Thursday, August 11, 2011
Thomas Mann | The Will to Happiness
The Will to Happiness
Translated from the German by Peter Constantine
Old Mr. Hofmann had made his fortune as a plantation owner in South America. He had married a local woman of good family, and moved back to his native north Germany soon after. They lived in my home town, where the rest of his family resided. Paolo was born there.
I did not know his parents very well, but Paolo was the image of his mother. When I saw him for the first time, he was a thin little fellow with a yellowish complexion. I can still see him now: In those days he wore his black hair in long locks, which, framing his narrow face, tumbled in disarray onto the collar of his sailor suit.
Since we had both been cosseted at home, we were somewhat less than pleased with our new surroundings, the bleak schoolroom, and in particular the shabby red-bearded individual who was intent on teaching us the ABC. Crying, I clung to my father's jacket as he was on the point of leaving, while Paolo remained totally passive. He leaned stiffly against the wall, pinching his narrow lips together, and with his large tear-filled eyes looked at the eager crowd of boys who were grinning boorishly and poking each other in the ribs.
Surrounded in this way by demons, we felt attracted to each other from the start, and were glad when the red-bearded schoolmaster let us sit next to each other. From then on we stayed together, and traded sandwiches every day.
I recall that even then he was sickly. From time to time he was out of school for long periods, and when he returned the pale blue veins that one often sees in delicate, dark-haired people stood out even more clearly than usual on his temples and cheeks. This trait always stayed with him. It was the first thing I noticed when we met again here in Munich, and again later in Rome.
Our friendship lasted throughout our school years for somewhat the same reasons that it had begun. It was the "pathos of distance" that we felt towards most of our classmates, an emotion felt by all those who at fifteen secretly read Heine and pass judgment on the world and mankind.
We also took dancing lessons together—I think we were sixteen—and as a result we both fell in love for the first time.
He admired the little girl, a blond, cheerful creature who had smitten his heart, with a melancholy ardor that was remarkable for his age, and which sometimes seemed to me almost uncanny.
I remember one dance evening in particular. The girl granted another partner two cotillion dances in quick succession, but none to him. I watched him with apprehension. He was standing next to me, leaning against the wall, staring motionlessly at his patent leather shoes, when suddenly he fainted. He was taken home and lay ill in bed for a week. It turned out—I believe this was when they found out—that his heart was not of the healthiest.
Even before this he had begun drawing, and developed a considerable talent. I have kept a sheet of paper with a quick charcoal sketch of a face much like that girl's, signed "You are like a flower! Paolo Hofmann fecit."
I don't remember exactly when it happened, but we were in our last year in school when his family moved to Karlsruhe, where old Mr. Hofmann had connections. They did not want Paolo to change schools, and so put him up to board with an old tutor.
This arrangement, however, did not last long. Even if the following incident was not the direct cause for Paolo following his parents to Karlsruhe, it certainly had something to do with it.
During our religion class the tutor in question strode up to him with a withering stare, and from under the Old Testament that lay in front of Paolo pulled out a sheet of paper depicting a buxom female figure, fully sketched except for her left foot, exposing herself to view with no sense of shame.
So Paolo went to Karlsruhe and we occasionally exchanged postcards, a correspondence that little by little petered out.
About five years after we parted, I ran into him again in Munich. I was walking down the Amalienstrasse one fine spring morning when I saw someone coming down the steps of the Academy,who from a distance looked almost like an Italian figurine. When I came nearer, it really was him.
He was of average height, slender, his hat tilted back on his thick black hair, his yellowish complexion threaded with little blue veins. He was elegantly but carelessly dressed—some buttons on his jacket, for instance, had been left unbuttoned—and his short mustache was lightly twirled. He came towards me with his swaying, indolent gait.
We recognized each other at about the same moment and greeted each other warmly. He seemed to be in an elated, almost exalted mood there in front of the Café Minerva as we questioned one another about the past five years. His eyes shone and he gesticulated a great deal. But he looked bad, really ill. It is easy for me to say that now with hindsight, but I really did notice it at the time, and even told him so.
"Oh, do I still look ill?" he asked. "I can believe it. I've been sick a lot. Last year, as a matter of fact, been critically ill. It's here."
With his left hand he pointed to his chest.
