The Game For Real by Richard Weiner – An Excerpt
Richard Weiner, The Game For Real, translated by Benjamin Paloff, Two Lines Press (May, 2015)
The following morning, when he arrived for breakfast, the stranger had already drunk half his coffee. He was reading a newspaper and ferreting around. And having ferretted him out, he immersed himself tenfold in his reading.
He went in and ordered. – The waiter’s original intention was a half-turn away, but something very strong and evil stopped him halfway.
The waiter extended his index finger, despite its black nail, and the index finger indicated a table that was already occupied.
“Would you like to take your repast here?”
The guest’s eyes popped out.
“No!” he said, and he added more quietly: “Why?”
The attendant brought a small plate and a glass. He flung them upon the table without a word. – And it was a good while before he returned with the coffee pot. He poured with his back to the youth; and as he poured:
“I thought…Given what happened yesterday…And that you’re both always alone…”
He was saying this as if to himself, well aware that the new guest was looking. But that didn’t confound him. Yet, when he had finished pouring, he put down the carafe, leaned his hands on the table, picked up the service key, and said, this time actually to him, “You are the gentleman from Benedictine Mill, yes?” whereupon he gathered up the coffee pot again, and, going back inside, stood momentarily on the doorstep with his torso twisted in such a way that it almost hurt, with these two words: “That’s right!”
He disappeared; just at that moment, however, the young man sort of wandered the environs and ascertained that they were alone, all alone with each other (even the street was abandoned), he turned his face toward him, so permissibly that it might be that we’re only looking at our brother, at that beloved brother whom we have sometimes allowed, with a mute look, always to tell us who we really are. And this face was inundated with a smile; a smile-flood.
“I knew it…”
But there are dams against flooding. Sometimes.
“Oh, pardon,” the youth said, “I see that you’re a stranger here, as am I…”
But he wasn’t averting his gaze. He wasn’t! On the contrary, he started staring like a fisherman at a line when it has begun twitching. And this look, even though it was as though irremediably stuck, was attempting an appropriate retreat. It had, after all, been suddenly, astonishingly satisfied, and it moved on.
The smile slipped out again. A smile that was no longer afraid, for it had grown skeptically curious and haughty. A smile that suspected that the word-lair, from which no one would now drive him away, was nearby.
He was waiting, encouraging discreetly. And the waiting was over.
“As you can…How does it strike you?” – But neither the words, nor the gesture, nor the look that he found threatening drove off that confident smile; they fell like poorly-thrown stones, somewhere toward their goal, and he knew that he was tossing out of fear that he might not happen to hit his target…Our man dug around in his pockets for change; he was seized with panic; he glanced around surreptitiously, as though for a malevolent beast that would leap out if you stayed, and surely would if you attempted to flee. The confident smile came to trust in familiar address, and while he was in fact using familiar terms with the apples of his coked-up, motionlessly nagging eyes, his mouth, so small that it was disheartening, was lewd, having released its corners and these words: “You silly! Why are you against yourself?”
After the initial quick steps, nearly a flight, he stood as if nailed there, not actually knowing whether he had stopped because he didn’t know up from down, or was it at the call of the mysteriously explosive, unexpected memory of a small sycamore terrace on ramparts, of its bench, of the proud, impassive shabbiness of such places, of the view into the dale, of the facing slopes where shouts fluttered from tennis courts like bright flags unfurled all at once. A memory, and at the same time the intrepidly massive ringing of an open, enthusiastic affection for those places, as though toward a living being in whom he, all of a sudden, held an inexhaustible trust.
But as he was running past the Romanesque church, he was confronted by several bars of portamento on an organ. It really did confront him, albeit only with a timid warning, albeit only as a begging street vendor offers his wares: with such aspiring subtlety, and making sure that he’s swept himself from your path even before you’ve shown your intention to pass with disdain. He couldn’t not stop, and standing there he started to listen. He caught a Gregorian chant, and he heard it as if he were looking at a heavy, yet hovering veil that sweeps farther and farther away and waves with a mighty, regular, and tranquil breeze. And this breeze is again just the panting of words whose sound is at the same time, astonishingly, both the incarnation of their sense, of the words “vanity of vanities” in the form of the vain pulse of the sea, and the vanity of which is nevertheless also its fulfillment.
“Vanity of vanities”: not a threat, not a preacher, not a giver of joy, but rather an equals sign between extinction and origin, life and death, beginnings and endings. Unifier of the empire. – He didn’t think this, he saw it: like a white-hot heat that does not burn.
