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