Der Liebhaberreflex. Roman / 'The lover reflex. Novel'
(Skarabæus Verlag, Innsbruck), 232 pages
In her début novel, Kirstin Breitenfellner makes a character-sketch of the "lover", of his art of seduction, his "method", telling of the particular reflex which he triggers off in women and which makes them unfit for "normal" men. Agnes Poigenfürst, the narrator, Thomas, the lover, Andreas, the husband, and Tibor, who is neither, are the principal characters in this novel set in a metropolis against the backdrop of the Millennium and a solar eclipse. Not to be forgotten are Sylvie and Anabel, Agnes's sisters, and Angela the suicide case, all single women in their early thirties. Is it possible to enjoy without thinking? To think without living? Can one give up hope, without giving up entirely? The author succeeds in the fine art of being entertaining without being superficial, of being thoughtful without being short on wit.
Extract (pp. 25–28)
Thomas was the first lover I ever got to know, the first "woman-man", that is to say a man who only really starts living, only becomes fully aware of himself, when he feels the effect he has with women. Not on women, for the woman-man is not vain like the macho – what makes the woman-man feel good is not making women find him attractive, but awakening feelings in them. Addicted to women's feelings, he has in the course of the years so perfected the art of awakening feelings that neither he nor even the woman in question can say whether their passion and romance grew and blossomed naturally – or was cultivated in a test-tube.
The lover has something of the scientist about him, but is more like a virtuoso artist who for preference practises his art on a living object, or on objects which though intangible can be manipulated, or perhaps whose very intangibility makes them easier to manipulate, namely feelings.
I thought I was incorruptible. I didn't have the slightest suspicion that it could have been nothing but a game. Above all, I had no idea that it is possible to open up one's heart and let oneself go, but still play without stakes. The game which I played for real spoiled and corrupted me. Years later, I still suffer from the after-effects. And when I looked into the bewitchingly enchanting eyes of the aging actor, afraid of them just as I am afraid of my very own self, what I saw was Thomas.
Yes, I loved him. And he was happy with me. Perhaps for the first time in his life. Perhaps for the last time in his life. For I am convinced that back then something in him snapped, something which I am convinced he is intent on not seeing. He is still incapable of separating games and reality.
After we separated, I at first thought that Thomas had missed a chance, perhaps his last chance. But maybe he never even had a chance. Perhaps he wasn't really happy and I just thought he was. Maybe he just had his fun, and that was that.
Alongside my studies, I was already doing proofreading and at the time I had just started at a small theatre magazine. It was my third day.
"So this must be the new reader."
I was startled to see a man standing in the doorway who looked like Robert Redford in his best years, that is to say – for men, who take than women do to clear their heads of silly ideas – his mid-forties. The man beamed, made a show of the wrinkles growing up around his chestnut-brown eyes, ran his hand through his thick head of hair, and cast an inquisitive but relaxed glance around the room.
The lover's best weapon is his natural charm; when he discovered what he could do with it, he was at once amazed and perplexed. Even his nursery-school teacher could never hold anything against him. As the lover's charm has always opened all possible doors for him, he never feels the necessity to make an effort, or to develop any other qualities. Neither career-minded nor ambitious, a lover remains on the level where his native abilities once washed him up, always one level higher than where his professional abilities would have landed him. But he is happy there, and his colleagues are happy to tolerate him because he is easy to get on with.
Thomas was the boss of the Theaterbrett services, finances and staff boss. Not bothering to give me an interview, he had simply taken me on over the phone on the strength of a recommendation. I immediately liked the sound of his voice.
"So this must be the new reader," he said, looking at me expectantly. "I hope she is happy with this rather small room."
"Proofreader," I countered, half smiling, half embarrassed, putting special emphasis on the first syllable and hoping that I wouldn't have to explain the difference to him. But all he did was grin at me and look me up and down unashamedly, stopping his eyes, quite as if by chance, upon my breasts. I blushed.
"That's a very pretty necklace for a proofreader," he said, imitating my emphasis on the first syllable, "very ... what shall I say? ... unusual."
I love rather unusual jewellery, thick rings, chains and necklaces with large single elements (it's the only extravagance that I allow myself, in fact) and immediately felt he understood me. I looked out of the window, but Thomas's tall to middling, sporting figure stuck on my retina, and I couldn't get rid of it.
Back then I didn't yet know how the game worked, the game of seduction, of ecstasy, the game of getting all churned up; I wasn't even aware that it existed in reality, and not just on television and in novels. I didn't know that some men have a sixth sense for women's secret preferences and weaknesses, and that when one feels understood, it is only in a limited sense that they are being understanding.
And yet I knew at this first moment – this moment that burned the image of Thomas's figure with his appealingly roguish laugh onto my retina, the moment at which I looked out of the window and didn't know whether to laugh or to cry, whether to run away or to throw myself into his arms – that this man would break my heart. I saw his wedding ring and knew that our relationship was bound to end up on the rocks, to use the familiar expression. I knew that it would be best for me to go, but a little demon, hungry for experience, whispered to me: Why not? One must have new experiences, it's wrong to shut oneself off from life. I stayed.
Thomas stood in the doorway in that blue-brown tweed jacket he could have worn with equal ease whether in the theatre or on a ranch.
"Are proofreaders in the habit of going out for coffee with strange men?" he asked.
"If the strange men behave themselves," I heard myself answer. I had fallen into the trap. That was his sense of humour. Thomas was a master of the art of ambiguity. Everything he said or wrote could be understood as an invitation, or as a compliment. But if one had ever tried to point this out to him, he would of course have raised his hands and protested in innocent amazement: "Aren't I allowed to joke, then?"
Translation: John Nicholson
Kirstin Breitenfellner was born in 1966 in Vienna and studied philosophy and German and Slavonic languages and literature in Heidelberg and Vienna. She lives in Vienna and is active as literary critic, translator and writer. Publications (selection): Lyrik in Literaturzeitschriften und Anthologien ['Poetry in literary periodicals and anthologies'] (most recently in: Wien. Eine literarische Einladung, ed. Margit Knapp, Wagenbach, Berlin 2004); Über Engel ['On angels'], a translation from the Russian of a cycle of poems by Vera Zubareva, Pano Verlag, Zürich 2003. For her novel Der Liebhaberreflex ['The lover reflex'], Kirstin Breitenfellner was awarded the 2003 Wiener AutorInnenstipendium (Vienna writers' bursary).