from Vol. #7, Issue 1: Spring 2016
translated by Peter Sean Woltemade
An excerpt from Silence at Last
from the German of Karl-Heinz Ott
Translator's Note. This excerpt is taken from pages 122-32 of the original hardback edition of Endlich Stille, published in 2005 by Hoffmann und Campe. A few words to provide context are in order.
Marie is the erstwhile girlfriend of the novel's unnamed main character, a German professor of philosophy at the University of Basel. Friedrich is a man the narrator met by chance in Strasbourg and subsequently spent a few hours eating and drinking with there who has indefinitely installed himself in the narrator's apartment after ostensibly having come to Basel for an overnight visit.
Benno is a friend of the narrator's from their student days who coincidentally arrived in Basel the same day as Friedrich; his overnight visit, in contrast to Friedrich's ultimately much-extended visit, had been agreed upon with the narrator in advance. Rather to the narrator's amazement, Benno and Friedrich got on so well with one another that the narrator found himself largely excluded from the conversation on the two occasions the three of them were out together.
Grandstetter is a professor and colleague of the narrator's in the Basel philosophy department. Fichtner is a former colleague of the narrator's who is considered by the narrator to have been more gifted than those around him; Fichtner's behavior became increasingly erratic until he lost his job and apparently became homeless. Hiroshi is a current, lower-ranking, colleague of the narrator's in the philosophy department.
The narrator and Friedrich visited Arlesheim Cathedral when the narrator had rented a car and driven them around the area in order not to spend the days confined in his apartment with Friedrich.
Interested readers may click here to read a comprehensive synopsis of the novel, prepared for Pusteblume by the translator.
A note about publication rights: Acting on the author's behalf, Hoffmann und Campe has granted non-exclusive permission to Pusteblume to publish this excerpt from Endlich Stille; readers may click here to access the German text.
from Silence at Last
I would have liked to flee to Marie, who would have driven this person from the city with a single brief appearance. But even the moon with its pocked face wanted, it seemed to me during this night, to mock me from a distance and to proclaim to me that I, too—as if in the emptiness of space—was left to my own devices.
Friedrich pissed over the railing in a high arc, pressing and sighing as if it would never end. Despite all the rage I had built up against him, despite my lust to destroy him on the spot, he had, as I realized at this moment, remained a schoolboy who had not yet grown up, whom no one had taught that there were limits. As he buttoned his trousers, I tried to imagine him as a pianist sitting on the podium in a concert hall and presenting a sensitive interpretation of a sonata, but this image could not be reconciled with that of the man pissing from the bridge here. Increasingly, I suspected that his comments on Schubert consisted of memorized material and that he had long been attaching himself to people whom he met coincidentally and to whom he served up his stories, presenting himself as a traveler passing through but actually planning to establish a nest for himself in someone's home. Perhaps he had never visited the Lorraine village whose state of abandonment he had described to me so vividly, or perhaps he had actually spent time there, but not as a settler—as a guest who had imposed upon a carefully selected random acquaintance just as he had imposed upon me. Perhaps he had long been traveling around nomadically, living here and there as long as he was tolerated, offering up various origin stories and presenting his musician legend and an odd collection of knowledge ranging from Schubert to rare Australian animal species and rituals performed by African tribes without anyone ever being able to grasp this individual. Perhaps he presented the story involving the Wanderer Fantasy to everyone he believed he would be able to impress with it, perhaps he rendered himself interesting to everyone with his monastic plan to retire to Mount Athos, and perhaps he told everyone of the African woman with whom he planned to emigrate to Cameroon. Had Friedrich not been able to speak so eloquently of Schubert's musical abysses or alpine horn motifs in the work of Brahms, I would have considered it a fable that he was able to play the piano at all. While walking across the market square, he once stopped in front of a plastic elk that was grotesquely moving its mouth and antlers in time to a tinny samba droning from its skull. Four or five times Friedrich pressed the button on the animal's forehead again when the piece had ended and then bellowed along with the music while mimicking a jerking guitarist. I stood next to him, smiling in embarrassment, and urged him to walk on, but the more children that gathered around Friedrich, the wilder his gestures became, so that I feared people would think us homeless men hiding their condition with respectable clothing.
Ultimately, however, it was unimportant whether Friedrich was telling the truth or constructing legends. I wanted only finally to be alone again. I should never have answered the telephone that night, I still thought and cursed Marie, because it was her fault, but this grudge was of no help, as he could have stood on my doorstep at any time. But given that it had gotten to that point, he should learn as little about me as possible because, as the nocturnal encounter with Grandstetter had shown, he could use everything he knew about me against me in ways that could compromise me and involve me in situations that could damage my reputation and cost me my job.
