Where did you find so many stories, Master Ludovico?



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90
Before and after the above observations, I also had opportunities to observe the traffic around the Alexanderplatz in Berlin. The walks I took around 1930, sometimes accompanied by Edmond, but almost always alone, were different from the ones I took with Zerbino after the First World War.
I have recalled that name because that comrade reminds me of the characters in Goldoni’s comedies. The face of an animal, sharp-featured, a brutal intelligence, with a crude sense of humor. Unemployed, or, more accurately, jobless, but not without means, whose source was suspicious. The son of a local clergyman, with criminal inclinations. He spent the nights in a villa in Dahlem, involuntarily supported by an elderly couple who were almost always out of town on trips, in whose house he also slept during the afternoons. One night the old couple unexpectedly came home and wanted to get a little rest. Zerbino was able, just in the nick of time, to drag himself under the bed and had to stay there for two hours, remaining totally silent. Macabre thoughts passed through his head.
Of a melancholic disposition, he meditated with pleasure about suicide. He pictured it to himself in even its most minute details. No one would find his body; in this scruple as well as others he recalled the Divine Marqués. He had discovered in the heart of the forest a fox’s den, with such extraordinarily large passageways that he would only need to expand them a little to be able to slide into the lair: that is where everything was supposed to happen.
Like that idea, all of his plans displayed features that were both fantastic as well as realistic; a combination that made great achievements possible. The times were propitious for such spirits; we have known examples. The last time I heard any news about Zerbino, it was during the Second World War, when he showed up on the Army General Staff.
“So, what is Zerbino doing?”, I asked Martin, who was the Chief of Personnel on the General Staff.
“He organizes trips to the front for theater groups, and during his vacations he buys abandoned gravel quarries on the outskirts of Berlin.”
“Why?”
“He thinks that after the war they will become gold mines, because people will not know where else to dump the ruins.”
Thus, a kind of trafficking in the souls of the dead. This happened twenty years later, shortly before the catastrophe swallowed him. Without leaving a trace, as he had desired, and also in a hole, even if it was not dug out by a fox.
In other times he used to show up at my house, more often than I liked, to pick me up for a night on the town. It was my reading time, and besides, I could not sleep whenever I pleased, like Zerbino, but, every morning, I had to be there at the sound of the bell at the Bendlerstrasse or the Friedrichstrasse to work on the drafting of the military regulations. With regard to formal considerations, this job was pleasant, but it demanded a lot of concentration. There were four of us, Hüttmann, Kienitz, Westernhagen and me; that it was a position that offered a bright future may be discerned from the fact that two of them became lieutenant generals, and Kienitz even became a general. During the offensive in France, I saw him once as he was racing past us; the columns had to move to the side of the road, military police on motorcycles cleared the way for him, their sirens wailing. I heard from Westernhagen that, during the defense of Berlin, Zerbino tried to swim across the Spree, and that the Russian snipers shot him.
91
When Zerbino came, first of all he had to get me in the mood for adventure. He infallibly succeeded in doing so, for he possessed a gift of persuasion worthy of a lawyer. One day when I told him I was coming down with a cold, he went to a pharmacy and returned with pills that he made me swallow. Then we went in a taxi to Gedächtniskirche and then walked, stopping now and then, down the Kurfürstendamm towards Halensee.
Zerbino preferred to walk along the Alexanderplatz. He wanted to “flirt with the sluts”. But he did not always get his way. As a general rule, people like him, who only interfere with business, are not very well received by professionals. Zerbino was an exception. He was by no means one of those handsome men like Kramberg; he possessed a rough kind of masculinity, instead. The Sheikh who gave everyone their nicknames called him the “Negro”. Sometimes he also called him the “Beast”, because of the strong odor that he emitted.
That had its own appeal; and there was also his predilection for crime. He had a big nose, thick lips, a protruding jaw and glittering eyes: it was an enigma how all of these features could be manifested in the offspring of a clergyman. A face like that might have launched him on a career, like certain movie actors or, even better, like some of the personalities whom they depict. Once I heard him say to one of those starry-eyed women whom he had charmed with his rough looks and engaged in conversation: “We only need a bed”; the hallmark of a real professional in the trade, condensed in the most concise expression.