"My heart. It's always been like this—but lately I've been feeling very well, extremely well. I'd say I'm completely healthy. I mean, it would be pretty sad if at twenty-three I wasn't!"
He was in high spirits. With cheerful animation he told me about his life since we had parted. He had convinced his parents to allow him to become an artist soon afterwards, had graduated from the academy a little less than a year ago—it was by chance that he had just dropped in there. He had traveled for some time, lived in Paris for a while, and about three moths ago had settled down here in Munich.
"Maybe for a long time—who knows? Maybe for ever..."
"Oh?" I asked.
"Well, why not? I like the city; I like it a lot. The whole tone, you know. The people, too! And what's also important, a painter's social position here is superb, even an unknown painter's. There's nowhere better..."
"Have you met any interesting people?"
"Yes; not many, but very pleasant. I must introduce you to one particular family; I met them during carnival. Carnival here, by the way, is charming! Their name is Stein. Baron Stein, no less."
"What kind of aristocracy is that?"
"What you might call cash nobility. The Baron was a stockbroker; he used to be a big shot in Vienna, mixed with all kinds of royalty, and so on. Then he suddenly fell on bad times, but managed to get out with—they say—about a million. Now he lives here, modestly but with style."
"Is he a Jew?"
"I don't think so. His wife, though, probably is. But I must say, they are extremely fine, pleasant people."
"No—that is to say—a nineteen-year-old daughter. The parents are very charming..."
He seemed embarrassed for a second,a nd then added:
"I most definitely propose to introduce you to them. I would be delighted. Don't you agree?"
"Of course. I would be grateful to you; if only for making the acquaintance of this nineteen-year-old daughter—"
He looked at me from the side and said:
"Well, good. Let's not put it off too long. If you like, I'll drop by and pick you up tomorrow at about one o'clock, or one-thirty. They live at 25 Theresienstrasse, on the second floor. I look forward to bringing along an old school friend. It's arranged!"
The following day in the early afternoon we rang the bell of an elegant second-floor apartment in the Theresienstrasse. Next to the bell, it said "Baron von Stein" in bold, dark letters.
On the way, Paolo had been continually excited and almost deliriously high-spirited; but now, as we waited for the door to open, I noticed a peculiar change in him. Except for a nervous twitch of his eyelids, everything about him was totally still—violently, tensely still. His head was titled slightly forward. The skin on his forehead was taut. He almost gave the impression of an animal desperately pricking up its ears, listening with all its muscles tensed.
The butler went off with our cards and returned, asking us to wait for a few moments; the Baroness would appear momentarily. He opened the door to a medium-sized, darkly furnished room.
As we entered, a young lady in a bright spring dress stood up in the bay-window from which one could gaze out into the street, and looked at us for a moment questioningly. "The nineteen-year-old daughter," I thought, glancing involuntarily at my companion out of the corner of my eye, and he whispered to me: "The young Baroness Ada!"
She was an elegant figure, mature for her age, and her soft, almost lethargic, movements were hardly in keeping with one so young. Her hair, which she wore over her temples with two curls falling over her forehead was jet-black, and formed an effective contrast to the pale whiteness of her complexion. Her face, with its full, moist lips, fleshy nose, and black, almond-shaped eyes above which dark soft eyebrows curved, did not allow the slightest doubt that she was at least partially of Semitic extraction, but was of quite unusual beauty.
"Oh...visitors?" she asked, moving a few steps towards us. Her voice was slightly husky. She raised a hand to her forehead as if to see better, while with the other she leaned on the grand piano that stood against the wall.
"And very welcome visitors," she added in the same tone, as if she had only just now recognized my friend. Then she glanced inquisitively at me.
Paolo approached her and, with the slow intensity with which one relishes an exquisite pleasure, he silently bowed his head over the hand that she reached out to him.
"Baroness," he said. "Will you permit me to introduce my old school friend, with whom I learned my ABC..."
She held out her hand to me, a soft, unadorned, seemingly boneless hand.
"A pleasure," she said, her dark, slightly tremulous eyes resting on me. "My parents will be delighted too... I hope that they have been told."
She sat down on the ottoman, while the two of us sat opposite her on chairs. As she talked, her white, flaccid hands rested in her lap. Her full sleeves barely reached below the elbows. I noticed the soft jointure of her wrists.
