Read The Eternal Philistine Online
Authors: Odon Von Horvath
In 1929 Kobler was, by contrast, only in his twenty-seventh springtide and was neither remarkably educated nor especially refined. He had also always been rather impatient, which is why he had only just made it through the winter at the Bear Brothers, even though one of these bears kept saying: “My dear Kobler, you sure are a formidable salesman!”
And he really did know something about the automobile industry, though he had some little quirks that the other bear could not condone after a while. He would take, among other things, prolonged test drives with ladies whom he had, in fact, secretly asked to come by. Later, these ladies would appear before the two bears with unusual self-confidence, giving the impression that they could buy an entire motor coach just on a whim. One time, though, the other bear recognized one of these ladies as a prostitute, and toward evening, as Herr Kobler returned from one of his test drives quite satisfied, this bear was already waiting for him out on the street in front of the dealership.
He ripped open the door and smelled inside the sedan. “Curious test drives indeed, my dear Kobler,” he said maliciously. After that, for better or worse, dear Kobler had to become self-employed. Sure, he could not afford to lease a dealership, and so had to pursue the automotive trade within its modest bounds, but now he was basically his own master. However, it was only thanks to his friendship with the royal-opera-house-singer-lady that he was able to ascend to this higher social class. This really irritated him sometimes.
This friendship did not last very long at all. It shattered at the end of August, for two reasons. The
royal-opera-house-singer-lady suddenly began aging at a revoltingly rapid speed. This was the first reason, though the decisive reason was a disagreement on a matter of business.
You see, the royal-opera-house-singer-lady had entreated Herr Kobler to dump her busted convertible with a jump seat on the guy for the cheapest price possible. But when Herr Kobler received the first three hundred Reichsmarks from Herr Portschinger, he had the impertinence to hand over only fifty. She was so upset by this that she even wanted to report him to the police. She only refrained out of fear that her name could wind up in the papers, which she could not afford to let happen because she was friends with the wife of an undersecretary at the Ministry of Culture who fancied herself a singer.
And so she merely wrote to Herr Kobler, saying that she considered him a downright scoundrel, that he had disappointed her and that she no longer wanted to have any human interaction with such a subject. And then she wrote him a second letter explaining that you couldn’t simply tear up a love affair like a piece of tissue paper, because women would always have a little something inside them that remained insolubly stuck.
Kobler said to himself, “I am indeed a good guy,” and called her on the phone. They met up for dinner outside in the exhibition restaurant.
“Peter,” said the royal-opera-house-singer-lady.
Besides that, she did not say anything else for the next fifteen minutes. To be sure, Kobler’s name was “Alfons,” not “Peter,” but as the royal-opera-house-singer-lady had told him on several occasions, “Peter sounds better.” He, too, preferred it, especially when the royal-opera-house-singer-lady pronounced it, almost making you feel that you were
in Chicago. Sure, he was not exactly crazy about America, but he respected it. “They’re businessman types,” he would often say.
The music was playing gently in the exhibition restaurant. The royal-opera-house-singer-lady softened up once again. “I forgive you for everything, darling, just go ahead and keep my entire convertible,” her smile seemed to say.
But her darling thought, “It’s only just occurred to me how old she is.” He took her home, but did not accompany her upstairs. The royal-opera-house-singer-lady threw herself onto the sofa and moaned, “I want my convertible back!” And then suddenly she had the feeling that her deceased husband was standing behind her.
“Don’t look at me like that!” she yelled.
“Pardon me! You’ve got varicose veins,” replied the former Honorary Consul, and withdrew back into eternity.
TWO CORNERS DOWN FROM SCHELLINGSTRASSE, Kobler rented a furnished apartment on the left side of the third floor. The landlady was a certain Frau Perzl, a native of Vienna who belonged to the same generation as the royal-opera-house-singer-lady. She, too, was a widow, but other than that she had absolutely nothing in common with the singer. Among other things, she had never been frightened of her deceased husband. She just dreamed of wrestlers every now and then. And so one such wrestler who looked a lot like Kobler once bowed down before her and said, “We’re now in the year 1904. Please, Josephin, cross your fingers
for me! I want to become world champion this instant, you whore!”
