German

Literature

Excerpts from The Voice Imitator (Fiction)

Excerpts from The Voice Imitator
Thomas Bernhard

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THE TABLES TURNED

Even though I have always hated zoological gardens and actually find that my suspicions are aroused by people who visit zoological gardens, I still could not avoid going out to Schönbrunn on one occasion and, at the request of my companion, a professor of theology, standing in front of the monkeys’ cage to look at the monkeys, which my companion fed with some food he had brought with him for the purpose. The professor of theology, an old friend of mine from the university, who had asked me to go Schönbrunn with him had, as time went on, fed all the food he had brought with him to the monkeys, when suddenly the monkeys, for their part, scratched together all the food that had fallen to the ground and offered it to us through the bars. The professor of theology and I were so startled by the monkeys’ sudden behavior that in a flash we turned on our heels and left Schönbrunn through the nearest exit.

HOTEL WALDHAUS

We had no luck with the weather and the guests at our table were repellent in every respect. They even spoiled Nietzsche for us. Even after they had had a fatal car accident and had been laid out in the church in Sils, we still hated them.

AT THEIR MERCY

In order to save his wife’s life—she had a lung ailment—the man who went by the name of Ofner, the parish man-of-all-work and sexton, bought jointly with his wife, and as our doctor had advised him to, a small piece of wooded land in our neighborhood, high enough up to be out of the mists and in good clean air, and the two of them, after several years’ work—supported, of course, by the parish and their immediate neighbors—had built a small house on the property. When, however, the house was finished, Ofner fell ill, because building the house had really been too much for him, and died within a short time. His widow, for whom, after all, the house at the edge of the wood had been intended and who, even after her husband’s death, was visibly recovering from her lung ailment, had to get herself a dog, because, of course, now that she was alone, she was afraid. The dog barked at everyone who came within two hundred feet of her house, and as time went by, no one dared to go near it. For years the woman endured being on her own with the dog and without people, when suddenly, in a flash, she could no longer stand the situation and went out and bludgeoned the dog—who had served her so faithfully all the years—to death with a so-called Sappel, which loggers use for hauling logs, and threw herself on the mercy of her fellow human beings.

THE MILKMAID

Last week we witnessed the spectacle of five cows running, one after the other, into the express train in which we had to return to Vienna and of seeing them cut all to pieces. After the track had been cleared by the train crew and even by the driver, who came along with a pickax, the train proceeded after a delay of about forty minutes. Looking out of the window I caught sight of the milkmaid as she ran screaming towards a farmyard in the dusk.

TWO NOTES

In the large reading room of the Salzburg University library, the librarian hanged himself from the large chandelier because, as he wrote in a suicide note, after twenty-two years of service he could no longer bear to reshelve and lend out books that were only written for the sake of wreaking havoc, and this, he said, applied to every book that had ever been written. This reminded me of my grandfather’s brother who was the huntsman in charge of the forest district of Altentann near Hennsdorf and who shot himself on the summit of the Zifanken because he could no longer bear human misery. He too left this insight of his in a note.

NO SOUL

As long as doctors in hospitals are interested only in bodies and not in the soul, of which apparently they know next to nothing, we are bound to call hospitals institutions not only of public law but also of public murder and to call the doctors murderers and their accomplices. After a so-called amateur scholar from Ottnang am Hausruck, who had been admitted to the Vöcklabruck hospital because of a so-called curious condition, had been given a thorough physical examination, he had asked—as he states in a letter to the medical journal Der Arzt (The Doctor)—And what about my soul? To which the doctor who had been examining his body replied, Be quiet!


Read more about The Voice Imitator, by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Kenneth J. Northcott.

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Literature

The Autopsy (Short Story)

The Autopsy

by Georg Heym

The dead man lay alone and naked on a white table in the big room, in the oppressive whiteness, the cruel sobriety of the operating theatre, where the cries of endless torments still seemed to tremble.

The midday sun covered him, and awakened the death-spots on his forehead; it conjured a bright green out of his naked belly and blew it up like a big water-bag.