92
From an economic point of view, these excursions coincided with the high point of the inflation crisis; from the point of view of style, they coincided with the era when expressionism captured the image of the city. The miserable look of the streets, the crowded houses with their chipped and peeling paint, the masses of people roving about, some of them with old, patched uniforms: all of this poverty was exhibited under the garish light of the new brutalizing technologies. Fluorescent lights had made their appearance: neon lights in white, blue and red that cast a corpse-like pallor on the faces in the crowds. Kirchner had already observed this in 1912; here, too, the vision of the artist had anticipated the genius of the technician. Before the war, the trial of a pimp by the name of Berger, who was accused of murder, had opened up a window on the nocturnal side of the habitat of the urban concentrations: wandering from one bar to another, along with conversations on the streets, until the street lamps were lit, the restless night, the settling of accounts in the lobby of the Silesia station, sleep until midday, a grey awakening, as if a demon was inciting him to another round.
Tresckow, the chief of police, was intimately familiar with this world and its stories. Poverty persisted, and it had even become generalized, but, at the same time, it had become politicized. The caricatures of George Grosz and Otto Dix replaced those of Zille, who still preserved a storehouse of good sentiments. It is distasteful to recall those convulsions that heralded great changes. For many of these artists this was certainly the case; later, Rudolf Schlichter wrote to me that Grosz would have preferred to see that part of his work destroyed.
The tensions only became worse; ten years later they reached a new high point, when National Socialists and Communists faced off on the Alexanderplatz. The forces were equal, and it seemed to be almost a miracle that the police were able to come between them and prevent a pitched battle on the street. There were also riots a few days later, when the big Jewish department stores were shut down.
93
I had to burn, along with other documents, my notes from those days, and it is a loss that I still regret. These notes covered the period from the massive demonstration at the Tempelhof field, with its huge fireworks display, to the proscription of June 1934. I do not lament the loss of the events themselves, but of the original version of my impressions of them. All that remains of the events is the shell but not the protoplasmic movement of the grey organism that, although far from any beauty and from all logic, had formed that shell.
When our bus was crossing the Janowitz bridge, a fellow was sitting in front of me who might have been a boilermaker or a farmer; he said, “The Jew does not want to work with the hammer”; at the same time he was shaking his fist, as if he was ready to give someone a good thrashing. The bus, a bucket full of men, passed over the Spree. It was as if a stone had fallen into the water and made waves; everyone heard it, but no one said anything. It was a new kind of silence that supervened and spread there: it was no longer a courteous, approving, indignant or indifferent silence; perhaps it combined a little of all those aspects, but it was essentially something different.
At such moments we perceive something new that we find shocking and strange, but which at the same time we recognize with absolute clarity, as if we always knew it. This was the way I felt in 1914 when I heard the hiss of the first artillery shells at Orainville. Life was played in a new key.
Or at Sylt, in 1934: there we were on the sandy beach, vacationers from Berlin and Hamburg, from Central and Southern Germany. The sun blazed on the wicker chairs. An image that seems even more evocative of the marvelous summer of 1914; perhaps a little more vulgar, with slightly more revealing bathing suits. Someone arrived with the morning newspapers. Röhm and the crème of the SA had been arrested during the night, and some of them had already been executed. A Danish newspaper reported that there were hundreds of victims. Only a few hours before, they were on the verge of taking over the Reichswehr, and now they were behind bars, forced to take cyanide capsules, or lying dead on the ground.
How much time passed on that beach until, among the wicker chairs, “an opinion took shape”? Two minutes, maybe three. Then, a chorus of voices all spoke at once, clear, resounding and full of conviction, like the crowing of the roosters in a chicken coop. They were bad comrades, and they got what they deserved. One fellow had known the chief of the Berlin group of the SA and until only the day before it was likely that he had bragged about it. Now he could expose him, flay him alive: as an ephebe of the haut pederasty, as a bellhop whose brilliant career is explained by the fact that he allowed himself to be groped in the elevator.
Stories like this are repeated in every revolution, as their first froth. They seem unbelievable, but they conform to the rule: they are predictable. Anyone who thought at the time that it was the beginning of the end was mistaken; he did not know the power of spilled blood.
