Minneapolis. But soon the pressure gets too much to bear, and Murr is on the run.

Mary and Laurie are at the florist’s shop on Aberlestraße when they hear the terrible news: Murray Slaughter has been murdered, his hacked-up body dumped in a cream-coloured Mercedes 300 SL Sports Coupé abandoned in the hamlet of Weng, nestled between the Goldberg and Ankogel mountain groups near the Austrian town of Schwarzach im Pongau.

When Ted Baxter has to read the news of Murray’s death live on air, Lou Grant mistakenly hands him a joke obituary which Mary once compiled in a moment of boredom while Murray was still alive. The obituary quotes the whole of Thomas Bernhard’s debut novel, Frost. The episode lasts for seven hours, and Murray Slaughter’s death is never clarified. A great deal of light is shed, however, on the opinions of Strauch, a mad painter who hates everyone and everything.


My Matterhorn house plans are coming along nicely. Zumthor seems keen and has submitted wispy initial sketches in blue biro, local officials – heavily bribed – tell us we can buy and rebuild the Solvay climbers’ hut already standing on the peak, and Piet Oudolf is already experimenting with moss combinations for the inner courtyard.

While construction continues, I am living in a commercial building on a street corner in Osaka. It’s here that I’m now lying on a sofa writing this book, a thin metal blind separating me from the street outside, on which I can hear rain, and people, and sparrows.

A thin metal blind is also all that separates me from Goethe, although unlike me he wrote standing up. Sometimes I hear him coughing or giggling as he stands behind me, reading this manuscript over my shoulder.

The thing I like about Osaka is that I can be utterly foreign here. Being foreign is a luxury, like being famous, or dead, or living in a world in which featureless moss stretches in all directions to the horizon.

When I’m not writing, I like to go bicycling through the city’s endless nondescript suburbs – the built equivalent of moss stretching to the horizon. My bicycle is a Japanese mama-chari, fitted with a child seat in which the tiny Goethe usually sits, whimpering as the death teeth emerge painfully through his baby gums. Goethe and I cycle mostly during and after dusk, and try to look into people’s houses, despite the fact that this is impossible, because in Japan windows are tiny and always scrupulously opaque.

Looking with Goethe into the windows of houses at night in a city on the far side of the world is the closest thing I know to being dead. It’s very pleasant indeed. Goethe often weeps copiously at the beauty of it all.

We feel like ghosts, or the readers of novels. Lives unfold before our eyes in ways which engross but never ensnare us. Goethe has one advantage over me, however: he is actually dead.

By the way, I have often wondered why museums, built on the pleasures of looking, are so heavily policed by attendants, commissionaires, guards. Looking must be a very dangerous activity.

Paul Klee wrote something beautiful in his diary:

Imagine you’re dead. After many years of exile you’re permitted to cast a single glance earthwards. You can see a lamppost, and an old dog lifting his leg against it. You’re so moved that you can’t help sobbing.


When Gretchen meets Agnes, the experience almost frightens her to death.

Dressed as my female alter ego, I’m sitting in front of a mirror unscrewing my prosthetic limbs. The room is lit by skulls with candles placed in their eye sockets. An audio book by the radical Viennese journalist Robert Misik is playing.

– Who are you? stammers Gretchen. You’re not my Heinrich!

I explain that I’m Agnes, and that anyone who signs up for Heinrich gets Agnes thrown in for free.

– I don’t want Agnes, I just want my Heinrich!

Poor simple, loving Gretchen! Come here, my darling! Agnes won’t hurt you! Agnes is kind, and good, and loving! Agnes and Gretchen can share clothes, and makeup, and bitch about men, and harmonise menstrual cycles! Wait, let me turn off the Robert Misik.

But Gretchen has flung some things into a suitcase and run away. Later, I will hear via Twitter that she has been spotted tending a flock of geese on the Schneider-Wibbel-Gasse or (more likely) modelling for some Düsseldorf fashion designers. I will also hear that she has accidentally killed her mother, is pregnant with my child, and that her brother, Valentin, is absolutely furious about all this and will have to be dealt with.

I will later be informed, via Twitter’s 140-character limit, that Gretchen has gone mad, drowned my son and been sentenced for murder. I will try unsuccessfully to rescue her from death row, but it will take a deus ex machina to do that.

By the way, have you read Faust? Goethe’s Faust? You haven’t? But you absolutely MUST! What’s that? Have I? Well, not in its entirety. A lot of it is just doggerel about the muses and nature and so on. And absolutely nobody reads Part 2, which is completely bonkers stuff about pygmies, paper money, fauns and the eternal feminine.

You know, books are made to be not-read. Even as I write these words, I know that vastly more humans will not-read them than read them. This is as it should be. Books are not like visual art, about which you can form an opinion after a few cursory glances (‘Loved Olafur Eliasson’s big sun!’). Books, even silly books like the one I’m writing here in an industrial building in Osaka, require substantial sustained intellectual effort, which very few people are willing or able to put in. And even if readers put the work in, they may miss the point entirely; what normal person, after all, can fathom Goethe’s weird Graeco-Christian-Gothic-Enlightenment worldview? Even a reader who – by some miracle – understands it may forget the whole thing the following week, and have very little to show for all that effort except a vague sense of déjà vu on re-reading, the kind we feel when we hear quotations from Hamlet.

The literary world functions by an elaborate system of pretences. I pretend to have read the book I’m asked to blurb, I pretend to have read my friend’s books, I quote something profound from my brother’s book as if I’ve read it, I mention to my editor that I’m struggling with the ‘dense prose’ of his own tome while he’s being paid to correct my own dense prose, I offer an opinion of Knausgård’s My Struggle without having been anywhere near the book, I skim glosses of recaps and recap glosses of skims. To study literature at university is mostly to learn the skill of bluffing convincingly that you’ve read books that you haven’t. As for a reader re-creating in his mind the exact pictures and associations a writer had in hers, I doubt it has ever happened.

Fortunately, I very much enjoy summaries.


Charles Henry Winer is a journalist who travels across the Hominid Zone, a radioactive cactus corridor populated by centaurs with whom he has sex. His ultimate destination, to the west, is the Egghead Republic, an island floating in the Pacific, populated with the cream of the world’s intellectual talent. The year is 2008, but actually it’s 1957.

When Winer arrives, centaur sperm still staining his trousers, he finds that a Cold War has split the island down the middle. The artists from the Free World are decadent and porky, while those from the Communist Bloc are writing collective novels and wearing uniforms. Winer’s account of the tension is published in German, a dead language, to limit the impact of his findings.

A writer spinning out the manuscript of a book is like a banker generating debts he knows can never be repaid. From one perspective it’s a waste of time, ‘the deliberate pouring of water through a sieve’, in Dostoyevsky’s phrase. The effort will not be repaid. From another, however, it’s an incredibly important process in which cultural charisma – intellectual glamour – is generated via a mechanism of guilt.

A bookshelf is a glamorous row of reproaches. We know that there are books we ought to read, and ought to have read, because they are said to be wonderful and capable of making us better people. They sit there on the shelf, seeming to watch us, waiting for our best moment of spiritual preparedness. Yet we fail to read them. As a result we feel guilty. The books seem to say to us:

– You are trivial and lazy. Your life could be so much richer and more creative, yet you fritter away your attention on television and Facebook, or idle gossip, or sports, or Olafur Eliasson installations.

This guilt is much more wonderful than the contents of the books themselves could ever be, and spiritually much more uplifting. The unreadness of books outstrips their readness in beauty and in utility. It’s tremendously important to believe that there are heights which we’ve failed to attain, mountains we can glimpse in the distance but not climb. It’s almost like believing in heaven. To quote Kafka once more:

Theoretically there is a perfect possibility of happiness: believing in the indestructible element in oneself and not striving towards it.

An unread book is a mirage which enchants the whole world. As in the paper money system that Goethe rails against in Faust, Part 2, the legitimacy of the humanities is based on vapour, glamour, lies and lacunae. Money relies on notional values, debts and obligations which, if called upon, would prove fictional and collapse the whole system. Paper money and books follow the same imperative:

– Run the printing presses!

In fact, I would go so far as to say that books are paper money, and paper money is a book.

If paper money has to be a specific book, I would suggest Reinhard Lettau’s paperback Schwierigkeiten beim Häuserbauen (Difficulties in Building a House), published in 1965 by Sonderreihe DTV with a splashy black-ink-and-grid Helvetica cover by Celestino Piatti.


The Book of Moss is published by Suhrkamp. This is something I insisted on when I struck my original deal with Mephisto: it had to be Suhrkamp. No other publisher would be able to confer such grandiosity on moss. And no other publisher would allow my book – widely sold though it was – to remain so elegantly unread.

I love Suhrkamp, not because of the books it actually publishes – to be honest, I haven’t read a single one – but because of the books I imagine it publishes. They are deeply serious in a way only German-language books can be, but also radical and shockingly intelligent. Even when they advocate revolution in the name of the proletariat, they are couched in terms that only a tiny elite can understand.

Since Gretchen left me, I have had a lot of time to stare at my computer desktop. It shows three mock Suhrkamp covers displayed on iPads. There’s Sperrzone Fukushima. Ein Bericht by William T. Vollmann (Stempel Garamond type, roman and italic, in a puce surround). There’s Weihnachten. Das globale Fest by Daniel Miller (Stempel Garamond, roman and italic, in a surround of pale khaki). And there’s Halbe Freiheit. Warum Freiheit und Gleichheit zusammengehören by Robert Misik (Stempel Garamond, roman and italic, in a surround of powder blue).

These are real books reframed by a young graphic designer called Hagen Verleger. He uses no images on the jackets, just print and pattern. Verleger has an almost-Japanese feel for patterns in which austerity and sensuality balance out, for digital forms which borrow the aura – almost the scent – of printed paper objects and for the combination of august, austere conservatism and avant-garde radicalism. With their tightly controlled colour and symmetry, his fake Suhrkamp jackets actually have more visual legitimacy than Suhrkamp’s own printed matter, which is sometimes shoddy, inconsistent and ill considered.

If I were Suhrkamp I would hire Verleger immediately and save face. And yet I like the way he brings into being a parallel Suhrkamp, like the parallel legal system in Kafka’s The Trial or the parallel postal system in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.

I’m sure Verleger hasn’t read a single Suhrkamp book either. In fact, it’s perfectly possible that nobody has. This makes Suhrkamp the perfect publisher, because – as we’ve seen – it is the destiny of most books to go unread most of the time. Unreadness is the essence of a book, which should never, however, be unreadable. Rather, as in Kafka’s parable Before the Law, the dusty book should raise itself from the shelf and say to its owner, in the final moment:

– This door was for you alone, and now I am going to close it.


Things get a bit lonely in my life. I begin thinking about how my ancestor, Goethe’s Faust, was able to arrange to marry his ideal woman, Helen of Troy. Could there be someone like that available to me? Who would I choose?

