Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The last of Felix Krull

By contrast, his hands, with which he was sorting the papers into orderly piles of equal size, were astonishingly small and delicate in proportion to his over-all bulk. Despite his size there was nothing awkward about him; on the contrary, as sometimes happens with corpulent people, he possessed a certain elegance of movement. "So you are the young man," he said in German with a slight Swiss accent, still busily sorting his papers, "who was recommended to me by a friend—Krull, if I am not mistaken—c'est Fa—the young man who wishes to work for us?" "Exactly as you say, Herr Generaldirektor," I replied, discreetly drawing somewhat closer—and as I did so I observed, not for the first time nor the last, a strange phenomenon. When he looked me in the eye his face was contorted by an expression of revulsion which, as I understood perfectly well, was simply a consequence of my youthful beauty. By this I mean that those men whose interest is wholly concentrated on women, as was no doubt Monsieur Stiirzli's case, what with his enterprising imperial and his gallant embonpoint, when they encounter what is sensually attractive in a person of their own sex are often curiously embarrassed by their own impulses. This is due to the fact that the boundary line be-tween the sensual in its most general and in its more specific sense is not easy to draw; constitutionally, however, these men are revolted at any hint of correspondence between this spe-cific sense and their own desires; the result is just this reaction, this grimace of revulsion. Any sort of serious consequence is, of course, out of the question, for the person involved will po-litely assume the blame for the wavering of this sensual bound-ary rather than hold it against the innocent who made him conscious of it. He will therefore not attempt to avenge his embarrassment. Nor did Monsieur Starzli do so in this in-stance, especially since, confronted by his confusion, I low-ered my eyelashes in sincere and decorous modesty. On the contrary, he became very sociable and inquired: "Well, how are things with my old friend, your uncle Schimmelpreester?" "Pardon me, Herr Generaldirektor," I replied, "he is not my uncle, but my godfather, which is perhaps even closer. Thank you for inquiring, everything is going very well with my godfather so far as I know. He enjoys the highest reputa-tion as an artist in the whole Rhineland and even beyond." "Yes, yes, a gay old dog, a sly fellow," he said. "Really? Is he successful? Eh biers, all the better. A gay dog. We had good times together here in the old days." "I don't need to say," I continued, "how thankful I am to Professor Schimmelpreester for putting in a good word for me with you, Herr Generaldirektor." "Yes, he did that. What, is he Professor too? How is that? Mais passons. He wrote me about you and I did not disregard the matter, because in the old days we had so many larks to-gether. But I must tell you, my friend, there are difficulties. What are we to do with you? You obviously have not the slightest experience in hotel work. You are as yet entirely un-trained—" "Without presumption I think I can say in advance," I replied, "that a certain natural adroitness will very quickly make up for my lack of training." "Well," he remarked in a teasing tone, "your adroitness no doubt shows itself mainly with pretty women." In my opinion he said this for three reasons. First of all, the Frenchman—and Herr Starzli had long been that—loves to pronounce the phrase "pretty women" for his own gratifica-tion as well as that of others. "Une jolie femme" is the most popular raillery in that country; with it one can be sure of a gay and sympathetic response. It is much the same as men-tioning beer in Munich. There one has only to pronounce the word to produce general high spirits. This in the first place. Secondly, and looking more deeply, in talking about pretty women and joking about my presumed skill with them, Stiirzli wanted to subdue the confusion of his instincts, be rid of me in a certain sense, and, as it were, push me toward the female side. This I understood perfectly well. In the third place, however—in opposition, it must be admitted, to the above effort—it was his intention to make me smile, which could only lead to his experiencing that same confusion again. Obviously, in a muddled way, that was just what he wanted. The smile, however restrained, was something I could not refuse him and I accompanied it with the following words: "Assuredly in this domain, as in every other, I stand far behind you, Herr G-eneraldirektor." My pretty speech was wasted. He did not hear it at all, but simply looked at my smile, and his face once more bore a look of revulsion. This is what he had wanted, and there was nothing for me to do but to lower my eyes once more in decorous modesty. And once again he did not make me pay for it. "That's all very well, young mat," he said

