Harry von Duckwitz pursues ideas and women with the same conflicted, contrary, self-critical volatility he brings to his diplomatic career.
|Edition description:||1st English-language ed|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.89(d)|
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By Joseph von Westphalen, Melanie Richter-Bernburg
Catbird PressCopyright © 1991 Hoffmann und Campe Verlag, Hamburg
All rights reserved.
How attorney Harry von Duckwitz is overcome by uneasiness and has growing doubts about the meaning of his profession. About green, gray, and black telephones, what Harry thinks of his girlfriend Helen's absence, and how his clients become ever more suspect to him. In addition to some information about his origins, his carryings-on as a student, his breakfast habits, and his preferred means of locomotion.
No way! It couldn't go on this way. Harry von Duckwitz got up from his desk and walked over to the open window. He hadn't studied law for years just to sit in an office now, dictating reports that went by the name of briefs. Not at seven in the evening, in May, in this weather.
Frankfurt, mid-seventies, 1975 to be exact, but what difference does the year make compared to the weather and the season. It's the way late spring turns to early summer on a warm evening without a trace of twilight that goads your sense of longing into aimless motion and makes you feel your soul stirring once again.
Duckwitz had been working in these offices for almost a year. It was by no means hell, but it was no way to live, in the long run. Not that he had expected heaven on earth — he was past that age. He didn't expect anything at all. If he ever had. What do you expect out of life? A fairly reasonable question actually, but when you heard it, or said it out loud, it sounded obscene. You really had to have gone to the dogs not to find it presumptuous. You might be able to ask yourself such questions, but not too often. To expect fulfillment, from your job no less, was ridiculous.
And yet, he'd been lucky. A flourishing law firm in a good location on the edge of downtown Frankfurt. An old building — that was important. Nice parquet floors. Nothing against skyscrapers on a city skyline, but he didn't want to work in one. He was no insect. Here there were sensible partitioned windows that could be opened wide. The soothing roar of traffic rose reassuringly from below. At least something was going on in the streets. There were even trees outside the windows, linden trees. They were in blossom now, and their sweet country scent mingled pleasantly with the smells of the city.
The two secretaries had left at five, as usual. "Good night. See you tomorrow, Herr von Duckwitz!" Both his colleagues and the legal intern had taken their leave at six. With a sense of relief and a trace of respect and friendly commiseration, they called out: "Don't work yourself to death!"
Now the cleaning lady had also disappeared, her last act having been to check the earth in the potted palm with her knuckle: "Doesn't need water, it's still okay." Right now she was busy in the dermatologist's office one floor up. You could hear her vacuuming and shoving furniture around. Maybe she worked twelve or thirteen hours a day, too, like Duckwitz. He probably earned four or five times as much as she did. And that dermatologist up there, the quack, probably raked in ten times as much.
But the problem wasn't grotesque differences in income. In earlier years, he had taken to the streets to protest such injustices. That was once upon a time.
Duckwitz closed the window. Frankfurt was known as an ugly city, but he just couldn't see it that way. Recently some people had been calling it an honest city. If ugliness could be turned into honesty, then it had to follow that a lie is something beautiful.
He went back to his desk and concentrated on a damage claim made by a builder against an electrician, and on criminal charges brought against a lapsed alcoholic for some ludicrous break-in. He would like to have walked back and forth as he was dictating to his machine, but oddly enough, even though he was alone in the office, that still seemed too pompous. Not yet thirty, he wasn't about to begin strutting around officiously, as if he were some actor playing the part of a brooding celebrity attorney waiting for a flash of inspiration.
This, by the way, was a bigger problem than the cleaning lady's wages: his image. It wasn't an agonizing problem, but it had been on his mind. He was just the sort of successful young lawyer he and Helen had jeered at only a short time ago. Success was as low as you could go, that much had been clear. There had to be something fishy about anyone who was successful in this society.
Who knows, maybe that's why Helen had turned away from him. Maybe she didn't like living with a successful young lawyer who spent less and less time with her. Harry wasn't sure. But what should he have done? There was no alternative. He just slid into success. Other people slide into failure. You slide this way, you slide that, maybe you slip and fall. The whole thing's just one big skating party. But after all, the fault of success is easier to take than the fault of failure.
Nevertheless, Harry did everything he could to avoid creating the impression of being a successful young lawyer. He was very careful not to change: threadbare sports coats instead of suits, his rusty old car, and no new apartment. But the question was, could he hold off the inevitable that way?
He still had some time for skeptical self-examination, though he'd rather have been examined by Helen. That wouldn't be so exhausting. Anyway, you had to be careful not to look like you were part of the establishment, if you actually were. Or wasn't he?
