Last Week at Marienbad | Lauren Oyler | Granta

Last Week at Marienbad

Lauren Oyler

We went because we thought it would be funny; we came to realize the movie isn’t even really set there. It takes place, if not in the mind, then in a composite setting of several nineteenth-century Central European spa towns, in a sense of vague possibility and in danger of being lost. The misunderstanding was Thom’s fault. He had seen the movie once before, a long time ago; I had not, but I knew I would have to eventually, because it’s one of those movies you have to see. ‘It’s a trip,’ he told me.

Our relationship had recently undergone a series of unlikely transformations, and it was vital to the development of its narrative that we go on a trip. A trip would confirm that we were in a relationship, and that this relationship was not going to remain forever stuck in the past, in a phase of remembering and fighting over what we remembered – over things that had happened, seriously, the previous year. According to the couple clichés, a trip is a new memory you make together. It’s also a test: how moody one of you might become at a setback; how neurotic the other might be about the schedule; how fundamentally incompatible you are suddenly revealed, in an unfamiliar setting, to be. Kafka knew this. When he and his on-again, off-again fiancée Felice Bauer met at Marienbad for ten days in July 1916, they fought the entire time, unable to overcome the ceaseless rain and ‘the hardships of living together. Forced upon us by strangeness, pity, lust, cowardice, vanity, and only deep down, perhaps, a thin little stream worthy of the name of love, impossible to seek out, flashing once in the moment of a moment.’

Neither I nor Thom is anything like Kafka. I would prefer to stay in bed all the time, but I don’t have tuberculosis, or any serious physical ailment, just melancholy and probably a few minor vitamin deficiencies. Thom thinks this is cute and integral to my artistic process. The problem we had was that we both had a lot of work, meaning I would want, or need, to lie down even more than usual, and I didn’t want to go on any more trips. ‘You’ve become one of those people who lives in Berlin and is never there,’ a friend said when I found myself in Italy for the fourth time in a year. I don’t even like Italy. I love Berlin. You can bring golden handcuffs in your carry-on if you upgrade to easyJet Flexi. After what I vowed would be my last distressing international vacation for at least three months, yet another unlikely event required me to go on a cocaine bender across Europe. ‘That’s horrible,’ people would say when I told the story. Truly, it was, and maybe still is.

The idea to visit a fading grand Central European spa town was Thom’s; I suggested Marienbad because its literary reputation for an atmosphere of romantic melancholy and attractiveness to great neurasthenic historical figures appealed. Though others, like Karlsbad or Baden-Baden, are reachable by train from Berlin – a key element of the semi-ironic Central European nostalgia tourist experience – Marienbad overpowers, significance-wise. If I’d known anything about the film, I might have thought the trip too on the nose. But it’s hard to make decisions, and if there’s some arbitrary theme or parameter you can set, it’s easier. We would go to Marienbad and watch the movie, which, as it turns out, is kind of about how it’s hard to make decisions.

On the train from Berlin we had the strange and ultimately prescient feeling that we were too young to be doing this. How was it possible that we had purchased tickets, booked hotel rooms, packed bags? It was as if we were embarking on a mission that we did not fully understand, and perhaps by the end we would only understand that this was precisely why we had been given this mission. We stopped for a night in Pilsen to see where the beer comes from, and the beautiful hotel we stayed in was furnished in comically gigantic proportions. The hallways empty, the grand staircase dark, the functioning of the front desk dependent on a spooky little bell. We felt like naughty orphans or the kids who slept in the Met. We loved all this, of course, in the innocently condescending way of the sophisticated intellectual tourist who, in an era of mass awareness and ease of travel, rarely gets to see something so relatively undiscovered without raising ethical questions. The next morning we departed for the spa.

The word Marienbad is German for ‘Mary’s Bath’. Given that it is located in contemporary western Czechia – which I am still used to calling the Czech Republic, though that also sounds awkward in English – but also in the former Sudetenland, which had a majority German-speaking population until they were expelled and the area repopulated after World War II, Marienbad is not really the town’s name, but it also kind of is. The local thermal spring has been called Marienbad since the Thirty Years War when, legendarily, a soldier healed his wounds there, next to a tree where he’d hung a picture of the Virgin. ‘The implication was that Mary herself took ablutions there,’ David Clay Large writes in The Grand Spas of Central Europe, ‘though doubtlessly not in tandem with the troops.’ The town itself is relatively young, as far as historical European spa towns go, and it has always been primarily a tourist destination, and thus always a bit otherworldly in the sense that it does not give a visitor a sense, however illusory, of the country where it’s located, or of the people who live there. There were no buildings in the area until the late eighteenth century, and the place name was officially recognized in 1810. Then a Czech gardener named Václav Skalník had his way with the landscape, transforming it into what he bragged ‘could have been confused with the Garden of Eden.’ When discussing the trip elsewhere I referred to the town as Marienbad, because pretty much everyone I talk to in my pretentious Berlin expat circle knows the film as well as the desire to make a kind of kitschy train trip to a bygone Central European spa, but when we arrived I called it Mariánské Lázně in what I thought might be a respectful counterbalance to the German visitors. As a practiced sophisticated intellectual tourist, I feared offending the local population by using the German name, but given the entangled history, I haven’t encountered anyone who seems to care. As a Kurort Marienbad is German in nature, and remains popular among German tourists. It was until recently also popular with Russians, but after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the Czech government barred Russians from visiting the country as tourists, which generated mixed reactions among hoteliers and tour operators who were interviewed for a February 2023 New York Times article about the absence of the ruble in Karlsbad/Karlovy Vary and, by implication, the entire West Bohemian Spa Triangle, of which Marienbad is a part.

I didn’t know much about how the history of tourism created linguistic trends in Marienbad before I visited, so I was mostly excited to hear Thom, who is Polish-American, speak Czech, because the languages are similar enough that you can, as he says, ‘speak Polish in a Czech way’ and get by, and vice versa. If you know Polish, he claims, Czech is ‘cute’; I asked another Polish speaker if this is true and she said, ‘Yes, definitely cute.’ I expected that this would be a key facet of the couple-development project. What I did not expect was that we would have to speak German. German is Thom’s fourth language, which means he has some fun with it; he speaks it with what I refer to as a Habsburg accent – though it’s not quite Austrian or southern German, he rolls the r’s exaggeratedly, ups the cadence and often deepens it ironically. I am more demure. No one knows how good I am at German, including me. While I have taken many classes and sound pretty good, I have never ‘used’ my German, by which I mean I have never truly needed to speak German to communicate. This is because I live in Berlin, which is ‘not really Germany’. It’s of course more complicated, but it is also true that most Germans who live in Berlin speak English better than the many, many people who speak German badly. There is just no reason to seek out a German-speaking experience if your reason for living in Germany is not Germanophilia, which is a strange syndrome most people would not admit to having even if they did. But the working languages in Mariánské Lázně are Czech, Russian and German, so if you enjoy little ironies of life in twenty-first-century Europe such as ‘I spoke more German in the Czech Republic – uh, Czechia – than I ever speak in Germany’, it’s a good place to visit.

Lauren Oyler

Lauren Oyler’s essays on books and culture appear regularly in the NewYorker, the NewYork Times, the London Review of Books and Harper’s. Her first novel, Fake Accounts, was shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction. No Judgement, a collection of critical essays, will be published in 2024. She lives in Berlin.

Photograph © Carleen Coulter

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