Friday, May 06, 2016

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

Crazy Magdalena

“...Yes, yes, I knew her very well.  She came from our village.  Her father was a postman and owned a small cottage with two goats and a fat pig that he slaughtered before Christmas.  Moreover, we were in the same grade at school for a year.  We also used to go caroling together, but even by then something insidious was lodged behind her strikingly blonde tresses.  Nobody quite knew what she was thinking.  On one occasion our teacher gave her a resounding box on the ear.

Those were good times.

But basically she was a good-natured creature who gave away everything she had.  On one occasion she stationed herself before the front door of her house--to be sure, this was about 30 years ago--and threw her playthings into the crowd of laughing children who were just then coming out of the church.  And she vehemently refused to take back her dolls and stuffed donkey, her cooking spoon and colorfully embroidered scarves, from the nonplussed parents.  Because of this many people in the village thought she was not quite normal, and they examined her long chain of ancestors—which contained nothing but farmhands, maidservants, railroad tie-layers, and a layabout—in search of somebody they could have pigeonholed as having been a bit mixed up under his skullcap.  But they discovered no such person and so simply stuck to calling her ‘Crazy Magdalena.’”

My friend raised his eyes.  He could tell a good story when it was getting towards midnight; and now we could hear the distant singing of the streetcar as it strained its way through the blackened city walls.  From time to time a bell rang, voices wafted up from below, or a pane of glass at the front of the restaurant across the street rattled.  He came to see me often, and on account of his natural mode of living I found him easy to put up with.  And then, too, perhaps we had been driven into this city of millions by similar forces.  He was perfectly matched with his métier as a painter, as a painter of works of art, if I must put it that way, and he understood to a turn how to combine his painting—the experts either termed him an impressionist or failed to make head or tail of his pictures—with his night job as a parking garage attendant.  Here as there he held his own.  When he was being a painter nobody ever would have guessed he was a parking garage attendant; when he was being a parking garage attendant pulling in barely 110 schillings a week, nobody ever would have guessed he was a painter with a good technique and even better prospects.  Even though he sometimes had quite uncommon if not insane views about life, its days and nights, its ascents and descents, and could never be persuaded to budge an inch from this extravagant “insanity” on any point, we were still the best of friends.  This became evident a few times each week, most especially when we borrowed money from each other.  I liked to drink a glass of apple cider and he, perhaps for the same life-beautifying reasons, liked to make a side-trip to the tobacconist’s on the quayside to pick up some cigarettes, those pernicious little white sticks with which he subsequently befouled the already heavy air.  Admittedly, in the blackish-yellow misty dampness he beheld fantastic dreams…

“She was about 25 years old,” he resumed, “when I saw her in Paris.  The postman’s little daughter, the crazy creature with the old-fashioned underclothes and the passion for donation, had been transformed into a dancer, a beautiful woman who rode along the Champs-Élysées to the theater every evening in a freshly waxed limousine.  She danced to variations by Brahms and Debussy.  I was nonplussed by the thought that a girl who was acquainted with nothing in the world apart from the old lady who ran the general store and the cross-eyed village school teacher, who indeed knew nothing at all about that world, nothing about the world of hatred, of calculation, of madness, of sentimental blather, of the world of irrationality, of war, of obloquy, of avarice, could be transformed…into a woman who ranged between red plush armchairs and the no less flattering than dubious odors of A Thousand and One Nights as though she had grown up immersed in an azure haze and the rustle of silk.  I had a brief interview with her.  Her comportment was off-putting and weird.  She had turned into an obnoxious module of the urban cosmopolitan scene.  Her eyes were filled partly with hunger and thirst for the hanging gardens of the modern Semiramis, partly with conflict, sorrow, and despair.  Her eyelashes fluttered and after ten minutes of sitting face-to-face with her, of drawing closer to her as she drew closer to me, of feeling her out, I descried in her a doll conversing with the tips of its long white fingers, incessantly twitching its ears as though involved in a mechanical system….”

“And how was she as an artist?” I asked.

“Well, I suppose she must have worked quite hard.  She could dance marvelously.  When you saw her from the gallery, you would have had no trouble at all believing she was some kind of higher being.  The gold on her body, the supple rhythmic movements of her pliant, glassy hips, radiated something freakish but decidedly not beneficent…

The next day the critics’ columns were brimming over with excessively zealous superlatives.  I saw her picture a couple of times as well.  I bought the papers…I brought a whole batch of them home with me and showed them around…but as I said earlier, as chance would have it, I was in Paris of all places.  I was staying somewhere in that sea of houses in the students’ quarter on the Avenue de Neuilly.  I produced a couple of good sketches and sold them.  I wanted to be able to settle down there.”

“And what happened next?”


“With Magdalena…”

“ was really strange.  I hadn’t heard anything about her in a long time.  I had even forgotten about her.  You forget about beautiful women when they don’t have anything special about them apart from their beauty… say, an appreciation of painting …or motherhood.  In the meantime I lived through a heap of things.  I worked, for the most part in the city; in the summer I traveled back home.  My father died, and then so did my mother …But life kept moving along.  A lot of things from that time would have been worth writing about, perhaps even all of them would have been, but adversity got the upper hand, and often a single glimpse of sunshine on a clear day was enough to fill me with bitterness.  You see, my worries, my worries about how I was to earn my daily bread, were unending.  How could it have been otherwise.  For the first time, I felt fully immersed, as I have been ever since, in my existence as a painter.”

We both laughed, but ours was no ordinary laughter; it was, rather, the laughter of two men just then mentally passing through every single street and alley in a large city.  To be sure, he was roughly twenty years older than me, but I fancied we were in the same frame of mind anyway.

“Somebody or other procured me an exhibition of my works in one of those coffeehouses that are to be found all over the city.  I had finished nothing more than a couple of new paintings and two accomplished woodcuts.”

“And did she come to see them?”

“Yes…all of a sudden she was standing there…on the first day there were only seven viewers, total strangers…”

“Did she speak to you?”

“No, she ran away from me!  I caught up with her in the street.  I was almost run over by a car.  She was weeping bitterly.  Her beauty was gone; it had simply flown away…she had some still-valuable rings on her fingers, but her clothes were filthy.  Her face was sickly and emaciated.  It was enough to shake up anybody.”

He stood up, lit a cigarette, and blew tiny clouds of smoke into the warm air.   
“I walked with her to her tiny apartment.  Everybody had forsaken her, you understand, everybody.  Her friends!  Even the affluent factory owner’s son from Marseilles.  She had so many men…she led a life of ease.  Already way back when in Paris she gave you the impression that she was ill.  Twice they put her in a sanatorium for a lung disease.  Her dancing days were over…apart from the doctor who called on her every week, she had no other human being in her life but me.”

He paused for a moment.

“Shortly before the end she was planning to return to our village.  I loathe this world! she had exclaimed.  She had become as poor as a beggar.  But when she died and her coffin was being driven to the cemetery, I thought to myself that a queen had just died, an uncrowned queen who had experienced exactly as much good fortune as misfortune in life…”

“Yes,” I said, “and that’s what she was…”

“And we all love life…”

We stood up and he went downstairs to guard his garage and I counted the figures on the wallpaper for a long time and thought about Paris, which I had still never seen…


Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 470-474. Originally published in Demokratisches Volksblatt, January 1, 1953.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

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