She sympathized with Kobler. She loved, among other things, his pleasant voice so much that he could go for more than fourteen days without paying his rent. When he had his back turned to her, she would take a particular pleasure in the area around his collar.
She would often complain about aches and pains. The doctor told her that she had lumbago. Another doctor said that she had a wandering kidney. A third doctor said that she should beware of her own digestion. What a fourth doctor told her, well, that she would not say. She liked going to doctors, to the crude ones and polite ones alike.
Her deceased husband had also been a physician, a gynecologist in Vienna. He hailed from a well-respected, slightly dim-witted Christian-social family. In the run of the prewar years, he had amassed six houses through inheritance. One of them was in Prague. She, on the other hand, had brought into the marriage just a third of a windmill in the northern Italian city of Brescia, but only once did he reproach her for it. Her grandmother was a native of Milan.
Anno Domini 1907, Doctor Perzl became a victim of his profession. He caught an infection from the corpse of one of his patients. That is, while he was cutting it apart in order to discover what was wrong with the woman, he was carelessly fiddling around with the scalpel because he was, well, drunk again, and he gashed himself. It was generally held that, were it not for his binge drinking, he would have had a bright future.
Ferdinand Perzl, the only child, was forced to attend cadet school because he had had no sensible ambitions in high school. He then became a first lieutenant in the Imperial
and Royal Army and even managed to spend the World War whoring around behind the lines. After Austria-Hungary squandered everything—and even as he slowly lost everything that he stood to inherit, the six houses and the third of a windmill—he took stock of himself and, rather than whoring around, gnashed his teeth and watched with balled fists in his pockets as people loaded with foreign currency whored around instead. He then found his way into an office and erased from his eyes any trace of his dissolute behavior during the great struggle of the nations; he became an anti-Semite and married Frieda Klovac, the blond office worker with two left feet. Slight abnormalities of this sort could make him so nostalgic since his time behind the lines.
His mother, however, got really worked up about this marriage business. She had always hoped that some day her little Ferdinand would marry a respectable young girl from a well-to-do family. An employee was, in her eyes, not exactly a proper personage, especially as a daughter-in-law. And so she would only ever address her as that “whore,” “bitch,” “fleabag,” and the like.
And the poorer she became, the more she emphasized her social origin. In other words, the more she sensed her material defeat, the more conscious she became of her spiritual superiority. This spiritual superiority consisted above all in ignorance and the natural narrow-mindedness of the middle class. As with all people of her ilk, she did not hate the men in uniforms and the civilian criminals who had cheated her through war, inflation, deflation, and stabilization, but rather hated the proletariat alone, because, without really wanting to come to terms with it, she sensed that the future belonged to this class. She grew envious, but denied it. When she saw that a worker was able to afford a glass of
beer, she was deeply hurt and her most sacred feelings were offended. Merely reading a democratic editorial made her furious. She was almost unbearable on May Day.
Only once did she have a gentleman caller, for eight years. He was an art teacher at the vocational school in the Eighth District. He had always been a little bit nervous, always making odd remarks like “Well, now, so who’s the Titian? A wop!” Finally one day he literally went crazy, as was right and proper. It began with an excessive need for cleanliness. He would shave his entire body, meticulously snip the hairs from his nostrils, and change his clothes ten times a day, despite only having one suit. Later, he would always carry a dust cloth around with him, dusting everything from the candelabra, pavement, and tramway to the pedestal of the statue of Maria Theresa. In the end he was even bent on dusting the air. And then the show was over.
BUT LET US NOW PUT THESE SOCIOHISTORICAL sketches aside and return to the present, namely to Schellingstrasse.
A certain Count Blanquez had stopped by Frau Perzl’s place scarcely ten minutes before Kobler returned home. He told her that he wanted to wait in Kobler’s room for his friend Kobler.
