Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Translation of "Ein Älterer Mann Namens August," a Short Story by Thomas Bernhard

An Oldish Man Named August

This happened back in the days when the convulsions of life still had the power to upset me. The war, the loss of people and landscapes dear to me, still gnawed at my heart.  It was necessary to find a way out of the tenebrous ravines of a half-opened youth, an exit from the gloom, to make a pilgrimage to that patch of light that shone through the remaining interstices of the labyrinth and into its embittered interior.

“Travel,” people had said to me: “you must travel!  There is mystery is to be found in a change of place, in moving forward, in the rolling of wheels, in the rocking of a jam-packed railway carriage…”—and so I packed my little trunk and before I knew it the door of our ancient house was slamming shut behind me.

It was like a last farewell that segued into another on the streets leading to the train station.  I said farewell to the rooftops, to the trees, to the shops of diligent small-town merchants who understood how to place their flesh-toned paper dolls at the most eye-catching angle, who ate roast on Sundays, and who, when the sun was shining, made pilgrimages to the countryside near the mountains so that they could sit on the grass with their newspaper.  I wanted to save every part of this night’s phenomena that could still be saved, and I sucked in the walls, which were full of humid odors, the fragrance of the ripening crocus in the city park, which was carrying me away with it, and I shifted myself into the wild terror of my forsaken childhood, in which foreign apples had been plucked from foreign trees, and which was so full of adventures, between evening and morning, with conquests and discoveries, of first stirrings of the fear of death and awakening love, that it wrested tears from my eyes.

I had boarded the train hastily.  The door clicked shut; the long car set itself in motion; the lights outside were devoured by the gloomy hills; the rooftops sank into gentle depressions; unflaggingly, ever more forcefully, the train sucked itself into the distance; soon it was racing along the lakeshore, and finally it bored with undreamt-of celerity into the inexhaustible west.

My compartment was already occupied by four people.  I had my trunk placed in the netted holding rack and seated myself in the only available spot remaining, a corner spot that afforded a view of the dimly lit passageway.

I was tired.  The preceding day had made me sleepy.  In spite of everything I began, like most people, to study the faces of my fellow-passengers, to analyze them, to arrange them into clearly defined life-groups.

Across from me sat a fat woman.  Her hands were plotting a downward trajectory via her lap, on which a starkly printed newspaper-page lay.  She might have been the wife of a washing-machine salesman, hence a woman of property.  Her face was broad and aqueous; her hands pudgily glistened.  Immediately beside me a gentleman in a stylish business suit was snoozing; he was young, athletic, with brawny, well-toned shoulders.  On his knees lay the remains of a cigarette.  From time to time his face twitched—he was caught in the middle of the gearbox of existence.  But immediately next to the window a girl, a young woman, was sitting.  Her hair was blonde and undone and cascaded like a fragment of a stream on to her supple shoulders.  She had glanced at me upon my entry into the compartment.  Now she was laying out the individual segments of an orange in a row on a page from a newspaper.  She coated the fruit-segments in sugar and popped them one after another into her rubicund mouth.  All the while she was apparently hearkening to the monotonous onslaught of the wheels, to the ever-receding flow of the rails.

She was still quite young.  The holding compartment over her head was chock full of boxes and suitcases.  I hid my face in my coat so as to be able feast my eyes on this feminine form at leisure.  Her supple hands plucked at her dress, pulled something out from under the newspaper-page, trailed their fingers along the steamed-over window pane, and finally settled on her beautifully developed bosom for a longish interval.

Suddenly the young woman looked up.  She leaned over and shook a person whom I had so far not noticed and who had fallen asleep at the opposite corner of the window.

“August,” the young woman said; she repeated the name a couple of times and then smiled.

“What is it, my child?”

“Father, you’ve got to eat now,” said the young woman.

“Yes,” the oldish man rejoined.

“Really, it’s been ages since we left the station.  You’ve got to eat something, August--”
Some movement came into the invisible corner.  The young woman unwrapped some bread, shoved the orange-segments on to the table-tray, placed an apple beside them, and said, “August, please eat!”

The oldish man bent forward.  He was gray at the temples; he had a nose like the beak of a prehistoric bird; his hands darted upwards like talons, snatched at a piece of fruit, and then sank.  This action was repeated a few times, until the young woman said, “We’ve come a good long way already.”

For a moment all was calm.

“Where are we?” asked the oldish man.

“Past Munich,” said the young woman.

“Past Munich…”

The two of them hearkened to the roaring din of the train.

“It’s going to rain tomorrow,” said the young woman.  She bent forward to adjust something on her father’s coat.

“A good child,” he sighed.

“I’m so glad we managed to catch the train,” she said.  “We might just as easily have failed to catch it.  We must gain time.  The train stations are ice cold at night now.  So we’re safe.  Do you remember the girl at the station in Vienna?”


“Anyway, I had seen her once before.”

“Do you think so?”

“Definitely, August!”

The older man picked up an apple.

“In children like that I always see myself,” she said.  “Everything is in them.  I don’t know how to put it, but everything is contained in them.  Do you know that, Father?”
The young woman picked up some of the orange-segments.

“You should eat heartily,” she stated.  “You need to.  It won’t be simple.  Once we’re up north, in Bremerhaven, we’ll have gotten a good chunk out of the way.   I am very happy, and yet I would rather travel by day.  You can’t see anything.  A few lights—you can see nothing but lights.  They will be waiting for us up north…”

“It is better to travel at night,” said the oldish man.  “Everything is easier.  You should sleep, my child; you are tired.”

“I am not tired.  I am never tired when I’m traveling.  You know full well that when we traveled to Italy I wasn’t tired either.  On the train I can never sleep, since I always prefer talking—and eating,” she laughed.

“Thinking the hours away and sleeping,” her father said.  “Sleeping through a couple of hundred kilometers is a highly worthwhile activity, my child.  Sleeping, dreaming, continuing to exist…By the time we’re in Bermerhaven, your eyes will have long since ceased taking in any sights…”
The young woman shut her eyes.

“How quickly everything happens,” she said.  “A year ago we didn’t know anything at all yet.  I only met Eduard a year ago.  You went into the hospital…But you look good now.  You haven’t looked so good in such a long time…A man like you, August, who ’s still got something to show…”

“Yes,” said the oldish man equably.

“The doctor said you would outlast everybody.  They have good hospitals over there, good doctors.  Eduard will start earning money right away.  Me too—and as for you and mother, the two of you can rest.  There’s no chance at all of anything going awry.  The factories over there pay really well.   Hasn’t Eduard signed the contract?  It’s all set down in writing there.  We’ll all be able to make ends meet, it says…Won’t you have something to drink, August?”

“Sure,” he said.

The young woman handed him the thermos.

“Good,” he said, “this will warm me up.”

Softly the young woman said, “When we get to Bremerhaven, we’ll drink something hot right away…”

“You are so good, Herta,” whispered the oldish man.  He leaned quite far back.

“Eduard has already received a week’s advance pay.  And then we’re all set to find a place to live right away.  After all, we’ve got a sound contract.  It’s a sure thing all around.  And Montreal is a lovely city.  Eduard’s got pictures of it.  Can you imagine it—everybody’s got their own car.  We’ll soon have our own car too…”    

“Yes,” said her father.

“Here we couldn’t even have gotten a house.  And even if we had, we wouldn’t have managed to get a car...Do you hear me, August?”

Her father said, “Yes, I hear you, my child.”

Meanwhile my gaze had alighted on the others.  The fat woman across from me had shifted her position several times, but her newspaper had still not fallen to the floor.  The young athlete remained quiescent.  On his left wrist gleamed two watches.  His white cuffs were an element of his affluence and starkly contrasted with the numerous pieces of luggage belonging to the young woman, who with her father, with her whole family, was traveling to Canada…As we passed through a fairly large station, the compartment shook violently—but those of us who were asleep did not wake up.

