Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
“Do permit me to address a letter to you. I’ve seen you several times now at your window; something about you pleases me, I believe myself convinced that you inspire my trust, and now suddenly I find myself thinking of a woman I saw at the theater, where I observed her quite closely, perhaps even somewhat too attentively, discovering that she no longer looked so very good. One should always refrain from making observations, don’t you agree? Yet why do we make them nonetheless? It’s curious how incapable we are of escaping a compulsion constantly to judge one another. What a weakness this is! You have a very beautiful, large room, but this sounds already perhaps a tad indiscreet, and if it is, I shall retract the remark and act as though it had never crossed my lips. How prettily you dress! Surely your thoughts and feelings are exceedingly elegant. Recently I was sitting in a coffee house—in a refreshment hall for all—and suddenly felt I was being observed, that is, that someone was taking note of me from a particular angle, that I was being accorded a certain regard. Immediately I felt this to be improper and shifted my gaze to take in some people sitting there with a quiet-disinterested air. No one likes to pay homage to those who insist on being found noteworthy. Perhaps I ought in general to speak more, I incline to taciturnity, but possibly because of this I sleep well at night. Now don’t go thinking of me as a slugabed! That would be disastrous, but listen, there’s a woman, one I run into now and again and might consider beautiful if only she were taller. In any case, she has a face that deserves to be raised high aloft by an imposing body. If what I say seems indecorous to you, I would regret this. I am a sort of poet who at times is a very sober person but has almost something like a beloved, which obviously means a great deal to me. In honor of this girl, I wrote a book full of bullheadednesses; but I would never dare to presume she might understand this volume, which—it goes without saying—I never placed in her hands. I wrote the book because she would not permit me to spend my days in her company, devoting myself to her, which I would have done with genuine pleasure. To you as well I would scarcely venture to present the work, though if you did order me to let you read it, nothing would prevent my obeying. I am the love of freedom incarnate, yet at the same time I yearn to have someone telling me what to do and how to relate to those around me, whom I know but at the same time perhaps misunderstand completely. It’s entirely possible that I do not treat and view even myself correctly. Many, by the way, would perhaps do well to ponder similar questions.
“There was often something to buckle on or buckle off, we spent most of the time wearing something or other. Daily I wound up dirty and had to scrub myself down. After I bathed, people would praise my rosy appearance. Each evening we gathered beneath trees to hear what was being communicated to us. There were sometimes more of us, sometimes fewer, we dispersed and then were reunited. From time to time I would be instructed to stand still until I was relieved and someone else came to stand in my place. They all considered me quite refined and took pleasure in this circumstance, which I myself found fairly risible. They were stronger than me, and better natured. All of us, by the way, made terrible fun of ourselves on occasion. Our exercises sometimes struck us as droll. Each of us bore a sort of insignia upon his shoulder. The fruits of autumn tumbled into our hands, sometimes almost into our mouths. Nagging would have struck us as pointless—our tranquility was impervious to all dissent regarding our manner of being. Daily we grew weary, but these wearinesses contained new elasticities. At night, we all slept side by side. Our assignment consisted above all in becoming and remaining so strong that nothing could shake our composure. There is something almost magnificent about reduced sensitivity. Sensibility makes us small. So-called higher sentiments would have been a burden to us. I dwelt as my circumstances warranted and allowed, but also received many gifts in the form of all sorts of enjoyments. Constantly I had something tasty in my mouth and something cajoling in my head—in my thoughts, I mean—and this is what matters in the end. I am called egotistical by those who wish to emulate me but cannot manage it. But why was I most often seen as contented when I was looking well-to-do? A great deal of emphasis was placed upon seeing me happy. Only occasionally was my appearance such as to displease them. Once we arrived at a sort of institution. As we were entering, I saw a gentleman speaking with a lady. Both seemed to me quite elegant.”
“Didn’t you have to laugh at that also?” Olympia asked.
“No! Laughter was not customary among us. We were, in a manner of speaking—lowly as we might otherwise have been—too well-brought-up for this. A faint pride suffused us, by which I do not mean to claim we were exemplary. Being quiet signified for us something like a feast, and then we were almost always occupied with something or other.”
“Beautiful souls,” that gentleman said to the lady at the portal over whose threshold we stepped, “look approvingly but also disregardfully upon all these thoughts that fly so swiftly past them.”
First published November 1925 in the newspaper Prager Presse.