Issue 70, Summer 1977
Who has ever dreamed that he has become a murderer and from then on has only been carrying on with his usual life for the sake of appearances? At that time, which is still going on, Gregor Keuschnig had been living in Paris for some months, serving as press attache at the Austrian embassy. He, his wife, and their four-year-old daughter Agnes occupied a dark apartment in the 16th arrondissement. The building, which dated from the turn of the century and reflected the bourgeois comfort of the period, had a stone balcony on the second floor and a cast-iron balcony on the fifth floor. It was situated, side by side with similar apartment houses, on a quiet boulevard sloping gently downward to the Porte d’Auteuil, one of the western exits from the city. Every five minutes or so, in the daytime hours, the glasses and dishes in the dining-room cupboard rattled when a train passed in the railroad cut that ran parallel to the boulevard, carrying passengers from the periphery of Paris to the Gare Saint-Lazare in the center of the city, where if they wished they could change to trains that would take them northwestward to the Channel, to Deauville or Le Havre, for instance. (Some of the older people in this neighborhood, which as late as a hundred years ago consisted partly of vineyards, chose this mode of travel when they went to the seaside with their dogs for the weekend.) But after nine o’clock at night the trains stopped running, and then it was so quiet on the boulevard that the leaves of the plane trees outside the windows could be heard rustling from time to time in the breeze that is frequent in Auteuil. On such a night at the end of July, Gregor Keuschnig had a long dream, which began with his having killed someone.
All at once he had ceased to belong. He tried to change, as an applicant for a job undertakes to change; but for fear of being found out he had to go on living exactly as before and, above all, remain exactly as he had been. Even to sit down as usual to a meal with other people was to dissemble; and if he suddenly began to talk so much about himself and his “past life,” it was only to divert attention from himself. Oh, the disgrace to my parents, he thought, while the victim, an old woman, lay in an inadequately buried wooden box: a murderer in the family! But what oppressed him most was that he had become someone else, yet had to keep behaving as if he were still himself. The dream ended with a passerby opening the wooden box, which in the meantime seemed to have moved to the sidewalk outside his house.
Formerly when Keuschnig found something unbearable, he had tended to lie down somewhere by himself and go to sleep. This night the opposite happened: his dream was so intolerable that he woke up. But waking was as impossible as sleeping—only more absurd, more tedious, as though he had begun an endless term of imprisonment. Something had been done that could never be undone. He folded his hands under his head, but this habitual action had no remedial effect. Dead calm outside his bedroom window; and when after a long while a branch of the evergreen tree in the courtyard stirred, he had the impression that it had been moved, not by a gust of wind, but by the accumulated inner tension of the branch itself. It occurred to Keuschnig that there were six more stories above his ground-floor apartment, one on top of another!—probably packed full of heavy furniture, of dark stained cupboards. He did not remove his hands from under his head, but only puffed up his cheeks as though for self protection. He tried to imagine how his life would go on. Because everything had lost its validity, he could imagine nothing. He rolled lip in a ball and tried to get back to sleep. Falling asleep had ceased to be possible. When finally, with the passing of the first train at about six, the water glass on the bedside table tinkled, he mechanically got out of bed.
Keuschnig’s apartment was large and intricate. In it two people could take different itineraries and suddenly meet. The long hallway seemed to stop at a wall, but then after a bend it continued on—you wondered if you were still in the same apartment—to the back room, where his wife sometimes did her homework for her audiovisual French course and stayed the night when, as she said, she was too tired to face the spooky corridor with its abrupt twists and turns. The apartment was so intricate that, though the child couldn’t actually get lost, they were forever calling: “Where are you?” The child’s room could be entered from three sides: from the hallway, from the back room, which his wife called her “study, ” and from the “parents’ bedroom,” so called only in the presence of visitors they didn’t know very well. The “front” of the apartment consisted of the dining room, the kitchen, the “servants’ entrance”—they had no servants—and a special servants’ toilet (the bolt of which, strange to say, was outside the door), and directly on the street, the two “salons,” which his wife spoke of as “livings,” while in the lease one of them was termed “library” because of a niche in the wall. The small vestibule opening out on the street was called “antichambre” in the lease. The rent came to three thousand francs a month, the sole income of an elderly Frenchwoman, whose husband had once owned plantations in Indochina. Two thirds of this sum was paid by the Austrian Foreign Ministry.
