The Comedy of Maria

As Sebastian, the old writer, moved the brush through his hair, exposing beneath it miniature expanses of white and grey, he reflected that these hairs were an accurate representation of the books that he had written. Just as his hairs grew in a whiteness exposed each time he brushed through them, so his reputation increased unseen, in books purchased in secondhand book stores, decaffeinated chains and online book dealers, a sense of which reached him piecemeal and amounted to just one certainty: both his white hairs and reputation would continue to increase. So Sebastian had arrived at the stage of life where his name was doing the work for him. The sequence of novels he had written were on school syllabuses throughout Northern Europe, and were even sometimes read for pleasure; though in truth he had little to do with the young blade who had penned them. How nice of the younger him to provide financial assistance for the older eminence, indeed.

… Sebastian had arrived at the stage of life where his name was doing the work for him. The sequence of novels he had written were on school syllabuses throughout Northern Europe, and were even sometimes read for pleasure; though in truth he had little to do with the young blade who had penned them.

Brandy cognac; Bolivar cigars, worn corduroys and aged armchairs; those were the furnishings of his life in this faded townhouse. There he would amble about, pausing occasionally to bend over a table or exclaim, tijd voor een paffke, then raising one of his little stogies to his mouth. “Paffke” — little puff — in his native Dutch, though to be honest, Sebastian’s English father and immersion in the language from a young age had left him functionally bilingual. He had an abiding admiration for English culture and enjoyed visiting the country, where, as he often told his many friends, he felt safer.

Now to go with the dirty cognac and smoking cigar came a letter; an invitation to take up a visiting professorship from T_ College Dublin. He smoked. The position would commence that autumn and as such disrupt his plans of journeying to Mauritius for his grandson’s christening — which wouldn’t be the ultimate onbeschaamdheid,[1] his mid-sixties bones being as well not carted halfway round the world anyway. He thought about taking the post on; they wanted him to lecture on Dutch Literature, which he knew little about, and German literature, which he declined to. There had been a golden age of Dutch letters a while ago but up till now it had eluded him.

It was a funny business these lecture offers, and how they came, unsolicited, to older writers. To him it seemed nothing more than a final validation of his gymnasium teachers of the late forties. They had taught him Latin, manners, how to put a shelf up and sent him off out into the world. He had thanked them then, too. But for some reason the subsequent effect of all this was to render him a powerful intellectual presence. What did he know about Literature? It was as if they didn’t see that people like him knew so little about it, being too involved in the day-to-day business of writing themselves — were too deep in the system to see how it worked.

Or not; he looked out over the dishes filled with cheroots, the newspapers, the papered desk: there would be nothing coming here for a while. And while the situation here in Amsterdam was by no means disagreeable, life was likely to be just as pleasant in Dublin; it brought to mind a scene in a film he had seen long ago in which an onlooker, stood before two identical stone pillars, was asked which of them he preferred. C’est la même chose, he thought, then took up his pen to begin to write his letter of acceptance.

As the writer began his preparations for departure, a new and long-forgotten playfulness came over him, one alien to the young student moving along the University corridor in Dublin, sleep-deprived and showing the subliminal strains of recreational drug use; his weekend had been spent on the green fields far out of the city, drinking cups of Bovril with an attractively witch-faced girl named — he had forgotten her name. Just as he had forgotten to find time for the preparatory reading for this seminar; as such, he was now practising the correct look of painedness that would convince his Professor of the genuine psychic distress he had encountered trying to absorb the works of Kleist. The truth is the young man barely read German, though in fairness to him, that made little weather on the streets of Dublin these days.

Goethe in the Roman Campagna, 1787
(Oil on canvas, 164 × 206 cm)
BY Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein
Städel Museum

He was English; the older writer might have missed such a fact in an attempt to find the good in him, submerged it beneath some pretty description or adult barb. As such he exhibited a particular cachet to the women around him; Northern, assertive, the roller of tight joints and the possessor of an iPod stacked to the brim. iPod; how perfectly the name described the conversational monomania of the typical possessor of said device. Occasionally the phrases of dialect he had learnt in his small village upbringing came back to him and he could be quite charming. Today, though, he was unwashed and bleach-eyed as he walked through the classroom door.

