Harp & Altar
Joshua Cohen
from North Vain, Bluff

Evelyn Hampton

Lily Hoang

Peter Markus

Bryson Newhart

Robert Walser
translated by Mark Harman and Walter Arndt
A Slap in the Face et cetera

A Slap in the Face et cetera
Robert Walser

I tied ice skates onto a woman teacher, jumped to attention in front of the sergeant reprimanding me. A thriller lay among my service records. A girl to whom I mentioned this thought that was the right place for it. Once again I tasted the new Twann wine, and saw an ingenious play at the municipal theater. It was awfully nice, the tiny auditorium. Looked at a new railway station, stroked the chin of a lady bartender. When feeling cheerful, one likes to act like a man of the world. In the play I was speaking of there was an actress who had nothing to say the whole evening except “Yes, Mamma”; she did so in every conceivable key. That was frightfully amusing. I was in the standing room, right behind a young woman. Since I had a suspicion her husband was in the immediate vicinity, I feigned indifference, remaining stoical and at ease. When the husband approached, he probably thought I was being quite proper. The smoothly delivered work comes from the pen of a person whom society let drop because of some faux pas. A peculiar pleasure, to delight in scenes whose inventor came to such grief! The entertainment that his talent affords you makes you drop into the most profound astonishment at the possibility of human metamorphosis. I’m speaking of Oscar Wilde. I bought myself biscuits, enjoying some myself and handing others out to a group of boys and girls. Even those I had already bitten into found charmingly ready takers Oh! Carefree youth! Looking at nice faces makes you nice and observing good manners, well-mannered. In refined surroundings, given just a little recognition, you likewise become refined. I rode in floating seats on a merry-go-round. Wonderful, to glide over people way down there! Do not good spirits often well up from bad? I prefer to be neither always in a good nor always in a bad humor. One mood relieves the other. No person on good terms with himself would care to enjoy his existence undeservedly; if things didn’t go badly for him now and then, he would feel he were insulting his fellow men. I asked a woman at an advanced hour: “Mind if I take you along?” By way of answer she said: “A slap in the face, that’s what you can take!” A car drove up, and she stepped in. When accosted, women have, I think, the right to respond with whatever crosses their minds. Plucky words from pretty lips can only sound delightful.


On another visit to the theater, I was treated so intimately by the lady taking the coats that I felt as though I were her husband. Had I been honest, I would have had to take care of that women from then on, and I didn’t know her at all. Her being put me under an obligation to her. Blazing like a log, I walked down to the stage and examined the feet of the lady beside me. We let slip countless opportunities to set up a liaison and join ourselves with another in a common destiny, sharing merriment and reflection. But I don’t wish to reflect, and would rather say I let my eyes glide down into the orchestra, into the boxes. Eyes are unbelievable gymnasts! While I was looking with great interest at the ladies and gentlemen, their hand and feet began to move. Opera glasses, handkerchiefs, programs came into view; fingertips touched hair-dos. One woman in particular was looking around with an astonished air, as if she wished to spot the person causing the disruption. But, at that moment, the curtain went up; I and everybody else now turned our attention to the stage.


I was ambling along aimlessly. The aimlessness I forgave myself wholeheartedly since I realizes that we have reason to treat ourselves with forbearance. An intangible sleepiness came over my most tangled being. A broom is what I ought to have taken to sweep myself forward. I got stuck in the muck while gaping lovingly at the velvet blue of the sky This manner of contemplation was most leisurely. I then whispered in an agitated tone into my own ear—or rather earlet: “How difficult it is to be good!” I let myself off easily here, but find that’s only right and proper. I consider it my duty to speak of myself with the necessary respect. In the absence of birdsong, I myself sang an aria from an opera and was extremely satisfied with my performance. In an inn, I sat down beside some small children who had an oblong table to themselves and were behaving as if they were worth taking seriously; they were playing cards and vying for the happiest imitation of adults. There were three girls and a boy into whose hand a cat peeked, and then, hopping over the fan of the cards, ingratiated herself deftly with me as I consumed cheese. What she desired was quite obvious. So I stuffed her pretty muzzle with morsels which I duly cut into elegant tidbits. Incisively, yet not without a certain nonchalance, I admonished a youth who was cheekily sprinkling a wall, in his free hand a bunch of flowers wrapped in tissue paper. A small girl had a friend hoist her up by her tiny legs so that she could mail a postcard. From the post office, a clerk watched me as I was looking at the little Ludwig Richter pictures. Oh! Eyes, that spot everything that’s afoot! No sooner are you an observer than somebody is observing you—not that it does any harm. In bed I play sweet mamma and child, say my prayers properly, and fall asleep like a good little boy. What one doesn’t do to create some diversion! I have had the strangest ideas come to mind, and do hope that they will never abandon me. I’m truly happy only when thinking of something nice, and thus giving myself as much, if not more, than if somebody gave me a present. Remaining cheerful is important to me, since I believe I am good for something.