At some point resistance becomes foolish. Why shouldn't you at least buy a better car? Are you a monster just because you take your accountant's advice and start driving a Mercedes or a Volvo? What's wrong with a new jacket, and what's really so objectionable about a new suit? What would old photo albums and old movies be without the suits? You couldn't imagine those great seedy detectives from the thirties and forties without the suits. It was undoubtedly childish to put up such resistance to suits and decent cars. And while wearing a tie is really stupid, it's also stupid to resist so hard. As if wearing one made you a jackass.
Those were the big questions. But for the time being there weren't any answers. He'd have to discuss them with Helen. It was a dirty trick for her to have taken off like that. Harry took out a sheet of paper and wrote: "Dear Helen, I need an image consultant. Good pay. Won't you take the job?"
He put the unfinished letter into the drawer where he kept his personal belongings, then took down some commentaries in order to dictate a couple of letters. One of the commentaries was called Rules for the Allocation of Public Works Contracts. The opening pages bore a resplendent dedication by the author: "In deep gratitude to my dear wife, especially for the many years of patience and consideration that made this 7th edition possible."
A commentary is the crowning achievement of a legal career. He would never let things go that far, Harry told himself. He wouldn't write a commentary on contracting rules or anything else, and he certainly wouldn't have the gall to dedicate such drivel to any dear woman, wife or otherwise. He put the books back on the shelf. He should specialize, then he wouldn't have to work so hard. Only first he'd have to find out which branch of civil or criminal law suited him best.
Still, something just wasn't quite right. The business about success was really a joke, and he still felt strong enough to laugh off the suspicion that he belonged to the establishment. But he'd rather have laughed about it with Helen — laughing alone could easily sound a little bitter.
The problem was that while you might be able to evade the image of the successful young lawyer, you couldn't get around the rules of the justice game. That terrific fellow who angrily kicked a car after the driver nearly ran him over would never have obtained his rights, even if he was right to do what he did. Naturally, the driver of the swanky limousine filed suit for damages right away. A dented door. Seven thousand marks worth of damage from a single kick, according to one expert's estimate. Even the judge had been amused at that: such an expensive car and such thin metal? Nevertheless, you don't kick car doors. Only if you've actually been hit can a lawyer claim it was a reflex reaction. Or better yet, that it involved a mere "excess of justifiable self- defense." When Duckwitz had the rare opportunity to throw terms like that around in court, he really enjoyed his profession. But the plaintiff had suddenly withdrawn his complaint — didn't want to give the name of the witness, that is, of the woman who had been sitting next to him in the car. Aha!
That was just it. Instead of setting up a monument to the defendant's awesome kick, instead of sentencing the driver to thirty lashes on the soles of his feet, the whole thing ended without the least sense of triumph. If his client's adversary hadn't been so pitifully afraid of the questions his wife would ask about the woman passenger, Duckwitz could have helped the car kicker get his due. But how? What judge would have been willing to find for his heroic client on the grounds that, in this case, car doors may be kicked? Yet only this way can justice take on a higher meaning!
There was simply no end to the tricks and the scheming, the deliberate silences and the diversionary tactics. You employed ruses and evasions and indulged in petty charges of procedural error in a half-hearted search for half-truths. No brilliance, not a hint of justice, no ideas, just this snooping and fiddling and messing and rummaging around. Ridiculous mental gymnastics for hairsplitters. Okay, okay, he'd known that. He'd had time to prepare himself for this nonsense as a student, as a legal intern, even as an associate in the firm. But it's one thing to know about the nonsense and something else to engage in it yourself.
What he hadn't known was that the clients would be the worst part. You couldn't drive them away, after all, because you lived off them; but they were horrible — indignant as plaintiffs, weepy as defendants. His law firm had a reputation for being liberal, and so most of the people who showed up were either abused, disadvantaged, or insolvent.
This morning he'd represented a supermarket cashier who was fired. Sure you're supposed to put everything you've got into helping such a wretched creature. But in court it turned out that she was slow, clumsy, regularly late for work, and always chattering; she couldn't remember a thing, and she couldn't add. She was simply out of place. She was one of those women who drive you insane when you're standing in line because she doesn't know the price of the merchandise, has to ask another cashier about every stick of butter, and nothing moves. Customers had complained. The manager's description had been absolutely credible. He'd been fair. She'd been given proper notice. It was hard, but then that's life. The only thing was, the very friendly store manager had not sent her notice by registered mail, and Harry had been forced to drum it into his client's head that she received the letter on January 2 and not punctually on December 31. With no effort at all, Duckwitz had been able to get a settlement of twelve thousand marks for this incompetent goose. Her boss, on the other hand, an Italian, was penalized because he didn't know that in this case he had to send a registered German letter mailed at a German post office. And the result of this cheap victory was that the manager had to pay Duckwitz two thousand marks in legal fees out of his own pocket. It just couldn't go on this way.
Worst of all were the divorces. Duckwitz evidently exerted some kind of mysterious attraction on the kind of man who thinks he's been cheated by his wife both sexually and financially. After umpteen years of married hell, he didn't feel like stuffing half his hard-earned income into the maw of that deceitful beast.
