BY MATTHEW HERBERT
In The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius repeatedly invites the reader to contemplate a kind of super extinction–a time when not only he, the reader, has died, but also everyone who might possibly mourn him or recall his memory. A time when his very home has collapsed and turned to dust. Why?
Thomas Glavinic offers an astonishing meditation of his own on what it would be like to cope with the sudden onset of such a super extinction in his 2006 novel Night Work. Like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find he has metamorphosed into a beetle, Glavinic’s protagonist Jonas wakes up one morning in Vienna to discover there is no one else left on earth.
All the objects ever made by man are still there, but every last person has disappeared, stranding Jonas under a cloudless summer sky. Radio and TV emit only static; the Internet is down. Cell phones don’t work. Yesterday’s newspaper is the only indication that the ordinary world of people and events had kept going as normal up till the day before.
At first, Jonas’s exploits across an empty Vienna have the feel of a lark. Taking whatever car he likes, he drives the wrong way down one-way streets. He climbs to a rotating cafe atop a TV tower and speeds it up like a whirligig. But of course it is a lark increasingly tinged with madness. As the horror of humankind’s dissapearance quietly sets in, Jonas becomes obsessed with surveiling his empty hometown by film while he sleeps to find signs of whatever sinister force took everyone else away. He also films himself asleep at night and discovers that his id routinely slips free to cavort with the forces of darkness.
We all know a person would go mad in Jonas’s situation. Why bother writing (or reading) a novel reflecting on such desperation?
But a novel, Milan Kundera reminds us, is an experiment in a very literal sense of the word. The novelist manipulates an independent variable and observes the effects on a possible self. So, as we are watching Jonas’s madness, grief and fear come to occupy his whole being like swabs of virus spreading across a petri dish, we remind ourselves we are not wallowing gratuitously in someone else’s sickness any more than the laboratory technician is so doing when she observes the bright splotch of deadly virus on the agar. We are ascertaining with Glavinic, in clinical detail, what it means to be sane, whole and normal.
Anyone who has ever received a coffee cup as a gift from a loved one and then used it for several years can relate to this reflection: our world is made up of triads–objects, persons, and ourselves, linked together in a matrix of meaning. Every object that is dear to us is suffused with perceptions and memories that serve to link the object with a person who, jointly with the object, reflects our self back onto us. Plato memorably pointed out that this is why we cherish our lover’s everyday belongings, treating them nearly as dearly as the lover herself.
As the truth of Jonas’s abandonment sets in, he begins to collect things from his past. He breaks into his old family home and refurnishes it with the chairs, tables and sofa of his childhood, taken from the basement of his father’s apartment. He finds old photographs, toys, his musical teddy bear. Childhood, he recalls, was the best time of all, when he and his cousins strapped on swim muscles while the adults drank wine and watched the World Cup on TV.
Physical objects, Jonas discovers, are the silent witnesses to the decades and even centuries of human flourishing. But are they really, completely silent? No.
Jonas makes a desperate attempt to find signs of his girlfriend Marie, who had left for Scotland on the last day people existed. Battling chronic fatigue and spiraling fugues of madness, Jonas makes it to Scotland and retrieves Marie’s suitcase. He then steels himself for the return to Vienna, which he knows will be a final homecoming. On the way back to Europe, he encounters a constriction in the Chunnel caused by two trains, and he is forced to abandon his moped, forever, it hits him. He reflects as he crosses through the narrow gap:
And now the moped was standing at the other end of the train. It would continue to stand there for a long time. Until it rusted away and disintegrated, or until the roof of the tunnel collapsed. For many years. All alone in the dark.
Objects are not mere silent witnesses to human lives: they hum with our intentions, perceptions and memories. Consider this: a derelict moped left on a junk pile elicits no melancholy, because life goes on around it, replete with intentions, perceptions and memories. People will make new things to be used and thrown away. Maybe someone will even pick up the old moped, smash it, and use it to makes something new.
But not Jonas’s abandoned moped. It will just it there, for an achingly long stretch of eternity, unable to reflect anything radiated by the world of human persons. It was not such a silent witness to humanity after all.
What do we learn at this far end of Marcus Aurelius’s super extinction, at Glavinic’s deletion of all human persons? That the world is sacred. That our triads of things, persons and ourselves are all we have, and that they are worthy of our love. Before madness gripped him, Jonas hoped he would recall the supremacy of love at the moment of his death, and he does. His journey through loss ends in victory, as can all of ours.
I am reminded very vividly of the prayer-like words Joseph Conrad offers up in The Shadow Line about this world that forms us, props us up, makes us who we are:
The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries . . . acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state. No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvellous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural.
Night Work is a wondrous novel that ingeniously reveals this “world of the living” by capturing a stark negative image of it.