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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Moment of True Feeling

A Novel

Peter Handke

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


A Moment of True Feeling

Who has ever dreamed that he has become a murderer and from then on has only been carrying on with his usual life for the sake of appearances? At that time, which is still going on, Gregor Keuschnig had been living in Paris for some months, serving as press attaché at the Austrian embassy. He, his wife, and their four-year-old daughter Agnes occupied a dark apartment in the 16th arrondissement. The building, which dated from the turn of the century and reflected the bourgeois comfort of the period, had a stone balcony on the second floor and a cast-iron balcony on the fifth floor. It was situated, side by side with similar apartment houses, on a quiet boulevard sloping gently downward to the Porte d'Auteuil, one of the western exits from the city. Every five minutes or so, in the daytime hours, the glasses and dishes in the dining-room cupboard rattled when a train passed in the railroad cut that ran parallel to the boulevard, carrying passengers from the periphery of Paris to the Gare Saint-Lazare in the center of the city, where if they wished they could change to trains that would take them northwestward to the Channel, to Deauville or Le Havre, for instance. (Some of the older people in this neighborhood, which aslate as a hundred years ago consisted partly of vineyards, chose this mode of travel when they went to the seaside with their dogs for the weekend.) But after nine o'clock at night the trains stopped running, and then it was so quiet on the boulevard that the leaves of the plane trees outside the windows could be heard rustling from time to time in the breeze that is frequent in Auteuil. On such a night at the end of July, Gregor Keuschnig had a long dream, which began with his having killed someone.
All at once he had ceased to belong. He tried to change, as an applicant for a job undertakes to change; but for fear of being found out he had to go on living exactly as before and, above all, remain exactly as he had been. Even to sit down as usual to a meal with other people was to dissemble; and if he suddenly began to talk so much about himself and his "past life," it was only to divert attention from himself. Oh, the disgrace to my parents, he thought, while the victim, an old woman, lay in an inadequately buried wooden box: a murderer in the family! But what oppressed him most was that he had become someone else, yet had to keep behaving as if he were still himself. The dream ended with a passer-by opening the wooden box, which in the meantime seemed to have moved to the sidewalk outside his house.
Formerly when Keuschnig found something unbearable, he had tended to lie down somewhere by himself and go to sleep. This night the opposite happened: his dream was so intolerable that he woke up. But waking was as impossible as sleeping--only more absurd, more tedious, as though he had begun an endless term of imprisonment. Something had been done that could never be undone. He folded his hands under his head, but this habitual action hadno remedial effect. Dead calm outside his bedroom window; and when after a long while a branch of the evergreen tree in the courtyard stirred, he had the impression that it had been moved, not by a gust of wind, but by the accumulated inner tension of the branch itself. It occurred to Keuschnig that there were six more stories above his ground-floor apartment, one on top of another!--probably packed full of heavy furniture, of dark-stained cupboards. He did not remove his hands from under his head, but only puffed up his cheeks as though for self-protection. He tried to imagine how his life would go on. Because everything had lost its validity, he could imagine nothing. He rolled up in a ball and tried to get back to sleep. Falling asleep had ceased to be possible. When finally, with the passing of the first train at about six, the water glass on the bedside table tinkled, he mechanically got out of bed.
Keuschnig's apartment was large and intricate. In it two people could take different itineraries and suddenly meet. The long hallway seemed to stop at a wall, but then after a bend it continued on--you wondered if you were still in the same apartment--to the back room, where his wife sometimes did her homework for her audio-visual French course and stayed the night when, as she said, she was too tired to face the spooky corridor with its abrupt twists and turns. The apartment was so intricate that, though the child couldn't actually get lost, they were forever calling: "Where are you?" The child's room could be entered from three sides: from the hallway, from the back room, which his wife called her "study," and from the "parents' bedroom," so called only in the presence of visitors they didn't know very well. The "front" of the apartment consisted of the diningroom, the kitchen, the "servants' entrance"--they had no servants--and a special servants' toilet (the bolt of which, strange to say, was outside the door), and directly on the street, the two "salons," which his wife spoke of as "livings," while in the lease one of them was termed "library" because of a niche in the wall. The small vestibule opening out on the street was called "antichambre" in the lease. The rent came to three thousand francs a month, the sole income of an elderly Frenchwoman, whose husband had once owned plantations in Indochina. Two thirds of this sum was paid by the Austrian Foreign Ministry.
Keuschnig looked at his sleeping wife through the half-open door to the back room. He wished that the moment she woke up she would ask him what he was thinking about. He would reply: "I'm looking for a way of thinking you out of my life." Suddenly he wished he would never see her or hear of her again. He wished she would be shipped away somewhere. Her eyes were closed; from time to time her wrinkled lids stretched smooth. That told him she was beginning to wake up. Now and then there were gurglings from her belly; the chirping of two sparrows outside the window, a remark, then an answer, always a few notes higher; separate sounds became distinguishable in what had been the even murmur of the city during the night. There was already traffic enough that the screeching of brakes could be heard and farther away the blowing of a horn. His wife still had her earphones on, and a language record was still turning on the record player. He switched off the machine and she opened her eyes. With open eyes she looked younger. Her name was Stefanie, and only yesterday she had aroused feelings in him, at least occasionally. Why didn'tshe notice anything peculiar about him? "You're already dressed," she said, and took off the earphones. In that moment he felt capable of kneeling down and telling her everything, everything. Where should he begin? Once or twice in the past he had placed his thumb on her throat, not as a threat but as one kind of contact among many others. Only if she were dead, he thought, would I be able to feel something for her again. Standing still and straight, he turned his head to one side as in a rogues' gallery photograph, and said only, as though repeating something he had often said before: "You don't mean a thing to me. The thought of growing old with you is more than I can bear. Your mere existence drives me to despair." "That rhymes," she said. True enough. His last two sentences rhymed--he hadn't noticed it in time--and therefore couldn't be taken seriously. Closing her eyes, she asked: "What's the weather like today?" and he replied, without looking out: "High clouds." She smiled and dropped off to sleep. I'm coming away empty-handed, he thought. Strange. Everything he did struck him as strange that morning.