Last night I woke up, switched on the light, and, as a result of I don’t know what sequence of impressions, thought of the one whom they crucified one day. Workmen hired for the take nailed his hands and feet to the wood—hands that had touched feverish foreheads in blessing, that had passed through children’s locks, feet that had carried him towards those in need of comfort. The thought of the sufferer did not keep me from biting into an orange, a fruit whose splendidly colored juices magically summon the south. When they drove the nails through his flesh, the blood squirted out at those who had taken this deed upon themselves. Whereupon the cross was erected. This way of curing a person of mischief seems like a game; there’s something naïve about the nailing of a living body to a piece of wood: “So you’re all tacked up there! A pleasing composition! Now you can savor your martyrdom.” As a means of punishment, crucifixion borders on the ridiculous. The earliest paintings depict the people at the foot of the cross dispelling their boredom with games and other amusements, but I don’t wish to dwell on this. In the case of holiness so great and so terrible, what seems called for is awe. At school, the pastor told us that the sufferings of Jesus on the cross had lasted about nine hours. But why think of that? By the way, what kind of a face would a contemporary of ours make if he were crucified? To be kissed, to be crucified! I’m now going to sneak away into everyday life. Yesterday I read newspapers in a café. There was an article in one of them saying we aren’t Christians any longer, but I don’t think that’s possible. One can be blissful in suffering—although one would rather not be crucified. How he wailed on the cross, this model of distinction, whose every manner and gesture was so well conceived, who carried himself throughout so exquisitely. Having sided with the poorest, he himself was now one of them; there may be justice to this, but I don’t like what I’m writing here. Writers ought not consider themselves great because they fawn on the grandiose; they should rather try to be significant in small things. What was I thinking recently on that score? Knowing how to speak beautifully on the humblest subject would be preferable to expressing oneself poorly on an ample pretext.


When I picture my insignificant and idyllic self, a romantically inclined little being, indulging myself again last night sipping wines, and when I then call to mind Lenin, of whom there has been much talk recently, a question presses itself upon me: Was he alive to the joys of nature? His picture tells the tale of a man hardened by experience. Was he a ladies’ man? Amiable, obliging? He was the son of a school inspector, a descendant of oppressors, offspring of people who certainly didn’t write poetry and so forth, and hardly had a high regard for music. Yesterday I was a bit frivolous again. Was he ever that way? Did he have soul? I’m enjoying this peculiar investigation. But how did he come to mind? I heard an Italian singer yesterday whose song opened my heart to the sky and carefree ways of the south. Then he came to mind, probably just because of the contrast: a conqueror of the masses, an unfeeling one who cut through men like an earthquake, since the discovery of new methods of putting humanity in order was deemed essential. He once lived in an alley where my lackluster self had taken up lodgings in the house of a very kindly woman. Lenin and Christ? Faith and Love were inscribed, so to speak, on the banners of the latter. When I wax poetical about towering personalities, I easily lose my inner certainty, and for that I take credit. Christ’s concern was to develop the life of the soul, Lenin’s to expand the life of society, to secure equal footing for all in this earthly realm. Which of the two drew from the better spring? I want to speak of something else for I’d consider it a waste of time to continue along these lines. One more thing: there are people who are normal citizens but indisposed artists. An artist can be somehow ill, and yet have stature as an artist. If a healthy person writes badly, then he’s a sick artist. If a sick person writes well, then, as an artist, he belongs among the healthy.


