peter mclachlin (peter_mclachlin) wrote,
peter mclachlin

more from handke's memoir of his mother

Shortly before I was born, my mother married a German army sergeant, who had been COURTING her for some time and didn't mind her having a child by someone else. "It's this one or none!" he had decided the first time he laid eyes on her, and bet his buddies that he would get her or, conversely, that she would take him. She found him repulsive, but everyone harped on her duty (to give the child a father); for the first time in her life she let herself be intimidated and laughed rather less. Besides, it impressed her that someone should have taken a shine to her.

"Anyway, I figured he'd be killed in the war," she told me. "But then all of a sudden I started worrying about him."

In any case, she was now entitled to a family allotment. With the child she went to Berlin to stay with her husband's parents. They tolerated her. When the first bombs fell, she went back home—the old story. She began to laugh again, sometimes so loudly that everyone cringed.

She forgot her husband, squeezed her child so hard that it cried, and kept to herself in this house where, after the death of her brothers, those who remained looked uncomprehendingly through one another. Was there, then, nothing more? Had that been all? Masses for the dead, childhood diseases, drawn curtains, corre­spondence with old acquaintances of carefree days, making herself useful in the kitchen and in the fields, running out now and then to move the child into the shade; then, even here in the country, air-raid sirens, the population scrambling into the cave shelters, the first bomb crater, later used for children's games and as a garbage dump.

The days were haunted, and once again the outside world, which years of daily contact had wrested from the nightmares of childhood and made familiar, became an impalpable ghost.

My mother looked on in wide-eyed astonishment. Fear didn't get the better of her; but sometimes, infected by the general fright, she would burst into a sudden laugh, partly because she was ashamed that her body had suddenly made itself so churlishly independent. In her childhood and even more so in her young girlhood, "Aren't you ashamed?" or "You ought to be ashamed!" had rung in her ears like a litany. In this rural, Catholic environ­ment, any suggestion that a woman might have a life of her own was an impertinence: disapproving looks, until shame, at first acted out in fun, became real and frightened away the most elementary feelings. Even in joy, a "woman's blush," because joy was something to be ashamed of; in sadness, she turned red rather than pale and instead of bursting into tears broke out in sweat.

In the city my mother had thought she had found a way of life that more or less suited her, that at least made her feel good. Now she came to realize that by excluding every other alternative, other people's way of life had set itself up as the one and only hope of salvation. When, in speaking of herself, she went beyond a state­ment of fact, she was silenced by a glance.

A bit of gaiety, a dance step while working, the humming of a song hit, were foolishness, and soon she herself thought so, because no one reacted and she was left alone with her gaiety. In part, the others lived their own lives as an example; they ate so little as an example, were silent in each other's presence as an example, and went to confession only to remind the stay-at-homes of their sins. And so she was starved. Her little attempts to explain herself were futile mutterings. She felt free—but there was nothing she could do about it. The others, to be sure, were children; but it was oppressive to be looked at so reproachfully, especially by children.

When the war was over, my mother remembered her husband and, though no one had asked for her, went to Berlin. Her husband, who had also forgotten that he had once courted her on a bet, was living with a girl friend in Berlin; after all, there had been a war on.

But she had her child with her, and without enthusiasm they both took the path of duty.

They lived in a sublet room in Berlin-Pankow. The husband worked as a streetcar motorman and drank, worked as a streetcar conductor and drank, worked as a baker and drank. Taking with her her second child, who had been born in the meantime, his wife went to see his employer and begged him to give her husband one more chance, the old story.

In this life of misery, my mother lost her country-round cheeks and achieved a certain chic. She carried her head high and acquired a graceful walk. Whatever she put on was becoming to her. She had no need of fox furs. When her husband sobered up and clung to her and told her he loved her, she gave him a merciful, pitying smile. By then, she had no illusions about anything.

They went out a good deal, an attractive couple. When he was drunk, he got FRESH and she had to be SEVERE with him. Then he would beat her because she had nothing to say to him, when it was he who brought home the bacon.

Without his knowledge, she gave herself an abortion with a knitting needle.

For a time he lived with his parents; then they sent him back to her. Childhood memories: the fresh bread that he sometimes brought home; the black, fatty loaves of pumpernickel around which the dismal room blossomed into life; my mother's words of praise.

