Read The Eternal Philistine Online
Authors: Odon Von Horvath
Then quote Alfred Kazin:
“Horváth … realized with extraordinary acuteness that to meet the horror of reality with a horror literature was no longer possible or useful; that the reality of Fascism was in fact so overwhelming and catastrophic that no realism,
particularly the agonized naturalism of the twentieth century, could do it justice.”
I have not, by the way, forgotten about Beckett.
There is no single greater guarantor of literary greatness than for an author to have, at some point, fled from the Third Reich. Sadly, though, there are no more Nazis from whom to flee, and you can see how few modern writers, consequently, are considered great. If David Sedaris had fled from Buchenwald instead of Raleigh, North Carolina, he would be seen as much more than just a successful humorist.
Through the twisted prism of a dark and gallows humor, Mr. Sedaris, a survivor of the death camps, turns his existential search for meaning into a something something something
. After all, Beckett (there he is) fled from the Nazis, and look how his career turned out. Beckett, incidentally, was hilariously funny; fortunately for him, though, he looked like a corpse, plus he frowned a lot, so everyone decided he was very serious (“My plays,” he was forced to remind a
producer, “should not be ponderous”).
Horváth, however, did more than just flee the Nazis; he openly provoked them. It’s all well and good for me to make jokes about Nazis, because it’s 2011 and I’m a pussy. But Horváth wrote in the early 1930s, in Berlin, and the Nazis were already a powerful and ominous presence. You did not fuck with them. The Brownshirts were not big fans of Horváth’s work, and it’s easy to see why. Here is Horváth at his Horváthian best, laying bare the contemptibility of the powerful that would blame the powerless for their own misfortunes:
Along these lines he had a friend in Berlin. And this friend once ran over a pedestrian with his fabulous car because she was jaywalking. But despite the fact that it was a case of jaywalking, an inquiry was launched. Indeed, it even went to trial, probably because that pedestrian had been the widow of a counselor for the regional court. The state’s attorney, however, failed to sentence his friend to paying damages. “After all, what do I care about a few thousand marks,” said the friend, “but as a matter of principle I want to know that things have been resolved.” He had to be acquitted, even though the chairman had asked him whether he felt sorry for this pedestrian, the jaywalking notwithstanding. “No,” he had said, “as a matter of principle—no!” He was just asserting his rights.
Revolutionary animus was set ablaze in Harry every time he saw a gasoline engine collide with the engine of the state. At such times he hated this state, which maternally protected pedestrians from every fender and reduced motor vehicle drivers to second-class citizens.
The connection made here to the humans at the World’s Fair having to make way for the cars is not accidental; progress may change the way we do things, he suggests, but we’ll continue to do the same things we always have. Like mass murder.
Man, said Aristotle, is the only animal that laughs.
Or builds gas chambers.
Not surprisingly, after Hitler came to power, Horváth’s home was searched and his writings banned. He fled to
Salzburg, then to Vienna, where he married the German singer Maria Elsner in Vienna; she was Jewish, the marriage simply to help her escape from Germany by taking on his Hungarian nationality. He returned to Berlin in 1934, but was soon harassed by the Nazis again, and he fled to Zurich. He returned once more to Germany, to see his parents, but was ordered to leave after 24 hours. Which led, unfortunately, to this:
It’s bad enough this book is funny; to make matters worse, the author didn’t even kill himself. It was the least he could have done. Respect-wise, nothing beats suicide (even Gogol had the courtesy to starve himself to death), and your asshole friends would have loved Horváth if he had. Still, he died tragically, and that should count for something.
Ödön was not afraid of much. He was not afraid of Nazis, criticism, or failure. What he was afraid of, however, was trees.
His whole life.
In 1938, Hitler invaded Austria. Ödön left Vienna and, after many stops along the way, finally made his way to Paris. He loved Berlin, but was thrilled to be back in a bustling, lively city.
“Human life,” Ödön once wrote, “is always a tragedy and only in individual episodes is it a comedy.”
One night, as he was returning from the cinema, a summer storm kicked up, and Ödön took shelter beneath a tree. A gust of wind broke off a branch, which landed on Ödön’s head, killing him instantly.
He was thirty-six years old.
And yet, in a typically, uniquely Horváthian way:
If all that doesn’t convince your friends to read this book, they’re even bigger assholes than I thought, and you should immediately point out to them that the book is being published by Melville House, which they’ll not have heard of (+10 points), but which you can tell them is a tremendously respected (+10 points) independent publisher (+15 points) based in Brooklyn, New York (Win). It will have a beautifully designed cover and be published on high-quality paper, maybe even with that respected-book rough edge thing going on.
“I have neither prettified nor disfigured,” wrote Horváth of his work. “I have never built and will never build distorting mirrors, because I reject parody in all its forms.”
He wasn’t exaggerating.
He was telling the truth. Furiously.
“Please,” he wrote to his readers, “recognize yourself!”
“I see now,” wrote Gogol, “what it means to be a writer of comedies. The smallest trace of truth and they are up in arms against you.”
In the summer of 1989, the Horváth archive came up for sale at Sotheby’s.
It failed to make its reserve.
THE ETERNAL PHILISTINE
For Ernst Weiß
The philistine is, as is generally known, an egoist who suffers from hypochondria, and this is why he seeks, like a coward, to fit in wherever he goes and to distort every new formulation of the idea by calling it his own.
If I am not mistaken, the news has slowly spread that we, of all people, are living in between two eras. The old species of philistine no longer even deserves to be ridiculed, and whoever is still mocking him at present is at best a philistine of the future. I say “future” because the new species of philistine is still nascent, it has yet to fully emerge.
