The Dry Danube: A Hitler Forgery

Overview

The Dry Danube, Paul West's nineteenth novel, is a uniquely daring, dazzling,bravura performance by an acknowledged master. The Dry Danube, presents Hitler's "memoir" of the years he spent as a failed art student in Vienna, just before World War One. Each of the book's four parts is a solid raving block of barbaric flourishes, free of paragraphing in its headlong rush of disgorged spleen. "I wanted to get at H. before the violence sets in," West remarked: "But most of all I wanted to get the motion of his mind, ...
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Overview

The Dry Danube, Paul West's nineteenth novel, is a uniquely daring, dazzling,bravura performance by an acknowledged master. The Dry Danube, presents Hitler's "memoir" of the years he spent as a failed art student in Vienna, just before World War One. Each of the book's four parts is a solid raving block of barbaric flourishes, free of paragraphing in its headlong rush of disgorged spleen. "I wanted to get at H. before the violence sets in," West remarked: "But most of all I wanted to get the motion of his mind, as seen by another." Hitler spews his rage over his blighted career and his desperate wooing of Treischnitt and Kolberhoff, "proud famous painters both." These "two men so important in my young life, yet so aloof from me," he tries to befriend, though "I would have had more success groveling before a statue of Frederick the Great or Charlemagne." ("These men do not so much control Art, they are Art. It makes you sick to think of it.") A risky venture, The Dry Danube stands a triumph -- baroque, chilling ("This was not the last the world would hear of me"), and scathingly humorous at the same instant.
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Editorial Reviews

Bondo Wyszpolski
[A]n experimental, imaginatively constructed book, boldand challenging.
Easy Reader)
Irving Malin
[A] stunning novella. —Review of Contemporary Fiction
Irving Malin
[A] stunning novella.
Review of Contemporary Fiction
Roger B. Goodman
[A]n amazing and dazzling book... like a handbook guide through the mind of the monstrous being Hitler became and was. —Jewish Currents
Roger B. Goodman
[A]n amazing and dazzling book... like a handbook guide through the mind of the monstrous being Hitler became and was.
Jewish Currents
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
What happens to a dream deferred?" asked poet Langston Hughes. West (Lord Byron's Doctor) grounds his new novel in one of the most famous deferred dreams of the 20th century: Hitler's childhood desire to be an artist. Masquerading as a chilling and intellectually penetrating memoir of the F hrer during the seven years he lived in Vienna, 1907-1914, the novel is written in a visceral stream of consciousness. The dense, darkly menacing text posits that failed art student Hitler was obsessed with the Viennese artists Kolberhoff and Treischnitt ("These men do not so much control Art, they are Art"). The two artists first inspire Hitler, then resist his courtship of them as mentors, and finally serve as reminders of his inadequacy, reminders that haunt his political career. The headlong narrative spotlights glimpses into the fictional Hitler's feverish mind from 1907 to 1945, hinting at his compulsive attachment to the art world that rejects him; the details and minutiae of art ("was not pointillisme in the air?"), anglophilia, power ("the Attilas, they are the ones who perhaps are closest to winning cosmic favor") and a move toward the irrational ("he murmurs the Latin word interfecit, meaning `he killed,' while imagining himself a paropemassis, a mountain around which eagles dare not fly"). All of this the reader sees only through a glass darkly, as West reveals in a perspective-shifting afterword that gives the work a resonating impact. But no matter how heavily West's tale is draped in myth, he convincingly draws Hitler as a man desperately concerned with societal acceptance and careening toward monomaniacal frenzy. It is a slow-building shock to realize how the suffering of millions emanated from a bitter little man whose Danube failed to be beautiful. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
As if to emphasize further his daring range, West is publishing two historical novels and a nonfiction work (The Secret Life of Words) this spring. West, whose 18 previous novels include the superb Rat Man of Paris and admired works about Lord Byron and Jack the Ripper, now takes on two more icons: Adolf Hitler and Doc Holliday. The Dry Danube is subtitled A Hitler Forgery, and West's school of fiction has its similarities to the art of a master forger. This novella takes place just before the Great War and is told in the voice of the failed Austrian painter Hitler. Its inspired narrative is stylishly solipsistic, like the paragraphless monolog novels of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard (whose influence West acknowledges in an afterword). The narrator talks obsessively and