Keuschnig looked at his sleeping wife through the half-open door to the back room. He wished that the moment she woke up she would ask him what he was thinking about. He would reply: “I’m looking for a way of thinking you out of my life.’’ Suddenly he wished he would never see her or hear of her again. He wished she would be shipped away somewhere. Her eyes were closed; from time to time her wrinkled lids stretched smooth. That told him she was beginning to wake up. Now and then there were gurglings from her belly; the chirping of two sparrows outside the window, a remark, then an answer, always a few notes higher; separate sounds became distinguishable in what had been the even murmur of the city during the night. There was already traffic enough that the screeching of brakes could be heard and farther away the blowing of a horn. His wife still had her earphones on, and a language record was still turning on the record player. He switched off the machine and she opened her eyes. With open eyes she looked younger. Her name was Stefanie, and only yesterday she had aroused feelings in him, at least occasionally. Why didn’t she notice anything peculiar about him? “You’re already dressed,” she said, and took off the earphones. In that moment he felt capable of kneeling down and telling her everything, everything. Where should he begin? Once or twice in the past he had placed his thumb on her throat, not as a threat but as one kind of contact among many others. Only if she were dead, he thought, would I be able to feel something for her again. Standing still and straight, he turned his head to one side as in a rogues’ gallery photograph, and said only, as though repeating something he had often said before: “You don’t mean a thing to me. The thought of growing old with you is more than I can bear. Your mere existence drives me to despair.” “That rhymes,” she said. True enough. His last two sentences rhymed—he hadn’t noticed it in time—and therefore couldn’t be taken seriously. Closing her eyes, she asked: “What’s the weather like today?” and he replied, without looking out: “High clouds.” She smiled and dropped off to sleep. I’m coming away empty-handed, he thought. Strange. Everything he did struck him as strange that morning.
In the child’s room he felt as though he were taking leave of something; not only of the child, hut of the kind of life that had been right for him up until then. Now no kind of life was right for him. He stood there amid the scattered toys, and suddenly in his helplessness one of his knees gave way. He crouched down. I have to busy myself with something, he thought, already exhausted by the short time spent without imagination, and busied himself putting the laces, which the child had taken out of her shoes the night before, back in again. As Agnes slept, he could see nothing of her face; her hair had tumbled over it. He put his hand on her back to see how she was breathing. She was breathing so peacefully and smelled so warm that he remembered certain of the old days when everything seemed to be gathered under a wide dome and to belong together, when for instance he had involuntarily said “Agnes ” to his wife and involuntarily said “Stefanie” to Agnes. Now that was gone; he couldn’t even remember it any longer. When Keuschnig stood up, he had the feeling that his brain was gradually cooling. He pulled down the skin of his forehead and closed his eyes firmly, as though that might warm his insensible brain. From today on, he thought, I shall be leading a double life. No, no life at all: neither my usual life nor a new one, for I shall only be pretending to live my usual life, and my new life will consist solely in pretending to live as usual. I no longer feel in place here, but I can’t conceive of being in place anywhere else; I can’t conceive of continuing to live as I’ve lived up until now, but no more can I conceive of living as someone else lived or lives. The thought of living like a Buddhist monk, a pioneer, a philanthropist, a desperado, doesn’t repel me, I merely find it unthinkable. I can’t live like anybody; at the most I can go on living “like myself.” —Suddenly, at this thought, Keuschnig was unable to breathe. In the next moment he felt as though he were bursting out of his skin and a lump of flesh and sinew lay wet and heavy on the carpet. As if he had soiled the child’s room merely by his thought, he hurried out.
Look neither to the left nor to the right, he thought as he went down the hallway. “Eyes front!” he said aloud. He looked at the red sofa in the one living room; a child’s book lay open on it: blatant disorder. Nothing was alien to him, everything repelled him. He closed the book and put it on the table in such a way that its edges lay parallel to the edges of the table. Then he picked up a thread from the carpet and carried it the whole length of the hallway to the trash basket in the kitchen. While doing all this, he made a frantic effort to think in complete sentences.
