selected prose pearls of Peter Altenberg (translated from the German by Peter Wortsman)
A Letter to Arthur Schnitzler
Dear Dr. Arthur Schnitzler,
Your lovely letter made me truly inordinately happy. So how do I write?
Altogether freely, without any deliberation. I never know my subject beforehand, I never think it over. I just take paper and write. Even the title I toss off and hope that what comes out will have something to do with it.
One must have confidence, not force the issue, just let oneself live life to the fullest, frightfully free, let it fly—.
What comes out is definitely the stuff that was real and deep down in me. If nothing comes out then there was nothing real and deep down in me and that doesn’t matter then either.
I view writing as a natural organic spilling out of a full, overripe person. Thus the failings, the pale cast of thought.
I hate any revision. Toss it off and that’s good—! Or bad! What’s the difference?! If it’s only you, you and nobody else, your sacred you. The term you coined “self-searcher” is really terrific. But when will you write “self-finder”?
My pieces have the misfortune always to be taken for little rehearsals, whereas they are, alas, already the very best I can do.
But what’s the difference?! I couldn’t care less if I write or not.
The more important thing is that I be able to show in a circle of refined, cultured young people that the little spark is fluttering in me. Otherwise, one has the impression of seeming so pressed, so importunate, as if everyone looked askance. I’m already enough of an “invalid of life.” Your letter made me very very happy! You’re all so kind to me. Everyone full of goodwill. But you really did say such absolutely wonderful things to me. Especially that term “self-searcher.”
With no profession, no money, no position and already hardly any hair, you can well imagine that such gracious recognition from a “man in the know” falls on very welcome ears.
Thus am I and will I ever remain a writer of “worthless samples” and the finished product never appears. I’m just a kind of little pocket mirror, powder mirror, no world-mirror.
Women are enormously impressionable, they so easily take on the smells of their surroundings! If she was in the dairy, then for hours afterwards she’ll smell of milk, her hands, her hair, her entire body—. If she was at the green grocers, she’ll retain for hours the smell of all the greens, like a mixed vegetable soup—. In the garden she smells of lilacs or linden trees or just of garden—. On the high mountain meadow of cow pasture land and fresh cut meadow. This is a tragic fate; since she always smells afterwards of the last lout she was with, of the last snob and his repulsive scent, his foul odor of duplicity! She never smells of poets since poets keep a respectful distance, probably on account of their artistic egotism. Most often women smell of “smart alecks” always too close for comfort! That’s when they are most receptive to smells—. Noble ladies definitely ought to remain outdoors in nature or stick to the saintly solitude of their own domicile. It stinks everywhere else!
Even good books never stink, they are the distillation of all the malodorous sins one has committed of which one has finally managed to extract a drop of fragrant humanity!
But the other sins can’t be distilled!
My uncle Emmerich had no heart. He speculated on copies of old paintings billed as originals, which, in some cases, later actually turned out to be originals. But finally he went bankrupt. We boys were present at the dinner table on the eve of the “Economic Capitulation in the House of Emmerich,” at which my uncle argued, based on irrefutable evidence in Silberer’s Sports News, his bible, that “Quick Four” was bound to win at the big race on Sunday. Aside from which, he got private tips to that effect from the stable. All of a sudden he looked up and noticed that his wife and daughter were quietly weeping. “Will somebody please tell me why in heaven’s name these dames have started bawling?” he said. Of course they started bawling because of the lost money. What else do women bawl seriously about? Quick Four didn’t win either, neither Quick nor Four, nor in any combination, and my uncle drove home deep in thought on the upper level of the elegant English double-decker sports omnibus (at ten Crowns a seat), armed with the very same binoculars likewise employed by Count Niki Esterhazy. “There goes the dowry of our poor daughters!” my aunt kept weeping. “Teach your child not to need a dowry!” said my uncle. When he auctioned off his collection of paintings, for which he had been derided all his life by the family, it turned out that it had been worth more than all the money he’d squandered otherwise. Henceforth, the family, which had previously called him a dimwit, called him a remarkable man. And my aunt said:
“Emmerich, in your heart of hearts you’re a good man after all!”
Conversation with my ten-year-old dinner guest, Karoline B., the little daughter of a poor widow, perfection in the making, already a profoundly human creature.
“Tomorrow, Sir, I have to travel far out to the ‘Doll Doctor’ in the Fifth District!”
“What ever for?”
“Somebody gave me a doll. She only has a top half.”
“Why curious?! If she’d had a bottom half, too, they damn sure wouldn’t have given her to me!”
Saint Martin’s Island
When the doctor gave her the news, that she stood balanced before the dark gates of Tuberculosis, she said: “No way, not at 18 years old, for cryin’ out loud!”
And she hurried off to Gravosa,* and lay all by her lonesome on Saint Martin’s Island with her stock of provisions from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and stretched out her arms, naked as the day she was born, to receive the healing energy of nature.
She had her body rubbed with mentholated French brandy twice a day for a good half hour and swallowed a liter of cacao with six raw beaten egg yolks and copious amounts of saltwater fish filets.
When she got well she was full of ambition and a lust for life and she found an engagement acting in a very small theater. Her first role was that of the French Countess Laborde-Vallais. She had no idea what to do with it, but a young gentleman sent his visiting card to her dressing room.