The answer comes to me one day as I’m reading a Tumblr fan blog about Aoi Yu, the Japanese actress and model. Aoi Yu has the pleasing features of an Eskimo, and smiles a lot. I like what I read about her personality, too. Did you know that Aoi Yu bathes in a cedar box bath which she fills right to the top, splashing the excess water all over the floor when she steps in and sinks up to her neck in the water? When the temperature has cooled sufficiently, Aoi Yu dips her face into the water and is amused to hear the exact quantity of hot liquid displaced by her face cascading down onto the tiles. By the sound of the splash, she can tell whether her face is getting bigger or smaller.

Such a woman, although still alive, would make a very handsome wife for me.

The following day in a secondhand bookstore I find a photo book called Dandelion by Yoko Takahashi. Takahashi has taken Aoi Yu to Siberia and photographed her wearing peasant smocks and fur hats. We see Yu drinking black tea on the Trans-Siberian Express, sitting in knickerbockers on her bunk, and visiting shrivelled crab-apple women in dacha villages with dramatic mountain ranges in the background. The photos are taken in Khabarovsk, Irkutsk, Buryatskaya, Novosibirsk and Vladivostok. The fearful cold gives Aoi Yu a red-cheeked fraîcheur and the snow acts as a huge reflector, casting a bright, even light across her simple, benign features.

I decide to ask Mephisto whether I can make Aoi Yu, as depicted in the pages of Yoko Takahashi’s charming book, my Helen of Troy.

The answer comes back in the affirmative, with provisos: I can take Aoi Yu as my bride, but our lives must unfold only in the locations and costumes depicted in Takahashi’s book. It will forever be 2008, and we will forever be riding the Trans-Siberian Express, stopping for photo opportunities in Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Irkutsk, Buryatskaya and Novosibirsk. Also, Yoko Takahashi – who is somewhat in love with Aoi Yu herself – will always be with us, taking photographs.

I agree.

The trip is a disaster. Takahashi does everything she can to prevent Aoi Yu and I from consummating our marriage, barging into the cabin we share at all hours of the night with a torch and camera. In Khabarovsk I’m bitten by an entire team of huskies when I attempt to cross the road against the red man. In Irkutsk some raw bear meat gives Aoi Yu a serious stomach infection and a local doctor forces her to eat the dried bodies of dead bees. At Buryatskaya the local police tell us our passports are not in order; we’re forced to spend a week in a stark tin shed, cold and gender-segregated. A cable from Tokyo clears things up, but we still have to wait another four days for the next Trans-Siberian Express. In Novosibirsk Takahashi goes off in search of medium-format camera film and I finally manage to get some quality time alone with Aoi Yu, only to find that she has vulvovaginitis, a condition which makes penetration impossible.

We return to Vladivostok, locate a Russian Orthodox archbishop able to dissolve our satanic marriage, and go our separate ways.


I’m having lunch with the director of Suhrkamp. Not the real Suhrkamp, but the parallel house – mysterious and imaginary – generated by the mock covers of the designer Hagen Verleger.

The head of Parallel Suhrkamp is Wilhelm Verleger, Hagen’s father. Formerly an electrician in Bremen, Wilhelm was catapulted to the directorship of the prestigious parallel publishing company the same day his son published the Suhrkamp Project, his elegant series of visual proposals for a revamp of the Suhrkamp catalogue.

Parallel Suhrkamp publishes all the same books as Original Suhrkamp, but with different covers. But, as Wilhelm explains to me over Baltic herring, cream and parsley, the stylish impostors are considering an audacious move: they will approach all Original Suhrkamp’s living authors and ask them to prepare exciting new books which will appear only on Parallel Suhrkamp. They even plan, Wilhelm tells me, to get ghostwriters to imitate the styles of Suhrkamp’s dead authors and produce a range of new works from beyond the grave.

As we chew our way through wild boar, beetroot and slices of fried sweet potato drizzled with pig’s blood, Wilhelm tells me the chequered history of his relationship with his son. Hagen was a lazy boy who performed badly at school, preferring to sketch, daydream and doodle than pay systematic attention to his lessons. After the umpteenth warning note from his teachers, Wilhelm called his son to his electrical bench and said:

– Hagen, no matter how your teachers and I try, we can’t seem to make a single fact stick in your head. I’ve decided to send you away for a year of remedial classes, to see if you can catch up with your peers.

The boy was therefore sent away to a private tutor in Bern. When he came back, Wilhelm asked Hagen what he had learned.

– I have learned what dogs are saying when they howl, replied the boy.

Wilhelm was exasperated; a year had been wasted. He sent Hagen on a second remedial year, this time to a tutor in Geneva.

When the year was up and Hagen returned, Wilhelm asked him what he had learned.

– Father, said the boy, I have learned what the frogs mean when they croak.

Wilhelm was furious: another year had been wasted. He might as well have burned his money in a big electrical fire. As a last resort he sent Hagen to a third tutor, a man in Zurich who had a good reputation as an educator capable of overcoming all resistance.

Hagen returned, as before, and said – in the same insolent tones – Father, I have spent the year mastering the language of the birds.

On hearing this, Wilhelm flew into a rage. He summoned three electrician colleagues and asked them to take his son into the forest and electrocute him with battery-powered slaughter prods.

The three electricians took Hagen and the prods into the forest, but at the last moment took pity on the boy and set him free, telling him to make off into the forest and live amongst the animals and birds, eating fruits and berries.

At first Hagen followed this advice. But soon he grew bold and walked through the forest, emerging into the world which lay spread out on the other side. Hagen explored this world, walking everywhere on foot like a monk and storing up impressions he would later transmute into startlingly original graphic design.

In the course of his wanderings, Hagen reached a land which was being terrorised by wild dogs. The animals ran everywhere in a frenzy, snapping and baying and making sleep utterly impossible for the human natives. From time to time the dogs would demand a human sacrifice and rip the living flesh from some poor villager’s bones.

Since Hagen could understand the language of dogs, he explained to the people of that region why the animals were so angry, and what it would take to calm them down. Apparently a tranche of new health and safety legislation had been enacted which failed to take the ancient rites and customs of dogs into account. As soon as this was explained, local assemblies were able to revoke the legislation, and the dogs became obedient and respectful again.

After a few years living in that region, practising graphic design in a small studio and feted as a minor local hero, Hagen decided to go to Rome. On the way he was given to understand, by the croaking of certain frogs in certain roadside ponds, that a fabulous future awaited him.

When Hagen arrived in Rome he learned that the Pope had just died and that the cardinals of the Vatican conclave were having trouble agreeing on a suitable successor. At the very moment when the cardinals decided that the future pope would be indicated to them by a miraculous sign, two white doves landed on Hagen’s shoulders.

On seeing this, the cardinals immediately asked Hagen whether he would consent to be Pope. Hagen began explaining that he had set his heart on a career in graphic design, but the doves cut in and told the cardinals that he would be delighted to accept. And so he was consecrated, just as the frogs had predicted. His first duty as Pope was to perform a mass, which – as a Protestant – he had no idea how to do. Fortunately the doves were able to coach him through, whispering the sequence of words and gestures into his ears.

It was in his luxurious papal apartments at the Vatican that Hagen – bored, and in need of something impressive for his portfolio (for even as Pope he hadn’t renounced his ultimate ambition of displacing Peter Saville as ‘the pope of graphic design’) – cooked up the Suhrkamp project.

– And that, explains Wilhelm, is when I was suddenly appointed chairman of Parallel Suhrkamp. I must say, it was very Christian of my son to forgive me. I had treated him appallingly, from a certain point of view.

As we break open the hard caramel shells of our crèmes brûlées, Wilhelm tells me about the book he’d like me to write for the imprint: a memoir of my pact with Mephistopheles and my subsequent adventures. The title will be Herr F (Everything Living Forever Is Screaming Forever) and the cover will feature Stempel Garamond type and an acid yellow surround, in a simple yet elegant design by the Pope.


I’ve been getting emails from a child called Bettine. She’s the daughter of a woman I had an affair with years ago, and apparently she’s decided to share her mother’s passion for me. It’s awkward because I don’t want to encourage the girl, but neither do I want to disappoint her.

We first met when she was thirteen. Her mother must have brought her to Weimar. I was in the little room with white walls, writing at my standing desk, occasionally casting a glance at the vines I planted myself, with their fine plump leaves which luxuriate around my window. When I noticed I had a visitor, I came over to the horsehair chair and dandled little Bettine on my knee in my best avuncular manner. She reminded me of her mother.

Apparently one of my hairs attached itself to her dress, and when Bettine got home she burned this hair in the flame of a candle. There was no smoke, but my hair made the flame go blue. I learned this by reading her emails, which are now collected in a best-selling ebook entitled Faust’s Correspondence with a Child.

In various letters, which are semi-fictionalised, Bettine says that I am like the sun, and illuminate the world to her, and belong to Germany, and that I am a darling, and that she wishes she were a penniless beggar girl at my door so that I could give her a crust of bread and wrap her in my coat to keep her warm. She claims that various sonnets of mine were written for her, and recalls that I broke a leaf off my vine and laid it on her cheek and said that her face was as woolly as her prose. I can’t remember that incident at all.

It’s the price of fame, I suppose; the success of The Book of Moss means that people attach enormous weight to the slightest connection they have with me, and the most trivial encounter can become a prized and valuable anecdote.

The reviews of Bettine’s imaginary correspondence with me have been pretty favourable. One journalist wrote, somewhat breathlessly:

This strange Bettine has created space with all her letters, a world of vastly enlarged dimensions. From the beginning she spread herself out through everything, as if she had already passed beyond her death. Everywhere, she deeply entered into existence, became part of it, and whatever happened to her had from all eternity been contained in nature; in it she recognised herself, and she detached herself from it almost painfully, laboriously guessed herself back, as if out of the past, conjured herself like a ghost and endured it. Bettine, I understand you. Isn’t the earth still warm with you, and don’t the birds still leave room for your voice? The dew is different, but the stars are still the stars of your nights.

The odd thing is that the more indifferent I am to these hangers-on, groupies and camp followers, the more enthusiastic they become. The essence of fame is the same as the essence of death, or the essence of moss: its power lies in silence, impassiveness. The more microscopically bland and uneventful we can make an encounter with our fans, the more creative effort these people will put into enhancing it and working it into their personal cosmology.

Balzac said that in love there is always one who suffers and one who is bored. Deep in fame, or death, or moss, one is deep in boredom. It’s quite surprising to find that people not far away are burning with a passion symmetrical to one’s boredom, desperate for the slightest sign from oneself, ready to take even the lack of a sign and turn it into a sign, gripped by that peculiar state of soulful paranoia we call poetry, desire or love.

In choosing fame, death and moss over poetry, desire and love, I’ve obviously made a stupid mistake. How much better to be the unrequited lover than the indifferent object of her love! I envy Bettine, and I wish her the best of luck now she is married.