"You're trembling," Friedrich observed with apparent concern as he took my arm after having stuck his member back in his trousers. "Stop it!" I said defensively, after which, in a psalmist tone, he uttered the non sequitur "The ways of God are crooked and brave is the man that does not follow them." He directed himself with mighty swings and began to preach down to the Rhine, in connection with which he asked whether I was familiar with Mahler's Fish Sermon but without waiting for an answer began to sing his way through all of the verses with a voice roughened by drink and nicotine, which without orchestral accompaniment sounded as if he were floating over an abyss. Night owls passed us shaking their heads or parodying him, of which he took no notice at all, nor did he take any notice of a man who angrily shouted from a dark window that we should be quiet, while Friedrich, as if the bridge were his pulpit, declaimed the allegory of all the pikes, eels, carp, and crabs that listen to Saint Anthony's sermon with open mouths, after which they go their separate ways and everything remains as it had been. Friedrich's way of standing there at the railing and singing these verses was touching and at the same time made one want to run away. During this performance I was again convinced that nothing of what he had told me in Strasbourg could have been made up.
"Every Monday morning on a Tuesday at the university of music is a crime," Friedrich joked to himself as we went on, and I was glad that he never expected a reaction to such statements. One had to be prepared to hear such pronouncements from him at any time without being able to tell whether he meant them to be funny or they were evidence of sheer insanity. They came as if from nowhere and they led nowhere. "Where there is a path there is also an edge," he had once remarked, and although it was obvious that Friedrich was not at all striving for laughter I felt obliged to snicker. I innerly punished myself for such servility on each occasion, as if it revealed how abjectly I debased myself before him.
It might have been ridiculous paranoia, but since the encounter on the bridge I could not escape the feeling that Grandstetter would be responsible for my moral destruction despite the fact that he would continue in his departmental position for only one more year. Because I had not previously drawn attention to myself through any kind of excesses—neither through erotomaniacal tendencies like my colleague Lüthi nor through alcoholic instability like my colleague Fichtner—no one had previously been able to criticize any aspect of my conduct. While Grandstetter's rigorousness was more likely to expose him to ridicule than to damage the reputations of others, much less trigger a scandal, I did not want to attract accusations that would make reference to events that could hardly be denied but would require explanation.
When we had arrived at home, Friedrich switched on the television, which he had transported from my current bedroom to the kitchen two days after his arrival so that he could let the images flicker with the sound turned down in the mornings already. We caught the beginning of Hitchcock's Indian-summer idyll The Trouble with Harry, with its leafy forests glowing with autumn colors, with birdsong as a soundtrack, with its small town embedded in a landscape of gently rolling hills in which a dead man lies as peacefully as if he were a part of the countryside and is believed by a handful of innocent people to be their victim. They bury him and unearth him half a dozen times between which they eat blueberry pie and make amorous advances toward each other. Everything ends as it began, with the calls of blackbirds under a September sky that makes the place look like a little Arcadia.
Drunk but happy, tired and yet shaken awake again by the film, we sat next to each other on the corner bench, and though I still wanted to strike Friedrich in the face and would have preferred to call Professor Grandstetter in the middle of the night to explain myself to him, we smiled at Hitchcock's characters, snickered, and looked at each other as if there were nothing nicer than sitting in front of the television in my kitchen. It was only during the end credits that the rage began to stir in me again—but probably Friedrich had even believed that he was doing me a favor with his outrageous behavior on the bridge. After all, I had made immoderate comments about Grandstetter and his spouse in the Bodega without the slightest inkling that Friedrich would make himself my avenger fourteen days later.
As always, my head hurt the next day, and when I looked in the mirror a face I would have liked to spit on looked back at me. In the middle of the glowing summer, it was bloated, spongy, yellowish-pale, and from it looked glassy eyes that did not want to see themselves. And again I dragged myself reluctantly through the day, pressed down by a tiredness I had never felt before, in the expectation that it would soon be night and sleep would let me forget all this for a few hours. From my bathroom window I observed the fat retiree in overalls who stood outside his front door and examined the passersby, staring at one of them occasionally with the hint of a shake of his head. I see him every day, digging through trash cans looking for newspapers and other printed matter that he glances at and either sticks in his trouser pockets or throws back in the trash. I had found this figure repulsive from the beginning, and we had never greeted one another—neither he me nor I him—but at this point I felt the need to explain to him that I was not responsible for my acquaintance, with whom one could see me going down into the town each day.
