The moon will always be the moon, I say.
As you wish, says my wife.
No, not like that, I say.
Put out the lamp then, says my wife, and she arranges the pillow on the window sill.
Now we look down into the street, which lies in total darkness.
Something is wrong with the gas supply, with the gas main or something. The street lamps aren’t burning. We have public gas lighting here. And now the familiar figure of the lamp-snatcher passes our house, with four red lanterns in each hand.
Is he allowed to do that? my wife asks doubtfully, and I, averse to doubt, answer simply: moon remains moon, after all.
And that should be enough for today.
As I was about to say, my wife says.
Then we go to bed. But the matter of this darkness preoccupies me now.
There you lie, and think about this and that. The street is silent after the coming of darkness. A quiet side street. The traffic is on the main street, a hundred metres away. The elevated railway runs there, and the tramway. And buses. At one time there were a lot of shops here, more than on the main street, which used to be very posh. Now there are a few furniture stores, second-hand merchants who call themselves bric-a-brac shops, and some pubs. Four, or seven. A street grown silent. That once had something going for it, at least. You think about this and that. And what’s here now?
You’ll never tear yourself away from this street, not now. But a few apartments in the building are already empty. And why should anyone want to move in? Perhaps you wouldn’t do it yourself. The stores and the cellars — vegetables, coal — I won’t even begin to talk about them. Artists of some sort live there, for a few weeks at a time. You never get to see them during the day, but mostly in the evenings at Arno’s pub, the Hunter’s Retreat. Such sensitive souls who don’t sing. And are friends of the lamp-snatcher.
They’ll all be famous one day, that’s for sure, you may yet live to see it.
Him, I know him, you’ll say then as you stand in front of a picture at the City Gallery, he lived in my basement.
All this makes it impossible to rest. My wife wakes up now and then.
I’ve probably been groaning without knowing it.
When she wakes up, she’s always alert right away. Like a jolt, eyes open and awake immediately. So, then, says my wife. But that doesn’t mean she wants to talk. So I just tell her what is occupying me at the moment.
Life in Finland is amusing, I say. My friend P. was telling me recently, the late Silanpää — do you know him? I read a book of his once, I add, it was very good — well, the late Silanpää, so P. was telling me recently, when that one drove to his summer house he needed three carriages. In the first, himself and his enormous family, in the second, tools, linen and all that, accessories or whatever, and the third was full of beer.
Your friend P., my wife says to me, is guzzling right now in the Hunter’s Retreat. And then she falls asleep again.
There you are, lying in bed at home, while P. is certain to be sitting in front of his beer, and the lamp-snatcher will have dropped in as well. Where does he actually keep those stolen lamps.
Naturally, nothing’s happening, no-one drives around here. When the drunks fall over a heap of stones or into these holes where the pipes have been dug up, they have guardian angels, the kind with wings on, who help them up and out.
Underpants, shirt, pants, socks, shoes, jacket, all in their places, a tie across the back of the chair. Just close the door quietly. As if you were getting up to go to the toilet on the landing.
It’s really dark in the street. No lights anywhere from the tall houses, the gateways all shut. In the house across the street, on the fourth floor, there’s a window open, and one in the attic loft too. All dark. In the sky, I’ve just noticed, are a few stars — Cassiopeia, perhaps, or the Great Bear.
Which doesn’t make it any lighter. And the moon’s gone.
The doors of the Hunter’s Retreat open outwards as usual. And my friend P. is sitting there, the lamp-snatcher too, artists, various others. Quite a few.
Good morning, Herr Fenske, Arno is saying now, at eleven o’clock. I remark on the darkness out there and P. moves his chair over to the side a little. Chicken feed, more chicken feed, grain for grain. Much talk here at the tables. Conversation.
When people talk — tramway employees perhaps, or musicians — I’ll leave aside the barbers — what insights they have into history, what prospects on eternity! They’d like to talk rubbish like that all the time, just as they feel like it; without reflection, anyway. Then there wouldn’t be any listeners; they should be talking too, everybody should talk. It would be a little noisy, I think, but why not? It’s like that already.
Pull out a hair and tell us what you felt while you were doing it. And then tell me about something that wasn’t done so easily or over so quickly.
Professor Spieroch lives on my street, says one man at the big round table. I don’t know, maybe one of you knows him. Old man with twenty-five thousand books. Open collar and a mane of hair. He had twenty-five thousand once before, they were burned during the war. Then he was still Professor of Latin at the high school. Knew simply everything about Latin. Every single word of the classical authors. Elongavi occurs three times in Saint Antonius, things like that.
