The House Collapses
I met her at the airport in Alexandroupoli, on my way home from the festival. Her name was Lia.
Her film had brought tears to my eyes, which never happens to me anymore. I’ve seen hundreds of films in my life—maybe even thousands. My emotional investment can’t survive even the smallest flaw in the screenplay or camera angles. And usually the flaws aren’t small. They’re colossal.
The House Collapses, Lia’s entry in the festival, was just a few minutes long, slow, all one shot. The house was nestled in a snowy landscape in the middle of nowhere. The camera kept trying to breach a wall that surrounded the house. Like something human—a hand or a leg, not an eye, but also definitely not a machine—it would give up only to try again, with unfailing curiosity, from another place on the estate. The camera kept itself trained on the house, which resembled a 1960s bungalow, until at last it swung toward the sea. It zoomed in on the water visible behind the snow, as if the house held the secret of human life, and the water was its quiet devastation. Then the camera fell into the snow and the house in the background came crashing down. Fingers scrubbed at the lens, shaking the machine. It made the viewer feel dizzy—as if he were one with the lens.
It’s difficult for me to describe in words how deeply her film moved me. That’s why I didn’t go up to her after the screening. She’d been ringed by a handful of people her age, early thirties at most, and she looked lost. Now, on the contrary, as she rolled her suitcase up to the baggage check, she seemed quite put-together.
I wrote a review for the paper that my editor described as heartbreaking. If you’ve ever read any of my reviews, you’ll understand how odd that sounds. How far I am, as a person, from anything you might call heartbreaking. When I was younger I used to say I chose this profession in order to maintain a healthy, balanced distance from both sentimentality and pragmatism. Today, at sixty-seven, I’m absorbed in an intimate search for an excuse to quit. An excuse that’s more than mere resignation, but reflects, on the contrary, a sense of duty to the new. It was a good time for me to leave the newspaper. I was already old enough to retire, and was pulled along solely by the momentum I had established. There were so many younger writers in the culture department, capable and honest, who dreamed of taking over my position. They watched me the way kittens watch the veteran cat at the taverna who grabs all the food that falls at patrons’ feet, their necks twitching instinctively. Sometimes they would sneak up on me, like actual cats hesitantly lifting first one paw, then the next.
Lia had checked her bag. She was standing in a corner of the departures hall looking at her boarding pass when I appeared beside her and introduced myself.
“Perhaps you’ve read my column. Well, after I saw your film, it occurred to me that it might be time to quit. It was a moment of inspiration. I suppose I realized that it’s time to make room for the younger generation.”
Lia stood at attention. She was the type of young person who’s been raised with a sense of respect for her elders, who gets up to offer you her seat on the subway. Short, quite thin, beautiful in her own way. Long curly hair, deep black eyes. She was wearing a yellow woolen dress and a leather jacket.
“Me? You’re talking to me?” she said, bringing her hands to her chest. Her wrists were terribly thin.
I assured her that I was. She looked at me, confused.
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to forgive me, I’ve been living in England for a long time and I’m not very well informed. It’s shameful, I know, but I’ve lost contact with things in Greece.”
Her response disappointed me. I’d hoped we could converse as two people who are aware of one another’s range of interests. I felt that momentary surprise I sometimes feel, when I realize my interlocutor doesn’t know who I am or what I do.
“It doesn’t matter, dear, not to worry. I just wanted to say that you have a bright future ahead of you.”
The girl blushed, almost bowed. My mood improved. I invited her to sit with me in a pair of seats that had opened up at the gate. They had just announced a mechanical problem with our plane. From what it seemed, we would be spending hours in that airport. The prospect pleased me, but not Lia.
“I told my son I’d be home tonight, and something’s always coming up to make me late,” she said, and started to bite at the nail of her thumb with impatience.
I noticed that all of her nails were bitten down to the flesh, a fact that contributed to her youthful appearance.
“Nearly a child yourself, and you already have a child of your own?”
“I’m thirty years old!” she said, and blushed again. “My son is two.”
“I’ve gotten used to other ways. My daughter was forty-three when she made me a grandfather. She’d frozen her eggs.”
What the heck, she lived in England and kept blushing, so it seemed easy to share the most personal things with her.
“You know, I was serious about what I said. I’d love for you to tell me how you made the film, in as much detail as you can. And then I’ll quit. Don’t look at me like that. The best time to withdraw is after a review like the one I wrote about your film. Best to end on a benevolent note.”
We didn’t yet know that we’d be at the gate for four hours before they would finally announce that the airplane wouldn’t be leaving, and send us back to town, to fly out the next morning. Lia asked me not to quit on her account.