I was glad that my cleaning lady was on vacation, although my bathroom looked worse than some railway station restrooms. In the kitchen sink cups and bowls in which mold was growing were stacking up, in the flowerpots were stuck cigarette butts that looked like pitiful trophies, and the stink of smoke could not have been banished even by days of airing out. Without talking or making any kind of commotion, this person created the impression that telling him his behavior was unacceptable would be acting like a whiner. In view of the mountains of clothing Friedrich had distributed throughout the entire apartment, I felt resistance to following him around with his shirts and underpants or going so far as to wash them. The bathroom wall still displayed the spatters from days before, when I had had to vomit after waking up and being unable to piece together how we had gotten home. After such lapses of memory, which had begun to become more frequent, I feared that I had once again blabbed about something that he would be able to use against me. But I did not want, on top of everything, to expose myself to him by asking about this; rather, I hoped fervently that my occasional talkativeness, which never began to manifest itself until after midnight, was characterized by constant irrelevance. By carrying on my monologues, I strove to protect myself against my own disappearance and to demonstrate that I exist, that I have something to say, that I am alive. The subject matter was completely beside the point; I only wanted to hear myself and protect myself against fading away. We had hardly arrived at the Crooked Tower when I was drinking even faster than Friedrich, whose lack of restraint had once impressed me in Strasbourg. Now it was I who shouted to the waiter for a second, third, and fourth bottle, while Friedrich calmly watched as I took my head in my hands and began to babble. As if to break out of the reticence I maintained during the day with a single stroke, a flood of speech sometimes flowed out of me at night; it seemed to have little to do with me but took its course in strict fashion. At least this delirious talk reduced my tension—after all, a tense silence cost me more effort than anything else. On these occasions, I ranted about life in general; about the Western and Arab worlds; about war and terrorism, globalization and the Koran; about the difference between Germany and Switzerland; about the inhabitants of Zürich and Basel, Aargau and Appenzell; about kinds of beer and wine; about poems by Gottfried Benn and plays I had seen with Marie; and not infrequently I also galloped into philosophical lowlands, in connection with which I spent hours one night talking about the infinitely vast difference between ethics and morals, something that obviously was of no interest to anyone but myself. Usually, I was not just ashamed of myself the following morning but rather already while I was talking, on account of all the stock phrases to which I resorted. Much more often, however, I was the nodding listener silently losing himself in his own thoughts. Sometimes on the following day I was only able to remember the beginning of the evening—our appearance together in the Crooked Tower and the sausages.
One evening the clientele included none other than Fichtner in an ochre linen jacket. As if in order to punish me with quiet contempt, he looked over at me without offering a greeting. I turned my chair halfway to the side so as only to be able to peer over at him over Friedrich's shoulder. He sat there calmly—so it appeared, in any event—and did not seem to be coarsening himself through association with the people here. On the contrary: He appeared composed and by no means drunk—walled off inside himself, but with an aura that suggested a last remnant of stubborn pride. Outwardly he did not even appear older; one might even have thought that he spent his days lying on the beach and dedicating himself to sports. As usual he was smoking menthol cigarettes, as the green package lying in front of him on the table indicated. I considered buying him a glass of wine, but such a gesture would have been even shabbier than trying to ignore him. I avoided going to the toilet the entire evening in order to avoid an encounter, and I was relieved when I noted that his place was empty when the bartender called out the last round.
As if it were not enough that one could encounter Fichtner there, Friedrich once discovered Hiroshi in the other corner, whereupon he encouraged everyone at the table to come up with Japanese names so that he could shout these loudly across the room. Like Rumpelstilzchen, I would have preferred to ram myself into the earth in order to avoid once again letting myself be humiliated. "Futon, Kawasaki, karaoke, sushi, sumo, judo, bonsai, sake, shiitake," Friedrich shouted past all the tables like a litany, standing on his chair to direct the entire room, which hardly produced an echo in the beginning aside from a few pitiful voices attempting to follow him, though this did not discourage him from continuing to clap his hands and roar "Aikido, jiu-jitsu, ikebana, Tamagotchi, geisha, mikado, Honda, Mitsubishi, Ferrari, Toyota, John Lennon, Yoko Ono," until he finally clambered onto the table and moved rhythmically back and forth like a gospel singer, inciting his barroom congregation to imitate him, although he gradually ran out of words and simply constantly repeated "Harakiri, kamikaze, kimono, kabuki," until to my amazement Hiroshi and his friend joined in as well, so that half the bar's guests were laughing while Friedrich got down off the table after having been told to do so by the barkeeper and hopped through the rows with his black hat begging in order, as he said, to collect a few coins for the poor students from Japan. "Kamikaze, harakiri," he crowed, and in between he repeated the refrain "They will kill themselves if they have nothing to eat." I left the place, and when Friedrich rang my doorbell later that night, I let him in but slammed the door shut after him and did not ask how things had gone on. For a long time now I had been involved in situations that I had not chosen and that had begun to live a life of their own. Neither Grandstetter nor Hiroshi needed to take an interest in how this had happened; it was enough that they saw me as the instigator in the background and could not know what situation I found myself in. They could hardly be criticized for failing to distinguish between him and me; neither at the Bodega nor on the bridge, after all, had I loudly demanded that my companion cease and desist. It was to be feared that in their eyes I was living out my secret malignity via a third party. Of course, it should have occurred to them that I would hardly have been interested in achieving pitiful victories that would have led to my own destruction, but presumably they welcomed anything that spoke against me. During this night I did not sleep for a single second, but my iron will to throw Friedrich out at breakfast only lasted until we encountered each other in the hall in the morning and he innocently asked me, "Why did you take off?" "I have to get around to finally working again," I defended myself in a brittle voice, and he retorted, "What is stopping you?"