In the child's room he felt as though he were taking leave of something; not only of the child, but of the kind of life that had been right for him up until then. Now no kind of life was right for him. He stood there amid the scattered toys, and suddenly in his helplessness one of his knees gave way. He crouched down. I have to busy myself with something, he thought, already exhausted by the short time spent without imagination, and busied himself putting the laces, which the child had taken out of her shoes the night before, back in again. As Agnes slept, he could see nothing of her face; her hair had tumbled over it. He put his hand on herback to see how she was breathing. She was breathing so peacefully and smelled so warm that he remembered certain of the old days when everything seemed to be gathered under a wide dome and to belong together, when for instance he had involuntarily said "Agnes" to his wife and involuntarily said "Stefanie" to Agnes. Now that was gone; he couldn't even remember it any longer. When Keuschnig stood up, he had the feeling that his brain was gradually cooling. He pulled down the skin of his forehead and closed his eyes firmly, as though that might warm his insensible brain. From today on, he thought, I shall be leading a double life. No, no life at all: neither my usual life nor a new one, for I shall only be pretending to live my usual life, and my new life will consist solely in pretending to live as usual. I no longer feel in place here, but I can't conceive of being in place anywhere else; I can't conceive of continuing to live as I've lived up until now, but no more can I conceive of living as someone else lived or lives. The thought of living like a Buddhist monk, a pioneer, a philanthropist, a desperado, doesn't repel me, I merely find it unthinkable. I can't live like anybody; at the most I can go on living "like myself."--Suddenly, at this thought, Keuschnig was unable to breathe. In the next moment he felt as though he were bursting out of his skin and a lump of flesh and sinew lay wet and heavy on the carpet. As if he had soiled the child's room merely by his thought, he hurried out.
Look neither to the left nor to the right, he thought as he went down the hallway. "Eyes front!" he said aloud. He looked at the red sofa in the one living room; a child's book lay open on it: blatant disorder. Nothing was alien to him, everything repelled him. He closed the book and put it onthe table in such a way that its edges lay parallel to the edges of the table. Then he picked up a thread from the carpet and carried it the whole length of the hallway to the trash basket in the kitchen. While doing all this, he made a frantic effort to think in complete sentences.
With a stupid look on his face, he stepped out of the dark apartment into the street. How mercilessly bright it was outside! I might just as well be naked, he thought, but a moment later looked down to make sure he had pulled up the zipper on his trousers, and at the same time fiddled with it discreetly. He mustn't show that anything was wrong. Come to think of it, had he brushed his teeth? In the gutter on the other side of the boulevard, the water sparkled as it flowed down to the Porte d'Auteuil. For a few minutes that took the stupid look off his face. The cobblestones under the water were bleached white. As he walked, Keuschnig suddenly saw a sunken lane not far from his native village. There were thin, wet-black blueberry roots along the side walls, where as a child he had often dug clay for marbles or projectiles. Lucky that rhyme cropped up when I was talking to Stefanie, he thought; otherwise, I'd already have given myself away. He pulled his cuffs out from under the sleeves of his jacket and for the first time that day became slightly curious. Keuschnig had always been curious, though he disliked involving himself in things. What would be the end of all this? Ordinarily he took the Métro at the PORTE D'AUTEUIL, changed at LA MOTTE-PICQUET-GRENELLE and got out at LATOUR-MAUBOURG, not far from the Place des Invalides in the 7th arrondissement, on the rue Fabert side of which the three-story mansion housing the Austrian embassy was situated. But that day he wanted towalk a bit. He would allow himself this little detour--maybe, in the course of it, something would turn up. He decided to take the Pont Mirabeau across the Seine and follow the Quais to the Invalides. On the way perhaps he would think up a system by which to deal with the neither/ nor in his head. That's it, he thought, a system!, and in passing looked at himself in the mirror outside a bakery on the rue d'Auteuil. Nothing unusual in his appearance. For a moment he tensed with curiosity.
On the rue Mirabeau, Keuschnig, who as a press attaché had learned to pick such words as Autriche or autrichien out of any newspaper at a glance, as though they were his own name, saw, out of the corner of his eye, a plaque with the word autrichien on it affixed to the wall of a house. It had been put there in memory of an Austrian who had joined a French Resistance group to fight the National Socialists, and had been shot down by the Germans on this spot some thirty years before. The plaque had been cleaned in preparation for the fourteenth of July, the French national holiday, and a tin can with a sprig of evergreen in it had been placed under it. The asshole, thought Keuschnig, and kicked the tin box, but stopped it when it kept on rolling. He crossed the Avenue de Versailles and saw on a hoarding a poster advertising a meeting: "Hortensia Allende will speak to us ..." TO us! he thought, turned away and spat. Rabble! Passing a newspaper stand, where the only morning paper on display was the five o'clock edition of Le Figaro, he read that the Turkish invaders of Cyprus had entered Nikosia, the capital, and that war was imminent. How annoying, thought Keuschnig; what intolerable interference in my life! A couple, arm in arm, were comingtoward him on the bridge. The woman was biting chunks off a long loaf of bread, as though such a war were quite out of the question, and that reassured him. But why was the man so tall? Disgusting to be so tall. And to think of him squirting his ridiculous sperm into the pathetic belly of this boring woman! He stopped walking in the middle of the bridge and looked down at the Seine. "Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine et nos amours." A poster advertised the high-rise apartments on the opposite bank with the words: "Seen from the Pont Mirabeau, Paris is a poem." Poetry gone sour! The river was brown as usual and flowed as usual toward the western hills, where the morning light moved the suburb of Meudon closer. To Keuschnig everything was equally far away and equally unreal: the sand pile on the left bank, the hills of Meudon and Saint-Cloud, the tips of his shoes. It was as though his glance, before it could take anything in, had been blunted by an invisible barrier; it could reach nothing, and he felt no desire to reach anything. He saw no friendly sight, saw only as a whipped man might have seen, and thought: I'd better go right down into the Métro, where a blank look attracts no attention. He took the train at JAVEL, and shortly after seven, unchanged except that the absence of prospects had put him in a bad humor, stepped into the Austrian embassy.