Snow covers streets and squares, monuments and roofs, and that’s as it should be in the New Year season. I gladly leave Christmas trees and candy to others. Writers are marvelous at observing the joys of their fellow men without immediately thinking they ought to share them. A warm room is already quite a bit in winter. Am I not reading a little book entitled As True as Gold? “Good day, Mrs. von Rubberstamp,” was how I recently greeted the wife of a manager who goes by another name. She exclaimed loudly, “What’s wrong with you?” “I’m in a good mood,” I replied. My first evening at the theater was on New Year’s Eve, and I carried the exalted impression that it was made straight home to my parents’ house. On a sky-blue spring day a mother was waiting for he beloved son, Lieutenant von Schoellermark. There was an energetic knocking at the door; who was it but the desired one, and they soon lay in each others’ arms. Then he went to Berlin, where he got to know the most fabulous dweller of the Motzstrasse or millionaires; she was young and incredibly beautiful. They met in Tiergarten Park, and sailed together on skates around Rousseau Island, which looked pretty in its December garments. The beauty told him, as she was accepting kiss after kiss from him, that her father had other plans for her. He staggered back, experiencing his moment of great disillusionment, all of which I have culled from a keepsake album. I’d now like to disclose something about myself. I must confess that, as a child, I negligently wrote I wih instead of I wish on a list of New Year wishes. The way such things stick in one’s head! The young Napoleon was already winning snowball battles as a pupil in the school yard at Brienne. Snowmen have a wide mouth and not very impressive eyes, they hold a broom in one hand, and stand incredibly still. “Between Two Hearts” is the title of a moving story which I have incorporated into my tiny library: A wealthy suitor, no longer young, gives up his sweetheart in favor of a penniless rival whose youth bursts from his countenance. The girl’s name was Roberta and the luck boy’s was Max. The following day all three were sitting together peacefully. Conceivable that they sat a table and satisfied their appetites. I overheard a nice young person introducing himself smartly to a landlady as a kitchen boy. Whenever we awaken respect, we generally do so behind our backs; that’s why we never find out about it. The people who find us likeable keep quiet, and that’s just as well, otherwise we’d take ourselves too seriously. A haberdasher told me courtesy is the best policy, and I agreed. At New Year’s we give presents, and receive some in return. Both accepting and giving ought and, indeed, need to be practiced. I remember a faintly colored drawing: a white-feathered angel gazing through a tiny window into a room in which the Christ child lies—only a small drawing, and yet I haven’t forgotten it. You can forget a lot and recall a lot. The recovery of a little stray sheep is splendid news in the realm of memory; having found its complement, the loss endears itself.


I have certainly made many mistakes with women, but I have never used in their presence a certain little word that I heard a gentleman utter the other day. The young lady was virtually sagging, was getting noticeably smaller under the load. Under which load? I’ll let you know. She was about to beam. Otherwise quite a nice fellow; she, as I said, charmed. He, full of witty tales; she, full of desire to listen to his fizzing. In her eagerness not to miss anything she practically cocked her ears. Just then that word escaped from his mouth. He meant no harm by it; it popped out quite inadvertently. A quiet, restrained torment twitched across her face; I found that amusing. I’m malicious, that’s what it is. She would have liked nothing better than to deal her recent idol a blow, but was in no condition to do so. She peered into space as if expecting to snatch composure from some nook or other. Her excitement was delicate and frightening, insignificant yet terrible. He said something very simple, and from the mental summit that yielded the platitude, asked her:


As compassionately as if she were his pet beetle, his little leaf, his shrinking violet of a Luise from [Schiller’s] Intrigue and Love or a deprived little birdbrain. She smiled with great difficulty after a hard-won struggle with herself. He failed to notice the great exertion which he had caused. And thus the most loving of efforts are often overlooked. Her inner struggle was as worth seeing as his failure to notice it. While observing this, I read a “Woman’s Supplement.”


What an unpleasant lot, to hang on the wall of a restaurant! To flower on a poster, only to vanish again. Posters and public readings, one after the other! A tender sadness takes hold of me at the thought of all these entrances and fleeting exits. There a gentleman, now a lady. How they must exert themselves, doing so gladly, no doubt! Then along comes the usual respect-inducing article. Yet, something is amiss in all this. How they caper on, latest book in hand only to bow off again! Each act is aware that a new one is about to follow on its heels. Fresh posters always announcing fresh fodder for those being offered the opportunity to spend an edifying evening. Where will it all end? Some writers, the ones in vogue, come frequently, but the supply of poets and poetesses will run out someday. What then? We lived in postered up times. The guys with an abundance of ideas in their heads consort with the vulgar. Not a single one has retained a shred of mystique. Outlandishness shrivels from day to day. There seem to be a factory at work, converting the extraordinary into the ordinary. Shy poets are a thing of the past. Will I also make an appearance at the lectern and become profane? Until then I’ll go on believing, hard and fast, that I never shall. The noble Hölderlin was destroyed by an excess of love, greatness, and by artistic silence. I’m in such a good mood I’m ashamed of myself. Will I, too, have my poster some day? Will I be overwhelmed by it all? Ought I to steal the show on the wall for a while, only to make way for the next? A postered lady, who had just been tacked up and taken down, was out walking with me. It was a wonderful afternoon; how touching, the way the little branches soared up into the air! “How is it,” she asked, “that you can live without laying eyes on any posters of yourself?” I looked at the ground and replied: “I’m afraid for my little bit of happiness.”


