‘Sultry Days’ (‘Schwüle Tage’) by Eduard Graf von Keyserling – Part Eleven

ELEVEN

Curled up silently on my branch, I remained sitting in the linden tree.  At first, I felt like a child afraid of being caught doing something wrong.  I had no thoughts – images appeared, along with a painful background score of impressions: the beautiful girl standing upright against the tree, her angry, tear-stained face, her raised hand and the riding whip…  and the man with his head bowed in sorrow… I heard the quiet, impassioned voice.  The man who at home said: Mais c’est impossible, comme il mange ce garçon, Ellita, who held well-mannered conversations with my father about farming – these two figures had nothing in common with the others.  I didn’t want to come down from the tree.  The world below now seemed vastly altered and uncertain.  The sun sank further.  The linden stood there, bathed in red light.  Then the storm arrived.  A few scattered drops splashed on the leaves, which were momentarily outlined, black and trembling, in the blue glow of the lightning.  From the garden, I heard Konrad’s voice: “Young master – yoo-hoo!”.  He was calling me to supper.  So, that was still happening, as always.  I clambered down unwillingly.  The rain had become heavier and with it joy spread across the tired land.  Everything smelled fresh and gently swayed.  In the yard, people stood in front of the stables and watched the downpour with smiles on their faces.  The maids splashed around in the puddles in bare feet, squealing with delight.

Beneath the large hanging lamp in the dining room, the table was set as always.  My father was walking up and down the room, and when I came in, he good-naturedly said: “Ah, I see you got caught in the rain.”  We ate the usual little cutlets with green peas.  Everything was as it always was, as if nothing had happened.  I thought back to those distant childhood years, when the child I used to be perceived distinct mysterious forms in dark corners while the grown-ups spoke freely and walked past these mysterious corners as if there were nothing there.  My father talked about the rain, the winter harvest, the departure of the Warnow people.  He spoke more than usual, and in a loud, cheery voice.  His face was pale, and his eyes twinkled with a shiny, powerful grey-blue.  He poured himself generous amounts of port, and his hand trembled a little when he held his glass.  When the property manager arrived, I decided to slip off.  Sitting here was torture.  I wanted to go to bed.  If I lay quietly enough in the darkness, perhaps I could see myself as tragic and wonderful.  However, my father said: “Stay a while, Bill, if you’re not too tired.”  I sat back down obediently.  The property manager left.  “Have a drink,” my father said, handing me a glass.  Then we fell silent.

It didn’t seem as if he had anything in particular to tell me.  He was probably thinking something over in his head.  When he finally began to talk, it was of horses, the new smith, then he started to talk about my studies.  Here it was!  This seemed to catch his interest, he got into his stride and started to lecture.  “Now, and when you’ve got your exam behind you,” he said, “then the next important step is choosing your future area of study.  There is probably some field or other that you have a particular interest in.  Of course!  But in my opinion, that isn’t necessarily the deciding factor.  My God!  Whatever happens, we never fully leave our interests behind.  At the very start, it is important to choose an area of study that, as it were, can serve as a neutral point of departure, from which we can then branch out to what we want to know and experience.  The family custom has been to study law.  A calm, sensible starting point that opens the paths both to other areas of study and the practical side of life.”  He spoke as fluently, and with such effective emphasis, as if he were giving a speech to an audience.  At the same time, he looked past me, as if the audience were sitting behind me.  It was extremely unnerving!

“Above all,” he continued, raising his voice, “we must know in advance the kind of life we hope to live.  When building a house, we choose a style, draw up blueprints, right?  Well, then!  We are building a house that has a particular style.  Good!”  He sliced through the air with his flattened hand to place four invisible walls on the table, then he curved an invisible dome above the invisible walls.  “Once I am sure of the chosen style, I will be able to experiment with decoration, ideas and my own preferences, as I will know how to harmonise these elements with the whole concept.  Because I have knowledge of the rules of the style, I can be as bold as I dare without ruining the construction.”  Now he began to attach the most fantastic balconies to the house on the table, drawing walkways along the walls.  “Error is merely a lack of style,” he proclaimed, and his eyes twinkled in the direction of the audience behind me.  “That is the truth!  Any architectural flight of fancy is permitted as long as we know how to integrate it harmoniously into the noble lines of the whole.”  He thought for a moment, seemed to consider the house on the table, attempted to add a balcony here and there.  However, it didn’t seem to please him.  “And then,” he slowly added, “we can determine the exact point at which it is complete, when it would be tasteless to add anything else.  Our house knows when it is ready.”  He slammed his hand down on the table, right in the middle of the invisible house, as if he wanted to squash it, he smiled while doing so, picked up his glass, and while drinking looked over his glass at the audience behind me, drank to them.  As soon as he put the glass back down, a change came over him.  He seemed to collapse into himself a little, his face became old and baggy, and tiredly, gently, he patted the spot on which he had levelled the house.  When he looked at me, the flickering light in his eyes had gone out.  He managed an awkward, almost helpless smile.  “Well, my boy,” he said, and it seemed as if he could barely get the words out, “you’re rather quiet.  What do you think about all that?”

Oh, I thought nothing at all!  I had simply been sitting opposite the speaker the whole time in unspeakable horror.  Now I had to say something, and I came out with something senseless that surprised me, just as we are often surprised by what we say in dreams.
“Yes – but – the Tower of Pisa,” I remarked.
My father did not appear overly surprised.  “That!” he said contemplatively.  “Yes, I suppose it’s quite pretty.  Because it leans, you mean?  Well, it’s wrong to do so.  If you lean, you should fall, that would be more sensible.  But – my God!  That’s an interesting matter!”  He laughed softly to himself about these thoughts and looked sideways at me as if we agreed.  I laughed as well, but I felt myself becoming just as strange as my father.  I wanted nothing more than to skulk away from the both of us.  I squeezed out a dull: “I’m tired.”
“Tired?” my father repeated without looking up.  “I can imagine.  Good night…”  Then his voice regained a little of its usual tone as he added: “You mustn’t neglect your studies tomorrow.”

← Part Ten     Part Twelve →

Translation © 2018 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.

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3 thoughts on “‘Sultry Days’ (‘Schwüle Tage’) by Eduard Graf von Keyserling – Part Eleven

  1. I love the opening scene of this part, where the childhood and adult worlds collide as he sits in the linden tree. The childhood versions of Gert and Ellita that he knows so well, colliding with these new versions that seem unrecognisable as he sits inert, like a child afraid of being caught doing something wrong. And then the rain, the end of summer, the sultriness breaking.

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    1. Andew – This was probably one of my favourite parts, but more for the conversation at the dinner table. This is where it dawns on Bill that being an adult is far more complicated than he ever thought possible..

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      1. Yes, that’s a great scene, Tony. Far more complicated, and not exactly enticing for a romantic adolescent either. Forget your interests, study law as a “neutral point of departure”, and methodically build your life according to an architectural blueprint. It’s a long way from his romantic dreaming of earlier sections.

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