In general, these memories are inhabited more by things than by people: a dancing top in a deserted street amid ruins, oat flakes in a sugar spoon, gray mucus in a tin spittoon with a Russian trademark; of people, only separated parts: hair, cheeks, knotted scars on fingers; from her childhood days my mother had a swollen scar on her index finger; I held on to it when I walked beside her.


* * *


And so she was nothing and never would be anything; it was so obvious that there was no need of a forecast. She already said "in my day," though she was not yet thirty. Until then, she hadn't resigned herself, but now life became so hard that for the first time she had to listen to reason. She listened to reason, but understood nothing.

She had already begun to work something out and even, as far as possible, to live accordingly. She said to herself: "Be sensible"—the reason reflex—and "All right, I'll behave."

And so she budgeted herself and also learned to budget people and objects, though on that score there was little to be learned: the people in her life—her husband, whom she couldn't talk to, and her children, whom she couldn't yet talk to—hardly counted, and objects were available only in minimal quantities. Consequently, she became petty and niggardly: Sunday shoes were not to be worn on weekdays, street clothes were to be hung up as soon as you got home, her shopping bag wasn't a toy, the warm bread was for the next day. (Later on, my confirmation watch was locked up right after my confirmation.)

Because she was helpless, she disciplined herself, which went against her grain and made her touchy. She hid her touchiness behind an anxious, exaggerated dignity, but at the slightest provo­cation a defenseless, panic-stricken look shone through. She was easily humiliated.

Like her father, she thought the time had come to deny herself everything, but then with a shamefaced laugh she would ask the children to let her lick their candy.

The neighbors liked her and admired her for her Austrian sociability and gaiety; they thought her FRANK and SIMPLE, not coquettish and affected like city people; there was no fault to be found with her.

She also got on well with the Russians, because she could make herself understood in Slovenian. With them she talked and talked, saying everything she was able to say in the words common to both languages; that unburdened her.

But she never had any desire for an affair. Her heart had grown heavy too soon: the shame that had always been preached at her and finally become a part of her. An affair, to her mind, could only mean someone "wanting something" of her, and that put her off; she, after all, didn't want anything of anybody. The men she later liked to be with were GENTLEMEN: their company gave her a pleasant feeling that took the place of affection. As long as there was someone to talk with, she felt relaxed and almost happy. She let no one come too close; she could have been approached only with the delicacy which in former days had enabled her to feel that she belonged to herself—but that was long ago; she remembered it only in her dreams.

She became sexless; everything went into the trivia of daily life.

She wasn't lonely; at most, she sensed that she was only a half. But there was no one to supply the other half. "We rounded each other out so well," she said, thinking back on her days with the savings-bank clerk; that was her ideal of eternal love.



* * *


The postwar period; the big city—in this city, city life was no longer possible. You took shortcuts, up hill and down dale through the rubble, to get there sooner, but even so you found yourself at the end of a long line, jostled by fellow citizens who had ceased to be anything more than elbows and eyes looking into space. A short, unhappy laugh; like the rest of them, you looked away from yourself, into space; like the rest of them, you gave yourself away, showed that you needed something; still, you tried to assert yourself; pathetic, because that made you just like the people around you: something pushing and pushed, shoving and shoved, cursing and cursed at. In her new situation, her mouth, which up until then had been open at least occasionally—in youthful amaze­ment (or in feminine acting-as-if), in rural fright, at the end of a daydream that lightened her heavy heart—was kept closed with exaggerated firmness, as a sign of adaptation to a universal deter­mination which, because there was so little to be personally deter­mined about, could never be more than a pretense.

A masklike face—not rigid as a mask but with a masklike immobility—a disguised voice, which for fear of attracting atten­tion not only spoke the foreign dialect but mimicked the foreign turns of phrase—"Mud in your eye!"—"Keep your paws off that!"—"You're sure shoveling it in today!"—a copied posture, with a bend at the hips and one foot thrust forward . . . all this in order to become, not a different person, but a TYPE: to change from a prewar type to a postwar type, from a country bumpkin to a city person, adequately described in the words: TALL, SLIM, DARK-HAIRED.

In thus becoming a type, she felt freed from her own history, because now she saw herself through the eyes of a stranger making an erotic appraisal.

And so an emotional life that never had a chance of achieving bourgeois composure acquired a superficial stability by clumsily imitating the bourgeois system of emotional relations, prevalent especially among women, the system in which "So-and-so is my type but I'm not his," or "I'm his but he's not mine," or in which "We're made for each other" or "can't stand the sight of each other"—in which clichés are taken as binding rules and any individual reaction, which takes some account of an actual person, becomes a deviation. For instance, my mother would say of my father; "Actu­ally, he wasn't my type." And so this typology became a guide to life; it gave you a pleasantly objective feeling about yourself; you stopped worrying about your origins, your possibly dandruff-ridden, sweaty-footed individuality, or the daily renewed problem of how to go on living; being a type relieved the human molecule of his humiliating loneliness and isolation; he lost himself, yet now and then he was somebody, if only briefly.

Once you became a type, you floated through the streets, buoyed up by all the things you could pass with indifference, repelled by everything which, in forcing you to stop, brought you back bothersomely to yourself. the lines outside the shops, a high bridge across the Spree, a shop window with baby carriages in it. (She had given herself another secret abortion.) Always on the move to get away from yourself and keep your peace of mind. Motto: "Today I won't think of anything; today I'll enjoy myself."

At times it worked and everything personal was swallowed up by the typical. Then even sadness was only a passing phase, a suspension of good cheer: "Forsaken, forsaken,/Like a pebble in the street,/That's how forsaken I am"; with the foolproof melancholy of this phony folk song, she contributed her share to the general merriment; the next item on the program might, for instance, be the ribald tone of a male voice getting ready to tell a joke. And then, with a sense of release, you could join in the laughter.

At home, of course, she was alone with the FOUR WALLS; some of the bounce was still there, a hummed tune, a dance step while taking off her shoes, a brief desire to jump out of her skin. And then she was dragging herself around the room again, from hus­band to child, from child to husband, from one thing to another.

Her calculations always went wrong; the little bourgeois recipes for salvation had stopped working, because in actual fact her living conditions—the one-room apartment, the constant worry about where the next meal was coming from, the fact that communica­tion with her LIFE COMPANION was confined almost exclusively to gestures, involuntary mimicry, and embarrassed sexual intercourse—were actually prebourgeois. It was only by leaving the house that she could get anything at all out of life. Outside: the victor type; inside: the weaker half, the eternal loser! What a life!

Whenever she told me about it later on—and telling about it was a need with her—she would shake with disgust and misery, but too feebly to shake them off; her shudders only revived her horror.

From my childhood: ridiculous sobs in the toilet, nose blowing, inflamed eyes. She was; she became; she became nothing.


* * *


 (Of course what is written here about a particular person is rather general; but only such generalizations, in explicit disregard of my mother as a possibly unique protagonist in a possibly unique story, can be of interest to anyone but myself. Merely to relate the vicissitudes of a life that came to a sudden end would be pure presumption.

(The danger of all these abstractions and formulations is of course that they tend to become independent. When that happens, the individual that gave rise to them is forgotten—like images in a dream, phrases and sentences enter into a chain reaction, and the result is a literary ritual in which an individual life ceases to be anything more than a pretext.

(These two dangers—the danger of merely telling what hap­pened and the danger of a human individual becoming painlessly submerged in poetic sentences—have slowed down my writing, because in every sentence I am afraid of losing my balance. This is true of every literary effort, but especially in this case, where the facts are so overwhelming that there is hardly anything to think out.

(Consequently, I first took the facts as my starting point and looked for ways of formulating them. But I soon noticed that in looking for formulations I was moving away from the facts. I then adopted a new approach—starting not with the facts but with the already available formulations, the linguistic deposit of man's so­cial experience. From my mother's life, I sifted out the elements that were already foreseen in these formulas, for only with the help of a ready-made public language was it possible to single out from among all the irrelevant facts of this life the few that cried out to be made public.

(Accordingly, I compare, sentence by sentence, the stock of formulas applicable to the biography of a woman with my moth­er's particular life; the actual work of writing follows from the agreements and contradictions between them. The essential is to avoid mere quotations; even when sentences look quoted, they must never allow one to forget that they deal with someone who to my mind at least is distinct. Only then, only if a sentence is firmly and circumspectly centered on my personal or, if you will, private subject, do I feel that I can use it.

