Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz: A Novel


With the onset of a debilitating illness, Benedikt, an ascetic mathematician, longs for a child so advertises to adopt a boy. A couple of impoverished Russian refugees mother and son respond. With this unlikely pair, Benedikt undergoes a hilarious, agonizing, sentimental education set against the chaotic backdrop of reunified Germany.
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With the onset of a debilitating illness, Benedikt, an ascetic mathematician, longs for a child so advertises to adopt a boy. A couple of impoverished Russian refugees mother and son respond. With this unlikely pair, Benedikt undergoes a hilarious, agonizing, sentimental education set against the chaotic backdrop of reunified Germany.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When is it too late to love? That's the question posed by this unflaggingly arch, if unimaginatively plotted second novel by Dische (Pious Secrets and the short-story collection Strange Traffic). It chronicles the slow ensoulment of one Benedikt Waller, an unmarried, 41-year-old mathematical physicist living in post-reunification Berlin. Walleractually Benedikt August Anton Cecil August Count Waller von Wallersteingarnered from his lonely childhood a love of science, a horror of his aristocratic origins and a distaste for human society so strong it verges on emotional autism. But when he contracts a terminal illness (possibly AIDS, although it's never specified), Waller heeds his sister's urgings to open his heart to others: "You'd be able to die with your feelings informed, you'd know what you missed," she says. He advertises in the paper for a child to adopt and is soon sharing his apartment with a shy, suspicious young boy named Valerie and his mother, Marja, a disheveled, strong-minded former pianist, both refugees from the Soviet Union. The chronicle of Waller's frustrated attempts to win Valerie's affectionand to puzzle out the increasingly appealing Marjais larded with innumerable subplots involving Waller's housekeeper, his assorted colleagues and relatives and the staff at the 14th-century ancestral castle to which he eventually decamps with his charges. Dische, an American filmmaker and Berlin resident, is a highly accomplished, unsentimental satirist with a sharp eye for human quirks and for the class conflicts and petty xenophobia of contemporary Germany. But her vivisectional flair can't compensate for characters that never fully come to life or for a story that inches along to a pedestrian, conventionally bittersweet conclusion. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Benedikt Waller's terminal illness is merely the physical complement to a moribund emotional life. A German count by birth, he is a mathematician dedicated to the study of the solitron, a particle that never collides with another particle. Facing death, however, he places an ad for a baby boy, hoping to obtain an heir. What he gets is Marja, a dirty Russian immigrant woman, and Valery, her incorrigible son. Unable to turn them away, Benedikt takes them back to the family estate and marries Marja. For a solitary man, he soon has a rich, if strange, life. Also orbiting him are his sister and her family; his institute colleagues; Schmidt, his male lover; and the estate staff. Set against the reunification of Germany, this allegorical tale by the author of Strange Traffic: Stories (Holt, 1995) moves wryly toward its strangely touching conclusion. Recommended for large collections.Paul Hutchison, Bellefonte, Pa.
Kirkus Reviews
A curious tale, by turns sympathetic and aloof, of the humanization of a German mathematician/aristocrat who seeks contact with his own kind after learning he has a terminal disease, from the quirky imagination of Berlin-based American expatriate Dische (Strange Traffic, 1995, etc.).

Benedikt Waller von Wallerstein spent his adult life in the single-minded pursuit of the solitron, a theoretical particle that by definition exists forever on its own, until a lethal illness brings him face to face with his mortality. As the last male in his noble line, he naively decides to advertise for a child to adopt as his heir—and is rewarded by the arrival of a wild, disheveled Russian woman and her son, Valerie, who move right in. Not having a clue about how to deal with them, Benedikt is first angry, then resigned, and, when a dotty pensioner shows up looking for work as a housekeeper, he decides to leave Berlin and take all three to his ancestral castle. There, he renews ties with his bedridden grandmother, who takes an interest in the Russians, going so far as to get out of bed for the first time in 20 years—an act that kills her. Benedikt decides to marry Marja to make his adoption more seemly, the fact that she already has a husband notwithstanding. After a much publicized wedding, however, he takes action to get rid of her, finding Marja to be a disruption in his effort to be fatherly to Valerie. But events overtake those plans, and though he loses his wife and son somewhere in the Swiss Alps, all manage to find their way back to Berlin—in time for Valerie's true father to find them.