Keuschnig had an office on the second floor of the embassy building, with a chestnut tree outside his window. His work consisted chiefly of reading French newspapers and periodicals, marking articles or news items that related to Austria, when possible providing the ambassador with a daily digest, and twice a month sending the Foreign Ministry in Vienna a report on the image of Austria reflected inthe French mass media. In drawing up these reports, he was expected to follow new guidelines, which specified that the images of Austria presented in the French press were in every case to be measured against an ideal image elaborated at the Ministry. Above all, Austria must be seen as something more than the land of Lippizaners and skiers. Whenever the traditional image made its appearance in the press or on television, Keuschnig was obliged to write letters of protest and rectification. He had pasted a model of such a letter over his desk. Last year, it pointed out among other things, the Financial Times had awarded Austria an Economic Oscar as the industrial country with the most favorable economic statistics. Keuschnig seldom received answers to these letters, and even more rarely to his reports to the Foreign Ministry. Occasionally he attended "working luncheons" at which French political figures met with the press, and for which he had to pay in advance. From time to time he received journalists at home, and itemized his expenses, for such receptions were regarded as part of his job. "Seated entertainment" meant dinner; "standing entertainment" consisted only of drinks or, in a pinch, of cold buffet. This, more or less, was his work, and thus far he had done it so seriously as to give no one else reason to smile. He himself had no image of his native land, and was glad there were guidelines to follow. He was seldom at a loss for an answer, except when letters came from children wishing to know something about Austria. But most of the questions in these letters had been dictated by grownups anyway.
That morning a small truck finally arrived with the Austrian silent films, which Keuschnig had loaned the Ciné-mathèque some months ago for a series of showings at thePalais Chaillot, and the return of which he had requested a number of times. In the court of the embassy, ignoring the driver's impatience, he checked every single reel against his list. No one seemed to notice that anything was wrong. Besides, there was hardly anyone in the building. Because of his newspaper reading, he was always among the first to arrive. In his office, he cut open the bundle the night watchman had deposited outside his door, and removed the tag addressed in red: "Ambassade d'Autriche." Recalling that the United Nations troops on Cyprus included an Austrian contingent, he first looked through the papers with them in mind. None dead yet? Then, felt pen in hand, he began to read seriously. Every half hour he stood up and tore the reports of the French news agency off the Telex, which went on ticking inexorably. He had also turned on the short-wave radio. It was still early morning when news of the provisional cease-fire on Cyprus came through; after that he was undisturbed, alone with himself. As usual the newsprint made his fingers blacker and blacker. He didn't once shift his position while reading, didn't once run his hand over his face, not even when it itched; he merely read and underscored so-called key phrases. Without looking up and without a moment's hesitation. Where were the SELLING POINTS the guidelines demanded? At the farm show in Compiègne, a reforestation machine made in Austria was on display. At an exhibition of optical instruments in Lyons, a research microscope from Austria had been demonstrated. Le Monde had good things to say of environmental measures taken in the Tyrol. Once again L'Aurore spoke of anti-Semitism in Austria, though in accordance with the guidelines, he had already sent them several letters of protest and rectification.On the other hand, a consumer magazine gave an Austrian ski binding an excellent rating. But Le Parisien liberé referred to Bruckner as a German rather than an Austrian composer.--At about nine Keuschnig washed his hands and reported to the ambassador, who that day had arrived somewhat earlier than usual. The ambassador asked him what he thought of the fighting on Cyprus, but then, almost protectively, answered for him, so that Keuschnig merely had to drop an occasional: "Yes, that's quite possible," or "No, that can't be ruled out." Even the ambassador, who in his position, as he not infrequently remarked, could be expected to have an eye for people and their weaknesses, seemed to notice nothing. (Would he otherwise have listed course after course of the dinner he had eaten the night before at the home of some French count?) Keuschnig was relieved but at the same time, oddly enough, disappointed.
He drank his usual tea at a café on the Boulevard Latour-Maubourg. As he looked out at the street, it occurred to him that he couldn't have said anything to anyone. He often heard people saying: "If I had something to say ..."--and now he thought: If I had something to say, I'd cross it all out. At the top of a garbage can on the sidewalk he saw a heap of coffee grounds and filter paper; as he looked at it, it reminded him of a lawn freshly fertilized with human manure: there had been toilet paper all over the young grass. He went to the men's room and pissed gloomily down into the hole. The smell of urine revived him. He thought of tomorrow and the day after and tugged at his fingers in disgust; he opened his mouth wide, at the same time looking around to make sure no one was watching him.
