My plane landed outside of Posen, and it was a good two hour drive to get to the little village where the Axel, the soldier who plays such a pivotal role in the memoir, “The Second Ring,” lives and works. A disjointed but splendid brick edifice, with pointed, black gables, yellow sills and green under-eaves, made it a picturesque place, perfect for such a complex personality. I found Axel in his study, a place frozen in time, with bookshelves that ranged far overhead, requiring a wheeled ladder to rise high enough to get the topmost books. A bust of Richard Wagner was on his huge Boesendorfer piano, and gilt-framed oil paintings of German nobility from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries dominated the walls that were free of shelves. Lustrous red and blue leather bound books were everywhere. In the corner, on an ornately carved table, an expensive gramophone, from days gone by, sat with its metal parts gleaming, and richly produced discs lay near it, a gold-tooled snuffbox filled with steel needles open and nearby. Courteous and handsome, he shook my hand and offered me a cigar, pouring two brandies for us. As we settled in, he crossed his legs, sipped his snifter and waited for me to ask the first question.
AK: Men in the army do not use each other’s first names. As in school, they use the family name. Why is it, in your memoir, that you have no last name, and no one else calls you by your family’s name.
AXEL: (long draw on his cigar, then a long funnel of blue smoke from his lungs) Look around you. What you see is my patrimony. My father, all my uncles, my grandfathers on both sides–all were soldiers. Were I to find you in this directory, all the instances of my family’s achievements, you would be shocked to think that I was the young man who ended up being their progeny. They were accomplished, powerful, feared, even loved in their community. They served the King, then the Kaiser, and were rewarded.
In the honest, real-life moments of my life and career, yes of course I used the family name, and they did to me as well. But it remains under the surface in my narrative. I would prefer no one would know.
AK: Of course, sir. I didn’t mean to make it sound as though I meant to pry.
AXEL: Ha-ha! That’s why you’re here. Who was it who announced to his audience ready to tear him to pieces, “Let us pry.” Pry away. You can’t hurt me.
AK: I wouldn’t dare try. But you’ve now come out with what really is an extraordinary tale. In fact, there are aspects of your story that some would find–
AXEL: … incredible! Oh, yes! The whole thing is incredible. I can’t believe I was thrust in that place, at that time, with that group of soldiers. Mostly I cannot believe that I met Klaus then.
AK: You seemed to be in such control of your life until he came along.
AXEL: I’ll admit that his personality, his character, his demeanor, his deportment, all struck me like a Panzerkampfwagen.
AK: A what?
AXEL: A tank.
AK: Yes, I can imagine. And, pardon me for saying it, but all those attributes are intellectual. Surely, there was a physical attraction as well?
AXEL: … Yes. Yes, there was. I don’t think anyone I have ever met in my life has impressed me as much as that young man did, raised in the north of Norway, worked his body up in the hard labor of a farm; toiled and lifted everything from rocks to haybales all day long. Yes, he was not only a handsome man, he was beautiful. Do you know what I mean? Beautiful. Like a Grecian marble, or one of those athletic statues that make you feel as though your breath has stopped suddenly. His face had such a perfect glow to it, with appealing proportions… oh, I am sure I bore you with this.
AK: No, not at all. Your descriptions of Klaus are downright rhapsodic.
AXEL: … verdammt! …
AK: You’re bleeding – did you break that glass?
AXEL: I apologize. Whenever I think of him, my whole head swims with a kind of milky delirium. Come with me. I’ll wipe this up. Would you hand me that serviette?
AK: I hope it won’t impair your hand for playing piano.
AXEL: I don’t play piano. I sort of worry the keys into submission.
AK: I didn’t realize you were such a Wagner fan.
AXEL: I’m not, really, but they don’t make busts of Franz Lehár. Listen to this —
AK: Perhaps you shouldn’t… you’ll get blood on the keys.
AXEL: Who cares? It’s only ivory from the tusks of elephants, hot-blooded animals whose teeth will soak up my blood as I play this wonderful music – what composer could ask for more?
AK: Beautiful, really. Beautiful. That’s from Gräfin Maritza?
AXEL: … pardon me for stopping so suddenly. No. Gräfin Maritza was written by Emmerich Kálmán. Now what is it you have come all this way to ask me?
AK: What do you think about your publisher going out of business, and now there are no copies of the book to be found?
AXEL (laughing): There is a copy in Germany available for something like 40 Euros! Ha haha! … No, I think it’s probably a sign from the universe that my story should be difficult to be found. …that the books are being burned in the town square in Hamburg or something like that. I think it’s just. Consign them to the flames.
AK: Oh, I hope not. I don’t mean to annoy you: it’s just that you seem to be such an intelligent and fascinating person.
AXEL: Thank you. I am neither.
AK: And I don’t believe your self-deprecation one bit. I think the world needs to see just how you sacrificed what you did, for your country, and… and the man you loved.
AXEL: Let us be perfectly clear. I sacrificed nothing. I did my best to control and destroy those who were out to control and destroy me. I could have controlled a whole pocket of Norway at one time; not as a conqueror, the way the other idiots thought they could, but as a leader. They loved me. I was their friend, their benefactor. I could have been their king or their first consul or God knows what.
AK: Sorry it brings tears to your eyes. That sounds so impossible.
AXEL: Well, there you have it, young man, there you have it. I tried the impossible, and failed miserably. I should have known from the outset that my own folly would land me in ruin. Did it? I ask you to conclude. Did it land me in ruin?
AK: It sounds like the end of the “Lady and the Tiger.”
AXEL: The what?
AK: An American story. At the end of which, the reader is left in doubt as to the outcome, and they’re meant to supplement what’s needed in their own mind to make it a satisfying story.
AXEL: Is that what my tale is to you? A joke? A puzzle? A novelty?
AK: I think some will see it that way.
AXEL: Get out of my house.
AK: Your brandy is superb, Herr Axel.
AXEL: If you run fast enough, what’s left of this glass won’t hit you in the arse on the way out.