Several contributions to the biological makeup of this nascent philistine shall now be attempted in the form of a novel. Of course, the author would not dare hope to have an influence on legitimate world affairs through these pages, but, well, all the same.
“As long as you lack
This ‘dying and becoming!’
You’re but a cloudy guest
Upon the sunny earth”
Note: In quoting from Goethe’s “Selige Sehnsucht” Horváth has changed “the dark earth” to “the sunny earth.”
IN MID-SEPTEMBER 1929, HERR ALFONS KOBLER of Schellingstrasse earned six hundred Reichsmarks. There are many people who cannot even imagine that much money.
Even Herr Kobler had never before earned so much money all at once, but this time fortune favored him. She winked at him, and all of a sudden Herr Kobler had more bounce in his gait. On the corner of Schellingstrasse he bought from the good old Frau Stanzinger a pack of eight-pfennig cigarettes imported straight from Macedonia. He loved these in particular because they were exceedingly mild and aromatic.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” screamed the honest Frau Stanzinger. Ever since her spinster sister died, she would sit between her tobacco articles and smoking paraphernalia all alone, looking as though she were shrinking a little bit every day. “Herr Kobler, since when you smoking those eight-pfennig jobs? Where’d you get the money? You gone and killed somebody or did you make up again with the royal-opera-house-singer-lady?”
“No,” said Herr Kobler, “I just finally sold the clunker.”
This clunker was a beat-up six-cylinder convertible with
a jump seat. It already had eighty-four thousand kilometers on it, a few dozen breakdowns, and two life-threatening injuries. A geriatric.
And yet Kobler found a buyer. He was a cheese-merchant from Rosenheim by the name of Portschinger. A tall and enthusiastic fat man. He had already made a down payment of three hundred Reichsmarks back in mid-August, giving his word that he would come back to pick up the geriatric by mid-September at the latest, at which time he would promptly bring the remaining six hundred Reichsmarks in cash. This is how keen he was to secure this extraordinarily good bargain.
And that is why he kept his word. In mid-September he arrived on schedule in Schellingstrasse and reported to Herr Kobler. In his company was his friend Adam Mauerer, whom he had brought along all the way from Rosenheim because, as this Adam had owned a little tax-exempt motorcycle since 1925, he regarded him as an expert. Herr Portschinger had actually only gotten his driver’s license two days before, and as he was by no means a cocky man he now realized that he was still a long way away from fully unlocking the secrets of the engine.
After taking a really close look at the convertible the expert was simply ecstatic. “That’s a jump seat!” he screamed. “A wonderful jump seat! An upholstered jump seat! The jump seat
! Buy it, you oaf!”
The oaf bought it on the spot as though the remaining six hundred Reichsmarks were a mere trifle. He then took his leave while Kobler inspected the authenticity of the bills.
“Well, then, Herr Kobler, if you ever come to Rosenheim, be sure to drop by. My wife would be thrilled. You’ve got to tell her the story later about the prelate, you know, the one
that was going round with them young girls like an alley cat in heat. My wife, you see, is even more liberal than me. Heil!”
The two gentlemen from Rosenheim then took a seat in the convertible and drove back home in good spirits—or at least this was their intention.
“The clunker rides nicely,” remarked the expert.
They drove across the station square.
“Ain’t it much nicer in your own convertible than in one of them smelly trains?” said Herr Portschinger. He no longer even made the effort to speak properly, for he was very content.
They drove across Marienplatz.
“Shut your exhaust pipe!” a policeman hollered at them.
“It already is,” Herr Portschinger hollered back.
The expert added that the convertible had a very sound pronunciation, so he shouldn’t be jealous.
After five kilometers they had their first breakdown. They had to change the left front wheel.
“It happens to the best of convertibles,” said the expert.
An hour later the engine fan began twittering like a lark. Then one of the axles fractured right before Rosenheim, and after failing to break several times, the convertible overturned and hurled the two gentlemen out of the vehicle and into the air in a high arch. By some miracle they remained unharmed, while the convertible was turned into a steaming heap of rubble.
“It’s a good thing nothing happened to us,” said the expert. But Portschinger, in a fury, ran to the nearest attorney. The attorney, however, merely shrugged his shoulders. “The purchase is in order,” he said. “Prior to finalizing the transaction you should have gathered more accurate information
as to the performance capabilities of the convertible. Calm down, Herr Portschinger, you were just cheated. There’s nothing you can do about it!”
THE ROYAL-OPERA-HOUSE-SINGER-LADY HAD purchased this clunker back when it was still brand-new. She was the one that Frau Stanzinger thought was keeping Herr Kobler. This was not true per se, although she had immediately taken quite a liking to Herr Kobler. This had happened at Bear Brothers, the very store where she had purchased this brand-new clunker.
Then Kobler had begun to call upon her regularly, from the beginning of October up until the end of August, though their entire relationship was, from a pecuniary point of view, outright platonic. Sure, he would eat, drink, and bathe at her place, but he never accepted even so much as a mark from her. And of course she never offered him anything of the sort, for she was a refined and educated lady, a former royal opera house singer who, ever since the revolution, had only sung at charity concerts. She could afford all of this charity business without worrying, because she owned, among other things, a beautiful mansion with a garden in front that resembled a park. Yet she had no interest in occupying ten rooms all alone, for at night she was often afraid of her deceased husband, a Danish Honorary Consul. An inflamed appendix had sent him knocking at the pearly gates just before the World War. He left her all of his money. It was a lot of money. She sincerely mourned for him. Only in 1918, in
her early forties, did she once again feel a longing for some sort of man in her life. By 1927 she looked back on half a century.