Eccentric doesn't begin to describe this rich, Germanic- flavored saga, but the twists and tangents that clash in mood and purpose finally make it seem more a collection of ingenious pieces than a finished work.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805053579
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/1/1997
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.81 (w) x 8.56 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Table of Contents

waltz 3
chapter 1 Marcia maestosa: Benedikt's family, its history and his
place in it, leading up to his current predicament 7
chapter 2 Lightly, nervously: Benedikt falls into
the hands of a psychiatrist 18
chapter 3 Not always the same tempo, and not as sweet as
others like it: Benedikt's love life was not
conventional, really 29
chapter 4 Speed it up: certain events occur which have no
obvious relationship to each other, being attached by
an invisible but as yet slack bond called the Future 36
chapter 5 Hurrying on: Benedikt has his future predicted by
various acquaintances Opinions are divided 43
chapter 6 Seriously now: Benedikt thinks his plan for
survival has backfired, and perhaps it has,
but perhaps it hasn't 54
chapter 7 Picking up speed: the fact that the Russian mother
exists quickly begins to affect Benedikt Can he
get rid of her again? 66
chapter 8 Long-lastingsweetness: Benedikt dreams about
his homeland 75
chapter 9 Resolutely: fate has its way with Benedikt He
objects, but cannot find words or actions to oppose it 81
chapter 10 Presto!: Benedikt makes a fast decision. He retreats 88
chapter 11 Without regret: Benedikt returns home 97
chapter 12 Dragging: some changes in Benedikt's life are
inevitable, some unpredictable 116
chapter 13 Interruption of a silence: Valerie giggles twice while
stillness regales the Countess with memories 129
chapter 14 Gravely, majestically: Benedikt takes part in a
family ceremony 135
chapter 15 Volubly: Benedikt expresses some ideas about
childrearing. This makes Marja nervous 148
chapter 16 Wild steps: the wedding guests and the newlyweds take
certain liberties 156
chapter 17 Wilder still: the liberties that certain humans take
affect the animal kingdom 169
chapter 18 The maternal heart, fluctuating 177
chapter 19 Upwards and downwards 187
chapter 20 For the advanced only: slowly, but with overtones
and undertones After the party is over the
aftermath begins 195
chapter 21 Powerfully: Valerie develops But Marja grabs
all the attention 203
chapter 22 Keine Ruh in Tag und Nacht: Einstein's ghost is
fed up with being asked for advice Nevertheless,
he gives some 217
chapter 23 Allegro assai: fear 220
chapter 24 Binding: Benedikt and Marja re-enact the pieta
Einstein is watching. He is not impressed 227
chapter 25 Smoothly: love begets confessions and all kinds of
nastiness 233
chapter 26 Slow rocking: Benedikt sets forth his plan to
get rid of Marja 242
chapter 27 Frantic: Isabella sets all sorts of cogs into
motion, without realizing it 254
chapter 28 Forced: a climax, but rather different from
the planned one 263
chapter 29 Hesitantly: Benedikt makes some decisions He visits
his sister and finds his relationship to her changed 269
chapter 30 Singing pain: Benedikt returns to Berlin and
tries to forget his loss by finding another child 274
chapter 31 An aria: with great expressiveness, including
a pinch of irony Benedikt searches his body for
the source of emotions 279
chapter 32 At the tempo fate designates: Benedikt, his friends,
and his acquaintances prove once more that if
novelty repeats itself again and again, turning
over like the ingredients of a soup cooking in a pot,
then the soup in the pot must be oblivion, and this
proves that novelty is oblivion 285
chapter 33 Minuet 303
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First Chapter


Marcia maestosa: Benedikt's family, its history and his place in it, leading up to his current predicament

The sick man called himself `Herr Waller,' and this was, in its brevity--`Herr,' `Waller'--a statement about his family. He belonged to a minority, a besieged population, a people who claim and feel kinship even though they live scattered all over the globe, a singular weed that does not crossbreed easily. They remain united by their certainty that they are special; even the poorest feel this and strive to practice their traditions. Periodically robbed as a group of their social standing, individuals have nevertheless often filled important positions in society. Their surnames give them away, as does their appearance, their behaviour, their odd relationship to money, and the fact that they can unfailingly pick each other out in public places. The sick man belonged to the aristocracy.

