Wednesday, July 26, 2017

ET: Almanac

The Kaiser was an old man. He was the oldest emperor in the world. All around him Death was circling, circling and mowing. The entire field was already cleared, and only the Kaiser, like a forgotten silver stalk, was still standing and waiting. For many years his bright hard eyes had been peering, lost, into a lost distance. His skull was bare like a vaunted wasteland. His whiskers were white like a pair of wings made of snow. The wrinkles in his face were a tangled thicket dwelt in by the decades. His body was thin, his back slightly bowed. At home he shuffled about. But upon going outdoors, he tried to make his thighs hard, his knees elastic, his feet light, his back straight. He filled his eyes with sham kindness, with the true characteristic of imperial eyes: they seemed to look at everyone who looked at the Kaiser, and they greeted everyone who greeted him. But actually, the faces merely swirled and floated past his eyes, which gazed straight at that soft fine line that is the frontier between life and death--gazed at the edge of the horizon, which is always seen by the eyes of the old even when it is blocked by houses, forests, or mountains.

People thought Franz Joseph knew less than they because he was so much older than they. But he may have known more than some. He saw the sun going down on his empire, but he said nothing. He knew he would die before it set. At times he feigned ignorance and was delighted when someone gave him a long-winded explanation about things he knew thoroughly. For with the slyness of children and oldsters he liked leading people down the garden path. And he was delighted at their vanity in proving to themselves that they were smarter than he. The Kaiser disguised his wisdom as simplicity: for it does not behoove an emperor to be as smart as his advisers. Far better to appear simple than wise. If he went hunting, he knew quite well that the game was placed in front of his rifle, and though he could have elled some other prey, he nevertheless shot only the prey that had been driven before his barrel. For it does not behoove an old emperor to show that he sees through a trick and can shoot better than a gamekeeper. If he was told a fairy tale, he pretended to believe it. For it does not behoove an emperor to catch someone in a falsehood. If people smirked behind his back, he pretended not to know about it. For it does not behoove an emperor to know he is being smirked at, and this smirk is foolish so long as he refuses to notice it. If he ran a fever, and people trembled all around him, and the court physician lied to him, telling him he had no fever, the emperor said, “Well, then, everything’s fine,” although he knew he had a fever. For an emperor does not accuse a medical man of lying. Besides, he knew that the hour of his death had not yet come. He also experienced many nights of being plagued by fever unbeknownst to his physicians. For sometimes he was ill, and no one realized it. And at other times he was well, and they said he was ill, and he pretended to be ill. When he was considered kind, he was indifferent. And when they said he was cold, his heart bled. He had lived long enough to know that it is foolish to tell the truth. So he allowed people their errors, and he believed less in the permanence of the world than did the wags who told jokes about him in his vast empire. But it does not behoove an
emperor to compete with wags and sophisticates. So the Emperor held his tongue.

Even though he was well rested, and his physician was satisfied with his pulse, lungs, and respiration, he had had the sniffles since yesterday. He wouldn’t dream of letting anyone notice. They might prevent him from attending the autumn maneuvers on the eastern border, and he wanted to watch maneuvers again, at least for a day. The file on that man who’d saved his life, whose name had slipped his mind again, had conjured up Solferino. He didn’t like wars (for he knew that one loses them) but he loved the military, the war games, the uniforms, the rifle drills, the parades, the reviews, and the company drills. He was sometimes vexed that the officers wore higher hats than he himself, sharp creases in their trousers, patent-leather shoes, and overly high collars on their tunics. Many were even clean-shaven. Just recently he had spotted a clean-shaven militia officer in the street, and his heart had been heavy the rest of the day. But when he went over to the people themselves, they again knew the difference between rules and mere swagger. He could snap at certain ones more grossly. For in the army everything behooved the emperor, in the army even the emperor was a soldier. Ah! He loved the blaring of the trumpets, though he always feightned interest in the operational plans. And while he knew that God Himself had placed him on his throne, he felt upset in weak moments that he was not a front-line officer, and he bore a grudge against the staff officers. He remembered how undisciplined the retreating troops had been after the Battle of Solferino, and he had chewed them out like a sergeant and gotten them bac in line. He was convinced--but whom could he tell--that ten good sergeants are a lot more useful than twenty general staff officers. He yearned for maneuvers!

So he decided to conceal his sniffles and pull out his handkerchief just as little as possible. Nor was anyone to be forewarned, he wanted to surprise the maneuvers and all the people around him with his decision to attend. He looked forward to the despair of the civil authorities, who would not have provided enough police protection. He wasn’t scared. He knew very well that the hour of his death had not yet come. He alarmed everyone. They tried to dissuade him. He dug in his heels. One day he stepped into the imperial train and rolled toward the east.