But with this glowing calm, as sudden as catastrophe, there were two waves from below, two mutually antagonizing, and yet coordinated, hatreds: a hatred toward the flattering, lazy, and lying reconciliation by which he had allowed himself to be led astray even before his dishonor had been redressed, before he could even attempt revenge, and a hatred toward himself, that he is unable to allow himself to be led astray, that he has to oppose reconciliation, that there is nothing he can do but long for revenge, knowing that he’s the one paying for it. Two hatreds, equally strong and antagonistic, yet still they add up: to senselessly enraged self-pity, to pitiable, bloodthirsty rage at everything he could possibly lean and rest on, to a savage wail of hope that is secretly counting on what is shouted to finally just drown it out.
The chant was as though felled, and the passer-by, not doubting that he has already, once again, murdered one of the obvious signs of desecrating mercy, entered with a suspicious hope that the dead might still rise from the dead…A blinded legato fumbles through the yielding cathedral gloom, like a perverse, wrinkled angel whose magnificence has not yet burned out completely. Four forgotten old ladies in indigo cretonne skirts have already forgotten even what the withered hope was that they carried here daily. In the apse, a sacrilegiously embroidered cope is decaying, and the horrors of a metaphysical comedy are playing out. Two ruddy ministrant’s surplices are thinking only of the fleeting kiss a neighbor’s daughter had planted on one of the acolytes last evening (in the darkened passage where only one of the two gas burners was burning, and filthily at that), and they aren’t thinking of anything else. One of the boys reaches for the open Gospel to bring it over, and has to reach up on tiptoe. Our fellow sees the hypertrophic ankles of a child and the calves of a future footballer.
“You silly, why are you against yourself ?” – He is fleeing. The street. Shops, a candy store, a stationer, a large bazaar, a motor car for hauling. Stock boys are loading goods: one astride on the freight bed, the other handing up from below. Their frostbitten ears haven’t shaken their blue, not even in summer. They speak in monosyllables, and each word is a condensed boyhood event behind a gate or on a bench, and behind each, two chummy adolescent coochie coos at some dame, coochie coo at hoochie-cooch. Their bared elbows are like knobs and clearly say that the day has twenty-four hours, eight hours of work and sixteen hours of what the blood incites, which either you listen to, and then you live a little, or you don’t, and you get pimples. – A heavy country woman is walking in front of him. She might be thirty, and she might be fifty. He sees her buttocks and can’t not think of her guy, how they throw him off with a single get-going once they’ve gotten what they wanted; and the calves, the calves skilled at kicking away a duvet when the night is too hot.
Over there, two girls are walking—he’d almost say they’ve avoided him. And what’s with the reproving motion of that mommy over there, that her precious daughter not run away from her? That she might cut her off in front of him?–Yes, and the day before yesterday, those two girlfriends on the empty road who were fleeing from him all the way up to the first residential building? And that slacker high schooler who listened so knowingly when his father, upon realizing who was coming (him!), called out: “Get over here! Quit dawdling!” – The blindest of the blind are those who don’t want to see. Yes, the landlady for example—how is it that it hadn’t occurred to him before!—it’s clear, after all, that she not only “looks the other way” (when she’s paid), but that she even turns her head. There’s a difference, sir, a difference! – And the post- man, when he was delivering a registered package to him the other day: what was it he’d mumbled? And what was with that stubbornly lowered head? – And the waiter at the empty café, who was pouring for him as if in a hurry, God knows why…
“You silly, why are you against yourself?”
He was wont at times to stare into the mirror…Some of his features, after all, must reflect that! Were it not written in his features, it wouldn’t be visible. But they see. For if they didn’t see it, he wouldn’t see it either… yes, and then he’d have no reason to cower before variations of this look, which was actually always the same…This look that we have suddenly inferred…This look like when a hand jolts away when it’s touched cremains or filth unawares. – He knows this look well, as definitive as a tugged noose: the look of women seated nearby at a café, when out of the blue they call to the waiter to take their glasses elsewhere; the look of that mommy with whom he’d struck up a conversation late one morning on “lover’s lane,” when she was leading away her eight-year-old little girl, whose hair he had patted. – But when we get down to it, that’s just how the Paris cops look at him, too, brushing him off when he’s asked for a street (all he did was ask for a street!); and it was just like that, with the unexpected period at the end of the incomplete sentence, with which they all wrapped up, clearing off quickly—the baker woman, the owner of the tiny little café, the junk dealer, the mailman, the passer-by he’d greeted.