With a stupid look oh his face, he stepped out of the dark apartment into the street. How mercilessly bright it was outside! I might just as well be naked, he thought, but a moment later looked down to make sure he had pulled up the zipper on his trousers, and at the same time fiddled with it discreetly. He mustn’t show that anything was wrong. Come to think of it, had he brushed his teeth? In the gutter on the other side of the boulevard, the water sparkled as it flowed down to the Porte d’Auteuil. For a few minutes that took the stupid look off his face. The cobblestones under the water were bleached white. As he walked, Keuschnig suddenly saw a sunken lane not far from his native village. There were thin, wetblack blueberry roots along the side walls, where as a child he had often dug clay for marbles or projectiles. Lucky that rhyme cropped up when I was talking to Stefanie, he thought; otherwise, I’d already have given myself away. He pulled his cuffs out from under the sleeves of his jacket and for the first time that day became slightly curious. Keuschnig had always been curious, though he disliked involving himself in things. What would be the end of all this? Ordinarily he took the Metro at the PORTE D’AUTEUIL, changed at LA MOTTE-PICQUET-GRENELLE and got out at LATOUR-MAUBOURG, not far from the Place des Invalides in the 7th arrondissement, on the rue Fabert side of which the three-story mansion housing the Austrian embassy was situated. But that day he wanted to walk a bit. He would allow himself this little detour—maybe, in the course of it, something would turn up. He decided to take the Pont Mirabeau across the Seine and follow the Quais to the Invalides. On the way perhaps he would think up a system by which to deal with the neither/nor in his head. That’s it, he thought, a system!, and in passing looked at himself in the mirror outside a bakery on the rue d’Auteuil. Nothing unusual in his appearance. For a moment he tensed with curiosity.
On the rue Mirabeau, Keuschnig, who as a press attache had learned to pick such words asAutriche or autrichien out of any newspaper at a glance,, as though they were his own name, saw, out of the corner of his eye, a plaque with the word autrichien on it affixed to the wall of a house. It had been put there in memory of an Austrian who had joined a French Resistance group to fight the National Socialists, and had been shot down by the Germans on this spot some thirty years before. The plaque had been cleaned in preparation for the fourteenth of July, the French national holiday, and a tin can with a sprig of evergreen in it had been placed under it. The asshole, thought Keuschnig, and kicked the tin box, but stopped it when it kept on rolling. He crossed the Avenue de Versailles and saw on a hoarding a poster advertising a meeting: “Hortensia Allende will speak to us…” TO US down at the Seine.! he thought, turned away and spat. Rabble! Passing a newspaper stand, where the only morning paper on display was the five o’clock edition of Le Figaro, he read that the Turkish invaders of Cyprus had entered Nikosia, the capital, and that war was imminent. How annoying, thought Keuschnig; what intolerable interference in my life! A couple, arm in arm, were coming toward him on the bridge. The woman was biting chunks off a long loaf of bread, as though such a war were quite out of the question, and that reassured him. But why was the man so tall? Disgusting to be so tall. And to think of him squirting his ridiculous sperm into the pathetic belly of this boring woman! He stopped walking in the middle of the bridge and looked down at the Seine. “Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine et nos amours.” A poster advertised the high-rise apartments on the opposite bank with the words: “Seen from the Pont Mirabeau, Paris is a poem.” Poetry gone sour! The river was brown as usual and flowed as usual toward the western hills, where the morning light moved the suburb of Meudon closer. To Keuschnig everything was equally far away and equally unreal: the sand pile on the left bank, the hills of Meudon and SaintCloud, the tips of his shoes. It was as though his glance, before it could take anything in, had been blunted by an invisible barrier; it could reach nothing, and he felt no desire to reach anything. He saw no friendly sight, saw only as a whipped man might have seen, and thought: I’d better go right down into the Metro, where a blank look attracts no attention. He took the train at JAVEL, and shortly after seven, unchanged except that the absence of prospects had put him in a bad humor, stepped into the Austrian embassy.