In the village of Z, not ten miles from the Russian border, they had prepared his quarters in an old castle. The Emperor would have rather been billeted in one of the huts assigned to the authentically military life. Just once, during that unfortunate Italian campaign, he had, for example, seen a real-live flea in his bed but had told no one. For he was an emperor, and an emperor does not talk about insects. That had already been his opinion.

They closed the windows in his bedroom. At night, when he couldn’t sleep, but all around him everyone who was supposed to guard him was asleep, the Emperor, in his long pleated nightshirt, crept quietly out of bed and softly, to avoid waing anyone, unlatched the narrow wings of the high window. He stood there for a while, breathing the coolness of the autumn night and gazing at the stars in the deep-blue sky and the reddish campfires of the soldiers.

Once he had read a book about his life, which said “Franz Joseph I is no romantic.” They write, the old man mused, that I’m no romantic. But I love campfires. He would have liked to be an ordinary lieutenant, to be young. I may not be the least bit romantic, he mused, but I wish I were young! If I’m not mistaken, he went on thinking, I was eighteen when I mounted the throne. When I mounted the throne: that sentence struck the Kaiser as was the Kaisre. Certainly! It was written in the book that had been presented to him with the usual devout dedications. There was no doubt that he was Franz Joseph I! The infinite, deep-blue, starry night arched outside his window. The countryside was flat and vast. He had been told that these windows faced northeast. So you could see all the way to Russia. But the border, needless to say, was invisible. And at this moment Kaiser Franz Joseph would have liked to see the border of his empire. His empire! He smiled.

The night was blue and round and vast and full of stars. The Kaiser stood at the window, thin and old in a white nightshirt, and felt very tiny in the face of the immense night. The least of his soldiers, who could patrol in front of the tents, was more powerful than he. The least of his soldiers! And he was the Supreme Commander in Chief! Every soldier, swearing by God the Almighty, pledged his allegiance to Kaiser Franz Joseph I. He was a majesty by the grace of God, and he believed in God the Almighty, who hid behind the gold-starred blue of the heavens, the Alighty--inconceivable! It was His stars that shone up there in the sky, and it was His sky that arched over the earth, and He had allocated a portion of the earth, namely the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, to Franz Joseph I. And Franz Joseph I was a thin old man, standing at the open window and fearing that his guards might surprise him at any moment.

The crickets chirped. Their chant, as infinite as the night, aroused the same awe in the Kaiser as the stars. At times it sounded as if the stars themselves were singing. He shivered slightly. But he was afraid of closing the window, he might not manage as smoothly as before. His hands trembled. He remembered that he must have already attended maneuvers in these parts long ago. This bedroom likewise resurfaced from forgotten times. But he didn’t know whether ten, twenty, or more years had elapsed since then. He felt as if he were drifting on the sea of time--not toward any goal but erratically, on the surface, often pushed back to the reefs, which looked familiar. Someday, somewhere, he would go under. He had to sneeze. Yes, his sniffles! No one stirred in the antechamber. Cautiously he latched the window, and his thin, naked feet fumbled their way back to bed. He took along the image of the blue starry round o the heavens. It was preserved in his closed eyes. And so he fell asleep, under the vault of night, as if lying outdoors.

He awoke punctually at oh-four-hundred hours, as he always did “in the field” (and that was what he called the maneuvers). His valet was already standing in the room. And the equerries, he knew, were already waiting outside the door. Yes, he had to start his day. He would scarcely have a moment to himself all day long. To make up for it, he had outwitted all of them that night by standing at the open window for a good quarter hour. He thought about that slyly filched pleasure and smiled. He smirked at the valet and also at the boy who now entered and froze lifeless, terrified by the Kaiser’s smirk; by His Majesty’s suspenders, which he saw for the first time in his life; by the tousled, slightly tangled whiskers, between which the smirk fluttered to and fro like an old, quiet, weary bird; by the Kaiser’s sallow complexion; and by his bald, scaling scalp. They didn’t know whether to smile with the old man or wait mutely. All at once the Kaiser began to whistle. He actually pursed his lips, his whiskers parted slightly, and he whistled a well-known melody, though slightly off key. It sounded like a shepherd’s reedy piping. And the Kaiser said, “Hojos is always whistling this song! I’d like to know what it is!” But neither the valet nor the boy could tell him, and by the time the Kaiser was washing, a bit later, he had already forgotten about the song.

