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The Story of a Bourgeois
By Joseph Roth, Richard Panchyk
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 2013 Richard Panchyk
All rights reserved.
My name is Naphtali Kroj.
The city in which I was born is no city at all compared with those in Western Europe. Fifteen hundred people lived there. Among these were a thousand Jewish merchants. A long street connected the station with the cemetery. The train came once a day. The travellers were hop merchants, for our city lay in a hop-growing region. There was a large hotel and a small one. The large one had been built by Wolf Bardach.
His mother was the operator of the steam baths. She died, age fifty-four, from a mysterious disease, a victim of her occupation. Her son, who had studied in the West and who wanted to become a notary, sold the steam baths so he could construct the Hotel Esplanade. He wanted the hotel to look very Western European – yes, even American. To this aim the hotel had to have at least six floors and four hundred rooms.
Futile were the reasonable comments of the many Jews that four hundred strangers would never come to our city. Herr Bardach himself designed the plans. He sent for many men from the great cities of the region. He wore golden pince-nez, a badge of his education, on a silk band. He stood bareheaded, his fat form squeezed into a grey coat, with a stick in his hand when the sun was shining and with an umbrella when it was raining. He had such a sturdy building frame constructed that even with his great weight he could climb upon it without causing it any damage.
As the third storey was completed he noticed that he had no money left.
He sold the property and his plans to the rich Herr Ritz for less than a couple of thousand and, deeply ashamed, set off clandestinely for Vienna to become a notary.
Herr Ritz sent for an engineer, one who sought a great deal of money and was not content with six storeys. He built seven. As the seven storeys were completed the bricklayers in the entire region celebrated. The engineer drank schnapps, walked along the edge of the scaffolding and fell off. His body was so battered that one could not determine whether he was Christian or Jewish. They buried him on the narrow pathway separating the Christian and Jewish cemeteries. Later on the wealthy Herr Ritz purchased him a marble gravestone to compensate.
The hotel was given the name Hotel Esplanade, a name written in gold letters. Herr Zitron from America, whom the people said was a dealer in women, became the hotel manager. It had 450 rooms. But, as the whole world knew that the builder had fallen, no tourists came.
Now back to me. I am the son of a cab driver. There were twenty-four cabs in our city, one for each hour of the day. My father had cab number 17. To this day I love that number.
My father drove every day to the train station to pick up travellers. He was a strong, bearded man without an education. The only noticeable features of his face were the bulbous red nose and the reddish beard. His short brow and his moist blue eyes were shaded by the leather peak of his sports cap. Owing to his profession, he unfortunately drank a great deal. Sometimes when there was no train he had to drive visitors around our area all day long. He stopped at every inn. My father drank schnapps to keep himself warm. Because he was affordable, reliable, brave and able-bodied he had the most customers. He feared neither wolves nor robbers. And the more he travelled, the more he drank. One night, as he returned home without any passengers from a remote inn, his horse and carriage became stuck in a snowdrift, and he passed out immediately.
The next morning he was found frozen to death.
My mother was already long dead. I was glad to inherit the horse and carriage, although I had already learned something, namely reading and writing from Professor Tobias. He was a little old man. When he was young he had a bouncing step. As an old man he walked on tiptoe rather than shuffle along.
Because the homes in our town lacked writing materials he carried ink and quill with him from one student to the next. At home we wrote the lessons with coal from the stove. Professor Tobias was the only man in our town with a top hat. As he had holes in his pockets he needed to wear such a hat. On his head he comfortably hid an inkwell and a feather. This had the disadvantage that he could not offer greetings to anyone. His index finger always rested upon the rim of his hat.
I was, as I said, perfectly happy to become a coachman. But my father's twenty-three colleagues were pleased that he was now in the ground under them. The richest among them, Coachman Manes, bought our horse, our sleigh and our cab. From then on he drove with two horses. He acquired a new whip with a lacquered shaft and a grip of braided straw. On the lash of Coachman Manes were no less than six knots. The whip crackled like a rifle.
Half of the money for the wagon and horse came to me and the other half to the Barkeeper Grzyb, a creditor of my father's. The drivers held a meeting, and it was decided that I should not become a coachman since I had received an education. They said it would be best if I went to stay with my rich relative Perlefter who ran a large timber business in Austria. Rumours circulated that Herr Perlefter was a millionaire. People spoke his name only with awe. The coachmen drank a total of forty-six schnapps one day and gained courage. They sent for Professor Tobias and had him write a letter to my relative Perlefter. The rich Herr Ritz knew the address and gave it to them. The letter was sent, and we awaited an answer. I broke bread every day with one or other of the coachmen.
Winter passed, and as the icicles hanging from the eaves began to melt and the renewing rain began to fall, putting an end to the snow, I became drunk with wanderlust. I was certain that a letter from Perlefter was coming soon.