Baummüller was there, hands-crossed and pale; opposite from his desk sat Maria, at her most extravagant today. That meant only what their “target language” had down as Kostüme. He positioned himself between the two and took out the reading with great care. Indeed one might say he looked rather like one of the early inhabitants of Britain encountering writing for the first time. Baummüller’s voice was very low. He often liked to mention that T_’s German Department was the oldest in Europe. And he often liked to quote Goethe: Lichter Tag, Lichte Augen.

Light day, light eyes. To try and see the world with new eyes was an important theme in Goethe; Richard wrote it down. He was young but knew Goethe wasn’t the exception here. He tried to look at Maria with new eyes; take in the retroussé nose, the strangely yellowed skin, the fact of her being a few years older and nearly bilingual. And she liked Kleist; she was quoting him now — “wenn ich die Nase aus dem Fenster stecke, das Tageslicht wehe tut, das mir daraufschimmert[2] — he wasn’t quite sure what that mean, only that Baummüller and she had adopted the same, indubitably noble, posture in response to it.

Poor kid — he had read Kafka translations when even younger and had decided to study German on the back of it. But the department he arrived at wasn’t what it had been. The basic competencies of those studying had collapsed like those, most probably, in the rest of the English speaking world. Even Baummüller said so, though he went on to see that he hoped Sebastian Beetjes’s arrival on the scene would galvanise the students into actually studying. His conviction sounded as solid as a man dialling from a call centre under pressure to sell more.

Maria might have provided him with a little fire in his belly. She was pretty and sans accent in German from the five years her want-away father spoke German to her in the crib. But then he went and she went off to school with her language incomplete. They had built the foundations but forgotten to live in the house. Maria threw herself into German literature to catch up. In the last year, she had read Von Kleist, Canetti, Sebald, all of Trakl, “Die Wahlverwandschaften” and translated a poem of Rilke’s.

“‘She followed slowly and needed long for that
As if some thing had yet to be overcome;
And still: it was as if, after an interlude,
She would no longer walk but fly.”[3]

Meanwhile his contribution this term had been to watch one Fassbinder film and to listen to half a Rammstein album.

While they wrestled with the problems of German history and thought, then, he quietly consolidated his great strength: his technological expertise. He had helped set up and now moderated the college library website. His Facebook profile was much admired. He kept up a weblog detailing his musical downloads. All of the girls in his year found him charming, bluff, and sensuous; all the girls, that is, with the exception of Maria. She showed no interest in his gap-year ruminations, rice-cooking abilities or said technical expertise.

In the corridor they had an awkward conversation.

“What did you think of the lecture?”

“It was okay. I would have liked to talk about the late works.”

“Well, he didn’t live very long. In that sense there are no late works.”

“The works he wrote towards the end of his life.”

“Goethe didn’t like him, you know.”

“I think he offended Goethe’s morals.”

“Goethe was moral. He was totally moral.”

“Richard?”

“Yes?”

“You said that already.”

“Mmm — ” he acknowledged. “Are you coming to the welcoming party tonight? Sebastian Beetjes!”

“Yes, I’ll be there. You?”

Claro,’” he said, with an unaccountable use of Bavarian slang. “Es wird eine geile Party sein!

“Das wird eine geile Party,” she said. “I also think as a student of Germanistik you could find a better word than geil.[4] But the principle of it is right — anyway, I’ll be there.”

He stood there, face stunned like a beatific angel as she moved down the corridor.

The modern age was, in some intangible manner, a time of Kulturschwund, the “disappearance of culture” increasingly manifest in European society defined by Thomas Mann, whose works he had been brushing up on though shamefully only in English translation — he didn’t have time, at sixty-four, to be wrestling with those sorts of sentences — and this disappearance of culture was only buttressed by the surfeit of printed, aural, and electronic media. Nothing was as sure to generate idiocy than having a mile of newspaper to fill each weekend. But the old geniuses, in the days when they might even have been plural, would surely have devoured the New York Times each week with venomous greed. And in fairness — apart from such eloquent definitions of conditions as above — Germans had hardly been a great help in the upkeep of the best of European culture.