It was a heavy day. Franz Joseph looked at the slip outlining his agenda hour by hour. The only church in the village was Greek Orthodox. Mass would be celebrated first by a Roman Catholic priest, then by a Greek Orthodox priest. The most strenuous duties of all were the church ceremonies. He felt he had to pull himself together before God as if facing a superior. And he was old already. He could spare me any number of things! the Kaiser mused. But God is even older than I, and his decisions seem as unfathomable to me as mine seem to the soldiers in the army. And where would we be if every subordinate could criticize his superior?

Through the lofty arched windows the Kaiser saw God’s sun rising. He crossed himself and genuflected. Since time immemorial he had seen the sun come up every morning. Most of his life he had gotten up first, just as a soldier gets up earlier than his superior. He knew all sunrises, the fiery and cheery ones in summer and the late, dreary, foggy ones in winter. And while he no longer recalled the dates, or the names of the days, the months, the years when disaster or good fortune had overtaken him, he did remember every morning that had ushered in an important day in his life. And he knew that a certain morning had been dismal and another cheerful. And every morning, he had crossed himself and genuflected, the way some trees open their leaves to the sun every morning, whether on a day of storm or a felling ax or deadly frost in spring or else days of peace and warmth and life.

The Kaiser stood up. His barber came. Every morning he regularly held out his chin, and his whiskers were trimmed and neatly brushed. The cold metal of the scissors tickled his nostrils and earlobes. At times the Kaiser had to sneeze. Today he sat before a small oval mirror, serenely and eagerly following the movements of the barber’s thin hands. Ater every little hair that dropped, after every scrape of the razor and every tug of the comb or brush, the barber sprange back and breathed “Your Majesty!” with quivering lips. The Kaiser didn’t hear those whispered words. He only saw the barber’s lips in perpetual motion, didn’t dare ask, and finally concluded that the man was a bit nervous.

“What’s your name?” asked the Kaiser.

The barber--he had the rank of corporal, although he had been with the militia for just six months, but he served his colonel impeccably, enjoying the goodwill of is superiors--the barber sprange over to the door, his bearing elegant, as demanded by his craft, but also military: it was both a leap, a bow, and a stiffening at once, and the Kaiser nodded benignly.

“Hartenstein!” cried the barber.

“Why are you jumping like that?” asked Franz Joseph. But he received no answer.

The corporal timidly reapproached the Kaiser and completed his work with hasty hands. He wished he were far away and back at the camp.

“Hold on!” said the Kaiser. “Ah, you’re a corporal! Have you been serving a long time?”

Six months, Your Majesty!” the barber breathed.

“I see, I see~ Corporal already? In my day,” said the Kaiser, as a veteran might have said, “it never went that fast. But then you’re a very smart looking soldier. Do you plan on staying in the military?”

Hartenstein the barber had a wife and child and a prosperous shop in Olomouc and had already tried feigning rheumatism several times in order to get out fairly soon. But he couldn’t say no to the Kaiser. “Yes, Your Majesty,” he said, knowing he had just messed up his entire life.

“Fine. Now you’re a sergeant. But don’t be so nervous!”

So. The Kaiser had made someone happy. He was glad. He was glad. He was glad. He had done something wonderful for that Hartenstein. Now the day could begin. His carriage was waiting. They slowly drove uphill to the Greek Orthodox church on the peak. Its golden double cross sparkled in the morning sun. The military bands were playing the imperial anthem, “God Save.” The Kaiser stepped down and entered the church. He knelt at the altar, moving his lips but not praying. He kept thinking about the barber. The Almighty could not show the Kaiser such sudden favors as the Kaiser could show on a corporal, and that was too bad. King of Jerusalem: that was the highest rank God could award a majesty. And Franz Joseph was already King of Jerusalem. Too bad, the Kaiser mused. Someone whispered to him that the Jews were waiting for him outside the village. They had forgotten all about the Jews. Ah, now those Jews too! the Kaiser thought, distressed. Fine! Let them come. But they had to step on it! Otherwise they’d be late for the fighting!

The Greek Orthodox priest hurried through the mass. The bands launched again into the imperial anthem. The Kaiser emerged from the church. It was oh-nine-hundred-hours. The fighting was to start at oh-nine-twenty, Franz Joseph decided to mount a horse instead of climbing back into the carriage. Those Jews could just as well be received on horseback. He sent off the carriage and rode out toward the Jews. At the end of the village, by the start of the wide highway leading to his quarters and also to the battle site, they billowedtoward him, a dark cloud. Like a field of strange black stalks in the wind, the congregation of Jews bowed to the Kaiser. He could see their bent backs from the saddle. Then, riding closer, he could make out their long, flowing, silvery-white, coal-black, and fiery-red beards, which stirred in the gentle autumn breeze, and the long bony noses, which seemed to be hunting for something on the ground. The Kaiser sat, in his blue coat, on his white horse. His whiskers shimmered in the silvery autumn sun. White mists rose from the fields all around.