Yes, Bettine sent foul letters to both Gretchen and Aoi Yu, and I was forced to break off contact with her. Heartbroken, she married a famous poet. Her last letter to me reads:

My dearest Heinrich,

My peace is gone and my heart is heavy. As I sit here at the spinning wheel I know that I will never be calm again. The entire world is now an alien place to me. If I can’t have you, let it be my grave.

My poor head is full of bad craziness, my mind essentially dismembered. Sitting here at my sewing machine I look out of the window, half expecting to see you at every moment. If I do leave the house, it’s in the hope of glimpsing you: your unusually large shoe size, your hulking figure, the way you smile, the hint of violence in your eyes, the way you talk, the feel of your hand in mine and your kiss.

Heinrich, my breasts want to be crushed against your chest. They would willingly be stabbed by you, should you become a Moosbrugger, a Woyzeck, a Blaubart.

My peace really is gone and my heart really is heavy. As I sit here at the laptop, spinning, I know that I’ll never hold you again, never kiss you again, and that just tears me apart.

Your Bettine


My house atop the Matterhorn is finished. I moved in earlier today.

I thought, when the last of the Sherpas carrying my books, equipment and furniture had taken their generous tips and gone, that I’d be plunged into a splendid isolation which would last, essentially, forever. But I hadn’t reckoned on ‘the curse of the icon’.

The Matterhorn is an iconic mountain, and its peak is its most iconic spot. As a result, climbers, sightseers and tourists pop up here every few minutes to take selfies, smoke spliffs and rest before the return journey. Many assume that my house is a public lodging (as indeed it was, before I bribed officials to let me take it over), and knock insistently on the door.

I thought the first thing I would write in my new house would be a poem; something about the view, and eternity, and weather, and rock, and moss. Instead, I’ve spent the afternoon composing, translating and printing out a notice:


Since there is no Wi-Fi up here, I had to make the translation into various European languages myself, using memory and guesswork. My Italian notice reads:


My absolute nightmare scenario, now, is that someone will spot and recognise me, and, writing a Matterhorn review on TripAdvisor, will say something like: ‘Look out for the interestingly designed private villa on the summit – I could swear I saw cult author Heinrich Faust standing at the window.’

This will get picked up by the press, and my goose will be cooked.

I’m going to have to change my appearance. I will grow a long beard, wear baggy slacks and rags, buy a few brindled goats and try to pass for a goatherd.

But if I really have the goats, and actually do look after them, and drink goat’s milk, and pose for tourist photos dressed as a goatherd, won’t I actually be a goatherd, for all intents and purposes?

I’m so annoyed about this. In trying to escape from the perceptions of others and live above all human scrutiny on the top of a mountain, I have actually allowed myself to become – for the pleasure of fucking rubberneckers with cameras – a goatherd.


I’m not a man who does things by half measures. If I’m going to be a goatherd, I might as well do it properly.

So I enrol as a trainee shepherd in Fernando García-Dory’s Shepherds School, a project the artist has been running in the Urrieles mountains of northern Spain since 2004. I read about it in a book entitled A Shepherds School as a Micro Kingdom of Utopia.

García-Dory is keenly aware of the problematics built into his school, which tends to attract people with a romantic notion of ‘better, simpler times’, people who lack any understanding of the problems faced by real agro-ecological workers. To his credit, the artist is constantly trying to cut through this romantic miasma: at the Frieze Art Fair in 2012, for instance, he presented an Angry Farmers’ Milk Bar where patrons could pay whatever they thought the value of a pint of milk ought to be, before moving on to eat soup made with vegetables grown on Ruskin’s grave, purchase dumplings made from oppressed potatoes or quaff warm horse’s milk.

Since 1916 the Urrieles mountains have been part of a national park. Land which for over six thousand years was a free space for shepherds is now a tourist zone with car parking facilities and visitor centres featuring artificial forests and cardboard goats. The real shepherds have left, and their crumbling hand-built huts are now available for fake shepherds like myself.

Here in the school we try to respect the knowledge of the original shepherds while assisting them with our own. So we rebuild their stone huts, design logos and PR material for them with our computers, assist them in forming shepherding unions, help them put together their own activism organisations and make them famous by bringing television crews up onto the mountainsides.

Strictly mentored by the shepherds, we learn how to tend cows, sheep and goats, how to milk them on a daily basis and how to create artisanal cheeses in ateliers.

My own mentor is a leather-faced man called Juan. He’s rather scornful of Fernando’s interest in activism, telling me that shepherds have always been their own men, ruggedly individualistic. Politically, I would say that Juan is on the libertarian right. He’s very anti-immigration, and spends long hours complaining about halal butchery and the new breed of Muslim shepherds now encroaching, as he sees it, on the mountain pastures.

– For what was the reconquista of Al-Andalus? he likes to ask, for even he knows that Spain was Muslim for eight hundred years.

Sometimes working the mountainside with Juan is like being trapped in a taxi with a highly opinionated driver. But since he is my mentor, I have to go along with everything.

One learns very little here. None of us will ever become real shepherds. What we’re mostly learning is patience and obedience, qualities which don’t really lead to success, but to the endurance of suffering and failure.

If I told Juan that I’m learning shepherding just to pose for tourist photos and have a convincing celebrity disguise to don when I’m pottering around my luxury villa on the summit of the Matterhorn, I’m sure he would despise me more than he already does. So I’ve told him that my parents are office cleaners in Bern. Which, come to think of it, is actually true.

Under the scorn of Juan – he seems barely to tolerate me, calls me worthless and is always on the verge of giving me a beating – I experience a remarkable feeling of satisfaction. It’s a pleasure to be dependent once more, like an adult who has squeezed into his old school uniform.

The outfit obligatory for the trainee shepherd is lederhosen and a plain white shirt buttoned at the collar. Objectively speaking we look ridiculous, but I draw a certain satisfaction from the uniform because in the past I never really knew what to wear.

High in the mountains there isn’t much to do most of the time. The goats look after themselves. We read and re-read A Shepherds School as a Micro Kingdom of Utopia (a book for which, by the way, Juan has nothing but contempt, although he is illiterate). There’s only one class: How Should a Shepherd Behave? The old shepherds are fossils, grumpy and antisocial, and the goats bite at our buttons and try to eat our hair.

Sometimes my whole stay here seems like an incomprehensible dream.


I am walking – yes, walking – from the Picos de Europa National Park in Spain to Zermatt, Switzerland. I have realised something important.

I woke up one morning to the sound of Juan hollering, as usual, for me to come out and fetch water from the stream. I took the bucket with a rhythm Juan must have interpreted as indolence, because he booted me so hard on the buttocks that to this day my coccyx aches from the blow. I walked towards the stream and then kept walking, and am walking still.

What I’ve realised is that I don’t need to pose as a shepherd to avoid being recognised in my new home atop the Matterhorn. All I need do is ask Mephisto for a new face.

I can be anyone I like. That’s part of my understanding with management.

Who should I look like? It’s tempting to be handsome. A young David Bowie, perhaps, or Peter O’Toole.

No, it can’t be anyone famous: the whole problem is being a famous person. I must look like someone unknown. I decide I will ask Mephistopheles to give me the face of the dead experimental writer Arno Schmidt. Nobody will recognise Arno Schmidt. They certainly didn’t while he was still alive – his 1957 novel The Egghead Republic, for instance, completely failed to prevent the Cold War. Yet Arno Schmidt appeals to me. Being dead and experimental is almost as good as being handsome.

As I reach the village of Carmona and prepare to kip in a barn, I am attacked by doubts. I have been elated at the idea of getting a new face, but suddenly I am sad. Am I not a man without qualities?

A man who fails, fails at least on his own terms. But I have succeeded, only to lose any sense of who I am. I have sold my soul, I have sired the world’s most ridiculous best seller, I live in an unfeasible house, I have won and then lost my sweetheart, I have been kicked around by a racist shepherd and now I am contemplating getting a dead man’s face grafted onto the front of my head. This in addition to my two prosthetic limbs. I feel like a golem, a lumbering human patchwork, an abomination.

The second day the weather is gorgeous and my brain tilts towards more cheerful subjects. How should I decorate my Matterhorn house? Can I plant grass on the flat roof? What does architecture say about the people living in it? Do I have an actual decoration style I can call my own, or have I arranged everything so carelessly and wrong that it doesn’t have anything at all to do with me?

I think for hours about how the house might reflect my personality, but nothing comes to mind as a compelling reason to select one wallpaper rather than another. On the evening of that day I come to Parbayón and sleep buried in a hedge next to some exercise equipment.

On the third day of walking I feel that I am nothing more than an empty space inhabited by the weather, my surroundings, and the shifting moods they foster in me. In order to reflect this capricious vacancy I should really leave my house empty, like a bare stage, or make the windows huge, so that nature invades, or install revolving rooms, open to all suggestions, or engineer chameleonic wallpaper, strategically vague, or place theatrical props and scenery: wardrobe trunks, bobsled championships, tennis cups and luxury hotels along great highways with golf-course scenery and music on tap in every room.

On reaching, quite by chance, Santander airport I remember I have a satanic credit card, and decide to fly to Geneva. I can only go via Madrid. It takes over four hours, and during the second flight I begin to have a metaphorical panic attack, a literary form of air rage.

My initial thought is to open the plane door in order to cause a catastrophic depressurisation over the Mediterranean. This will be a metaphor for the fact that the world is rotten ‘to the core of the poodle’, and that we lack moral gravity. But I decide this would be too dramatic – and anyway, technically unfeasible – so instead I push the attendant button and wait for the steward to arrive.

The man is unmistakably gay. I suspect he takes me for a gay too. We are similes, and this is also part of the metaphorical panic attack. I beckon him to sit down beside me, but he tells me regulations forbid this. How can he help me?

I tell him I am dying for a cigar.

– This is a non-smoking flight, sir.

– I know that very well. I will tell you something about myself nevertheless. I am an ageing writer, and a winner of the Nobel Prize. I am also alcoholic, lecherous and mean.

– Can I get you a drink, sir?

– Not now. Let me tell you something more. Disgusted with life, I am racing around like an exhausted St Augustine, longing for death and yet unable to croak. Even when I do manage to terminate all life functions, I am furious to find myself, like Christ, resurrected within a matter of days. Meanwhile, funnily enough, all around me the people who are trying to stay alive are falling like flies.

I tap my nostril twice. I am making a précis of myself, and this is a part of the literary air rage too.

– Because I know I am already damned, I display the full gamut of venality. And I would act exactly the same way if I knew I were saved. Knowing is what undermines us, morally. The only good people are those who know nothing.

– Wait here, I’ll bring a champagne, says the steward, touching my arm in a fake display of fellow feeling.

Wait here! As if, on a plane, I could go anywhere else!

I had wanted to tell the steward that life is brutal, blind, brief and random, and that my rage only deepens the longer I am denied the release of death, but I capitulate and am soon sucking the complimentary fizzy wine from its thin plastic glass.