So I listen to what these men are saying.
As I said: chapter and verse, and in each of the different editions. But you had to ask him straight from the shoulder, he didn’t like giving anything away, not even his knowledge. And he never wrote anything except poems, Latin poems he prepared himself, that used all the words and forms in Horace, except the words were arranged differently. Or so he said. But he didn’t use all those books, in my opinion. I visited him when he turned seventy-five. When I attended his classes I was one of the bad students. He only thought about our parents then. But now I count as the best of all, because I’m the only one still around. There were various guests at the birthday party. The Imperial Navy was discussed — Spieroch’s brother-in-law was a lieutenant-commander — and later the men recited indecent Latin verses which everyone knew.
In the meantime I had been browsing in a book that related Protestants’ sufferings during the Reformation but said nothing about the Catholics’. An old book. Lying around, very sad to read, and very vexing. And Spieroch got up, took it away from me and said: That is nothing, the first volume is missing, it’s only a fragment until I finish it. He didn’t even look to see which book it was. And I’d already found handwritten entries in it by the grandsons of a pastor mentioned there, describing things that were even more evil than those printed in the book. An elegy was written inside the cover, more drawn than written.
He banged the book shut when he took it away from me.
You were speaking about the war and the great losses.
You mean these books?
Twenty-five thousand books, listen here, that’s pretty serious.
The man who was telling the story said, as I remember, that the books weren’t used. But now another man is talking. He says: By the way, I experienced a similar loss, my stamp collection was burnt in ‘44. I was only able to enjoy them briefly, only on furlough. I got the album during the French campaign. But I had better tell this in detail.
During the advance we came upon a group of civilians, refugees, mostly old people. Crouched at the edge of the road. We were in a hurry, but amongst them I found one man, he sat leaning against a tree, a thick album on his knees. At the time I didn’t know much about stamps, but I saw enough to know that it was a valuable collection. Later I had it appraised, and my assumption was confirmed. Anyway, the man couldn’t have saved the album, I wanted to explain that to him, but he probably didn’t understand me.
Of course. But you know French, don’t you? I was in the invasion too.
It was all very strange.
Tell us about it.
I wanted to write it up, actually. I could put it on tape, it all seems so close to me. I imagine specific scenes. To start with. Later you would have to arrange them in groups: landscape, cultural history — Very well, I’d like to do that: First, the situation —
But why start there? First a point that seems completely arbitrary, a visual impression. Like in a peepshow, when you notice one detail, then a few more, until suddenly the whole panorama unfolds.
Precisely. That’s really what they were called. So you know them too? But I think Hermann wants to write this book. Let him tell it for himself.
As I said, specific scenes, something like this. An asphalt street without trees. Next to it a canal, fifteen metres wide, stagnant water in a flat landscape. Into which the truck drives. In front of a slow cloud of dust that now covers the inn across the street, so that only the tops of the trees in the garden still reach against the white sky. Just in the background, a few little houses, set back from the street. The truck stops, there’s a jolt, the cloud of dust slides into itself and then, with a few cat-like movements, settles on the street. And now, in the truck, under the canvas, voices grow loud. Of course, all that should be written down exactly as one heard it. For example, one voice: Do you still have the top of my mess-tin? And another: No, but I can shove it through your face. So there are people inside.
The man who’s telling this, he’s an East Prussian, I think, if I have heard correctly. There are lots of them in Berlin.
So now they get out, he continues, it’s in France in the 40s and they stand in the street, at noon, in a village a few kilometres from Calais. Corporal Barth puts the map in front of his glasses and says with an exasperated look at the muddy water: That’s supposed to be the Channel. So large on the map — here: English Channel — and look at this stream of piss. All the newspapers are filled up with raving about how somebody swam across it. That’s what the French are like.
Well, all right, maybe that was funny. People often speak about the war. They were young then, in their prime; who was thinking about haemorrhoids? But I have been observing a fly for some time. It has crawled halfway up P.’s glass, steadily and slowly, as if it belonged there. For quite a while now it has remained in the same spot. Before, it had been strolling, unhurried, relaxed, around a small puddle of beer next to the coaster. But the war story isn’t finished yet.
