It was natural that the rumors about both these people should reach me at the same time; they came from the same source, from which everything new for me came at that time. And had I been entirely on my own after arriving in Vienna or dependent on the university (which I was about to start), then I would have had a hard time with my new life. Every Saturday afternoon, I visited Alice Asriel and her son Hans at their home on Heinestrasse near the Prater Star, and here I found out enough things to last me for years: names that were completely new, and suspect, if only because I had never heard them before.
But the name I heard most often from the Asriels was Karl Kraus. He was, I heard, the strictest and greatest man living in Vienna today. No one found grace in his eyes. His lectures attacked everything that was bad and corrupt. He put out a magazine, I heard, written entirely by himself. Unsolicited manuscripts were undesirable; he refused contributions from anyone else; he never answered letters. Every word, every syllable in Die Fackel (The Torch) was written by him personally. It was like a court of law. He brought the charges and he passed judgment. There was no defense attorney; a lawyer was superfluous: Kraus was so fair that no one was accused unless he deserved it. Kraus never made a mistake; he couldn’t make a mistake. Everything he produced was one hundred percent accurate; never had such accuracy existed in literature. He took personal care of every comma, and anyone trying to find a typographical error in Die Fackel could toil for weeks on end. It was wisest not to look for any. Kraus hated war, I was told, and during the Great War he had managed to print many antiwar pieces in Die Fackel, despite the censors. He had exposed corruption, fought against graft that everyone else had held their tongues about. It was a miracle he hadn’t landed in prison. He had written an eight-hundred-page play, The Last Days of Mankind, containing everything that had happened in the war. When he read aloud from it, you were simply flabbergasted. No one stirred in the auditorium, you didn’t dare breathe. He read all parts himself, profiteers and generals, the scoundrels and the poor wretches who were the victims of the war – they all sounded as genuine as if they were standing in front of you. Anyone who had heard Kraus didn’t want to go to the theater again, the theater was so boring compared with him; he was a whole theater by himself, but better, and this wonder of the world, this monster, this genius bore the highly ordinary name of Karl Kraus.
I would have believed anything about him but his name or that a man with this name could have been capable of doing the things ascribed to him. While the Asriels belabored me with items about him – which both mother and son greatly enjoyed – they mocked my distrust, my offense at this plain name; they kept pointing out that it’s not the name that matters but the person, otherwise we – she or I – with our euphonious names would be superior to a man like Karl Kraus. Could I possibly imagine anything so ridiculous, anything so absurd?
They pressed the red journal into my hands; and much as I liked its name, Die Fackel, The Torch, it was absolutely impossible for me to read it. I tripped over the sentences; I couldn’t understand them. Anything I did understand sounded like a joke, and I didn’t care for jokes. He also talked about local events and typographical errors, which struck me as terribly unimportant. ‘This is all such nonsense, how can you read it? I even find a newspaper more interesting. You can at least understand something. Here, you drudge away, and nothing comes of it!’ I was honestly indignant at the Asriels, and I recalled my schoolmate’s father in Frankfurt who, whenever I visited his home, read to me out of the local author Friedrich Stoltze and would then say at the end of a poem: ‘Anyone who doesn’t like this deserves to be shot. This is the greatest poet who ever lived.’ I told the Asriels, not without scorn, about this poet of the Frankfurt dialect. I badgered them, I wouldn’t let go, and I embarrassed them so greatly that they suddenly started telling me about the elegant ladies who attended every lecture given by Karl Kraus and were so carried away by him that they always sat in the first row so that he might notice their enthusiasm. But with these accounts, the Asriels missed the boat with me altogether: ‘Elegant ladies! In furs no doubt! Perfumed aesthetes! And he’s not ashamed to read to such people!’
‘But they’re not like that! These are highly educated women! Why shouldn’t he read to them? They understand every allusion. Before he even utters a sentence, they’ve already caught the drift. They’ve read all of English and French literature, not just German! They know their Shakespeare by heart, not to mention Goethe. You just can’t imagine how educated they are!’
‘How do you know? Have you ever talked to them? Do you talk to such people? Doesn’t the smell of the perfume make you sick? I wouldn’t spend one minute talking to someone like that. I just couldn’t. Even if she were really beautiful, I’d turn my back on her and at most I’d say: “Don’t put Shakespeare on your lips. He’ll be so disgusted he’ll turn over on his grave. And leave Goethe in peace. Faust isn’t for monkeys.” ’
But now the Asriels felt they had gotten through to me, for both of them cried at once: ‘What about Veza! Do you know Veza? Have you ever heard of Veza?’
Now this was a name that surprised me. I liked it right off though I wouldn’t admit it. The name reminded me of one of my stars, Vega in the constellation of Lyra, yet it sounded all the more beautiful because of the difference in one consonant. But I said gruffly: ‘What kind of a name is that again? No one’s got a name like that. It would be an unusual name. But it doesn’t exist.’