Keuschnig had an office on the second floor of the embassy building, with a chestnut tree outside his window. His work consisted chiefly of reading French newspapers and periodicals, marking articles or news items that related to Austria, when possible providing the ambassador with a daily digest, and twice a month sending the Foreign Ministry in Vienna a report on the image of Austria reflected in the French mass media. In drawing up these reports, he was expected to follow new guidelines, which specified that the images of Austria presented in the French press were in every case to be measured against an ideal image elaborated at the Ministry. Above all, Austria must be seen as something more than the land of Lippizaners and skiers. Whenever the traditional image made its appearance in the press or on television, Keuschnig was obliged to write letters of protest and rectification. He had pasted a model of such a letter over his desk. Last year, it pointed out among other things, the Financial Times had awarded Austria an Economic Oscar as the industrial country with the most favorable economic statistics. Keuschnig seldom received answers to these letters, and even more rarely to his reports to the Foreign Ministry. Occasionally he attended “working luncheons” at which French political figures met with the press, and for which he had to pay in advance. From time to time he received journalists at home, and itemized his expenses, for such receptions were regarded as part of his job. “Seated entertainment” meant dinner; “standing entertainment” consisted only of drinks or, in a pinch, of cold buffet. This, more or less, was his work, and thus far he had done it so seriously as to give no one else reason to smile. He himself had no image of his native land, and was glad there were guidelines to follow. He was seldom at a loss for an answer, except when letters came from children wishing to know something about Austria. But most of the questions in these letters had been dictated by grownups anyway.
That morning a small truck finally arrived with the Austrian silent films, which Keuschnig had loaned the Cinematheque some months ago for a series of showings at the Palais Chaillot, and the return of which he had requested a number of times. In the court of the embassy, ignoring the driver’s impatience, he checked every single reel against his list. No one seemed to notice that anything was wrong. Besides, there was hardly anyone in the building. Because of his newspaper reading, he was always among the first to arrive. In his office, he cut open the bundle the night watchman had deposited outside his door, and removed the tag addressed in red:“Ambassade d’Autriche.” Recalling that the United Nations troops on Cyprus included an Austrian contingent, he first looked through the papers with them in mind. None dead yet? Then, felt pen in hand, he began to read seriously. Every half hour he stood up and tore the reports of the French news agency off the Telex, which went on ticking inexorably. He had also turned on the shortwave radio. It was still early morning when news of the provisional ceasefire on Cyprus came through; after that he was undisturbed, alone with himself. As usual the newsprint made his fingers blacker and blacker. He didn’t once shift his position while reading, didn’t once run his hand over his face, not even when it itched; he merely read and underscored so-called key phrases. Without looking up and without a moment’s hesitation. Where were the SELLING POINTS the guidelines demanded? At the farm show in Compiegne, a reforestation machine made in Austria was on display. At an exhibition of optical instruments in Lyons, a research microscope from Austria had been demonstrated. Le Monde had good things to say of environmental measures taken in the Tyrol. Once again L’Aurore spoke of antiSemitism in Austria, though in accordance with the guidelines, he had already sent them several letters of protest and rectification. On the other hand, a consumer magazine gave an Austrian ski binding an excellent rating. But Le Parisien libere referred to Bruckner as a German rather than an Austrian composer. —At about nine Keuschnig washed his hands and reported to the ambassador, who that day had arrived somewhat earlier than usual. The ambassador asked him what he thought of the fighting on Cyprus, but then, almost protectively, answered for him, so that Keuschnig merely had to drop an occasional: “Yes, that’s quite possible,” or “No , that can’t be ruled out. ” Even the ambassador, who in his position, as he not infrequently remarked, could be expected to have an eye for people and their weaknesses, seemed to notice nothing. (Would he otherwise have listed course after course of the dinner he had eaten the night before at the home of some French count?) Keuschnig was relieved but at the same time, oddly enough, disappointed.