The glass is plastic because it’s assumed I might break a real glass into shards and either plunge it into my own veins, spraying the surprised faces of the passengers around me with blood, or use it to hijack the plane and crash it deliberately into the financial district of Zurich.

Instead I fall asleep. I dream the plastic surgeons have made a mistake, and that instead of the face of Arno Schmidt I have had Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s entire head placed on my shoulders. Dürrenmatt’s bloated lymph nodes make me look like a red cabbage in spectacles. I puff on an important cigar and talk about frogs, venality, Marilyn Monroe, alcoholism and reincarnation.

When we arrive in Geneva I catch an SBB CFF FFS train to Brig. At Brig I move across to platform 3 and take the Zermatt to Gornergrat scenic railway, with its magnificent rotating views of the Matterhorn.

Dusk is gathering, and the jagged peak looks more menacing than ever. With the naked eye it’s just possible to see my house, a tiny piece of neat geometry squeezed between rocks on the summit. Either I have left a light on all this time, or somebody is in there.


It’s 4:14 a.m. when I finally haul myself onto the peak of the Matterhorn. My strength is almost completely spent. My prosthetic limbs have developed a phantom buzz. A blizzard is making the fumble for door keys agonising.

The House of Moss has lost none of its Zumthor charm – this dark world of polymers and hessian scrim is a welcoming refuge from the white violence outside – but what are those strange rays of green, pink and white seeping from the Piet Oudolf garden within?

– Who’s there?

The figure of a woman bends over an intricate moss garden lit with tiny fibre-optic lights. It’s Gretchen Mitsukoshi!

– Heinrich!

– Gretchen!

– I didn’t know where you’d gone! I was afraid this moss garden might be a memorial rather than a gift!

– I was learning to be a shepherd in Spain! You’re back! Thank Doctor Hanamaru!

We are wrapped tightly together.

– I’ve missed you!

– And I’ve missed you Heinrich! So much!

– Let’s never separate again!

– Never!

– Whatever strange things I say!

– Whatever!

Gretchen tugs my arms and drags me around Zumthor’s charred pine cloisters.

– Look, Heinrich, I have started the moss garden which will be our life’s work! Do you see, it is made with the moss of the German hardwood forests which, for 3500 years, have hidden and protected people like us, allowing us to ambush all our enemies!

– But Gretchen, you are half Japanese!

– The Japanese are also people of the forest. That’s why we make the most beautiful moss gardens.

I squeeze her to me.

– You were my art student, now you will be my goat girl!

– Gretchen, Goat Girl! I like the sound of that. I would make a good postmodernist novel.

– A book of moss!

– Your little book of moss. Open me. Know me.

The wanting is unbearable. We make for the bedroom.

I [redacted] my throbbing [redacted] between Gretchen’s hungry [redacted]. The warm whites of eggs break on her belly, mixed with stringy natto and complemented by a side dish of okra. Her tiny panties are quickly swept to her ankles, and one foot pulled through. Her [redacted] is as I remembered it, tight and clingy. She wraps her legs around me, and the soles of her feet point up at Zumthor’s tarry ceiling. I plunge and stab in rhythm with her breathing, as if reaching for something just beyond the range of mortal possibility.


I hope the reader will find a way to forgive me. I haven’t told my darling Gretchen anything about my lost weekend in Siberia with Aoi Yu. I’m too scared of losing her again. It would be all too easy, considering her reaction to the relatively minor matter of Agnes, and all too just. But, as we fall naked together – as if in slow motion – towards the jet-black satin sheets, there’s something much more serious I am failing to tell Gretchen.

Here it is. I will tell you. You will not forgive me. You are made of sterner stuff. I am suffering from syphilis.

I picked it up in Hamburg. Well, I say ‘picked it up’, but that’s not accurate. I deliberately infected myself with syphilis, for the good of my soul. It was my first degradation of that precious cosmological organ, which I later sold for a sour potage of fame.

When I was a student in Hamburg, I fell under the influence of the composer Adrian Leverkühn. His ultra-minimalist piano music was at first restful, the kind of music moss would make, in fact: gentle, repetitive, modular, random. I used it as a kind of alkaline-balance restorer, after too much cramming, stress and conflict.

But later, Leverkühn’s music grew in my imagination, and grew more, like organic linoleum, until I found it covering all available spaces. My default thoughts would be of these peaceful sonic environments which summoned up worlds possible and impossible.

Leverkühn’s three-channel ambient works transformed my room into a mysterious jungle, seductively fecund. I wired up the extra speaker, as shown in the wiring diagram on the album sleeve of Inland, and felt – as I had with no music before – as if I’d found not just a sound but a place. It was a place I wanted to live in.

I seemed endlessly to be moving from shabby student lodgings to squalid bedsits. But, like a heroin addict, I paid less and less attention to my surroundings. As long as I had my Leverkühn records, and that patched-in third speaker (which I used in tandem with a 12-ohm, 10-watt potentiometer) to throw the music into 3-D, I had all I needed to be happy.

My studies fell by the wayside, I neglected food and lost interest in sex. I grew thin, pallid, almost transparent. I crept along the walls like a vampire.

One day I woke from a dream in which Leverkühn and I were close friends, and decided, on impulse, to write the composer a letter, care of his record company. For want of anything better to say, I introduced myself as a writer keen to publish a critical biography of ‘the world’s most underrated composer’, and eager to discuss, in particular, Leverkühn’s attempts to reconcile the homophonic and polyphonic systems of composition.

I expected nothing back, and had already forgotten about my impulse when, a fortnight later, a reply arrived in Leverkühn’s own hand. I’m amazed: the world’s greatest and most underrated composer has welcomed my proposal to write a book about his work, and invited me to meet him!


It’s dusk when I arrive at a turreted schloss an hour south of Berlin. As I walk along the forest path that leads from the tiny station to the castle, the brown air seems to release the forest animals from their fatigue, creating a thousand tiny sounds around me.

Leverkühn is spending some months here recuperating from a nervous breakdown under the cover of an artist residency. Apart from Adrian (as Leverkühn – gazing almost greedily into my face – encourages me to call him, shaking my hand with a feeble yet claw-like grip), the castle is occupied only by a playful aristocrat and his girlfriend. Domestic staff from the nearby village visit during the day to cook and clean.

Joerg and Stella, the castle’s owners, seem to like Adrian a lot, and encourage him in his most whimsical pursuits. He has for instance constructed a Dream Machine, which seems to me to be nothing more than a slatted lamp on a turntable, although Adrian assures me it follows Brion Gysin’s original plans in every detail and has hypnotic properties. In a beehive-shaped anteroom lined with rough flagstones I gaze into the contraption for a few moments and feel nothing more than pleasant giddiness.

We eat some linseneintopf, and then Adrian leads me down to the sauna, apparently built on the site of an ancient torture chamber. It does feel slightly strange to be sitting there stark naked with a man I so admire, but I feel as though we have no secrets from each other. Adrian is like a man in whom ideas have been bottled up then suddenly released. Once he starts speaking, the flow is endless. I’m all agog. His conversation is volatile, dazzling.

Music is theology plus mathematics, Adrian tells me, and so naturally he has been studying religion. Christianity has always required the devil, and all theology necessarily becomes demonology. Numbers contain the encoded secrets of the universe, and society is run by secret brotherhoods.

Adrian speaks – all in a jumbled rush – of Pythagoras, Dürer, Revox loops, an avant-garde performance group called the Maxwell Demon, Beethoven’s attempts to notate his tinnitus, the cybernetic theories of Norbert Wiener, and the real reason for David Bowie’s mismatched eyes. I rise to scatter more peach-scented water onto the hot coals, filling the woody room with face-scalding steam.

We’re sweating into the pine planks like two hairy boars when Adrian mentions Esmeralda, a prostitute he met in a brothel in Hamburg. He tells me, without prevarication, that Esmeralda has given him syphilis, and that syphilis has given him genius.

This turn in the conversation is unexpected, to say the least.

– If you write your book, Adrian tells me, it cannot be complete without this detail. And your research cannot be complete until you have met Esmeralda.

And in that instant, I am handed, and take, the chalice. Everything will fall into place. I will meet Esmeralda, and make love with her, despite my better instincts. Soon afterwards I will contract a serious neuro-syphilitic disorder which will convince me that I am a great musician.

Some will agree, and I will be invited to Tel Aviv to sing. There, under citrus trees, I will meet a powerful film producer I believe to be the devil. Since my real ambitions are literary ones, I will pitch an idea, and soon afterwards enter into a management contract with Mephisto, a contract which will make me successful beyond my wildest dreams.

– The fact that you can only see me because you are mad, Mephisto will tell me, does not mean that I do not also exist.

I will recognise the phrase instantly, for the demon has told Adrian Leverkühn exactly the same thing.


Even before the pact with Beelzebub, I’ve always been the sort of person who gets his own way. As a child, if I didn’t want to go to school, I just had to pretend to be sick. I quickly became expert in tricking my parents by faking a fever, or, rather, inducing a real fever. This is the secret wisdom of the confidence trickster; you never fake anything. Instead, you create realities which are under your control for a certain amount of time, and serve your purposes.

The fact that novels and films about confidence tricksters are usually highly successful is based on the observation that the topical and temporary creation of micro-realities (or ‘tricks’) is not a million miles away from what we’re all doing every day.

We all try to slant reality temporarily in our favour by framing topics to suit our political talking points, or manipulating the stock exchange, or talking ourselves up in the press. The fact that most of us are finally beaten at this game of strategic italicisation by cleverer tricksters (politicians, financiers, celebrities) is what leads to our strong desire for schadenfreude, and the quasi-requirement that trickster narratives end with the successful protagonist’s karmic comeuppance. Thomas Mann slipped out of that problem by dying before he found a suitable ending for Felix Krull.

Mann’s narrative achieves ironic leverage by couching a bad man’s confessions in the grandiose prose style of Goethe’s memoir Dichtung und Wahrheit. The result is something akin to Genet’s use of florid and fusty Catholic iconographies in his tales of sailors, druggies, pimps and gay murderers. The Goethe reference also allows Mann to connect Felix Krull to the scholar Faust, who is also finally undermined by his charmed ability to get whatever he wants.

I read the book when I was living in Paris. I’d arrived penniless after the death of my father. At first I spent a lot of time gazing into the windows of department stores. They were actually very educational for me, because a department-store window tells you everything you need to know about the aspirations of ordinary people, their idea of ‘luxury’. And once you get inside someone’s aspirations, you have the key to their identity. If you wish to pass as one of them, you have before you a series of useable suggestions on what to wear and how to live, with price tags not far behind.

I soon found work in a big hotel, and quickly worked my way up from lift boy to waiter. I did a little stealing, just to set myself up in nice clothes. As soon as I had access to the guests, my good looks and charm allowed me to worm my way into the heart of a rich family, where I befriended a rich young man called Venosta.

