This article appeared in the 2010:2 issue.
Since his debut in 1988, Håkan Nesser has written twenty-four novels including
The Worms on Carmine Street begins: ‘We came to New York with four full suitcase and two empty hearts.’ Håkan Nesser has previously described two basic questions that every story tries to answer: ‘What has happened?’ and ‘What’s going to happen now?’ In The Worms on Carmine Street, Erik Steinbeck, a successful author, and his equally successful artist wife Winnie have come to New York after the disappearance of their young daughter Sarah, who has been snatched from outside the couple’s home in the fictitious European city of Aarlach. It is the second such tragedy for Winnie who also lost a child in a previous marriage; a suicide attempt and mental breakdown eventually result.
So, the couple moves to Manhattan to build a new life. The novel follows their progress in their new neighbourhood as they, by now virtual strangers to each other, attempt to get on with their careers. In Erik’s case, this means sitting in the local library opposite James Walker Park, close to their small flat on Carmine Street where Winnie has a cramped studio space. (Coincidentally, I too am called James Walker and lived in this same small area of Manhattan for several years, and so am on very familiar territory.)
Events move apace and the excerpts below, from the early chapters of the novel, show the couple’s respective states of mind and the tensions that begin to invade their relationship.
We came to New York with four full suitcases and two empty hearts.
During the short walk between Carmine Street and the library on Leroy, this formulation comes to me. Maybe it is not the right introduction for this, but for some days I have been sitting, toiling over a first sentence. As if it was just that simple thing that was at issue; a key which will open up the tale, a seal which will be broken or an illusory trick which, once found, sets everything else properly in motion.
That’s not the case now. Stories must continuously be born on each new page, through pain and occasionally joy, line by line, centimetre by centimetre and there are no shortcuts. In just this way, I intend to write an account of what has been happening these last few years and what is happening right now, and it is not going to be easy. I am far from certain that it will lead anywhere, but sometimes you do not have a choice.
I make you no promises. None at all; it might turn out a coherent story, it might turn out to be something else.
Several weeks have passed since I found this little branch of the New York Public Library - The Hudson Park Branch is what it says on the wall facing James Walker Park - and I have been sitting in this dirt-coloured, shabby place several hours a day since. Never the same hours, as their opening hours vary and it is only on Sundays that they are completely closed. But it is the right place anyway; I feel it clearly. The writing setting per se has always been important to me and in this case it has been even more significant than ever.
It is autumn. It is the end of September but still very warm. People talk all the time about the greenhouse effect; this is the third year in a row now and the New York Times, which I buy and read every day with the curiosity of one possessed, returns to the subject regularly. Former presidential candidate Gore has even received an Oscar for his film on this, and that’s maybe just what is going on. Perhaps our Earth is on the point of boiling over and disappearing.
As for us, Winnie and me, we have had to bear a burden for a rather shorter time. Two summers have passed since the catastrophe, seventeen months in fact. We arrived in New York at the beginning of August and found the apartment we now inhabit in Greenwich Village after some days’ searching, rejecting one exorbitant and impossible mouse-hole after another. The small penthouse which we eventually decided to take is also exorbitant, but at least it is clean and habitable.
Four full suitcases, two empty hearts. We have emptied the suitcases and stowed away the contents in narrow cupboards and rickety chests of drawers and our hearts are as can be expected. Winnie says that she wants to start painting seriously again, but that she needs to be alone with her art and this is the reason that I leave home for a few hours every day. Naturally, I need solitude too, to get to grips with words again and set them down edge to edge and sentence by sentence and finally achieve something that is not just a dismal and hopeless going round in circles.
Every story seeks its shape and finds it.
My name is Erik Steinbeck, I might as well declare that right away. At the time of writing, I have reached 38 years of age. For about ten years, I have been able to call myself an author, but three have passed since I published anything. Five novels is the sum total of my output, and two of them have gone on to be made into successful films, and even if I do not come up with a word over the next few years, we will still manage financially. It is also the only promise for the future that I dare to make. We will not starve to death before the last page of this dubious novel.