“OK,” I said. “We’ll see. Whenever I feel this kind of enthusiasm I always want to quit. Or to eat my hat.”
She looked at me as if I were mad and gave me a short account of the making of her film. She had shot it at Ingmar Bergman’s house, on the Swedish island of Fårö, pronounced fora, not faro, something most foreigners get wrong. She used technical language, her narration impeccable. I understood that this was the canned version she gave to everyone and I didn’t insist. I was just a bit disappointed. Then we talked about our favorite films, about life in London and in Athens, about her son and my granddaughter.
At the hotel where they put us up, we shared a club sandwich and a bottle of wine. Neither of us could sleep. Though we hadn’t arranged to meet, we both went down to the lobby at the same time—she to ask for a cup of tea, I to smoke. We decided to sit down for a while in the dimly lit lobby. One thing led to the next, and Lia, her feet up on the sofa, told me the true story.
My husband is Swedish. Last year, around this time, he was filming a documentary about the Acropolis Museum for a Swedish TV station. Our son and I came with him from London for the filming. Jonas’s parents came to Athens, too, so we could all spend Christmas together. I felt as if his parents had been putting off all the things they should have been doing slowly and steadily over the years: meeting me and my parents, meeting their grandchild. They were active people and already had three other grandkids. But they said they just wanted to do things right, to give our family the time we deserved. They even suggested that I go back to Sweden with them for a few weeks, and bring the baby, so Jonas could work undisturbed. They seemed friendly—an extension of Jonas—and so I accepted their invitation. I love to travel. I’d never associated a trip with any sort of unpleasantness.
We took them to the Acropolis Museum. Jonas’s father, Åke, carried a bedraggled notebook and jotted down everything I told him about the sculptor Phidias, about the colors ancient Greek sculptures used to be painted, about the eyes of the kouros statues. Jonas mostly talked about the building, how the sloping floor gestured to the ascent of the Holy Rock. Jonas’s mother, Gunilla, said that from the outside, the building looked like a couple of haphazardly stacked video tapes. My parents laughed at the observation. Jonas, unfazed, continued to talk about the building, until Gunilla yawned and said she needed some water so she could take her pill. They spoke broken English. Whenever his parents forgot themselves and spoke in Swedish, Jonas would take them to task. He was very strict about issues of politeness.
We left on Epiphany. They had bought my ticket—little Anton was still small enough to travel on my lap—and gave it to me in a Christmas envelope tied with a red ribbon. I was very touched. Jonas and I had been together for five years, but I didn’t know much about his parents, and almost nothing about his country. We lived in a neutral, intermediary country that resembled an airport. We spoke English to one another. First about our love, then about films, and then about the baby’s milk.
Åke and Gunilla lived on an island in the Baltic Sea called Gotland. They had moved there from Norrköping after Jonas’s younger sister, Lovisa, married Håkan, an engineer with a senior position at a cement factory on the island. Lovisa and Håkan lived in Visby, a medieval village on Gotland that was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Åke and Gunilla had visited them one summer years earlier and were enchanted by the roses and the proximity to the water. Lovisa and Håkan had three children, one after the next. Shortly after his birth, the middle child developed a serious heart problem. Lovisa, unhinged by anxiety, asked her parents to move to Visby to help them. We heard about it all from a distance, during the infrequent telephone calls Jonas exchanged with his sister. Swedes aren’t like Greeks, they don’t talk about these things constantly.
At any rate, the situation stabilized. Åke and Gunilla settled in Visby, in a little cottage beside their daughter’s house. They had a second bedroom for guests, where I and the baby would sleep. “It’s like a dollhouse, Jonas, you have to come see for yourself,” Gunilla kept saying, touching her son’s wrist, and he promised that soon all three of us would come for a visit together. The night before we left, Jonas said, “My parents are a bit conservative, but don’t take them too seriously.”
We flew by way of Stockholm, where we boarded a very small plane for Visby. Little Anton, whom we called Antonis when we were in Greece, cried inconsolably. Gunilla turned and looked at me disapprovingly.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” I said, hugging Anton in my arms.
“What’s wrong is that you stopped breastfeeding too early,” Gunilla replied. “Babies need their mother’s warmth.”
In the taxi I asked if we had far to go.
“What a silly question at the end of such a long journey!” Åke said.
As we passed through the walls of Visby and the taxi threaded its way through the narrow, snowy streets of the town, my heart constricted. Why on earth had I agreed to spend three weeks in a walled city with these people?