bitterly about his two artist heroes, Treischnitt and Kolberhoff, who stubbornly refuse to recognize his brilliance and cooperate as mentors. The awful knowledge of what is to come later for Hitler (and for Europe) keeps the meandering narration from losing its tension. In a surprisingly enjoyable short work, West has found a voice that speaks with fluent authority to magnify a rarely examined historical moment before the Third Reich terrors. If impersonating the young Hitler was ambitious enough, taking on the famous dentist and consumptive gunslinger Doc Holliday (and his friends the Earps) may have been too far to stretch. O.K. is mostly written in a high-flown, third-person style that verges for long stretches on being a creative essay on Holliday and company. For a novelist, the mythology of the Old West is both attractive and dangerous: sources remain so unreliable on gunfighter history that it's difficultto acquire enough knowledge of someone like Holliday to build him an interior life or find a believable voice. Instead, West stays at a distance and, to create Doc's state of mind, shuffles his thoughts among the few things that are known definitively--that he coughed up blood a lot, hailed from Georgia, shot men expertly, played faro, and kept company with a widely admired prostitute named Big Nose Kate. If Doc remains fuzzy, Wyatt Earp is vaguer still. The Earps and Holliday who fought the Clanton gang in Thomas Berger's The Return of Little Big Man (LJ 2/15/99) may have been inventions, but they were vividly human characters. O.K., while containing lyrical passages of West's astonishing prose, is largely a missed opportunity to raise Doc and friends to the author's usual level of literature. Earpists will learn little that is new about the famous showdown. For larger fiction collections.--Nathan Ward, "Library Journal" Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
The protean West's 18th novel (and second to appear this spring, following his revisionist Old West tale OK, p. 267) forms an interesting complement to his earlier fictional study of the Nazi phenomenon and its mentality, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg (1980). Here, a `memoir` (the `author` of which is only gradually, glancingly revealed—as West's odd Afterword explains) describes the years (1907-14) when the young Adolf Hitler lived in Vienna as a hopeful art student. The specific subject is the importunate Adolf's courting of two older, established painters, Treischnitt and Kolberhoff, whose dismissive contempt for his productions (such as his `dry,` lifeless image of the Danube River) contributes significantly to the building resentment and that will later explode into military conquest and carnage. It's arguably reductive to thus pinpoint the source of Hitler's all-out assault on a European civilization that rejected his jejune contributions to it—but West's taut little immorality tale crackles with verbal energy, flexibility, and passion. One of his most fully realized fictions.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780811214322
  • Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 4/28/2000
  • Pages: 162
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Until I at last wearied of Treischnitt's skies, I peered at them daily, that old master's, at their texture and their hint of third dimension, having no inkling of how much I would eventually peer at Kolberhoff's houses, which always looked different when viewed right after peering at Treischnitt's skies, as was also true for Kolberhoff's houses. It was all a matter of context, even if the Treischnitt sky I was peering at was in a painting that contained no house at all, and vice versa. The only true context, I told myself, was in the mind of the beholder. Treischnitt died before Kolberhoff, of course, being older, but they had both vanished from my ken before I realized I would never know them intimately. I had always hoped, even in my salad days, not to be lethally disregarded by those who mattered to me. So Treischnitt died, much given to anger in his last years, not Kolberhoff, their works persisting in my head, neither living nor dead, but neutrally exact. It would have been the same if Kolberhoff, genial to the last, had gone first, before Treischnitt, except that in the end Kolberhoff might have been thinking he would precede Treischnitt, thus condemning Treischnitt to a Kolberhoffless world. It was in their works they died first. There is a death each time you lay down paint and it dries amid the rough ownership of your gaze. Only those who have not eaten too large a portion of life can remain happy with their work; they always have something to look forward to. So if it was not skies it was houses and on red-letter days houses below skies, skies above houses in the decent balance the illustrativeartist aspires to. After all, you are only transferring the stuff of one world to another place in the same world. These truths came to me early, but I won no credit for them, indeed receiving many mouthfuls of renegade insult about my lacking the power of mutilation. You cannot have everything, not even in later years when, picking a point and a place, you consider how you have fared. You may not be able to do this later, for grotesque reasons. So, with Treischnitt and Kolberhoff missing, and their works a blur of buried secrets—How could either of them be that good?