On one of the first days of March came a brief letter from Herr Perlefter. He would be happy to have me.
I packed for a month. During this time an arrangement was made with Tewje the tobacco smuggler to take me across the border. Easter had already passed by the time the arrangements were finalized. At around the same time my suitcases were ready. On a rainy night I set out from the border with Tewje and five deserters. The customs officer waited until we had vanished, and then out of a sense of duty he fired three times into the air.
On the 28th of April 1904 I arrived in Vienna.
It was six in the morning. The streets of the great city were just awakening. The big ones first and then the small ones. It was as if morning were a family. First the parents awoke and then the children.
Tremendous wagons arrived from the countryside laden with farmers and vegetables. From other wagons came the clinking of milk churns. The houses seemed to me immeasurably high. Behind them the sun was creeping up. It was still chilly. Women with brooms swept their doorsteps. The first streetcars squealed reluctantly on their rails. The conductors rang the bells although the tracks were clear. They clanged out of morning arrogance. The policemen looked on like proud princes. They wore gleaming white gloves. Many of the streets were regal, wide and quiet and clean and guarded by trees. Much was in the air, a rural calm and the slumbering voice of an urban world. The fragrance wafted out of the gardens and into the streets. For the first time in my young life I saw laburnum. I had never read fairy-tales. Nevertheless I knew that these bushes were the fabled trees. Back home there were no laburnum. As I left my city spring had not yet arrived. Back there the snow had just started to melt. Here one could already perceive summer's approach ...CHAPTER 2
I think that now is the time to reveal Perlefter's first name. He was called Alexander. It is certainly a meaningless coincidence that he was so named – and I don't wish to give in to the seductive urge to make a strong connection with the character and name of my hero – yet I can't help but relate that I lost my respect for Alexander Perlefter for the first time as I recalled how Alexander the Great hewed the Gordian knot with his sword; I imagined that Herr Perlefter had never done anything of the sort. On the contrary. As I have already mentioned, Alexander Perlefter had no love for decisive negotiations or irrevocable resolve. He was not happy entering into those areas from which there were no straight and easy paths back. He liked to linger on the bridges that link one to both here and there because they allowed the person upon them to choose neither. Alexander Perlefter always crossed bridges. He had his cautious nature to thank for all that he achieved. His nature was forged by his own experiences. He was cautious.
Had he been named Florian, Ignatz or Emanuel my respect for him would have lasted longer. He was the first Alexander I had ever known in my young life. To me this name embodied the entirety of Herr Perlefter's personality. But, if I took him for the great Macedonian King Alexander, he naturally failed to measure up by comparison. Yes, as soon as I saw him I had to smile. From the first glance he was unremarkable, just an ordinary man. But when I got a closer look, when I examined the individual parts of his face, his right profile and his left, I knew that there were many secrets that lay hidden within that merited further exploration; I realized, above all, that the name Alexander did not suit him and that such a name as would suit him did not exist. It must be a word, both soft and yet tough, fading away from its own edges into other sounds, indecipherable and thus unusual, of an extraordinary ordinariness. Unfortunately such a name does not exist. Such a word does not exist.
Perlefter's body size was indeterminate. He could seem very small and at the same time very large. If he was unhappy, but also if he was lying, it seemed that he sank into himself like a body made of flaccid rubber. He might sometimes sit on a little children's chair and other times in a large leather armchair. Yes, I find myself in no small amount of embarrassment when I am unable to say whether Herr Perlefter was large, small or medium in size.
He could also, as the situation required, seem either strong or weak, infirm but also mighty. He was able (probably without even realizing it) to change the shape of his stomach, and, as nature had given him a narrow chest and delicate shoulders that gained muscle and fat over time, it remained uncertain whether he was actually broad-shouldered or narrow-framed.
He had a round, balding head and above the neck a small shiny bulge, so that it looked as though his brain could not find a place in its natural shell and therefore made itself a sort of back room. One could not tell at what point the forehead ended and the hair began. The bare skull lent Perlefter's entire personality a rather naked appearance, shiny and needlessly revealing, as if he had bared himself to force your embarrassment. His ears stood very far apart, were small, feminine and could even have been called dainty if had they been pressed closer to the head. They were eavesdroppers, listening to the world from distant outposts.
I could never determine the colour of his eyes. They didn't change – no, they remained ever the same – but they were without colour, rather, a collection of different residues, colours from an old palette that had commingled. Brown, grey, green and amber-yellow at the edges. By day, by night and in the twilight, ever were these eyes so, of an indistinct colour – round, small, open and naked. They were truly the eyes of a difficult-to-comprehend, ever-astonished and good-natured man. They stood very far apart, so that his nose had space to spread, and yet he had been given a narrow, well-shaped girlish nose, slightly flattened at the tip, that glowed like ivory between his round, rose-tinted cheeks. His mouth was also small and his lips red. All the more notable was the space in the middle of his sinuate chin, in which the entire majesty of Perlefter rested and out of which it radiated.