Yesterday I climbed a mountain. The ascent was going well until I came to sheer ice and couldn’t find a foothold. There was not a single tiny tree to be grabbed. So dignified bearing was of no further avail. Then I had an idea, which, by the way, was obvious enough, I got down on my hands and knees and devoted myself for a while to the predictably delightful art of crawling; I believe we have to be capable of adapting ourselves to new situations. There was obstinacy in my crawling, since, after all, the object was to arrive at the top. Had I not bent down, I would have come to a stop. There is price even in pliancy. The attending difficulties forced me to undergo transformatory measures which were not exactly pretty looking, but what was important to me was covering ground. Did it not look as if I were rejecting “civilization,” whereas I was actually trying to preserve it? The smoothness of the ground required a certain smoothness of me, too, and that my character supplied. Pride made me behave without pride, tenacity like a weakling. A voice inside me cried out incessantly, “Get up there!” Can one march up the side of a glass mountain with the dignity of a man of importance? The important thing for me was to reach the top. After all, it’s not for nothing that our legs aren’t sticks. So why not make use of talents? It pays to be on one’s best behavior with mirror-smooth surfaces. Since I couldn’t make what was impossible vanish, I embraced it. Don’t even the most stubborn occasionally act meek in order to get their way? Whoever kneels can arise again, and it then appears to him that he stands all the more securely. The movement has given him great joy. What fun to scramble or coax one’s way up something! Acting like a slowpoke for the sake of speed, well, why not? Trying to get up there is better than being on top; I liked myself better when I was looking up than when I was smugly looking down. Scouting around for a path or a foothold, having to be a bit anxious, the moment of certainty, how exciting that all is!


A Whisperer was sitting quietly by himself, when there appeared a Boomer, whose loudness the Whisperer saw from afar. One can tell Boomers by their mere looks.

While the Boomer was talking, the Whisperer clung to his whispers. He said to himself: “If I show I’m taken aback, the Boomer will only put on a more earsplitting display.”

The voice of the Boomer was pealing like a bell, while bliss blossomed within the Whisperer.

While virtually never ceasing to smirk, Boomers turn into Bruisers, and forget the splendid canons of peace lovers.

Laughter suddenly began to spread all over the Whisperer’s face: he found both himself and the Noisemaker comical.

Now when the Pealer saw how pleased the Husher was, deep shadows began crossing his countenance. He had thought that he would erupt, that he’d throw a tantrum.

The Strong at times overrate their strength.

The Clamorer shuddered when he saw his musical offering being laid on the scales to no end. “What a scoundrel!” he thought of the Whisperer.

It is base not to allow oneself to get worked up? Boomers say: “We don’t need Whisperers,” whereas the latter are again of the opinion that bellowing is superfluous. Who’s right, the Thunderers or the Dopey-Heads?

The war between the Shy and the Shameless will probably never, never end.

Boomers are unhappy if they may not boom; as are Whisperers if they cannot abandon themselves to their whisperishness.

The Boomers at first shatter the Whisperers, but a Mute is more astute, and a Shrieker meeker.

How terrible when a Boomer whispers and a Whisperer booms! Such cases are worth seeing.

If a Whisperer fails to begrudge the Boomer’s chest-notes, the Bearer of the Idea of Loudness senses this, and becomes unfaithful to his Ideal. And whenever the Boomers find the Whisperers pleasant, the latter start to chatter like sparrows.

Consent is but the first step!

Boomers thus see to the booming of the Whisperers and Whisperers to the refining of the Unrefined; an unforeseen solution!