—I learned how to look at the space behind a canvas, seeing nothing at all, though conceding the obvious presence of a wall or a fireplace. If their work no longer detains you, you miss them less, whom you never got to know anyway, they being somewhat standoffish whether in bad or good temper. They were not clavier chords. Sometimes one must practice a mental hygiene based on self-saving ardor. When those who claim to know refuse to make the rest move over, then you have to minister to yourself, making sweet calm where you might have been as cranky as Treischnitt, or Kolberhoff imitating him so as not to seem a softie. Oh, the murder in their hearts as they failed to take their critics with them into finality, as in some old song of saying farewell to the world that has bruised you so. No matter: I linger on these men. With what hesitation I had left for Treischnitt a crumpled little postcard of some Italian lake, popped on his stoop like a hostage. It would have been amazing if he had concluded it came from anyone at all rather than having been blown there on the wind, willed to embarrass him by Kolberhoff. It was only after I had wooed Treischnitt with another postcard, signed with my initials, and then a little water color of my own, unsigned, that I turned to Kolberhoff. I left more for Treischnitt than for Kolberhoff, having started with Treischnitt, but I soon caught up with my leavings for Treischnitt, leaving much the same kinds of things for Kolberhoff, though to equal disregard, which is to say both Treischnitt and Kolberhoff ignored my existence with the same degree of uninformed aversion, responding to neither my name nor my initials, though of course Kolberhoff ignored me for longer, having outlived Treischnitt, at least until I desisted altogether. Two men, so important in my young life, yet so aloof to me. It hardly bears thinking about, though I have long pondered the chance of any minute differences between what I left Treischnitt and then Kolberhoff, proud famous painters both. Look them up now, meaning in reference books (not calling on them in person), and you will never find them, nor, as it were, in the last glimpse of their dying eyes the last painting they looked at: one of mine. What they did do has slid into the chasm of what they did not do, which has vanished altogether, whereas several violent deformers of mankind's noble face, and the trim honor of its windowboxes, have gone on from generation to generation, Urlschelb and Grenzhabe and Tlöch, to name only a few offenders who vanquished Treischnitt and Kolberhoff, although both Treischnitt and Kolberhoff were the more gifted, lacking as they were in social graces. One day, my face wrapped tight in a huge brown scarf, I accosted Treischnitt and thrust a small coin in his hand, just to see what he would do, but he merely gaped, which Kolberhoff did not do when I pennied him; he only laughed. In the end, all my solicitations came to naught as the opiners who passed judgment on me and my toil happened to be Treischnitt's and Kolberhoff's juniors, crass imitators at the most. Whom did I have to kiss to prosper? In whose fist put coin? Besides, I had not the time to get on with serious work and at the same time conjure up little pastels and quaint greetings for Treischnitt and Kolberhoff. I would have had more success groveling before a statue of Frederick the Great or Charlemagne. It is hard to learn what you need not do in this world, whom you must woo and whom you must spurn. You make choices as best you can and then get thrashed by the heirs of Treischnitt and Kolberhoff, our beloved native land being the one that boasts the most decorations and orders, sashes and stars, almost even a satin gown for yawning. However, without having spun in the periphery of Treischnitt and Kolberhoff, I would never have understood the canker that afflicted their heirs, to whom Treischnitt and Kolberhoff were generous Neanderthals. It was nearly enough to make me want a war to break out, something that would kill me off and so spare both Treischnitt and Kolberhoff the embarrassment of my juvenile attentions, tracking them at a distance when they sometimes went for a walk together puffing on cigars (Treischnitt's a Turkish flavor, Kolberhoff's more a Balkan Sobranie). I have always loathed tobacco, but, following the two of them, I made a small sacrifice, though it seemed as if the two tobacco aromas fused into what two men with stomach trouble might have vented behind them. Did they see me? I doubt it. Treischnitt and Kolberhoff walked together only because no one would accompany either and provide a good quarrel, which was all they walked