Wednesday, April 14, 2010


The following are translations which appeared in West 47, a very good literary magazine which appeared out of Galway in the 90's and 00's, but which has sadly gone by the board, taking all of its archives with it, alot of it really good.

Barty Begley, Limerick, Ireland.
April 2010


Jules Vallès (1832-1885) From the novel Le Bachelier

Jules Vallès (1832-1885)
From Le Bachelier

High Life

I arrive at Monsieur Caumont’s, and find him in his sitting-room with his wife.
He welcomes me as if I had a private income of forty-thousand pounds. It is the first time that I am so well received and that anyone is so polite with me.
It’s nearly embarrassing. I feel myself obliged to admit my poverty to him.
“Monsieur Eudel has told you that I don’t really know when I’ll be able to pay you.”
Monsieur Caumont seems as surprised as could be.
I press the point. Oh, trouble is brewing!
“Monsieur Vingtras, if you speak once more of money, we shall fall out! Come, what shall we do for you?
“A frock coat.”
“A frock coat?” Monsieur Caumont is stunned, Madame Caumont likewise. They consult with their eyes.
I’m afraid I’ve gone too far. I should have just asked for a short little jacket.
I strive to make good my blunder and make gestures coming to half way down my backside; I saw my backside with my hand.
“With tiny little basques. I like my basques short.”
It’s not true; I like basques long. It’s like with the fish-heads instead of whole fish, at Turquet’s: you need less material for short basques, and I will find it easier to get credit if the suit is cut as if for a dwarf.
Monsieur and Madame Caumont cry out; they seem delivered of a mighty weight.
“You’re talking about a jacket! We were thinking as much: a frock coat, that’s well and good for those in offices and for old people, but for a young man such as yourself …! You need something like this!”
I am shown a jacket which is hanging on a chair, and which has an elegant turn to it: olive buttons, brown silk lining, grey shadings, of a soft and lively grey, like steel-dust.
I am given a choice of materials.
How supple it is under one’s hand! It is as if I were caressing and counting bank notes.
I play the blasé, and wink and act the connoisseur.
In the end I decide on a very dark fabric; I hate dark colours, but I imagine to myself that in choosing sad fabrics I come across as being more serious and consequently that I present more of a guarantee of solvency. I regret not having worn blue-tinted glasses.
“Come now; decidedly, you want to be a member of the Académie,” says Monsieur Caumont, smiling delicately, “but one has to be forty years old for a fabric like that. You may as well measure up for a coffin.”
I am heading askew: “Monsieur Vingtras, you are heading askew! You are going to make a mess of your coat!”
I abandon the inspection of samples, declaring that I am at a loss in that domain; like a tired man, I fall back upon the excuse of my sedentary life.
“I live among my books; I never leave my books. Could you choose for me?”
“That we never do. The customer afterwards is bound to be unhappy.”
“I understand, but honestly, being in the habit of thinking …. Thus, for example, I was just this second thinking of a Roman custom …”
“Ah yes, people who live the life of the mind, I know!”
Monsieur and Madame Caumont have an air of feeling sorry for my cerebrum, and decide to make an exception for me. They choose me an overcoat.
“For your breeches, how would like the seat of them?”
Of the one colour! Ah, all of the one colour! My last pair of breeches had a seat ever so slightly different in colour from the belly and the legs! All of the one colour! I would beg for it on my knees.
These cries very nearly escaped me, like a pair of too large pants that I one time in someone’s house nearly let fall, having forgotten in the heat of conversation to hold them up by clenching them tight behind my back.
I was able, God be thanked, to strangle them in my breast.
“You haven’t said for the seat.”
“Ah, right.”
I play the man returning from a far-off place. I shake my head wearily. Monsieur Caumont carries on insistently.
“Do you prefer it tight? the buckle raised? the buckle dropped?”
I prefer the buckle exactly on the stomach. When I have not enough in order to dine, I’ll tighten it one notch, two notches.
“The buckle at the level of the navel, if you please, Monsieur Caumont.”
We pass to the long coat.
“What shape do your overcoats have normally?”
Of a sack, generally, of a bit of newspaper wrapped around a leg of lamb, of a rag around a batch of sticks, voila the shape of my overcoats up to this point; but to Monsieur Caumont I reply, “I have never noticed the cut of my clothing,” with a sad smile and shaking my head, “for I live on the work of the mind.”
Liar! I live on nothing! On a bit of sausage or a wedge of Roquefort, but not on the work of the mind, and not on leaning over my books. It cuts my appetite straight away, what’s more; it’s like a bar across my stomach when the volumes are any way sizeable.
Monsieur Caumont takes my measurements, then opens an order book.
“How do spell your name, please? ‘Vintras’, with no g?”
I don’t want to displease; he has perhaps a horror of the letter g. I agree to a falsification; I deform the name of my fathers.
“That’s right, with no g.”
“The address?”
“Residence Broussais, rue d’Enfer, 52.”
I don’t live at the Residence Broussais, rue d’Enfer, 52, but I couldn’t give my own address. I gave that of a friend who pays thirty francs a month. It’s a palace where he lives.
It’s the first time in my life that I have kept my cool, that I have found right away what it was I should say; the lie gave me confidence.
As it should happen, Monsieur Caumont knows the house.
“The one with a statue of the god of the gardens in the courtyard?”
“That’s the one.”
I have never noticed the statue - I don’t generally notice statues -, but I say, “that’s the one” off the top of my head, because Monsieur Caumont seems to like the house.
“Do you like the arts, Monsieur Vin-tras?”
“Very much.”
He was expecting more, I can see it.
I had answered as if he had asked me about a dish: of radishes, of meatballs, of veal lung. I think I would do right to press the point, to give some development to my thought, and I repeat with some little heat, “I like the arts very much.”

Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863) The master tailor Nepomuk Schlägel in the search for joy

Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863)
The master tailor Nepomuk Schlägel in the search for joy
(Der Schneidermeister Nepomuk Schlägel auf der Freudenjagd)

If, dear reader, in the Augustinergasse of the town of Munich, at around the time when order loving citizens are wont to make their way to a hostelry, namely in the winter twilight between four and five o’clock, you should encounter a man of heavy set, whose unusually large mouth and superb teeth, along with his sudden halting and subsequent close scrutiny of your back should cause you to remark him, be in no way affrighted that it be a brigand, in whom your carefree ambling has given rise to wicked thoughts. It is none other than the honourable master tailor Nepomuk Schlägel, born and reared in the Albrecht Dürer House in Nuremberg, and who has never, even for one night, sat in a police cell, much less in a prison, and it is only in order to be annoyed, only in order to say, “That beats all. What a coat compared to yours, Nepomuk, and a silver pommel to his cane!” that he grants you his attention. Slowly he paces along the street, and his keen eye knows how to find in each passer-by some meritorious quality to stir his bile: on the old beggar across the way, leaning wearily on the corner, the blue cloth trousers that a sympathetic student that same afternoon had flung the near frozen pauper will not have escaped him, though its many holes certainly will, and even the peg-leg who just now trudges wheezily by will give him grounds enough for a oath, for he thinks, “The question is whether you could afford a wooden leg if you like he were to lose the fleshly”. Once, when he saw a thief being brought in from the countryside, it annoyed him greatly that the sick man, whom the doctor had found too weak to travel by foot, had been placed on a cart, and he poisonously asked an acquaintance whether he thought that one would treat him the same way in a similar situation. I would hold it a wonder if the robber and murderer who was recently called on, through the good offices of the executioner, to leave this temporal world for the eternal, did not give him, in some way, occasion to grumble over the injustice and step-motherliness of fortune toward him, the disregarded and ever neglected master tailor. Just then he meets his only customer, a sergeant whose trousers he patches from time to time because none of his colleagues, out of a righteous pride in tailoring, will bother themselves with it. Nepomuk greets him, but a prince of the blood could scarcely touch the unadorned hat of the master tailor with more repugnance than does the master tailor himself; he seems to take it from his head and brandish it solely in order to fling it away. Now he enters a baker’s, not in order to buy bread - money he has none -, but because he has heard that the rich aunt of the baker, whom he knows from his years as an apprentice, has died and has left the man her fortune; so he wants to condole and congratulate and hopes to learn at the same time that the whole thing, or at least the best of it, namely the inheritance, is a pack of lies. He would have begging children thrashed, because they don’t beg from him: “How do those guttersnipe know”, he wonders, “that I’m such a measerly beggar? Couldn’t I be an outsider, an Englander, who out of pure oddness dresses in such dilapidated rags?” “Look at the shoulders and fists on him”, he cries, as he peeks furtively at the noisy workshop of a smith, cheerily and brightly lit by the coal fire, and throws a baleful glance at the gigantic workman, who at that very moment is swinging his heavy hammer, “I believe he could shatter the anvil like glass if he wanted to. Out of you, Nepomuk, they could never have made a decent smithy, you being bundled together out of scraps of cloth. Hang it for a state of affairs.” The pair of lovers who, lost in their sweet nothings, wander by, he follows close behind, not out of curiosity, or in order to disturb them, but by lantern light to sketch, by abstraction from the girl’s regard, the contumely with which she would rebuff him were he to offer to play the Celadon. “That I have a wife this last age,” he thinks, “nobody can see, but that I’m as ugly as night they certainly can.” “’Tis pity the young maid’s no maiden”, he calls and pushes past. He bumps against the bony arm of an old woman who seems well acquainted with the gutter, in order that she might lambast his bandy bow-legs, and his beginnings of a hump-back, or at least, if she should prove, against his expectations, to not be part of that bellicose corps who by day sell fish and apples, his stupidity. If the mongrel, who, coming down the street on his evening stroll, presents the personification of contentment, does not avoid the master tailor in good time, this latter will surely furnish him a good kick, for this portly animal has been for Schlägel, whom nothing of this sort escapes, for the last minute a thorn in the flesh. “Such a creature”, thinks he, “who brings his whole wardrobe with him when he walks abroad, eats and drinks and pleasures himself, and in the end snuffs it without either torment or hospital bed.” The poodle slyly and nimbly jumps and steals himself a sausage from the table outside a butcher’s shop. “Hoy, stop”, shouts Nepomuk; then, “Thieving dogs”, he growls irefully, as if he himself had been stolen from, “should be strung up as good as men who don’t respect the seventh commandment. Why have they more right to such carry-on than I?” The butcher, who is at that moment, brass glasses on nose, reading the “Bayern Landbötin”, has noticed nothing of the crime. Nepomuk makes him a rapid report and, when this fellow in vexation pushes his cap down over his eyes and heaves out an oath, he smiles for the first time this evening. “The child has the dropsy”, he says to a girl who is carrying across the street a pale, wailing infant wrapped in cloth. “Is the doctor still pretending that it’s some curable illness? Three brothers I lost to it. But there’s one that dodged it”, he shouts, and turns into a side alley to avoid meeting an old schoolmate, already from far off waving his hand in cheerful greeting, the soap maker. “All I’ll say is that that fellow, frail as he might seem, is cast in iron. Anyone else, for instance myself, goes down to a burning gall-sickness when it gets hold of them, but it’s not a bother on him; he can already walk about again in the evening air, even though it’s rightly raw cold. But I’m not one to resent it, even if I can’t manage to be glad about that fact that the sole witness of my first and only theft of a piece of cloth, since a repetition is out of the question, seeing as nobody ever has me run up anything new, happens to have as many lives as a cat.” It suits him perfectly well that the sooty chimney-sweep, just then coming around the corner with his white eyes, long, dirty ladder under his arm and brush in his hand, doesn’t manage, with the best will in the world, to avoid him. “A blasted frock-coat;” he thinks and throws a contemptuous sideways glance at the man’s jacket, “we get what we deserve”. To a weeping blond-haired girl of seven who has lost the six-bätzner-piece with which she was to buy the evening’s beer, and who doesn’t dare return home to her wicked-tempered father, he gives, instead of the coin which the child had expected as reward for the telling of her tale of woe, the advice that she clench her fist tighter the next time, and that she