From the first time he consorted with other children, on his first day at school, he detested his full name, Benedikt August Anton Cecil August Count Waller von Wallerstein. He blushed just remembering the extra bits, like a shabby fringe, and refused to sign his schoolwork.

His teachers, weak with confused envy, tweaked him. `But aren't you proud of your family?'

The word `family' made him wince. There was not much left, anyhow, in the way of living examples. His parents had died before his memory could grasp them, during a marital quarrel that accelerated into a car crash. The two survivors, brother and sister, were raised by visitors, cranky staff, and a grandmother hastily summoned from a gambling hall in Lindau. She enjoyed losing in small sums, not in large ones; it was her only son.

She had given up her apartment next to the casino, returned home to the uncomfortable fourteenth-century castle a few miles inland from the lake, in Biederstein. She was going to mourn, she announced in a voice so soft it peaked at a whisper, in bed, where she kept her social register. She had a bedroom made up for her behind double doors that opened into the huge front hall.

A few years passed. She no longer mentioned her loss but she stayed supine; she had become a resident of the sheets. There she worried about her health, searched the Bible and astrology guides for tips and the social register for hard facts, used up time, sucked chocolates, dictated invitations to everyone she knew, whispered orders to the nurses, secretaries, chauffeurs, children, saved up the hours to use them again, whetting her temper on her will to live. She consulted the register to determine in which of twenty guest rooms a visitor belonged and what kind of flowers they deserved; she was less successful dictating the seasons, which she followed through the upper panes of her bedroom window, wet weather enraging her because humidity made the gossamer pages of her old books stick together. She was thought to pray but no one was certain, just as no one had ever seen her eat, although her use of the bedpan was a matter much discussed by the nurses. In the evenings, the servants heaved and scraped open the double doors of her bedroom and the sound, painful to the dog's ears, prompted the howling that came to signal dinnertime. She presided over meals from her bed, the long table positioned with one end in front of her doors. Although she always stayed in exactly the same place, her principal method of intimidation was the ambush. She sat up in bed pulled the folds of her cheeks into a bunch at her ears, and asked visitors whether she should have her face lifted. She once reared up from a prone position to slap an American woman for comparing the Schwarzwald to the Catskills. The visitors served her need to ridicule. After they left, she summoned the children, asked for their impressions. Snorting at their slight powers of observation, she showed them what they had missed by imitating the guests, most ferociously those who had, in her mind, warranted the best treatment. After her performance she watched from the pillows, waiting until her grandchildren's laughter turned warm and hilarious. Suddenly, she snapped at them for laughing about their betters. They retreated, cowed, wishing her dead. Benedikt loved only his sister, who had been with him at the moment of impact and with whom he bicycled every morning through the arches and the gates, past the deer and the dogs, over the bridge, down the lane, downhill, to the village school. He began by despising his grandmother and went on to hate the staff at home, the teachers, and finally, and most vehemently, his peers.

Sadistic fantasies preoccupied the boy. After school, he trudged up the narrow stairs--even as a child he had a slow, cautious gait--to his bare round room in one of the towers. He pulled the white muslin curtain over the tiny window, opened a wooden chest filled with coloured notebooks, selected one, then a pencil from his desk, and lay down on his bed, a hard historical object he shared with innumerable ancestors, and began to draw. He always drew the same thing stick figures battling each other with swords, spears, truncheons, whips. He held the pencil in his fist and pressed so hard that the point pierced through the paper. He clamped his tongue between his teeth, and sometimes he had blood on his lips afterwards. Apart from this hobby, he was the gentlest of creatures. At school he never quarrelled; he declined to take sides. No amount of teasing or even hurting could make him fight back, but he did not run away, either. Having a strong sense of honour, he turned the other cheek. He perplexed his uncles, refusing to join them on hunts, and never set foot inside the castle chapel because the crucifix threw him into a turmoil of aversion. The stateliness of his step was simply a precaution to avoid crushing insects. His family nickname became Lammchen, Little Lamb.

