Mittwoch, 30. Januar 2008

Hans Glück (Promethean 2007)


My love for German food and the German language returned. Most Thursdays after therapy, I strolled down the three blocks of Sauerkraut Boulevard/ East 86th Street. Yorkville in the early 80s, before the onslaught of PC Richards, Victoria’s Secret, and Footlocker mega stores had the flavor of a German neighborhood. Restaurants, named Heidelberg, Ideal, and Café Geiger, served Jägerschnitzel, Sauerbraten, and excellent draught beer. Elk’s Candy carried the best marzipan this side of the Atlantic. In the evenings, zither and accordion players entertained the crowd. Before I started my long haul back to TriBeCa, I always treated myself to Kaffee und Kuchen, Germany’s version of High Tea, at Kleine Konditorei. Their rich Black Forest tart, almost as good as my mother’s, never failed to improve my mood.

In Germany, being German was an ordeal, a full time job. Everyday we dealt with our parents and grandparents’ guilt, the heavy load we had inherited. On American TV, my compatriots were Nazis, deranged psychiatrists, or Bavarians in Lederhosen. They were barking orders, or slapping their legs doing the Schuhplattler dance. I was no longer troubled or insulted by it. Here in New York, at Kleine Konditorei, I shamelessly indulged in my Germaness.

Kleine Konditorei, proud of its home cooking and gut bürgerlich ambiance, kept the Teutonic theme under control. No antlers on the wall, no decorative steins, or yodeling over the sound system, just immaculately clean windows and floors, red fabric chairs and sofas, starched white linen tablecloths, and fine china. New York offered a multitude of restaurant experiences, but it did not have a coffee house culture like European cities. Kleine Konditorei, a pitiable substitute for Berlin’s Café Einstein was the next best thing. I could linger for hours in a comfortable upholstered chair over a Kännchen Kaffee without being harassed by the wait staff to place another order every twenty minutes.

Anita, the heavyset Viennese waitress, was polishing the doorknob with a table napkin as I made my way in.

Schönen guten Tag,” she chirped.

Danke, ebenso,” I answered.

Ogling the cakes and pies behind the counter, I made my way to my favorite table. From my vantage point, I could scrutinize most of the inside tables as well as the outside street action. Across from me, three old ladies with hairdos resembling corrugated sheet metal, sat with gigantic portions of tort. They spoke a strange mixture of German and English. “Der Mohnkuchen is fantastic. So lecker! Please pass mir die milk und das Sweet & Low.”

I considered the special attributes of German Kaffee und Kuchen. Brewed with less Arabica beans, German coffee was thinner than Italian espresso, but superior to the dishwater that passed for American coffee. Americans never got torts right. Just like their saccharine smiles, their pastries were unbearably sweet. German pastries, like life, were both sweet and tart. As I sank my teeth into the scrumptious piece of Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte, a superb concoction of cherry sauce, flour, cream, eggs, chocolate, and Kirsch brandy, I mocked the accent I heard all around me: “Ziss Kriempuff is fäbuluss.”

As I licked my spoon I thought about my therapist’s question an hour ago: “Have you ever been with an older man?” and how I had rebuffed Vivian Deutsch: “No way. An older guy and me? You won’t see that happen any time soon.” Vivien had been adamant: “You ought to give it a try. Allow yourself to be attracted to a good kind man. A man with the qualities of a good father. It should help you move from romantic love and a fixation on sex, to sustained attachment.” Maybe she had a point. Even Freud had called romantic love “the overestimation of the romantic object.”

As I surveyed the room, a man with the handsome look of an old-time matinee idol caught my eye. His Basque cap, silver unruly hair sticking out from underneath, and red scarf tied around his neck gave him a bohemian flair. He took cautious measured steps, and then rested on his cane until Anita came to his rescue. She led him to a table set for a large group of people, took his coat and helped him into his seat.

“Who is that?” I asked when she passed by.

“Hans Glück. He’s a writer. Part of the Stammtisch. A group of old Jewish folks who meet here every Thursday. They all speak German.”

“You are kidding?”

“No. They’ve been coming here for the past thirty-five years. No one wants to wait on them. They sit forever and don’t eat much. Terrible tippers.”