Private Scheiff from Cologne, says the man, is sitting on the running-board. Good heavens, it isn’t going to disturb the channel, he keeps saying — not this one, it’s orderly, it has its secrets: mud and dead dogs and bicycle frames are no worry to it. And the other one won’t bother about any of you — it’ll just show you a coast across the water there, chalk-white and rather high, and then erase it again.
Scheiff, says Corporal Barth, come along, we’ll pitch camp. Entry of the German troops into … what’s this hell hole?
Cologne, Scheiff answers, and he gets up. Over the way is a demolished house, a piece of façade with an empty window, in which a rag of curtain is blowing.
Eau de cologne, says Corporal Barth. One feels quite French. How is that, Scheiff, French?
You really should write about this, Hermann, it would be beautiful, definitely, I can just see it.
I have my title already: God in France.
But does he exist?
That’s my point.
I don’t think one should listen forever to these writers. Artists are preferable. Or the man over there. Another East Prussian; there are a lot of them in Berlin, as I’ve said.
And we were still in this freezing country.
Oh no, not that again. Where are you now?
Well, here. Starting in the shoe business in Wesel in ‘47. At the reunion —
Oh no, not that.
Well, a man’s got to talk about things. At the reunion, I say, my wife breaks her leg, just when the party is starting to be fun. It wouldn’t heal and it wouldn’t heal so I say to her, we’ll drive to the Lüneburger Heath, there’s a shepherd there who’s a healer. But the shepherd didn’t look at her leg, only at the orthopaedic shoe. I had it made for her. He goes on and on about the shoemaker, when he doesn’t even know him. What can I tell you? We drove back, I started a business with the shoemaker — one always patronises a compatriot, have you come across this saying?
It’s not funny, how people jabber. But it can’t all be such nonsense.
Shut up, says the lamp-snatcher.
Then they have told him that the drama teacher, the one with the hair, who rides to university every morning on his bicycle while the students come by car. On a bicycle. Someone should do something, it’s just ridiculous.
The lamp-snatcher says: Shut up.
So not everyone is talking nonsense. Not the lamp-snatcher, nor this man here.
I’ve just come from the cemetery. They’re closed.
From the cemetery, now? It must have a while ago. But let him speak.
The hearse arrives, the men bring the casket to the entrance of the hall but there isn’t a single soul, it’s locked up, a note on the door, they’re off on an office picnic. I was there for something else. So I got furious, but there was nothing I could do. I went along with them as they drove back with their casket and in the bar someone had to go out continually because the children kept coming — a casket, one doesn’t see this every day. But I ask you: How can those people just close?
The man is in the doorway relating this — this is his fourth bar, he says so himself. He speaks well. It seems incomprehensible to me that they could just close. It’s like with the gas. Just the public utilities. But perhaps I should tell the man that, too, as a human being.
So I come outside. He is gone already.
Arno had held me up because of P., who had fallen asleep at the table. Good man, that P.
So I come out, the man is gone. And the street is dark.
The five paces home. In an open doorway I see the lamps standing, inside, down by the steps. It hadn’t occurred to me before. They’re still burning.
And the dark street. Without the lanterns on the piles of stone and the earth pitched up at the edge of the ditches. I glance down the street, past the tall, dark façades. It’s becoming deserted. One could be frightened by this, but people still live here. And there are the bric-a-brac basements and the bars. And the artists. I had almost forgotten the furniture stores. I have lived here a long time. Before it was different, of course, but now I am familiar with everything here. The stairs, for example. Not a step that I miss in the dark, not a landing on which my feet do not move of their own accord into the right curve, the turn to the next flight. In the dark. I don’t need any light.
And now jacket, shoes, socks, pants, shirt, underpants. Everything in its old place. I can still stand on one leg. But the thoughts wander. Because of darkness and light.
Gaslight. Red lanterns. Moon. Which is gone by now, though. Otherwise everything is electric here, so we have not been abandoned: click on, click off, done. And the stars before, over the long street.
My wife is sleeping soundly. So I am just imagining that she wakes up with a start. And I imagine what I would say to her. That it’s dark outside. Only a couple of stars, and they don’t shed any light, not this far down, anyway. What would it matter, then, if they didn’t exist?
Well, what then? Say it.
The darkness wouldn’t be darker.
Of course not.
Up there — there, it would be different. It’s no lighter now than it would be then, so it wouldn’t get any darker.
Different. And I don’t know how.
(Translated from the German by Richard Deutch and Marnie Weil)