Infiltrations, Translations

[W]hen she’s asleep he likes to sit down beside her bed and make one further attempt to get to the bottom of what has seemed to him the greatest riddle in all the history of mankind: how processes, circumstances, or events of a general nature — such as war, famine, or even a civil servant’s salary that fails to increase along with the galloping inflation — can infiltrate a private face. Here they turn a few hairs gray, there devour a pair of lovely cheeks until the skin is stretched taut across angular jawbones; the secession of Hungary, say, might result in a pair of lips bitten raw in the case of one particular woman, perhaps even his own wife. In other words, there is a constant translation between far outside and deep within, it’s just that a different vocabulary exists for each of us, which no doubt explains why it’s never been noticed that this is a language in the first place — and in fact, the only language valid across the world and for all time. If a person were to study a sufficient number of faces, he would surely be able to observe wrinkles, twitching eyelids, lustreless teeth, and draw conclusions about the death of a Kaiser, unjust reparations payments, or a stabilizing social democracy.

Jenny Erpenbeck
The End of Days

Translated by Susan Bernofsky

Turning Everything Into Liquid

The painter Strauch is one of those who turn everything into liquid. Whatever they touch dissolves. Character, solidity, stability. “No one can see me, because no one can see anything,” he has said, and: “The principles that put millennia on the skids.” Or again: “Any activity is predicated on another, any meaning, any style. Wisdom on nonsense, and vice versa and simultaneously.” Breakfast is “way too ceremonial” for him, “it feels absurd to pick up a spoon. Meaningless. A sugar cube is an assault against me. … A catastrophe. The day begins with insidious sweetness.” He hunkers down on his chair, which is far too low for him. But even there he towers over me. He looks down at me, his eye piercing. “To allow ingratitude to develop within one,” he says, “only to take note of a thing once one is certain what a terrible thing it is. Facts pile up, terrible facts too, and before too long you’re just the miserable little wretch trying to push the table back, which gets you a clip around the ears from above.” So great was reason that it too was “condemned to fail.” “Those two notions of mine, trotting along side by side like a couple of dogs, barking at everything.” Wanton destruction, to make contemplation a little easier. He whispers, and listens to the walls shaking. “There is an obligation toward the depth of one’s own inner abyss,” he says. He pulls himself together, and it takes the brutality of simply getting up to bring him back to himself and out of himself. To some express, like “It’s so utterly ghastly here!” He is dominated by himself, as by a lifelong injustice. By his destructive apparatus. …

The way he compares the inn with an Alpine village in Carinthia, and with a ballet dancer who has had just one appearance in the opera and whom he describes as “a natural talent, but very dangerous,” is very illuminating. Or a vegetable trader who once gave him a smack because he thought he was stealing his tomatoes, with Napoleon III. It seems to me that even as he’s speaking about the woodcutter he watched dying, he’s already thinking about the tragedy of the four hundred mountain people who were abruptly killed in catastrophic storms. And then always himself. A sudden blast of wind forced him to the wall, and put him in mind of a celebrated acrobat. “He performed four somersaults between the backs of two galloping horses.” When he says “London,” he envisions the outer suburbs of Budapest. Sections of the lower Danube he attaches quite effortlessly to the upper Rhine. He swaps one delta for another. “In fact, that’s my sense of color,” he says. Certain mixtures of aromas play a part here. I can readily imagine him as a thirty-year-old, crossing the swollen plazas, and despising the dead, megalomaniac capital of the country. Anything provincial and dilettante as much as the “truly great” and the untouchable. His self-contempt is not based on ignorance; after all he was a city-dweller. Miles ahead of him he sees a lost thought return to him after years away. “Murder has a taste of honey,” he often thought. While his mouth talks about the ways of making paper, his hands are burrowing in his jacket pockets. He sees images faster than his body can catch them. “Every street debouches in my brain,” he says. He has turned a vast system of beginnings and significations into an edifice of thought where he tries to order the extraordinary chaos of history. “For decades, I’ve suffered from the most extreme attention, do you have any idea what that means?” If he talks about a tragedy, he shows no signs of the tragedy in his expression. When was it? “I’ve invented a notation of my fears,” he says. Of the three who go to make him up, he doesn’t know which one he is here or there, when and where. “Being on the lookout doesn’t imply ill intentions, you know.” Everything was morbidly affected by the horrible, and “harmlessness has taken on all the tasks of destruction, do you see?”

Thomas Bernhard

Translated by Michael Hoffman