On the way back to the embassy, Keuschnig had a sudden impulse to bare his teeth. Without prospect for the future, he had risen from the protective café chair. Compressing his lips, he nodded to a colleague who was coming toward him. At the sight of this colleague he thought of sleeve protectors, although he hadn't seen anyone in sleeve protectors for ages. Why couldn't the other man disregard him? Why did he have to COME TOWARD HIM? Brownish-yellow scraps of scum on milk that had been boiled days ago. True, he was still more or less alive, he was running around loose, but soon it would be all up with him. He wanted to beat everyone to a pulp! Everything, even the sense of well-being his first sip of tea had given him, now seemed RELATIVE. My life line has broken off, Keuschnig thought, as though still trying to cheer himself up a little. A baby carriage with a plastic cover was standing in a doorway, an image of panic terror; as he hurried past, it completed the dream he hadn't finished dreaming that night. He forced himself to go back and examine the baby carriage in every detail.
He saw two blacks walking ahead of him, both with their hands deep in their pockets, so that the slits of their jackets gaped wide and their behinds stuck out--both had the same gaping slits and the same behinds! A woman was wearing two different shoes, one with a platform much higher than the other. Another woman was carrying a cocker spaniel in her arms and crying. He felt like a prisoner in Disneyland.
On the sidewalk he read, written in chalk: "Oh la belle vie," and underneath: "I am like you," with a phone number.Whoever it was had BENT DOWN to write about the GOOD LIFE, he thought, and made a note of the phone number.
In the office he read the newspapers that had just arrived. He was struck by the frequency of the words "more and more" in the headlines of a single page: "More and more babies are overfed," "More and more child suicides." In reading Time he was struck, on many pages, by the sentence: "I dig my life." "I dig my life," said a basketball star. "We are a happy family," said a war veteran. "I am very glad," said a country singer. "Now I dig my life," said a man who was using a new fixative for his dentures. Keuschnig wanted to howl long enough for everyone in the building to hear him. Then he looked up at the ceiling, cautiously, as though even that might give him away.
He had the sidewalk telephone number in front of him, but first he dialed several other numbers. He wanted to be alone as little as possible in the days to come, and cast about for friends and acquaintances to take up his time. Before each call, for fear some slip of the tongue would give him away or that he would suddenly be unable to go on, he wrote down word for word what he intended to say. In the end he had made an appointment for every evening and his date book was full to the end of the month. I'll lose myself in my work, he thought. Then he called the sidewalk number. A woman answered. She said she couldn't remember writing anything on the pavement, she must have been drunk. Keuschnig, who had only wanted to needle her, said: "You were not drunk. I shall be at the Café de la Paix, the one across from the Opera, at nine tomorrow evening. Will you come?" "Perhaps," said the woman, and then: "Yes, I'llcome. But let's not arrange any signs. I'd like us to just recognize each other. I'll be there."
At twelve o'clock Keuschnig took the rue Saint-Dominique to the stop of the 68 bus, as usual on his way to see a girl friend in Montmartre. For a while he drifted into side streets, following a girl with CHICAGO CITY written on the seat of her jeans. He wanted to see her face. Then he noticed he had forgotten her. In the bus he saw he was all alone, and for a moment that made him very happy. A shudder ran through him, it gave him a sense of power, directed against no one. At the next stop he looked up, and already there were several heads in front of him.
When Keuschnig looked out of the bus window, his field of vision swarmed with transparent pockmarks, and when he closed his eyes and opened them again, there were still more of them. After getting out he decided to stand still for a moment and look patiently at something, the sky for instance. And then he stood there, feeling nothing. "C'est normal," said a passer-by. Yes, everything was wretchedly normal, elendig normal. He thought of an Austrian country shrine called Maria Elend.
He behaved as innocently as possible: for the first time he bought flowers for his girl friend. An observer's suspicions would be overcome if he saw him going into this florist's shop. He was only one among many, someone concerned with everyday matters, carefree enough to buy flowers. He decided to be pedantic. In the cool shop, seeing himself as a man having gladioli wrapped, he felt so secure that he would have liked to help the salesgirl tie the bow. The atmosphere, the smell of water, the puddles on the floor, did him good. The beautiful, slow meticulousness with whichshe set down the gladioli side by side on the paper! Up until now, when asked whether flowers should be gift wrapped, he would automatically have said no and contented himself with the usual wrapping; today he looked on with interest as the girl stuck the pins into the paper. During the whole operation--cutting the stems, removing the faded petals, wrapping, and finally handing him the wrapped flowers--she had not made one superfluous movement, and today this struck him as beautiful. In the shop he felt sheltered. He was able to smile, though his lips tautened, and she smiled too. Her purely professional friendliness made him feel that she was treating him as a human being, and that touched him.
Just like anyone else he climbed the slope of Montmartre with his bouquet. Amid the smells of the rue Lepic, changing from one market stall to the next--fish, cheese, the flannel smell of suits hanging in the sun--he lost all identity ... Then suddenly the smell of bread from the open door of a bakery drew him into memory, not his own, but a new, amplified, and improved memory, in which the flat scene before him took on a third dimension. Here no one seemed irresolute, weighed down by himself; among these people, whom he would never know, he felt secure. Outside his girl friend's door, he wiped his shoes with exaggerated care, meanwhile laughing maliciously--at whom?--But when he heard steps approaching from within, he was seized with desperate embarrassment at the thought that their meeting would be the same as usual, shameless, that they would smile at each other in recognition. There was still time, he could still climb another flight of stairs. Keuschnig stood motionless, one foot beside the other, until thedoor opened--as usual, except that now the absurdity almost killed him.