Yes, majesty, for in spite of everything Perlefter possessed a kind of majesty, like most people who are doing well. It was not the majesty of greatness but simply that of well-being. He looked wholly innocent when he was happy, like a chubby child. And yet bitterness slumbered within his joy. And just as he did not like resolute action, he had no resolute sensations. When he was happy, he made himself worried at the same time. As soon as he became depressed he was already hopeful. He could neither love nor hate. He either liked someone or he didn't like someone. Nevertheless he felt apprehensive for his children despite not wanting to. For he feared loss. What he possessed he wanted to keep. He wanted to keep his wife, although she bored him, and he felt for her only what one might for a housekeeper. Men of his type usually loved animals. Perlefter, however, feared animals, large and small; he even tried to get out of the way of birds so they didn't flutter around in front of him. He offered the dutiful cab horses that he encountered in the streets only a shy glance, for he didn't trust a creature he didn't understand. And he treasured the police, not only because they caught thieves, robbers and murderers but also because they were in charge of locking up stray dogs. In the Perlefters' house there were cats, and he would have liked to have shot them had he owned a gun and not been afraid to use it.
No, Perlefter did not like animals, and he was indifferent to people. Nevertheless, he was regarded as the most caring family man, the most love-seeking person, the most emotional citizen, for tears came easily for him. He could weep like an actor when the situation demanded it. He could feign joy at the happiness of others. He could play love, hatred, friendship, enmity, excitement, passion, sickness, even intoxication after he had only a sip of alcohol. He did not drink much; he drank very seldom, for he took no pleasure in alcohol. Yet he set out good wine before his guests and claimed to know about it. He tasted it with his tongue when he praised this or that variety, and it was quite easy to believe that he had drunk a lot in his lifetime. Perhaps alcohol would have brought him pleasure if he did not continue to fear that he would lose in drunkenness his composure, his secrets and probably also money. Because of that he had lately begun to excuse himself on account of illness, but he was not sick. But neither was he well. He could become sick if he wanted or when he feared illness.
For even more dear to him than the lives of his children was his own life. In the still of the night hours he could hear Death's approaching gallop. Conjuring fearful imagery, he was threatened by his own imagination. When Herr Perlefter had rheumatic pain in his bones he could already experience an amputation, see a crutch, a wheelchair, an operating table and sharp instruments. And he often had rheumatic pain in his bones and various other pains elsewhere. 'Take care of yourself!' shouted his friends. 'Take care!' cried his wife with fright in her voice, while the voices of his friends quivered with friendly and cheerful sympathy. Perlefter took care of himself, but his anxiety was greater than his care. In the midst of his self-ministrations he was overtaken by fear, and it bore him pain. Because of that his family nagged, 'He's not taking care of himself!'
I should not, at the risk of someone accusing me of injustice, question the possibility that owing to his poor childhood and his earnest efforts he had become somewhat frail. It is quite possible. To tell the truth, Herr Perlefter did have a difficult childhood. He was the son of a poor father of many children who had failed at various careers and whose strict principles could not be loosened by his poverty. Alexander saw himself as the only one among his siblings who could adapt to these strict principles and become the favourite son. By submitting to the cruelty and obeying he deprived it of nourishment. However, the others only increased the fatherly tyranny through their disobedience, poor manners and rebellion against the rules of the house. There was nothing, though, from which Alexander Perlefter was further removed, and hated more, than poor manners. He would not run or climb, he was anxious in front of young ladies – just as he was before the wild boys and teenagers who threatened him – and he told the teacher, the principal and even the caretaker that the others had stolen the bell and put shreds of paper in the headmaster's cap. Alexander brought home the best report card, received some pocket money as a reward and made his way to the circus to see for himself the things of which everyone was so excitedly speaking. He went in a blue suit made of durable rep, with a crisp collar around the neck, and behind him followed his gang of brothers making fun of him. Alexander did not concern himself with them. He knew that they had no money and that they would be turned away at the entrance to the circus. But how did he feel when he saw that some of his brothers infiltrated the line of those who were waiting for tickets to get inside and that they succeeded? Some begged adults to take them in because every adult was allowed to bring one child in for free, and others begged so long that they were able to gather enough money for the entrance fee. Why? Should Alexander give up his precious money for a few horses that were wild anyway and which could gallop out of the arena and into the audience, while the others paid no money for this diversion and thus could truly enjoy the amusement? Alexander was so annoyed that he turned back and informed his father of his brothers' behaviour. For snitching he received permission to wear his new suit of sturdy rep for the rest of the afternoon. His brothers got a thrashing in the evening. He heard them wailing, and each of their cries delighted his heart.
Excerpted from Perlefter by Joseph Roth, Richard Panchyk. Copyright © 2013 Richard Panchyk. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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