I decided to stay and ordered a brandy. As I savored my Asbach, I eavesdropped on the discussion at their table. My ears perked up when I heard them talk about Thomas Bernhard’s latest book. One man with an Austrian accent didn’t like Bernhard: “How can he call Salzburg, his hometown, a terminal disease?” Hans Glück didn’t like my favorite writer either. “Who does he think he is? James Joyce? Unreadable, this relentless, repetitive stuff.” How could he not like Bernhard? In my canon of western literature, next to Musil and Beckett, Bernhard was the greatest writer of our century. No one else’s writing was so personal and uncompromising. Hans Glück was ignorant. How would he justify his position? I strained to listen. Against my better judgment and annoyance, I fell in love with the way he spoke. Like a bourgeois playboy in the final days of the Habsburg monarchy, his was a pure, upper class, turn-of-the-nineteenth-century German, untainted by any Anglicism. In an instant he transported me to an Arthur Schnitzler novel. Fortified by my third brandy, I asked Anita to introduce me. She did not waste time.

Liebe Stammtischgäste, you have to meet Anna. She’s from the Rhineland, but she studied in Berlin.”

“Oh Berlin, my heart aches for you,” Hans Glück said.

Now I had a chance to study him close-up. He had bushy, unruly eyebrows, and curious pale blue eyes. His right eye had a mind of its own and made him look almost cross-eyed. The enormous dark circles under his eyes held a lot of sorrow. But his lips were full and sensual. Somewhat melancholic. He must have been a good kisser. As if he had been able to guess my thoughts, he turned to me, took my hand and kissed it gently. Junges Fraülein, we must get to know each other. I’m quite lonely these days. Come visit me,” he pleaded. Then he rummaged through his pants pocket and produced a business card. Hans Glück, Writer, it said.

I became a regular visitor to Hans’ home in Washington Heights where he had lived since the forties. His neighborhood, now populated mostly by Dominican families, had become a haven for German Jews after World War II. Other Jewish émigrés called it the Forth Reich, but he affectionately called it Frankfurt on the Hudson. Hans had been drawn there for its close proximity to the Cloisters, “the most European of all places in New York and without a doubt the best place for a poet.”

For the next year I traveled twice a month on the #1 subway from TriBeCa all the way up to the tip of Manhattan. In Hans’ apartment everything was covered with dust; the furniture was tired, and the windows and curtains had not been cleaned in years. Just as I had envisioned a political émigré’s home, books invaded every space. There were overstuffed bookshelves in the hallway, living room, dining room, his office, bedroom, and even in the bathroom. Piles of books rose in stacks from the floor requiring careful navigation. One careless move could send the bastions of European thought crumbling down. We had many things in common. Our love for literature. Our loathing for the horrible bread and tasteless beer in America. Coming from Berlin and accustomed to the Berliner’s rough charm and sarcastic humor, we were flabbergasted by the friendliness of the American people.

“The telephone operators say ‘Thank you,’ ‘Have a nice day’ and ‘You’re welcome.’”

“Even the dentist called me by my first name.”

Hans helped me understand the mysteries of the American psyche.

“Why do they give you their business card, act so enthusiastic, and then never call?”

“They just can’t say no. They don’t want to hurt your feelings”

“Why do they think I am overly critical when I’m just being honest?”

“They can’t tolerate the truth. They like fantasy.”

I was falling for him in a peculiar way. But when he put his hand on my knee I felt repulsed. As if I had put my fingers in an electric outlet, a shock wave reverberated through my body. Too stunned to speak, I watched him slide his hand up my leg and caress my thigh. “Are you wearing garters and stockings?” he mumbled. “I sure hope so. The invention of pantyhose was a punishment for the male species.”

My shock waves turned to nausea. The idea of sex with a man his age was truly revolting. I rebutted his offer to spend the night. ”You are out of your mind. I’m looking for a friend, someone to give me guidance, not orgasms.” Hans, disappointed, but not defeated, insisted: “What about a man like me, aged and mellow like fine cognac? I have a lot of experience pleasing women. Anything a young man does, I can do it better.”

I had no doubt. Now my experience as a Go-Go dancer came in handy. I knew how to put a man in his proper place.

“Hans, if you come on to me one more time, I’ll leave and you’ll never see me again.”

Schon gut, I’d rather have you as a friend than not have you at all.”

Once this was settled, we kept the erotic tension at bay and for the most part got along fine. Despite our age difference, we were alike in many ways. Neither of us had found lasting happiness in love. I was married to Ernest and had started a steamy affair with Ivan. Hans had been married twice. Neither marriage lasted long. He had his reasons: “Something in me bristles at the domestication of love. The sight of the heavy oak marriage-bed repulses me. Love should be the continuation of poetry by other means.” I, brought up on tragic love stories, dangerous affairs, enchanting courtesans, and women like Emma Bovary, in pursuit of their desires, was a kindred spirit. In my love for literature, I had made a mess of my life and ended up with an unbalanced mind. Maybe it was best to settle for platonic love with Hans? A former tomboy, I had always gotten along fine with men as long as I didn’t turn them into my lovers. Intellectually stimulating conversations were gratifying. Maybe they’d be a good substitute for sex?

