A Country Confidence Trickster
Having headed up the Danube out of fear of the Asiatic flu, we had arrived in the Grein area, where, taking advantage of the sudden respite, the two of us made very great strides in our work because, being both of a very highly disciplined bent, we were able to embark on the conclusion of our study entitled Sylviacultura oeconomica II. At first our eye was caught by an inn on the riverbank, an inn that was larger, mightier, than any other we had ever seen, but that one turned out not to be not at all suitable for us, because we could not but presume that a large crowd of people would show up there each and every day and make a great deal of noise, especially in the evenings, when we are customarily thinking with the utmost concentration, to say nothing whatsoever of the interval between nine and one, which throughout our lives has always been highly precious to us. In point of fact the very moment we stepped into the inn’s front-lawn orchard, an enclosure that positively exhilarated us in its epitomization of artistic and economic discretion, we immediately got the impression that here, although certainly not there, there would always be people to disturb us, but we did not turn around and leave the orchard forthwith to go in search of alternative lodgings, of which there were plenty; rather, we stepped into the inn, into a vaulted foyer, into a spotless kitchen, into a pantry chock full of foodstuffs and potables. As our calls as to whether anyone was at home were met with silence, we stepped back outside into the orchard, from which we could see two men in blue overalls busying themselves at the edge of a stream with boundary stones. Immediately behind the two men stood a young man who was easy to identify as a surveyor. All surveyors look the same. He stood there and observed the two men whom he had condemned to absolute precision. We made ourselves noticed and we were informed by the man himself that the older of the two surveyor’s assistants was the landlord. The surveyor announced that he was a surveyor, but we did not say what our occupation was, because it is too unusual, but merely that we were seeking lodgings, “ideal, but not expensive ones,” I said, naturally forbearing to mention that we had left the capital for the Strudengau on account of the Asiatic flu; we also took pains to divert attention from our anxiousness, our circumspection in the presence of other people, in the presence of the possibility of illness, in any case we took pains to seem uncomplicated, which is important in the country; you can never get anything done otherwise. A quiet inn for one or two weeks, ideal working conditions, I said, we had, I said, almost already completed a study, a rather lengthy text on Byssus. The surveyor was one of those supercilious small-town natives one often encounters in the country, parochial even in his choice of clothing; the few words he said confirmed our judgment: that he was narrow-minded, petty, etc…The landlord made an excellent first impression, as did his coworker, an odd-job man from the village, as I have learned today. The surveyor said Oswald to him. The landlord said that his inn was quiet, that the food was good. But as he was saying that his inn was quiet, we both got the impression that in reality it was anything but quiet; when he said the food was good we got the impression that we had reason to doubt that it was. Over time, as we were conversing with the three of them, for we also included the surveyor in the conversation, conversing about the landscape, with which they are all intimately acquainted, as we immediately realized, even though it is also a complete mystery to them, as by the same token they were complete strangers to us even though they were also completely familiar to us, conversing about the countryside, the people, the weather, as one always does and thus conversing in a manner that is naturally ridiculous but also useful, we felt ourselves developing an ever-increasing aversion to the landlord, and also an aversion to Oswald the odd-job man, and an even greater aversion to the surveyor. We saw that the three of them were perfect examples of the class of people we abhor the most: men who are full-time urinal philosophers, face-pullers, procreators; sacrificial victims of an idyll fed exclusively by dim-wittedness. We said that we were enthralled by the peculiarity of the region’s geology, vegetation, etc., and that we knew a thing or two about trees and plants, about the composition of every possible type of air. A person could, I said, take a strong lifelong interest in the exploration of nature in its unblemished integrity, its internal as well as its external integrity. The three men may have stopped working and started listening; I explained why and for what reasons the two of us thought of nature as a musical score. Explained that to peruse this score day in and day out was a habit, a passion for us. That sickness would have been a better word for it. But the three of them understood none of it. They were living in the midst of nature and for that reason they did not understand it, etc….finally I realized that it was pointless to keep speaking about something that is actually inexplicable; that is the truth, and I said that there was nobody indoors at the inn. That it was vexing and awful to step into an inn thirsty and hungry and to find nobody there to serve you straight-away. It was really quite remarkable, I said, to leave an inn like this one completely unlocked, unattended, with all the doors and windows open, I said, but the landlord retorted that his wife was in the house, and that the barmaid was as well. Probably both of them were having a bath and weren’t answering anybody because they were naked etc…but in fact the barmaid was just then running through the beer-garden, we looked over at it; two men were sitting at a green-striped table, drinking beer, eating bacon. They’re strangers too, said the landlord. He did not wait for our reaction; he kept working, ordered