At some point we arrived. Lovisa was waiting for us in the doorway. She looked remarkably like Jonas, in fact she was Jonas, only with a long braid and a dress printed with rhombuses.
“Welcome,” she said. She stuck her face up next to the baby carrier and cooed at Anton.
I brushed the snow from my hat and took off my boots in the hall, as Åke and Gunilla had done. In the living room I froze. I don’t know how to describe it: everything was extremely beautiful and neat, with white candles burning and red throw pillows propped against the arms of the sofa. All the decorative objects were sophisticated and had been placed on the surfaces in a way that disturbed me, as if someone came by every so often to straighten them. Fortunately Anton had fallen asleep in my arms and his steady breath made me feel a bit calmer.
Soon after, Håkan came home. He was a tall man who seemed as if he spent hours in a cement factory. He had the air of an artist who’s constantly mixing paints, and his hair was a bit greasy. He hugged Lovisa, then his in-laws, and when it came time to shake my hand, in the end he changed his mind and touched his cheek to mine. We sniffed each another out.
He sat down in a chair across from me and started speaking in Swedish, throwing glances at me when he thought I wasn’t looking. I closed my eyes and pretended I was in one of Bergman’s films where the couples embody the stalemates of married life.
I still don’t know why I mentioned Bergman. In a break in their conversation, I told them that whenever I hear Swedish, I think of his films. They all looked at me expressionlessly, waiting for me to come to some sort of conclusion.
“Lia wants to be a filmmaker,” Gunilla explained condescendingly.
“In that case, you have to go and see Bergman’s house,” Håkan said.
“Don’t put ideas in her head with this weather,” Åke murmured.
“Bergman’s house?” I asked, jumping to my feet. “Where’s Bergman’s house?”
Håkan brought a map and showed me the outline of the island. Gotland was oblong and bright green like an unripe papaya. We were in the middle of its western coast. Fårö was a little island to the northeast. You could only get there by ferry. It was two and a half hours from where we were. We stood over the open map. His elbow was touching mine.
“I never understood his films,” Gunilla said behind my back. “You start digging, and keep it up until you’ve created a problem out of nothing. He only really made one good film, a comedy, what was it called?”
“Smiles of a Summer Night,” Åke said.
“Exactly. That was different.”
The next morning, other Swedish voices were added to the house. Tommy, Martin, and Marie, Lovisa and Håkan’s three children, were sitting at the dining room table, their mouths smeared with marmalade. They kept shouting sluta at one another, which meant stop, as I learned. My eyes kept returning to Martin, who looked like his father and was the one who had the problem with his heart. When the older two left for day care, the house grew quiet. Only little Tommy stayed home.
The days passed in boredom. I spent my mornings reading on the sofa, while Anton slept in the carrier on my chest, or chewed on the thick pages of Tommy’s board books. Tommy would get mad and shout sluta, and I would run to separate them. Lovisa was studying. For years she’d wanted to get a masters in archaeology. She kept setting it aside and then picking it back up again. Her dream was to someday work in the museum in Visby. But she seemed to have been absorbed by Martin’s problem and family life in general. Her face looked broken.
Gunilla didn’t like to read. Where they were from, she said, looking at the two of us with her icy blue eyes, people liked to be useful. Useful meant watching Rapport, the news bulletin. Or subtitled Jamie Oliver cooking shows. Playing bingo every Saturday. Other useful things included cleaning the house, soaking salt cod, and rearranging objects that had been put awry (it turned out that she did most of the straightening). Useful, lastly, meant going for walks and to Sunday service at the Sankta Maria cathedral. She asked me to go with her. We didn’t speak the whole way there. I looked greedily at the objects in the lighted windows of the houses we passed—porcelain dogs, light fixtures, potted flowers, mobiles, and cats, real Persian cats. She kept telling me, “You’ll trip and fall, watch where you’re going.”
The first time I went to church with her all I understood were the words Helige, Fader, and Gud. Closing my eyes, listening to the pastor read from the Bible in her gentle, hypnotic voice, my mind strayed once more to Bergman. The pastor had fallen in love with some other man and was telling her husband, “I don’t want to see you anymore, everything about you makes me angry, that’s why I’m leaving. We never had anything in common except for our love for the cinema, and that’s not enough for me.”
When I opened my eyes, the priest and another woman were passing by holding wooden rods with canvas sacks affixed to the end. Gunilla tossed in a bill and looked at me questioningly.
“I didn’t bring any money with me,” I whispered.