‘It does exist. We know her. She lives on Ferdinandstrasse with her mother. Ten minutes from here. A beautiful woman with a Spanish face. She’s very fine and sensitive, and no one could ever say anything ugly in her presence. She’s read more than all of us put together. She knows the longest English poems by heart, plus half of Shakespeare. And Molière and Flaubert and Tolstoy.’
How old is this paragon?’
‘And she’s read everything already?’
‘Yes, and even more. But she reads intelligently. She knows why she likes it. She can explain it. You can’t put anything over on her.’
‘And she sits in the front row to hear Karl Kraus?’
‘Yes, at every lecture.’
On April 17, 1924, the three-hundredth lecture of Karl Kraus took place. The Great Concert House Hall had been selected for the occasion. I was told that even this building would not be large enough to hold the multitude of fans. However, the Asriels ordered tickets in time and insisted on taking me along. Why always fight about Die Fackel? It was better to hear the great man in person for once. Then I could form my own verdict. Hans donned his most arrogant smirk; the thought that anybody, much less a brand-new high school graduate, fresh out of Frankfurt, could possibly resist Karl Kraus in person made not only Hans smirk: his nimble; delicate mother couldn’t help smiling as she repeatedly assured me how greatly she envied me for this first experience with Karl Kraus.
She prepared me with a few well-turned bits of advice: I shouldn’t be frightened by the wild applause of the audience: these weren’t the usual operetta Viennese who assembled here, no Heuriger winos, but also no decadent clique of aesthetes à la Hofmannsthal. This was the genuine intellectual Vienna, the best and the soundest in this apparently deteriorated city. I’d be amazed at how quickly this audience caught the subtlest allusion. These people were already laughing when he began a sentence, and by the time the sentence was over the whole auditorium was roaring. He had trained his public carefully; he could do anything he wanted to with his people, and yet don’t forget, these were all highly educated people, almost all of them academic professionals or at least students. She said she had never seen a stupid face among them; you could look all you liked, it was futile. Her greatest delight was to read the responses to the speaker’s punchlines in the faces of the listeners. It was very difficult for her, she said, not to come along this time, but she greatly preferred the Middle Concert House Hall: you could miss nothing there, absolutely nothing. In the Great Hall – even though his voice carried very nicely – you did miss a few things, and she was so keen on every word of his that she didn’t want to lose a single one. That was why she had given me her ticket this time it was meant more as an honor to him to appear at this three-hundredth lecture, and so many people were thronging to attend, that her presence really didn’t matter.
I knew in what straitened circumstances the Asriels lived – even though they never talked about it; there were so many more important, namely intellectual things that totally absorbed them. They insisted on my being their guest on this occasion, and that was why Frau Asriel decided not to be present at the triumphal affair.
I managed to guess one intention of the evening, which they concealed from me. And as soon as Hans and I had taken our seats way in back, I stealthily peered around the audience. Hans did the same, no less stealthily; we both concealed from one another whom we were looking for. It was the same person. I had forgotten that the lady with the unusual name always sat in the first row; and though I had never seen a picture of her, I hoped I would suddenly come upon her somewhere in our row. It seemed inconceivable to me that I couldn’t recognize her on the basis of the description they had given me: the longest English poem that she knew by heart was Poe’s ‘The Raven,’ they said, and she looked like a raven herself, a raven magically transformed into a Spanish woman. Hans was too agitated himself to interpret my agitation correctly, he stubbornly gazed forward, checking the front entrances into the auditorium. Suddenly, he gave a start, but not arrogantly now, rather embarrassedly, and he said: ‘There she is, she just came in.’
‘Where?’ I said, without asking whom he meant. ‘Where?’
‘In the first row, on the far left. I figured as much, the first row.’
I could see very little from so far away; nevertheless, I recognized her raven hair and I was satisfied. I quelled the ironic comments I had prepared, and I saved them for later. Soon, Karl Kraus himself came out and was greeted by an applause the likes of which I had never experienced, not even at concerts. My eyes were still unpracticed, but he seemed to take little notice of the applause, he hesitated a bit, standing still.
There was something vaguely crooked about his figure. When he sat down and began to read, I was overwhelmed by his voice, which had something unnaturally vibrating about it, like a decelerated crowing. But this impression quickly vanished, for his voice instantly changed and kept changing incessantly, and one was very soon amazed at the variety that he was capable of. The hush in which his voice was at first received was indeed reminiscent of a concert; but the prevailing expectation was altogether different. From the start and throughout the performance, it was the quiet before a storm. His very first punchline, really just an allusion, was anticipated by a laughter that terrified me. It sounded enthusiastic and fanatic, satisfied and ominous at once; it came before he had actually made his point. But even then, I couldn’t have understood it, for it bore on something local, something that not only was connected to Vienna, but also had become an intimate matter between Kraus and his listeners, who yearned for it. It wasn’t individuals who were laughing, it was many people together. If I focused on someone cater-corner in front of me in order to understand the distortions of his laughter, the causes of which I couldn’t grasp, the same laughter boomed behind me and a few seats away from me on all sides. And only then did I notice that Hans, who was sitting next to me and whom I had meanwhile forgotten, was laughing, too, in exactly the same way. It was always many people, and it was always a hungry laughter. It soon dawned on me that the people had come to a repast and not to celebrate Karl Kraus.