I could not have asked for a more captivating companion. Hans had known the best writers of his generation, both in Europe and the United States. They came alive in his anecdotes. The Parisian exile. Getting drunk in the Café de la Poste with Joseph Roth, one of my literary heroes. The cocktail party at John Dos Passos’ house in Provincetown. Playing cricket with Langston Hughes at McDowell. Langston Hughes!

I had been to Paris too. In the Pere Lachaise cemetery, I had bypassed the gravesite of Jim Morrison, the most popular destination for people my age, to pay my respects at the final resting places of Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein. I had been inside Freud’s study in Vienna and had touched his desk and inkpot. But most of my experiences seemed second rate compared to his.

Hans, raised in a Jewish assimilated family “more German than the Germans,” amazed me with his command of the German language after more than forty years in exile. His mother tongue was the umbilical cord connecting him to his homeland. “I did not allow Hitler to destroy my love of German.” He made me feel good about being German. “There’s no collective guilt. Not all Germans were Nazis.” When he saw that I wasn’t convinced, he cleared his throat, straightened his back, and in his most dignified speech recited one of his poems.

When I think of Germany at night

I think of Heine,

Novalis

Bach,

I no longer think of Buchenwald.[i]

My father, the Catholic Nazi, had tried to eradicate my artistic ambitions: “No, you can’t join the Drama Club. Forget about a career in the arts. Writers don’t make any money, at least not during their lifetime.” Hans, the Jewish Socialist, encouraged my creative desires. He came to see me play Lulu in Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening.” Like a proud father he clapped louder and harder than anyone else at La Mama that evening. When I showed him my poems, he complimented me: “Not bad at all. You certainly have a way with words.”

We argued about literature like lovers, made up like lovers, except we weren’t lovers. We had a great relationship until I lost him to another woman. He met Hannelore at an event in honor of his life’s work at Goethe House where actors and actresses recited his poems and prose. At the reception Hannelore, in a tight navy blue suit, a glass of champagne in her hand, buttered him up. “I am so impressed with your work, your talent. I have read all your plays and can’t decide which one is my favorite.” I hated her instantly. She was a provincial school teacher in search of luster for her boring life. Maybe befriending writers would do the trick. I tried to signal Hans my disapproval. He, smitten with her big tits and long blond curls, totally ignored me.

I was thirty-two; Hannelore was fifty-seven; Hans was eighty-eight. His two-volume memoir had just been published in Germany. After a hiatus of fifty years his plays were performed again. His German publisher had invited him to a literary talk show and a book tour, but he was not able to board a plane by himself and visit his homeland. His eyesight had deteriorated to near blindness. Hannelore offered to help. When she suggested that he could live with her in Tübingen, Hans answered: “Only if you do me the honor of marrying me.” She accepted. “Will you help me shop for a wedding suit? He asked me. “She won’t let me wear my old tuxedo, the one I bought for my second marriage. She thinks it’s bad luck.”

The Nice Guys Livery Cab service took us downtown. As we rode along the Westside Highway, Hans swayed along to the Spanish music on the radio. I felt attacked by the romantic words: There was no amor, vida preciosa, no futoro and no afeccion for me. The spectacular views of the Hudson River left me cold. Hans clearly enjoyed himself. “Should I go for a black or navy suit?” he asked. I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t care what kind of suit he got.

“Don’t you think black is too funeral? I want an upbeat suit, one that shouts optimism and joy.”

“Let’s go for navy then,” I said, trying not to sound weepy.

“What a marvelous day, made for poetry,” he raved, puffed his chest and started to recite:

Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, daß

Sie nicht an deine rührt? Wie soll ich sie

Hinheben über dich zu anderen Dingen?[ii]

„Don’t you love Rilke?”

I used to, but now I hated him. I was glad when we finally reached Trinity Place. Syms, housed in an ugly utilitarian building, boasted to hold the largest selection of off-prize clothing in America. We made our way to the men’s department where hundreds, maybe thousands of suits were awaiting adoption “I’ll sit down. You go and pick the right one for me. I’m a 40 Regular, the same size as when I arrived in New York in 1944,” Hans said with pride. I roamed the canons of male formal attire, the rows of suits with orange, blue, green and yellow tickets and finally found his size. Mad at Hannelore for taking Hans away from me, for not letting him wear his old tuxedo, the one that could have bestowed bad luck on his third marriage, I searched the racks for the ugliest suit. Why should Hans look handsome for her? Then a pang of guilt struck me. Who was I to jinx this marriage? Hans deserved to be happy. I picked out three elegant, distinguished looking suits and brought them over. A salesclerk nodded his approval, took them from me and guided Hans behind the black curtain to the dressing rooms. I sat down and studied the signs for on-site tailoring. The place was depressing. Hans, in his socks and chic Calvin Klein suit, was helped by the salesclerk to the platform covered with sad red threadbare carpeting. I watched the measuring tape swing from the salesclerk’s neck. Hans moved as close as possible to the mirror, then turned around and scrutinized himself from every angle.