for, jabbing at the air and wagging an index finger in the direction of their march. An ungenerous person would say I was obsessed with Treischnitt and Kolberhoff, but rather I was a case of highly developed loyalty, knowing, as they say (not Treischnitt and Kolberhoff but everyone else), where my bread might be buttered provided either of these grand old nobodies was willing to hoick the butter from its shelf and ply the butter knife: Must help this promising little chap with his career, not leave the privilege to deadheads. It must have gone like that if Treischnitt and Kolberhoff talked about me at all, lamenting my uncouth ways, my persistence, but recognizing at the same time my classical ardor, for what is classical is what all agree on. It is not a freak thing. There is a social sanction. So you might wonder what those two blockheads Treischnitt and Kolberhoff were arguing about, dyed-in-the-wool classicists that they were. It was not as if rival schools of portraiture, say, were having at each other, Köbel and Steinitz and Probstschule against Klarf, Ulruhst and Delbers, which would have been uproarious, no, but Kolnsheft having at Döbelzeiss, who as you well know spent their lives at other people's throats. No, there is a way of arguing that celebrates the sun, the trees, the lapping water, and two die-hard opponents can exchange insults above a bridge of natural agreement. Had I had my chance to quarrel or agree with either Treischnitt or Kolberhoff, my two art-hounds lolloping on before me by some fifty meters or so, I might have extorted from either a recognition that would pay off endlessly in finer technique to the end of my days. I was deprived of that if you can be deprived of what you have never had. My own doctrine, of how the watercolors actually tasted as you sipped the mohair bristles to a sharp point, might have joined us in an entirely new school of art: burnt sienna—tea; Naples yellow—baby-dung; alizarin crimson—blood of a dog. What a wide-open world of experiences awaited them at my hands, but it never happened, and on they droned, painting with their eyes; maybe noting a little smell now and then, but quite severed from the world of taste, which was almost like not eating. Treischnitt and Kolberhoff (I would address them thus jointly like two linked cars in a train) remained conjoint in their indifference, pseudo-quarreling only to cement their bond. At my wildest, then, I would do my best to invade the sleep of one or the other, Treischnitt or Kolberhoff, even when Treischnitt was dreaming about Kolberhoff with candid aversion, or Kolberhoff about Treischnitt with undisguised envy or indeed either dreaming about the other's dreaming about him. I was in there, in the gaps, egging them on to further resentments or sunnier loathings, wishing to roost in their minds for ever, nudging this or that flash of dare I say it genius? All imagined, of course, as if I were the proprietor of dreamland, developing scripts and scenarios for these two malleable giants to perform amid their snores. Why they never smoked cigars while napping I never knew, but they could have, such was their power. Walking behind either of the two men is one thing, but dreaming along with them is another, requiring invasive skill, even to the extent of fondling this or that part of their anatomy in order to give a misleading effect, though I made their most private parts soggy as battered milkwort, just to stimulate their minds. From sleep with me, they would arise rumpled and ill-rested, and I imagined myself as never quite going away but sojourning under the bed, right beneath the point at which the mattress creaked most. Truth told, even if you loathe your targets, you eventually come to enjoy something about them, the curve of an earlobe, say, or the tilt of the septum. There they lay, my two hearties, aesthetic men of war, even as I scribbled and scrawled in my mind's eye the masterworks that would join me to them in after-years, not exactly inspiring me, but embodying the impetus of the true artist, whom nothing distracted from his toil. At times, in dreams or out, I would fancy myself mixing pencil shavings into my porridge to crispen it up as well as to make it more artful, or squeezing a little burnt sienna into the mustard (some friends of mine painted in mustard, boot polish, and a white paste for tennis shoes called Blanco, imported from that haven of taste England). All I was trying to do, unlike Treischnitt and Kolberhoff, was to fuse the world of art with that of not-art, easier to say than to do, almost to the point at which you could not tell a postcard from what it depicted. Perhaps to accomplish this one needed satanic help, a Faustian touch denied me at that time, since it was a mode of magic hitherto unknown in the world of visual art. Such prodigies we try for, we doodlers among the pigments and powders, lubricating our brains with linseed or water. In a word, as I would have told both Treischnitt and Kolberhoff, I was trying to force the created into perfect