Following the death of her mother, Franziska turns away from love and follows a grimly determined path to achieve a career as a concert pianist. Her determination takes her from her humble home in a small Czech town to an unconventional life in Prague, and eventually draws to a destructive climax in pre-war Berlin. Franziska is a fascinating exploration of character, an alluring treatment of the power of music and of a woman s obsession. Ernst Weiss' second novel was published in 1914 and was highly regarded by Franz Kafka, with whom Weiss was in regular contact.
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About the Author
Ernst Weiss was born in 1884 in Brünn (now Brno) in Bohemia. He worked as a doctor and served in World War I. In 1938 Weiss emigrated to France. He committed suicide in 1940, the day the German troops entered Paris. Weiss novels show expressionistic and surrealist tendencies, often expressing violent perverted sexual impulses and marked by deep pessimism, owing something to Weiss' friend Franz Kafka.
Read an Excerpt
By Ernst Weiss, Anthea Bell
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2008 Pushkin Press
All rights reserved.
A mother lay dying.
The whole room was full of the aura of death. No one moved. The dim light of dawn lay outside the windows like mist, peering in with white eyes. The mother's breath was fading. Franziska went over to the piano, took the two candles off the music stand and placed them at the old woman's head, quietly and very tenderly; the thin glass candle-holders chinked with a bright, silvery sound. Then stillness fell in the room again, gathering like a heavy cloud in a narrow valley.
The sick-nurse lit the candles. The woman's daughters stood back.
Now only her twitching mouth still moved in her already fixed and mask-like face, breathing hard, passionately, in tormented haste. Then the old woman's breath grew calmer, sinking into itself. Unutterable silence took them all by the throat.
The nurse turned away. Franziska went to her mother, tidied her damp grey hair, very softly closed her eyes like a child's. Her sisters stood in the doorway, trembling. That was all; only the crucifix was missing, lying hidden in the heavy folds of the blanket at the dead woman's feet. Franziska put it in her mother's hands, and then she herself leaned over the bed, sank to her knees, felt her sisters' breath on the back of her bowed neck, closed her eyes and pressed her forehead to her mother's now terribly still breast. She stayed there a long time; then she stood up, and so did her sisters.
The nurse beckoned to them, and they went into the next room. Minna, the youngest, turned back again at the door. In bewilderment, she threw herself on the dead woman's pale hands, hands that had once been so severe and now had no will of their own, carried them to her mouth, kissed them, and looked at them as if she were seeing them for the first time: an old woman's poor, sick hands, their lines and wrinkles still showing the grime of hard physical labour, bearing the marks of a life of toil like handwriting in dark ink on a white background.
Then the three sisters stood face to face, looking at one another like strangers.
Not a word, not a tear. Something mysterious had happened, and last night could never be undone.
Their mother's heart had been weary and worn out for a long time, but only last night had it rebelled, making her hit out and strike her breast again and again, her pulse beating in her very fingertips. Then it was as if a fist had punched her in the eyes; suddenly she saw a red light as tall and broad as a wall. Red darkness before her, red darkness behind her. Where had her children gone, where was the room she had lived in for decades, the little town outside the windows, the old lamp above the old table?
The girls' mother had pulled the tablecloth towards her, opening her mouth wide in the grip of indescribable fear.
Henriette the teacher looked up in alarm from her school exercise books, which fluttered down into the folds of her dress. She uttered a cry, and Franziska froze in the midst of her passionate, elated piano-playing. Trembling, their mother pushed something evil away from her with hands that clenched uncertainly. Then she collapsed, heavily yet very gently.
In an instant Franziska was beside her, bending over her, but her mother was murmuring distractedly in a strange, shy, girlish voice; she turned her head aside, and one eye, unmoving in the infinite dark, stared blindly at her daughter. The red darkness had grown yet more obscure; all was night.
Only Franziska shed no tears. She took her mother's helpless hand and led her to her bed. Then she hurried away to call the doctor, but he was unwilling to come until next morning. So her mother couldn't see anything, just a red light? He felt certain that she must have been reading a little while earlier, it was only some disorder of the eye — or no, not even that, a mere weakness. Couldn't it wait until morning?
Franziska hurried back. Of course it was just as the doctor had said. Yes, it could wait until morning! Only ten more hours of anxiety and uneasiness, but the doctor was sure of himself; her mother couldn't see any more, but there was no danger.
No danger? Yet her mother's face was not what it had been yesterday Her eyes were closed, she was asleep. Perhaps irreversible darkness dwelt in the depths of those eyes. Dreadful as blindness was, however, there were even worse things. What did this stillness mean? Why this frozen sleep? What did it mean when her mother drew breath with unspeakable difficulty from the depths of her breast, dragging herself laboriously through the twilight hour by hour? But then her breath came more and more easily, faster and faster — the three sisters sighed with relief — it was gliding along, like someone racing in haste down wide paths, up flowering mountains, his eyes shining, and then pressing his hand to his sweetly trembling heart, as if he stood radiant in the embrace of the sudden blaze of the noonday sun, delighted to reach his journey's end, holding his breath in amazement.