not let herself be distracted by looking at the sparkling gold and gems in the jeweller’s. He would like, just for the sake of the office of punishing her, for one quarter-hour to be father to the child. What delight he would feel were suddenly to be committed right in front of him a major crime - a manslaughter would suffice -, but he must arrive too late to prevent the act, and early enough to hand the wrong-doer over to the police. Thus, once, when a fire broke out in a village where he was spending the night, nobody was as zealous in making a terrible, that is to say terrifying, racket, or in ringing the alarm bells, as was Nepomuk - once he had beforehand assured himself that the quenching of the fire, in the strong wind and given the feebleness of the hoses, was impossible. Similarly, he is the first every Sunday to tell the old, half-blind widow of the carpenter, who lives behind him in a miserable attic flat and who plays the lottery with a passion, because she wants to win a coffin and a shroud out of it, that her numbers have again failed to appear. The beautiful military music played during the mounting of the guard on the Schrannenplatz occasionally gives him great joy, but only when it’s bitterly cold or when it’s snowing heavily, so that the players’ fingers freeze: “Now,” he thinks, “they know what the king is paying them for”. On theatre evenings he rarely fails to station himself outside the theatre house. It is of some annoyance to him that the building has never, as has often happened in other towns, gone up in flames during an opera, for that would in his view be a play to surpass all others, and, Roman-style, free of charge to boot. It is also disagreeable to him that so rarely are fainting ladies or epileptics carried out. But many things offer compensation: for example a team of young, excited horses, whose provender so pricks them that they don’t want to stop or indeed bolt just as the finery dismount; a sudden downpour that soaks the ladies through to the skin who have forgotten their umbrellas; or maybe a light-footed gallant who will quickly and gracefully bound up the steps, in order that his charming cousin admire his elegance, and who in the process slips humiliatingly. He little envies those persons of quality who drive to the theatre, and in particular not at all the court, for the same reason that he doesn’t begrudge birds their wings or the heavens its stars, but is on the other hand incensed by all that fill the pit and the gallery, “For,” he says, “there belong I as well as any other, if the world were not so foul”. Pity feels he next to none when a poor thing in her strap-bonnet, whose lover, an artist and house painter, has given her a ticket for “Der Freischütz”, searches for it in vain in her plain little knitting bag when she gets inside the door of the theatre, only to discover to her horror that mice, out of hunger or boredom, have eaten a hole in it. It infuriates him that theatre attendants never die, as he hyperbolically puts it; “That potbelly there with the red nose sitting at the till,” he says “is like a pig growing fatter every day as I look at him, and yet he gawps down more air than comes in through the holes in my sleeve”. When young blades, who enter the theatre purely in order to noisily leave it during a dramatic scene, refuse those hanging about on the street a re-entry voucher, because they hadn’t actually gone about acquiring one, it pleases him somewhat. Were it possible, what with the wariness of the attendants, to even think of sneaking in, Nepomuk would have long since done so, not in order to delight in Schiller or Kotzebue - he scoffs at both, and above all at the public that lets themselves be deceived by them - but in order to say to himself, “So the made-up wax doll there is Mam’sel So-and-So, who for skipping about, pulling a face and standing there as if she were crying, pockets three thousand gulden, and the idiot decked out as the barber is Mr. So-and-So, who for his trills and runs, since four thousand isn’t enough for him anymore, gets paid six!” Holidays are gems of days to him. On Christmas Eve he cannot refrain from roaming from alley to alley through the joy-filled town that Gustav Adolf once wished wheels on, that he might carry it back to Sweden, as it shimmers in the glow of this most beautiful of divine and human annual festivals. There he indulges himself in cheering fantasies, and thinks occasionally, “How would it be then if that runner were looking for you, because he would ask you to dine at the palace”, but is soon ashamed of these material desires, and paints the scene for himself, of how it would surprise the pastry baker, whose resplendent premises he just now passed on his way, were he to suddenly smash the window; “If I were the Devil,” he thinks, “that’s how I would have fun: in every house at the moment when they sit down to their free-loading I would blow out the lights and overturn the table, or I would transform the wine into some laxative concoction and the roast into indigestible sole-leather.” Indeed from the fact that such a thing never happens he has come to the firm conclusion that there is no Devil. At the New Year he enthusiastically and wilfully encourages young people to loose gun-shots in celebration, in part because it is forbidden by the police, in part because it often costs the careless revellers a hand, or at least a finger. At the Oktoberfest he prefers to stay by the so-called rescue tent for accident victims, but seldom has the satisfaction of seeing someone who has been crushed, fallen from a horse or otherwise injured brought in, and curses the whole festival as a sham. On All Souls’ Day he visits the grave of his father, but not in order to pray alongside it, and certainly not to place a wreath, but to curse it and to reproach the dead man for leaving him nothing. “Who knows”, he thinks, “how far the power of the dead reaches, and whether he mightn’t show me the way to some treasure or give me winning numbers!” Most assiduously he visits the churches, and, since they all edify him equally, makes no distinction between Protestant and Catholic. “There they all squat”, he grumbles as he surveys the laden pews and kneelers, “big-bellied and with their full-moon faces brimming with contentment, like fattened hens sitting on a lat. Like guests getting up from the feast, they stammer out thanks for the enjoyed fare, and beg further generous remembrance; there they go contented and confident, and are sure, not like me, the master tailor, of being forgotten!” “Our Father, give her”, and as he says this he eyes a beautiful girl sunk deep in prayer and in her prayer book, with her healthily pale Madonna face tilted to one side, “give her what she wants; give her a lover, and then give her what she doesn’t want!” Occasionally his thoughts turn inward, and he is envious of himself because of his earlier years. “When I was a lad,” he thinks “and didn’t know how to value it, I wanted for nothing: my shirts were always finer than those of the neighbours’ children; no Sunday morning passed but I could go to the door or the window with a gingerbread cake and proudly look down on the cobbler’s red-haired daughter, who’d be there eating her dry roll, and if I didn’t like the dinner, mother would quietly make me a yummy pancake. Was not my birthday as well celebrated as that of the king, and didn’t we then have goose stuffed with apples and raisins and with delicious gravy poured over it? Damn and triple damn those times. If I had never eaten such geese, my mouth wouldn’t water after them now.” Beer