He drank his usual tea at a cafe on the Boulevard Latour-Maubourg. As he looked out at the street, it occurred to him that he couldn’t have said anything to anyone. He often heard people saying: “If I had something to say ... ” —and now he thought: If I had something to say, I’d cross it all out. At the top of a garbage can on the sidewalk he saw a heap of coffee grounds and filter paper; as he looked at it, it reminded him of a lawn freshly fertilized with human manure: there had been toilet paper all over the young grass. He went to the men’s room and pissed gloomily down into the hole. The smell of urine revived him. He thought of tomorrow and the day after and tugged at his fingers in disgust; he opened his mouth wide, at the same time looking around to make sure no one was watching him.
On the way back to the embassy, Keuschnig had a sudden impulse to bare his teeth. Without prospect for the future, he had risen from the protective cafe chair. Compressing his lips, he nodded to a colleague who was coming toward him. At the sight of this colleague he thought of sleeve protectors, although he hadn’t seen anyone in sleeve protectors for ages. Why couldn’t the other man disregard him? Why did he have to COME TOWARD HIM? Brownish-yellow scraps of scum on milk that had been boiled days ago. True, he was still more or less alive, he was running around loose, but soon it would be all up with him. He wanted to beat everyone to a pulp! Everything, even the sense of wellbeing his first sip of tea had given him, now seemed RELATIVE. My life line has broken off, Keuschnig thought, as though still trying to cheer himself up a little. A baby carriage with a plastic cover was standing in a doorway, an image of“panic terror; as he hurried past, it completed the dream he hadn’t finished dreaming that night. He forced himself to go back and examine the baby carriage in every detail.
He saw two blacks walking ahead of him, both with their hands deep in their pockets, so that the slits of their jackets gaped wide and their behinds stuck out—both had the same gaping slits and the same behinds! A woman was wearing two different shoes, one with a platform much higher than the other. Another woman was carrying a cocker spaniel in her arms and crying. He felt like a prisoner in Disneyland.
On the sidewalk he read, written in chalk:“Oh la belle vie, ”and underneath: ” I am like you,” with a phone number. Whoever it was had BENT DOWN to write about the GOOD UFE, he thought, and made a note of the phone number.
In the office he read the newspapers that had just arrived. He was struck by the frequency of the words “more and more” in the headlines of a single page: “More and more babies are overfed,” “More and more child suicides.” In reading Time he was struck, on many pages, by the sentence: ” I dig my life.” “I dig my life,” said a basketball star. “We are a happy family,’’ said a war veteran. ” I am very glad,’’ said a country singer. “Now I dig my life,” said a man who was using a new fixative for his dentures. Keuschnig wanted to howl long enough for everyone in the building to hear him. Then he looked up at the ceiling, cautiously, as though even that might give him away.
He had the sidewalk telephone number in front of him, but first he dialed several other numbers. He wanted to be alone as little as possible in the days to come, and cast about for friends and acquaintances to take up his time. Before each call, for fear some slip of the tongue would give him away or that he would suddenly be unable to go on, he wrote down word for word what he intended to say. In the end he had made an appointment for every evening and his date book was full to the end of the month. I’ll lose myself in my work, he thought. Then he called the sidewalk number. A woman answered. She said she couldn’t remember writing anything on the pavement, she must have been drunk. Keuschnig, who had only wanted to needle her, said: “You were not drunk. I shall be at the Cafe de la Paix, the one across from the Opera, at nine tomorrow evening. Will you come?” “Perhaps,” said the woman, and then: “Yes, I’ll come. But let’s not arrange any signs. I’d like us to just recognize each other. I’ll be there.”
At twelve o’clock Keuschnig took the rue SaintDominique to the stop of the 68 bus, as usual on his way to see a girl friend in Montmartre. For a while he drifted into side streets, following a girl with CHICAGO CITY written on the seat of her jeans. He wanted to see her face. Then he noticed he had forgotten her. In the bus he saw he was all alone, and for a moment that made him very happy. A shudder ran through him, it gave him a sense of power, directed against no one. At the next stop he looked up, and already there were several heads in front of him.
When Keuschnig looked out of the bus window, his field of vision swarmed with transparent pockmarks, and when he closed his eyes and opened them again, there were still more of them. After getting out he decided to stand still for a moment and look patiently at something, the sky for instance. And then he stood there, feeling nothing. “C’est normal, ” said a passerby. Yes, everything was wretchedly normal, elendig normal. He thought of an Austrian country shrine called Maria Elend.