My wife Winnie is an artist and in certain respects better known and further advanced in her art than I am, but up to now I have made more money. I am not sure why I am taking up time with these banal facts about our circumstances. Perhaps there is an old Calvinist need to really have to tell; perhaps it is just a means of postponing what I will have to say.
We have been married for seven years. Seventeen months ago our four-year-old daughter disappeared and this is why we find ourselves in New York.
It is because of this that we have become strangers to each other.
In any case that is the starting point for this and personally I wouldn’t accept it unquestioningly. In any case you have to find a starting point somewhere. You have to begin somewhere.
* * *
We come up to our apartment. It is really just one large room; a kitchen area runs along one wall, the bedroom is about as big as a cupboard and there is a loft of a few square metres beneath the roof where we can put overnight guests. Well, one guest at least. The room goes right up to the ridge of the roof and two large windows give it the feeling of being in an artist’s studio or a church. Winnie did not hesitate for a second, the first time we went up those stairs.
We never have guests though. Winnie has taken her canvases and artist’s paraphernalia up to the loft. She stands up there - or sits, there isn’t enough room to stand - when she is working and says the light coming in through the dirty windows is ideal, almost too good, so it was a distraction for the first few days, but not any longer.
We heat up some soup from the day before in the microwave and then we sit opposite each other across the high steel and glass Steinmeyer table: soup, rye bread with goat’s cheese from Murray’s fabulous cheese shop on Bleeker, round the corner, each with a glass of white wine. Winnie will be drunk after the meal, she already has that look.
I ask if she’s been painting. She nods and asks if I have been writing. I say I actually think I have got going now and she gives me a sceptical little smile.
‘Got going?’ she says. ‘Do you really mean that?’
‘I think so,’ I say.
‘In that gloomy library?’
‘I could never work there.’
‘I don’t need as much light as you.’
‘It is too dark for any kind of work at all. It makes me think of my grandfather.’
Winnie’s grandfather tried to hang himself. Winnie was ten. The rope broke, or more likely the crossbar he tied it to. He is still alive and for the past twenty years he has been living in an institution. Or should I say been confined to. I have never met him and since we got married, Winnie has visited him twice.
Her parents are dead, as are mine. I don’t have any brothers or sisters; Winnie has a sister in London. Until Sarah’s disappearance they had some contact, though only via mail or telephone. I have never met her and then over the last year their contact has petered out to nothing. I think that’s Winnie’s decision.
‘I am not sure that I will stick with it,’ I say. ‘But the library suits me fine. At least for the time being.’
Winnie does not reply. Something has happened to her today. I can see it. It’s not just the mild tipsiness, there is something else too. A kind of febrile energy she is trying to hide; she has a look in her eyes that wasn’t there yesterday and that I have not seen here before.
Something has happened. I usually choose those words but not today.
‘How are you feeling?’ I ask.
I think how cautiously we talk to each other. We approach each other with a consideration that merely masks the opposite; our words sound as natural and charming as the pleasantries before a duel or the dainty cakes at a wake.
No, that’s not really true. But there are limits to the silence, which I have difficulty mastering.
‘Something’s happened,’ she says and immediately takes some deep breaths as if she is finding it hard to get oxygen. ‘Something has happened today.’
‘What?’ I ask
‘Sarah,’ she says. ‘I realise that she’s alive. I finally realise it.’
* * *
I sit and write for two hours, almost without looking up from the paper. At a quarter past twelve, I leave the library but leave my briefcase, my pad and my pens on the table. I wander up to Monster Sushi on Hudson to have lunch. I sit at one of the tables on the pavement and while I am eating, ring Winnie. I get no reply and I don’t know if she is standing at her easel or if she is swimming. Or, maybe she just doesn’t want to speak to me. Immediately, I feel a great sadness; a feeling that is almost physical; a cramp or sudden chill in the chest, in the area around the heart. I order a glass of sake to chase it away, although it is only one o’clock and I have at least two hours work left at the library.
