Read an Excerpt
Many Good and Beautiful Things
Alice leans against the window, her arm resting on the windowsill, and looks out onto the street at evening falling in the city. She loves the dusk, the blue hour between day and night, and always has. A man is turning the corner: it's the Italian man who lives in the basement of the house kitty-corner to hers, and he is hauling a sack of either coal or potatoes, she can't tell anymore in the twilight. But she sees the door of the house fly open and two children rush out, a boy and a girl, and she sees the man put his sack down when he catches sight of the children and spread out his arms to catch them and tumble them around, first the girl and then the boy. It's a little painful for her to watch. That's how Michael caught up his children when he came home, and they loved it, screaming and shrieking as much as those two on the other side of the street, whose delighted voices she can hear even through the closed window here on the third floor.
She turns around, stands with her back against the window, and her eye falls on the large oval painting in the heavy gilded frame hanging on the opposite wall. She contemplates the little girl she once was and wonders if she ever greeted her father like that when she was a child. Probably not. August Stern was a sober and serious man, and Alice's governess had always spoken of him with a lowered voice and deep respect. Alice cannot imagine that he ever once tumbled a child around in his arms.
She can no longer see the girl in the painting very clearly, but that doesn't matter, she knows the girl so well that she can see her even with her eyes closed, she doesn't need to turn on the light. She isn't sure anymore how old she was back when Professor Schlesinger painted her in Frankfurt. Maybe four or five, she couldn't have been much older than that. And when the governess pushed her through the door, he would have said, "There's my shweet little girl!" since in Frankfurt all little girls were "shweet." But his cajoling voice and the smile he put on couldn't fool her, she knew how quickly he would turn mean if she didn't keep as still as he wanted her to. His face with its brown goatee would twist into a grimace, and his voice would lose its cajoling tone. Alice can hear it even now, this hard voice brusquely reprimanding her, and can feel the smell of paint and turpentine mixed with pipe tobacco in her nose sixty-five years later, and how she was seized by a longing to get back to her nursery, which rises up before her eyes perfectly clearly, as though she were seeing it in real life: the dolls, the dolls' kitchen with a stove you could turn on, a dining table with real porcelain dishes on it; she sees the bookshelf with all the fairy tales-had Struwwelpeter even been published back then? Yes, of course, she can still hear her governess's voice reading her the story of the boy who wouldn't eat his soup-she sees her four-poster bed, like heaven with its clouds of tulle, sees the window with its white lace drapes and the green velvet curtains tied back during the day with gilded ropes.
She can still hear the governess come in and say, "Come along now, Alice, it's time," how she would untie Alice's apron and take off her play clothes, tear the doll from her hand despite her frantic efforts to hold on to it, and put her finger on her lips when Alice began to cry: "Shhh, Mama has a headache, you don't want to make Mama sicker, do you? You're a big girl now."
Even now it frightens her to think about it. Later, when she had children herself, she winced every time the expression "You don't want to_._._._, do you?" unintentionally escaped her lips, and she would try, confused, to find other words. Back then, when she was a child, "You don't want to_._._._, do you?" had worked on her like a magic spell to break her resistance, like a mysterious potion that paralyzed her. Little Alice let herself be dressed in the white undergarments with the frilly flounces, the pink slip that was so starched it rustled when she moved, and then the fine lace dress with a sash of the same pink color. She had gotten the dress only a few weeks earlier, because her old Sunday dress, which had been much more comfortable, was now too small for her-the pretty sky blue bodice was so tight that the governess could no longer hook it closed. Mother had ordered the fabric, sought out the lace, and summoned the seamstress, who in any case was at their house quite often. A redheaded, freckled woman from the Odenwald, she had sewn all day until the new dress was finally finished.
Alice smiles at the painting, a shweet girl, and for a moment she thinks she can feel the white stockings, the gray kid-leather little boots a bit too tight. Strange, how precisely she remembers everything to do with this painting; maybe it is because she has looked at it all her life, longer than anything else, longer even than the pieces of furniture she had brought with her two years ago when she moved from Frankfurt to Basel. It had hung first in her parents' drawing room, then, after that terrible day when she lost her father and had to give up her familiar home and move into her grandfather's house, in her mother Cornelia's room, then after Cornelia's death in her own house, first in Frankfurt, Jordanstrasse 4,* and now here in Basel, Schweizergasse 50. When she thinks about herself as a child, she always sees herself looking the way she looks in this painting.
Little Alice had hated being led in to Professor Schlesinger like that. She knew she would have to stand still, not move her feet even if her legs became stiff and started to hurt, not turn her head to look at a fly, that it was just as forbidden to scratch anywhere if it itched. She had always looked for excuses not to see the professor, but the governess had insisted. "You don't want Papa to have spent all that money for nothing, do you?" No, of course she didn't want that, Papa had to work hard for his money. Every morning he put his hat on his head and set out to the office, and sometimes, when the weather was so bad that you wouldn't turn a dog out in such a storm, he sighed.
The evening grows dimmer, the shadows rise up in the corners of the room, the hard handle of the window presses against her back, but Alice stays standing, motionless, even if the painting gradually blurs before her eyes and only a few bright patches remain visible. The older she gets, the closer the past seems to her and the more clearly images from her memory that she thought were forgotten rise up before her. She thinks about the sentence her grandfather had spoken so often, "The less future someone has, the more the present loses its meaning," and she smiles at the thought that she had always taken this for idle chatter, the meaningless talk of an old man who doesn't know what he's saying anymore, because what would that mean, life without future? Back then, everything was the future, the whole world, and at least half her thoughts started with "When I grow up_._._." But now?