The historian must recognize cyclic figures; only thus will history be respected as a science. Then the anatomy will be exact, the proportions will be grasped. For the historian is more of a draftsman than a painter, he is fascinated by the categories into which the plan is divided, the broad strokes. As for the events, he lags behind the intelligent journalist. The latter saw how the eyes began to glitter, how the fur bristled and the claws almost imperceptibly extended. Suetonius is irreplaceable, despite Tacitus. Nor can we do without Martial. When we go from one to the other in our reading, it is as if we were changing the lens in a microscope. The optical field is narrowed; the details of the structure become more precise.
94
I returned to the Alexanderplatz, this time in the early 1930s, when it still retained many peculiar turn-of-the-century features. There were more movie theaters and more automobiles, but there was not so much mechanical music. Hats and ties were still indispensable accessories. The working class derby had disappeared. The old and well-worn roads had come a long way since the times when the parade grounds of Frederick the Great were first cleared. All of this was more or less erased from the map by the bombings: the Police Headquarters, the department stores, the beer halls, the big apartment blocks from the years of economic prosperity, with their facades and courtyards, where every Sunday an organ grinder came.
When I took a look at the map of the city in the 22nd edition of Baedeker’s 1954 Guide, in order to retrace the paths of my walking itineraries, I felt like I was lost. I looked for the street names, but they had changed, too; Landsberger Avenue is now Lenin Avenue. I could not find the post office, although I had gone there every day on business. Where was the mailbox? And where was the barbershop?
The houses I lived in, here or in Hannover or in Leipzig, have almost all disappeared; from the basements, where the coal and the bicycles were stored, to the attics, where the old furniture was kept. In their places, there are now other buildings or public parks or parking lots.
In such reencounters, the time that has passed seems to fade away; the reality of the houses begins to become doubtful; it is as if the architect’s sketch did not satisfy him and he immediately erased it after drafting it. There is something even more strange, however: in dreams, everything stays the same as always: completely unscathed, almost invulnerable. However much our memories may leave us in the lurch, the record will always remain faithful to us. I walk through the passage into the courtyard and walk up the worn stairs. Here is the window and there are the water lilies. The landlady is standing in the hallway; she heard my footsteps. She asks me where I have been all this time.
It was our apartment on Stralauer Strasse; it had only one floor and it had a clear view of the broad surfaces of the eastern port. We made a mistake by moving to Steglitz; in the eastern part of Berlin I felt better. The city had always been a prison to me; I often asked myself what I had lost there. All places are substitutes, but in the forest one suspects which one is the authentic place.
Waking up was hardly peaceful; after breakfast, I walked a couple of blocks to get some air. The streets were named after Prussian ministers of state: Beymes, Gosslers and others. One of them, a former Minister of Finance, often read the Gazette of the Cross on his way to the Ministry every morning; he began at the end, with the obituaries. If a general or some other high dignitary had died, he celebrated this as a good omen: the king would be spared the expense of another pension. This anecdote, along with many others, I owe to Martin, whom I visited in Zolchow now and then; such anecdotes constituted a kind of appendix to my reading of The Histories of the Court of Vehse, which I found extremely interesting.
It costs me as much effort to recall the streets as it does to remember my daily schedule. Instead, I can easily recall what I did during periods much more remote in time, but also in periods subsequent to my stay in Leipzig; a day in the forests and swamps of Rehburg, in the trenches of Monchy, in the vineyard at Überlinger. I mention this as one more example of the power of recall; it is recall that guides the memory and determines it. With people, something similar happens to me, as in the recherche du temps perdu: my Parisian encounters stand out more distinctly than those of my Berlin period. In both places I got to know the most disparate spirits, including past, present and future celebrities. But what is glory in an era in which history itself loses its contours? “Even Maggi is famous”; the words of Wedekind are not so far off the mark; they are instead the seals that are impressed and engraved in memory; when they wear off, it’s no big deal.
I slept late; the light was reflecting off the river. When you spend the day in the classical mode of the man of letters, you experience a certain kind of restlessness. You smoke a cigarette, you pick a book from the shelf. Then you feel good contemplating a flower, a painting. My beginnings in entomology were modest: small specimens from Brandenburg, and also from the Balearic Isles and Sicily. My passion grew from decade to decade, until it was like that of the old Chinaman whose memory stockpiled dozens of ideograms. In a glance, each of them comes to life, as if you had run your fingers along a multicolor keyboard. This morning, the mere sight of the Chinese mylabride has reminded me of the fields of Hong Kong, in the details of its structure. Legions of them flutter over the wild chicory and roses, in nuptial flight.