I don’t know what he said on this evening of my earliest encounter with him. A hundred lectures that I heard later have piled up on top of that evening. Perhaps I didn’t know even then, because the audience, which frightened me, absorbed me so thoroughly. I couldn’t see Kraus too well: a face narrowing down to the chin, a face so mobile that it couldn’t be pinpointed, penetrating and exotic, like the face of an animal, but a new, a different face, an unfamiliar one. I was flabbergasted by the gradations that this voice was capable of, the auditorium was enormous, yet a quivering in his voice was imparted to the entire space. Chairs and people seemed to yield under this quivering; I wouldn’t have been surprised if the chairs had bent. The dynamics of such a mobbed auditorium under the impact that voice – an impact persisting even when the voice grew silent – can no more be depicted than the Wild Hunt. But I believe that the impact was closest to this legendary event. Imagine the army of the Wild Hunt in a concert hall, trapped, locked up, and forced to sit still, and then repeatedly summoned to its true nature. This image doesn’t bring us much closer to reality; but I couldn’t hit on a more accurate image, and thus I have to forgo transmitting a notion of Karl Kraus in his actuality.
Nevertheless, during intermission, I left the auditorium and Hans introduced me to the woman who was to be chief witness to the effect I had just experienced. But she was quite calm and self-controlled, everything seemed easier to endure in the first row. She looked very exotic, a precious object, a creature one would never have expected in Vienna, but rather on a Persian miniature. Her high, arched eyebrows, her long, black lashes, with which she played like a virtuoso, now quickly, now slowly – it all confused me. I kept looking at her lashes instead of into her eyes, and I was surprised at the small mouth.
She didn’t ask me how I liked the performance; she said she didn’t want to embarrass me. ‘It’s the first time you’re here.’ She sounded as if she were the hostess, as if the hall were her home and she were handing everything to the audience from her seat in the first row. She knew the people, she knew who always came, and she noticed, without compromising herself, that I was new here. I felt as if she were the one who had invited me, and I thanked her for her hospitality, which consisted in her taking notice of me. My companion, whose forte was not tact, said: ‘A great day for him,’ and jerked his shoulder in my direction.
‘One can’t tell as yet,’ she said. ‘For the moment, it’s confusing.’
I didn’t sense this as mockery, even though each of her sentences had a mocking undertone; I was happy to hear her say something so precisely attuned to my frame of mind. But this very sympathy confused me, just like the lashes, which were now performing lofty motions, as though they had important things to conceal. So I said the plainest and most undemanding thing that could be said in these circumstances: ‘It sure is confusing.’
This may have sounded surly; but not to her, for she asked: ‘Are you Swiss?’
There was nothing I would have rather been. During my three years in Frankfurt, my passion for Switzerland had reached a boiling point. I knew her mother was a Sephardi, née Calderon, whose third husband was a very old man named Altaras; and so she must have recognized my name as being Ladino. Why did she inquire about the thing I would have most liked to be? I had told no one about the old pain of that separation; and I made sure not to expose myself to the Asriels, who, for all their satirical arrogance, or perhaps precisely because of Karl Kraus, plumed themselves on being Viennese. Thus, the beautiful Raven Lady couldn’t have learned about my unhappiness from anyone, and her first direct question struck me to the quick. It moved me more deeply than the lecture, which – as she had accurately said – was confusing, for the moment. I answered: ‘No, unfortunately,’ meaning that unfortunately I wasn’t Swiss. I thereby put myself completely in her hands. The word unfortunately betrayed more than anyone knew about me at that time. She seemed to understand, all mockery vanished from her features, and she said: ‘I’d love to be British.’ Hans, as was his wont, pounced upon her with a flood of chitchat, from which I could glean only that one could be very familiar with Shakespeare without having to be English, and what did the English today have in common with Shakespeare anyhow? But she paid as little attention to him as I, even though, as I soon saw, she missed nothing of what he said.
‘You ought to hear Karl Kraus reading Shakespeare. Have you been to England?’
‘Yes, as a child, I went to school there for two years. It was my first school.’
I often visit relatives there. You have to tell me about your childhood in England. Come and drop in on me soon!’
All preciousness was gone, even the coquettish way she paid homage to the lecture. She spoke about something that was close to her and important, and she compared it with something important to me, which she had touched quickly and lightly and yet not offensively. As we stepped back into the auditorium, and Hans, in the brief time remaining, quickly asked me two or three times what I thought of her, I pretended not to understand, and it was only when I sensed that he was about to pronounce her name that I said, in order to forestall him: ‘Veza?’ But by now Karl Kraus had reappeared and the tempest broke loose and her name went under in the tempest.
photograph © BaconStand
The above is taken from The Torch in My Ear by Elias Canetti. Order your copy here.