Venosta’s family were worried by his interest in a floozy called Zaza. They determined to send him on a cruise to keep him out of harm’s way, but since we looked similar, Venosta had a brainwave: he would equip me with false papers. I would stand in for him, and take the cruise. That way, he’d be free to shack up with Zaza.

The cruise was an excellent opportunity to prey on the rich. Our first port of call was Lisbon, where I seduced a girl called Zouzou. I would have continued to South America, having many more adventures and hoaxing many more people, had Thomas Mann, who was writing this plot, not died and left us all dangling. But you get the gist; if you want more, try Zelig, or Melville’s The Confidence Man, or The Talented Mr Ripley.

By the way, Thomas Mann’s unfinished Felix Krull novel appeared in 1954, and Patricia Highsmith published The Talented Mr Ripley (which also involves an impersonator on a cruise) just one year later. In her book, Highsmith gives Ripley a happy ending; after forging a will he inherits a fortune and settles on a Greek island. Highsmith spins the trickster’s tale out across five novels, which are collectively known by fans as The Ripliad.


I can feel it: a kick inside my belly. Agnes, my female character based on the artist Louise Bourgeois, is trying to come back.

After I knowingly infected Gretchen with syphilis in the hope of broadening her mind, I began slowly and carefully to show little flashes of Agnes here and there. Perhaps there was something homeopathic about it; I didn’t want to scare Gretchen away again, but I did want to make sure that, should Agnes emerge, it would be under controlled circumstances, and without serious consequences.

Also, I wasn’t content with Gretchen loving only the acceptable part of me. To feel truly loved, I needed her to acknowledge my oddities.

I believed that the syphilis would make Gretchen more accepting of strange and new things. Bear in mind that modernism was founded mostly on the syphilis of Nietzsche and the cocaine of Freud.

I began to scribble on the walls of the Matterhorn house. I wired random bits of junk together and left them lying about. Sometimes I casually mentioned that my father, a restorer of tapestries, had had an affair with Sadie, the English tutor, and that I would like to wring that woman’s neck. Oh, my father loved England! For him, the English could do no wrong, you see.

I was careful not to dress as Agnes. That was still a delicate matter. But I could become irascible, or stuff a rabbit, or doodle a big spider on a paper napkin, and Gretchen wouldn’t flinch.

Of course, Sadie died long ago. But I am still killing her every day, symbolically.

Gretchen would look at me a little strangely when I said things like this, but it wasn’t like last time. When you live on the summit of the Matterhorn, it’s difficult just to flounce off. You think twice. If issues arise, you work on them together.

I witnessed a lot of conflict as a child. I became indispensable to my parents because I could draw the missing parts back into tapestries. When they bickered, I would take hot French bread and mould the dough into little sculptures, which I would line up in a row.

If my father made an English girl pregnant, he could just ship her back to England. End of problem. England was far away.

The thing about a spider is that it repairs damage. If you bash its web, it will spin more. If a tapestry is damaged, you repair that too. You draw the silk out of your own belly, organically.

Sometimes it is necessary to bring about a confrontation, and I like that. I have been to hell and back, and let me tell you, it was wonderful.


A typical day in the Zumthor house begins at first light with an inspection of the moss garden. This isn’t difficult, because – thanks to the villa’s structure – the garden is visible from every room. There are no windows facing outwards across the landscape: they all focus on the moss.

Soon it’s time to milk the goats. I have to drink a lot of milk to soak up the alcohol I drink in the evenings. My mornings are thus as industrious as my evenings are dissolute.

I do various exercises, making sure I’m limber and flexible. I do not follow any particular Eastern practice. Movement is the important thing.

I write by candlelight, in a constitutional state poised at the exact midway point between sobriety and delirium. I pose for a few photos with tourists and mountaineers. Then it’s time for lunch.

Lunch is always exactly the same meal: curried chickpeas mixed with tomato sauce and rice. There’s an Indian chana masala you can buy in bulk in foil pouches. The dish is vegan and gluten free, not that I subscribe to any particular Eastern practice. I have laid in several months’ supply.

I usually spend an hour or two in study and contemplation, which often leads to napping mid-afternoon. I peruse, for instance, the works of Immanuel Kant. At present I am concentrating on his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself as a Science. It’s a slow read, to be honest. I’m a bit bogged down.

There follows a hollow ‘legacy period’ which, if I were still living in a city, would be spent visiting with friends, walking around looking at handsome women, making telephone calls, drinking in pubs, going to the cinema. Since none of this is possible on the top of a mountain, I sit on a milking stool by the front door watching the light moving across the landscape, paying particular attention to the formation of clouds. This, for me, is better than any cinema.

I miss my friends Albin Zollinger, Konrad Bänninger, Paul A. Brenner, Max Frisch, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Gilbert Troillet, the musician Rolf Looser and the sculptor Hans Aeschbacher, the philosophers Hans Saner and Hans F. Geyer, not to forget the writer and teacher Adolf Muschg, to whom I was introduced via my connections at Suhrkamp. It would also be nice to see a bit more of Peter Handke, Elias Canetti and the publisher Siegfried Unseld.

We used to meet at the Bahnhofbuffet in Olten, in the district of Solothurn. We were called the Group of Olten. We split off from the SSV, the Swiss writer’s club, because we considered it unprogressive. The Olten Bahnhofbuffet was easy for us to reach, wherever in Switzerland we lived. We just had to jump on a train.

We shared a few common beliefs. We agreed that the world was probably made by Leviathan, a merciless predatory beast who is also the common ancestor of all humans. Leviathan is huge, but not impossible to attack. And so we believed in a revolution of some sort. We had a vision of the utopia that would follow it. There would be very few humans left. The world would be essentially empty, like a black mirror which no longer reflects anything.

Our club was financially supported by the philologist and writer Jan Philipp Reemtsma, heir of the German cigarette manufacturer Philipp F. Reemtsma. We were not opposed to cigarette, pipe or cigar smoking. Frisch in particular always had an elegant pipe gripped between his teeth.

We often broached erotic themes, which shocked the club typist, Fräulein Kramer. She was employed to keep shorthand minutes of the meetings, but often refused to transcribe sexual narratives.

Published accounts are therefore somewhat skewed. We are seen to make observations on the moon, consider the merits of Gnosticism, assess the works of Wieland, take a walk through Olten sketching the cracks in the pavement, look into a department store and try on the type of nylon wigs worn by housewives. In fact, most of that time we were really telling dirty stories.

Since there were no women in our club apart from Fräulein Kramer, I often came dressed as Agnes, just to round out the numbers.

Some of the locals were not too fond of us. I seem to recall one journalist calling us ‘a large twittering machine, too clever by half’. We probably did seem a bit pleased with ourselves.

We are all very old men now, or dead.

The meetings stopped a couple of years ago. The success of The Book of Moss annoyed some of my old friends. To see me score such massive popular acclaim with such an avant-garde text must have been irksome to my allies. Even though they clearly wished me well and told me I deserved the success, one or two of them surely smelled a rat.

I miss the company, but Gretchen is a great comfort.


Mephisto Management is refusing to return my calls and emails. They’ve been increasingly reluctant to follow up on my whims since the lost weekend with Aoi Yu and the logistical nightmares besetting the construction of the Zumthor house. And, fair enough, a lot of this stuff is optional for them; our actual contract dealt exclusively with publication and sales of The Book of Moss, worldwide fame and my eternal soul. The rest was just the icing on the cake.

My personal theory is that Mephisto is changing his business model, getting out of personal management and investing increasingly in social networking, where the scope for evil is far greater, and opportunities exist for massively parallel corruption entirely automated by algorithms. Given this new landscape, there’s very little motivation for Mephisto to get involved with histrionic artistic types on an individual basis. Let’s face it, it’s time wasted. People like me are never happy. Our ever-expanding egos just require more and more maintenance, for less and less return. Give us everything and we just end up demanding more.

The trouble is, with Mephisto out of the picture, there’s not much left to sustain this narrative. I’m living with my ideal partner in my ideal home, and I’ve achieved the kind of position (above it all, essentially, if damned) I’ve always aspired to. And yet something inside me feels empty, and it’s an unpleasant premonition of the eternity of emptiness that I know awaits me, as well as a recap of the emptiness that fills my great achievement, my best-selling book.

Absolutely nothing happens in my Book of Moss. Earlier I gave you a few chapter headings. Here’s a full synopsis:

Chapter 1: Moss. A chapter about moss. To be honest, this is probably the most interesting chapter, and the only one many purchasers of the book are likely to read. Rather than cite any historical or biological details about moss (because that might prove controversial and divisive) the chapter just mulls the whole idea of moss in a semi-abstract way, trying to put both sides of the case, because balance in a book is inherently relaxing. There are a lot of quisling constructions like on the one hand. . . on the other . . . or some might say . . . but other . . . or it would be foolish to speculate . . . I leave it to the reader to decide.

Chapter 2: Moss growing. I leave it to other authors to describe the physical mechanics of the growth of moss; in this chapter I restrict myself to a comfortable sense of plethora. There’s a lot of moss biomass about, and the quantities are not getting any less. Moss has a bland, reassuring quality, and the more moss there is in the world, some would say, the more bland and reassuring our planet becomes. But it would be foolish to speculate.

Chapter 3: Moss in a room. This is the quirkiest chapter. Moss usually occurs outdoors, but here – in a semi-Beckettian fashion, or at least a Pinterian one – we get to observe moss in a human setting. I abandon realism (a principle I’ve never really embraced in my writing) and simply talk about the unlikely existence of moss in an empty room, carefully avoiding disturbing questions like ‘What happens if the moss grows into the electricity plugs and then condensation carries a dangerous current into the room?’ There’s no dialogue in this chapter, since no human interlocutor enters the room while the moss is in residence and – for instance – demands to know what it’s doing there. Actually, in retrospect I somewhat regret that.

Chapter 4: Moss. A repetition, word for word, of Chapter 1, because by now I’m convinced that nobody is reading. And, sure enough, not a single one of the rave reviews noticed the repetition. Most critics were content to reproduce the press release, and mention the many celebrity endorsements obtained for me by Mephisto Management.

Chapter 5: Since nobody is reading, I’m able to play around a bit, just to amuse myself. I introduce a character called Icek Judko, a twitchy wheelchair-bound mesomorph with the shaggy head of a lion. Judko lives in an unmarked warehouse on Route 7, halfway between Mellikon and Rümikon, close to the Swiss border with Germany. He likes to fuck with people’s heads, and – in a variety of ways too sick for me to go into here – uses moss to do it. I think of him as a character in one of those backward sequences in a David Lynch film, but a bit more scary. If you’re kidnapped, gagged, taped up, and brought to Icek Judko’s warehouse, your view of moss is – let’s just say – going to change.

Chapter 6: Chapter 6 gazes at the floor and whistles and acts as if Chapter 5 never really happened. It mostly gets away with it, although important suspicions are triggered on the Facebook and Google campuses, because employees of those companies know everything and can’t be fooled, thanks to certain algorithms they possess which are able to gauge just about everything in the human soul. The chapter appears to be about moss, but is really about consumer preferences, political affiliations and unsuccessfully repressed sexual proclivities.