The leader of the Jews, a patriarch with a wafting beard in a white prayer shaw with black stripes, flowed toward the Kaiser. The Kaiser paced his horse. The old Jew trudged slower and slower. Eventually he seemed to both pause in one spot yet keep moving. Franz Joseph shivered slightly. He suddenly halted, and his white horse reared. The emperor dismounted. So did his retinue. He walked. His glossy boots became covered with highway dust, and their narrow edges were coated with heavy gray mire. The black throng of Jews billowed toward him. Their backs rose and sank. Their coal-black, fiery-red, and silvery-white beards wafted in the soft breeze. The patriarch stopped three paces from the Kaiser. In his arms he carried a huge purple Torah scroll topped by a gold crown with tiny, softly jingling bells. The Jew then lifted the Torah scroll toward the Emperor. And in an incomprehensible language his toothless, wildly overgrown mouth babbled the blessing that Jews must recite upon seeing an emperor. Franz Joseph lowered his head. Fine silvery gossamer floated over his black cap, the wild ducks shrieked in the air, a rooster hollered in a distant farmyard. Otherwise there was silence. A dark muttering rose from the throng of Jews. Their backs bowed even deeper. The silver-blue sky stretched cloudless and infinite over the earth.

“Blessed art though,” the Jew said to the Kaiser! “Thou shalt not live to see the end of the world,”

I know! thought Franz Joseph. He shook the old man’s hand. He turned around. He mounted his white horse.

He trotted to the left over the hard clods of the autumnal fields, hs suite behind him. The wind brought hiim the words that Captain Kaunitz said to the friend riding at his side: “I didn’t understand a thing the Jew said.”

The Kaiser turned in his saddle and said, “He was speaking only to me, my dear Kaunitz,” and rode on.

Franz Joseph could make no sense of the maneuvers. All he knew was that the Blues were fighting the Reds. He had everything explained to him.  “I see, I see,” he kept saying. He was delighted that the others believed he wanted to understand but couldn’t. Idiots! he thought. He shook his head. But they thought his head was waggling because he was an old man. “I see, I see” the Kaiser kept saying. The operations were fairly advanced by now. For the past two days, the left wing of the Blues, stationed a few miles outside the village of Z, had been constantly retreating from the cavalry of the Reds, who kept thrusting forward. The center held the terrain around P, a hilly area, hard to attack, easy to defend, but also vulnerable to being surrounded if the Reds--and this was what they were now concentrating on--succeeded in cuting the two wings of the Blues off from their center. Though the left wing was in retreat, the right wing never flinched, indeed, it graudally pushed ahead, showing a tendency to fan out, as if intent on circling the enemy’s flank. To the Kaiser’s mind, the situation was quite banal. Had he been leading the Reds, he would have kept retreating arther and farther, enticing the impetuous wing of the Blues to focus its combat strength on the outermost lines until he eventually found an exposed position between that wing and the center.

But the Kaiser said nothing. He was distressed by the monstrous fact that Colonel Lugatti, a Triestino, vain as, in Franz Joseph’s unshakable opinion, only an Italian could be, was wearing a high overcoat collar, even higher than was permitted for a tunic; nevertheless he displayed his rank by leaving that dreadfully high collar coquettishly open.

Tell me, Herr Colonel,” asked the Kaiser, “where do you have your overcoats made, in Milan? Unfortunately, I’ve totally forgotten the names of the Milanese tailors.”

Staff Colonel Lugatti clicked his heels and buttoned his overcoat collar.

“Now people could mistake you for a lieutenant,” said Franz Joseph, “You look young, you know!”

And he put spurs to his white horse and galloped up the hill, where, quite in keeping with older battles, the generals were stationed. The Kaiser was determined to stop the “fighting” if it lasted too long, since he yeaned to see the march-past. Franz Ferdinand would certainly take a different approach. He would favor one army, side with it, start ordering it around, and always win, of course. Where was there a general who would have beaten the successor to the throne? The Kaiser’s old pale-blue eyes swept over the faces. Vain sorts, all of them! he mused. A few short years ao he would have been annoyed. But no more, no more! He wasn’t quite sure how old he was, but when the others surrounded him he felt he must be very old. Sometimes he felt he was actually floating away from people and from the earth. They all kept shrinking the longer he gazed at them, and their words reached his ears as if from a remote distance and fell away, indifferent clangs. And if someone met with some disaster, the Kaiser saw that they went to great lengths to inform him gingerly. Ah, they didn’t realize he could endure anything! The great sorrows were already at home in his soul, and the new sorrows merely joined the old ones like long-awaited brothers. He no longer got annoyed so dreadfully. He no longer rejoiced so intensely. He no longer suffered so painfully. Now he did in fact “stop the fighting,” and the march-past was to begin.