“They’ll be delighted if you come,” said the young woman.  “Eduard hasn’t seen you in a long time.  I’m glad I picked you up from the hospital myself.  Had you been expecting me?”    

“Yes,” said the oldish man.

“I can’t believe we’re going to Canada...”

The oldish man said nothing further.

“Had you ever given any thought to the fact that we were going to be emigrating?”

“No, never.”

“It must be quite far away, Canada—”

“It is far away, my child.”

“I won’t get seasick.  On a big ship you don’t get seasick.  It’s going to be just a matter of a very few days—and then we’ll be in Canada.”

The young girl had refulgent eyes.

“You should finish off the food,” she said, “we have plenty more in the bag.”

Her father reached for one of the loaves of bread.

“It’s from our baker’s, August; funny, isn’t it?  We really should have taken the paper bag with us as well.  I brought along lots of things that will remind me of Vienna…”

She arranged her hair.

“In Canada I will need new dresses,” she stated.  “But the clothes over there won’t be unfashionable either.  They have such lovely, colorful fabrics…”

“You are in fine fettle,” said her father.

The young woman pushed the orange segments over to him.

“You should eat some fruit,” she said.  “The doctor told me that nothing but fruit could make you totally healthy.  Everybody who has trouble with their lungs should eat fruit and consume lots of fat.”

The train accelerated.

The man’s hands emerged into the light.

“Take as many of them as you like,” she said.

He nodded.

By now I was dead tired—I had boarded a long-distance train that traveled non-stop for a hundred kilometers at a stretch.  My bones ached, as though my body were actually mutating.

“Canada must be a great country,” said the young woman. “I’ll manage to love it.”

“Perhaps, my child—”

“Vienna is already a long way behind us.  Maybe we’ll go back there someday.  When we’re rich, we’ll take a trip back there.  Then we’ll go into the poorhouse and hand out nice things…”

The old man heaved a deep sigh.

“Vienna has changed a great deal too,” he said.

“I’m actually scared about being on the great ocean.  Don’t ships still sink nowadays?” The young woman had to keep talking.  “But it’s safer than taking a plane.  Mother will see; she has still never lived by the sea.  The sea is a great experience, isn’t it, August?  It’s wide. We’ll cope with it.  We have already coped with so many things here…Today nothing is impossible anymore, is it, Father?  Over there, on the far side of the sea, is a better life...Father!”  The young girl leapt to her feet.  “You are really quite pale,” she said.

The others didn’t believe it, but I knew that the oldish man was dead.  By now I have seen lots of people die.  The oldish man had died peacefully.  The others couldn’t comprehend it at all, but I thought that he had even died beautifully.

At the next station he was carried out.  Everything takes its course.  I assisted the young woman, helped her carry her boxes and suitcases out on to the station platform.  She was now quite helpless—but some people came up and cleared away everything for her.  The station was deserted, and quite a long way from Bremerhaven.  A couple of drunks could be heard howling in the station’s restaurant.  Pieces of paper drifted across the asphalt...

It was already dawn when the train began moving.

The oldish man vanished in the darkness, and for some time afterwards I could still hear the young woman sobbing.

“August,” she kept saying, “August, this simply can’t have happened!”

Human beings are alone.

I had taken the dead man’s seat.  The uneaten orange-segments had been left on the table-tray.  The fat woman and the athlete had left the compartment.  I was alone.

The next morning I was standing on a piece of Altona.  It was made of stone.  And then, later, I beheld Hamburg, the city, the harbor, and the sea, unfathomable and infinite behind the layer of fog—and somewhere out there, I thought, must lie Canada: the land of lumberjacks, canned food-factories, and a better life…


Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 503-510.  Originally published in Tages-Post [Linz], August 14, 1954.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

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