and food establishments are for him houses of prayer, that is to say, of malediction. It is here that was formed his conviction, touching on atheism, of the infirm standing of the world, here in this tenebrous atmosphere and from a most genuine relish of beer tankards, to wit, those which he cannot fling back. But what mustn’t he withstand before he can perform his devotions! For you, dear reader, who, evening pipe or cigar in mouth, and shiny cash money in your bag, seek a conversation or a newspaper, or more substantial things, entering an inn is no act of heroism. You face into a veritable bombardment of pleasures: humble bows to receive you at the door; interesting bits of news that are being told just as you enter; a dear friend whom in eight days at the earliest you expected back from his journey, and who is waiting impatiently for you; another who just an hour ago told you that he couldn’t possibly tear himself away from the files today for even a moment, and who is sitting there at the table, laughing. This and so much more bewilders you and throws you into the centre of that sweet giddiness wherein all the buds of the delights of the senses and of the heart burst open, and purely as a reminder of the imperfection of all things earthly, the slightest of frustrations is added: that every kind of roast, bar the venison roast that you had been looking forward to, is paraded on the menu. How different the situation is for Nepomuk! There is something enigmatic deep within the landlord of an inn. He drips with charm when he drips with sweat. Torment him horribly; have him drag a hundred things from every corner and nook of his house; find nothing good enough, but demand constantly better and the best: it doesn’t strike him as excessive; he doesn’t get annoyed; he laughs at it; his good humour increases with his efforts, and he names you Baron, Count, everything you’re not, without your ever being even a Count Palatine. But woe to quiet, undemanding souls like Nepomuk, who, contented with a draught of air, however good or bad it may be, settle modestly into a corner and are fastidious about bothering neither him nor the waiter. To the landlord they are loathsome to the depths of his soul, and he makes no secret of it. Since he can’t poison them with a look, he tries to drive them out with one, and the noble Roman soul that withstands this small arms fire not only considers the victory already decided but prepares himself for the most despicable ruses of war, for defeat does not bow the enemy; it makes him sullen and malicious. And who has more grievous experience of this than the master tailor Nepomuk Schlägel? For it must be admitted, he has suffered in the Stachus Garden what a man can suffer: eyes out of which flames the whole of Hell; despicable palisading with empty tankards and bottles; contemptible removal of the candle from his table, at which he, playing with his hat in almost childlike naturalness, sits alone; even having the ignorant waiter stepping on his corns, never followed by an apology. Steadfastly he has borne it all and stomached it all, like the Dutchman did the horrors of the French Revolution, and consoles himself with, “It has an end, and every evening I am still living when I go to bed”. What does it help? Once, he had scarcely entered when the landlord in person, half-friendly, half-fell, placed before him a stupendous roast with all the trimmings, and two burning festive candles, and gave a meaningful look at his purse. As Nepomuk good-naturedly drew the man’s attention to the fact that he had not ordered anything, the boor shouted at him that he knew it well, and that this was precisely why he could get himself to the Devil, as he had never yet ordered anything. Since then he slips into the inn like a mouse into the pantry. When he can manage it, he mingles like the single bitter drop in a wave of welcome guests that is streaming in. If this doesn’t work, he enters with the appearance of one who seeks somebody, even asks after a gentleman with silver buttons on his coat or with a red moustache, and then quick as a lizard slinks into the darkest corner. Truly, Nepomuk, whoever sees you perform, with endless adroitness, this tour-de-force of accommodating yourself in the smoky corner of an inn, little does he suspect that it takes place purely so that you can count every mouthful eaten by every guest, and with each one think with gnashing of teeth of the cold potatoes that await you at home. And what else is granted you when you consider it honestly? A broken glass is of little consolation to you, for this misfortune rarely or never befalls one who has spent his last heller and can’t pay; but were it to happen one time, it would only serve to strengthen you in your conviction that nobody, excepting yourself, wants for credit with innkeepers. Naturally, with beer, rows arrive, as often as do eternal friendships, but who is put out by the receiving of a punch when he can give back two, and who makes so much of a flattened nose when he holds in his hand, to his enormous satisfaction, the ripped off ear of his opponent? In drunkenness however, many things are blurted out that would better remain unsaid, but has ever in your presence a long forgotten murder or barn-burning come to light, and so what have you from your sobriety and your attentiveness? The alehouse is indisputably the ground where dropsy and other deadly sicknesses spring up like mushrooms. But I ask you, as you see some happy-go-lucky heartily and cheerily throw back a sixth glass and call for a seventh, are the wings of your fantasy strong enough, to bear forward, quick as a febrifuge, the sick bed, and the doctor with shaking head who drains off beer as water, and in the silence gives up hope for the man’s life? Nothing is left you but the agreeable sensation of happily overcome obstacles and the triumph of being present, nothing but the sole consolation that once closing time comes, everyone will be turfed out just like you, and that the going suits you better than it does most. And so home! Granted, you have yet to hear the first grumble from your wife’s lips over the bitter poverty that she must share with you. She waits patiently for you in the unheated parlour, however long you might stay out, and when you eventually come home goes hungry to bed as she rose hungry, with never a word of complaint over her fate. But you will never bring her to have her beautiful black hair cut, and, because since the moment your neighbour the hairdresser offered you two kronentaler for it you can’t weave a single thought that isn’t bound up with this hair, you have just as much torment and pain from the woman as if she were to rage and wail. Bootless you wheedlingly sit her on your lap, call her your little dove, and ask her, all the while caressing her locks and letting them slip through your fingers, if she wants to make you happy. Bootless you try to lull her with a triumphal procession of roast goose, steaming stuffing and foaming beer tankards, which you with poetic fire and force conjure up to her imagination, and then in glides the remark like a goshawk, “And all that a person can have for two kronentaler”. Bootless you explain to her that a person can live without long hair, but not without money. She replies softly but firmly, “In the coffin you can shear me, not before”, and since, and you’ve tried, nothing can be gotten over on her in her sleep, you may well, your whole life long, with this domestic cross to bear, pay at home the price for the joys that you hunt down on the streets. And is that so unjust?