The sisters had hurried to the sick woman as she sat up, hands rigidly thrust out as if to ward something off, her blind eyes seeming to see some supernatural sight. Then she sank back again, and faint breath came back into the mother's breast, as if from much too far away. Another soul was running its race with death in the darkness of the night.
Around three in the morning Franziska hurried off to fetch the doctor for the second time, but now he was not at home. The weather was harsh, and there had never been so many sick people as now. His pony-trap was just bowling down the road. So Franziska ran to the priest, who knew the old woman and had already given her Extreme Unction during a sudden illness two years ago. His mild demeanour calmed them all. The heady scent of incense made the sisters sleepy, the unconscious woman seemed to smile when he anointed the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet with his holy oil. Her frozen gaze turned human again in the light of the consecrated candles. And with the priest came the nurse, unasked-for but welcome, for she stayed.
The dreadful silence imposed by that savage fist was gone, and so was the terror of running a relentless race, for other people now knew what was going on. Everything would pass, nothing ever happened for the very first time, and so it became an everyday act of death, the ordinary end of the story of an ordinary life.CHAPTER 2
Henriette and Minna were weeping: Minna passionately, like a child crying her whole heart and soul out; Henriette like a weary, depressed woman with many years of toil behind her, a woman with few hopes, a great burden of work, and no friends.
Franziska stood at the window and felt her heart beating stormily. She couldn't weep, not just now, not in this mercilessly grey daylight, with only the wall between her and the woman who might perhaps still be able to hear her.
The nurse quietly opened the door. Her smile conveyed sympathy, understanding, and a wish to give comfort. Her grave gaze made all pain an everyday event, bounded by the four white walls of the room where a simple woman had died an unassuming death.
Beside the deathbed, two large candles rose from tall brass bowls filled with sand. The other lamps had been extinguished and stood at the open window, looking insubstantial and un- obtrusive.
Franziska folded down the music-rest on which her Beethoven sonata from the previous evening still stood open. The old piano sighed. Minna had placed a little bunch of cowslips gathered in the woods yesterday on her mother's bedspread.
Franzi saw that she was still crying.
At that moment she fervently wished she could shed such tears herself. She would have liked to founder silently in them, dissolving for ever in that pain which resembled the pain of the whole world; she longed to forget herself entirely, if only for a second, and for that one second at least to belong to the dead woman and devote herself wholly to her mother, as she had never been able to do in life.
The nurse had left the sisters alone, and was walking about the kitchen with her heavy tread. She felt at home here now, but the dead woman's daughters did not. They did not raise their voices and never took their eyes off their mother's mouth, which wore a stern, almost sardonic smile.
"Oh, to be out of here ... just for an hour!"
"Franziska!" said Henriette gravely
"Can't you understand? I must go out. I'll sit with her all day and all night after that."
"Then I'll sit with her tomorrow," said Henriette.
"And I will ... for the last time, the last day," said Minna, in tears.
The table was laid in the kitchen. Frau Reichner the nurse had found the three girls' sets of cutlery, and held their mother's old, black-handled knife, fork and spoon in her own hard, bony hands. That took the sisters' breath away. But the nurse was smiling, although it was a humble and submissive smile. After they had eaten, she went back into their dead mother's room, pushed the chairs and table against the wall, and asked them to get their mother's best dress out of the wardrobe. Now it lay there, shimmering with the glow of violet silk, slightly faded and very soft, letting the living noon-day light flicker over its old-fashioned flounces, little glass beads and crumpled bows. When Frau Reichner took it in her hard, greedy fingers, the old dress trembled.
I won't love anyone ever again, thought Franziska, and then no one's death can hurt me.
The moorland outside the little town was still grey and stony, covered with undergrowth and dead branches that seemed to be embracing the last of the snow in their thin arms.
Slowly, the sisters climbed to the hill. A light mist rose from the moors and crept after them, laying its grey hand on the stony paths and distant slopes, and all that had been harsh looked soft and yielding.
"What are we going to do now?" asked Franzi.
"Let's not talk about that today," said Minna.
"Why not? Is this some special holiday?"
"Franzi! Don't you ever think of anyone but yourself? With our mother barely cold in her ..."
"Oh, words. If Mother were ... were still here, I'm sure that's what she'd be discussing too: can the three of us stay together or can't we?"
"How can you ask? You know how things are — or don't you? If you're heartless enough to raise the subject on a day like this then you'd better speak frankly — and I'll answer you just as frankly: you can't go on living as you do now. I'm ready to work harder than ever, I'm already at school from early in the morning until late evening; I'm prepared to work forty-two hours a week. As for you, Minna, you've never had a moment to yourself, you've done all the work about the house, you've spared our mother any trouble, and all free, all without any payment ..."
