from MICROSCRIPTS (New Directions)by Robert Walser and Susan Bernofsky
The Marriage Proposal
Just as indisputably as there can be both straightforward and elaborate—in other words sumptuous—prose pieces, it would appear to me that possibilities may exist for there being no dearth of both comely and unattractive individuals, that is to say, women. Yesterday I engaged a more uncomely than pulchritudinous member of the solicitude-requiring faction of the collectivity of humanity—at what hour of day need scarcely be divulged—in a suitable location, that is to say amidst the city’s hustle or bustle, in a to my mind appropriate conversation, which touched, among other things, on the, as I am surely justified in asserting, most certainly not uninteresting topic of astrology, a science which, to underscore this in passing, is currently all the rage. Not long ago a youthful, i.e., by no means unelderly, fellow presented to me his horoscope with an as it were bashful gesture, which prompts me to make, with pleasure, the no doubt readily comprehensible declaration that I for my part would never dream of presenting a companion, even the most trustworthy one, with horoscopes that might be prepared for me by a connoisseur of the stars.
In my certainly far from authoritative opinion, horoscopes are either useful or harmful as the dear providences permit, who strike me as in and of themselves worthy of veneration. The not particularly attractive woman I was speaking to had received several years ago in a little restaurant filled with a colorful assortment of people—and at a juncture when I had not yet begun to occupy myself in any way with the obligations of Europeanness and the like—a proposal of marriage that was to be sure only fleetingly and heedlessly brought forth by the author of this present attempt at delving into the quotidian, an offer she saw fit to flat out refuse by bursting into uproarious laughter at my all the same cordial proposal, producing a sound that for propriety’s sake imprinted itself on my memory. In those days, as I recall, I harbored no hope at all of being able to partake of European responsibilities. At the time I uttered the words: “Miss, to put it concisely…” “I know, I know, please be so good as to desist,” she responded, and now yesterday here were the two of us seated side by side after such-and-such an interval, devoting not a single syllable to what had transpired between us. To this day I remain, my Europeanism notwithstanding, a sort of romantic, and yet still she seems to me, leaving all astrology aside, an exceptionally undelving, good-natured female who is more homely than particularly pretty. This horoscope damsel always imagined herself to be out of the ordinary; always she considered herself some sort of exception, and even today she is deeply immersed in this error, as even to this day I find myself mired in the errors of Romanticism. Only with great effort did I succeed in more or less convincing myself that I was born to be a man of reality, and only by overcoming hurdles did she in turn manage the perception that she was a fashion enthusiast. Although she isn’t so pretty, she does love clothes. For not terribly pretty women to dress without particular care cannot possibly stand as proof of exceptionality, and for particularly pretty women to attend with great precision to their toilettes scarcely stems from a lack of originality, although both may at times seem so. The one I proposed marriage to some years ago doesn’t consider herself fashionable and yet she is, and yesterday she indeed began to comprehend that she is in fact a European, who out of a sense of profundity all the more colorfully imagined for being actually absent, once laughingly turned down a proposal of marriage that was in itself rather romantic.
“Am I nothing but what I am?” she asked abruptly.
“You’re a European. All Europeans without exception have hitherto made the incidentally quite understandable error of considering themselves to be far more than in truth they are,” I replied.
Forgiving me for the information I had imparted, she betook herself off, as she had a call to pay.
With regard to prettiness and its absence, beautiful women are perhaps too self-preoccupied for purposes of Europeanness and may not have time to pursue so time-consuming a business as Europeanism with all its obligations.
Beauty is a form of power; power makes its possessor happy, while happiness requires nurturing and wishes to be in charge. Perhaps only those who serve can succeed in being European.
My subject here is a victor
My subject here is a victor. Let me be thoughtful. I don’t wish to boast. May my words be dipped one by one in a bath of deliberation until the language flowing from my pen abounds with a black velvet profundity. Not a syllable will be a fib. Among other things, I believe I am maintaining a distance from all jackboots and the like. What interests me here is a face, a figure, a human being, a destiny. ‘Twas in the medieval period, when gunpowder was not yet in use. This era featured slender elegant castles and gaunt hawk-nosed ladies of rank with garments arising from the influences of antiquity. Farming and forging provided occupation. But I mustn’t get caught up in details, instead let me plunge into my mighty plotline and grand subject as though taking flight upon pinions or wings. For the sake of a newly blossoming town, a battle took place upon a hill. I’ve stated this quite juicily, don’t you think? What notion could have seized this hamlet, I mean town? Was it madness that made it believe it might be permitted to flourish and was required to prosper? They had begun to build a church towering up into the heavens. Indeed, their will to expand and enlarge was readily visible. The aristocracy was blocking the way, or else the aristocracy found in turn that this town was in some way impending it. Now the victor shall burst forth with his, as it were, crackpot behavior. His station was that of count, and he had quite a grave and somber look to him, perhaps for the reason that his delightfully beautiful better half brought him only sorrows that he preferred not to put a name to and instead kept carefully concealed. Was she unfaithful to him? What an indelicate question! Did she dally with him? O correctness, permit me to pass over this topic in delicate silence. He was silent for hours on end. Each time he looked out the window, the room in which he resided provided him, its inhabitant who dwelt within, the most charming view. But apparently this view failed to satisfy him in any way. It was not pleasant sights he longed for, on the contrary, he felt a desire to be subjected to trials. Day after day, he felt most cultivatedly vexed. His nerves were constantly summoning him to do something, to defend himself in some way or another. It was not for nothing that he wore a beard indicative of manly intrepidness. Was his so stately figure to wither unused? No, one like this belonged in the thick of things. And so he took up position as a leader at the head of the town’s youth battalion in order to fight and be victorious in combat. Victorious manuscript that is occupying me this day, go fluttering off in search of acclaim: I too am a sort of victor here, this is clear to me. Quite comprehensibly, the aristocracy now hated this crank of a peer who dared throw in his lot with the other faction. In one of their assemblies held in a magnificent ballroom, they dubbed him—in the course of the deliberations in which they were communally engaged—a Cheib, this being an expression derived from Arabic that corresponds approximately to the notion “impertinent individual.” Those who formerly had counted and depended on him, whom he now had left in the lurch for the benefit of their adversaries, ostracized and spurned him, and the ones he was aiding, helping them out in their tight spot, merely shrugged their shoulders at his success, which seemed to them at once desirable and inappropriate. Cursed by the aristocracy and dropped by a town eager to keep up appearances, he wrapped himself up in his cloak, buried his head in his hands, and felt ashamed. In vain did they wait for him at home. No one ever saw him again. Reviled by all, he vanished from sight. A later educator, to be sure, moved by gratitude, erected a monument to him at a suitable juncture. A plume billowing down from the helmet adorns the iron figure that represents the idea that took hold of him, prompting him to disregard his material rights—an idea that exploits its originator’s contemporaries and only among their descendants can be accorded recognition
Robert Walser is a radiantly original author.Susan Bernofsky
Susan Bernofsky is a translator and the 2006 recipient of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize.