Friday, May 20, 2016

A Translation of "Wie ein völlig verschmutzter Teppich" (Thomas Bernhard silently interviewed by Kurt Hofmann)


Like a Completely Filthy Rug


Of course you can’t itemize everything; a life obviously can’t be unfurled so easily.  When you unfurl your life, you can thwack it clean like a completely filthy rug; you would just as soon thank me for thwacking you in the face.  And it would be quite dangerous for anybody with any sort of life to thwack his life clean in front of you.  It would give you a coughing fit, and in no time flat you’d be running away.

I have given a performance like that at the coffeehouse in Vienna.  I go in there so that I can have some peace and quiet and read the newspapers, and then people pounce on me and talk about some book I wrote twenty-two years ago; it’s really quite impossible; I no longer have a clue about what’s in the book.  And when you say, “I don’t want to talk to you,” they don’t even notice.  They keep sitting there.  Until you finally say, “You’re talking nonsense,” then they say, “If anybody’s talking nonsense, it’s you.”  What are you supposed to do then?  Then the next person has just come from an art exhibition and says, “Excuse me for disturbing you, I wrote to you once regarding a preface,” but I of course am no preface-writer, then we start fighting, then you leave, and a week later somebody informs you that behind your back the waiter said, “At last we’re rid of him, he certainly won’t be coming here again.”  At a place I’ve been frequenting for thirty years, instead of shielding me from those people they get downright cheeky.  A man dashes out of the place in despair, and afterwards they still nickname him “Mr. At Last We’re Rid of Him.”

In the first place, I get a hostile reception everywhere; of course I have to put up with all that.  Then they characterize me as arrogant and ghoulish, as a ghoulish figure; you’ve got to put up with all of that.  I’m obviously not some Peter Alexander type who can just suck up to everyone.

I’m sick of dining out in Vienna, because I have been going to that place for thirty-five years, in other words, longer than the abominable creatures who flock there now, because it’s in my neighborhood.  The chancellor sometimes goes there.  But I don’t speak with these people—“As a one-offer, I’m going to invite you to my next dinner party”—then I say, “Well, hopefully not.”  It’s horrible when these people come up to you like that.  Everybody mingles like that, everybody waters everybody else, but you can’t do that kind of thing to me.

There are people, untiring people, who don’t understand or hear anything whatsoever.  They immediately get cheeky with you, they even get cheeky if you don’t open the door; then they start hammering at the door with that knocker, as if they’re trying to knock it down out of sheer rage, and the neighbors say, “He’s in there.”

In Vienna I am of course anonymous.  There I don’t need to pick up the phone, for example, and it’s always the same when you’re expecting somebody, then it’s always eh who is it this time, it’s always a vicious circle.  But on the other hand that’s part of the whole thing, of course.  If it were all completely different than it is, then of course I wouldn’t rush back there so quickly.  I’m certainly not the kind of person who locks himself up in his house and spends all his time alone, sleeps, and turns into a blithering idiot in the process.  Obviously nobody can get away with locking himself up in his house and shutting up everything, but when I open my front door they come inside.  Then people come here and think it’s their property.  Like with a giraffe that anybody can look at, that’s always available for public viewing.

How are you supposed to like people who know nothing about you and then just sit there and stare at you; there’s nothing of value in that, just—what’s really likeable anyway?  It’s wrong even to count on anything at all; that’s every bit as wrong, of course.  Then of course you can also just stay stuck in some marriage; I obviously don’t care to do anything like that either.

Everybody wants to join in the game and at the same time be left in peace.  And because it really isn’t possible to do both, you’re always in a state of conflict.  You shut the door in order to be alone again, and the moment you shut the door you become conscious that it’s wrong, that it’s a mistake too, because basically it’s something you don’t want; because in the first place you know that being alone is even more unpleasant, but in the other situation you can’t get anything done.  When you’re hanging around with a woman you can’t write any books, or just stupid books, ultimately; it just doesn’t work.  And when you’re hanging around with a man, he also gets on your nerves, because that’s not any different, so hanging around with people in general is all very serious and difficult.

The most grotesque things happen here of course.  Once twelve or fifteen years ago something happened with Peter Hamm, who at the time was quite a nice guy; back then he was absolutely smitten with Ms. [Marianne] Koch…and then he showed up once with this Ms. Koch, the actress, in her fur coat—it was a real bender—and a tape-recorder, and it lasted for hours.  And then he had it typed up, I believe some publishing firm was even involved, and it ended up being a kind of hodgepodge from that night, and then I naturally said this is completely out of the question, this is obviously impossible, you really can’t make this bender into a book.  Then he got mad.  He certainly racked up some expenses and worked quite hard on it for several weeks, but then I just had to say no.