He didn't show that anything was wrong. For a moment it had upset him that Beatrice recognized him right away. Suddenly he was afraid that he wouldn't recognize her the next time, and tried to imprint her features, or some distinguishing mark, on his memory.--Beatrice worked part-time as a translator at UNESCO headquarters in the 15th arrondissement. Her husband had been killed when his motorcycle had collided with a trailer truck. She lived alone with two children, who were out at the moment. Keuschnig had first met her at a reception at the embassy. She had come up to him and asked: "What shall we do now?"--He came to see her often. He liked to watch her going about her domestic routines. She told a good many stories, and it gave him a strong tranquil pleasure to listen to her. "I'm never afraid of doing anything wrong in front of you," she said. They saw no harm in being together. "Maybe our seeing no harm in it is a good sign," said Beatrice. She took everything that came her way as a sign. But even where others saw a harbinger of calamity, she found confirmation of her belief that things would get better and better. Unpleasant happenings irritated her, but she took them too as favorable signs. Consequently she lived confidently from day to day, and when Keuschnig was with her, the moment when everything would cease to count seemed to him, sometimes at least, infinitely remote.
But now, without warning, everything in sight became a sign of death. He didn't want to look at anything; and because, even with his eyes open, he saw nothing to whichhe could hold fast, the oppression in his chest rose to his throat. He thought of the baby carriage with the plastic cover in the doorway and the crumbled plaster on the cover, and turned away without meaning to when as usual Beatrice started to help him out of his jacket. But it was he who was suddenly afraid of saying something wrong, or doing something wrong; it was he who suddenly couldn't help seeing some harm in everything, in cutting meat, in an embrace, even in breathing. The acts that should be performed naturally--drawing-the-cork-out-of-the-bottle, spreading-the-napkin-on-his-knees--he now performed as ceremonial functions and was afraid of being untrue to his role. In mortal terror, he suddenly called up his home. "Is all well?" he asked, deliberately using the stilted phrase to hide his anxiety. Back at the table, he was determined to do everything by himself, though as a rule he had liked Beatrice to peel an apple for him, for instance, at the end of the meal.
He didn't let her undress him. If she were to touch him, he would crush her with his fist. The actions of laying-his-trousers-over-the-back-of-a-chair, of lying-down-in-bed-together, of inserting-the-penis-in-the-vagina. When she stroked his member with her fingernail, he felt she was infecting him with some loathsome skin disease. Intermittently, under the light pressure of her vagina, he felt protected, but at the orgasm, in place of something hot, a cold shiver came out of him and instantly spread over his whole body. He wished he were washed and dressed that minute, sitting opposite her, at some distance. When she looked at him, he passed his thumb over her lids as though in a caress, to make her close her eyes and stop seeing him. A moment later she opened them again. Those open eyes seemed to belaughing; this time he forcibly held them shut. Beatrice turned her head away from his hand and went on looking at him, more amused than alarmed. Thereupon he closed his own eyes.--He kept them closed until he felt safe again. Then it became unbearable not to see anything. When he opened his eyes, his lids popped obscenely, as though they had been pasted and an effort had been needed to tear them open, first one, then the other. Beatrice was still looking at him, or rather, she had begun to watch him--as though something were wrong. Though her mouth was closed, her lips were slightly parted at one corner, revealing a bit of glinting canine. He thought of a dead pig, but only to avoid feeling inferior to her. The longer they looked at each other, the more concerned she became and the more he lost interest. Merely because he hadn't a thought in his head, he grimaced--no, his face turned into a grimace without his stirring a muscle. He simulated a yawn, so as to be able to close his eyes again. Then he took hold of Beatrice's hair and forced her head down to his belly; she took his member into her mouth and pushed it out with her tongue; if her face had been on a level with his, he might have thought she was sticking out her tongue at him. Filled with warmth, he had a feeling that he and Beatrice briefly belonged together, and that if he could only start talking, he would come to understand her completely.
In the kitchen they drank coffee. He watched her taking the crême caramel out of the icebox, so it wouldn't be too cold when the children came home. Then she did indeed sit down across from him, out of reach, just as he had wished, and carefully sharpened pencils, lead pencils for the older child and colored pencils for the younger one, who stillwent to the école maternelle. As he looked at her, he succeeded little by little in immersing himself in his vision. He heard the water flowing in the gutter of the silent street outside the open window. It gurgled over an occasional jutting stone, and the longer he listened the more his vision expanded; the flowing water turned into a brook, whose gurgling flow related to an almost forgotten event. The pencils, which Beatrice kept turning in her pencil sharpener, RASPED--and suddenly Keuschnig couldn't remember his own name. He was out of danger as long as so much unfinished business was left on the kitchen table. Kitchen table: those words meant something now. A certainty. He could get up and leave it, yet always come back to this place--where there were red floor tiles and Beatrice, attentively turning pencils but then suddenly holding a pencil still and turning the sharpener, as though a mere fancy in her head had become an embodied wish, as though an impersonal idea had become a personal contradiction or a long-outgrown memory a present emotion. The apartment around him now seemed to be on ground level, yet bright and airy as if it were somewhere high in the sky.--Ecstatically Keuschnig closed his eyes to keep from crying, but also to relish his tears the more.
He saw everything as though for the last time. While still looking at Beatrice, he no longer belonged to her, he could only--indeed, he had to--behave as if he did. There was a crackling inside him, then everything went to pieces. A complicated fracture of the mind, he thought. A few splinters of emotion had worked their way through the outer covering, and he had gone rigid forever. Can one, in speaking of the body, speak of ugly suffering? The body has uglywounds, the soul has ugly suffering. And some bodily wounds have been beautiful, so much so that one has been sorry to see them heal, but in the mind there is only suffering, and that is ugly.--"I think I've eaten too much," he said to Beatrice, who looked at him from time to time with interest, but without alarm. Outside the window a seed capsule floated past. Good Lord! Keuschnig had a feeling that the shit in his bowels had turned the wrong way. In another second he would be sending a loud fart into the room.
For a moment Beatrice averted her eyes, but then looked at him again. She wants to help me, he thought, in such a rage that he might almost have struck her in the face; his forearm, resting on the table, had gone tense. He withdrew it discreetly, and she blew the shavings out of her pencil sharpener. Above all, no special treatment! Covertly he checked to make sure the position of his legs under the table was the same as usual. One leg stretched out, the other bent--right. What Keuschnig feared most was that someone might show understanding, or actually understand him. If someone were to say knowingly: "We all have such days. I've had them myself"--it would sicken him; but if someone were to understand him silently, then he would feel disgraced. And Beatrice had turned away, as though to avoid seeing through him. But perhaps she had no desire to see through him. That was it, she simply had no desire to. Which meant that she didn't take him seriously, which was just as well. Cheerfully he stood up, bent over the table, and touched her; she gave her shoulders a big shrug, failing to understand his gesture, but accepting it because it was his. Things would never again be the same as before, thoughtKeuschnig nor did he want them to be. Actually they never had been. How fragmented his former life seemed to him, how ... he couldn't even say. And for the second time he became curious. "Your eyes have suddenly contracted so," said Beatrice. "Are you thinking of an adventure?" "What about you?" "Always," she said. "Just at the most ecstatic moment, I always think the real thing is still to come."
They left the apartment together. She took the elevator, he went down the stairs. On the street they met again, but parted at once, Beatrice with a serious but untroubled countenance, wordlessly, as though all necessary arrangements had been made. So long, see you tomorrow. But what about today? He would go back to work; at six he would attend a press conference at the Elysée Palace, devoted to the program of the new government; at nine he would dine at home with an Austrian writer who happened to be living in Paris (an instance of the seated entertainment provided for in his budget); and after that he would presumably be tired enough to fall into a dreamless sleep. A full program, he thought gratefully; not a free moment, every move mapped out until midnight or later, when he would switch off his bedside lamp. For today at least every minute was taken up; no room for any dangerous extra motion; the bliss of a crowded timetable.--And indeed, when he thought about it, he felt blissfully hedged about. He was able to lift his eyes untroubled; the world lay before him as though it had been waiting for him the whole time.
The air was so clear that from the hill one was able to look out on all sides beyond the edge of Paris, where the land was green again. This was a vista that precluded all thought of confusion; every detail, however recalcitrant, was subordinatedto the overall picture. That suited him at present, because he didn't want to be reminded of anything. In the presence of this panorama, which even after the first glance presented no salient features, he was able to exhale himself until nothing troublesome remained.--Suddenly he caught sight of a tourist in an army jacket standing next to him. A toothbrush protruded from his breast pocket. Before actually noticing this toothbrush, Keuschnig remembered with a jolt, as though he had suddenly become his own double, that such a toothbrush had occurred in his dream the night before and had been connected with him in his role of fugitive murderer. Thus far he had been able, while standing on the hillside, to see his dream in its proper place, so to speak, to see it as a dream. And what now? How absurd that a panoramic view of this kind should correct the dimensions of things. What then were the right dimensions? My dream was true, he thought, and now I've betrayed it to this harmony that was drummed into me. Panoramic coward with the eyes of a glider pilot. That dream must have been the first sign of life in me since God knows when. I should have taken it as a warning. It came to me because I'd been looking in the wrong direction, it wanted to turn me around. To wake me up and make me forget my somnambulistic certainties. It has always been easy for me to forget dreams. It will be difficult to drop my certainties, because they will cross my path day after day--though in reality others have merely dreamed them for me. The certainty, for instance, of my vision as I look on swarming humanity from this hill, merely perpetuates someone else's dream of life. What, thought Keuschnig, is my dream of life? I will forget my certainty by losing myself in a dream of life. Let us supposethat last night's dream was my dream of life.--Keuschnig had an impulse to follow the stream that was flowing down the gutter and would soon merge with another stream--to follow it across the whole city.
From time to time, that day, he felt very cheerful, but never for long. In the moment of breathing easy, his breath caught, and everything became impossible. Even in his bright moments he couldn't help wondering what would happen next. Always having to think of the future, yet unable to conceive of any future--that added up to hopelessness. Up until then he had seldom felt so cheerful and never so hopeless. And every time he felt cheerful he lost confidence in his feeling; his cheerfulness did not remain present to him, nothing remained present--not even the thought of a dream of life. Like a voluptuary he kept thinking of only one thing, though the one thing was not a woman's hole but the unimaginable. Could it be that no one saw his obscene face? He couldn't understand why after a first glance someone didn't cast another, special sort of glance at him, or why no woman turned away after taking one look at him. Actually, a woman had turned away, averted her face in disgust. Maybe people would know him for what he was if he stood beside a clump of bushes in the park.
He had a taste of blood in his mouth. The repulsive part of it was not that he had become different during the night but that everything seemed so eternally the same. And there was nothing repulsive about his showing himself as he did; what was repulsive was that the people around him didn't do likewise. He tried to figure out how old he was, and counted not only the years but also the months and days,until the minute now, in which he was standing on the top of Montmartre. He had already spent so much time! When he considered how just this last hour had weighed on him, it was beyond him that he hadn't suffocated long ago. But the time must somehow have passed? Yes, somehow the time had passed. Somehow the time passed. Somehow the time would pass: that was the most hideous part of it. When he saw people older than himself, they instantly struck him as obsolete. Why hadn't they gone out of existence long ago? How was it possible that they had survived and were keeping right on? There had to be some trick--routine alone couldn't account for it. He admired them a little, but for the most part they disgusted him; he had no curiosity about their tricks. Undoubtedly that Dane over there in the car with the Copenhagen plates deserved to be admired for driving relentlessly across the whole of Europe instead of falling off a cliff on the way, but wouldn't it have been more honorable of him to drive his car off a bridge before it was too late--on the Autobahn for instance? Because here he was just making a fool of himself with his Danish presence! --Altogether nothing made sense; the world only pretended to be sensible; much too sensible, Keuschnig thought. That a couple who sat down at a café table should still be a couple when they got up again: how very sensible! It was beyond him how when the two of them got up they could still be talking to each other, and in a friendly tone what's more, as though nothing were wrong.--And it wasn't true that he had only begun to see himself and others in this light the night before. Little by little it came back to him that even earlier he had been unable to understand how everything could simply flow along and remain as it was. Once he hadcrossed the whole of Paris on Line 9 of the Métro just to find out exactly what the advertisement for DUBONNET painted at regular intervals on the walls of the dark tunnels between stations represented. The train went so fast that he never saw the whole picture but always the same small segment, and could make no sense of it. He should have got out in midtown, but as it was he continued on to the PORTE DE CHARENTON on the southeast edge of Paris, where the train had to slow down because of men working, and there he finally saw that the vague blobs represented bright-colored clouds and that the sphere in front of them was a kind of sun decorated with the colors of all the countries where DUBONNET was consumed ... In those days everything had tended to run too fast, and he had run along, because he wanted to recognize things. Since this last night something had stopped. This something was unrecognizable, and he could only turn away. To be initiated had become absurd, to be taken back into the fold had become unimaginable, to belong had become hell on earth. He saw great lumps of overcooked rice in a pot as big as the world. The swindle had been exposed and he was disenchanted.