Chapter 7: Moss on holiday. A chapter modelled on Pierre Probst’s Caroline series (Caroline Goes to Sea, Caroline in Europe, Caroline’s Grand Tour, Caroline’s Winter Holiday and so on). In my version, moss replaces the little girl of approximately seven years, blonde with pigtails, who leads an independent life in the company of her faithful band of animal friends: the dogs Bobi, Youpi and Pipo, the cats Pouf and Noiraud, the bear Boum, the lion cub Kid and the panther Pitou. I recap and mossify the plots of all forty-three albums, spinning the chapter out to a remarkable 150 pages.

Chapter 8: Moss: a tentative conclusion. Since there isn’t much space left after the adventures of moss and her band of animal companions, I draw the book hastily to a close with the thought (if you don’t like spoilers, look away now) that moss is a topic of which one can say everything, and therefore nothing (or, conversely, nothing, and therefore everything). This is a pleasingly gnomic note to strike in the closing pages. I’m even tempted to quote Adorno’s idea that at the last, soul itself is the longing of the soulless for redemption. But I resist.

The idea, in putting The Book of Moss together, was to make a sort of grand conceptual joke of the fait accompli of the book’s sure-fire success by making it, in and of itself, the most boring book ever written. But, as you can see from the summary, I even failed at that: the book is not without a certain interest, especially in the later chapters, during which – emboldened by the idea that no-one was reading – I took more risks with plot and character than I really should have, just to keep myself amused.

Being boring is actually very difficult, because being boring is actually very boring.


Problems are what drive our lives along, just as they are what drives a narrative along. The thing about success is that it removes problems. That’s why there are so few novels about highly successful people.

I am explaining this to Gretchen.

Goethe, a much more intelligent man than me, did something in his Faust that I have so far scorned to do: he added a lot of melodrama. As I’ve mentioned before, in Goethe’s version of the story Gretchen accidentally kills her mother, gets pregnant with my child, and I and Mephisto kill her brother, Valentin, in a duel. Gretchen then kills my newborn son, and is tried and condemned for murder. A divine intervention is all that saves her from the gallows.

– How horrible, exclaims the real Gretchen.

I actually consider all this melodrama incredibly vulgar. Would I be such an idiot as to fall in love with the kind of woman who’d accidentally kill her own mother, then deliberately kill my child? And why would Doctor Hanamaru be so interested in sparing this waste of oxygen? This whole plot is pure emotional manipulation on the author’s part, it seems to me, designed to pluck tears out of impressionable theatregoers. A twentieth-century version of Faust would have been much cooler and more didactic. Yes, more Brechtian.

– More Brechtian? asks Gretchen.

Yes. You see, for Brecht, society must be saved as a whole. The fate of an overly ambitious bourgeois individual who enters into a contractual agreement with a magical being is largely irrelevant, and the idea that a series of misfortunes will bring us onto his side is repugnant. Sitting back lucidly in their factory ‘smoking theatres’ and analysing the social conditions, Brecht’s ideal audience of sage-like, tobacco-loving workers would scoff at Gretchen’s misfortunes, although they might note that her salvation mirrors that of Macheath at the end of The Threepenny Opera.

– That’s true, I’d never noticed that. You’re so sharp, my darling!

Brecht parodied Goethe in his Joan of Arc play Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe, in which Chicago meatpacking boss Pierpont Mauler becomes – like Faust – a victor in order to avoid being a victim, for Brecht believes that under capitalism compassion can only be a weakness, and charity a feeble palliative. Mauler speaks in the classical hexameters of a pre-rational tragic hero, even while villainously stitching up the workers and fixing the Chicago meat markets. Capitalism assumes for itself the force of nature, and Mauler attempts to manipulate it as Faust attempts to manipulate nature with alchemy. Johanna, meanwhile, is undermined – like Gretchen – by her qualms and misgivings, and fails to turn a strike into a revolution.

– Dearest, you don’t need to resort to such tricks. You’re much cooler than Brecht and Goethe!

Thank you, my darling! Yes, I don’t need melodrama, nature, religion or class struggle to push my narrative forward. I don’t need to introduce satirical forms of strife into utopia. I have understood a secret: that the ultimate motor of all narrative is boredom. And since the most boring thing of all is success, even that can be made compelling if, instead of pushing the boredom away, we embrace it, as one might embrace moss stretching on all sides to the horizon.

Liebling, I love it when you explain German literature to me!


I’m out on the mountain, posing for a photo with a group of climbers who introduce themselves as Frosch, Brander, Altmayer and Siebel. Frosch is very tall. Brander has a small dog which has just defecated behind a small monument of piled stones. He’s picking the turd up with a polythene glove and depositing it in a plastic bag, which he tucks away in a special compartment of his rucksack. Altmayer and Siebel are peeling an onion using just their teeth.

– Is yours a pint? asks Frosch, producing a can of beer from his bag.

– Oh, not for me, thank you!

– Then get this down your neck.

Frosch is offering me the stale remains of a can he opened a while ago.

– Not for me, thanks, I’ve got to go.

– Going home? Don’t give me that. I say don’t give me that, hear that, Siebel?

Siebel chuckles in a slightly threatening manner, his mouth full of onion.

– I’ve got to beat you at snooker yet, says Frosch, smoothing out an area of gravel and arranging rocks on it. Brander and Altmayer crack open two more cans of ale.

– I can’t play snooker now!

– You can’t play snooker any time, but you’re having a game with me, insists Frosch.

Brander thrusts a can into my hand. A smudge of dog shit adheres to its side.

– Not for me, thank you, I know when I’ve had enough.

– I can see that, says Frosch, you’ve been struggling with a bottle of stout all night.

– How do you know that, then?

– I can still see half of it down the front of your tie. Talk about lifting steel girders, from what you’ve supped you wouldn’t have the strength to let one fall. You’re not worried about your missus, are you?

– No, but she will be wondering where I am.

– I wouldn’t give it a second thought. If you know where she is, what are you worried about?

– Well, she does lose her temper.

– And you let her? Hear that, Siebel? He lets her lose her temper! You want your brains washing, Heinrich. Won’t she have your supper ready when you get home?

– Oh, I shouldn’t think so. I’m starving, though.

– Well, I wouldn’t stand for that. You want to let her get to sleep, then make her get up and cook your supper. And then don’t eat it.

The other men cackle at this piece of misogynistic logic.

– Man does not live by bread alone, luckily. The thing is, she’ll be in bed now, and I’ve no key. I wouldn’t care, but I had such a lot of trouble getting out.

– You’ll have more trouble getting in, Frosch blurts, bluntly.

– Don’t worry, I’m the boss at our house and she knows it.

– Aye, well, by the time you’ve banged on the door a few times and got her out of bed, I think you’ll find there’s been a change in management. Why not climb up on your roof and throw yourself down, maybe she’ll come out and catch you!

The demons cluck hysterically.

– One day, all this will be yours, says Brander, handing me a half-smoked cigar.

I scramble back over the rocks to the Zumthor house. It’s later than I thought, and I seem to have lost my keys. Brander’s black dog follows me home.

– It’s only me, love! I shout through the letterbox.

– It’s a wonder you’ve the cheek to come home at all, jeers Gretchen’s voice from the kitchen. She’s obviously been waiting, working herself up into a state.

– How do you mean, love?

– Where do you think you’ve been until this time? I’ve given your supper to the cat. And whose hat have you got on?

She’s opened the door. I check my head. Frosch’s ugly gletscherhut is there.

– You’ve posed the Gretchenfrage there, I joke, kicking away Brander’s black dog.

– You’ve been somewhere, says Gretchen, and with someone. Come on, come here! How long have you been using women’s perfume? I’ll have you followed one of these nights. You’re not safe to be let out.

Gretchen has adopted a Salford accent.

– It’s time you faced your responsibilities, she nags. You seem to think that if you just show your face and throw a shovelful of coal on, the rest of the night’s your own. It’s getting so I only know you from the back.

– Well, I’m entitled to a bit of pleasure.

– It’s no pleasure for me, I can tell you. I’m sick and tired of it, and I’m going to bed. You’ll come home one night and find me missing.

Gretchen disappears into the bedroom, slamming the door and turning the key behind her. The world-famous author settles down on the pile of blankets stored in the cupboard under the sink.

Apparently the syphilis has not had the effect I predicted.


Moss is on holiday with its faithful animal companions: the dogs Bobi, Youpi and Pipo, the cats Pouf and Noiraud, the bear Boum, the lion cub Kid and the panther Pitou. They’re white-water canoeing on the upper rapids of the Peneus River in Thessaly, presided over by the river god Penis.

Suddenly their gaily striped canoe almost collides with a barge stuffed to the gullets with Sirens, Griffins and Sphinxes.

– Hey, shout the Sirens, watch where you’re going with that thing!

– Yes, echo the Sphinxes, for Christ’s sake mind out!

– Fucking idiots, think they own the river, exclaim the Griffins.

When the craft are under control, the Sirens tell moss and the animals that they’re looking for healing water and are heading down to the Aegean Sea. The conversation is interrupted by Seismos, the god of earthquakes, who growls and blusters up from the depths, to the consternation of the Sphinxes.

A dome of rock suddenly rises from the waters, throwing up grit and gravel, loam and sand. Seismos is quick to take the credit, telling anyone who will listen:

– Had I not toiled with shock and shaking, how could the world have been so fair?

– It’s a fair point, concede the Griffins. The river god Penis holds his peace.

A few points begin to glitter in the freshly dislodged earth. Gold! The Griffins summon a team of Emmets to rake it in. Emmets are a sort of ant.

Brisk in their swarms and bold, the Emmets accumulate a pile of metal capital which the Griffins guard with their powerful claws.

A chorus of Pygmies now appears, swift, industrious and nice.

– Don’t ask where we come from or how we come to be here, say the Pygmies.

Ten Dactyls file onto the already-crowded stage. Dactyls are small legendary beings, phallic or finger-shaped, belonging to the Great Mother Cybele. Their special areas of skill are metalworking, mathematics and the alphabet. In this case, however, they are sent out by the Pygmies to collect wood from the hillside for charcoal.

This is all very odd. I am shouting it to Gretchen through the locked bedroom door.

Now a Generalissimo arrives and takes command, telling the Pygmies to murder herons so that he can wear their feathers as a helmet. This doesn’t go down well with the Cranes of Ibycus, who squawk:

– Pigmy plunder, miscreant, cruel, rapes the heron’s finest jewel!

The Herons and the Cranes pledge allegiance and take to the air.