Charles Nodier (1780-1842) The Bibliomane

Charles Nodier (1780-1842)
The Bibliomane
(Le bibliomane)

You all knew the worthy Theodore, on whose grave I come to lay flowers, praying Heaven that the earth lie light upon him.
These two scraps of phrase, which are also known to you, tell you that I intend to dedicate to him a few pages of obituary notice, or funeral oration.
It is twenty years since Theodore retired from the world, to work or to do nothing, which of the two was a great secret. He had a plan, but what this plan might be we didn’t know. He was spending his life among books, and concerned himself solely with books, which led some few to think that he was writing a book which would render all books superfluous; but they were wrong, obviously. Theodore had profited too well from his studies to be ignorant of the fact that this book was written three hundred years ago. It is the thirteenth chapter of Rabelais’ first book.
Theodore no longer spoke, no longer laughed, no longer gamed, no longer ate, went to neither ball nor comédie. The women whom he had loved in his youth no longer drew his eye, or at the very most he looked at them only to look at their feet, and when an elegant shoe of some brilliant colour caught his attention, “Alas,” he would cry, heaving a profound sigh up from his breast, “good morocco wasted”.
He had in past times made sacrifices to fashion: the memoirs of the age tell us that he was the first to tie his cravat on the left, despite the example set by Garat, who tied his on the right, and in spite of the vulgar mass who persist to this day in tying it in the middle. Theodore no longer cared about fashion. In the past twenty years he had had only one dispute with his tailor: “Sir,” he said to him one day, “this suit will be the last I will take from you if you should once more forget to make up my pockets in-quarto”.
Politics, the laughable accidents of which had made the fortune of so many fools, never managed to distract him for more than a moment from his meditations. It had put him in bad humour, ever since Napoleon’s rash undertakings in the North, which had made Russian leather more expensive. He nonetheless approved of the French intervention in the Spanish revolutions. “It is“, he said, “a glorious opportunity to bring back from the peninsula the chivalric novels of the Cancioneros.” But the expeditionary army paid no attention to these whatsoever, and he was sorely vexed. When one spoke to him of Trocadero, he responded ironically, Romancero, which caused him to pass for a liberal. The memorable campaign of Monsieur de Bourmont on the coasts of Africa filled him with transports of joy. “Thank Heavens,” he said, rubbing his hands together; “we will have the Levants that much cheaper,” which caused him to pass for a Carlist.
He was walking on a populous street last Summer, flicking through a book. Some honest citizens, leaving a cabaret on unsteady legs, came over to beg of him, a knife at his throat, that he might, in the name of the liberty of one’s opinions, cry, “Long live the Poles!” “I ask nothing better;” replied Theodore, whose thoughts were an eternal cry in support of the human race, “but may I ask why?” “Because we are declaring war on Holland, who are oppressing the Poles on the pretext of not liking the Jesuits,” replied this friend of the Enlightenment, a formidable geographer and an intrepid logician. “Heaven help us;” murmured our friend, piously clasping his hands together, “are we thus to be reduced to the so-called paper from Holland, of Monsieur Montgolfier?”
The eminently civilised gentleman broke his leg with a blow of a cudgel.
Theodore spent three months in bed consulting book catalogues. Given as he constantly was to take emotions to the extreme, this reading made his blood seethe.
In his convalescence, even his sleep was horribly agitated. His wife awoke him one night in the midst of the anguishes of a nightmare. “You arrive just on time”, he said as he kissed her, “to keep me from dying of fear and pain. I was surrounded by monsters who would have given me no quarter.”
“And what monsters have you to fear, my darling, you who have never done a soul harm.”
“It was, if I remember aright, the shade of Purgold, whose deathly scissors bit an inch and a half into the margins of my soft-cover Aldines, while the shade of Heudier pitilessly plunged my most beautiful princeps-edition volume into acid, drawing it out white, but I have good reason to believe that they are in Purgatory at the very least.”
His wife thought he was speaking Greek, for he knew some Greek, to the extent that three shelves of his library were laden with Greek books whose pages had not been cut. Nor did he ever open them, content to simply show them, cover and spine, to his closest acquaintances, but citing the place of publication, the name of the printer and the date, all with an imperturbable self-assurance. Simple souls concluded that he was a wizard. I do not believe so.
As he was fading away before our eyes, his doctor was summoned, by chance a man of wit and a philosopher. You will find him if you can. The doctor realised that a stroke was imminent, and he wrote a delightful report on the illness in the Journal des sciences médicales, where it was given the name of morocco monomania or bibliomaniacal typhoid, but there was no mention of it at the Académie des sciences, because it was in competition with the cholera-morbus.
He was advised to take exercise, and since the idea appealed to him, he set out early the next day. I was too fraught to leave his side for one step of the way. We headed towards the quays, and I was very glad of this, for I imagined that the view of the river would be a source of recreation to him, but he did not turn his gaze from the direction of the embankment. The embankment was as unencumbered by book-stalls as if it had been visited that very morning by those defenders of the press who in February had drowned the Archbishop’s library. We were in a better way on the quai aux Fleurs. There was to be seen a wealth of books, but what books? All those works, which the papers had spoken well of in the past month, but which tumble infallibly, from the editorial office or from stockrooms of the bookshops, into the fifty centimes box. Philosophers, historians, poets, novelists, authors of every genre and every format, for whom the most pompous of reviews are but insurmountable limbos to immortality, and who pass, disdained, from the shelves of the bookshops to the banks of the Seine, that deep Lethe, where they contemplate as they moulder the certain end to their overweening career. There I unfurled the satined pages of my in-octavos, amidst those of five or six of my friends.
Theodore sighed, but it was not for seeing the works of my intellect given over to the rain, from which the perfunctory awning of waxed canvas gave scanty protection.
“What,” he asked, “has become of the golden age of open air book-sellers? It was here that my illustrious friend Barbier collected so many treasures that he came to put together a separate bibliography of a few thousand articles. It was here that the wise Monmerqué, on his way to the palace, and the wise Labouderie, leaving the city, used to prolong, for hours on end, their learned and fruitful perambulations. It was from here that the venerable Boulard took a metre of rarities every day, measured out with his cane, for which his six houses in their plethory of books had no place to spare. Oh, how he had longed at such times for the Horace’s modest corner of earth, or the elastic baldachin of that fairy pavilion, which would have covered the army of Xerxes if need be, and could be carried as easily on one’s belt as a knife sheathe. And now, the pity of it: what do you see but the imbecilic scourings of this modern literature that will never be ancient, whose life is done in twenty-four hours, like the flies on the river Hypanis, literature well worthy in fact of the coal-ink and the pulped paper which shameful typographers, almost as stupid as their books, reluctantly afford it! And it were to profane the name of books to bestow it upon these rags scrawled with black, which have seen almost no change in their fate since leaving the rag-and-bone man’s basket! The quays are now no more than a morgue for the momentarily renowned!”