His body was like a giant shimmering calyx, a mysterious plant from the Indian jungles, which someone had nervously laid at the altar of death.

Splendid red and blue colours grew along his loins, and in the heat the big wound under his navel slowly split like a furrow, releasing a terrible odour.

The doctors came in. Two friendly men in white coats with duelling scars and golden pince-nez.

They approached the dead man, and looked him over with interest, talking in scientific terms.

The took their dissecting equipment out of the white cupboards, white boxes full of hammers, bone-saws with strong teeth, files, gruesome batteries of forceps, small sets of giant needles like crooked vultures’ beaks forever screaming for flesh.

The began their ghastly handiwork, looking like fearsome torturers, with blood streaming over their hands. They delved ever deeper into the cold corpse, and brought forth its inside like white cooks disembowelling a goose.

The intestines wound around their arms, greenish-yellow snakes, and the excrement dripped onto their coats, a warm, foul fluid. They punctured the bladder; the cold urine shimmered inside like yellow wine. They poured it into large bowls; it had a sharp, biting stench like ammonia.

But the dead man slept. He patiently allowed himself to be torn at and pulled about by the hair, this way and that; he slept.

And while the hammer-blows rang down on his head, a dream awakened in him, a remnant of love which shone into his light like a torch.

Outside the big window, a great wide sky opened up, filled with little clouds swimming in light in the stillness of the afternoon, like small white gods. And the swallows circled high above in the blue, shimmering in the warm July sun.

The black blood of death ran over the blue decay of his forehead. It evaporated in the heat into a horrible cloud, and the dissolution of death crawled with its gaudy claws all over him. His skin began to fall apart. His belly grew as white as that of an eel under the greedy fingers of the doctors who dipped their arms elbow-deep in his wet flesh.

Decay pulled the dead man’s mouth apart, he seemed to be smiling; he was dreaming of a glorious star, a sweet-smelling summer evening. His decomposing lips trembled, as if touched by a fleeting kiss.

“How I love you! I have loved you so much. Shall I tell you how I love you? As you moved through the fields of poppies, yourself a flame-red fragrant poppy, the whole evening was swallowed up in you. And your dress, which billowed around your ankles, was like a wave of fire in the setting sun. But your head bent in the light, and your hair was still burning and flaming from all my kisses.

“So you went on your way, turning all the time to look at me. And the lantern swayed in your hand like a glowing rose far off into the twilight.

“I shall see you again tomorrow. Here under the chapel window, here where the candlelight falls from within, turning your hair into a golden wood, here where the narcissi brush your ankles like delicate kisses.

“I shall see you again every evening at twilight. We shall never leave each other. How I love you! Shall I tell you how I love you?”

And the dead man trembled softly with happiness on his white table, while the iron chisels in the doctors’ hands broke open his temples.


This story is an excerpt from The Thief and Other Stories, by Georg Heym.

Georg Heym (1887–1912) was the son of a Prussian military lawyer and rebelled against his conservative family to become one of the outstanding poets of the Expressionist generation in Germany. His first volume of poetry, Der ewige Tag, was published in 1911 to great acclaim. In January 1912 Georg Heym drowned when he fell through the ice while skating on the Havel river in Berlin.

Susan Bennett is a freelance filmmaker, writer, and translator.

Literature

The Book of Friends (aphorisms)

From The Book of Friends

by Hugo von Hofmannsthal

translated by Douglas Robertson

Of all the passions, the one we are most ignorant of is indolence: although its violence is imperceptible, it is the most ardent and the most cunning of all of them. — La Rochefoucauld*

There are not two people on earth who could not be rendered mortal enemies through a devilishly contrived indiscretion.

The consoler brags lightly.

The problem of family life consists in this: that the legal presence of people of diverse characters and ages is bound to become essentially a collective presence thanks to their shared mode of living.

Beloved people are sketches of possible paintings.