“Don’t I look elegant,’ he exclaimed. “I swear this suit takes years off my life. I feel sixty again.”

“Your father looks marvelous,” the salesclerk said. “I hear the wedding is in two days.” He knelt down, took a pin out of his mouth and started to cuff Hans’ pants. “You are lucky that we do rush tailoring.”

I didn’t feel so lucky. In fact, I tried hard not to grind my teeth. When Hans came back out in his old cloths, he sat down next to me. We would have to wait to have the pants hemmed and the suspender buttons sewed on. Hans turned to me. Even with one blind eye, he could tell I was upset.

“What’s the matter, Anna? Aren’t you happy for me?”

“I’m happy for you, but I’ll miss you.” I tried hard not to choke.

“You can always visit us.”

“That’s not the same.”
”There are telephones”

“I know. But I’ll miss our Kaffeeklatsch. Your stories.”

“Look, this is my last chance to feel young again, to be celebrated for my talent. After all the wrong women, I have to take a chance at love.” Hans lifted up my chin. “You’re not crying, are you? Don’t be sad. You’ll find the right one too, I know.”

I swallowed hard. Why would I want anybody else?

I had attended plenty of green card weddings, including my own. Elegant affairs staged in downtown lofts, East Village rooftops, or trendy Japanese restaurants. Gay American artists hoping for an easier life in Berlin or Hamburg married Germans with expired tourist visas. Hans and Hannelore’s wedding, however, was the real thing.

Getting off the elevator on the ninth floor, I was shocked to find crates of books stacked up in the hallway. Was Hans moving out? Inside his apartment the piles of books were gone, the chairs and tables were freed of them too. My nose led me right to the living room. His desk and dining table had been pushed together to create an enormous buffet, weighed down with his friends’ contributions to his potluck-wedding feast. Leo Blumenthal had brought his famous Würstelgoulash, Elfriede Goldberg her chicken paprika and Nicole Edelmann her Buletten. There were Lachsbrötchen, Rouladen, and even my childhood’s beloved Heringsstip, the dish I had eaten on my first outing to a restaurant with my father. I unwrapped my contribution to the party and squeezed two loaves of Zabar’s apricot strudel, Hans’s favorite, into the tiny space left on the table. I thought about all the times in my life when food had been my solace. A great meal had often provided a much superior experience than most sex, so often mediocre and disappointing. I feasted my eyes on the Central European delicacies in front of me. I had not seen such quantities of scrumptious foods since my First Communion. Why wasn’t I tempted? Why had I lost my appetite? I consoled myself with Henkel sparkling wine.

Leo Blumenthal, who fled Vienna in 1938, sat down at the piano. The guests decked out in thirty-year-old tuxedos and faded Cocktail dresses were giddy with excitement. When Leo started the first beats of Zwei Herzen im Dreivierteltakt, Hans walked with careful measured steps toward his bride, bowed, took her hand, kissed it, and then pulled her close. He looked like a young man escorting his sweetheart to the debutante ball. They danced an elegant waltz. Some of the wedding guests formed a circle around them and sang along the schmaltzy tune.

Ein Viertel Frühling und ein Viertel Wein,

Ein Viertel Liebe, verliebt muß man sein.

Zwei Herzen im Dreivierteltakt,

Wer braucht mehr, um glücklich zu sein?[iii]

When they stopped thunderous cheering and clapping erupted. Hans, overcome with emotion, took a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped the sweat from his forehead, cleared his throat and addressed his guests: “Liebe Freunde thank you for helping me celebrate the happiest day of my life.” Dapper in his navy suit, pink tie and rose pinned to his lapel, he looked like a professor emeritus, a distinguished scholar of philosophy. Hannelore had even trimmed his nose hairs for the occasion.

“Earlier this morning we were at City Hall. The most marvelous place in all of New York City. Every single person in the room was filled with hope. I’m so glad you came to send us off. Hannelore and I will be leaving for our honeymoon on Wednesday. I won’t be coming back to Washington Heights or New York City.”