This is all happening in Part 2 of Goethe’s Faust. It must be bloody expensive to stage, because the dramatis personae keep expanding. Now some Lamiae – child-eating demon queens of Libya – arrive, plus an Oread or mountain nymph. Finally, the Homunculus wanders in, looking a bit lost and confused. Mephistopheles, presiding over this chaos (anxiously, because he’s a German devil in command of foreigners), tells him:

– Unless you err, naught can be truly known. If life you want, then find it as your own.

This seems like good advice. Learn from your mistakes, which only you can make. Don’t avoid temptation, because virtue without temptation is nothing more than naïveté.

Moss and its faithful animal companions, the dogs Bobi, Youpi and Pipo, the cats Pouf and Noiraud, the bear Boum, the lion cub Kid and the panther Pitou, are all, by this point, long gone, as is the river god Penis.

– Don’t try to mansplain your way out of this, says Gretchen.


Yesterday I saw a shoal of herring in the fjord. They hunted head to tail, lurching forward. Behind them a big fish chewed on the stragglers, a dogfish gobbling insanely, vomiting up herring bits, then gobbling again with hell-greed. My hands ached to tear at God, to rip at his lapels, to strangle away that vacant gawp that swallows a thousand nebulae. Instead, I reached into my knapsack and pulled out Faust, Part 2.

My previous idolatry of Goethe has turned sour as goat’s milk. Our brutal world is ruled over by Leviathan, and that is why the eudaemonism of Goethe is idiotic. Happiness cannot be the outcome of a regard for nature when nature is so obviously wretched and random. Where a happy human exists, it’s a freak of nature, an exception to an exception. Goethe’s plays and novels are junk-boxes of vapid sentiment. They can only show us petit-bourgeois individuals made briefly happy by eudaemonic – or simply demonic – pacts.

Nevertheless, the tepid corpse of Goethe has somehow been brought back to life. He will restore the German sense of self-worth after it has been ripped to shreds by the Nazis. One autumn day in 1949 – the two-hundredth anniversary of Goethe’s birth – I am walking on the street when a man called Fischer stops me in front of a pharmacy. He invites me to visit a parallel literary academy whose entrance is nearby, camouflaged by a couple of kiosk posters advertising toothpaste and hair gel.

In the academy I need to pee and pull open a cubicle door only to discover the squatting form of Goethe, having his first good sit-down piss for over a century. He seems not to mind the intrusion.

– Coffee is a diuretic, Goethe explains. I can’t tell you how good it is to do this again after so long!

Goethe is back for just fifteen hours. His first act has been to drink coffee. He is also taking photos, throwing back schnapps, talking politics and art, and walking randomly through the city streets, stopping occasionally to engage a prostitute. This is all stuff you’d also want to do if you’d been dead for a while.

I’m not so impressed by Goethe as I used to be, and this probably helps us get on better; I’m not fawning, I don’t treat the man as a religion in human form. I tell him really bad jokes, like:

Hitler tells a donkey that he is going to kill six million Jews and two clowns.

– But why the two clowns? asks the donkey.

– You see, nobody cares about the Jews, says Hitler.

Goethe doesn’t get the joke, because he has never heard of Hitler.

– Can donkeys speak now? he asks, like a child.


Being locked out of the conjugal bedroom has one benefit; I use my golden hours of solitude to put the finishing touches to the manuscript of Herr F (Everything Living Forever Is Screaming Forever), my follow-up to The Book of Moss.

On completing the book, I realise I’ve written something really special. Herr F is as interesting as The Book of Moss was boring. It’s as loose, lively and personal as its predecessor was stiff, dull and remote. Its story – of a failed author who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a single successful book – is gripping from start to finish. The Book of Moss, on the other hand, was almost empty of content, and as boring as death itself.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that anyone will be interested. Mephisto will not be handling the promotional work this time around.

A worthless book pulled down all the glittering prizes, and now a book which deserves every success will probably achieve none, no matter how many ‘From the author of The Book of Moss’ stickers Parallel Suhrkamp slaps on. Typical.

Since the success of The Book of Moss was predetermined, there was no onus on the author to entertain. It seemed amusing at the time to use this demonic carte blanche to bring into existence a tome as ubiquitous as it was unreadable. Perhaps, in doing this, I was subconsciously emulating Doctor Hanamaru, the author of everything, whose best seller the Bible has many mossy passages, stunningly unreadable in their stolidity. (This is probably why Hanamaru opted for anonymity: to this day, few readers know his name.)

Although my eternal soul is a goner, a part of me hopes for some small vindication, some tiny last-minute triumph. For instance, respectable sales for a book I have written myself, to the best of my ability, about my own experiences. Something I can feel proud of, even as horned monsters poke me never-endingly with their poison-tipped pitchforks. It must be as satisfying as being loved by a beautiful woman for nothing but being deeply and truly oneself.

So I mail the manuscript to Wilhelm Verleger.

There’s no answer for a while; Verleger is installing a new type of solar-panelling system at a holiday villa in Bavaria. But when he’s had a chance to read it through – at a single sitting, apparently, deep into the night, beneath a 17-watt polymer LED strip – the electrician tells me he loves the book. Parallel Suhrkamp will be delighted to publish Herr F.

There’s just one snag. For some reason Verleger is absolutely adamant that the book be edited by Valentin Mitsukoshi.


Valentin Mitsukoshi! The furious brother of Gretchen! The one I’ve been issuing vague threats against! The one ‘who will need to be dealt with’!

I protest, of course. How can Valentin be an objective editor? Why him, of all people? As a character in the book, with an insulting bit part as a semi-villain, he really ought to be recused on grounds of conflict of interest. Is Mephisto Management behind this, snickering up their sleeves as I see my final vindication snuffed out?

I sit down and begin a mail of stiff protest to Verleger. But as I’m organising objections that alternate with pleas, I begin to sense the possibility of something positive emerging from this disaster. Why shouldn’t I play along with this outrage? What if, in struggling over textual niceties with Valentin, I manage to do something I have so far left undone: deal with my foe manfully and decisively, as my literary ancestor Faust dealt with his Valentin?

An editor’s job is to tie up loose ends in a story. Since Valentin himself is a loose end, I have the opportunity to introduce new plot lines that might ultimately see Valentin defeated and destroyed.

I will begin with a wealth of trivialities. In the end I will resist every alteration Valentin tries to make, exhausting and irritating him with grammatical pedantries, passive aggression, subtle stubbornness, lexical tail-chasing, artistic license and special pleading. But, to lull him into a false sense of security, I will begin with concessions. I will seem tame and harmless, all the better to slay him later.

I can’t wait to begin. Bring it on, Mitsukoshi, you enormous bastard!


Valentin’s first mail is cordial, as expected. He introduces himself, doesn’t deny the former personal difficulties between us, but of course pretends that hatchets are buried, that all is now firmly established on a purely professional basis and that he has enjoyed his introductory read-through. No mention is made, at this stage, of the Valentin character – presumably this is one of what he cautiously calls ‘certain issues we may wish to address at a later stage’.

Prefacing what he calls his ‘general remarks’, Valentin notes that a work of fiction has no obligation to be realistic or logical – in fact, Parallel Suhrkamp prides itself precisely on stretching credibility: the house’s motto is, after all, ‘Every lie creates the parallel world in which it is true’. But, he continues, a tad more coherence in a story so fantastic would in fact end up increasing its bizarre impact. We will tone things down here and there only in order to increase the contrast overall.

I already see what kind of man he is, this Valentin. The sort who will adduce an array of liberal reasons for voting for a conservative. The sort who pretends to be helping while in fact hindering. Little does he know that by obstructing his obstructions I plan to engineer his downfall! They say that the film director Leos Carax killed several of his producers by his stubborn extravagance: I will kill my editor with extravagant stubbornness.

Of course, I will begin by pretending to agree with everything. I can be reasonable! Certainly it is odd that Herr F seems to transform at certain points into Goethe. You are quite right about that, my dear Valentin!

In Chapter 22, for instance, Herr F is suddenly in Weimar, standing at a writing desk, receiving effusive emails from a female admirer. He is apparently Goethe. But just a few chapters previously Herr F has been seen riding a bicycle through Osaka at dusk with a tiny Goethe strapped into the child-seat behind, ‘whimpering as the death teeth emerge painfully through his baby gums’! If Herr F actually is Goethe, how can this possibly be? Who is in control of the bicycle?

This is an excellent point, Valentin. This sort of forensic attention is what editors are paid for; without it, we authors would end up looking like idiots. Your sister, Gretchen, would have even more reason to call me an imbecile through the locked bedroom door if she were to discover such foolish inconsistencies in the published novel, which I would no doubt slip apologetically under the door to her as a peace offering, hoping that she would welcome me back into her arms after reading my romantic account of our first meeting. (I would have to be quick to profit from this; she would soon come to the section about syphilis.)

Of course I am not saying any of this in reality to Valentin. It’s just humorous repartee going through my head as I respond to his points. I’m still keeping my powder dry.

There are certain advantages to playing along. Valentin is already making me more scrupulous about clarifying what’s reality and what’s fantasy. The line is always clear to me, but I appreciate that it may not be clear to an editor or a reader. I must learn not to think of these people as the enemies of my liberty.


I shoot off a quick mail to Valentin on the Goethe issue. Perhaps it needs to be clarified, I concede, that Herr F, cycling in Osaka, has an empty child-chair mounted behind him which, using his feverish and clearly deranged imagination, he fills occasionally with a grotesque and deformed phantom of the writer Goethe. This might be emphasised by a paragraph describing how Herr F twists around just as a bolt of lightning flashes from the clouds, and happens to notice that the infant chair is empty.

I am willing to compromise to this extent, I explain to Valentin, because the poetic pungency of the image of the infant Goethe is not expunged – and may even be heightened – by a few lines which confer upon it a pedigree of psychological plausibility, especially if they allow us to introduce a flash of lightning (always a nice addition to any chapter).

In an effort to appear even more conciliatory, I suggest adding a scene like the epilogue to Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which a Freudian called Dr Simon explains Norman Bates’s split personality. I add, furthermore, that my technique as a writer is to turn absurdities, obstacles and objections into generators of new plot lines, and reveal that since Herr F is in a certain sense a love letter to German-language literature, I have incorporated many secret summaries of works by Goethe, Rilke, Musil, Mann, Schmidt, Bernhard, Handke, Brecht, Frisch and others. While some of these are flagged up in my text, I have left others embedded and secret: it would be clumsy and disruptive to note them all.

For instance, I continue, why in Chapter 37 does Herr F meet Goethe in the year 1949? That’s because Arno Schmidt wrote a pair of short stories during his ‘Darmstadt Period’ in which Goethe comes back to life for a day and takes a tour of the city. In 1949, Goethe’s bicentennial year, the author was both dead and omnipresent, charged with healing Germany’s war-tarnished image. Herr F is simply standing in for Schmidt’s narrator. On a certain level it’s madness, on another it all makes sense.

