Sanssouci by Alexandra Gauss

Winner of BOMB’s 2019 Fiction Contest, selected by Renee Gladman.

BOMB 149 Fall 2019
bomb magazine fall 149

Alexandra Gauss.

The way you sometimes enter a house and are drawn to certain rooms because their windows are open and perhaps a wind is rustling the curtains or finches are twittering in a tree outside and you find there’s something about these particular sounds that draw you further into the house rather than back out toward the source—something about the way the sounds take over the structure of the house, reconfigure your senses: now you are in a space built solely for the articulation of rustling. In “Sanssouci,” Alexandra Gauss builds a space solely for the articulation of pebbles skittering across the ground, which is a beguiling and wonderful sensation to experience while reading a story, a story not about pebbles but rather a mother who takes her children to visit a historical site. It’s the extraordinary manner in which the children are described, are made to move and act as one, in a kind of quiet rampage, that creates in me this feeling of pebbles moving in orchestration. The children’s antics propel and accentuate the plot, but also create friction at the surface of the language, drawing attention to the object-ness of words and sentences and allowing the reader to fold sensorially in and out of textual and textural events. “Sanssouci” is at once charming and unnerving, expansive and understated.

—Renee Gladman


The neighbors above us with heavy footsteps—armies traveling through tunnels—and so I took the children—me, sick of flinching over it—through the city to Sanssouci. We drove. I drove. The children in the back singing to the games held in their hands on the iPad, the phone. Little noises. We’re going to the summer palace, I said, Get in the car. No, it’s outside the city, I said. Potsdam. It’s a castle. It’s a city unto itself. It’s a garden.

In the corner of the rearview mirror, I could see them—the children—and behind them, traffic lights we were passing.

Whose palace? Whose? they said. Henry the Terrific? Peter the Giant King of Prussia? A giant? He was very tall, leaning over everyone like a tree.

I’ve always wanted to go to Sanssouci. I’ve dreamed of being in this city and going to Sanssouci. I had been there once before, but while I was there I was not there. How can you not be where you are? But for me I ask, how can I be where I am?

Sanssouci was guarded, I figured on all sides, but for us to enter we had to pass through square parking attendant booths with men in uniforms and red signs that start: Achtung!

These fences and these thick trees that act as fences left us making a circle around the parking lot on foot—us, trying to find the entranceway to the park, the garden, the palace; the children trying to make words out of the letters and numbers on license plates sitting in the lot.

My children are nice and pleasant. They like to try to make each other laugh, though lately this is more and more rarely successful. Sometimes they hit each other, strike one another over the head, retaliate with a scream, sometimes they bite each other, and when I tuck them in at night, I see the marks left in their arms.

My children are nice, though once we saw where to exit the parking lot and enter into the gardens, they ran up ahead, calling after each other, going to inspect the trees, and they left me to walk on the path by myself, and they’re running out of sight now, I quickly no longer see them, but I figure they will keep their eyes on me. Time and time again, as we travel or go around, I’ve told them to always keep their eyes fixed on me, and then they are free to roam as they like. And so they do this pretty well.

Sanssouci is better than I had remembered. I had remembered only small details. A green tea house, for instance. But I had pictured, wrongly, a piano inside, and guards in period costumes with pearl encrusted sticks and grenadier caps goose-stepping for visitors. There were follies along the hills last time, and a horse and carriage waiting at the entranceway of a path in front of a pond that reflected a tower in the distance, and the sky.

Last time, the follies here were so extravagant, made of gold and careful stone, to represent values of that century—classical proportions and sacred geometry—and of the golden spiral; a cognitive compass of the tender plight that is possible to reach one’s mind, and of the reach it makes.

This time one of the follies curves and bends dramatically, as if top heavy. A tall, leaning tower. I figured if they were worried about it falling down there would be scaffolding to hold it up.

Sometimes follies are made somewhat imprecisely—not here—with materials that are meant to represent rustic or rural life. They’ll look a little bit like mills or cottages. Some were built as poor relief during famines to make starving people build meaningless buildings in the middle of an empty moor or to carve out roads to nowhere that fail—or don’t—to meet at any point in the middle.

And something about these people, tired, starving, standing in an empty field, their backs against a thick, endless sky, and an endless field, and a meaningless building, a road.

Sanssouci is the former summer palace of Frederick the Great King of Prussia. Rolling my ankle around, I lean against and read about it on a plaque, half in English. His Prussian troops were really disciplined, and they won the Silesian Wars with strategic planning and sustained pressure and force, I read (I’m paraphrasing). He reorganized them. They dimmed the empire of two neighboring enemies.

Strange enough, standing in Sanssouci, I still feel the heaving breath of the city on me. That heavy city nearby. As if gathering—what?—slipping down to it.

I seem to remember something else about Frederick the Great—that he was a flautist and would have Bach here at the palace, or Bach wrote a composition for him to be performed here at the palace, or there was something about Bach. It seems I cannot remember after all.

There is something slipping down the walls of Sanssouci into the city nearby.

Gilded walls? Green tea–colored walls? And they have Frederick the Great speaking in the plaque in first person: I am a formidable battle commander, instilling discipline, and leading the way to victory.

His troops kept their eyes fixed on the flag of the empire when they marched through the fields into battle to make them feel brave, to remind them their lives have meaning; and their death, too, is important.

Frederick is in the plaque and there he is in the hall, decentered to the left, standing in fluctuating chills. They say he haunts. He said the palace would die with him. Does he—or maybe, did he—feel the city here as I do?