(Another specific feature of this story is that I do not, as is usually the case, let every sentence carry me further away from the inner life of my characters, so as finally, in a liberated and serene holiday mood, to look at them from outside as isolated insects. Rather, I try with unbending earnestness to penetrate my char­acter. And because I cannot fully capture her in any sentence, I keep having to start from scratch and never arrive at the usual sharp and clear bird's-eye view.

(Ordinarily, I start with myself and my own headaches; in the course of my writing, I detach myself from them more and more, and then in the end I ship myself and my headaches off to market as a commodity—but in this case, since I am only a writer and can't take the role of the person written about, such detachment is impossi­ble. I can only move myself into the distance; my mother can never become for me, as I can for myself, a wingèd art object flying serenely through the air. She refuses to be isolated and remains unfathomable; my sentences crash in the darkness and lie scattered on the paper.

(In stories we often read that something or other is "unnameable" or "indescribable"; ordinarily this strikes me as a cheap excuse. This story, however, is really about the nameless, about speechless moments of terror. It is about moments when the mind boggles with horror, states of fear so brief that speech always comes too late; about dream happenings so gruesome that the mind perceives them physically as worms. The blood curdles, the breath catches, "a cold chill crept up my back, my hair stood on end"—states experienced while listening to a ghost story, while turning on a water faucet that you can quickly turn off again, on the street in the evening with a beer bottle in one hand; in short, it is a record of states, not a well-rounded story with an anticipated, hence comforting, end.

(At best, I am able to capture my mother's story for brief moments in dreams, because then her feelings become so palpable that I experience them as doubles and am identical with them; but these are precisely the moments I have already mentioned, in which extreme need to communicate coincides with extreme speech­lessness. That is why I affect the usual biographical pattern and write: "At that time ... later," "Because ... although," "was ... became ... became nothing," hoping in this way to domi­nate the horror. That, perhaps, is the comical part of my story.)


* * *


In the early summer of 1948, my mother left the eastern sector of Germany with her husband and two children, carrying the little girl, who was just a year old, in a shopping bag. They had no papers. They crossed two borders illegally, both in the gray of dawn; once a Russian border guard shouted "Halt," and my mother's answer in Slovenian served as a password; those days became fixed in the boy's mind as a triad of gray dawn, whispers, and danger. Happy excitement on the train ride through Austria, and then she was back in the house where she was born, where two small rooms were turned over to her and her family. Her husband was employed as foreman by her carpenter brother; she herself was reincorporated into the household.

In the city she had not been proud of having children; here she was, and often showed herself with them. She no longer took any nonsense from anyone. In the old days her only reaction had been a bit of back talk; now she laughed. She could laugh anyone to silence. Her husband, in particular, got laughed at so vigorously whenever he started discussing his numerous projects that he soon faltered and looked vacantly out the window. True, he would start in again the next day. (That period lives for me in the sound of my mother laughing at people!) She also interrupted the children with her laughter when they wanted something; it was ridiculous to express desires in earnest. In the meantime, she brought her third child into the world.

She took to the native dialect again, though of course only in fun: she was a woman who had been ABROAD. Almost all her old girl friends had by then returned to their native village; they had made only brief excursions to the city or across the borders.

In this life, confined almost entirely to housekeeping and mak­ing ends meet, you didn't confide in your friends; at the most, friendship meant familiarity. It was plain from the start that all had the same troubles—the only difference was that some took them more lightly than others, a matter of temperament.

In this section of the population, people without troubles were an oddity—freaks. Drunks didn't get talkative, only more taci­turn; they might bellow or brawl for a while, but then they sank back into themselves, until at closing time they would start sobbing for no known reason and hug or thrash whoever was nearest to them.

No one had anything to say about himself, even in church, at Easter confession, when at least once a year there was an opportu­nity to reveal something of oneself, there was only a mumbling of catchwords out of the catechism, and the word "I" seemed stranger to the speaker himself than a chunk out of the moon. If in talking about himself anyone went beyond relating some droll incident, he was said to be "peculiar." Personal life, if it had ever developed a character of its own, was depersonalized except for dream tatters swallowed up by the rites of religion, custom, and good manners; little remained of the human individual, and indeed, the word "individual" was known only in pejorative combinations.