I went back to the cathedral the next day to cry a little. It was the perfect place to cry if you were a quiet person like me. Raising my eyes, I saw that beside the colorful mosaics to the right was written the word “Universe.” Instead of lifting my spirits, the word sunk me into an even deeper depression. There were ten days left, and I wanted to leave Sweden, to leave that very second.
Håkan and I always crossed paths at the end of the day and our eyes would meet. We all ate together in their dining room with the neatly arranged knives and forks, the linen napkins likewise neatly arranged in the middle of the plate, the serving dishes neatly arranged in the middle of the table. Then Åke, Gunilla, Anton, and I would withdraw to the cottage, which shared a yard with the main house, and where everything was even more neatly arranged.
During the second week of my visit I started to go out at dawn. Anton, to my great luck, always slept until eight in his play pen. I would put on my poncho and gloves and a mohair shawl Lovisa had lent me, and follow the road along the outer walls of the town that led down to the sea. The snow would be up to my ankles. The wind tossed fresh snow down from the gutters onto my hair or straight into my face. It was good practice for a day with Gunilla.
The sea calmed me. The first ten or twenty meters were completely frozen. Then there were narrow little waves that broke on the ice. The rocks in the distance, covered with snow, looked like sleeping polar bears. The ice, the waves, the fake bears all disturbed me—everything was pretending to be something else. I always took my video camera with me. I mechanically filmed whatever I saw: ducks on the pond in Almedalen Park, the library building, cargo ships docked at the port. You chose the wrong profession, I told myself. You’re afraid of the cinema. You’re even afraid to talk back to your mother-in-law.
One early morning, as I closed the gate of the yard quietly behind me and stepped out into the road, I sensed someone following me. My heart jumped, because I knew who it was. He grabbed my arm and pointed to where his car was parked. He went first, and I trailed a few steps behind. He opened the passenger’s side door.
“I always keep my promises,” he said, turning the key in the engine.
He spoke with clenched teeth, a clenched face, and that’s how I answered, too.
We talked mostly about what we would tell the others when we got back and whether my son would manage for so long without me. He had a plan. He would tell them that he found me outside the house, that I had slipped on the snow and, not wanting to worry them, he’d taken me to the hospital himself. He would call in to work and call the house, too, from the road.
Once he’d explained his plan, the enthusiasm in his voice receded. He drove silently through the snow. All around us were frozen lakes distinguished only by the rushes that sprouted up here and there, interrupting the sameness of the plains. As in Visby, most of the houses we saw were wooden, with small windows. As we got closer to the sea, more and more of those windows were shuttered. Apparently they were summer residences. What does all this have to do with the story? you’ll ask. But it does. During the whole of our ride, the external world was trying to tell me something about time and experience. The fact that I had trouble understanding didn’t make the narration any less dramatic.
Except for a truck, we were the only ones on the ferry to Fårö. Håkan cut the engine and turned toward me. He just stared at me, he didn’t try to touch me. I stared back at him. We sat there perfectly still, yet as we moved over the water, it was as if we were moving closer to one another.
When we got off the ferry Håkan stared at the road in front of him and I stared at Håkan. The landscape was the same, but he kept changing. There were moments when he drove in a carefree kind of way, hands relaxed and lips parted, and other moments when he clenched his fingers on the wheel. His nails turned white and a vein on his temple bulged green. There was a reason why I could stare at him like that: I was sure our boldness wouldn’t drive us to anything riskier than what we’d already done.
I don’t remember how long we drove like that, but at some point we turned onto a small country road. The forest, if it was a forest, closed in on the car from both sides. To our left appeared a low garden gate with a no trespassing sign. We couldn’t see the house from there, only snow.
“What do you say, should we do it?” Håkan said.
“Of course,” I answered. “We came all this way.”
We got out of the car and tried the garden gate. It opened easily, it just needed a strong shove, since it had frozen in place. The snow was soft and deep. The first thing I did was raise my camera and film the snow, which was untouched except for some rabbit tracks deep in the yard.
To the right were two identical garages with blue wooden doors, and to the left was the house itself, surrounded by a stone wall. Directly in front of us was a windowless building, the Film Archive. The wall seemed like an organic part of the house. We walked its perimeter and all we could see was the upper part of some of the windows. Håkan lifted me into his arms so I could film better. He held me steadily and tightly, and that was precisely the problem: the steadiness of his grip, even over my coat, made me feel so light, as if I wasn’t even there. As if I wasn’t the one filming, as if something was filming us. And yet I clearly saw the curtains pulled partway back, the lamps in the house, a bare wooden table. I filmed those scenes with great curiosity and interest. During my student years or for one of my first films, something like that would have required endless hours of planning, and fear. But since I wasn’t even there, nor was there any fear. Ideas about how and when to film came to me effortlessly.