Sanssouci means “without care.” Frederick the Great used the palace as a refuge from the city, from his cares.

Frederick, in fact, is not really in the hall. It’s more that, with all this talk of him, his voice embodied in the plaque’s narrative, his absence is present. And that is what I’m seeing, feeling.

My children have come through the door to join me in one of the ten rooms of the palace. They are playing with one of the guards dressed up in a costume—so, I see, the guards are here this time after all. This one is not goose-stepping for anybody though.

I reach for my phone and take a picture of them. First a candid shot, and then, once the guard saw that I had a camera, a posed one, with everyone’s attention, fixed. 

There is something very solemn about the picture—my children with the guard—and I decide I don’t like it. I don’t delete it but just decide not to look at it and I put my phone away.

There is an interior door painted a soft rose color and I head for it. My children are biting each other in the corner of the room and I hear one of them let out a scream behind me. The guard is expecting me to do something, but once he sees that I’ve left the room, he scolds them and they know enough of the language to understand him.

My legs begin to hurt in a way I cannot bear, and I look for a place to sit. I remember some benches outside near the edge of the gardens and so I leave the palace and sit down there, crossing my ankles, not my legs.

I give in to a decadence here. The gardens are sprawling all around me, as if they extend beyond where I know they stop. Here, now, I feel they reach all the way into the city, touching it, and the city in turn is undone by it. All its metropolitan modules and organization undulates into something else. Some tender chaos erupting.

Sight. Touch. And what did those starving people have to keep their sight fixed upon on the moors?

It was all done for poor relief.

Obviously no one believed in charity. In love.

I imagine there is at least one instance where they just shot everybody on the moor that day.

I don’t see my children anywhere for a while, though I know they are nearby, and they will soon come out of the palace—if they didn’t take the other exit—and find me on the bench outside.

Sure enough, a little later, they are playing a game on the iPad, one watching over the other’s shoulder not far from where I’m sitting. They must have taken the other exit.

There is something that doesn’t add up: Frederick the Great taking his troops across the fields into battle and the Rococo of this palace—the tea-green walls, the rose-colored door, all the surfaces as though made of lace.

My children, though I haven’t moved a muscle except to look up with the sun on my face, take sight of me. They laugh because they thought I had gotten lost. They hold up the iPad and take my picture. I hear the synthetic camera shutter sound. And then one of them is popping out of some of the bushes behind me with the phone, taking my picture, as if they are playing paparazzi. I feign: “no pictures, please” and put my hand up to block my face, but actually, in all honesty, I don’t want any pictures. They surround me and snap every part of me with the camera—my foot, my ankles crossed, my shoulder, one puts the phone up into my hair, as if to take a picture of my brain. Here, look over here, they say. Gorgeous, they say. Who are you wearing tonight?, repeating what they’ve seen on tv. Oh, we’ll touch this one up, they say looking at it, Oh, we’ll touch it up, don’t worry. You look great.

They sound very professional.

I get up to walk down the path and tell them it’s getting late and do they want to see anything else or should we go? They can tell they are bothering me with the cameras, and they get some kind of pleasure out of bothering me, so they take more and more pictures as I’m walking. They run up ahead of me and hide behind whatever they can—the hedges or a statue—and pop out. They pick some of the roses and hold them up in order to disguise the iPad, the phone. I get the impression that they are playing with the effects, making me look weird or funny. I think most of the photos must just be close ups of the petals of roses they are holding up. They say they’re getting good ones.

We come through an opening in the hedges, into a semi-enclosed, semi-circle garden with a pond in the middle and a reclining nude statue in the middle of the pond. I enter through the arch in the hedges and begin to take a stroll around the perimeter. Across the pond, an army of guards dressed in costumes comes marching through in formation, entering in through the hedges, the reclining statue between us. My children go wild and start to cheer. One of the guards blows a brass horn for their amusement, very loud. And my children stand there beaming at the whole scene: the statue, the guards behind, me—mid-flinch—as their rose-shaped cameras point at us.

Alexandra Gauss is a writer originally from Texas. She received an MFA from Brown University, and her work is forthcoming in diagram. She lives in Rhode Island.

Renee Gladman is the author of twelve books. Her cycle of novels set in the invented city-state of Ravicka—Event Factory (2010), The Ravickians (2011), Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (2013), and Houses of Ravicka (2017)—are all available from Dorothy, a publishing project. Calamities (Wave Books, 2016) is a collection of linked essays on writing and community. Prose Architectures (Wave Books, 2017) is her first monograph of drawings. Morelia (Solid Objects, 2019), a novel, is her latest.

Two Stories by Diane Williams
Announcing the Winner of BOMB’s 2021 Fiction Contest
Author photo of Edward Salem, who has a beard and short hair. He is wearing a shirt open at the color and is standing in front of a gray wooden fence.

Congrats to Edward Salem, the winner of this year’s Fiction Contest!

The Approach by Michael Baptist
The Approach Mockup

At the appointed time, the team members left their rooms and followed Phillip’s directions. They walked down the hallway and up the stairs to a room at the end of the corridor.

Self-Preservation by Margaret Malone
A green, yellow, and brown engraving of ferns and other plants looking especially curly and sensual, reaching for the sky.

A mother on getting acquainted with her postpartum libido.

Originally published in

BOMB 149, Fall 2019

Featuring interviews with Korakrit Arunanondchai, Antoine Catala and Dan Graham, Atelier Bow-Wow, American Artist, Jeff Bliumis, James N. Kienitz Wilkins, Rion Amilcar Scott, and Carmen Giménez Smith.

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bomb magazine fall 149