Thursday, February 04, 2016
The Confessions of Felix Krull
His manner of speech was studied and impeccable, and below his silky black cassock peeped black silk socks and patent-leather shoes. Freemasons and antipapists maintained that he wore them simply because he suffered from sweaty, evil-smelling feet; but even today I consider that malicious gossip. Although I was as yet personally unknown to him, with a wave of his plump, white hand he invited me to sit down, shared his meal with me, and, in the manner of a man of the world, gave every indication of believing my report, which was to the effect that my poor father, in the process of examining a long unused gun, had been struck down by a shell that went off unex-pectedly. This, then, is what he gave the appearance of be-lieving, as a matter of policy, no doubt (for very likely in times like these the Church must rejoice when people sue for her gifts even deceitfully). He bestowed words of human comfort on me and declared himself ready to conduct the priestly rites of burial, the cost of which my godfather Schim-melpreester had nobly engaged to pay. His Reverence there-upon made some notes concerning the manner of life of the departed, which I was at pains to portray as both honourable and happy, and finally he directed to me certain questions about my own circumstances and prospects, which I answered in general and approximate terms. "My dear son," was the general tenor of his reply, "you seem hitherto to have con-ducted yourself somewhat carelessly. As yet, however, noth-ing is lost, for your personality makes a pleasing impression and I should like to praise you in particular for the agreeable quality of your voice. I should be much surprised if Fortuna did not prove gracious to you. I make it my business at all times to recognize those with bright prospects, such as have found favour in the eyes of God, for a man's destiny is writ-
ten on his brow in characters that are not indecipherable to the expert." And therewith he dismissed me. Cheered by the words of this clever man, I hastened back to my mother and sister to tell them the happy outcome of my mission. The funeral, I must, alas, admit, turned out to be less impressive than one might have hoped, for the participation of our fellow citizens was meagre in the extreme, a not surprising fact so far as our townspeople were concerned. But where were our other friends, who in his prosperous days had watched my poor father's fireworks and had done so well by his Berncasteler Doctor? They stayed away, less from ingrati-tude perhaps than simply because they were people who had no taste for those solemn occasions on which one's attention is directed toward the eternal, and avoided them as something upsetting, a course of action that certainly bespeaks an indif-ferent character. Among them all only Lieutenant -Ube', of the Second Nassau Regiment in Mainz, put in an appearance, though in civilian clothes, and it was thanks to him that my godfather Schimmelpreester and I were not the only ones to follow the swaying coffin to the grave. Nevertheless, the reverend gentleman's prophecy continued to ring in my ears, for it not only accorded completely with my own presentiments and impressions, but came from a source to which I could attribute particular authority in these arcane matters. To say why would be beyond most people's competence; I believe, however, that I can at least outline the reasons. In the first place, belonging to a venerable hierarchy like the Catholic clergy develops one's perception of the gradations of human worth to a far subtler degree than life in ordinary society can do. Now that ,this simple thought has been safely stated, I shall go a step further and in doing so I shall try to be consistent and logical. We are here talking about a perception and therefore about a function of our ma-terial nature. Now, the Catholic form of worship, in order to lead us to what lies beyond the world of the senses, takes special account of that world and works with it, takes it into con-sideration in every possible way, and more than any other explores its secrets. An ear accustomed to lofty music, to har-monies designed to arouse a presentiment of heavenly cho-ruses—should not such an ear be sensitive enough to detect na-tive nobility in a human voice? An eye familiar with the most gorgeous pomp of colour and form, prefiguring the majesty of the heavenly mansions—should not such an eye be especially quick to detect the signs of mysterious favour in charm and natural endowment? An organ of smell familiar with and taking pleasure in clouds of incense in houses of worship, an organ of smell that in former times would have perceived the lovely odour of sanctity—should it not be able to detect the immaterial yet nevertheless corporeal emanation of a child of fortune, a Sunday child? And one who has been ordained to preside over the loftiest secret of the Church, the mystery of Flesh and Blood—should he not be able to differ-entiate, thanks to his higher sensibility, between the more dis-tinguished and the meaner forms of human clay? With these carefully chosen words I flatter myself that I have given my thoughts the completest possible expression. In any case, the prophecy I had received told me nothing that my insight and opinion of myself did not confirm in the happiest fashion.
