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An Exclusive Love

What do people do on the morning that they know will be their last? Writer Johanna Adorján, tells a true story.

‘I was crossing Friedrichstrasse when the first sentence of An Exclusive Love came to me. To be precise I was crossing the tramlines on Friedrichstrasse. The sentence was: ‘On 13th October 1991 my grandparents killed themselves’. Once I had the first sentence I had the voice. Then it was easy and I didn’t stop until the end.

I had been thinking forever about writing a book but I didn’t know what kind of book to write. A writer friend asked me ‘Which story touches you the most?’ I knew immediately: the story that touches me the most is my grandparents’ suicide.

My grandparents were Hungarian Jews. In 1944, when the Germans occupied Hungary my grandfather was marched to Mauthausen concentration camp. My grandmother was pregnant. Six months later, when the danger was at its height, she gave birth to my father. We know that she hid him in a drawer. But we don’t know where the drawer was or where she herself hid. They didn’t speak about those times.

During the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, they fled to Copenhagen where they lived for the rest of their lives. My grandfather was in his eighties and terminally ill when they killed themselves. My grandmother was a healthy 71 year old. Everyone believes the suicide to have been her idea.

A little later the smell of coffee mingles with the cigarette smoke. A keen nose would also pick up a hint of Jicky by Guerlain. My grandmother has her dressing-gown on, a silk kimono that my father once brought her back from Japan; she wears it loosely belted around her waist, and now she is sitting at the kitchen table. She holds a lighted cigarette between the fingers of her left hand. She has long elegant fingers, and holds the cigarette very close to her fingertips, as if a cigarette were something precious… Even on this, the last day of her life, she is still a beautiful woman. *

After her death we cleared out her wardrobe. I took a jacket that looks like snakeskin but is really plastic. My grandmother made it herself...*

What do any of us know about our grandparents? I loved them very much and I got to know them so much better by writing the book, not from a grandchild’s perspective but from the perspective of a curious adult.

Before, whenever I told people about the circumstances of their death I always felt the weight of its sadness, as if it were stuck here in my chest. But when I started to write, and I imagined their last day in as detailed a way as I could, it lost its power of terror for me. It was like when you go into a dark cellar and you don’t know what’s down there. You feel frightened. But then you put the light on, and because you can now see everything, you are no longer afraid.

For this reason the process of writing the book wasn’t sad. On the contrary. It was only when I was in a studio, reading the book aloud for the audio version that suddenly I wanted to cry. I don’t know why. I didn’t see that coming.

Once you publish something, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It’s like children leaving the house: ‘Now you’re going to study abroad’. All the memories that had connected them to me got smaller somehow when I put them in the book. They were not really mine anymore. All of a sudden, a few years ago, I remembered something that my grandfather always used to say and I thought ‘Why didn’t I think about this for the book?’ But then it struck me: ‘No, this memory is still mine’ and I was so happy.

Enter my grandparents from Copenhagen. An elegant couple looking as if they had just parked their vintage car round the corner. They step out of a cloud of perfume and cigarette smoke. They have the deepest voices ever heard, they speak German with a foreign accent, and they talk to me as if I were a grown-up but on a small scale. Do you like ballet, are you interested in opera, do you think extra-terrestrial life is possible? Not in her wildest dreams would my grandmother have considered crawling round the playroom with her grandchildren, searching for a cap lost from a Playmobil character that just had to be somewhere. Instead, she went to the opera with us. And when I was five years old my grandfather let me puff his cigar – I had a terrible coughing fit and he was horrified, and quickly bought me an ice-cream. They seemed to me like film-stars, attractive and mysterious, and the fact that they were related to me, were my own forebears, made them absolutely irresistible. *

I felt more Jewish after writing this book. Somehow by writing it I had entitled myself to this part of my family history. Still to this day I say I’m half-Jewish, because my mother is not Jewish. Then people correct me and say that it is a Nazi term. And I think ‘But this is how it feels. I feel both.’

In Germany memoirs are not rated very highly. Fiction is considered the higher form. But I love memoirs. Maybe because my day job is being a journalist, I have a suspicion that the closer a book is to reality, the better. I believe truth is stranger than fiction. Also more interesting.

So naturally I began to write fiction. Short stories and then a novel. Shared Pleasures, the novel, is about a woman who falls in love with an amazing man who turns out to be amazing only when he wants to be. The kind of man it’s fashionable to label a narcissist. She gives away all her strength and power to this man until slowly, slowly she loses herself. I wrote it because not only me, but every woman I have ever known, has fallen at one time for one of these too-good-to-be-true men. I wanted to understand the mechanics of a universal experience.

Life is best when you are writing. Then you feel the whole universe is speaking to you. After the book is finished, the universe goes quiet again. Right now I am in between books. It always takes me about three years to have a new idea. Shared Pleasures came out in 2016. Maybe I’d better head to Friedrichstrasse and keep walking back and forth across the tramlines until I get hit by an idea. Or by a tram.

There you have your last sentence.'

*Extracts from An Exclusive Love: A Memoir by Johanna Adorján translated from the german by Anthea Bell

Susan Irvine

Susannah Baker-Smith