“Let’s have a toast to the Brautpaar,” Leo said.

Everyone chimed in. Hoch solln sie leben. Bride and groom blushed to a thunderous applause.

Leo Blumenthal sat down again and started to play a slow, melancholy tango. Mrs. Goldberg, in long black gloves and a too tight bottle green satin dress that revealed a lot of wrinkled cleavage, positioned herself in dramatic fashion next to the piano and started to sing

We sat

in der kleinen Konditorei,

had coffee and cake.

No need to say a single word,

I understood you right away.

It felt as if a soccer ball struck my stomach. This was our song. Die kleine Konditorei, I had met Hans there. Mrs. Orenstein, a holocaust survivor, who had lost her husband to cancer three month ago, turned to me and said: “Isn’t it marvelous to find love at his age?” Trim and petite, she nibbled on her strudel. I stared at her thinning bluish hair, at a loss for words. A lady in a crimson suit came to my rescue, pulling Mrs. Orenstein to the dance floor. It was my chance to run off. At the buffet, I quickly downed two glasses of champagne. I had to get away from the radiant Brautpaar, the happy guests, the joyous laughter.

Careful to avoid anyone who might engage me in a conversation, I made my way to the back of the apartment. Between the coat rack and the bathroom, I sat down on the floor and gave myself over to a brooding unhappiness. How did people fall in love and stay in love? They had to be born with that knowledge that eluded me all my life. I wondered if I’d ever find lasting love and grow old with a man. Someone who’d walk a mile to get me hearty black bread for breakfast and remembered that plum butter was my favorite spread. I sat for hours, and only snuck out to fill up my glass. I felt like a suitcase abandoned at the airport’s conveyor belt. Full of treasures, but unwanted and forgotten. Bestellt und nicht abgeholt. No one to retrieve me.

© 2007



[i] Hans Sahl: Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht

[ii] How shall I hold on to my soul, so that

It does not touch yours? How shall I lift

It gently up over you to other things? Rainer Maria Rilke, Lovesong

[iii] Robert Stolz

Kommentare:

Arlette hat gesagt…

Aach, Anna, die Geschichte ist sooo melancholisch, ich will mehr lesen, hoffen dass Hannelore ihn verlaesst und er nach New York zurueckkommt.
Alles Gute, Arlette.

Anna Steegmann hat gesagt…

Liebe Arlette,

Hans ist tot, ist in Berlin begraben. Seine Frau starb wenige Jahre später.

sasserak hat gesagt…

im urteil über thomas bernhard stimme ich absolut überein, leider ist mein englisch-amerikanisch sehr dürftig und ich muss mich durch deinen gleichwohl interessanten artikel durchkämpfen, aber deine sehnsucht nach kaffeehaus (s. einstein etc.) wird greifbar, aber auch hierzulande (in "meinem" münchen oder sogar in wien) ist nicht viel übrig von dieser tradition
es gibt nicht viel an zeitgenössischer literatur (auch wenn bernhard nicht mehr lebt), das seine übertreibungs- und vergrößerungs- und erniedrigungs- und dennoch und gerade deswegen der menschlichen würde verpflichteten prosa übertrifft. die grausamkeit der natur, von der wir uns so entfernt wähnen, die lugt mehr oder weniger kaschiert aus allen ritzen unserer ach so hoch geschätzten zivilisiertheit, alle großen humankatastrophen, insonderheit der holocaust, kamen aus den sphären der hochkultur - bildung ist gut, für dies und das, aber nicht überhaupt.
ich bin meiner herkunft nach ein kleinbürger mit einstmals großen bohème-sehnsüchten nach gemeinsamer erörterung und dem sinn auch für nutzlose reden; heute mache ich mir keine (übertriebenen) illusionen mehr über mich und meine spezies; gerade indem sich th. bernhard in diese unsere schrecklichkeiten begibt, mit so viel verve sich befleckt, indem er diese schrecklichkeiten nicht nur zur sprache bringt, sondern sie bis zum exzess ausformuliert und den allgemeinen sumpf durchwatet, indem er das formulieren dieser schrecklichkeiten zur obersten schrecklichkeit erklärt und den formulierer, nämlich sich selbst, zum schrecklichsten aller schrecklichen, erhebt sich in dieser seiner - humorvollen - uferlosigkeit eine unerwartete (jedenfalls für mich) namenlose hoffnung auf eine verbundenheit zu unseren niederträchtigen mitmenschen, die wir sind.
verzeih, ich hab die zügel ein wenig schießen lassen, aber mir war grad danach
viele grüße
sasserak