and

As for the diversions after the coffee hour, I entertained my-self, for a trivial entrance fee, in looking at a magnificent panorama representing the Battle of Austerlitz with a full sweep of landscape, including burning villages, and teeming with Russian, Austrian, and French troops. It was so admirably executed that one could hardly perceive the division between what was only painted and the actual objects in the fore-ground, discarded weapons and knapsacks and the puppet fig-ures of fallen warriors. On a hill, surrounded by his staff, the Emperor Napoleon was observing the strategic situation through a spyglass. Exalted by this sight, I visited still another spectacle, a panopticon, where to your terrified delight you encounter at every turn potentates, famous swindlers, artists crowned by fame, and notorious murderers of women, and expect at every instant to hear them call you by name. The Abbe Liszt, with long white hair and the most natural-looking wart on his face, was sitting at a grand piano, his foot on the pedals, his eyes directed toward Heaven, reaching for the keys with waxen fingers, while near by General Bazaine held a re-volver to his temple but did not fire. These were exciting im-pressions for a young mind, but, despite Liszt and Bazaine, my powers of assimilation were not exhausted. Evening had fallen during my adventures; as she had done the day before, Paris adorned herself with light, with colourful flashing signs, and after a little wandering about I spent an hour and a half in a variety theatre, where sea lions balanced lighted oil lamps on their noses

and

 He was fond of me; I liked him well enough and was glad of his company in cafes and places of entertainment, though his presence was hardly distinguished. In ordinary clothes he had a comical, ambiguously exotic appearance, for his taste ran to large checks and bright colours, and no doubt he looked far better in the white apron and high white linen chef's hat of his calling. It is a common mistake: the working-class ought never to attempt to be fashionable, at least by bourgeois standards. They do it awkwardly and it damages them in the eyes of the public. More than once I have heard my godfather Schimmel-preester express himself on this subject, and Stanko's appearance reminded me of his words. The abasement of the people, he said, through their acceptance of fashion, which was a re-sult of the standardization of the world through bourgeois taste, was much to be regretted. The holiday attire of the peasantry and the former pomp and circumstance of the artisans' guilds had been far finer spectacles than some plumf maid trying to play the lady on Sunday in feathered hat anc train, not to mention the party clothes of the factory worker awkwardly striving to be fashionable. Since, however, th( time was over and done when the classes were distinguished from one another by mutual respect, he was for a society in which there were no more classes at all, neither maid no] lady, neither fine gentleman nor commoner, and all wore the same thing. Golden words, spoken as though out of my own soul. What, I thought, would I have against shirt, breeches, belt, and nothing more? It would become me, and Stanko too would look better thus than in his clumsy approximation of fashion. Almost anything is becoming to a human being except the perverse, the stupid, and the half-baked. So much by way of marginal comment. It was with Stanko then, that I visited for a time the cabarets and terrace cafes, including the Cafe de Madrid, where a colourful and instructive
society gathered after the theatres closed. But one special gala evening we spent at the Stoudebecker Circus, which had just opened in Paris for a few weeks' run. A word or two about that—or perhaps more! I should never forgive myself if I passed over such an experience without imparting to it some of the colour it so richly possessed. This famous institution had pitched its vast round tent on the Square Saint-Jacques near the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt and the Seine. The attendance was tremendous, since the performance obviously equalled or perhaps excelled the best in this field that had ever been offered the knowledgeable and highly exacting taste of the Parisian public. What an attack on the senses and nerves, what sensuous delight, in fact, lies in the uninterrupted succession of scenes as the fantastic pro-gram unrolls! Exploits that lie at the extreme limits of human prowess are achieved with bright smiles and lightly thrown kisses; their basic pattern is the salto mortale, for they all in-volve the fatal risk of a broken neck. Schooled to grace at moments of utmost daring, the performers are accompanied by the flourishes of a music appropriate enough in its common-placeness to the physical character of the performance but not to the extreme heights to which it is raised; it is this that fur-nishes the breath-taking build-up for the last not-to-be-accomplished act—which nevertheless is accomplished. With a brief nod (for the circus has no use for bows) the artist acknowledges the ecstatic applause of the massed on-lookers. This is a unique audience, confusingly and excitingly compounded of the sensation-seeking crowd and the rude ele-gance of the horsy world. Cavalry officers in the loges, their caps at an angle; young rakes, freshly shaved, wearing mono-cles, a carnation or a chrysanthemum in the buttonholes of their loose yellow topcoats; cocottes, mingling with inquisitive ladies from the fashionable faubourgs, accompanied by knowl-edgeable cavaliers in grey frock coats and grey top hats, their field glasses slung in sporting fashion around their necks as though at a race at Longchamp.

