Friday, April 22, 2016

A Translation of "Von einem Nachmittag in einer großen Stadt," a Short Story by Thomas Bernhard

A Big-City Afternoon
I’m not exactly sure anymore, but I was looking for the sun somewhere.  I wasn’t sure that it existed.  And that kept me on my feet.  But the thing that imparted the most strength to me was my youth.  I had just (or already?) stridden through twenty years.  A wonderful period, perhaps an excessively beautiful one.  “The more captivated you are by your memories,” I thought, “the more arduous the present becomes.”  Life struck me as most odd and yet “lively.”
For three days I resided here, in a big city.  We were a million people, all different and yet basically the same.  I saw them every day, indeed, every hour, and only the night like a miracle ever drew a veil over this concentrated world.  I walked past five hundred or a thousand faces each day.  And behind each of these faces a different mystery was concealed.  There were broad faces, narrow faces, round faces, pale faces, puffy faces, cheerful faces, childlike faces, terrified faces, blasé faces, stupid faces, and faces that seemed to be made out of nothing but flesh and some revolting watery mélange.  Those of this last sort had lost all trace of expression.  They lived for their own sakes.  I still have quite a vivid picture of them, those “flesh”-faces.
I found it very strange, the city.  And hour by hour this strangeness metamorphosed into a ruthless coldness.  Was it perhaps even hostility?  Last night I dreamt that I was embracing an old oak tree and that I could feel it breathing…
The shrill braking of an automobile yanked me back.  From behind a car window a contorted face threatened.  Rings glinted on thick fingers; a hefty neck protruded from a suit.  A man’s voice shouted loudly and threateningly back at me.  The car vanished around the corner.  A cloud of gas absorbed me.  For a few seconds I believed in death…
The song of the street car tracks was continually swelling.  I felt their tremors beneath my feet.  The sound was thrilling, infinitely bustling.   Somewhere a train howled.  Dogs barked promiscuously and the nauseating voice of a woman meddled in their barking.  I counted the curbstones, the large ones and the small ones; then I looked at the doors and windows, a hundred, two hundred of them.  There were so many.   A tangle of wires spanned the gap that separated me from the vastness.  I reminded myself of an animal trapped behind the bars of a large cage.  And I walked and walked, ever farther.   And smoke from the tall, rigid chimneys hung over everything and wafted into the yellowish-gray sky.
I had no goal.  I had been trying to get to know the city for eight whole days.  There were lots of street intersections which, on account of their lights that flashed red, yellow, and green at brief intervals, reminded me of my toys from many years before; there were some small parks.  There were six or maybe ten trees standing there in the grass.  Everything was well-tended; everything had been made to blend in with the surrounding area.  The little bushes with the red flowers were numbered.  A small sign was nailed firmly to their tender trunks.  The numbers on them were all quite high, far higher than a thousand, because the city was large, a city of more than a million inhabitants with many parks.  Slowly I began to understand a great many things.  Noble narrow gravel paths traversed the green.  I walked along a row of iron wicker armchairs.  And again I saw faces; they were just like the others.
They were narrow and pale and evinced a great deal of “dissipation.”  Elderly female invalids were being pushed along past me in wheelchairs.  And the city?  Its din continued unrelentingly; any interruption of it seemed unthinkable.  It was simply somewhat muted, somewhat remote.
I sat down and took a rest.  Perhaps I even needed to sleep?  Not for the first time I raised my head and…suddenly a heftily built woman was standing directly before me; she was grinning through half-rotten teeth and had a fluttering double-chin.  With her right hand she was rooting about in one of her nostrils; her left hand was rummaging through a black leather purse.
“Sixty groschen, sir!” she said and held a white slip of paper up to my eyes.  Her mouth opened; her eyes were staring at something infinitely distant.  
For a moment I did not know what was happening, but then I dug into my bag, searched for a long time, was disappointed and irate at the same time, stared into the red face with the long hair, stood up hastily and left.  I thought I could hear a term of abuse being uttered behind my back; then I walked across the gravel with my hands folded behind my back and suddenly I was standing back in the busy street, with all the people and the red-green-yellow lights that reminded me of my early childhood toys…    


Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 463-465. Originally published in Salzburger Nachrichten, December 13, 1952, under the name Thomas N. Bernhard.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

Friday, April 08, 2016

A Translation of "Die Siedler," a Short Story by Thomas Bernhard

The Settlers

They had come home in the same transport, the eighteen-year-old Rupert, who no longer had any relatives, and Ferdl, who was about a year older and whose mother had died in the war, so that he was now as much alone as his comrade.