While we had less and less to say to each other, our silence did not seem to bother Friedrich as long as he could have the feeling that I was not reluctant to walk into the bar with him every evening. Perhaps he even found our taciturn coexistence to be less stressful and interpreted it as a sign of harmonious well-being such as is only experienced by people who have already moved past the point where they constantly need to communicate their feelings and thoughts. To be sure, I could not imagine that he was completely unable to feel my hidden resentment, but if he noticed this it obviously did not bother him. "I have seldom been as satisfied as today," he had remarked in Arlesheim Cathedral, nodding, and looked at me as if he had me to thank for his state of well-being in Basel, too. In sharp contrast to the stories he had told in Strasbourg, Friedrich now almost suppressed his past. He still offered up the odd story and reminisced about Father Cölestin, his hermitage in Lorraine, and his African, but no friends, no girlfriend, no relatives, no mother, no father, no siblings, and no colleagues, as if I were the only human being remaining in his life. No other individual seemed to exist in proximity to him, any more than he himself had existed on the gatekeeper's list at the Mannheim university of music. When he had pressed me against himself and massaged me in Strasbourg, I had feared becoming a victim of his tendencies, but this fear had proven to be groundless: He was entirely satisfied with living with me and being provided for. If Benno had been here, I often thought, the two of them would at least have had something to say to each other, but he did not even appear to feel the lack of entertainment of that type. At least he must have possessed a bank account from which he was able to make withdrawals at an automated teller machine, although most of the time he managed, nimbly and casually, to arrange things so that I ended up paying our bar bill. As paradoxical as that might sound, it must have been my guilty conscience that led me to take on the role of the paymaster—from day to day, after all, I felt growing in me the will not only to get rid of him but to destroy him. ◻
>> read the German text of this excerpt
>> read a synopsis in English of this novel
Karl-Heinz Ott lives near Freiburg and has worked as a theater dramaturgist and taught poetics. He is the author or co-author of several plays and stage adaptations and the author of five novels, of which Endlich Stille (2005) is the second, and of a monograph on Georg Friedrich Händel. Endlich Stille won three literary prizes-Alemannischer Literaturpreis (2005), Candide Preis (2006), and Preis der LiteraTour Nord (2006)-and Italian and French translations of the novel have been published. Ott has been honored with a number of prizes in addition to those he received for Endlich Stille, most recently with the Wolfgang-Koeppen-Preis (2014).
About the translator: American Peter Sean Woltemade has been based in Copenhagen since 2004. After earning a Bachelor of Arts in English from Ohio Wesleyan University, he studied at the University of Freiburg and at Uppsala University. He is the recipient of a Fulbright-Hays Graduate Fellowship (Berlin) and a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship (Copenhagen), and is the holder of M.A. degrees in Scandinavian and German, and a Ph.D. in medieval German literature from the University of California at Berkeley. His work has appeared in venues including The Brooklyn Rail, The Missing Slate, and The Cossack Review. Gads Forlag's Historika imprint has published his translations respectively of Peter Kristiansen's book on the Danish regalia and crown jewels, Power, Splendour, and Diamonds; Jens Gunni Busck's biographies of Christian IV, Christian VIII, and Frederik III; Heidi Laura's guide Rosenborg; and Kurt Jacobsen's corporate history Haldor Topsøe. His translation of Stefanie Ross's novel Nemesis: Innocence Sold was published by AmazonCrossing in 2016.
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