and

While the earth wheeled around the sun, the earth and its moon wheeled around each other, and at the same time our whole local solar system moved... this gravitating system in turn wheeled with almost vulgar velocity within the Milky Way which was travelling with unimaginable rapidity in respect to its far away sisters and they the most distant distant existing complexes, were, in addition to all their other velocities, flying away from one another, at a rate that would make an exploding shell seem motionless—flying away in all directions into Nothingness, thereby in their headlong career projecting into it space and time. This interdependent whirling and circling, this convolution of gases into heavenly bodies, this burning, flaming, freezing, exploding, pulverizing, this plunging and speeding, bred out of Nothingness and awaking Nothingness—which would per-haps have preferred to remain asleep and was waiting to fall asleep again—all this was Being, known also as Nature, and everywhere in everything it was one. I was not to doubt that all Being, Nature itself, constituted a unitary system from the simplest inorganic element to Life at its liveliest, to the woman with the shapely arm and to the figure of Hermes. Our human brain, our flesh and bones, these were mosaics made up of the same elementary particles as stars and star dust and the dark clouds hanging in the frigid wastes of interstellar space. Life, which had been called forth from Being just as Being had been from Nothingness—Life, this fine flower of Being—consisted of the same raw material as inanimate Nature. It had nothing new to show that belonged to it alone. One could not even say it was unambiguously distinguishable from simple Being. The boundary line between it and the inanimate world was indis-tinct. Plant cells aided by sunlight possessed the power of transforming the raw material of the mineral kingdom so that it came to life in them. Thus the spontaneous generative power of the green leaf provided an example of the emergence of the organic from the inorganic. Nor was the opposite process lacking, as in the formation of stones from silicic acid of animal origin. Future cliffs were composed in the depths of the sea out of the skeletons of tiny creatures. In the crystal-lization of liquids with the illusory appearance of life, Nature was quite evidently playfully crossing the line from one do-main into the other. Always when Nature produced the de-ceptive appearance of the organic in the inorganic—in sulphur flowers, for instance, or ice ferns—she was trying to teach us that she was one. The organic world itself had no clear divisions within it. The animal kingdom verged on the vegetable when it ac-quired a stem and circular symmetry like a flower; the vege-table on the animal when it caught animals and ate them in-stead of deriving its nourishment from the mineral kingdom. Man had emerged from the animal kingdom by descent, as people said, but in truth through the addition of something that was as impossible to define as the essence of Life or the origin of Being. And the point at which he had become a man and was no longer an animal, or no longer simply an animal, was hard to determine. Man retained his animal nature just as Life retained what was inorganic; for in its ultimate building-blocks, the atoms, it passed into what was no longer organic or not yet organic. Moreover, in its innermost sanctuary, in the invisible atom, matter took refuge in the immaterial, the no longer corporeal; for what was in motion there, the constituent parts of the atom, were almost below Being, since they occupied no definite position in space and did not have a de-finable mass as any reasonable body should. Being was formed from Not-Yet-Being and passed into Hardly-Still-Being. Nature in all its forms, from the earliest, simplest, almost immaterial, to the most highly evolved and liveliest, had al-ways remained collective and its forms continued to exist side by side—star cloud, stone, worm, and Man. The fact that many animal species had died out, that there were no more flying saurians and no more mammoths, did not interfere with the fact that contemporaneous with Man the original animal went on existing in unaltered form, the unicellular infusorian, the microbe, with one opening in its cell body for ingestion and another for egestion—no more was required to be an animal, and not much more to be a human being either, in most cases.