He sighed again, and I also sighed, but not for the same reason.
I hastened to carry him away from there, for his state of excitation, which grew with every step, threatened to bring on a lethal fit. This was bound to be a black day, for all was contributing to the sharpening of his melancholy.
“There,” he said as he passed it, “is the pompous facade of Ladvocat, the Galiot du Pré of bastardised letters of the nineteenth century, an industrious and prodigal publisher who would have been worthy of being born in a better age, but whose deplorable activities have cruelly multiplied the number of new books, to the eternal detriment of the old ones, forever unpardonable sinner of cotton paper, of ignorant orthography, and of the mannered vignette, fateful tutor to academic prose and fashionable poetry; as if France has had poetry since Ronsard or prose since Montaigne! This palace of bibliopoly is the Trojan horse that brought all the pillagers to the palladium, the Pandora’s box that loosed all the evils upon the Earth! I still love the old cannibal, and I’ll give a chapter to his book, but I’ll never look on him again!
“And here,” he continued, “the shop of the worthy Crozet, with its green walls, the most amiable of our young publishers, the best man in Paris to distinguish a binding by Derome the elder from a binding by Derome the younger, and the last hope of this latest generation of book-lovers, if such can yet arise amidst our barbary, but I will not today enjoy his conversation, from which I always profit! He is in England, where, by right of legitimate retaliation, he is struggling with our grasping invaders from Soho Square and Fleet Street over the precious remnants of the monuments of our beautiful tongue, forgotten for two centuries in the ungrateful land that produced them! Macte animo, generose puer!...
“And here,” he began again, going back over his steps, “here is the Pont des Arts, whose useless balustrade, with its ridiculous railings of a few centimetres wide, will never bear the three-centuries old in-folio that so delighted the eyes of ten generations with the vision of its pig-skin cover and its bronze clasps, a profoundly emblematic path, in truth, which leads from the Château of the Louvre to the Institute, along a way which is not that of science. Perhaps I am mistaken, but the invention of this type of bridge should be for the educated man a flagrant indication of the decadence in letters.
“Here,” says Theodore once more, passing the Place du Louvre, “is the white emblem of another busy and ingenious publisher. It long caused my heart to beat faster, but I no longer see it without a tinge of pain, since Techener took it to mind to have reprinted in Tastu characters, on dazzling paper, and under a bedizened hardcover, the gothic wonders of Jehan Bonfons de Paris, Jehan Mareschal de Lyon, and Jehan de Chaney d’Avignon, little pearls that weren’t to be found anywhere, and which he diffuses in charming counterfeits. I abominate snow white paper, my friend, and there is nothing I don’t prefer to it, aside from that which it becomes on receiving, under the pitiless presser’s unmerciful blows, the deplorable imprint of the notions and stupidities of this age of iron.”
Theodore sighed more deeply than ever; his condition was steadily worsening.
Thus we arrived at the rue des Bons-Enfants, at the rich literary bazaar of Silvestre’s public auctions, an establishment frequented by the learned, through which in a quarter century more inestimable curios have passed than one could ever contain in the library of the Ptolemies, which was perhaps not burned down by Omar, whatever our doting historians might say. Never had I seen so many splendid volumes laid out.
“Pity those who sell them!” said I to Theodore.
“They are dead,” he replied, “or they will die from it.”
But the room was empty. The only person to be found was the indefatigable Monsieur Thour, making facsimiles with patient exactitude, on carefully prepared cards, of the titles of works which on the previous day had escaped his daily scrutiny. Happiest of men, who possesses in his cardboard boxes, arranged by subject matter, the faithfully reproduced image of the frontispiece of all known books! For him it is in vain that all of the productions of printing will perish in the very next revolution which the progress of perfectibility will provide us. He will be able to bequeath to the future the complete catalogue of the universal library. There was certainly a wondrous touch of prescience in foreseeing from so distant a point that moment when it would be time to compile an inventory of civilisation. A few more years, and it will be done with!
“God forgive me, my good Theodore,” said the honest Monsieur Silvestre, “you’re out by a day. Yesterday was the last auction. The books which you see are already sold and awaiting delivery.”
Theodore swayed and went pale. His forehead went the colour of a somewhat worn lemon morocco. The blow that struck him echoed in the depths of my heart.
“Ah, such is the way of things,” he said with an air of defeat. “I know of old the pain brought on by such awful tidings. But still, to whom belong these pearls, these diamonds, these fantastic riches that would be the glory of the library of de Thou and of the Groliers?”
“As usual, Monsieur,” replied Monsieur Silvestre, “these excellent classics of first edition, these ancient and perfect editions, autographed by celebrated scholars, these striking philological rarities, which the Académie and l’Université have never heard of, go by right to Sir Richard Heber. It is the share of the English lion, to whom we graciously yield the Latin and Greek that we no longer understand. These beautiful natural history collections, these master-pieces of method and iconography belong to Prince … , whose studious tastes yet more ennoble by their use a noble and immense fortune. These mysteries of the Middle Ages, these morality plays like unto phoenixes, whose analogues simply do not exist, these curious dramatic essays of our forefathers will go to swell the exemplary library of Monsieur de Soleine. These ancient burlesques, so fine, so elegant, so handsome, so well conserved, make up the lot of your amiable and ingenious friend Monsieur Aimé-Martin. I don’t need to tell who owns these fresh and brilliant moroccos, with their triple rule, their large filigree, their sumptuous compartments. He is the Shakespeare of the small-holder, the Corneille of the melodrama, the gifted and often eloquent interpreter of the passions and the virtues of the people, who, after having somewhat disprized them in the morning, bought them at their weight in gold in the evening, though not without grinding his teeth, like a mortally wounded boar, and not without turning to his competitors a tragic eye, shaded by black brows.”
Theodore had stopped listening, He had just placed his hand on a rather good-looking volume, to which he hastened to apply his elzeviriometre, that is to say, a 6-inch rule divided almost to infinity, with which he decided the price, alas, and the intrinsic quality of his books. He placed it alongside the accursed book ten times, verified the damning calculation ten times, murmured a few words which I didn’t hear, changed colour once again, and collapsed in my arms. It was with great difficulty that I managed to carry him to the first carriage that was passing.
My entreaties, in an attempt to drag from him the secret of his sudden suffering, were for a long time bootless. He no longer spoke. My words no longer reached him. “It’s typhoid,” I thought, “and typhoid at its worst.”