I know all too well the sort of bilge that even I can talk; it depends on the circumstances, and of course everybody has his embarrassing and abominable side, why should that …I’m obviously not hiding anything.   The only thing that bothers me is the printing of words that I have never uttered.  Because there are certain things, certain words, that I just don’t say.  The gist of it may be right, such that I have said it, but of course I’m not going to be a total moron and say that I haven’t said it if I have said it.
I’m not hiding anything; I don’t want anything; I have no desire to make my portrait more faithful, or to prettify it, or to uglify it.  That’s up to everybody else individually.  The skillet is visible to everybody and so is the grease that I throw into the skillet, and on top of that I’ve got whatever sausage I’m cooking; there’s obviously nothing I can do to stop this.  And if I say it makes no difference to me [mir ist das wurscht], then the sausage [Wurscht] really does make no difference to me.

I can tell you everything that goes on here; then of course you would have to be constantly hiring detectives and constantly going to court.  Just now for example something has been published, apparently in connection with this performance of some plays in Spanish, my plays, that is, and it’s got a preface, and in it the name “Lampersberg” appears—pure bilge; I don’t know where he, the translator, got that from—and a country estate and a castle, when there’s neither an estate nor a castle nor anything else there, and a nobleman; of course I can only laugh at it; and then there are also some homosexual relations.  I mean, it really is too hilarious by half!   

That was an episode, but one that was completely false...of course the people haven’t a clue; it’s got nothing to do with me.  Incidentally, I saw him a few weeks ago in Vienna, wearing white shorts and whatnot; he is really a wretched fool; I haven’t read that little Lampersberg book either.  But when we publish a book about Lorca here, people naturally take it for the gospel truth in Andalusia, nobody fact-checks it, and it’s probably just as much of a load of bilge.  So there’s constantly an uninterrupted flow of spurious bilge everywhere.  All the same, this is a man who has been translating for ten years, and the publisher probably sends him some newspaper cuttings, and then from them he pieces something together and gets paid, say, ten thousand pesetas for it.

Or this so-called director…meaning for the theater and the like, came to Frankfurt, and now he has founded his own publishing firm there.  And he writes: “The first book I’ve published is yours,” and I open the book, and straight-away my name has been misspelled, so I mean…and the man sends it to me; he probably hasn’t even taken a single good look at the way it’s been typeset, how “Bernhardt” has been printed with “dt” at the end; it’s all quite intolerable; what in the world is wrong with these people?  But you really just have to take it on the chin and walk away.  He’s amazed that he hasn’t heard from me since.  And what am I supposed to write to him now: “It’s funny, your little book arrived, and it came as news to me that my name was spelled like that”?—the whole thing is completely pointless; I’m dealing with total idiots.

Then people send books, or fling books straight into your window, books “for you,” “to you,” “about you”; then you leaf through them, because after all there has to be some sort of connection, and right away…it really doesn’t affect me; rather it affords me a bit of amusement, with an undertone of slight worry that it will never lead to anything, because of course I can’t reply, because if I do I’ll fall into a maelstrom.  A reply of course means a return trip and one way or another that always ends horribly.  So I have to nip all that in the bud, and so all that stuff gets thrown away.  All books with requests for a reply I chuck into the trash; you can find all of them here in my trashcan.  And then later on you’ll be able to find my works in the big trash can outside.

Then in Vienna the telephone rings at eleven at night.  “Are you the writer Thomas Bernhard?”  I say: “No, he’s not here.”  But I don’t want to change the number, because it’s been the same for thirty-five years.  I find it really disagreeable, and because I overlooked the fact that after my aunt—it had of course been listed under her name, and because I overlooked the fact that that simply happened automatically.  But then there are two consecutive Thomas Bernhards in the telephone book.

Then I have the strength—I really have to say this—when I’m in Vienna, for days on end, I hear it ringing and I don’t go near it.  So literally for days on end.  I really manage to muster the courage for that.  If they knew that I was there and wasn’t answering , they would kill me.   In Vienna I’m at their mercy somehow or other.   But here too, and especially at weekends.  Then I’ve got to lock myself inside, and then they run around the house and knock at the windows and doors.  So I just drive away beforehand.

Then you have to put up with people yelling at you in the streets—“You’ll see how far you get soon enough,” and the like.  On the other hand, when you publish something, you naturally have to be prepared for that; you really don’t have any control over it.  That would be tragic of course.  It’s a precise reflection of the way everything is.  Since you can’t do anything; everything is made up of misunderstandings.  And people peeing on you, that’s something you also get used to over the course of the decades.  Well, you see, you probably present yourself to the world as a tree.  Then, you know, the doggies come up and do their business on you.  But no pee-watered tree has ever withered.

Yes, and then I think to myself, it’s horrible but you need, you’ve got to have—you’ve got to have contact.  There’s no help for it, but you can never have too little of it.  And so everybody spends his life knitting away at a pullover; one person knits a lot of little hearts into it, the next one not so many, with a greater or lesser number of runs, and in the end it’s all filthy and much too tight and full of holes, and even before you’re finished, the front is mouse-eaten and moth-eaten, your showpiece has already been frittered away before it’s finished, and then the Good Lord says, “That’ll work!”

When you’ve been alone for a long time, when you’ve gotten used to solitude, when you’re schooled in solitude, you always discover more and more there, where other people see nothing.

At the moment I can’t bear the presence of anyone.  And the very idea of somebody coming here…Grrrrrrrr, it’s really horrifying, I just can’t bear it—“Now, you’ve got to take part too”—no, nobody has to do that anywhere or at all.
I have never yet given anything like an interview; at most I have chatted with people, and afterwards they have cobbled together whatever they wanted, because I have always said, “It’s all the same to me whatever you do.”  Then naturally certain things often come to light, because of course everybody mangles it according to his own taste.  So dozens of Bernhards can be made out of it.  You can make a dramatic Bernhard, a tragic one, a mendacious one, a disgusting one, a cheerful one, out of it; whichever one suits you.  I of course let everybody do as he likes.  But whenever somebody asks questions and I answer them, it doesn’t work.  What gets me angry is when things that I never said in my life are printed afterwards.  But then I’d just have to go to court again.  People who want to have a conversation seem fishy to me from the outset because of course that implies a standard, a certain pretentious standard that these people obviously aren’t capable of meeting.   I can chat with simple people very well.  Whenever chats are supposed to be turned into conversations, it’s ghastly from the beginning.

It would be interesting if whenever someone asked a question—and this would naturally be very interesting for the person asking the question—he threw in ten schillings and a million came out down below.  With me on the other hand you’re throwing a hundred schillings in at the top and then fifty groschen come out at the bottom.  That’s the difference.  It makes the interviewer nervous, or he ends up unsatisfied, but I can’t do anything about it.  The answer, if I get round to giving one, is less valuable than the question most of the time.  And that naturally also rubs you the wrong way, but in my way.  It’s the only one available to me, after all.

Normally of course people ask questions like, “Do you honestly mean what you say or not?” and so forth.  Or: “Do you write more in the morning than in the evening?” and all those sorts of things.  All that stuff is thrown in at the top.  And the one person gives it a turn and then the other person gives it a turn.  An unbearable, malodorous sausage comes out at the bottom.  No matter who it is.  There are in fact collections of conversations, hundreds of them, volumes of them.  Indeed, entire publishing firms live off this stuff.  It’s like it comes out of an anus, and the whole thing ends up inside the cover of a book.  It gets slapped in there.[1]

I think that something becomes important or valuable only thanks to the way it’s received.  Through its echo.  If it hasn’t got one, it has no value.  Your emotions have no value as long as they stay pent up inside you.  And your protest is of no use either if nobody hears it, because then it’ll suffocate you and kill you.  There’s no point in that either.  So run outside, out of your house, and share your protest with other people.  And then the reaction will be important.  Either people will say “he’s crazy” or “he ought to be locked up”; in any case there will be an echo there.  Or people will shake their heads.  I’ve run dry.  That’s all.


THE END



[1] Everything in this paragraph from “And one person gives it a turn…” onwards, along with the sentence beginning “People who want to have a conversation,” in the preceding paragraph but one, appears nearly verbatim in a 1986 interview of Bernhard by Werner Wögerbauer.  I believe I have read somewhere that Hofmann’s interviews are “controversial”; perhaps the controversy is owing to the presence of mimeographic passages such as these.

Source: Kurt Hofmann, Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991, pp. 9-19.

Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Translation of "Unter dem Faulbaum" by Paula Modersohn-Becker

A Page from the Author’s Diary
Beneath the Buckthorn Tree
I lay beneath the buckthorn tree.  My entire soul was in the possession of a magic spell.  I gazed up into the tree’s leaves.  The sun dyed them a luminous yellow.  And so they stood erect on their slender red stems and laughed up at the sky.


The sky was of a deep blue with a single tiny cloud.  This blue stood out quite charmingly against the yellow of the leaves.  The wind came along and played with them and spun them round, revealing to me their upper sides.  And it also came down to me and brought me armfuls of sweetly fragrant air.


The buckthorn tree was in bloom, and that was the loveliest thing about it.  For its fragrance suffused the pliant breezes and dreamishly, gently, lay down to rest on me and sang me a fairy ballad hailing from ages in which I had not yet been and no longer was.

And the most wondrous and delightful mood came over me.  I was thinking nothing, but every artery and vein in my being surged with emotion.


I lay there like that for a long time.  And I came back to myself and to the sun and to the gladsome buzzing of the insects all around me.


Yes, they, too, loved the buckthorn tree and its blossoms and whirred around them.  And there were honey bees there with their sedulous humming; they diligently flew to and fro. And there were golden brown bumble bees there.  They murmured above my head and snuggled in their warm little pelts.  And there was quite a big crowd of fruit-flies. They stretched out many a little black proboscis and whetted and stretched their slender little legs.


And many a merry midge buzzed there and fiddled away at its high little fiddle for sheer joy.


And amid the warmth of the sunlit blossoms seesawed the dragonflies and damselflies with their slim bodies and iridescent wing-cases.


Meanwhile from time to time a tuft from the willow tree on the riverbank wafted over.  This tuft laughed as it shimmered, and was so shimmeringly white against the blue sky, just like a tiny cloud.


Yes, and before I forget: I heard the great river as well, for it was behind the willow.  I did not hear its mighty, placid gliding procession, but I heard when it sputteringly crashed into a rock or rippled among the parti-colored pebbles at its edge.


And everything together performed a concert of joy, peace, and blissfulness that was so graceful that my soul spread wide its wings and was borne along by the mighty universal joy of all creation.


THE END

Modersohn-Becker_-_Selbstbildnis_mit_Kette_-_ca1903.jpeg

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-Portrait with Necklace, ca. 1903

Source: Paula Modersohn-Becker, Briefe und Tagebuchblätter (Berlin: Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1920), pp. 52-53.

I thank flowerville for introducing me to Paula Modersohn-Becker's work and advising me on this translation.

Translation Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

Monday, May 16, 2016

A Translation of "Über die Natur unsers Geistes" by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz

On the Nature of Our Spirit1


A Layman’s Sermon on the Text:
“I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh.” (Joel 2:28)
It is not my intention here to involve myself in any metaphysical investigations but merely to specify the most practically useful thing we are capable of doing to keep our spirit in the state of tension that is needful to its happiness.
The more I study myself and reflect on myself, the more I find reason to doubt whether I  am really any kind of autonomous, independent entity, as I nevertheless feel myself ardently wishing to be.  I am hesitant to [regard thought or myself as a product of nature;]1 the notion that all this owes thanks solely to her and the concurrence of contingent causes, that it is all wholly dependent upon her influences and must submit to its destruction in utterly passive compliance with her fiats, has something terrifying—intrinsically annihilating—about it: I do not know how the philosophers can accept this notion so calmly.
And yet it is true!—but my mournful, anxious feeling about it is every bit as true.  I appeal to the entire human race: is it not the very first feeling a human ever has, when still cradle-ridden and in diapers—that he or she is independent?
How then can I be a mere ball of circumstances?  I--?  I go through my life and I find this sad truth confirmed a hundred times over.  Why is it then that when recounting the vicissitudes of my life, I summon up all my wit in the attempt to make these vicissitudes seem the fruits of my own intelligence, of own my agency; whence then comes this anxious feeling in my conscience that says to me, “You have perhaps not contributed as much to all this as you fancy”?—the effort with which I try to overcome these scruples, to forget a thousand tiny incidents in order to cozen myself with the proud thought “You did this, you effected it; it was not effected by nature or by the collision of alien forces.” This pride--what is it? Where does its root lie?
Must this pride not be a hint about the nature of the human soul, a hint that this soul is not an autonomous substance from birth, but that rather within it there is a striving, an urge to work its way up to autonomy, an urge as it were to separate itself from this large mass of interdependent creation and to constitute an entity subsisting for its own sake, an entity that re-associates itself with the mass only to the extent that this is conducive to its autonomy?   May not the magnitude of this urge then be the measure of the magnitude of the spirit—may not this feeling about which people so vehemently declaim, this pride, be the unique kernel of our soul, which in its perpetual process of becoming endeavors to outgrow the world that surrounds it and to bring forth from itself a deity presiding over this world?  Can even the Helvétiuses and all those people who have penetrated so deeply into the influences of the nature that surrounds us deny this feeling, which has made them into everything they have become?
The preeminently independent activity of our soul would appear to be thought: the only thing that human wisdom or experience in its impotence has ever managed to advise those afflicted by misfortune to do is to think and philosophize about the nature of this misfortune—in other words, in a manner of speaking, to place themselves beyond and above their particular circumstances, and to impart to themselves the impetus to independence.  For all the vehemence with which its detractors have inveighed against this consolation recommended by the Stoics, it is in fact not entirely without merit provided that one has enough strength to put it to the test, a strength that can only ever build upon itself.  And the experience of the ages has proved that there are plenty of people whose pride (a beneficent heaven-sent gift) serves as a counterweight to their most dolorous feelings.  Hence this feeling must be not only the most exhilarating and the most agreeable, but also the most indispensable of all those in human nature, because we are in a position to sacrifice all other agreeable feelings to it.
Whence the universal human belief in the value of thought.  Every human being believes that as long as he is thinking, he is beyond and above the reach of whatever he may encounter.  And in point of fact he is—to be sure, he cannot disavow the disagreeable feelings attendant on his condition, but he discovers within himself a force that enables him to maintain a counterweight to them; this feeling flatters him with a sense of his own great worth, such that the more furiously his pangs rage all about him and the greater a deity he becomes in his own eyes, the less the utmost extremity of his fate’s rage is capable of disturbing his inner tranquility.
But here most thinkers or philosophers are generally beset by a curious kind of self-deception.  They believe they have carried their independence as far as it can go once they are capable of withdrawing their attention from the objects that immediately impinge upon them and redirecting it either to themselves or to other things of any old sort.  They believe they have attained real worth if they manage to sedate their soul and lull it to sleep, instead of maintaining a counterweight to disagreeable external impressions by means of their own inner strength.  The feeling of a void in their soul that consequently arises is sufficient punishment to them, and they always have their hands full just helping their ever-sagging pride back up from the ground.  They feel that they cannot withdraw themselves from their disagreeable sensations without inducing a waste and a void in their soul, and this conflict-ridden condition is more harrowing than the disagreeable sensations themselves.
Thinking does not mean going completely numb; it means letting one’s disagreeable sensations rage with all their violence and feeling that one has enough strength to investigate the nature of these sensations and therefore to place oneself above and beyond them.  To juxtapose these sensations with earlier ones and to weigh them against one another, to arrange them and survey them.  Only then can one say that one feels—and once such a struggle has been weathered and survived, a human being, or that human being’s spirit, acquires a solidity that becomes for him or it the guarantor of the eternal duration and indestructibility of his or its existence.  Hence, one is happy only upon attaining the conviction that one has oneself to thank for this happiness.