She had bravely plucked herself from the jaws of death and soon realized that life wasn’t worth having struggled so mightily to save. She had eluded that peril “Death,”—and now had to face the greater peril “Life!” Sunbaths, cacao, beaten egg yolks, mentholated French brandy rubs were not enough to elude life!
Later she happened to make the poet’s acquaintance. She didn’t understand what it meant to be a poet. You write books and you’re a poet. But what’s it all about and what good is it?
But one day he said to her: “What was it like on Saint Martin’s Island? You lay there, gave yourself to God, and awaited the healing powers of meadow, forest and sunlight—.”
And somebody said to her: “Enough already with your boring Saint Martin’s Island! That was then, this is now, thank God!”
Then she peered at the poet with a look that begged for help and he flashed her a helpful look in reply—.
That’s when she fathomed what a poet was and what he was good for.
*The harbor of Dubrovnik, in Croatia
Above my bed hangs a carbon print of the painting by Gustav Klimt: Schubert. Schubert is singing songs for piano by candlelight with three little Viennese Misses. Beneath it I scribbled: “One of my gods! People created the gods so as, despite all, to somehow rouse otherwise unfulfilled ideals hidden in their hearts into a more vital form!”
I often read from Niggli’s Schubert biography. Its intent, you see, is to present Schubert’s life, not Niggli’s thoughts about it. But I have returned a hundred times to the passage on page 37. He was a music teacher on the estate of Count Esterhazy in Zelesz, an instructor to the very young Countesses Marie and Karoline. To Karoline he lost his heart. Thus emerged his creations for fourhanded piano. The young countess never learned of his profound affection. Only once when she teased him that he had never dedicated a single one of his compositions to her, he replied: “What for?! As it is, it’s all for you!”
As if a heart about to burst revealed its grief and then closed up again for eternity—. That’s why I often turn to page 37 in Niggli’s biography of Schubert.
The Hotel Room
At three a.m. the birds started quietly chirping, suggestively. My worries grew and grew. It started in the brain, as if with a little rolling stone, tore all the joys of hopefulness along with it, the joys that brighten your life, swelled into a sweeping avalanche, burying under the ability to endure the day and the merciless commanding hour! To rise to happenstance! A quiet storm brewed in the branches before my window. For no reason, for absolutely no reason I had burned and bothered the life of sweet Ms. J. And one of my benefactors cut off his modest monthly largesse as of next month. He’d heard something or other about me and my views. They were too radical for him, too uncharitable. My aesthetic ideal, Ms. W., belongs now to those who can pay her. I who pursued the “mystic cult of beauty” was always too inelegantly dressed for her, too incomprehensible and too altogether mad. When I sank to my knees before her, deeply, so deeply stirred by her noble bodily perfection, she said I had perverse inclinations, it wasn’t her fault! My hotel room is lighting up, my soul is darkening. Morning is breaking.
The song of the birds in the treetops grows clearer with shreds of simple melody. Quiet storms disseminate the scent of meadows. It would be the perfect hour to hang myself from the window box—.
For a long time now I’ve judged people only according to minute details. I am, alas, unable to await the ‘great events’ in their life through which they will ‘disclose’ their true selves. I am obliged to predict these ‘disclosures’ in the little things of life. For instance, in the walking stick handle, the umbrella handle which he or she selects. In the necktie, in the cloth of a dress, in the hat, in the dog which he or she owns, in a thousand unlikely incidentals all the way down to the cufflinks, actually all the way up! For everything is an essay about the person who selected it and gladly dons it! He discloses himself to us! “He wrote a good book, but he wore uncouth, engraved, unnatural cufflinks!” That says everything about him. There’s something rotten somewhere in the “state of his soul!” That a beloved lady betray us is not the most important thing. For fate will surely punish her after the fact with profound disappointment! But her first coquettish, fire-kindling glance, that is the salient detail! I can compete with him who betrayed me, absolutely, but not with him who directed a desirous glance in her direction! Little things kill! Fulfillment can always be defeated, but never anticipation! Therefore I hold fast to the little things in life, to neckties, umbrella handles, walking stick handles, stray remarks, neglected gems, pearls of the soul that roll under the table and are picked up by no one! The significant things in life have absolutely no importance. They tell, they make known nothing more about being than we ourselves already know about it! Since when you get right down to it, everything works by and large the same way. But the important differences are only manifest in the details! For instance, which flowers you give to your beloved. Or which belt buckle you pick out for her among the hundred options. Which pear from France, which grapefruit from America you bring to her house, which speckled brown Canada apple you select for her among the hundreds on display; this attests to many more attachments than the orgies of so-called love! Aesthetics, understanding, love must ultimately form a triad. One must be inclined to allow a symphony of ordinary life to resound in the sum of the “little things”! One cannot wait for big events to happen! All the least consequential things are monumental! The squeak of a mouse caught in a trap is a terrible tragedy! Somebody once said to me: the most terrible thing is a young rabbit dragged into a fox hole. The little foxes gnaw at him alive, slowly, day and night, with their needle-sharp little teeth! These are the tragedies of our existence!
Little things in life supplant the “great events.” That is their value if you can fathom it!
Peter Altenberg (1859-1919) was a renowned eccentric who lived in hotels and listed as his official address the Cafe Central, Vienna’s intellectual clubhouse. His literary admirers included Thomas Mann and Robert Musil. These excerpts are from Telegrams of the Soul, out this monh from Archipelago Books.