As we made the rounds of the place, he lifting and me filming, we finally came to what seemed to be an extension of the house. There was a row of cabanas with wooden awnings and slatted blue windows and doors, slightly darker than the doors of the garage. They all faced the sea, and Håkan asked if I wanted to walk on Bergman’s shore, if it felt important to me. I told him what’s important isn’t what we do, but what we don’t do. At that moment I was filming the sea and I couldn’t see his face. I just felt his hands on my waist, his characteristic grip.
“I don't need to hold you anymore,” he said, “right? Now you can see.”
His voice held a hint of irony, perhaps sarcasm at his own expense, I’m not sure. I was surprised when his grip loosened, and the camera fell into the snow. We picked it up and dusted it off with our fingers. I pressed the power button.
Just then Håkan’s cell phone rang and he started to speak in Swedish, repeating my name several times. It was Lovisa. They were all worried and Anton was crying. It was nine in the morning.
On the way back Håkan seemed sad, and to escape the heavy atmosphere I asked him about his life. He told me about Copenhagen, where he used to live, and the position they offered him in Visby. The salary was twice as high, he said, and it was hard to turn down that kind of money, even though life on the island was strange and empty. He accepted mostly because his son had that problem. What problem? I asked, as if I didn’t know. He told me the child had been born with a heart like a frog’s, with two chambers but only one ventricle, and they had to build another from scratch. The medical terminology was a bit too specialized for his English. I was also floundering, trying to speak in simple English so he would understand. Our conversation about the heart sounded strange, as if two toddlers were talking about things beyond their ken.
On the ferry Håkan asked me to take off my boot and sock and roll up the cuff of my pants. He took an elastic bandage out of the first aid kit. At first I hesitated. Then he stroked my ankle in a way that made me want to cry. He bent down and licked the skin around the bone. I thought about how the seats in the car were made of leather, how we were sitting on the skin of something that had once lived and defended itself.
“Sluta,” I said in a muffled sort of way.
Håkan said something in Swedish, his voice hoarse, altered. Then the moment passed, it truly passed, I don’t know how we moved from one state to another so quickly. He bandaged my ankle. We settled on a story and then stayed silent for the rest of the ride.
We arrived shortly after lunchtime, as he had foreseen. The snow glistened in the sun. I limped out of the car and everyone treated me as if I really were injured, even Gunilla. They brought a stool for me to rest my foot on and made me tea. Anton snuggled in my arms. Jonas and my parents called that afternoon to see how I was feeling. In a single day I had fooled everyone. Most of all, myself.
Over the next few days I developed a fever, which the others took as a sign of my ordeal and I as a sign of confusion. They left me alone. I spent my mornings reading. If Anton was fussy, they took him to the other house. I slept lightly and twitched a few times in my sleep. Whenever I got out of bed I took care to limp a bit.
When I left, everyone hugged me, except for Håkan. He faced me sullenly and held out his hand. I squeezed it in mine, but it was soulless, as if it didn’t belong to him. “Thank you for everything,” I said.
In Athens I took off the bandage. My foot had swelled from the tight binding. It was as if Håkan were still holding me, still applying that same grip.
Lia looked at me in the dim light. Her eyes were wet, the eyes of a sad dog. “By now I’ve forgotten him. Do you find it logical that I would forget someone who made me feel so strongly?”
“Maybe it’s a defense mechanism,” I said.
“No. I think things affect us by chance. Don’t you?”
“I honestly don’t know. The question of chance…”
“There’s something else. I’ve only told the story once before, to some girl I didn’t know at a party. And now to you. Do you realize how much I trusted you? Do you understand how personal that story is?”
I nodded my head. I wasn’t a man, or a stranger at a party. I was just an old geezer. I was the kind of old fart who could keep the secrets of young women whom people stroke on the ankle while speaking in Swedish.
“I understand,” I told her. “There’s no need to worry. I’m as silent as the grave.”
Amanda Michalopoulou is the author of eight novels and three short story collections. She has been a contributing editor at Kathimerini in Greece and Tagesspiegel in Berlin. Her stories have appeared in Harvard Review, Guernica, World Literature Today, Words Without Borders,Asymptote, The Guardian among others.Karen Emmerich
Karen Emmerich is associate professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University, and a translator of modern Greek poetry and prose. Her translation of Eleni Vakalo's Before Lyricism won the Best Translated Book Award and her co-translation with Edmund Keeley of Yiannis Ritsos's Diaries of Exile won the PEN Translation Prize for Poetry.