What’s giving him away? He was looking, not flattering himself. He was looking with the slightly fearful animosity with which we look upon a stranger. He knew that he was seeing an unattractive face; he could go further: judge what was unattractive about it. But where might it be, the reason all those looks were like sentences broken by a sudden ugliness? The bottom lip? Is this the lip of a miser? The bags under his eyes? They hold the strangled cravings of sleepless nights; maybe it was visible—all those limp corpses? The gerbil cheeks? The runaway stubble and eyebrows? He was hiding his rotten teeth: yes, such a perfidiously crooked-toothed smile . . . But let’s be fair! Heaping shame upon oneself, and nothing but shame, reeks just as bad as self-praise. – That’s not all there is, there’s also this here (and he knows it; for he has known it): this exposed stringer of a forehead—disparage, if you can, that glacis, the likes of which doesn’t take the wicked into its confidence! And the eyes: they look upon him as though into an abyss they fear, but without despair. Why mightn’t he at least feel sorry for them? He pities strangers who’ve suffered a wrong, too . . .
And now another nice about-face: hadn’t he said a moment ago that he was searching his features for what had been giving him away? But didn’t he just say that it was his eyes that were being wronged? And that they therefore didn’t take their own side! And that he therefore doesn’t brag as though he were any better than what they take him for! What misery, not to get out of this vicious circle. For every “guilty” there was also, immediately, a mitigating circumstance. And what a mitigating circumstance! Ablutions, apology, exaltation. And when it’s still so simple to say, “They’re moving their seats away, so I suppose they have a reason; a person can’t be litigant and judge at the same time, isn’t that so?”
But here was heard something so quiet that it might have been a voice other than his, and it said, “And why would it be that it’s only the judge who is infallible? Because he knows less than the defendant? Why would ‘more’ be less than ‘less’?”
That’s what he said, but to himself he concluded with this: “So be it. Surely they’re right.” – He added: “This thought is sinful.” – But he held something back, and it sounded like this: “But it’s a sin that I delight in, for it’s a sinful hope.”
He bared his rotten teeth.
“The Church warns against excessive humility. It’s right. The Church forbids you from disdaining your own soul. It’s right. Disdain your own soul? Too easy an alibi; and who knows, maybe it’s laziness, and who knows, maybe it’s pride in disguise?”
The worst thing was that the words “you silly, why are you against yourself?” were stuck in him like an indigestible morsel; worse was that they thwarted his equivocation; “jerk,” he said, thinking of himself as if thinking of a stranger. “Jerk,” which, to any personal question, keeps spouting the same lie: “Like I’d want something like that? Abstinence madness? Ach! Spiritual hunger, spiritual hunger!”; worse was that it reminded him not of hunger, but of denying hunger. Liars are disgusting. Not because they deceive, but because they fake. Faking is a synonym for ugliness. –
The following day, strolling on the ramparts, on top of which people lived—the only wise people in this petty-bourgeois town—who didn’t even fake curiosity, he was suddenly handed—it had just gotten dark—a key: “Qui veut faire l ’ange, fait la bête.” – Not words, not a thought. Qui veut faire l’ange, fait la bête. – Like a thing he grasps in his hand, a thing forged with care, with distinct, even somewhat exaggerated contours, a thing that has weight, and that unlocks. A key. To him it was like it was for the person who has already been working a big ring of keys in front of a locked door for a long time, so long that it’s now just more for his conscience than out of hope that he might still finally arrive at the one that fits; without reveling in it—for he is so weary—only with dull surprise: “Qui veut faire l ’ange, fait la bête.” And right there, a common denominator! For here we have a common denominator, and it comes out to: sex.
It’s so simple!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Weiner (1884 – 1937) is widely considered to be one of the most important Czech writers of the 20th century. The author of several works of poetry and prose, his writing was suppressed during the Communist period and only became recognized for its importance after 1989.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Benjamin Paloff is a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Michigan. He is the translator of several works of prose and poetry and the author of a book of poetry, The Politics. He is the recipient of fellowships from Poland’s Book Institute (2010), the National Endowment for the Arts (2009-2010), the Michigan Society of Fellows (2007-2010), and PEN America, and he was a poetry editor at the Boston Review for seven years.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 3rd, 2015.