Invention and Truth
As a child she preferred the indoors to outdoors. Felicitas Hoppe tells the story of being sent on a traumatic journey at the age of five – and how she overcame her fears of inner and outer journeys.
By Holger Moos
Her family doctor is a “rather sedentary type without a title or travel experience,” attests Felicitas Hoppe in the story of her eponymous illness Fieber 17. But it is a surreal illness that affects neither the body nor the mind. It solely afflicts the author and only affects “this little remnant of a semi-organ,” “which is as sleepless as it is perplexed, constantly on the move and wandering.” This is how Hoppe describes “this ridiculously small remnant” once vernacularly called the soul.
The fever creates absent-mindedness, “this quiet, unsteady flutter,” a “flicker between leaving and arriving.” And that’s exactly how the short story reads: one feels somnambulistic, following the narrator into the intermediate realm of memories, nightmares and reality.
whoever can swim dies more slowlyThe background of the tale is a transport to “Kinderland” that little Felicitas experienced at the age of five. The asthmatic child is sent to a North Sea island for a course of treatment. Her father takes the little girl to the railway station, where, along with other noisy children, adults are waiting for her. They attempt to alleviate her fear of this first journey by insisting they are her uncles and aunts.
At the time she can neither read nor write nor swim. She learns a great deal on the island, for example “that whoever can swim only dies more slowly.” Not a very reassuring prospect.
She also learns that one can be punished for lying as well as for telling the truth, depending on what is expected at the moment. The postcards the little girl writes home must never contain the truth. This is ensured by the strict “guards;” “both conductors and customs officers” who always write the same sentences for the children: “I’m doing fine. How are you?”
the shadow of adultsThe short narrative is followed by a kindred essay called “Oh, the places you’ll go!” Hoppe borrowed the title from the famous American children’s author Dr Seuss. The essay revolves around childhood stories that are loved by all but often not very original. Because we all know “how much alike our childhood stories are. [...] That’s probably why we love them.”
Caution! Felicitas Hoppe quotes from Peter Handke’s song about childhood, “When the child was a child, it didn’t know that it was a child.” Although this “incantation” allows us to dream that there is a wholeness, a total being-with-oneself, that dream has little to do with the truth. The childhood stories are written by adults – in retrospect, in memories full of desires and sometimes the stuff of fairy tales. It’s the adults who manage our childhood: “Above everything that can be said about childhood lies the shadow of adulthood.” When children tell stories, though, they don’t look to the past but to the future and are therefore never sentimental.
an unsteady FLutter and flickerHoppe takes us thoughtfully to Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Joan of Arc and Buster Keaton – and to the “truth of most childhood stories.” It lies “not in fact, but in the attempt to transform what has been experienced into stories; in other words, to give shape to a memory.” Understood this way, story-telling is also a means of “self-assertion.” And in the end, considering her own autobiographical works, Hoppe comes to the conclusion that she has come closer to real life in memoir writing, “perhaps because we are less what we are than what we desire.”
Felicitas Hoppe’s childhood memoir was written as part of the ARD radio festival in summer 2020, and her reading of it can be heard in the audio library ARD-Audiothek. The essay is based on a lecture from 2012. The two together result in a very nice, coherent little book in which the narrative and essay are intertwined. Reading the story is like sleepwalking, and the essay also leaves more questions unanswered than it answers. Life like reading, writing like remembering; everything is a scattered, unsteady flutter and flicker.
Felicitas Hoppe: Fieber 17. Eine Erzählung und ein Essay
Zürich: Dörlemann, 2021. 96 S.
You can find this title in our eLibrary Onleihe.