The Story of a Man Who Left Home to See the World
From his grandfather Crook had inherited a roving spirit, a savage vagrancy of the soul. This old man, who in the end had asphyxiated in agony and disintegrated in wisdom, had done a good deal of rambling in his time. As a youngster he had left behind the family’s wood-frame house, had gone out into the world, like many of his kind at the turn of the century, had seen Germany and France, had disembarked at the island of Lacroma, had eaten fish in Kotor, and had watched a couple of bullfights in Spain. He didn’t come back until the thirties. At the time his sister was still living; she looked after the house and attended to her business affairs. She sold flour and butter. On Sundays her little white apron fluttered through the verdure of her garden; her spectral laughter suffused its paths, and when her brother came home from his military expedition through the tumbledown mess that was the world, she threw her arms around his neck and cried, “Why if it isn’t the old crook himself! Have you written down everything you’ve seen?”
From that day on he led a sedentary existence. He wrote about his experiences in thick office notebooks and took long walks. He would sit down on the hunter’s platform past the last houses in the village, towards the peat bog, and there, according to him, he let Paris and Le Havre, London, and Copenhagen, the great cities of the world, their light-shafts of dead-end human stories, come to life and assume colossal dimensions before his big, aged eyes; he beheld the double-decker buses of the British metropolis, the towers of Paris, the broad sinuous sweep of the Thames, and the melancholy scintillation of the Seine. On that day, at the hour when he realized that he would never again manage to travel beyond the white mountain range, he started growing old. He spent his time sitting, when it was summer on the hunter’s platform and in the winter in the downstairs parlor before the fire, his legs swathed in a coarse wool blanket. As the red and blue flames crept into the empty spaces of night, and Anna, his wife, brewed coffee, the old man would think back on his wanderings, on the bundle he had carried on his back all his life, on the trades he had plied between Vienna and the westernmost tip of Ireland.
On long evenings, Crook would squat down on the floor of the parlor, and his grandfather would tell him stories. It was like being with one of the poets; you could have written down every word as it fell from his lips; his tales could have been turned into noble books, books full of adventure, full of wisdom and sympathy with the hungry muzzle of humankind.
“Son,” said the old man to his grandson, “take off! Go out into the world and forget where you came from! Immerse yourself in the crowds of people; roam like a dog among the legs of your fellow-citizens and try to turn that massive agglomeration into an experience!
His grandson opened wide his mouth and tried to make sense of the old man’s words. He was talking about the cities of light, about the great double smokestacks of ocean liners.
“A person who stays at home and feeds on nothing but milk and butter is a person who has gone to seed. One must see things in order to be able to nullify them; likewise, one must see things in order to be able to glorify them.”
These words emerged as if from the fires of hell itself.
“What is worrying me,” said the old man, who was sitting in his armchair, “is my uncertainty as to whether you will ever get a hankering to see Pompeii, the sunken city. Have you ever had a hankering to see Pompeii?”
And his grandson asked: “Where is Pompeii?” And his eyes blazed and stood out against the nocturnal background like those of a cat, and the old man shifted his position in the armchair and spread his fingers across his crown of white hair.
“Pompeii is the pinnacle of the ancient world!”
Then he leaned back, and he looked as though he were sleeping, as though by some miracle he were sleeping above the warm earth. He repeated the monumental name “Pompeii” a couple of times; then his grandson sensed that his chest was contracting and that his heart was beginning to yearn exultingly for Pompeii, for the pinnacle of the ancient world.
From that day on Crook was forever standing at the highest point in the village and gazing down at the town below. A human being must gaze down at the things below him in order to be a proper human being. The confusion of rooftops, the towers, the smoke that ascended from the red and gray chimneys, the blue gases that puffed out into the afternoon air, the gardens and the smokestacks of the distant cellulose factory; all of this had been sucked dry, and every human being, every animal and tree, every flower, and the sky itself had long since taken shape in the young man.