It is thus, I am inclined to say, that the soul shapes itself and in so doing also shapes its future condition.  Thus does it acquire knowledge of its own relation to things—and concurrently discover the utility and applicability of these things to the improvement of its external condition.  Thus does it isolate itself from the mechanically active multitude of created beings and become a creator in its own right, thus does it involve itself in the world only in so far as it deems this serviceable to its intentions; as its strength grows, so does its voluntary participation in the world, its proportional involvement therein, its subsequent radius of creativity and efficacy.  Thus all our autonomy, all our existence, is founded upon the multitude, the circumference, the truth, of our feelings and experiences, and upon the strength with which we have endured them, in other words, thought about them, or, what amounts to the same thing, become conscious of them.
But our independence is even more evident in our acts than in our thoughts, for whereas in thinking I accept my situation, my relation to things, and my feelings as they are, in acting I change them to suit my pleasure.  Therefore, if I am to become completely autonomous I must perform a great many acts, which means frequently changing my sensations and experiences.  When these acts have been performed in accordance with certain laws of universal harmony, we term them good; in the opposite case, we say that they are evil.  But this harmony is easier to feel than to define.  For whose intellect is sufficiently pregnant—and what kind of path must it have followed—to attain it?  Evil acts are immediately recognizable as such in virtue of the distressing feelings that they occasion, feelings which, although he can prevent them from assuming a distinct form, a human being cannot eradicate completely.
Christ lived according to a plan to become a universal legislator; he lived in order to suffer and to die.  His feelings must have been inexpressible; he had placed himself at a vantage point from which he could concentrate the misery of an entire world on himself and see through it.  But only a deity could do such a thing--
He acted; he changed his position, but while moving ever deeper downwards, until he finally reached the deepest place of all—ignominious death.  He felt everything tender that is perceivable by human nature in an intense reverence of men, the purest feminine love, the most perfect divine grace, the grace with which he was conjoined—but he also felt all the frightening and horrifying things of which human nature can have an inkling in ingratitude, neglect, the fiercest hatred, envy, and a vengefulness directed at an entire world outside himself, a vengefulness that was never sated by death, but wished to plunder life after death, the reverential memento of the hereafter—I cannot limn this nightmarish picture; the paintbrush is unsteady in my trembling hands, and my eyes are failing me.
That is the picture that we see; I must disclose to you a different one, a picture that can become visible only to the eye of an angel.  That was the suffering human individual; I must show you the suffering deity.  He whose gaze permeated the most secret recesses of every human heart and then took up their misery and sheltered it in its bosom.  Whose divine commiseration penetrated the entire fabric of every human soul and raged and feared with the Pharisees, repined and despaired with Iscariot.  And how poorly the exegetes understand the story of the passion and the meaning and the pathos of the words: but one of you is a devil!  Jesus Christ how unrecognized is thy divine form among men, the form of a lowly, despised, downtrodden menial—a deity could never manifest himself in any other form.
A servant to all—and yet a man betrayed—and yet sympathetic to his betrayer—so much so that this sympathy constituted the greatest of his sufferings.
Then to maintain his autonomy, in the midst of death itself, which rounds out everything in ignominy, to cry out with the serenest defiance: It is finished—and so into thine hands I commend my spirit.
Lord, would that thou might never again expose us to such trials; they exceed our human powers.  Our pride, our pride, the only good that thou hast given us that we might bring ourselves near to thee by our own efforts—we cannot sacrifice it so utterly, at the very least we would cry out for the hereafter.  All martyrs have died illustrious deaths; Christ alone died an opprobrious one.   To die convicted as a seducer, as a rebel who gave every outward sign of actually being one, without being able to offer a plea in his own defense, without being able to champion his exalted future destiny—this could be done only by a human being thoroughly imbued with divinity, that divinity that needs no champion and that we champion only for the sake of increasing our own happiness.     
At the same time he wished to give us a symbol, a symbol composed of all the qualities of a perfect human being and demonstrating to us that such a paragon can grow and endure only by feeling every conceivable sort of misery and commiseration.  For his resurrection and ascension were but sequels of that same plan of suffering and acting.
The most exalted of all afflictions one can suffer is contempt.  No mortal man or woman’s suffering can exceed the suffering of Christ when he was hauled into confinement and punished as a public menace even while his head was valued at a mere thirty pieces of silver.  To be taken not on the feast day, but rather in total silence and as if not a cur or cockerel thought the event worth crowing about.  To be snuffed out like some creeping weed though a deity who discerned within himself the power and a calling to bring about revolutions throughout the earth.  Thus was his lot from the beginning under King Herod, and thus was his lot throughout his life, and such is the fate of all the righteous.  A villain at least enjoys the satisfaction of being talked about; even if he ends his life in disgrace and dishonor, he knows that numerous people dread him and are summoning up everything they have to oppose him, whereas Christ struck the Pharisees as worthy of only the most trifling expenditure—and his own friend and disciple, and hence his adorer, betrayed him for this pittance.  Bethink yourselves of the heart that was compelled to feel this.


THE END





  1. Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (born 1751, died 1792), Über die Natur unsers Geistes (Lenz, Werke und Briefe, ed. Sigrid Damm, 1st edn, 3 vols (Frankfurt/Main: Insel Verlag, 2005), ii, pp. 619-624).
  2. In German: Ich weiß nicht der Gedanke ein Produkt der Natur zu sein,... allows an ambiguity in reading: thought could be the product of nature, but the self, the ‘I’ as well. The latter version was chosen as it makes more sense in the context of the next paragraphs. [This note is by flowerville, whom I thank for pointing me to Lenz’s wonderful sermon and advising me extensively on its translation.]

Translation  Copyright ©2016 by Douglas Robertson

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?”

“What…?”

“With Magdalena…”

“Ah...it 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…

THE END

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