They fell in on the boundless fields, the regiments of all branches, unfortunately in the field gray (another newfangled innovation that was not to the Kaiser’s liking). Nevertheless, the bloody red of the cavalry trousers still blazed over the parched yellow of the stubble fields, erupting from the gray of the infantrists like fire from clouds. The matte, narrow glints of the swords flashed before the marching columns and double columns; the red crosses on white backgrounds shone behind the machine-gun diversions. The artillerists rolled along like ancient war gods on their heavy chariots, and the beautiful dun and chestnut steeds reared in strong, proud compliance.

Through his binoculars Franz Joseph watched the movements of each individual platoon; for several minutes he also felt sorry to lose it. For he already saw it smashed and scattered, split up among the many nations of his vast empire. The huge golden sun of the Hapsburgs was setting for him, shattered on the ultimate bottom of the universe, splintering into several tiny solar balls that had to shine as independent stars on independent nations.

They just don’t want to be ruled by me anymore! thought the old man. What can you do? he added to himself. For he was an Austrian.

So to the dismay of all the chiefs he descended from his hill and began inspecting the motionless regiments, almost platoon by platoon. And occasionally he walked between the lines, viewing the new kit bags and the bread pouches, now and then pulling out a tin can and asking what was in it, now and then spotting a blank face and asking it about its homeland, family, and occupation, barely hearing the replies, and sometimes stretching out an old hand and clapping a lieutenant on the back. In this way he reached the rifle battalion in which Trotta served.

Four weeks had passed since Trotta had let the hospital. He stood in front of his platoon, pale, gaunt, and apathetic. But as the Kaiser drew nearer, Trotta began to notice his apathy and regret it. He felt he was shirking a duty. The army had become alien to him. The Supreme Commander in Chief was alien to him. Lieutenant Trotta resembled a man who has lost not only his homeland but also his homesickness for his homeland. He pitied the white-bearded oldster who drew nearer and nearer, curiously fingering kit bags, bread pouches, tin cans. The lieutenant wished for the intoxication that had overcome him in all festive moments of his military career: at home, during the summer Sundays, on his father’s balcony, at every parade, when he had received his commission, and just a few months ago at the Corpus Christi pageant in Vienna. Nothing stirred in Lieutenant Trotta as he stood five paces in front of his Kaiser, nothing stirred in his thrus-out chest except pity for an old man. Major Zoglauer rattled out the regulation formula. For some reason the Kaiser didn’t like him. Franz Joseph suspected that things weren’t quite as they should be in the battalion commanded by this man, and he decided to have a closer look. He gazed hard at the unstirring faces, pointed to Carl Joseph, and asked, “Is he sick?”

Major Zoglauer reported what had happened to Lieutenant Trotta. The name rang a bell in Franz Joseph, something familiar yet irksome, and he recalled the incident as described in the files, and behind the incident that long-slumbering incident at the Battle of Solferino. He could still plainly see the captain who, in a ridiculous audience, had so insistently pleaded for the removal of a patriotic selection from a reader. Selection No. 15. The Kaiser remembered the number with the pleasure aroused by minor evidence of his “good memory.” His mood improved visibly. Major Zoglauer seemed less unpleasant.

“I remember your father very well,” the Kaiser said to Trotta. “He was very modest, the Hero of Solferino!”

“Your Majesty,” the lieutenant replied, “that was my grandfather.”

The Kaiser took a step back as if shoved away by the vast thrust of time that had suddenly loomed up between him and the boy. Yes, yes! He could still recall the selection number but not the legion of years that he had already lived through.

“Ah!” he said. “So that was your grandfather! I see, I see! And your father is a colonel, isn’t he?”

“District commissioner of W.”

“I see, I see!” Franz Joseph repeated. “I’ll make a note of it,” he added, as if vaguely apologizing for the mistake he had just made.

He stood in front of the lieutenant for a while, but he saw neither Trotta nor the others. He no longer felt like striding along the lines, but he had to go on lest people realized he was frightened by his own age. His eyes, as usual, peered into the distance, where the edges of eternity were already surfacing. But he failed to notice that a glassy drop appeared on his nose, and that everyone was staring, spellbound, at that drop, which finally fell into his thick, silvery mustache, invisibly embedding itself.

And everyone felt relieved. And the march-past could begin.

Joseph Roth - The Radetzky March: Chapter 15

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