When, much later, I recalled those walks on the Alexanderplatz, I also thought of those empty hours. They brought me all along the Spree or by the Silesian station, in whose hallways and waiting rooms a strikingly oriental life unfolds. In the Gare de l’Est you find it again, transplanted a few degrees of longitude.
It had been a long time since I last heard any news of Zerbino. I did, however, run into Edmond now and then, by chance or by prior arrangement. Edmond was a lunatic type, the natural man of the night, with delicate skin, susceptible to imponderable radiations and impressions, a hypersensitive in the sense of Reichenbach’s classifications.
With respect to perception, especially nocturnal perception, he might have rivaled Kubin, but he lacked creative power. His pleasure was limited to observation and the combinations that were associated with it. At night, he could sit alone, doing nothing, for hours at a time. If something happened, he erased its tracks. Once, he dismantled the doorknob and its lock mechanism, broke it down into its smallest pieces, and then put it back together again. On another occasion he extracted one of his teeth with a nail file. Although he read many books and documents, almost everything in his house was in order, down to the smallest details. It was very important to him that each object should have its assigned place, even a pin, and it made him nervous if he could not dot every i. “Look, there is always something that comes up and throws a wrench in the works: a letter to mail, a book loaned, a key to an unknown lock.”
This “something” intrigued him; thus, for example, the dark passages in historical works, especially memoirs, which he read avidly, but also the dark passages in his personal relationships. He esteemed complicated characters, but their motives had to be resolvable as enigmas. He thought that astrology was an important resource.
This “little thing” that remained in a state of disorder even after the house was cleaned, in his strolls through history and characters, displeased him as much as those opaque elements in the past of human beings, especially the past of the women who crossed his path. Even in the case of the youngest ones, there had always been this something or someone, however much you should stubbornly try to convince yourself that you were the first. You just had to look hard enough to bring to light the cousin in the garden or the old uncle playing truth or dare.
He had to know when a dove had flown into his net. He therefore extracted, as he had done with the file and his tooth, what irritated him. Then he said: “Over every one of them an ultimate truth rules; if you reveal it, it’s like you hamstring her.”
A hypochondriac fastidiousness completes his portrait. He felt disgusting if he did not change his shirt twice a day. He loved to go to the hot baths at night, where he would let his mind wander. Now and then, even in the middle of the day, in order to put himself in order, he would go to the Turkish baths on the Friedrichstrasse, a center of tyrannical and exotic temptations of the flesh.
Edmond was less arrogant than Zerbino, but more dangerous. His nature, somewhere between meditative and lethargic, was interrupted by active phases, as if he was dreaming about jumping while he was asleep. He had been a second lieutenant in a Polish cavalry regiment and then deserted. On a certain occasion, under a torrid sun, they had taken a town by assault and had behaved mercilessly, like devils. I can still remember the images of the contrasting colors of the oriental engravings. Thus, the green of the cucumbers, which they had gathered by the armful in enormous containers, and devoured with an incredible pleasure, while one of the cavalrymen was dragging a screaming woman off to the stables. They ate the cucumbers that, in their dry mouths, melted into pure juice; the red shawl fluttered in the wind.
From a sociological point of view, Edmond was one of those horsemen without a horse who, at that time, filled the streets, and whose participation in the disorders to come was anonymous, but significant. If he got a few scratches, his traces were everywhere. Then, they exchanged the saddle for mechanical vehicles. In Edmond, there was also a Sarmatian element. Riding a horse was not just a seigniorial pleasure, but also a tyrannical act. This was expressed in his behaviour [in English in the original], and in the erotic sense as well.
He preferred timid creatures, on the plump side, with pale faces, almost white, with a protruding lower lip. We find such creatures in Arosa and in the Venetian pastels; doves with shining eyes, red mouths, and snow-white breasts. There was little to say of their intelligence, since, undoubtedly, they had the right to listen, but were hardly allowed to open their mouths. Nonetheless, good harmony reigned, and there was an unshakeable understanding when I was spending some time with him and with one of these girls, especially in the Mokka Efti, a small café on the Friedrichstadt. When the dove awoke and dared to make an observation, he contemplated her with a vague feeling of benevolence. “Pay attention to this: don’t you know that I am going to ride you later?”