After a few minutes the door to the adjacent room opened and her parents entered. The Baron was an elegant, stocky, balding man with a gray goatee; he had an inimitable way of flicking the thick gold bracelet he was wearing back up into his cuff. It was not easily ascertainable whether, on the occasion of his advancement to the peerage, a few syllables of his name had fallen by the wayside; his wife, in contrast, was simply an ugly little Jewess in a tasteless gray dress. Large diamonds sparkled on her ears.
I was introduced and welcomed with great cordiality, while my companion was greeted like an old family friend.
After a few general questions about who I was and where I was from, the conversation moved on to an exhibition in which Paolo had a painting, a female nude.
"A really superb piece!" the Baron said. "The other day I stood before it for a half an hour. The flesh-colored tone against the red carpet is extraordinarily effective. Yes, yes, our Mr. Hofmann!" And he patted Paolo patronizingly on the shoulder. "But don't work too hard, my dear boy, I beg you! It is of the utmost importance that you take care of yourself. How is your health?—"
While I was telling the Baron and his wife about myself, Paolo had been exchanging a few quiet words with young Baroness Ada, who sat close opposite him. The strangely intense calm that I had noticed in him before was still very much present. He gave, I can not say why, the impression of a panther ready to pounce. The dark eyes in his narrow yellowish face had such a sickly brightness in them that I was deeply moved when he answered the Baron's question in the most confident tone:
"Oh, so nice of you to ask! I'm in the best of health! I feel absolutely fine!"
When we stood up about a quarter of an hour later, the Baroness reminded Paolo that in two days it would be Thursday, and that he should not forget her five-o'clock tea. She also said that I should be so kind as to keep her Thursday teas in mind...
On the street Paolo lit a cigarette.
"Well?" he asked. "What do you think?"
"Oh, they are extremely nice people," I answered quickly. "I was specially impressed by the nineteen-year-old daughter."
"Impressed?" He laughed abruptly and turned his head away.
"You laugh!" I said. But while we were there I felt as if a secret yearning was troubling your glance. Am I wrong?"
He remained still for a moment. They he slowly shook his head.
"I have no idea what could have led you..."
"Oh, really! My only question is, does Baroness Ada also feel..."
He looked silently down for a moment. Then he said, quietly and confidently:
"I believe that I will be happy."
I took my leave from him, shaking him heartily by the hand, though I could not suppress a feeling of doubt.
Several weeks went by, during which I would occasionally go with Paolo for afternoon tea to the Baron's house. A small but quite pleasant circle gathered there: a young actress of the Imperial theater, a doctor, an officer—I don't remember them all.
I did not notice any changes in Paolo's behavior. Although his appearance gave cause for concern, he was usually very happy and spirited, and whenever he was near the young Baroness he would again fall into the same strange calm that I had noticed the first time.
Then one day—I had not seen Paolo for two days—I met Baron von Stein in the Ludwigstrasse. He was on horseback, pulled up the reins, and held out his hand to me from the saddle.
"How nice to see you! I hope you will be dropping by tomorrow afternoon!"
"It would be a pleasure, Baron, even though I have a feeling that my friend, Mr. Hofmann, won't be coming by to pick me up..."
"Hofmann? But didn't you know—he has left! I thought surely he would have told you."
"No, not a word!"
"All quite à bâton rompu ... the artistic temperament, you know ... well, tomorrow afternoon!"
He set off on his horse and left me standing quite at a loss.
I rushed to Paolo's apartment. — Yes, I was told, unfortunately Mr. Hofmann has left. He did not leave an address.
It was obvious that the Baron know that it was more than just "artistic temperament". And his daughter confirmed what I already had pretty much suspected.
This happened on an outing in the Isar valley which they had arranged and to which I had also been invited. It was already afternoon when we set out, and on our way back late in the evening Baroness Ada and I had found ourselves walking together behind the others.
Since Paolo's disappearance I had not noticed any kind of change in her. She had remained completely calm and had not mentioned a single word about my friend, while her parents continuously expressed their regret at his sudden departure.
Now we were walking next to each other through one of the most charming areas around Munich. The moonlight shimmered through the foliage and we listened silently for a while to the voices of the rest of the party, which were as monotonous as the water foaming past us.
