Foolishly, I started December (Dezember. 39 Geschichten. 39 Bilder, 2010; tr. from the German by Martin Chalmers, 2012) after midnight, thinking I’d just give it a glance before starting it in earnest in the next day or so. What I found was so interesting, the structure so reader-friendly, the photographs by Gerhard Richter so captivating, I kept thinking, just one more section, and ended up staying up until late in the morning. I love it when that happens, but here n particular it felt entirely appropriate for these ruminations of time and timelessness.
This is a type of calendar book. Rather than speed through it as I did, one could just pick up the book on December 1 and read a piece a day to December 31 (the first story takes place on December 1, the second on December 2, and so on). At the end, there is a short series of pieces about time and calendars called “Calendars are conservative.” The calendar is a human creation. Power itself is fleeting.
The stories we encounter here take place on December days in a variety of years, most focused around World War II and 2009, during the days when one financial institution after another was failing. There is little peace to be had, it seems. December is cold and dark, and we cannot control that.
Indeed, many of these stories are about accidents of time and space, or missed opportunities. For example:
3 December 1931: Sleet coming down on the roads of Mecklenburg. Hitler (in his black Mercedes) and the mother of the bride of Josef Goebbels (in a red Maybach) were very nearly killed by the substitute chauffeur of the estate where the wedding had taken place. In those early days of motoring, wariness about braking on icy surfaces and driving while under the influence were not much on everyone’s mind. The drivers on the return journey had, just like the ladies and gentlemen, been indulging heartily in alcoholic drinks.
Kluge cannot help but add a footnote that at the moment he was in gestation and “was almost born without Hitler having a bit of future in front of him.” Many of the pieces deal with one thing or another that creates a “turn,” or, a shift. Obviously, some of these effect humanity in general; others are more intimate, such as the one on December 20, 1832 entitled, “Unexpected Conversion of a Heathen.” In this story, a doctor is returning to his home after assisting in a difficult birth. Afterwards he had drunk enough to risk walking home, using the path the villagers called an “exit into dead nature, because in this hard-frozen winter such a ‘track’ led into nothingness.” He tries to comfort himself: “My first name’s Klaus, I always get back to the house, he said to himself.” Soon he knows he absolutely must not stop because if he does he will “be found as a corpse after the thaw.” He changes.
Wernecke was essentially a cheerful soul, was not much given to reflection, was also considered a heathen: someone who tells jokes about God’s word and in the room of a dying patient asserted a doctor’s expert knowledge against the babbling of the pastor. But now his heart sank.
To cut this story a bit short, he does survive because he sees a light in the distance. It brings him to the church, and he then has an iron lamp affixed to the side of the church to help any other wandering soul.
Even if subsequently there were none who lost their way because the winters became milder and the physicians abstained from home visits, this lamp, at first fed with oil, later, at the instigation of the doctor’s grandson, kept going by electricity, existed until the air raid on Halberstadt on 8 April 1945. Since in spring (summer time was already in force) it was not switched on until 9 p.m. it was not shining when it was destroyed.
As you can see in the German title, the book is made up of 39 stories and 39 photographs by Gerhard Richter. Each photograph is of snow-covered trees, and most have us so close to the dense trees we cannot see and feel we cannot move. At times these timeless photographs seem not to vary, as if we are simply turning a few degrees one way or the other and taking another picture. In these pictures, time does not move. They ask us to linger, which, though dangerous, promises peace.