“I prophesy the downfall of every man who shies away from going to the corners of the earth. He is damned. It is not beauty alone that has been created for the sake of filling out the edifice that surrounds us. There are also pools, muddy waters, that have been provided so that we might seek out everything—the parlors of poor people, the apartment buildings, in the morning and in the evening, bridges and rivers, the currents, the cataracts that sling us into a different life!”
Old Crook had set out on his wanderings with a single pair of shoes and a dirty coat and a pair of trousers with pockets that had been built to last a decade. There was not a single obstacle that he failed to surmount. He led an animalistic existence, so that he ended up dwelling at the edge of woodlands in the heart of England just like a wild, broken-winded horse, and living on birds and grass, on fish and berries. Additionally, he read a great many books and fashioned himself a firm personal philosophy. “He knows everything!” said the people after his homecoming. They were intimidated by the electricity of his bare brain.
And now, in the shade of the expiring day, the old man said: “Nobody can take what you know away from you! Knowledge is power—an old saying. Whoever knows nothing is a fool. And he’ll always be one! You must do something for your mind. It is not enough to lie in the grass, to keep your eyes open, to hearken to the music of the brook, to sing of cattle and proud billy goats. A human being must listen attentively and read and keep moving. He must behold at least one new landscape each day. If he fails to behold it, he will go to seed. A human being goes to seed quickly. Just take a look at the old asses that used to sit next to me in the schoolroom. What ever became of them?”
Then he turned proud and sat bolt upright: “One of them has been a butcher all his life! Another has built houses all his life! All his life he has been tasting lime, mortar, the nakedness of humankind! For forty years they have been standing behind the counter and pouring sugar into little blue paper bags, to say absolutely nothing of those who are dead and have long since forfeited their graves, because nobody is paying the rent on them anymore. Or do you want to end up like the crazy country policeman who sits in the poorhouse and slurps up soup, nothing but soup, every day, and who has his very bed-sheet snatched away from under his bare bottom by the caretakers? No, that is the wrong world! That is the rationality of the irrational! A human being lives only once, as briefly as nothing; his life melts on his tongue before he has even tasted it. If it were up to me, need, some form of bitter need, would force you to leave, naked and green as you are, to leave this safe little burg. It would be better for you to own nothing but your brain and to take off and roll across the country roads like a filthy ox, eliciting nothing but spit and nausea, than for you to own a shop and spend your life huddled over your best friend, your beer mug, until your sixtieth year! That town down there went to seed long ago. Damn it all, yes, I still remember the girls who used to put on a pastoral play in the parish priest’s rose garden. Where are those girls now? Where are they? They’re old; they have breasts; they’re insatiable; the voracity of starved lions peers out of their fleshy faces. Ah, if only they were like the lions! But they have nothing anymore! They feed their children—which isn’t something to be sneezed at, Crook!—they stand at their stoves so they can play at being mothers, and from New Year’s Day until Christmas Eve they think of nothing but tenderized beef.”
And this all made sense; this old man was no man in the way that any of Crook’s acquaintances were. The doctor invited him over to his house to learn something about the world from him. He, Crook’s grandfather, was the only person in town who subscribed to the English newspaper and the Cultural Supplement.
“Culture is the most important thing,” he said; “everything else is simply tedious. But perhaps you take an interest in cattle futures? I assuredly do not! If you are primarily interested in culture, you can count on being a happy human being. Hogs don’t make people happy. It’s better to opt for the verses of the poets—Shakespeare and Goethe, and Hofmannsthal. And to them you had better well add Emerson and good old Walt Whitman.”
Now, at this moment, he was immortal, as he grabbed his pipe, tamped down the tobacco with his thumb, and then, like a martyr, regally, gazed out the window of his wooden castle.
And they lived, these fortunate souls, who no longer had a house, or a stone, or a leaf, but merely a yearning for these things—for a house, a stone, a leaf in the wind.
Source: Thomas Bernhard, Werke 14, herausgegeben von [Works, Vol. 14, edited by] Hans Höller, Martin Huber und Manfred Mittermayer (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 511-515. Originally published in Morgen. Monatsschrift freier Akademiker [Vienna], March 1956, pp. 3f.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2017 by Douglas Robertson