Suddenly, in a sure, steady tone, she began speaking of Paolo.
"You have been his friend since you were very young?" she asked.
"You share his secrets?"
"I believe that I know his deepest secret, even though he has not told it to me himself."
"Then I can confide in you?"
"Of course, that goes without saying, Baroness."
"Very well then," she said, lifting her head with determination. "He asked for my hand in marriage and my parents turned him down. He is ill, they told me, very ill—but I don't care, I love him. I can confide in you, is that not so? I..."
She became flustered for a moment, but then continued with the same resolution.
"I do not know his whereabouts, but you have my permission the moment you meet him again to repeat the words he has already heard from my mouth, to write him those words the moment you find out his address: I will never accept another man's hand in marriage but his—Oh, we shall see!"
Along with her defiance and determination, this last exclamation was so full of helpless pain that I couldn't help grasping her hand and silently pressing it.
So I turned to Hofmann's parents and in a letter asked them to let me know his whereabouts. I received an address in South Tirol, but the letter I sent there came back with a notice that the addressee had moved without leaving a forwarding address.
He did not want to be disturbed by anyone—he had run away from everything in order to die somewhere in complete solitude. Certainly, to die. After all, knowing what I did I had to accept the sad likelihood that I would never see him again.
Was it not clear that this hopelessly ill man loved this young girl with the same silent, volcanic, glowingly sensual passion that he had had in his earlier youth? The egoistic instinct of the sick person had kindled in him the desire to unite with radiant health; and wouldn't this fire, unquenched as it was, devour his last strength?
Five years went by without my receiving any sign of life from him, or any notification of his death, either.
Then last year I was in Italy, staying in and around Rome. I had spent the hot months in the mountains, and returned to the city at the end of September. One warm evening I was sitting over a cup of tea at the Café Aranjo, leafing through my newspaper and glancing absent-mindedly at the lively bustle of the large, brightly-lit space. Customers came and went, waiters rushed back and forth, and here and there the long-drawn-out calls of newsboys sounded through the wide-open doors.
Suddenly I see a man of about my age moving slowly between the tables towards an exit... That walk! Then he turns his head towards me, lifts his eyebrows, and comes over with an amazed and joyful "Ah!"
"You, here?" we both called out at the same time, and he added: "So we're both still alive!"
His eyes wandered a little as he said it. He had hardly changed in these five years, but his face seemed slightly gaunter, his eyes lay even deeper in their sockets. From time to time he inhaled deeply.
"Have you been in Rome long?" he asked.
"Not in the city. I was out in the country for a few months. And you?"
"I was at the seashore until a week ago. You know, I've always preferred it to the mountains ... Yes, since we last met I've seen quite a bit of the world..."
And sitting next to me he started telling me over a glass of Soretto how he had spent the last few years, traveling, always traveling. He had rambled in the mountains of Tirol, slowly crossed all of Italy, had gone to Africa from Sicily, and spoke of Algiers, Tunisia, Egypt.
"Finally, I spent some time in Germany," he said, "in Karlsruhe. My parents wanted to see me, and were reluctant to let me leave again. Now I've been back in Italy a few months. You know, I really feel at home here in the south. I like Rome above all!"
I hadn't mentioned a word about the state of his health. Now I asked him: "From what you say I take it that your health has become a good deal stronger?"
He looked at me for a moment, puzzled, and then answered:
"You mean, because I roam about so much? Oh, let me tell you, it's a natural instinct. What am I supposed to do—I've been forbidden to drink, smoke, love—I have to have some kind of drug. Do you understand?"
As I remained silent he added:
"Especially in the last five years!"
We had come to the subject that we had been avoiding, and the ensuing silence revealed that we were both at a loss. He leaned back on the velvet cushion and looked up at the chandelier. Then he said suddenly:
"You know, I really hope you'll forgive me for not getting in touch for so long ... you understand, don't you?"
"You are acquainted with what happened in Munich?" He continued in a tone of voice that was almost hard.
"Yes, totally. Actually, I've been carrying a message for you around with me all these years. A message from a lady."
His tired eyes flared up for a moment; then he said in the same dry, sharp tone as before:
"Let's hear if it's anything new."
"New? Hardly. Just a confirmation of what you already heard from her yourself..."