This Count Blanquez was an elegant figure and a botched character. His ancestors were Huguenots, but he himself was born in the Bavarian Forest. He was partly raised by Piarists and partly by a homosexual staff surgeon in one of those
hopeless prisoner-of-war camps in Siberia. He did not get along well with his family because he had fourteen siblings. And yet he seemed for the most part to be in good spirits—a big boy, a loyal companion, but sadly without scruples. He loved music, only he never went to the opera because every opera reminded him of the Huguenots, and when he thought about the Huguenots he got depressed.
Perzl showed him in without much courtesy. That is, she did not find him especially pleasant because she suspected him of only being interested in young girls. While observing him through the keyhole, she thought mistrustfully, “Where on earth does he get his elegant ties?” She watched him as he sat down on the sofa, picked his nose and then, after inspecting the extracted specimen, wiped it off sluggishly on the edge of the table. Then he stared at Kobler’s bed, smiling cynically. Hereupon he began rummaging through Kobler’s drawers and skimming through his correspondences. Annoyed not to find any cigarettes anywhere, he removed a handkerchief from Kobler’s armoire and proceeded to squeeze out his blackheads in front of the mirror. He was, as has already been noted, sadly without scruples.
He was just combing his hair with Kobler’s comb when the latter took Perzl by surprise at the keyhole.
“The gentleman count is here,” she whispered. “But if I were you, I’d clamp the lid on that. Just think about it, didn’t he come up here just yesterday with some whore, plop himself down on your bed with her, use your towel, and then just like that, head out the door again with her! That’s really crossing the line. And that’s just what I’d say to the gentleman count!”
“It’s not as simple as you think it is,” said Kobler. “The count’s a bit touchy—he could easily take it the wrong way.
And I’ve got to be on good terms with him for our many business collaborations. In fact, I did notice something about the towel while I was drying my face today, but, well, one hand washes the other.”
Perzl returned to the kitchen miffed and muttered something unfavorable about the cavaliers of today. As the count caught sight of Kobler, he was gurgling with the latter’s mouthwash, and did not allow himself to be the least bit perturbed.
“Hey there!” he called out to him. “Pardon me, but I had such a dreadful taste in my mouth. Speaking of which, I heard you sold the clunker. Congratulations!”
“Thanks,” said Kobler meekly, and waited angrily for him to try and mooch some money off of him. “How come every crook already knows about me cheating Portschinger?” he asked himself desperately. He thought, “Just try and mooch some money off me, and I’ll smash in your unsavory face!”
But quite the opposite happened. The count placed ten Reichsmarks on the table with a chivalrous gesture. “Much obliged,” he smiled suavely, and kept gurgling like nothing special had happened. “It seems,” he remarked casually, “you’ve forgotten that you loaned me ten marks.”
“What a day!” thought Kobler.
“I can pay you back today without any problems because tonight,” the count continued, “I’m going to do some inheriting. You see, my great-uncle, who is ten months younger than me, is dying. He’s got cancer. The poor guy’s suffering terribly. Cancer is incurable, you know. We still don’t even know whether it’s a bug or a tumor. He won’t make it through the night, that much is certain. I’ll go to Sopot once he’s been relieved of his suffering. No, not through Poland, but up and around.”
“Does Sopot still belong to Germany?” inquired Kobler.
“No, Sopot is in the Free State of Danzig, which reports directly to the League of Nations,” lectured the count. “By the way, if I were you, I’d take a trip now too. You couldn’t invest your six hundred any better. If you do it like me, you just spend ten days in a luxury hotel, meet some rich woman and then everything else will fall into place real easy like. You really do make a good appearance. You’ll have the most fabulous connections for the rest of your life, guaranteed. You still remember the tall Kammerlocher, right? You know, the one who used to be with the lancers, the aspiring cadet, the one who skipped out on the bill at the Maxim Bar? He went to Merano with a whopping two hundred Schillings, put himself up in a luxury hotel there, and on that very same evening engaged an Egyptian broad with a few pyramids for a Boston waltz, flirted with her, and then wound up marrying her because he had debauched her. Now he owns half of Egypt. And what did he have? He didn’t have anything. And who had he been? He had been a pervert. He used to put on long, silk stockings and look at his legs in the mirror. A narcissist!”