and

 without doubt there was progress, from Pithecanthropus erectus to Newton and Shakespeare had been a long and definitely upward path. But as with the rest of Nature, so too in the world of men everything was always present at the same time, every condition of culture and morality, everything from the earliest to the latest, from the silliest to the wisest, from the most primitive, sodden, barbaric to the highest and most delicately evolved—all this continued to exist side by side in the world, yes, often indeed the finest tired of itself and became infatuated with the primitive and sank drunkenly into barbarism. But no more of that. He would, however, give Man and me, the Marquis de Venosta, our due and not conceal what it was that distinguished Homo sapiens from all the rest of Nature, the organic and simple Being both, and which very likely was identical with the thing that had been added when Man emerged from the animal kingdom. It was the knowledge of Beginning and End. I had pronounced what was most char-acteristically human when I had said that the fact of Life's being only an episode predisposed me in its favour. Transitoriness did not destroy value, far from it; it was exactly what lent all existence its worth, dignity, and charm. Only the epi-sodic, only what possessed a beginning and an end, was inter-esting and worthy of sympathy because transitoriness had given it a soul. But that was true of everything—the whole of cosmic Being had been given a soul by transitoriness, and the only thing that was eternal, soulless, and therefore unworthy of sympathy, was that Nothingness out of which it had been called forth to labour and to rejoice. Being was not Well-Being; it was joy and labour, and all Being in space-time, all matter, partook if only in deepest sleep in this joy and this labour, this perception that disposed Man, possessor of the most awakened consciousness, to universal sympathy. "To universal sympathy," Kuckuck repeated, brac-ing his hands on the table as he got up and nodding to me as he looked at me with his starlike eyes. "Good night, Marquis de Venosta," he said. "We are, I observe, the last people in the dining-car. It is time to go to bed. Permit me to hope that I shall see you again in Lisboa. If you like, I will be your guide through my museum. Sleep soundly. Dream of Being and of Life. Dream of the whirling galaxies which, since they are there, bear with joy the labour of their existence. Dream of the shapely arm with its ancient armature of bones, and of the flowers of the field that are able, aided by the sun, to break up lifeless matter and incorporate it into their living bodies. And don't forget to dream of stone, of a mossy stone in a mountain brook that has lain for thou-sands upon thousands of years cooled, bathed, and scoured by foam and flood. Look upon its existence with sympathy, Being at its most alert gazing upon Being in its profoundest sleep, and salute it in the name of Creation! All's well when Being and -Well-Being are in some measure reconciled. A very good night!"

and finally
 Maria Pia's husband provided us with a learned commentary on what we had just seen—I, for the first time. He spoke of a very ancient Roman shrine whose existence testified to a deep descent from the high cult level of Christianity to the service of a deity well disposed toward blood whose worship, through the wide popularity of the rites, almost outstripped that of the Lord Jesus as a world religion. Its converts had been baptized not with water, but with the blood of a bull, who was perhaps the god himself, though the god lived too in the one who spilled his blood. For this teach-ing contained something that united its believers irrevocably, joining them in life and in death; and its mystery consisted in the equality and identity of slayer and slain, axe and victim, arrow and target. . . . I listened to all this with only half an ear, only in so far as it did not interfere with my absorption in the woman whose image and being had been so vastly enhanced by the folk festival, who had, as it were, been truly and completely herself for the first time, ripe for observation. Her bosom was now at rest. I longed to see it surge again. I will not conceal the fact that Zouzou had gone completely out of my mind during the game of blood. For this reason I was all the more determined to follow her instructions at last and, for God's sake, to show her the pictures that she claimed as her own—those nude studies of Zaza with Zouzou's curls at the temples. I had been invited to the Kuckucks' for lunch the following day. A shower during the night had cooled the air; a light coat was in order, and in the inside pocket I put the roll of drawings. Hurtado, too, was there. At table the conversation turned on yesterday's spectacle, and to please the professor I inquired further about the religion that had been driven from the field, the cult that marked a long step down from Christianity. He could not add much, but answered that those rites had not been so completely driven from the field, for the smoking blood of a victim—the god's blood, that is—had always been a part of the pious, popular ceremonials of mankind, and he sketched a connection between the sacrament of communion and the festal, fatal drama of the day before.

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