There is nothing more uncommon in the world than will, and yet the meager quantum of will allotted to human beings suffices to overturn all their judgments.

All fashionable vices pass for virtues. — Molière

The social world can and may be understood only allegorically. In this way the entire social world of the modern age (from La Bruyère and Madame Sévigné onwards) may be comprehended as a single great mythology.

There are as many individuals as there are encounters.

The renunciation of a mistress bespeaks a flagging imagination.

Every significant new acquaintance takes us apart and puts us back together. It is of the greatest significance, so we undergo a regeneration.

Visitors to Athens, after a few days spent in familiar conversation with Plato, ask him to lead them to his namesake, the famous philosopher.

The greatest things need only be spoken simply: they are spoiled by emphasis. The most trivial must be spoken nobly: they endure only by means of expression, tone, and manner. — La Bruyère

Children are amusing because they are easy to amuse.

In superior human beings there are a productive and an unproductive form of indolence, and they flow together into a region that eludes the eye, a region seemingly without clear borders.

What love stimulates in fits and starts is plastic energy. Hence in love as in art are there so many abandoned rough drafts that lack the energy needed for their completion.

What one does simply is simple to do. — Wladimir Ghika

Vocal music is miraculous because it consists in domesticating what is by default an organ of unbridled egoism: the human voice.

[…]

Depth must be concealed. Where? On the surface.

The world tolerates scoundrels, but only extraordinary people satisfy it.
The in-between are in a difficult position and bear a bad conscience easily.

Simple characters, not complex ones, are hard to understand.

The most dangerous of our prejudices prevail within ourselves against ourselves. Their dissolution is the creative act.

Reality is unchangingly near.

The most dangerous adversary of strength is weakness.

It takes a whole life to perceive how thingishly, objectively, things behave; and how humanly, subjectively, human beings do.

It was not through the categorical imperative, which is always on everybody’s lips, that Kant exerted such a powerful influence on generation after generation, but rather through his criticism, in which the shyness, the worldlessness, of the Germans found its abstract expression.

Forms enliven and kill.

Even this is an element of inner freedom; the youth in us must be swept away by the grown man, the grown man by the old one, the maiden by the woman of middle age: there is only one priest at the shrine.

All that is living is fluid, but fluidity is not the form of life. — Rudolf Pannwitz

Even the perception of differences between ourselves and others requires a moment of elevation.

There is an enthusiasm arising from weakness and another arising from strength; the first is akin to sentimentality, the second is opposite from it.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. — William Blake

* Hugo von Hofmannsthal quoted the French aphorisms in their original language.


Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), an Austrian writer of the late empire and the first republic, began his literary career as an accomplished lyric poet much influenced by French symbolism and Jugendstil (the German name for art nouveau). In English-speaking countries he is best known for his later activity as the librettist of six of Richard Strauss’s operas and the author of The Lord Chandos Letter (1902), an anti-poetics of modernism in the form of a fictional letter to the founder of modern empirical science, Francis Bacon. Like The Lord Chandos Letter, The Book of Friends takes the early modern period as its starting point: its title is a literal translation of album amicorum, the name for a kind of scrapbook in which young gentlemen of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries would collect signatures, witticisms, and other mementos from people they met on their travels. The friends in Hofmannsthal’s album amicorum are writers that he has come to know in his years as a reader; in terms of geographical and historical distance they range from Confucius and Plato to his fellow-Austrian Franz Grillparzer and his contemporary André Gide. He intersperses quotations from their works with his own typically cagey but often insinuatingly incisive aphorisms. The juxtaposition of such a diverse collection of thinkers under the conceptual auspices of friendship can be either encouraging or disquieting, depending on whether one views Hofmannsthal’s inescapable implication that the human world has always been a highly bewildering place in a positive or a negative light.

Douglas Robertson is a writer who lives in Baltimore, Maryland.  His translations of other texts, including many of the works of Thomas Bernhard, may be read at his blog, The Philosophical Worldview Artist. His complete translation of The Book of Friends can be found here.