"Don't talk about it, Henriette," said Minna.
"But this concerns you, dear Minna," said Henriette. 'All we can afford to rent now is one room and a small kitchen. And however large the room may be, it will hardly be big enough to take the piano. You see, Minna, Franzi's piano will have to go to leave room for your bed."
"Are you telling me my piano must go?"
"I don't say so out of spite, Franzi. You started this yourself. I wouldn't have stirred up old disagreements today We're already in difficulties. I earn a little money, there'll be a salary of seven hundred miserable gulden, but only when I'm finally fully qualified. Well, I will be some time. Soon, maybe. But what's such a sum between three people? You tell me! We can pinch and scrape, make do and mend, the arithmetic still doesn't work out. I'm tired. When I get home in the afternoon I'd like a little rest. But you're always at that piano. Well, I think, I can't help thinking: one of us earns our daily bread, one of us stands over the stove, but the third ..."
"Ah, yes, the third," said Franzi, with an ironic smile. "You needn't say it. I know. I don't want to live on your miserable money. Not for a single day That's why I wanted to talk to you now ..."
"Oh, talk!" said Henriette. "What use are all these words? I've told you a thousand times. If Mother didn't like to tell you, at least someone must speak to you frankly. I mean, where is all this leading? What use is all your work? If only you'd been to teacher training college too! How else can we face our future now?"
"And I mean," said Franzi, "it doesn't have to be like that. I can earn my living even without going to teacher training college, though maybe not here."
"Oh no, Franzi," said Minna. "Whatever happens, we must stay together. I'm sure that's what Mother would have wanted."
"No," said Henriette. "Three is one too many."
"I know that. I never wanted to live at the expense of you two. I consider Henriette's seven hundred gulden sacrosanct. So what am I to do? What's to become of my piano? I suppose you can chop it up and burn it for firewood in winter. And perhaps someone will employ me as a shop-girl. Only during the day, though. I'll come home in the evening ... and maybe you'll have some warm corner by the stove for me?"
"Oh, Franzi," said Minna, "whatever are you thinking of? We wouldn't let you sleep in a corner."
"There's only enough to feed two," said Henriette.
"Very well, then let me tell you two my plan," said Minna. "I shall leave. I'll go to Prague. I'll go into service with decent people. Small children like me. I can ..."
"No," said Henriette. "I can't allow that. You — a servant? No, that's impossible!"
"But I won't be doing it here. No one will know. I won't be putting you to shame."
"That's not the point. Are you really serious?"
"What have I been here if not your servant? Henriette teaches at the school, you play the piano, what's left for me?" She smiled. "Don't worry about me. I'll be no worse off than I am here."
They had reached the top of the wooded hill. The moorland, far below, shone like grey silk among the tall green trees. The earth smelled of spring, the whole grey February world breathed spring-like scents, and a gentle rain was falling. It caressed the long, greyish needles of the pine trees, suddenly turning them dark green and shiny.
Franziska took Minna's hand. They said nothing, but walked back to the little town and the old house where their mother lay in the shadow of the church. When they reached it they saw the two big candles for the dead shining at the window in the early spring weather.
"Write to tell me when you get there," said Franziska quietly, "and then ... then I'll come to see you."
"Oh, never mind about that," said Minna. "I'm not doing it for the sake of you two — or for your sake alone, Franzi."
She began to shed tears as she went up the wooden steps, but no one, not even Minna herself, knew whether it was because her mother was dead, or because she, a girl with a middle-class upbringing, must now work as a servant.CHAPTER 3
As Franziska went to the station with her sister, she felt, to her own surprise, that she was looking forward to the moment when she would be entirely alone in her own four walls, looking forward to the first night alone in her room, and it seemed to her as if the world would be wider then, as if she would be sleeping in a distant land, inside a tent or under the open sky.
But Minna was crying, and her hands shook as they said goodbye. The train came in. Franziska kissed Minna on the lips. Minna's arm around her neck felt so heavy, so demanding, was so disconcertingly affectionate that she feared she would never be free of it again. But that was only for a moment; then the wheels of the train squealed and it pulled out. Minna waved a white handkerchief out of the window of her compartment, and from a distance her face, although swollen with tears, seemed to be laughing.
As it happened, Franziska had only ever loved a single person, her father: as a child, as an adolescent girl, and then in her memory. She couldn't imagine ever leaving someone she loved.
For two sleepless nights at the time of his death, the first sleepless nights of her young life, she had wished him back into existence with all the violence of her tears, back into life beside her, back into the flowering day. With him, she felt, the whole living world had died.
Excerpted from Franziska by Ernst Weiss, Anthea Bell. Copyright © 2008 Pushkin Press. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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