What was it really about the words of the divine that had made such an extraordinary impression on me? Today I can answer precisely, just as at the time I was instantly certain about it in my own mind. He had praised me—and for what? For the agreeable tone of my voice. But that is an attribute or gift that in the common view has nothing at all to do with one's deserts and is no more considered a subject for praise than a cockeye, a goitre, or a club foot is thought blame-worthy. For praise or blame, according to the opinion of our middle-class world, is applicable to the moral order only, not to the natural; to praise the latter seems on such a view unjust and frivolous. That Town Minister Chateau happened to think otherwise struck me as wholly new and daring, as the expression of a conscious and defiant independence that had a heathenish simplicity about it and at the same time stimulated me to happy reverie. Was it not difficult, I asked myself, to make a sharp distinction between natural deserts and moral? These portraits of uncles, aunts, and grandparents had taught me how few, indeed, of my assets had come to me by way of natural inheritance. Was it true that I had had so little to do, in an inner sense, with the development of those assets? Had I not instead the assurance that they were my own work, to a significant degree, and that my voice might quite easily have turned out common, my eyes dull, and my legs crooked, had my soul been less watchful? He who really loves the world shapes himself to please it. If, furthermore, the natural is a consequence of the moral, it was less unjust and capricious than might have appeared for the reverend gentleman to praise me for the pleasing quality of my voice.
Matters stood quite otherwise with certain vagrant gentlemen, eccentrics who were seeking neither a woman nor a man, but some extraordinary being in between. And I was that extraordinary being. That is why I needed so much evasive courtesy to calm their importunate enthusiasm; at times, indeed, I found myself compelled to reason with and soothe some beseeching and inconsolable individual. I refrain from pronouncing moral judgment on a craving which, when I was the object of it, seemed not incomprehen-sible. Rather I may say with the Roman that I regard nothing human as alien to me. In the story of my personal education in love, however, the following incident must be recorded. Of all the varieties of humankind which the great city pre-sented to view, one was especially strange—whose very exist-ence in our workaday world afforded no little food for the imagination—one that must needs attract the particular atten-tion of a youth bent on self-education. It was that variety of female known as public persons, daughters of joy, or simply creatures or, more genteelly, priestesses of Venus, nymphs and Phrynes. They either stay together in licensed houses or at night wander the streets in certain sections, holding them-selves, with official sanction or toleration, at the disposal of a world of men at once needy and able to pay. It always seemed to me that this arrangement, seen, if I am right, as one should see everything—that is, with a fresh eye undimmed by habit—that this phenomenon, I say, intrudes on our dull-mannered age like a colourful and romantic survival from a gaudier epoch. Its very existence always produced an enlivening and pleasurable effect on me. To visit those particular houses was beyond my means. On the streets and in the cafes, however, I had plenty of opportunity to study these enticing creatures. Nor did this interest remain one-sided; indeed, if I could con-gratulate myself on sympathetic attention from any quarter, it was from these flitting nightbirds, and before long, despite my habitual attitude of aloofness, I had established personal rela-tions with some of them. Birds of death is the popular name for the small owls or hawks which, it is said, fly at night against the windows of those who are sick unto death and lure their fearful souls into the open with the cry: "Come with me!" Is it not strange that this same formula is used by the disreputable sisterhood when its members, strolling beneath the street lights, boldly yet cov-ertly summon men to debauchery? Some are corpulent as sul-tanas, tightly encased in black satin, against which the pow-dered whiteness of their faces glares in ghostly contrast; others in turn are of a sickly emaciation. Their make-up is crass, de-signed for effectiveness in the blaze and shadow of nocturnal streets. Raspberry lips glow in chalk-white faces; others have put rosy powder on their cheeks. Their brows are sharply and clearly arched, their eyes, lengthened at the corners by the use of eyebrow pencil and darkened at the edge of the lower lid, often show an unnatural brilliance induced by drugs. Imita-tion diamonds blaze in their ears; large feather hats nod on their heads; and in their hands all carry little bags, known as reticules or pompadours, in which are hidden toilet articles, lipstick, powder, and certain preventive devices. Thus they stroll past you on the sidewalk, touching your arm with theirs; their eyes, agleam in the street light, are directed sidewise at you, their lips are twisted in a hot, provocative smile, and hastily, furtively whispering the 'enticing cry of the bird of death, they gesture with a short, sidewise motion of the head toward some undefined promise, as though for the man of courage who follows their invitation and summons there awaited somewhere a wonderful, never tasted, illimitable joy. As I repeatedly observed this secret scene from a distance and with rapt attention, I saw too how the well-dressed gen-tlemen either remained unmoved or entered into negotiations. and, if these proved satisfactory, went off with buoyant step. in company with their lascivious guides. The creatures did not approach me for this purpose, for my poor attire promised no pecuniary gain from my patronage. Soon, however, I was to rejoice in their private and unprofessional favour. If, mindful of my economic impotence, I did not dare approach them, it not infrequently happened that after a curious and approving examination of my person they would begin a conversation with me in the most cordial manner, inquiring in a comradely way about my occupation and interests—to which I would lightly reply that I was staying in Frankfurt for purposes of amusement. In the conversations that took place in entries and archways between me and members of this gaudy sisterhood they expressed their interest in me in the most various ways in their coarse, outspoken vocabulary. Such persons, let me say parenthetically, ought not to talk. Silently smiling, glanc-ing, gesturing, they are significant; but once they open their mouths they run the risk of sobering us and losing their own halo. For speech is the foe of mystery and the pitiless betrayer of the commonplace.