In Thuringia, let’s say in Eisanach, there lived a so-called bugologist, who, once again, had a niece. When will I ever be done with nieces and so forth? Maybe never; then woe is me! The girl in the house next door was suffering a lot under scholarly tutelage. Wasn’t a lieutenant once again fighting in Africa against godless bushmen, who went about wielding spears, clad in nothing but swimming trunks? Then he arrived home, laden with laurel leaves, and lo and behold the girl under entomological tutelage and the victor over the Hottentots found each other! A find that meant a lot to both of them. The caresses amid the shrubs and all the little dove dreams fluttering up from there would require a little chapter in itself. His eminence remained ensconced in his expertise, while all things deep and high, as well as under and above him, and all things circumambient, wafted past, by which we mean knowledge and life, neglecting each other as usual, but that I cannot help.


Not far away, in a castle with a slate roof, which glistened in sunshine, there lived a proud woman who hated her spouse, yet never strayed an inch from his side, conceding him that much since she wished him all the worst. Herr name was Lady Firthicket, unless my memory, which is at times faithful, at others forgetful, has abandoned me. The Firthicket had an eight-year-old son. Am I not mistaken? No, not at all! Living in isolation in one of the numerous chambers, the little boy occasionally received visits from his mamma, who intentionally bit the dear lips and furrowed a forehead otherwise so beautiful. Words like termagant ought not slip from any pen. An inheritance weighed upon the pitiable shoulders of the youth. To be so ignorant, yet so well endowed. And not even eating adequately. When asked by Lady Hypocrite whether he lacked anything, little trouser-legs could only tremble. I say nothing, either, staying delicate, preferring to stretch a leg in the park, in which, according to Goethe’s aphorism, the trees failed to grow to the heavens and where everything looked like a scene by Hans von Marées, all fountains and dragons. I’ll let the boy pine away interestingly. Who knows, perhaps he loved his suffering and the one who didn’t relieve him of it and who loved him too, so as not to be dear to him? He once wrote her the following: “I am a defenseless match for you, although I don’t even get a bib tied around me. Please give the necessary instructions. I wish to admire you constantly.”

Now I pluck at this letter forever, but I’ll leave it brief so that people will think about it.

For the girl next door and the young boy as well, I drew on newsstand sources, in other words, on dime novels.

Now engaging my attention is

the man

with the beautiful wife.

He looks serious, although he has absolutely no right to do so, since he has a beautiful wife, which ought to make him cheerful. I, who lack a beautiful wife, only usurp cheerfulness. The man with a beautiful wife is forever staring at me, as if he wanted to warn me emphatically about beautiful women. When I see him, I say to myself: “Isn’t the man approaching the one who, I’ve been told, has a beautiful wife?” I am not denying that I find him interesting. Who would not be won over by a figure making his entrance linked to an apparition, who, according to my informants, is reputed to be beautiful? Had I a beautiful wife, I’d probably be worried too. But it’s well worth giving up a carefree existence for the sake of beauty. When he is looking at me, I behave as though it were or might be so. Whether he thinks I’m interested? He almost has to, and some day he might invite me to his beautiful wife, but most likely he will not. The way we observe each other is truly a dragged-out duet of mutual scrutiny. Neither he, who has a beautiful wife in whom I believe, nor I, who cannot make anyone believe in a beautiful wife, utters a word. I’m interested in him because I’ve heard about his wife; he has no interest in me because I don’t invite him to meet a wife I don’t have. But that which has not yet come to be, might some day come to pass. Just recently, he didn’t as much as glance at me, almost as if his beautiful wife had found me wanting, which is impossible, since she doesn’t know me. If I were able to meet her and calm down, but what am I saying? In that case he would be the one to lose his calm, and he has enough worries as it is. Beautiful women demand from their husbands an abundance of care. Could I have phrased myself more carefully there? One must deal circumspectly with a man who has a beautiful wife, just as he himself must deal cautiously with someone who has none and might like to get to know one; an opportunity that is better withheld than granted. Were I to see her, his face would probably become even more serious. How could I assume such a responsibility? No, I’ll let matters rest at my interest in the beautiful woman with the good husband; for if I bored her, what then? And if I amused her, what then? Let him be content with his wife, who is, one may hope, already a little tired of him. If he were to read that, he’d get ideas into his head. His beautiful wife enchants me since he has not yet invited me to meet her, and I can consider her beautiful, which is advantageous both for him and for me, and for her as well, interested as she is in goodliness, on which note I conclude a series of observations.



Translated from the German by Mark Harman



This selection appears with the permission of Suhrkamp Verlag and the translator.