Oswald to hammer a softwood post into the ground next to the boundary stone, and then took no further notice of us. The surveyor said nothing when we said goodbye, whereas Oswald and the landlord said goodbye in their turn. In the orchard we soon found a shaded place to sit. We each ordered a beer, drained our glasses quickly, and ordered a second round, which, as if by way of securing our right to sit at our table longer, we drank much more slowly, more slowly than I had ever before drained a glass. We were seated opposite the small inn that I liked so much at first sight; it is uninviting, cold, always devoid of guests, ideal for intellectual work, must get a room there, I thought, although I had already shifted my attention to the two men eating and drinking at the next table; one was about fifty years old and the other about sixty; both of them had white hair; the younger one obviously invited the older one to join him for a meal and the two have only just met each other, I thought, the vagrant and the beggar and vice-versa…the younger man had a gray jacket draped around his shoulders, the older man a black one; both of them were wearing unpressed trousers; the clothing of the older man was torn, that of the younger man dirty, but not torn; the younger man was wearing a necktie, the older man a collarless shirt; their shoes were black, rough-hewn, high-topped. The speech of the younger man, the vagrant, was of the kind spoken in the Innviertel, that of the older man hailed from the Mühlviertel. The invitee was the listener, who didn’t care one way or the other about his benefactor but was glad he was there to pay the substantial bill. The benefactor may have seen better times, I thought, he used to be a packing-list writer in an agricultural warehouse, a secretary for a local council, an overseer at a gravel pit, etc…every now and then he used a standard-German phrase; he kept saying the word logarithm. In front of him on the table lay his peaked cap, which, while no longer waterproof, still afforded good protection against the sun…he was enough of a blowhard to be continually uttering the words infantile and byzantinism, which the beggar did not understand, and to be constantly talking about his sister, who was married to a lawyer in Schlierbach, to be incessantly talking about rich relatives that he said he had wherever he went, and he said he went everywhere; these even included a prelate and an abbot in a lower-Austrian monastery, indeed, even a cobblestone manufacturer…
…he said his listener was to eat everything he relished and whatever he liked. The vagrant encouraged the beggar to eat (and drink) as much as possible, and the beggar ate as much as possible and drank as much as possible. I thought we might sit in the beer-garden for another quarter of an hour and then secure our lodgings at the inn across the way; we’ll step into that spooky inn, I thought, and go into a room and lay the manuscript of Sylvicultura oeconomica II on a table, etc…and then take a walk; our prospective destination was a basilica. It would have been a bad idea just to get back up right away, because the vagrant and the beggar were worth observing further; again I was deriving a series of important conclusions from my observation of them…the vagrant was from Helmonsödt, his listener a native of Enns. The man from Helmonsödt was talking; the man from Enns was listening. The subject and object of all this talking and listening was a pitiful and yet not a jot more pitiful than fantastic world, a world for which one supposedly had to pay a price that was always much too high…“Eat! Drink!” said the vagrant, and the beggar ate and drank. We had long since aroused the generous man’s attention. All of a sudden he said, “Yes, yes, the Asiatic flu…,” and he opined that we were evidently from the city, and in flight from that horrible disease that everywhere stirs up terror just like the plague…but I had no desire to converse with the man and made no reply. We uttered some remarks about foeminae. An entire chapter about the Cornus worms, I said. The vagrant was of the opinion that it was not Asiatic flu alone that came from the city, fanned out over the entire countryside, etc., that history proved that nothing but devastation, nothing but misfortune, came from the city. Unqualified contempt for city people. “Music, dance, opera, revolution,” he said: “they’re all drivel.” To the beggar he said he should eat his fill, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be treated by somebody from Helmonsödt, that it would never be repeated under any circumstances. Suddenly the benefactor leapt to his feet; he said he had to go to the toilet. The beggar followed the vagrant with his eyes as he walked to the toilet. He had taken his peaked cap with him…
A half an hour later the man from Helmonsödt had still not come back from the toilet. We observed the beggar, who, as he continued to eat with ever-increasing uneasiness, kept his eyes fixed on the door through which the man who had invited him to eat and drink so much was supposed to emerge.
A short time later, after going to the other inn, at which we secured our room and intended to stay and above all to work (today we still retain the fondest remembrance of both!) for a couple of days, on a street that we were obliged to cross en route to the basilica, we saw the man from Helmonsödt (but perhaps he was from some completely different place?) getting into a car that he had flagged down and then riding off in it. We thought about the beggar sitting in the beer-garden at that moment and still waiting for the long-since totally and permanently vanished vagrant, and probably still eating and drinking to calm himself, and the situation in which the beggar now found himself gradually became clear to us.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 384-389. Originally published in Ver sacrum. Neue Hefte für Kunst und Literatur, edited by Otto Breicha, Georg Eisler, and Hilde Spiel. Vienna/Munich: Jugend & Volk, 1969, pp. 64-66.