And in the midst of the noisy, gesticulating crowd I repeated the words that the young Baroness had spoken to me on that evening.
He listened, slowly running his fingers over his forehead. The he said, without the slightest sign of emotion:
The tone of his voice was beginning to confound me.
"But years have flowed over these words," I said. "Five long years, which she and you have both lived through... Thousands of new impressions, feelings, thoughts, aspirations..."
I broke off, for he sat up and, in a voice once again trembling with a passion that for a moment I thought had been quenched, he said:
"I stand by those words!"
At that moment I recognized once more on his face and in his whole bearing the expression I had observed on the day when I was about to meet the young Baroness for the first time: that violent, frantically strained calm of a predator ready to pounce.
I changed the subject and we spoke again of his travels, of his few and occasional studies along the way. He seemed quite casual about it.
Shortly after midnight he rose.
"I want to go to sleep, or at least be alone... You'll find me tomorrow morning at the Galleria Doria. I'm copying Saraceni; I have fallen in love with the musical angel. You'll come, won't you? I'm very glad that you're here. Good night."
And he left the café—slowly, quietly, with a heavy, dragging walk.
Throughout the following month I strolled through the city with him: Rome, the effusively rich museum of all the arts, the modern metropolis in the South, the city that is so full of loud, quick, hot, sensory life, but through which the warm wind carries over the sultry heaviness of the Orient.
Paolo's behavior always remained the same. Most of the time he was solemn and quiet; occasionally he would sink into a limp fatigue. Suddenly, with flashing eyes, he would pull himself together and energetically resume a fading conversation.
I must mention a day on which he let slip a couple of words whose significance has only now become fully clear to me.
It was Sunday. We had spent the glorious late summer morning walking along the Via Appia and now, after having followed the ancient thoroughfare far into the outskirts, we were resting on that small hill surrounded by cypress trees from which one can take in an enchanting view of the sunny Campagna, with the great aqueduct and the Alban hills wrapped in a soft haze.
Paolo was lying next to me on the warm grass, his chin in his hand, gazing into the distance with tired, misty eyes. Then there was again that movement in which he suddenly shook himself out of total apathy, and turning to me said:
"It's the aura in the air—the aura!"
I murmured something in agreement, and we fell silent again. Then, all at once, without warning, he turned his face to me and said ardently:
"Tell me, aren't you surprised that I'm still alive?"
Stunned, I did not say a word, and he again gazed with a thoughtful expression into the distance.
"I'm surprised myself," he continued slowly. "I wonder about it every day. Do you know what condition I'm in?—the french doctor in Algiers told me: "Damned if I know why you still want to be traveling around! I advise you to go home and go to bed!" He could always say things like that because we played dominoes together every evening.
"I am still alive. Every day I'm almost at the end of my rope. At night I lie in the dark—on my right side, by the way! My heart pounds up into my throat, my head reels, and I break out into a cold sweat, and then I suddenly feel as if death were touching me. For a moment I feel as if everything inside of me is standing still: my heart stops beating, my breath fails. I jump up, turn on the light, breathe deeply, look around, and devour everything with my eyes. Then I take a sip of water and lie down again—always on my right side! Slowly I fall asleep.
I sleep deep and long, because I'm actually always dead tired. Would you believe that if I wanted to I could just lie down here and die?
"I think that in these last few years I have seen death a thousand times face to face. I did not die. Something holds me back. I jump up, I think of something, I hang onto a sentence that I repeat twenty times while my eyes hungrily drink in all the light and life around me... Do you understand what I'm saying?"
He lay quietly, as if he was not really expecting an answer. I no longer remember what I said to him, but I will never forget the impression his words made on me.
And then came the day—oh, I feel it as if it were yesterday!
It was one of the first days of autumn, one of those gray, sinister hot days on which a sultry and oppressive wind from Africa sweeps the streets. In the evening the whole sky trembles incessantly with sheet lightning.
That morning I had stopped by to pick Paolo up for a walk. His large suitcase stood in the middle of the room; the wardrobe and the bureau of drawers were wide open. His watercolors from the Orient and the plaster cast of the Vatican's head of June were still in their places.