In Chapter 18 it says ‘The year is 2008, but actually it’s 1957’ because Schmidt’s novel The Egghead Republic is set in 2008, but was written in 1957. Schmidt predicted that by 2008 German would be a dead language. I don’t expect everyone to know this. In fact, I expect very few to know this. A part of me is resting on the laurels of The Book of Moss, which I was able to write secure in the knowledge that it didn’t have to make any sense whatsoever. Such are the consolations of the bewitched, and the avant-garde.

I end my first mail to Valentin with this thought: what is literature, finally, but a vast cat’s cradle of unacknowledged yet loving references to the works of other writers, and what is an author but a man riding a mama-chari bicycle with the tiny ghost of a dead writer strapped in behind him?


Expressing his gratitude at my flexibility and his appreciation of some of the ‘elegant solutions’ I have proposed to meet his objections, Valentin Mitsukoshi, emboldened, has offered some more criticisms.

In Chapter 25, Herr F is considering planting the courtyard of his Matterhorn house with grass. Why not moss? I reply, as tactfully as possible, that there was rather too much moss in my last book, and that I have learned from my mistakes.

Valentin also wants to know why I keep calling moss boring while also emphasising that it is beautiful, headstrong and unbiddable. Isn’t this contradictory? I reply that beauty is inherently contradictory, and that I’ve already emphasised that boredom is the motor of all narrative (all stories proceed directly from a fear of it). Boredom might therefore be considered a special form of beauty. Perhaps I ought to spell this out more clearly?

There are several more objections. In Chapter 19, says Valentin, we learn that The Book of Moss is Herr F’s first book for Suhrkamp. And yet in Chapter 31 he is an old man, a member of the Group of Olten, a splinter group from the Swiss writer’s club SSV. Where did the time go? And how did he get into this select club with so few publications?

This one is easy to explain. Herr F is (like myself) an elderly scholar who made his debut very late in life. His standing with the Group of Olten has more to do with a common belief that the world is run by Leviathan than any literary achievement. In fact, the success of The Book of Moss arouses petty jealousies that finally split up the group.

However, I wonder if I have confused matters by introducing Herr F early in the book not as ‘an elderly scholar’ but as ‘a singer who has travelled to Tel Aviv to impersonate Bianca Castafiore from the Tintin books’? I promise Valentin I will look into this and make all necessary changes.

His next query strikes closer to home. Valentin wants to know how come his sister Gretchen exclaims ‘How horrible!’ in Chapter 33 when hearing about the melodramatic fate of Goethe’s Gretchen, when in Chapter 11 she has already undergone, in summary, all the same events:

In the fifth cube, the whizzing electrons of a colour TV image are making a kind of 3-D soap opera in which I am fucking Gretchen, who is simultaneously telling me that she has just accidentally killed her mother with the sleeping tablets I gave her by mistake, thinking they were birth-control pills. This news makes me lose my usual self-control and I orgasm inside Gretchen (under normal circumstances I practise coitus interruptus). After the commercial break we learn that Gretchen is pregnant, and her brother is furious about it. Mephisto and I, playing ourselves in the soap opera, slay Gretchen’s brother in a sword fight. Gretchen goes mad, drowns her newborn son and is sentenced for murder. I try unsuccessfully to rescue her from death row. She won’t come. But just before the episode ends, a booming voice from heaven announces that Gretchen has been saved. The audience breaks spontaneously into applause, because in the pilot the voice from heaven said the exact opposite.

I must admit that I’m mortified when I imagine Valentin reading these lines. It’s not just the gynaecological details about his sister that he’s forced to endure, but the repetition of our original casus belli, the reason for our blood feud. My editor must either have enormous sang-froid, or be provoking me deliberately, goading me towards some kind of showdown.

But why then does he end the mail like this? ‘Chapter 31: it would be great to hear some of the dirty jokes the old authors were telling each other!’


Valentin seems to have recovered from what I can only imagine must have been incandescent rage at the image of me fucking his sister in a glass cube. He’s now fixated on quirks in my narrative that could be pared. My prosthetic limbs, for instance.

Do I really have a prosthetic arm and leg, or is it just a convenient symbol for some more general sense of deformity? Are these perhaps relics of a long-lost plot idea: that the protagonist was going to take two steps back, physically, for each leap forward, fame-wise? Was there to have been a physical price to pay for his ambition in addition to the price of his eternal soul? Did his enormous success literally cost him ‘an arm and a leg’?

Valentin suggests a sort of bargain. There’s too much quirk. The prosthetic limbs need to go, or the transvestite French artist alter ego, or the false face.

What false face? I don’t even remember a false face! Oh, I was going to escape the curse of fame by having Arno Schmidt’s face grafted on! And then I dreamed I got Dürrenmatt’s entire head instead! But none of that actually happened. I kept my own face, which is why Gretchen recognised me when I returned to the Matterhorn. All right, the false face can go. It was never there in the first place.

Valentin is also concerned about the space and time in which the story is being narrated. Is it being written behind the ‘thin metal blind’ in Osaka? Or after death, from the other side of a different sort of blind? Is Herr F (Everything Living Forever Is Screaming Forever) the book published by Parallel Suhrkamp or the one published by Fiktion? One has a cover designed by the Pope, the other doesn’t have a cover at all. Which one are we now editing, and is the editor a fictional character or a real person? Can real objections be dismissed if they’re turned into fictions?

This is all perfectly pertinent, and will no doubt be useful for spinning things out at the end of the book. Lies are productive. Payment in this case is by the page. Revenge is sweet. As for verisimilitude, I honestly couldn’t give a rat’s arse.

Valentin’s final objection is: Why say ‘Please bear this in mind, it will be important later’ when there’s no payoff later?

Consider this the payoff, Valentin.


Editor Valentin won’t like this ending. That’s why it’s here. In it, I have murdered his sister.

I will not tell you about the tin mines, the ponies or the whiskey sponges. I will not tell you about the barmaid, the lucky horseshoe or the Bremen zoo spider house. There is no point here, although it would be amusing, in speaking of my participation in the mayoral contest at Nymmingen or my stay with the hermits of the Heppelberg. I will skip my horrible discovery of an electrocuted telephone-repair man at Schloss Rudigen and gloss over the extraordinary reception I was given by the residents of Zeugthein, who mistook me for a long-expected government inspector.

None of this need concern you. However, I will pause here to mark with a white stone the dear memory of Fräulein Gretchen Mitsukoshi, because I have every reason to think her the most wonderful companion of my life, and to regret her death as my single greatest misfortune (and – it goes without saying – hers).

Ah, Gretchen! I will not remember your poor pinched, drowned face, for I cannot bear it. No, I will remember us running through cornfields in summer’s longest, happiest days, running hand in hand through orchards, the falcon flying above us, the pony trotting along behind. I stop to sever the gigantic head of a sunflower and pin it to your bosom, even although it sags and almost blocks you entirely from my view. We laugh as you play peek-a-boo behind the huge dead flower head.

You are teasing me, Gretchen, then spreading your arms, inviting me to fall into your bosom, if only I can get past the bloom, which has become quite frightening and is making a sort of moaning sound as I crush it against your full young breasts. And then it is up to the hay loft with the three of us, me, the flower and you, Gretchen, with the falcon and the pony waiting in the shade for our labours to end!

And truly this is the happiness of the world, the eternity of now, Gretchen! For even if you are gone, and I have only the dried yellow skeleton of the flower to comfort me, folded in a sappy mess into my knapsack, still moaning with its frankly quite horrible flower moans, nonetheless I have this memory to water, to tend and to grow.

Even as you lay like a suffocating mermaid on the shore, Gretchen, you told me that I must continue without you, continue with the falcon and the flower and the pony, continue with the knapsack and the rucksack and the coal sack, continue until I might complete the quest.

I will not speak of the hail blizzards or the faceless ones. I will not speak of death with his iced dagger fingers. I will not speak of the harrowing of Valdoggerel or the screechdemons of Molgaddar. I am clasping my head, Fräulein, trying to remember the sweet smile you gave me, even pale and pinched by the lakeside, with the sword sinking still in the grip of the terrible hand.

I am trying not to think of your sweet dark tresses surrounding the face of a skull, or your resting place in the wattle hut up by the quartz crags. I am pushing out of my mind the sight of old Eggar in the thunderstorm, hobbling along the ridge and dragging your corpse behind him. Bump! Bump! Bump!

No! No! No! Demons pursue me, and my blue waistcoat is spattered with your sacred blood!

But I know you are with me now, Gretchen. You have come back from the underworld to witness my moment of glory. For here I am in Weimar. Certainly I look like an old man now, a derelict, a beggar. Certainly the falcon is just a feather in my hat now, and the pony is a hide I wrap around me when I sleep in a ditch. Certainly the sunflower is a handful of seeds in the bottom of my rucksack, and the coal sack is a sort of shabby coat, and the knapsack’s stick has snapped. But I know that you are still with me as I approach my goal, my moment, the end of my quest, approach the gate to the funicular attraction where Doctor Hanamaru works, pay the funny hunchback in the green ticket box, push the rusty turnstile and take my place on the steeply inclined open-sided train.

Soon we will begin. It will be cold in the angled tunnel inside the mountain. I will wrap the pony hide around me, tuck the coal sack close. I will take time to enjoy the ride, feasting my eyes on the strange exhibits, bathed in green light, that spring to life in each cranny as we pass. To the left, the ascension of the goat boy on the glacier. To the right, the cradles containing the twelve digger dwarves. Accompanied by tales we have known since childhood, we will climb deeper and deeper into the heart of the mountain. When there is no more track, and a thin old man asks all to alight, I will stand on the platform under the dripping stalactites and, instead of crossing to the opposite platform for the descent, follow him up the crumbling, dark path that leads to the control box.

And there in the heart of the mountain he will finally, unmistakably be, sitting at his green levers, unsurprised to see me. As I warm my hands at an orange two-barred electric fire, he will put aside the small figure of a goat he is whittling, pull a lever, stand up and, with mittened arthritic old man’s fingers, rummage on a high shelf for the black document case in which is stored the manuscript containing all the details of my life.

Doctor Hanamaru will hand the book to me. On opening it I will find – to my immense satisfaction – that every page is completely empty and blank. Inside the book there will be nothing but moss, stretching away soothingly, for vast distances, on all sides, to the horizon.


First published by
Fiktion, Berlin, 2014
ISBN: 978-3-944818-67-2

Project Directors (Publishing Program)
Mathias Gatza, Ingo Niermann

Project Director (Communications)
Henriette Gallus

Alexander Scrimgeour

Sam Frank

Graphic Design
Vela Arbutina

Web Development
Maxwell Simmer (Version House)

The copyright for the text remains with the author.

Fiktion is backed by the nonprofit association Fiktion e.V. It is organized in cooperation with Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, and financed by a grant from the German Federal Cultural Foundation.

Fiktion e.V., c / o Mathias Gatza, Sredzkistraße 57, 10405 Berlin

Mathias Gatza, Ingo Niermann

Registered association VR 32615 B
(Amtsgericht Charlottenburg, Berlin)

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