When he reached his teens, he stopped drawing fighting men, and instead of notebooks he bought newspapers. Now he was riveted by the social injustices depicted in the news and gradually began to see them at home; he became a socialist. His convictions drifted along the muddy banks of the Left, finding them too slippery to get a foothold there. He spent his small allowance on various causes. He could not say no. He was incapable of uttering the word. He gave his money to whoever asked for it, willing to share what he did not need in the first place, as his appetite for money or creature comforts was minimal. Nor did he crave success or applause, and he took his talents for granted; nature had been generous with him.

Benedikt Waller grew into a handsome young man. He was tall and regular as a cupboard, his hair golden, his eyes wide and blue without being ingenuous, because they did not convey any warmth, so there was something rather noble about him. He was not proud of his looks, because he cared so little about others that he did not care either what others might think of him. Yet he thought a great deal about beauty. His libido had dropped anchor there; he loved higher mathematics and all forms of technical achievement. Fairness as a kind of symmetry became his reason for preferring a Communist state and condemning the German past, or disliking the thought that he was a German at all.

At fifteen, he spent money on himself for the first time, buying a telescope from an American mail-order catalogue. He set this up in the highest tower, beneath the skylight of the so-called Angst room, where the young, the female, and the weak of his ancestors could hide if the castle was under attack and where later relatives had built the tower clock, a huge machine that pounded the time through the whole house. With his telescope perched next to the dark grinding clockworks, he discovered the simplicity and grandeur of the universe. Perfection, he concluded, was never to be found in living things. And finally, he admitted to himself: living things were ugly, no perfection there at all. Breathing was hideous: a form of constantly taking, it made noise, especially at night. His grandmother's snores made century-old walls wobble.

Nature, he concluded, was an experiment of grotesque complexity doomed to failure. Evolution cramming molecules in ever-crazier configurations created one Frankenstein after the next, with a kind of wanton fallibility. A good example was the pettiness of inventing two sexes, only to complicate matters, after a single one had proven perfectly viable. But no one ever questioned it. Instead, they waxed sentimental. Everyone pondered the sense or fairness of disease but not of reproduction, a time-consuming pursuit that obsessed all moving beings and resulted in pregnancy, with its danger of explosion. And without any critical reflection they took the countryside to be attractive. Benedikt shuddered beneath the trees because they were so selfish, unmoving, uncommunicative, flailing in every breeze, grasping for sunlight. He dreaded the hysterical colours of spring and the unintelligence of grass. And yet, living things loved Benedikt, Count Waller von Wallerstein. Dogs preferred him, ancient forgetful relatives always remembered his birthday, the children appointed him their favourite uncle and flocked to him. Benedikt was never unkind to them: their friendliness puzzled him, and he waited patiently for them to turn away.

The estate included a forest and a hops plantation. The rituals of rural family life made going outdoors necessary and emphasized all aspects of life itself, with pompous baptisms and funerals and an endless roster of unfamiliar people all liable to visit on account of a mutual relative several centuries back. He didn't listen when the family talked about the family. He sulked, remembering that recently his fine old family had not even had the distinction of co-operating with other fine old families in opposing Hitler; his father had been a high-ranking fan with a secure desk job. No one felt embarrassed about this. They were forever chafing about the unfairness of the Nuremberg trials, where the judges had failed to take into account the defendant's virtues. What an outstanding hunter his father had been, for example. One recalled a buck he had levelled with one shot from a distance of two hundred metres.

`What do you say to that, Benedikt?' an uncle once asked. `Isn't that inspiring?'

Benedikt shrugged his shoulders.

`My grandson seems to carry every dead beast on his conscience,' his grandmother commented from the bed.

`Oh dear; but why, how, since when?' rustled the aunts.