It did not appear that these words were received with displeasure. Among men it was different; for many, Edmond was suspect from the very first moment. His gaze caused a disagreeable sensation: it stripped one naked, scrutinized, and could even acquire an inquisitorial power. He would often, in conversation, leap over a few links in the causal chain and pronounce, right to his interlocutor’s face, more or less disagreeable truths; but he also had a reputation for being nosy.
Primitive temperaments saw him simply as a snitch; and it occasionally happened that shopkeepers reprimanded him when he was in the market, or when he had stopped before a shop window and was observing the people in the crowd. The women with whom he entered into conversation—unlike Zerbino, he rarely spoke to them—took him for an agent of the vice squad. They flipped his collar, behind which they thought that he had concealed his police badge. They thus committed an injustice, since, zoologically speaking, they identified the genus, but not the species. In fact, his passion consisted in gathering information. His literary, social and erotic existence was full of schemes, investigations and discoveries. This was in itself satisfying to him, as a game, as accumulation without a purpose. He hardly even needed to get up from his chair to obtain pleasure; ultimately, like one of Dostoyevsky’s heroes, he did nothing but walk the streets in restless agitation.
In addition, he was good chess player. I did not like playing with him, for when he announced checkmate he was incapable of containing a pleasure whose nature had nothing to do with the game. For this same reason, he was never loved as a superior. His instructions were not limited to what was really required, or else they were intermingled with other measures that, although justified, caused the subordinate to feel rebellious. Even those who obeyed him without a word of complaint felt humiliated. I can say this because I followed his development through the most diverse phases; from the flâneur and idler, to the understanding and deferent comrade, to the officer with more or less important responsibilities.
It would be foolish, however, to interpret all this as the attitude of the cyclist who pedals downhill and coasts uphill. That is for imbeciles. One is still the same person if, even though the oppressive circumstances vary, one recognizes them and adapts to them. This is what is so surprising about his Sarmatian virtuosity. From this point of view, by the way, his Nietzschean pretension to have descended from the Polish aristocracy acquires a glimmer of credibility.
95
These walks were very precious to me because Edmond had a strange system on the basis of which his own problems stood out more distinctly. We walked slowly around the square and made our way through the crowds. Once, on the Granadierstrasse, someone behind us shouted “dandies” at us, despite the fact that we were modestly attired. Just then, a young boy came out of a hostel: he was wearing makeup, his hair was meticulously groomed, he was wearing a jacket with tails and loafers with fancy white leather brocade. “This is the elegance that we can allow ourselves here.”
Back then, Edmond spent the days sleeping and reading, when he was not going here and there to get news about our friends. He was engrossed with particular devotion in the reading of Secret Histories and Enigmatic Men by Bülaus, a twelve volume gold mine for complicated spirits of his kind.
I found him in the telephone booth, where he called Edith to find out if she was free. He told her that he had to work in a laboratory late that evening. She did not need to know where he was during the first half of the night. In these midnight walks he associated the pleasurable with the useful. Perhaps they also played the role of an insulating layer for him. Edith had been sniffing around, several times, like a dog that feels disturbed by a strange smell.
The atmosphere of these conversations is more familiar to me than the details of his arguments. They revolved around character types or modes of behavior. At that time he told me that he intended to compile an index of characters from the texts of Dostoyevsky, in accordance with the model of a genealogical tree or—even better—of a molecule of organic chemistry. This would serve as a guide while reading those great novels, whose plots Edmond knew down to their most subtle features. In such cases we find ourselves within a book as if we were within a timeless reality. Once in a while, we would abandon the pavements of Berlin and appear at the Hay Market of Saint Petersburg or at the brothel where Svidrigailov spent his last night. I now recall that once we also conversed about the suicide of a pilot that was reported in the newspapers. He had let his plane crash, without any consideration for the passengers. I knew that Edmond’s view of this would be different from my own.
Thus, the city streets were like a stage set and life passed like background colors, like fluid. This does not mean that it did not have its own life. The decomposition that seizes upon such places is not only a threat to order, but it also liberates certain energies. They are places that hardly offer any resistance to that which supervenes, and not only to diseases.

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