For two weeks they shoveled sand at a construction site in town; then at Ferdl’s suggestion they went to work for a farmer in the country, where at least the meals were heartier.  They slept in the hay stable, and because it was spring, that didn’t make things any worse for them.  In their free time they roamed around the countryside.  In the course of these rambles a patch of uncultivated land between the forest and the moor kept catching Ferdl’s eye.  “We could settle here,” he said, and sucked on his pipe like an old man.

Soon they began working busily on the little piece of ground in the evenings and on holidays.  The two of them weeded, dug, dragged stones, posts, and planks to the spot.  The place was isolated, and their activity remained unnoticed for a long time.  By late summer they had finished erecting the hut, or, as they called it, the house.  Soon they would be able to move into it.  And they had also staked out a parcel of earth for gardening; it was after all untilled soil, unclaimed land.

Upon awaking from their first night spent under their own roof, they found the forest ranger standing on their doorstep and asking them from whom they had received permission to build there.  He said that he had been observing the whole business for some time and that he was pleased to have an opportunity to speak with the “masters of the house” at last.  They replied by sheepishly asking whom the land belonged to and averring that it was after all untilled soil.  To say exactly who owned the property was not a particularly simple matter, opined the ranger.  In any case, they would need a permit from the local council.

When after several futile interviews with lesser officials they were finally accorded a meeting with the mayor, they received a bewildering piece of intelligence.  He said that the property itself was technically part of an entailed estate, but that upon the latter’s  dissolution under the auspices of the new international administration of Austria, it had fallen into the hands of foreign owners, whose heirs had committed it to the care of the local council as security against any potential revocation of the game laws.  That a sublease from the council would not be possible.  That in the absence of any contact with the heirs no kind of provision could be made.  The two youths equably returned to their dwelling.  A few days later two men dropped by and asked to see the building permit and the certificate from the building commission.  Oh, so neither happened to be ready to hand!
Eventually a gentleman from the tax office showed up; he asked to see every possible kind of document, checked their identification papers, took notes; he rattled off all sorts of terminology and phraseology that neither of the lads could make head or tail of.

The idyllic solitude of their little hut on their uncultivated patch of land was now history; at all hours of the day people would show up and then, on the authority of summarily flashed identification cards, proceed to challenge the two youths’ right of possession, to interrogate them.   They were subpoenaed by various administrative bodies, and their employer the farmer really became quite vexed, because both menials were absent from work all too often on account of official business.  Rupert and Ferdl no longer felt at ease within the walls of their settlers’ house and eventually came to prefer sleeping in the hay stable again.

Meanwhile there arrived a thick envelope containing an action for possession, which, in artfully turned and remarkably fancy words referring to all sorts of legal paragraphs, asserted certain things whose upshot, as near as the two settlers could tell after long perusal of the document, was that they had lost the right to hold on to the fruit of their labors.

Thus ended Ferdl’s and Rupert’s dream centered on a little patch of earth.  They continued working on the farm, and when winter came and it grew cold, they started bivouacking in the cowshed.         


Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 461-462. Originally published in Salzburger Volksblatt, September 8, 1951, under the name Thomas Fabian.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

If the whole is not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts... is at least less annoying: my translation of Thomas Bernhard's correspondence with his publisher, Siegfried Unseld, serialized earlier in 19 installments, is now readable and printable as a single document here.  I have made some additions and corrections, mostly to the footnotes.