As good as anything, then, was Der Spiegel or Le Monde that he had brought with him for airport Schiphol; he wanted to create just the right impression to whichever English academic came to meet it; it was quite a surprise, then, when Baummüller appeared, speaking stately English with a slight Irish lilt, or rather tilt, and looking just as much the European gentleman as himself. The academic had suggested they drink a coffee together at an airport newsstand.

Sebastian recognized quickly that what he had before him was another type of artificiality: what the French language has down as a renonçant, the native who renounces their own culture…

“This,” he said after a period of silence, “is a great honour for the College.”

“That’s nice to hear,” said Sebastian after another while. “I’ve always wanted to come to Dublin.”

“I have been in Dublin for nearly twenty years.”

“It must have changed.”

“I should say, it’s become a metropole — a European city! James Joyce said it was the seventh city of Christendom but now it’s at least fifth.”

“Rather expensive, though,” said the older man.

“A lot of the people are rich, it’s true. But don’t worry. The college will provide you with a small house for your purposes.”

Denn ist recht,[5] said Sebastian, hitting the r with Dutch gutturalness.

He had had German once and plenty through one of his first girlfriends, in Amsterdam when exactly twenty; Frieda from Aachen. They realized early on that if they both spoke their local dialects they had a common language but occasionally there was room for her standard variety too: the singing of Schubert Lieder, a quote from Faust, drinking songs. One day he remembered her sitting at a window and plaiting her hair; he would never forget that.

Sebastian recognized quickly that what he had before him was another type of artificiality: what the French language has down as a renonçant, the native who renounces their own culture. There was to be no trace of Germania about Professor Baummüller, save perhaps the size of his frame within the awkward cut of his suit, save perhaps a tiny hissing in his shs. This gentleman had devoted a life-time and probably not inconsiderable intellectual resources to honing a perfect imitation of the average middle-class Englishman — and what was the point of that?

“There are some good students, some bad. The language skills are negligible. I long ago gave up trying to teach them German and now hope they will learn it via osmosis.” He laughed, Sebastian less. “You will get to meet them at a party tonight.”

“That’s good — do I speak?”

“I will speak on your behalf. If you were to speak, it would not be for long, for the principal wants to speak.”

“I’ve written the first lecture.”

“Kleist?”

“Heinrich von.’

“A marvellous writer … ‘Die Marquise von O’ — do you know that?”

“Can’t say that I do.”

“Oh yes, marvellous indeed. Do you have any tobacco? Unfortunately you can’t smoke around here; it’s easier to get away with a joint than a cigarette in Ireland these days. Come on!” And so they walked to the taxis outside.

They were driven through town, and Sebastian took in the scene as if eating fine food; the passing crowds, the brimming street cafés…

Light illuminated the row of Dublin cabs, their roofs yellowed in the sun, and spread itself as far back as the automatic doors behind. Getting in, Sebastian felt acutely the width of his frame on the back seat, the massiveness of his thighs. The shuddery, Indian driver looked most confused at the two gangly North Europeans wedged into the back of his car. It seemed doubly unfair that the same small driver heaved up their suitcases while the two littérateurs conversed behind.

They were driven through town, and Sebastian took in the scene as if eating fine food; the passing crowds, the brimming street cafés, and the houses. Eventually, they stopped and got out; “This is your place,” Baummüller said, his back lined up before a town house. “This is your door card — there’s some tea in the room. And this is my card if you need me.” Dr. Karl Baummüller.

“What did you promote in?”

“Intimations of piety in the work of Von Kleist. With reference to Hegel,” said Karl, fumbling at a cigarette. “Hegel.”

Children played behind him in a pleasantly suburban street. “So, a real romantic,” grinned Sebastian.