This might be the moment when an idea comes to her-first vague, then clearer; first a "Maybe," then a "Why not?" and finally a "Yes, that would be good." She goes straight to the light switch, squints in the sudden brightness, turns back to the window, pulls the heavy curtains shut, and in a few quick steps is at her desk, also brought from Frankfurt. She flips open the desk, pulls open a drawer, takes out a black bound notebook, picks up her glasses, and sits down in the armchair. Now she knows what she has to do, and she is relieved that she thought of it in time. It is like an assignment that was given to her some time in the past and that she only now understands. She will write up her life story, for her sons, Robert, Otto, and Herbert, and her daughter, Leni-she will write a letter and give it to them next week when they all come to celebrate her seventieth birthday.
This time it won't be a poem-nothing cheerful, none of the usual allusions or inside jokes that call forth an understanding smile from the adults and a titter from the children, who of course know the family language perfectly well. This time it will be something to remind her descendants of her when she is no longer there, something to connect her children to a past that was her past too and that she has lost as a result of these barbaric Nazis. For who knows if she will ever get back what she has lost. Sometimes Alice no longer believes that the world will ever be the same again, the way it was- the dark clouds on the horizon are too threatening. In this weather you wouldn't turn a dog out of the house, she thinks, without smiling. She unscrews the inkwell, takes up her pen, dips it in the ink, and begins to write:
December 20th, 1935*
My dear children, gathered here around me after such a long time apart, on this, my 70th birthday-If I have decided to give you a very short look back & into my childhood life, there is no reason to fear any hidden motives. It is only that I feel a need to give you a permanent, lasting token of our time together today.-
Most children know so little about their parents' youth! And grandchildren are even less able to imagine that we were once young like them. Only much later do they realize it, & there is a lot they can understand & comprehend only then. Even adult children usually know only what they have seen and understood in person, & what they have lived through themselves.-
Granted, your father told you many stories about his childhood & youth with his large family in the beloved old house in Landau. Respect for one's elders and brotherly love laid the groundwork there for a beautiful & devoted life together. The fate of every individual was borne as a group, & every joy and celebration was shared.-
Yes, the house is beautiful, Alice thinks with a certain melancholy, even if it did always strike her as a bit run-down. It was built in the Middle Ages and used to be a postal station, a lodge for mail carriages, horses, and travelers, but after 1855, when the Neustadt- Landau railway line was opened and then soon extended to Weissenburg, there were no more postal carriages and the owner of "Zur Blum" gave it up. That is how Zacharias Frank, Michael's father, could buy it for his family in 1870. Of course Michael was already nineteen years old then, so he didn't live there for long. Zacharias Frank, whose father, Abraham, had come as a private tutor from Fürth to Niederhochstadt, about six miles from Landau, moved to the city in 1841 after obtaining a license as an iron dealer. He had run a good business, started lending out money, and become a banker of sorts. Alice had never met him; he died the year before she was married. He and his wife, Babette, had nine children: four sons and five daughters. Michael was the sixth child, and Babette was quite worried about him because he was past thirty and still not married. So she was ecstatic when Michael and Alice got engaged. The whole family welcomed Alice with open arms.
It was strange for Alice at first, all these people who talked too loud, laughed too loud, wanted too much from her, brought her so close. She would have preferred to hang back, go for walks alone with Michael; she would have been happy to be left in peace to organize her thoughts. But that was out of the question. No sooner had she sat down somewhere with a piece of needlework-she always brought some needlework with her when she visited the family in Landau, as something to cling to-than a sister-in-law would come up to her, an aunt, a cousin by marriage, a neighbor, or even her mother-in-law, to drag her away at the top of their lungs and with an eagerness incomprehensible to her, to join them in some housework or in the kitchen, in a walk to the market, in a visit to a friend.
Babette, her mother-in-law, was a friendly, good-natured woman who liked to eat and ate a lot, cried a lot, and laughed even more. But she was strong willed too, had raised nine children and kept the large house running smoothly despite her age. This woman, who at the time was probably younger than Alice herself is today, never understood how Alice could not know how to cook, how she had never learned and wasn't trying to learn. "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach," she said once, before the wedding, and when Alice answered, "We always had a cook, and she did all the cooking," Babette shook her head in disbelief and cast a sympathetic glance at her son Michael. Once, Alice heard one of the sisters-in-law whisper to another: "Michael's bride is too delicate to get her hands dirty." It hurt her feelings, but she pretended she hadn't heard anything.
No, it wasn't easy for Alice to get used to this family back then, but she knew exactly what was expected of a good daughter-in-law and conformed to the expectations. And as the years went by, she learned to appreciate the friendly warmth of the Franks and understand that what she had thought was an uncultivated racket actually expressed vitality and affection, what at first had seemed like meddlesome curiosity later proved to be heartfelt sympathy.
Alice smiles. She dips the pen in the ink and keeps writing:
My childhood followed a very different course. As an only child, and with Mother so often ill, I got to know the darker shadows of life at a young age. It would not be entirely true to say that I felt my childhood to be a sad one, but it does not remain in my memory as particularly happy. The devoted love of my mother was compensation for much sadness. A grave nature & a tendency to brood has stuck with me to this day, & only in my mature years have I come to recognize that I also have many good & beautiful things to record, and which I should be thankful for.-
This tendency to brood is a heavy burden: even today she has to fight against a certain melancholy disposition that she was probably born with; even today she has to make an effort to perceive the "good & beautiful things" that she mentions here. She was never able to just take life as it comes and enjoy herself. Michael was completely different that way, and she learned a lot living at his side, made up for a lot of the pleasures that were perhaps missing from her childhood. Not only was he quite a bit older than she, and so more mature and experienced, but he also possessed an easygoing naturalness and openness to the world that amazed her again and again. It was he who taught her how to enjoy the pleasures of the lighter side of life, and with him, with his death, part of her own pleasure in life had died too.
From the Hardcover edition.