Theodor Kallifatides‘ Another Life is not another memoir on the craft of writing. Nor is it a glamorization of a successful writer’s life. There’s no shortage of writers nursing their accomplishments, but thankfully, Another Life tells a story of growth and discovery, how we continue to live in the absence of that gifts that have formed our identity.
If writers aren’t bemoaning the labors of their craft, they’re not slow to bemoan their estrangement from it. For the non-writers among us, there’s nothing sweeter than new romance; there’s also nothing more pungent than its loss. In Kallifatides’ case, after his work with his previous novel comes to an end, seemingly concluding a 50-year career as an essayist, novelist, and poet, he feels abandoned. The romance has dried up. Worse yet, the heartbreak seems terminal.
Another Life skirts the pathos rife with self-reflections—when one’s self is the main subject of discussion every moan or tick of praise is amplified—and holds its head high enough to avoid navel-gazing. An irony triumphs: In writing about the inability to write, Kallifatides has produced a book which aches with its own quiet beauties, inspiring with its resilient creativity.
Contemplating how best to move on in the absence of his former inspiration, Kallifatides begins by consulting his writing elders, adopting Anton Chekhov’s advice for coping with failure; in Kallifatides’ case, a cold shower in his studio—with his clothes on. Except instead of returning to a state of inspiration, he’s merely left…dripping wet.
Like any rebuffed lover, Kallifatides can’t avoid reliving the good times. In an analogy which seems so natural it should be universal, he compares the feeling of inspired writing to sailing, “It’s like sailing with the aid of a following wind in one’s sail.” Because writers share a sea with fellow writers, however, Kallifatides can’t help comparing himself with his sailing peers: His jealousy of Georges Simenon‘s two-week writing binges is curbed only by the relief of not despairing so deeply that—like author Vilhelm Moberg—he feels compelled to take his own life.
But the bulk of the 131-page memoir transcends the scope of the singular self, the author re-examining his identity only to rediscover the surrounding world. The inspiration is there, already. It always has been.
Inspiration comes in different forms. There are the constants, those that we seek to avoid—rabbits which devastate Kallifatides’ garden after spring, leaving only his Ispahan roses—and those that we celebrate—the joy of eating pears every summer, the dew-glistened fruit dripping juices down his chin.
But life, most consistently, inspires with its changes. When he used to write daily, Kallifatides cherished the commute to his Stockholm studio, walking up Mamasell Josabeth’s steps “where the first white, yellow, and blue flowers of the spring appeared, on the slope behind the Norwegian Church.” Such reflections ring with the lucidity of poetry. One shares the author’s longing for the sanctioned studio, entering a building which used to be a spice emporium, “surrounded by the aroma of another century.” It’s a tangible experience we too can apply our imaginations to smell, taste, touch.
More than poetic observation, however, Another Life indulges its faith in humanity with stories of tenderness. Kallifatides describes the delight of watching women pick flowers with thoughtfulness, whereas men look as if “they’re about to purchase hand grenades.”
Even more moving are his stories of humility. One day, while straying far from his familiar neighborhood, he stumbled upon a 100-year old village. Outside of the village, he found a path winding “like a frightened snake” to a nearby school. With some veneration, he realizes that the path was created by children’s footsteps, a path traveled six days a week, regardless of weather. These are the same children that would help transform Sweden into a modern welfare state, a nation now undergoing its own cultural crisis.
Kallifatides left Greece when he was 25 years old. Half a century later, he returns to his homeland to savor a paradox: “In Greece they dreamed of the Swedish model, while in Sweden they dreamed of the Greek lack of any kind of mode.” To complicate matters, back in his village of Molai, where stray cats outnumber the customers, he reckons with his reputation, musing over a street and a high school named after him.
But the country’s economic crisis spoils his rumination. Returning to Greece, he revisits not only a former homeland but a former worldview. As the world has changed with time, he too, has changed. Kallifatides diagnoses Greece’s rampant poverty differently than as a youth: “I condemned those who were drowning because they hadn’t learned to swim, instead of those who stood by and watched without lifting a finger.” Poverty, he now judges, is less an individual disorder than a social disease. This is the view of a man broadening the ethos of responsibility.
If social media has become Kallifatides’ “homeopathic model”, immediate and uncensored, Greece has become a bauble, the world’s tourist resort. Even back home the waitresses speak to him in a language other than their own. Yet Greece’s sweetness, he observes, is its way of coping with hardships. Countries, like writers, can fall into a shell of their former selves; and emigration, Kallifatides suggests, is a kind of suicide: “You don’t die, but a great deal dies within you. Not least, the language.”
Feeling “empty inside, like an old walnut”, struggling with his identity in a country struggling with its own, Kallifatides decided to write his next book in Greek, his first time doing so since emigrating to Sweden 50 years prior. Deeper than a nostalgic fling, the writing of Another Life turns out to be just the homecoming that an old walnut needs.
The ancient Greeks have a story about a legendary king of Corinth, Sisyphus, who was condemned, by the god Zeus, to roll a boulder up a hill in Hades, every day, again and again, eternally. Growing old is inevitable; growing old while serving one’s passion is preferable. Wizened with the years—dripping wet like the elders—Theodor Kallifatides appreciates his condition less as a punishment than as a gift.