“Not any more. I like your books — de duivelwals is good. Post-Kleistian in the best sense, one might say. All that macabre sex. And I read you in Dutch, too.”

Echt?”

“Oh yes,” said Karl with a large grin, “Nederlands is voor mij niet uitzonderlijk zwaar. Het is in feite een dialect van Duits, niet waar?”[6]

“Well, I’m pleased for you,” Sebastian said after a moment’s thought; and pleased he was too to have now the opportunity to say adieu. “I’ll see you later.”

“There’ll be a taxi for you at seven,” said Karl, and ducked back into the one attendant.

In Sebastian Beetje’s novel de duivelwals (1974), the protagonist Molly Dugdegon is gradually drawn into the nocturnal perversions of the sinister Baron Perceval Sugden, a transcontinental dandy with a bull-pizzle moustache and a collection of antique riding crops. Dressed in military outfits, the Baron conducts the nocturnal revels of the title, interposing his own unique imprint on the event: the adoption of eclectic historical dress. At Blotto Towers, the Baron’s palace, crusaders fumble geishas and centurions fellate swarthy pageant musclemen. This vision of history as one wild orgy seemed rather incongruous with the wrinkled, mild-mannered gentleman who unpacked his suitcase at the edge of the room, but in reality it accorded squarely to his long-established view of the world. Sebastian, relaxed in demeanour, was wild inside.

… how lovely it was to have made one’s reputation in an age of some residual public for literature and now be able to spend the time basking in modernity like some proud whale.

And how the trees fell in honour of words he had written years hence, which delighted him; how lovely it was to have made one’s reputation in an age of some residual public for literature and now be able to spend the time basking in modernity like some proud whale. Now it was time, he thought, to “indulge in posterity,” to truss up his worn frame in waistcoat and slacks — who wore slacks anymore? — and to work the room. He remembered an age-old trip to Antwerp, just after the war, and being fitted with a complet anglais on market day, then purchasing what the Germans call eine Manchesterhose, which had never seen Manchester of course. At his age, his head was a dusty box of memories, fragments, lost words and a perpetual din. The din came from some obscure struggle of rivalry and success he had these days little desire to think of… Another cigar.

Later at the party he looked elegant if outdated as he observed the people around him, and talked with the women who came and went. He felt of course envious, yet also slightly piteous, of the young, mainly because there seemed to be so many of them these days. It can’t have been easy for the ego, being one of so many like that: it was like that film Toy Story he had liked so much, with those little grinning aliens amassed in the speelgoedautomaat: “One of us!”

He felt of course envious, yet also slightly piteous, of the young … It can’t have been easy for the ego, being one of so many like that: it was like that film Toy Story he had liked so much, with those little grinning aliens amassed in the speelgoedautomaat: ‘One of us!’

Baummüller had written a critical commentary on the work of the author in residence and had the temerity to read from it large chunks of barely digestible Germanic prose. The prepositions fell awkwardly, reflexive pronouns sprang up unnecessarily; sometimes he could hear the whisper of the German sentence behind, “he made himself a niche,” “er hat sich eine Nische gemacht.” The indirectness of these Dubliners meant that in all his years teaching here Karl had probably never been corrected once; and as such, errors littered his conversational English like tiny sheep droppings.

Most of the students were clean and interested in literature but it was a young man he found himself talking to, with black curly hair and bloodshot eyes, stoned, no doubt. But he had an easy charm about him and was apparently named Peeky.

“Peeky? What kind of name is that?”

He said, ‘It’s a nickname, from school. Like Pikey with an ee.”

“Well, it’s ridiculous. Silly boy. Do you know what it means in Dutch?”

“What?”

He told him.

“Well, you know, I’m not taking Dutch.”

“Well! — The name’s farcical. Any well-centred Amsterdam girl will laugh you out of the room, unless you’re paying for her. What’s you real name?”

“Richard — ”

“Then that’s what I shall call you. Richard!”

“Richard!” he said, face aglitter.

“Tell me, Rich — who is that?”