`Ah, the reasons,' complained the old Countess. `I find psychological explanations so boring. Racial ones are amusing--that's probably why they're considered wicked! But it's a fact--Benedikt's bad conscience is simply typical of us. We always felt responsible for everyone and everything.'

`That's the whole point of hunting responsibility. To keep down the population of animals who would otherwise die horribly from overcrowding,' bayed the uncles.

And then the Countess said, `See, you're a perfect specimen of a Waller von Wallerstein, Lammchen.'

Benedikt, heckled out of his silence, spoke up. Staring down at his plate, he recited the family history, beginning with the crusader who sacked Bethlehem in 1295, followed by a dynasty of self-righteous knights, an imperial debt collector rewarded with the first 500 hectares of forest after taking on an archbishop's army, and on and on through the centuries. There were few off generations, the relations' distinguished participation in every war led to a steady accumulation of land and wealth which they consolidated through marriage and theft.

`And my father . . .' He flushed with shame.

His grandmother smiled and asked him, `Would you care to be related to someone else?'

He didn't answer but he thought: Einstein.

Everyone stared at the mute, flushed teenager. He'd grow sensible in time, he was certainly a beautiful boy. He could be a knight, his aunt said later, no pimples at all.

As Benedikt grew up he took less and less notice of people. Even his relationship with Einstein was a professional one. For a while he conversed with him daily, spending his afternoons in the chapel he used to avoid, where, after lighting a candle, he could chat quietly with his mentor. He kept his eyes away from the most morbid Christian paraphernalia and concentrated he pictured Einstein without a body, a shadow smelling of cosmic wind, who spoke with Benedikt's voice.

One day his little sister had followed him there and sat in a back pew observing him.

`Why did you light a candle?' She grabbed his sleeve on the way out. He shook her off. `Why!' she pressed him. 'To whom!' She always prevailed, an energetic, freckle-faced girl on the prowl for simple pleasures. She laughed at him straight out when he told her.

`You can't talk to dead people, Benedikt. And why should you want to? Imagine if the dead really went straight from earth to heaven, exactly as they are at the end, and you could visit them there as if heaven was some sort of old-age home. Then it would be overrun with the sick, bad-tempered, and senile. Einstein was ancient when he died.' She relished talking sternly to him, and that he always listened to her and never to anyone else.

Benedikt's fury at nature had cooled, hardened into indifference. He lost all interest in socialism after he realized he didn't like the idea of being ruled by the working class. He wanted to learn everything that Einstein had known, in order to continue on where the prophet had left off. He worked so hard at his studies that he forgot his body entirely. Sometimes grogginess overcame him and he realized he hadn't slept for two nights. He skipped several grades at school and took his high-school exams at sixteen.

When he received his results a few months later, he asked for an audience with his grandmother. He stood at the foot of her bed, looked along the covered Colossus of her body into her sly eyes that spun with second thoughts, and told her that she consisted of protons, neutrons, and electrons, no different from any stick or stone. And she wouldn't last that way. Only the laws of physics, he said, survive.

With a smile of condescension she accepted his decision to study physics at a university instead of taking over the business of running the estate. She sat up a bit higher in bed, the chocolates spilling everywhere when he came to say goodbye. He glanced up at her window before climbing into a taxi and saw her standing there, enormous, unsteady, framed by the fortress of generations before and after him. It transpired later, in the walled city where he felt at home, that there would be no more generations after, because he, the last in the line, was unable to make love to a woman.

Intensely happy and intensely miserable families have one thing in common; the children, as the only witnesses, become especially close. The sick man was just one year older than Dolly. The resemblance between them was striking, but their temperaments were opposite: Dolly was outgoing, socially skilful, and not as intelligent. She was nevertheless inordinately attached to her brother. She also tried to free herself from their family, moving to Lindau, where she became a secretary, but it seemed to her that she had even greater problems freeing herself from her brother. At twenty she had never had a boyfriend, because no one compared to him. She was matter-of-fact about it: she wrote him a letter and complained. He wrote back to her: he was twenty-one already, and there was no woman that interested him. He was open to the suggestion that he might be in love with Dolly. The two met a few miles across the German border in Switzerland, drove south into the mountains, to a village which Nietzsche had visited with his sister. After a romantic walk taken at Dolly's insistence, they checked into a hotel as Herr and Frau Waller from Wallerstein in Germany.

The manager, a hard-eyed woman tired of the humanity that checked in just to hammer around on the beds, treated them with respect, because this lot was married. She had a fright at the size of Benedikt's suitcase and alerted the staff to the possibility of theft from the bathroom and minibar. But Benedikt's suitcase was full of books he intended to study that evening, as well as a dictionary in case he needed to explain something to his sister. While he read, Dolly watched television or phoned her friends and every so often the bellboy burst in to check on the minibar. He reported the earnest features of the young couple, the tomes about physics. Didn't physics have something to do with explosives? While the pair were dining, the manager reported their names to the police. It was 1970. The couple ordered as if their minds were on other things, corroborated the waiter, although she, at least, ate with enjoyment. He might just as well have been eating at McDonald's. After dinner, they returned to their room and Benedikt told Dolly about unexplained sources of light in the universe. When he asked her to look something up in his science dictionary, she absentmindedly leafed through the telephone book, realizing her mistake during his awed silence.

`Never mind,' he said `Don't feel bad, for heaven's sake,' he pleaded.

She cheered up, just as the police were establishing that there were no Wallers in the only Wallerstein they could find on the south-German map. They didn't trust Germans anyway. The police hurried to the hotel. Count and Countess passed the night with Swiss officials quizzing them about democracy. They spent their remaining emotions on the fear that their grandmother might find out. She did not the police in Biederstein vouched for them.

Dolly returned to Lindau and married an older man who ranked with her in the social register. She became dowdier with each pregnancy. Periodically, she came to Berlin to see him. Benedikt looked at her and concluded that he did not like women for aesthetic reasons; this perception did not preoccupy him, it surprised him a bit, but only because any information about himself came as a surprise. He sometimes had a shock catching a glimpse of himself in a mirror and realizing he had an exterior; he identified himself literally with his work and not with the laurels or with the income that it earned, either. He soon acquired the habit of turning his body ninety degrees away from people during conversations, conversing with them in profile in order to minimize contact. After his graduation summa cum laude in mathematical physics, he had accepted a job at an institute and lived so unobtrusively that time practically overlooked him. He was unnaturally youthful, his skin smooth, his hair thick and blond as he approached his forties.

Dolly's marriage had been the last event to affect his heart. The day he received the wedding invitation he had gone to the local supermarket, marched with his modest purchases to the cash register, and taken a good look at the cashier. She was as familiar to him as the white paper bag that wrapped his rolls, yet he would not have recognized her outside the shop. He saw that she was young and didn't wear a wedding ring. For the first time he realized that she had a personality. There was no one behind him in line, and the store was nearly empty.

As he was paying, he mumbled, `Would you like to go see a film with me tonight?'

Her eyes registered surprise. She replied in a friendly tone, `No, thank you.'

`Ring the doorbell after work,' he said, handing her his card, `if you change your mind. I haven't been to the movies since I was a child.'

This seemed to arouse her sympathy. `Oh, in that ease,' she murmured, `all right. After all, we've known each other for years.'

That evening he sat shoulder to shoulder with her during a comedy that apparently amused her, for every so often she screeched and her body shook like a train on a bad track. Afterwards he thanked her and said goodbye in the lobby of the movie house. He did not ask her where she lived. He saw her the next morning and established with surprise that he remembered her name, Gabi, and the sound of her laugh. It felt odd handing over his money to her. For the next few months, he could not pay for his rolls without chatting about the weather. Then one day he forgot to chat with her, and again the next. The following year she changed her hairstyle several times, also the colour, and her face became unfamiliar to him again. He did not recognize her when he passed her out of uniform on the street, and after a few more years, he had forgotten her name.

And this lack of change lulled him into ignoring his situation. His illness came as a shock, rubbed his nose in the hard fact that he was alive. He found it hugely embarrassing.

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