He was standing rigidly by the window and continued looking out motionlessly when I called out to him in surprise. Then he turned to me abruptly, handed me a letter, and simply said:
I looked at him. On his narrow, yellowish, ill face with those black feverish eyes there lay an expression such as only death could bring, a tremendous solemnity, which made me lower my eyes to the letter that I had taken into my hand. I read:
"Dear Mr. Hofmann,
"Your parents were so kind as to inform me of your address, and I hope that you will receive this letter of mine in a generous spirit.
"Please allow me, dear Mr. Hofmann, to assure you that in the past five years I have entertained only the warmest sentiments of friendship towards you. If I were to think that your sudden departure on that day which was so painful for us both might have been induced by anger towards me and my family, it would make my sadness even stronger than the shock and surprise I felt when you asked me for my daughter's hand in marriage.
"I spoke to you frankly, from one man to another, expressing openly and honestly, at the risk of seeming blunt, the reasons why I was not able to offer my daughter's hand to a man, who, I cannot emphasize enough, I have always thought so highly of in every respect. I spoke to you as a father who must consider his only child's lasting happiness, a father who would have stopped such budding desires the moment he seriously believed in their possibility.
"I address you today again, my dear Mr. Hofmann, in the same double capacity as a friend and father. Five years have gone by since your departure, and if in the past I had not had sufficient leisure to realize how deep was the affection that you instilled in my daughter, a recent event has completely opened my eyes. Why should I hide it from you? My daughter, thinking of you, declined the proposal of a fine gentleman, an excellent match that I, as her father, could only eagerly encourage.
"The years have passed, powerless to affect my daughter's feelings and wishes, and I ask you openly and with humility, should you, my dear Mr. Hofmann, still feel the same way about my daughter, then I hereby declare that we, her parents, no longer wish to stand in the way of our child's happiness.
"I look forward to your response with thankfulness, whatever it may be, and can only add my humblest respects.
Baron Oskar von Stein
I looked up. He had put his hands behind his back and turned again to face the window. I simply asked him:
"Are you going?"
Without looking at me he answered:
"My things will be packed by tomorrow morning."
The day passed with errands and packing. I helped him, and in the evening I suggested we go for a last walk through the streets of the city.
It was still almost unbearably oppressive, and every second the sky flared up in a violent phosphorescent glow. Paolo seemed tired and calm—but he was breathing deeply and heavily.
We walked about for a good hour, either in silence or in trivial conversation, until we stopped in front of the Fontana di Trevi, the famous fountain with the galloping team of horses.
For a long time we gazed once again in wonder at the marvelous, spirited group that seemed almost magical, incessantly flooded with an incandescent blue. Paolo said:
"I am enchanted by Bernini, even in the work of his students. I don't understand his enemies. Even if his Last Judgment is more sculpted than painted, his work as a whole is more painted than sculpted. But can you tell me of anyone who is more brilliant with ornament?"
"By the way, do you know the story behind the fountain?" I asked. "Those who drink from it before leaving Rome will come back. Here is my traveling cup—" and I filled it from one of the jets of water. "You shall see Rome again!"
He took the glass and lifted it to his lips. At that moment the whole sky flared up in a blinding, drawn-out flash, and the glass smashed to pieces on the edge of the fountain.
With a handkerchief, Paolo patted the water from his suit.
"I'm feeling nervous and awkward," he said. "Let's go on. I hope the glass wasn't expensive.
By the next day the weather had cleared up. A light-filled blue summer sky stretched exuberantly over us as we drove to the station.
Our farewell was short. Paolo shook my hand silently as I wished him happiness, all the happiness in the world.
I stood on the platform for a long time, watching him stand rigidly by the wide train window. In his eyes I saw deep solemnity—and triumph.
What more can I say?—He is dead. He died the morning after the wedding night—almost during the wedding night.
This is the way to be. Was it not simply the will, the will to happiness, that had enabled him to keep death at bay for such a long time? He had to die, die without a fight, without resistance, once his will to happiness was satisfied. He no longer had a pretext to live.
I asked myself whether he had acted badly, if he had been consciously irresponsible towards her he had bound to himself. But I saw her at the burial standing at the head of his coffin, and I recognized on her countenance the expression that I had found on his: the somber, strong solemnity of triumph.
English language copyright (c) 1997 by Peter Constantine. Reprinted from Thomas Mann, Six Early Stories (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1997, 2004)
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