The sorrowful Rosary; the glorious Rosary; the harvest festival; the plebiscite celebration; ladies' choice; the drinking of brother­hood; April Fools' pranks; wakes; kisses on New Year's Eve: in these rituals all private sorrow, ambition, hunger for communication, sense of the unique, wanderlust, sexual drive, and in general all reactions to a lopsided world in which the roles were reversed, were projected outward, so that no one was a problem to himself.

All spontaneity—taking a walk on a weekday, falling in love a second time, or, if you were a woman, going to the tavern by yourself for a schnapps—was frowned upon; in a pinch you could ask someone to dance or join in a song "spontaneously," but that was all. Cheated out of your own biography and feelings, you became "skittish"; you shied away from people, stopped talking, or, more seriously touched, went from house to house screaming.

The above-mentioned rites then functioned as a consolation. This consolation didn't address itself to you as a person; it simply swallowed you up, so that in the end you as an individual were content to be nothing, or at least nothing much.

You lost interest in personal matters and stopped inquiring about them. All questions became empty phrases, and the answers were so stereotyped that there was no need to involve people in them; objects sufficed; the cool grave, the sweet heart of Jesus, the sweet lady of Sorrows, became fetishes for the death wish that sweetened your daily afflictions; in the midst of these consoling fetishes, you ceased to exist. And because your days were spent in unchanging association with the same things, they became sacred to you; not leisure but work was sweet. Besides, there was nothing else.

You no longer had eyes for anything. "Curiosity" ceased to be a human characteristic and became a womanish vice.

But my mother was curious by nature and had no consoling fetishes. Instead of losing herself in her work, she took it in her stride; consequently she was discontented. The Weltschmerz of the Catholic religion was alien to her; she believed only in happiness in this world, and that was a matter of luck; she herself had had bad luck.

She'd show them, though.

But how?

How she would have loved to be really frivolous! And then she actually did something frivolous: "I've been frivolous today, I've bought myself a blouse." All the same—and that was a good deal in those surroundings—she took to smoking and even smoked in public.

Many of the local women were secret drinkers; their thick, twisted lips repelled her: that wasn't the way to show them. At the most she would get tipsy, and then she would drink to lifelong friendship with everyone in sight, and soon she was on friendly terms with all the younger notables. Even in this little village there was a kind of "society," consisting of the few who were somewhat better off than the rest, and she was welcome in their gatherings. Once, disguised as a Roman matron, she won first prize at a masked ball. At least in its merrymaking, country society thought of itself as classless as long as you were NEAT, CLEAN, and JOLLY.


* * *


At home she was "Mother"; even her husband addressed her as "Mother" more often than by her first name. That was all right with her; for one thing, it corresponded to her feeling about her husband: she had never regarded him as anything resembling a sweetheart.

Now it was she who saved. Her saving, to be sure, could not, like her father's, mean setting money aside. It was pure scrimping; you curtailed your needs to the point where they became vices, and then you curtailed them some more.

But even in this wretchedly narrow sphere, she comforted herself with the thought that she was at least imitating the pattern of middle-class life: ludicrous as it might seem, it was still possible to classify purchases as necessary, merely useful, and luxurious.

Only food was necessary; winter fuel was useful; everything else was a luxury.

If only once a week, she derived a pleasurable feeling of pride from the fact that a little something was left over for luxury. "We're still better off than the rest of them."

She indulged in the following luxuries: a seat in the ninth row at the movies, followed by a glass of wine and soda water; a one- or two-schilling bar of Bensdorp chocolate to give the children the next morning; once a year, a bottle of homemade eggnog; on occasional winter Sundays she would whip up the cream she had saved during the week by keeping the milk pot between the two panes of the double windows overnight. "What a feast!" I would write if it were my own story; but it was only the slavish aping of an unattainable life-style, a child's game of earthly paradise.

Christmas: necessities were packaged as presents. We surprised each other with such necessities as underwear, stockings, and handkerchiefs, and the beneficiary said he had WISHED for just that! We pretended that just about everything that was given to us, except food, was a present; I was sincerely grateful for the most indispensable school materials and spread them out beside my bed like presents.


* * *


A budgeted life, determined by the hourly wages she toted up for her husband, always hoping to discover a forgotten half hour; dread of rainy spells, when the wages were next to nothing, which he passed in their little room talking to her or looking resentfully out the window.