He behaved as innocently as possible: for the first time he bought flowers for his girl friend. An observer’s suspicions would be overcome if he saw him going into this florist’s shop. He was only one among many, someone concerned with everyday matters, carefree enough to buy flowers. He decided to be pedantic. In the cool shop, seeing himself as a man having gladioli wrapped, he felt so secure that he would have liked to help the salesgirl tie the bow. The atmosphere, the smell of water, the puddles on the floor, did him good. The beautiful, slow meticulousness with which she set down the gladioli side by side on the paper! Up until now, when asked whether flowers should be gift wrapped, he would automatically have said no and contented himself with the usual wrapping; today he looked on with interest as the girl stuck the pins into the paper. During the whole operation —cutting the stems, removing the faded pedals, wrapping, and finally handing him the wrapped flowers—she had not made one superfluous movement, and today this struck him as beautiful. In the shop he felt sheltered. He was able to smile, though his lips tautened, and she smiled too. Her purely professional friendliness made him feel that she was treating him as a human being, and that touched him.
Just like anyone else he climbed the slope of Montmartre with his bouquet. Amid the smells of the rue Lepic, changing from one market stall to the next—fish, cheese, the flannel smell of suits hanging in the sun—he lost all identity . . . Then suddenly the smell of bread from the open door of a bakery drew him into memory, not his own, but a new, amplified, and improved memory, in which the fiat scene before him took on a third dimension. Here no one seemed irresolute, weighed down by himself; among these people, whom he would never know, he felt secure. Outside his girl friend’s door, he wiped his shoes with exaggerated care, meanwhile laughing maliciously—at whom? —But when he heard steps approaching from within, he was seized with desperate embarrassment at the thought that their meeting would be the same as usual, shameless, that they would smile at each other in recognition. There was still time, he could still climb another flight of stairs. Keuschnig stood motionless, one foot beside the other, until the door opened—as usual, except that now the absurdity almost killed him.
He didn’t show that anything was wrong. For a moment it had upset him that Beatrice recognized him right away. Suddenly he was afraid that he wouldn’t recognize her the next time, and tried to imprint her features, or some distinguishing mark, on his memory. —Beatrice worked part-time as a translator at UNESCO headquarters in the 15th arrondissement. Her husband had been killed when his motorcycle had collided with a trailer truck. She lived alone with two children, who were out at the moment. Keuschnig had first met her at a reception at the embassy. She had come up to him and asked: “What shall we do now?” —He came to see her often. He liked to watch her going about her domestic routines. She told a good many stories, and it gave him a strong tranquil pleasure to listen to her. “I’m never afraid of doing anything wrong in front of you,’’ she said. They saw no harm in being together. “Maybe our seeing no harm in it is a good sign,” said Beatrice. She took everything that came her way as a sign. But even where others saw a harbinger of calamity, she found confirmation of her belief that things would get better and better. Unpleasant happenings irritated her, but she took them too as favorable signs. Consequently she lived confidently from day to day, and when Keuschnig was with her, the moment when everything would cease to count seemed to him, sometimes at least, infinitely remote.
But now, without warning, everything in sight became a sign of death. He didn’t want to look at anything; and because, even with his eyes open, he saw nothing to which he could hold fast, the oppression in his chest rose to his throat. He thought of the baby carriage with the plastic cover in the doorway and the crumbled plaster on the cover, and turned away without meaning to when as usual Beatrice started to help him out of his jacket. But it was he who was suddenly afraid of saying something wrong, or doing something wrong; it was he who suddenly couldn’t help seeing some harm in everything, in cutting meat, in an embrace, even in breathing. The acts that should be performed naturally—drawing-the-cork-out-of-the-bottle, spreading-the-napkin-on-his-knees—he now performed as ceremonial functions and was afraid of being untrue to his role. In mortal terror, he suddenly called up his home. “Is all well?” he asked, deliberately using the stilted phrase to hide his anxiety. Back at the table, he was determined to do everything by himself, though as a rule he had liked Beatrice to peel an apple for him, for instance, at the end of the meal.