similarity, with nothing extraneous allowed. Hence my leaning toward those two worthies, as distinct from the even more renowned Klötzheide, Funknasch, and Zwölftraum, esteemed because more socially adroit than either of my two Magi. I would one day, I hoped, be even more adroit than they, always tucking my shirt in, never accepting a penny from strangers. You see how I keep looking back, an act about which I have thought a good deal, hour after hour while plucking fibers from the old run-down sofa in my garret, horsehair bursting out at all angles like a beast having a hemorrhage. Put it this way. If you are in your teens, and you keep on looking back on your earlier teens from the vantage of your later teens, then you are more in tune, more closely connected, than if you are looking back at your teens from your fifties, say (if you get that far). It sounds right: the closer you are to what you look back on, the warmer, the keener your recollect will be. I don't believe it. The whole enterprise is one of how articulate you are. People have told me that the closer your idiom is to that of the period you are recalling (nineteen recalling eighteen, say), the more convincing your account is, but only if you have ruled out the refinement and delicacy of a much later speaker, writer, who can muster many more shades and gradations, subtleties and hunts, than the nineteen-year-old. The ultimate caricature of the view I am rejecting is that of the three-year-old infant babbling about being Age Two. What I am after, given the time, is what someone called the faint subterfuges of untutored eloquence, as if the words themselves had understood. The man of fifty, even with blurred and blighted recall, can make more of his infancy than the hobgoblin of twenty-one. Not that it matters: we are lucky when anyone at all gets it right, this excavation of the heart, supervised by a hurt intellect that tells itself there has always, all along, been a Doppelgänger dogging his steps, preceding him in all things, treading in his footprints, seating himself on the warmed-up toilet, eating off the cleared plate, brushing the already scoured teeth. It comes to either this or, as I once discovered, rambling about old Vienna, some two hundred old geezers in a huge hall, all playing cards, waiting for the ax to fall. Honing their minds of course. A stronger image, that, than the Jew raving on Saturday, the Christian raving on Sunday, and who knows how many other religious maniacs bellowing their faith above the traffic. As may be obvious, this is a later me telling the tale, not in the least hot on the heels of the pimply, raucous teenager, which of course tells you that I survived the years in between, somehow, yet forever awed by the alter ego I might have become. I could feel him edging up on me, stealing my body aroma for his, clipping his toenails on my own foot. Who he was will not bear saying, but perhaps he was only one of dozens sent to plague me as I strove to become somebody worth locking in jail for his outlandish ideas, his reckless thirst for power. In my time I came across theories that helped me to fathom who these other beings, my accompanists, were: Errol yon Knechtvold, for instance, who said that our heads were full of voices from pre-history, which was the source of myth, or Joachim Kernsvogler, who said all echoes were prophetic. How impossible, say I, to collect up all the disparate bits of a possible you and make them firm, permanent, under one umbrella. If others help, now with a thrashing, now with a failing grade, it might be managed, but not without consummate pain. Experts are those who have dodged their own questions by blocking the avenue of thought with parboiled cliches. If you have sat at the feet of a wiseacre, or pawed the fly of a genius, you are even more on your own than before; the answer is only in what's impetuous, done without thought but with the whole crescendo of biased atoms behind you. I am bound to lose both Treischnitt and Kolberhoff, my lightning rods, without whom I have no alpha and omega, not that they did not overlap: Treiberhoff and Kolberschnitt, my two whatever other combination appeals. Without either of them to serve as backsight and foresight, I will have to take in the all, Blick ins Chaos, as we sometimes say: peer into the mess. A migraine follows, and then you are painting in a chrome-flashing gloom. Better to have them back, hale them back, as zombies, kicked this way and that, than have no inkling of them at all, their faces contorted and wizened, their hands mowing about, their feet splayed. Push them when they will not serve, almost as if you were the one's mother, Frau Treischnitt, the other's spouse, Frau Kolberhoff. Always to either they were little lads, two friendly little lads with roving eyes, changelings to both Frauen, twins of a kind like those English poets Browning and Tennyson, who took long walks together without ever speaking. I have always been an admirer of the English way, the only nation that has found a real place in