What does Arno Geiger do when he’s not at his desk? He makes his rounds, but what kind. While other writers find physical balance from writing and sitting by swimming (John von Düffel), running (Haruki Murakami), soccer (Moritz Rinke) or in all Olympic disciplines like Ilija Trojanow, Geiger trained himself by diving into the depths of the waste paper bins vienna This was his routine for decades. His “happy secret”, as he calls it in his new book, in which he reveals himself like never before. For decades, Arno Geiger walked and cycled through Vienna, from one waste paper bin to the next, in ever-growing, sometimes hour-long rounds, looking for – what? “The truth lives in the garbage,” he writes right at the beginning. “And the truth has to come out eventually: Life is made up of disorder, confusion, dirt and death. The most beautiful, most perfect world is like a haphazard heap of dung.”
Of course, there’s more to it than physical exercise, although it’s a side benefit of his rounds that Arno Geiger appreciates. It’s all about the treasures he digs out of the waste paper, books, letters, diaries and postcards that he takes home, reads, sorts, uses, sells or sometimes even destroys. In the book, Geiger presents himself as a passionate collector who knows how strange he must look when he is rummaging through the old paper upside down and with his legs stretched to the sky, but who can’t stop doing what he’s doing.
After reading his Confessions, one would like to ask why, because it is obviously not just a whim, but a way of working that has proven itself and to which he believes he owes part of his success. In his new book, he explains how immersing himself in the waste paper has intertwined with his personal and his development as a writer over the years. He writes a melange of autobiography, essay and poetological considerations, which is stylistically held together by that Geiger-like subtlety, which knows how to take the weight out of weighty confessions with wit and benevolence.
Is the writing method invasive?
What is usually decisive in Geiger’s storytelling, namely the empathetic view of his characters, does not come into play so much. His view of his own actions is characterized by sincerity and analysis. From an openness, whose role models he found in the waste paper containers that he reports on. In particular, the “relaxed directness” of the letters and diaries made such an impression on him that, in retrospect, he regarded them as defining the style of his own writing. For Geiger, the diarist or letter writer is something of an ideal, because he writes for no one but himself or a confidant, to whom nothing needs to be proved. Writing, freed from many (not all) constraints, vanity and demands in this way, creates space for what, according to Geiger, makes human life special and interesting – the inconsistent, disorderly, confused, the all too human. From this he develops his aesthetics: “You have to write as if what is being described is already there.”
It’s not so much these aesthetic considerations that are surprising. And the strange way in which they came about seems less and less strange as the reading progresses. Geiger examines with due conscientiousness whether eviscerating the correspondence of others might be encroaching, but he counters that the authors were strangers to him, which detaches his finds from their “original social contexts”. As sources, they provide details that flowed into his first successful book “Es geht uns gut” (2005) as well as into the novel “Unter der Drachenwand” (2018). As constant companions over the years, they give him the security he needs to know what he is writing about.
Geiger links this to philosophical considerations about collecting as a cultural technique. About finding, persevering when you can’t find anything, throwing away, clearing out, clearing out and disposing of things. He observes how the passage of time is reflected in the waste paper, how handwritten things disappear, such as printer’s ink, sex books, handicraft waste and sheet music less, while pizza and quinoa boxes increase. In a clever and entertaining way, he describes how the importance of the waste paper rounds has changed for him over the years. He opens wide his own diary. You learn a lot about the attempts of the young man from Wolfurt, first in Vienna and later in Berlin, to translate his own ideas about life as a writer into reality – and about how that failed.
Arno Geiger provides deep insights into his love affairs with three women in particular, who only appear as O., M. and finally K. He reveals some interesting episodes from the literary world. He takes the reader back to the Austrian provinces, where his attention is paid not only to the father who is suffering from dementia (“The Old King in His Exile”) but also to the mother this time. He tells of his own life as a product of (sometimes failed) efforts, happy coincidences, small conspiracies and the right decisions – and in this way he draws a picture whose untidy appearance obviously corresponds to what he sees in the life stories of others fished people out of the scrap paper and distilled from them insights into human nature. “The Happy Secret” is the book of his life. But it points beautifully subtly beyond itself.
Arno Geiger: “The Happy Secret”. Hanser Verlag, Munich 2023. 237 p., hardcover, €25.