Duckwitz always nodded but thought to himself: if you get married, you've got it coming. In court, his adversaries, that is the women, turned out to be absolutely fabulous; his clients, on the other hand, turned into foul and nasty characters, an imposition on any sensible woman. Why wasn't it the women who came to his office? Was there some hidden contradiction between a beautiful client and a liberal law office? It was sort of romantic to be thought of as a liberal lawyer in a liberal law firm, but if the result of this dubious reputation was that he attracted only miserable wretches, then thanks but no thanks. In that case he'd rather wage non- ideological battles on behalf of beautiful women and pick the pockets of slippery characters for the rest of his life. Someone has to take up the cause of beauty, damn it!
Recently, he'd found himself confronted in court by a woman whose eyes were so green that he could have allowed the most hair-raising assertions to pass without objection. And right in front of this woman he had to paste together a legally convincing case out of the disgusting charges made by his awful client. The green eyes rested on the man with mild disdain. If she'd only take a pistol out of her purse and shoot him! thought Duckwitz. He'd offer to defend her on the spot. He moved as far away from his client as he could in order to avoid being caught in the rays of this beautiful green disdain. He tried to sneak into his remarks some secret signs of sympathy for his opponent but stopped when he noticed that, as the laws of rhetoric would have it, he was helping his client. He'd have to represent the man so miserably that she'd win on all counts. Only she wouldn't know who it was she had to thank for the victory. Duckwitz would be the loser, and women like that don't like losers. Her lawyer would have to be the one to tell her that Duckwitz let her win. Then she'd call to thank him, and Harry would say equivocally, "Don't mention it!" Naturally he'd go out to dinner with green-eyes. And pretty soon he'd be gazing at her and asking: Say, what is it about me that always makes me wind up with such atrocious clients?
It was already too late for the movies now, a quarter past nine. Green-eyes' name was Wagner. There were a lot of Wagners. Duckwitz looked in the file for her first name and address. The Wagner Case. Then he checked the phone book. There they were, right after the divorce, still peacefully united. Sybil and Hubert. Where do people actually live after a divorce? Calling Sybil Wagner now would be stepping completely out of line. It would be unseemly, and unseemly was exactly what he wanted to be.
When he got home, Harry contemplated his telephone. He hadn't gone out to dinner, not alone. No fun in that. There had to be a little conversation at dinner or you might as well wolf down something right from the refrigerator. That's what he'd just done. Somehow it was odd to think of your body as if it were a car. Simply fill up the tank and off you go. But where to?
He wouldn't call Helen. She'd have to do it, she was the one who left. And besides, there was no hurry. He wasn't even thirty yet.
Harry was proud of his old black telephone. Bakelite. You have to keep the most obtrusive kinds of progress from taking over. Keep up the battle against pointless innovation. Someone had come up with new telephones even though the old ones were still perfectly good. His receiver was as heavy as a dumbbell, and there was a cradle that still deserved the name. If you wanted to, you could drop or slam down the receiver, you didn't have to fit it into some ridiculous well. When the dial turned, it sounded like those old radio mystery stories with the detective about to come in and save the day. Harry's splendid phone had belonged to the previous tenant. There was always static on the line, and the telephone repairman had wanted to replace it. "Well, you're finally going to get a new one!" he said cheerfully, pulling out his screwdriver. "Are you crazy?" Duckwitz barked so indignantly that the man packed up his tools and left.
It was annoying that there were no old black telephones at the office, although compared to his miserable clients, that was a mere trifle. Harry didn't think even a telephone should be a matter of indifference to someone who considers himself a thinking being. An office that doesn't have black telephones carries less weight, the same way the new telephones pack less weight. If you have to spend hours on the phone at the office every day, you need one you can really get hold of, not some toy that goes sliding around every time you make a call.
When the office was furnished a year earlier, he'd had a say in things. Some crook from that monopoly Siemens had wanted to talk them into a touch telephone, said touch telephones were the latest development. The first one had been installed for the President just that year, June of seventy-four, and then they'd gone into production. "Out of the question," Duckwitz had said. He was no bookkeeper and he wouldn't punch numbers. Even where the telephone was concerned, he wanted to be free — free to dial, not to hunt and peck. Then there had been the question of color: gray, green, or an absolutely impossible orange. The man from Siemens had recommended green, fern green. Friendly. If not black, then gray, thought Harry. Why would you want fern green in an office? What rubbish! An office isn't a forest. Some factory psychologist or business school grad had thought that one up in order to demonstrate to the members of the board that he was indispensable. It looks friendly, he said. The greener the workplace, the harder your employees will work.
Excerpted from Diplomatic Pursuits by Joseph von Westphalen, Melanie Richter-Bernburg. Copyright © 1991 Hoffmann und Campe Verlag, Hamburg. Excerpted by permission of Catbird Press.
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