Keuschnig went down the hill, step for step. What affectedly carefree gaits, what inimically serene faces. He felt no desire to emulate them, only a furious impulse to ape them--all these faces so bright and summery that the only way to bear them was to ape them, as sometimes at a café, often involuntarily to be sure, you ape the facial expression of those women who trip past you so mincingly, looking neither to left nor right for fear of losing their semblance of beauty, or as a drunk returning a stare is likely to put on the starer's expression.
A woman coming in the opposite direction broke into a smile in the middle of the street and began to run. He was frightened. Had she gone mad? Then he saw someone some distance off, walking toward her--and he too was smiling. Imperturbably smiling, they approached one another, preserving their smiles the whole way despite every obstacle, although the man stumbled over an empty wooden crate and the woman collided with a passer-by. Keuschnig couldn't bear the sight any longer and, conscious of pressure on his bladder, walked away. Now, he thought, they'll be putting their preposterous arms around each other, looking into each other's pitiful eyes, kissing each other's pathetic cheeks, left and right. And then imperturbably they'll go their senseless ways. Spooky! He had the feeling of having to lower his bottom jaw to let the accumulated saliva run out. He saw a child standing lost in thought; a bubble came out of its mouth and burst. He passed a man carrying a black attache case. You'd think he'd be ashamed! Keuschnig thought. When I see somebody like that, I could cross myself.--Yet he himself was carrying just such an attaché case, and instead of throwing it into the nearest trash can he heroically went on carrying it. Heroes of everyday life. He couldn't get rid of the idiotic smile he had put on to ape people, and it was starting to itch. He didn't scratch with his fingers but tried to relieve the itch by making even worse faces. Even the infants under the parasols, with their mashed-carrot-colored cheeks struck him as fakes. Even they, he thought, are only acting as if. The truth is that they're absolutely fed up with their preposterous baby existence! When he saw an animal, he was amazed that it wasn't doing its business at that particular moment. Once hethought: if anybody speaks to me now, I'll crack his skull for him. If anyone so much as looked at him, Keuschnig said to him in his thoughts: Watch your step! (Nevertheless, he couldn't see why no one spoke to him. When a Frenchman from the provinces asked him the way to the RUE DE L'ORIENT, he was grateful to be able to direct him, and his next few steps were winged.)
To everything that crossed his path he wanted to say: Don't show yourself again! And instantly whatever it was did show itself again, in another form but with the same loathsome substance. He didn't catch sight of things; they showed themselves. He walked quickly for fear that someone would notice his ruthlessness. Yet when a woman with a conspicuously low-cut dress came toward him, he stared brazenly in an attempt to spy her nipples.--Everything seemed taken care of, as though in a game of puss-in-the-corner the last player had found a place and there was no further need for a supernumerary to be standing around. How boring he seemed to himself; how alone!
The sweet familiar after-feeling in his member, which ordinarily stayed with him long after he had been with Beatrice, had soon left him. Now he looked only at the ground. A peach stone that someone had just thrown away lay damp on the sidewalk; looking at it, Keuschnig suddenly realized that it was summer, and this became strangely important. A good omen, he thought, and after that he was able to walk more slowly. Perhaps there would be more such signs. The plate-glass windows of a café that had closed for the summer were whitened on the inside ... The wheels of a bicycle on top of a passing car flashed as they turned. The smell of shellfish came to him from the market stalls thathad closed in the meantime, and he breathed deeply, as though that smell had power to heal.
When at the foot of the hill he stepped out into the Place Blanche, there was suddenly so much space around him that he stopped still. "San Diego." Had he heard that or only thought it?--In either case, no sooner had SAN DIEGO entered his head than he clenched his fists and thought: Who said the world has already been discovered?
In the next moment, while standing motionless on the Place Blanche, he wanted to leave Paris immediately. But then he realized that though a journey might at one time have made some difference, it wouldn't any more. From this thing that had hit him, there was no possibility of flight. Besides, it hadn't hit him--it had just happened. It had long been due. San Diego and his fist clenching--both meant he would stay in Paris and not give himself up for lost. I'll show you yet! he thought.--Even so, the sound of a typewriter coming out of a travel bureau filled him with envy and yearning; the keys were being struck hesitantly--now one letter, now another--as though someone were typing the difficult name of some city beyond the sea. And then the click of a calculator--as though the waiting customer's bill for the plane fare and his stay in the faraway city were being made out.