In the winter, when there was no building, her husband spent his unemployment benefits on drink. She went from tavern to tavern looking for him; with gleeful malice, he would show her what was left. She ducked to avoid his blows. She stopped talking to him. The children, repelled and frightened by her silence, clung to their contrite father. Witch! The children looked at her with hostility; she was so stern and unbending. They slept with pound­ing hearts when their parents were out and pulled the blanket over their heads when toward morning the husband pushed the wife into the room. At every step she stopped until he pushed her. Both were obstinately mute. Then finally she opened her mouth and said what he had been waiting to hear: "You beast! You beast!" whereupon he was able to beat her in earnest. To every blow she responded with a short, crushing laugh.

They seldom looked at each other except in these moments of open hatred; then they looked deep and unflinchingly into each other's eyes, he from below, she from above. The children under the blanket heard only the shoving and breathing, and occasionally the rattling of dishes in the cupboard. Next morning they made their own breakfast while husband and wife lay in bed, he dead to the world, she with her eyes closed, pretending to be asleep. (Undoubtedly, this kind of account seems copied, borrowed from accounts of other incidents; an old story interchangeable with other old stories; unrelated to the time when it took place; in short, it smacks of the nineteenth century. But just that seems necessary, for, at least in that part of the world and under the given economic conditions, such anachronistic, interchangeable nineteenth-century happenings were still the rule. And even today the Town Hall bulletin board is taken up almost entirely by notices to the effect that So-and-so and So-and-so are forbidden to enter the taverns.)


* * *


She never ran away. She had learned her place. "I'm only waiting for the children to grow up." A third abortion, this time followed by a severe hemorrhage. Shortly before she was forty, she became pregnant again. An abortion was no longer possible; the child was born.


The word "poverty" was a fine, somehow noble word. It evoked an image out of old schoolbooks: poor but clean. Cleanliness made the poor socially acceptable. Social progress meant teaching people to be clean; once the indigent had been cleaned up, "poverty" became a title of honor. Even in the eyes of the poor, the squalor of destitution applied only to the filthy riffraff of foreign countries.

"The tenant's visiting card is his windowpane."

And so the have-nots obediently bought soap with the money provided for that purpose by the progressive authorities. As pau­pers, they had shocked the official mind with repulsive, but for that very reason palpable, images; now, as a reclaimed and cleansed "poorer class," their life became so unimaginably abstract that they could be forgotten. Squalid misery can be described in concrete terms; poverty can only be intimated in symbols.

Moreover, the graphic accounts of squalor were concerned only with its physically disgusting aspect; they produced disgust by the relish they took in it, so that disgust, instead of being translated into action, merely became a reminder of the anal, shit-eating phase.

In certain households, for instance, there was only one bowl; at night it was used as a chamberpot and by day for kneading bread dough. Undoubtedly the bowl was washed out with boiling water in between, so there was little harm done; the dual use of the bowl became disgusting only when it was described: "They relieve themselves in the same bowl they eat out of. "—"Ugh!" Words convey this sort of passive, complacent disgust much better than the sight of the phenomena they refer to. (A memory of my own: shuddering while describing spots of egg yolk on a dressing gown.) Hence my distaste for descriptions of misery; for in hygienic, but equally miserable, poverty, there is nothing to describe.

Accordingly, when the word "poverty" comes up, I always think: "once upon a time"; and, for the most part, one hears it in the mouth of persons who have gone through it in the past, a word connected with childhood; not "I was poor" but "I was the child of poor parents" (Maurice Chevalier): a quaint note to season memoirs with. But at the thought of my mother's living conditions, I am unable to embroider on my memory. From the first, she was under pressure to keep up the forms: in country schools, the subject most stressed for girls was called "the outward form and appearance of written work"; in later life, this found its continuation in a woman's obligation to keep up the appearance of a united family; not cheerful poverty but formally perfect squalor; and gradually, in its daily effort to keep up appearances, her face lost its soul.

Maybe we would have felt better in formless squalor; we might have achieved a degree of proletarian class-consciousness. But in that part of the world there was no proletariat, at most, beggars and tramps; no one fought or even talked back; the totally desti­tute were merely embarrassed; poverty was indeed a disgrace.


Tags: a sorrow beyond dreams, austrian literature, essays & reportage, excerpts & quotations, german literature, peter handke

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