I held him close. I continued to question him. He seemed to yield to a communicative impulse. “You see in me”, he said to me, “the most unhappy of men! That volume was the 1676 Virgil, untrimmed, of which I thought I had the giant edition, and it carries the day over mine by a third of a line in height. An ill disposed or forewarned wit could find there even a half-line. A third of a line, almighty God!”
I was thunderstruck. I saw that delirium that was taking hold of him.
“A third of a line!” he repeated, threatening Heaven with a enraged fist, like Ajax or Capaneus.
I was trembling in every limb.
Little by little he fell into the deepest torpor. The wretched man was living only to suffer. He started from time to time: “A third of a line,” biting his knuckles. And I would say again, quietly, “Blast books and typhoid!”
“Be reassured, my dear friend,” I breathed tenderly in his ear each time the fits returned anew. “A third of a line is of no great matter in the more delicate affairs of this world”.
“No great matter?” he cried, “A third of a line in the 1676 Virgil? It was a third of a line that increased the price of Monsieur de Cotte’s Nerli Homer by a hundred Louis, a third of a line. Ah, do you hold for no great matter a third of a line in the stiletto that is piercing your heart?”
He collapsed completely; his arms went stiff; his legs were seized by a cramp with nails of iron. The typhoid was visibly creeping over his extremities. I would not have wished to lengthen by one third of a line the short distance that separated us from his house.
At last we arrived. “A third of a line,” he said to the doorman.
“A third of a line,” he said to his wife, wetting her with his tears.
“My budgie has flown away,” said his little girl, who wept as he.
“Why did you leave the cage open?” replied Theodore. “A third of a line!”
“The people are in revolt in the Midi and the rue du Cadran,” said the old aunt, who was reading the evening paper.
“Leave the blasted people out of this,” replied Theodore. “A third of a line!”
“Your farmhouse in the Beauce has burned down,” said his servant as he laid him in his bed.
“We must rebuild it,” replied Theodore, “if the estate is worth the trouble.”
“Do you think that it is serious?” the nanny asked me.
“My good woman, haven’t you read the Journal des sciences médicales? What are you waiting for? Go and get a priest.”
Luckily enough, the curate entered at that moment, come to chat, as was his wont, about a thousand tit-bits of literature and bibliophily, from which his breviary had not completely torn him, but he thought no longer of them once he had felt Theodore’s pulse.
“Alas, my child,” he said to him, “the life of a man is but fleeting, and the world itself is not set upon eternal foundations. It must have an end, as must all that has had a beginning.”
“Have you read, on that subject,” replied Theodore, “ the Treatise on its Origin and its Ancientness?”
“I learned what I know of such things in Genesis,” said the respectable pastor, “but I have heard tell that a sophist of the last century, by the name of Monsieur de Mirabeau, wrote a book on the subject.”
“Sub judice lis est,” Theodore interrupted brusquely. “I have proved in my Stromates that the first two parts of the World were from the hand of this sad pedant of a Mirabeau, and the third by father Le Mascrier.”
“Eh? Good God!” started the old aunt, raising her glasses. “So who made America?”
“That’s not the question, “ continued the priest. “Do you believe in the Trinity?”
“How could I not believe in the wonderful volume of De Trinitate by Servet,” said Theodore, lifting himself up to halfway on his pillow, “since I saw a copy of it offered for the meagre sum of two hundred and fifteen francs by Monsieur Maccarthy, and for which he himself had paid seven hundred pounds at the sale in La Vallière?”
“We are not discussing that,” said the preacher, somewhat disconcerted. “I asked you, my son, what you thought of the divinity of Jesus Christ.”
“Alright, alright;” said Theodore, “it was just a misunderstanding. I will defend before and against anyone that the Toldosjeschu, whence that ignorant pantaloon of a Voltaire drew so many silly fables, worthy of the Thousand and One Nights, isn’t but a wicked piece of rabbinic foolishness, unfit to figure in the library of a man of learning.”
“Heaven help us,” sighed the worthy cleric.
“Unless,” continued Theodore, “one were to some day find the copy of it in chartâ maximâ, which is mentioned, if my memory serves me right, in that unpublished salmagundi by David Clément.”
This time the curate shuddered noticeably, arose, shaken, from his chair and leaned towards Theodore to have him to clearly understand, without varnish or equivocation, that he was infected to the core with bibliomaniac typhoid, which had been spoken of in the Journal des sciences médicales, and that the only thing he need concern himself with now was the saving of his soul.
Theodore had not, his whole life, hidden behind that inconsequent negativism that is the science of fools, but the darling man had gone too far in his books, in the vain study of the letter, to have had the time to fasten onto the spirit. In full health, a doctrine would have given him a fever, and a dogma tetanus. He would have struck his colours in moral theology before a Saint-Simonist. He turned his face to the wall.
From the length of time during which he did not speak we would have believed him dead, if I, drawing near to him, had not heard him faintly murmur, “A third of a line. Oh just and bountiful God, where will you give me back this third of a line, by just how much can your omnipotence repair the binder’s irreparable error?”
A bibliophile from among his friends arrived a moment later. He was told that Theodore was dying, that he was delirious to the point of believing that Father Le Mascrier had created one third of the world, and that he had lost the power of speech in the last quarter of an hour.
“I’ll see for myself,” said the book-lover. “By what pagination error can one know the real 1635 Elzevir edition of Caesar?” he asked Theodore.
“153 for 149”
“Very well, and the Terence of the same year?”
“108 for 104”
“The Devil,” said I, “but the Elzevirs were having a bad time of it that year with figures. It’s a good thing they weren’t called on to print log-books.”
“In perfect health,” continued Theodore’s friend. “If I were to listen to these people, I would have thought you a breath away from death.”
“A third of a line away,” replied Theodore, whose voice was gradually failing.
“I’ve heard the story, but it’s nothing compared to what happened to me. Just think of it; eight days ago, in one of those bastard and anonymous sales that you only find out about via the notice on the door, I missed out on a 1527 occaccio, as magnificent as your own, with the binding in vellum, from Venice, the “a”s pointed, witnesses everywhere, and not one page remodelled.”
“Theodore`s every faculty was concentrated on one thought: “Are you at least certain that the “a”s were pointed?”
“Like the iron tip on a lancer’s halberd.”
“It is therefore beyond doubt, but that it was the vintisettine itself.”
“The very one. We had had a very pleasant meal that day: charming ladies, green oysters, witty companions, Champagne. I arrived three minutes after the final bid.”
“Monsieur,” cried Theodore in a rage, “When the vintisettine is up for sale, one does not dine.”
This last effort used up what little of life was still animating him, and which this conversation had sustained like the breath that plays on a dying spark. But still his lips babbled: “A third of a line,” but these were his final words.
Once we had given up hope of saving him, we rolled his bed close to the library and began to bring down one by one those volumes which his gaze seemed to call for, holding longer before him those which we judged most likely to delight his eye. He died at midnight, between a Deseuil and a Padeloup, his hands lovingly clasping a Thouvenin.
The next day we escorted his cortege, at the head of a throng of grief-stricken morocco craftsmen, and we had placed on his tomb a stone bearing the following inscription, which he himself had parodied from Franklin’s epitaph:


Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) The embarrassed magistrate

Heinrich von Kleist
The embarrassed magistrate
(Der verlegene Magistrat)

It recently happened that a soldier in the town of H. abandoned his guard-post without the permission of his officers. According to an ancient law such a crime, which due to the continuous squabbles of the nobility had been of no small importance, must demand the death penalty. Nevertheless, without the law ever having been expressly revoked, it has not been enforced for many hundreds of years, with the result that rather than that the offender should face execution, he is, in accordance with longstanding custom, sentenced to a simple fine, to be paid into the town treasury. The man in question however, who seemed to have no desire to pay the fine, explained, to the mighty consternation of the magistrate, that he, as was his right according to the law, chose to die. The magistrate, who suspected that a misunderstanding had occurred, sent a representative to the man, to make it clear to him how much more advantageous it would be to part with a few gulden than to be fusilladed. But the man insisted that he was tired of life, and that he wanted to die, with the result that nothing was left the magistrate, who did not want to see blood shed, but to strike off the fine that stood against the fellow, and was even glad when this latter declared that, given such changed circumstances, he chose to remain living awhile.

Justus Möser (1720-1794) A letter from a Lady to her Chaplain on the use of her time.

Justus Möser (1720-1794)
A letter from a Lady to her Chaplain on the use of her time
(Schreiben einer Dame an ihren Kapellan über den Gebrauch ihrer Zeit)

Most Reverend Father,
I must pose you some questions of conscience. You are always telling me that I must at the end of my life make account for every hour of it, and that the hour of this reckoning is drawing nearer with every moment. Now, as this year draws to its close, and in order not to be rushed at the end, I wanted to make a start with these accounts, but I come across some few difficulties, on which I must ask your clarification.
Firstly, I have seen in the countryside that those who work hardest sleep only five or six hours. I, for my part, am in bed every evening at eleven and up again at eight, in all stay four hours longer in bed. Will I have to account for these also, or will they be counted with the rest?
Secondly, in my younger years I spent not a few hours at the coffee table or dressing table. But now, given that I find little joy in the mirror and put my nightcap on as quickly as I can, I spend these hours most tediously. Should I not therefore be easily able to claim indemnification for them?
Thirdly, I have often thanked God that I could linger at table for three hours, for the time until our réunion would otherwise be too long. This beneficence I enjoy with gratitude; shall it be desired of me that I should render long account for it?
Fourthly, I have this year, between five and eight o’clock in the evening, helped to use up seven-hundred-and-thirty playing cards, and in this way supported indigent manufacturers; can I not enter double in my accounts such useful employment of my time?
Sixthly, I have dined between eight and eleven in the evening and prepared myself to some extent for the duties of the following day, and then, after having settled myself, taken some congenial book in hand, in order to recreate myself. These hours can be fully accounted for, but could you perhaps write me a certificate for them, which might allow me passage?
Don’t tell me that I could have put my time to better use. For this, here, where we have neither opera nor theatre, neither masked balls nor university, is quite impossible. Supposing that I had wanted to spend less time in bed and at table, what in the world should I have done with myself? I have never learned to ride; hunting is too wearying; I soon grow tired of strolling; and through any work which I might have undertaken, some poor person would have been losing their daily bread. My considerable income raises me above working, and the less I do myself, the more I allow some industrious worthy to earn. It would be a punishable miserliness in me were I to see to the cooking myself or to keep one less chambermaid.
I tried it once and with heroic resolve arose at four in the morning, only, as true as my honour, I had to lie down again at six, just to recover from the boredom. What a terrible morning that was. I was frozen; I was yawning; my chambermaid was sullen; the servants were grumbling; and the whole household fell into disarray. I read a book, without the least sensibility as to what I was reading; I busied myself without getting anything done. And besides it was raining, or I would have gone and trembled with the nightingales in the woods. In short, I wasn’t right the whole day, and there and then I made an oath, that never again, barring emergencies, would I get out of bed before eight.
In the same vein, I was once at home alone one afternoon. At four I drank my coffee, at five my tea. At six I felt a little jaded; I had a little drop and a bottle of Cape brought to me. I took a little and read, and then took another sip, and what do you think? The bottle was finished before eight o’clock had struck. At table that evening I was not a little gay, and all that I could manage to get down, with effort, was a cup of chocolate, and after dinner I had to go straight to bed. That was how badly that attempt went.
Whatever might have been for the best in all this, my dear chaplain, I count those people happy who can spend sixteen hours each day in useful work. I envy them even, if that might help toward my absolution. Indeed, it seems to me that those who in life are lucky enough to be able spend all their hours usefully, when it should finally come to the rendering of accounts will merit less than I, for whom it is so bitter to put down even one hour outside of sleeping, playing cards and dining. I speak in all seriousness; the days go by so slowly and the years so quickly that I am completely bewildered by it. I sometimes even reproach my sainted mother in her grave, that she did not instil in me more of a taste for housekeeping, and that in those years when the desire to please gave me no great pause for thought I didn’t at least acquire a solid fist with which I might pull a pot from the fire. But then my mother used to say, “Child, who will want to kiss your hand if it smells of the kitchen?” and in order to keep my feet dainty, the most I would do was to tiptoe about on a grassy terrace. And now at the age I’m at, I can’t even wean myself off going to bed with gloves on; how should I change myself in other things?
You, dearest chaplain, have often said to me that you couldn’t put down an hour without taking a pinch of snuff. Take one now, and reflect on how I can emend my accounts. Propose me a plan suited to my forces and my habits, a plan whereby it is not necessary to rise any earlier or to forego our réunions. Accept that I am a creature with weak hands and feet, and with a head that with the passing of time is so spoiled that it is no longer fit for serious considerations of its own forming, that is caused the most frightful headaches even by Young’s Night Thoughts, and that won’t sleep tonight for having spent so long writing.
Yours in expectation, etc.