A couple were standing on the sidewalk, both decrepit with age. The man rested his trembling head on the woman's shoulder, not as a momentary gesture but because he couldn't hold it up. With one hand the woman pressed his head against her shoulder, and thus inseparable they slowly crossed the square. Like man and wife, Keuschnig thought contemptuously, and yet for a moment he wasmollified by an intimation of something else. "You're not the world," he said to himself, feeling strangely proud of the couple.--But when he stepped into a cab a moment later the usual dog in the seat beside the driver barked at him as if he shouldn't have been allowed to get in, and at the old familiar sound of the diesel engine he experienced a murderous rage. Oh yes, now he was the world, and all at once his attempts to hush up the fact appeared to him in the form of an image: he had an apple out of which a bite had been taken, and kept trying to put it into a basket with others in such a way as to conceal the damage, but the apple kept rolling to one side, and the bitten part always ended on top. And that was the truth of it: already the driver was cranking down his window and shouting "Salaud!" at the traffic, already he was talking to him over his shoulder as to an accomplice. From now on, thought Keuschnig, I won't answer anyone--I'll only SPEAK SIDEWAYS. Whimper sideways. All at once he sympathized with the dog for letting his tongue dangle from the side of his mouth. What massive nausea--beyond the help of smelling salts! A minute of silence! he thought, just one minute of silence, please, in this eternal hubbub of absurdity! A tumult had sprung up on a street corner, and now everything around him was one great tumult; no end in sight--but the one thought in his head was the thought of an end.
Suddenly he saw his face in the rear-view mirror. It was so distorted that at first he refused to recognize it. He wasn't looking for comparisons, but several animals came to mind. No one with that face could express thoughts or feelings. He looked at himself again, but since he was now prepared, as he had been in the morning outside the bakery, he couldn'tfind the same face, not even when he grimaced while searching for it. But it had happened: with that one unplanned glance he had lost his acceptance of his own appearance. What self-control Beatrice must have needed! Women are said to be less squeamish than men. In any case, he thought, a person with a face like that should keep quiet. With such a mug you've got to have your nerve with you even to carry on conversations with yourself. Inconceivable that he would ever again say amiably to himself: "Come on, old fellow." On the other hand--and at this thought he sat up straight --with such a face I can afford to have feelings which up until now have come to me only in dreams!--and instantly he remembered the brand-new pleasure it had given him to pee on a woman in a dream. He had been upset when he woke up. That wasn't me, he had thought. But such pleasure went with his newly discovered face; far from being unlike him, it was his very own self. He now understood that with this unmasked face nothing, nothing whatsoever, could be unlike him. "Not like me" had lost its validity as an argument. But by the same token he could now dispense with remorse. With such a face no excuses were possible. Keuschnig thought himself capable of anything, even a sex murder. At last he owned to himself that killing the old woman in his dream had been a sex murder.--Suddenly the cab driver's dog began to growl at him, and Keuschnig was afraid of himself. Time to get back to work, he thought. Good old office.
The afternoon had been going on and on, and now time became acute, like an organ one doesn't notice until it stops functioning. All at once there was so much of it that, instead of just passing, it took on an existence of its own.Everybody was affected; now no one could take refuge in activity; and almost with a sense of liberation Keuschnig reflected that at last he wasn't alone in this predicament. What had previously been a mere organ of universal unity became independent, became something more than its functioning, and from then on nothing functioned. The day seemed to have grown too long, time was now a hostile element that threatened a somnolent civilization with catastrophe. It was as though everyday time were no longer in force, and as though this condensed, hostile time were meant for a human being only in the sense that a trap is "meant" for someone, and as though even an animal would be unable to smell it out. All at once time began to pass amid the buildings as though governed by an extra-human system, in a dimension different from the course of the streets or the riverbank parapet or the motion of construction cranes, different from the whirling of pigeon feathers falling from the roofs or of the seed capsules gliding between motorcars. It seemed to Keuschnig that this merciless, elemental time crawling along under the tall luminous sky had expelled all life from the world, that every manifestation of human beings had become a meaningless interlude. Some children were hopping about on a dance floor that had been knocked together for some long-past fete, and a few ridiculous leaflets that no longer meant anything to anyone were skittering this way and that. As though the sky now partook of an alien system, it became too high for the high towers of civilization in the foreground of the picture, and against the compact, menacing background the human landscape degenerated into a junkyard. The deep blue with which a time grown plethoric weighed on the world was the essential--the scatteredleaflets down below, in which only fear of life or death could beguile him (or anyone else!) to find the slightest meaning, were a secondary, minor factor. Keuschnig saw the sky arching over the Place de la Concorde as something incongruous and hostile, plunging its edges down at the Place. The street lamps on the Pont des Invalides glowed black before his eyes, as after long staring at the cloudless heavens--a memory of a past fete. Unable to confront the great open square--no, not now!--he left the cab before it reached the Esplanade des Invalides and ran--to what safety? Suddenly, as he ran, a warm raindrop fell from the clear, dark sky and landed on the back of his hand ... When, in the rue Fabert, Keuschnig saw the brass plate inscribed "Austrian EMBASSY," he was able to "laugh again," and back in his office, the moment a sheet of clean white paper emerged from the black roller of his typewriter, he had the feeling that things were back to normal ... Only once did he cower and hold his ears, his heart pounding deep in his body, as though outside, beyond the sheltering walls, something had erupted, against which the best decorated embassy was powerless. Heaven help those who are now defenseless, he thought, yet at the same time he hoped that this state of affairs would go on, because in his present, apocalyptic mood he had no personal feeling of himself, or at any rate so little as to believe he shared it with all others. But what if he were mistaken?--That, Keuschnig thought, would be the end of a possibility, even if the apparently universal situation outside me were only my personal situation.
Translation copyright © 1977 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc. Originally published in German under the title Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung © 1975 by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main All rights reserved