civilized concourse for aloofness, porridge, disdain, snottiness, raspberry jam, and the stiff upper lip (better than a penis in many circumstances). But it was the highly decorated Viennese I had to cope with, wondering why amid so many titles I had none myself (would that come?), though I imagined that all the sumptuous cream cakes I could not afford, but watched being sucked on, were honors I would one day merit and receive with open mouth, tongue poised to taste. All productive of the finest chrome yellow gases, blown away by the corrupt circular breeze, akin to a Wild Western dust devil that never left the esplanade of the cafés. How do you get on in the art world? You behave as if it is all over and you predicate all you do on a réclame long past, yet nonetheless there to be counted on, a launching pad for every wild overture. Hence your confidence, invented, cast behind you, sponsoring you without yet having been. These complexities at first stirred me, but I then took them for granted, knowing I would sweep all before me as an old soul does, born wrinkled, but chronically expert in the ways of the climb. Just be yourself and ask: that was it, simpler than bowel movement, more direct than the yawn. If only it were so. Small wonder that, peering through the mesh of the Treischnitts Herr and Frau and the Kolberhoffs Herr and Frau, and all the varied combinations of the four held before my gaze like the muslin we drape hanging beeves with, I lost track of who I was, as well as of what I was meant to be, compensating—if you will tolerate such a word—by overdoing everything, even the muted pencil touches that completed an acanthus leaf on a frieze. It might be put thus: Lost amid the world of infinite mischance, he became palely hyperbolical, imagining grotesque picnics with Frau Treischnitt and Frau Kolberhoff, rubbing steel wool against huge bulges under their skirts until the blood came and a stench of slaughterhouse washing arose to pollute the countryside and the suave aromas of champagne and wicker hampers. A violent child overgrown, you might say. Say it then, I have no inhibitions about being damned. The urgent thing, amid a million tangents, was to cut the first niche in my cliff of fame, clinching my status with a few well-designed water colors faintly daubed here and there with Frau and Frau blood, Treischnitt and Kolberhoff thumbprints, and whatever else lay to hand, always tinting ever so quietly, so much so that not an examiner would be able to tell the chromatic tremor in the atmosphere from a tremor in his eyelid. Auersberg Palace, then, around 1911: meticulous corners and high fluted goblet shapes, but the people dwarfed, as befits, none of them asked me for preferential treatment, and I wanted to convey how many of them it would take to cram that vacant square: a mere half-dozen seemed to halt in mid-float, even the one wheeling something, perhaps a barrow or a child's scooter, none of them appearing to look at the others, scratched in as if on metal, and enormously humbled by the dominant slab and the infinitely increasing steps. Here you can count the chimneys (four) and guess at the minarets. Actually the figures in the foreground have come from another age and time, the returning dead, all sloping with a limp I have arrested with a stroke of my pen. What a lovely studio he must have created this in, its atmosphere velvet and gold moiré, except it has only the merest rug in it that resembles not a rug but the recently removed skin of a wolfhound, smeary and rank, hurled in a rage across the biggest smirch on the concrete floor. On this I lie, repose, licking the inside of a wooden can, my tongue already deformed into shape by the constant licking of such containers and my hand weary of holding it skyward for the final drip. What was it? Beets or broken kohlrabi? Washed down with water from the peat-smelling pump outside, where dogs crouch at the snarl. What drops on me from the ceiling—mauve, slimy, and warm—I have no idea, but I keep them from my mouth, oh yes you blithe comfortable buggers at the windows of the Auersberg Palace, watching the most inspired of his rotten generation swig the slop. Something has to keep body and soul, hand and imagination, together, even if only the drip from the broken roof above, dropping by the light of a rare candle, its ration of light about two hours. It is my only palace. In they go. Who has more right? Perhaps even an embossed pass issued by the Herr Doktor Professor Burgomaster, Saint Peter of the Auersberg gate. They part company, Treischnitt the thin and fairly tall off to the left, tapping at doors and windows with his umbrella's steel tip (no doubt touched with curare), dumpy Kolberhoff going to the right, where he taps on nothing but speeds up his waddle.

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

UNTIL I AT LAST WEARIED 3
HERE I COME, SLINKING BRICKWARD 37
THIS WAS A VIEW OF A BULWARK 69
DOES NOT A MAN SEE HIS OWN FACE 125
AFTERWORD 147
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