Later, when I am crossing Barrow Street and glance to the left, I catch sight of her. Winnie, my wife, for better or for worse, is also crossing Barrow Street although in the opposite direction and on Bedford which runs parallel. Fifty metres away from me at most; no, probably no more than forty, walking at a quick pace as if on her way to something important and a little late. She is wearing a short, yellow dress and disappears behind a van and a corner after a few seconds.
I stop and hesitate a moment. Then I hurry after her but when I get to Bedford and look for her, she is already gone. I continue on up to Christopher, look right and left but she is nowhere to be seen.
Nowhere. I shrug my shoulders and go back to my library on Leroy.
Some hours later, I return home and she is in the shower. Her yellow dress as well as her panties and bra are lying on the bed. When she comes into the room, naked except for a towel wrapped around her hair, I tell her that I saw her on Bedford at lunchtime.
‘Bedford?’ She says. ‘I haven’t been on Bedford today.’
I think that she hesitates just a half second too long before replying but that might be my imagination.
‘Are you absolutely sure?’ I ask.
‘Of course I am sure,’ she says. ‘I’ve been shopping at Union Square, Otherwise I’ve been at home all day. I’ve been trying to paint that face but I can’t do it without your help.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘I must have been mistaken.’
But I am convinced. And, she has not returned to what she asserted yesterday; that she realised Sarah was alive. I am relieved about that in a way but it is odd that she mentioned it just once without explaining anything afterwards.
I wonder if it time to contact Doctor Vargas, but I decide to wait.
She sits on a chair and starts to towel dry her hair. She is still completely naked and I feel a strong desire for her.
* * *
Sarah was a happy child. I venture to say it and as I write it there is thump at the window above the table where I am sitting - a bird or a stray ball from the park, I don’t know; there is no sign - I look up and down; look at the five-word-long sentence I have just composed and recoil at my choice of tense and at how automatically I composed it.
Sarah was a happy child.
Does this mean that I presume that she’s dead? I don’t believe so, not necessarily, but what reason is there to suppose that she is a happy child. I can’t comment on that, and as Sarah and now are concepts that cannot coexist in the same place or same sentence, I can only talk about her in the past tense. That is how it is and I am the first to regret it. I start again.
Sarah was a happy child. I venture to say it as there was a carelessness and light-heartedness that surrounded her from her first breathe. She was always content; never fretted, not even when she was tired. Mr and Mrs Nesbith told us that Emily and Casper fought a lot when it was just the two of them but never when Sarah was with them. Both of them loved to play with her and she loved to play with them. She seemed to view life and the world around her with such happy curiosity and total confidence that, when you try to break life down into its component parts, you wish everyone could be that way. I know that as a teenager I read a book about a very old soul which was sent down to earth for one last visit despite having very few years left and despite having to bring a child back to Heaven - but the soul stubbornly insisted on this last visit and in the end God agreed to it. To spread happiness and joy for a limited time must at any rate be better than not spreading any at all. Amongst all the consolatory images that occurred to me after Sarah’s disappearance, it was this story that kept coming back.
She had, despite everything, been alive. She had given us purpose, happiness and joy for just a few years. She had been a happy child. Would it have been better had she never been born?
Once, just the once, I asked Winnie what she thought about that and her answer was immediate, like a riposte to the thrust of a rapier.
Of course it would have been better if she had never been born.
Of course it would.
It was only two days after Sarah disappearing that Winnie tried to take her own life. I found her in the bath, with her wrists slashed and an empty whisky bottle; but the cuts were clumsily done and I found her too quickly for her to get her way.
The psychiatric clinic where she landed up eventually was called Rozenhejm. It was in a lovely location some ten kilometres south of Saaren, on a southerly slope with lots of fruit trees, many of which were in full bloom when Winnie was admitted. All summer, we took long, cautious walks on these slopes, leading down to the River Meusel. In silence we’d walk side by side, but sometimes during the first weeks when Winnie didn’t want to, or wasn’t allowed to leave the ward, I walked alone.
It made amazingly little difference.