She entered dramatically, such that it appeared each and every person there had been paid to ignore her entrance; and yet her silence was absolute; even a person right next to her would have heard nothing but the steps of her feet. She came across the floor, her forehead a canvas of makeup and pegged-up hair, above a face of diminutive, shadowy charm, with a bare throat and combination of suede jacket, dress and stockings, daring, exultant, triumphant; across the party towards them came Maria, eine Selbstinzenierung as you say in German. And Maria was worth going straight to the nearest dictionary to find out what it meant.

Sebastian said, “Who is that?”

“What?” answered Rich.

“The girl,” and he noticed, as she approached, that Rich too had taken up the same attitude to her, standing adjacent to him as if awaiting a recipient at an award ceremony.

“Maria; she’s a student of Germanistik too. Guten Abend,” he said to her approaching.

Nee — goede avond,[7] said Maria and, with merry abandon, stuck her hand out.

Goede avond,” replied Sebastian, noticeably taken aback. “Hoe gaat het met je?

Het gaat prima — bedankt! Houdt u van Dublin?” she said, eyes inquiring, dark smudges evident around her small and perfect face.

Ja, absoluut,” he smiled, avuncular. “Het vliegveld was juist net zo mooi als mijn woonkamer, en dat zijn de enige twee kamers de ik tot nu gezien heb. Ik vermoed, dat er in Ierland ook andere ruimtes zijn — bioscopen, restaurants, slaapkamers, bijvoorbeeld. Wellicht kan je mij daar een van laten zien?

Wellicht,” she laughed, clearly hearing his grammar before his content. It was always amazing what you could get away with in a foreign language. Her Dutch was good, if a little Tectonic: normally he resisted the attempts of foreigners to speak Dutch with him but he had (like many men) no objection to speaking his mother tongue with pretty young women. Indeed, he stepped it up then, warming to his native nasal Amsterdam accent when she checked him with an English “And Rich, how are you?”

“Mmm?” Rich had been elsewhere, he was clearly no connoisseur of the Dutch language. Rather his brain was an amalgam of talk shows and Internet shooters; he was a functional inebriate.

“Sebastian and I were talking. You know, I know some Dutch too. Pikje!” That’s right, huh?’

Maria looked at Sebastian, “And what does that mean?”

“It’s Dutch slang,” he said, and dipped into his pocket for a cigarette; “Zigarette gefällig?

“Thank you.” The smoke bloomed at her lips. “You know I’m a fan of your works.”

“Really? I thought they were very passé amongst the young.”

Passé?

“Faded, outdated, old.”

“No! Really, the opposite. The scene in Cavakis de Patriach when she makes him take the pill for a month — that was a truly post-feminist trope.”

“I feel very post-feminist these days,” he said. Back in his prime, carousing at literary soirées in a velvet waistcoat, he had understood feminism as a tactic to impress women. He had been very odd then; rather more similar to her than him, he reflected, looking at his two interlocutors.

At the drinks table he and Maria continued talking and Rob worked on a rolly. “Und wie gefällt dir Dublin?

“It’s alright. I moved here when I was eight; I’m not bored of it yet.”

“But you don’t have an Irish accent.”

“I went to an international school; there were lots of French, East Europeans, Czechs. An Irish accent was not seen as desirable.”

Rich said, “When you’re drunk you go a bit Irish.”

“A bit Foxtrot,” she smiled.

“What are you rolling there Rich — is that a joint?”

“What — you —”

“I wouldn’t say no.”

“That’s so cool!” laughed Rich. “He asked me if I wanted a joint! Sebastian Beetjes asked me for a bifter!

“I’m Dutch,” Sebastian said in his most cussedly rebellious voice. “Now, which is your favourite of my novels?”

“Oh, I haven’t read them all. I think they are really great though. The whole ambience. The little coffee shops and narrow houses. And the light.”

The light is everywhere, he thought. It seemed to be shining on her now, at the expense of the rest of the party.

“… and I think it’s all about this pluralist society. It really makes me want to go and live in the Low Countries.”

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he said, refocusing. “Holland’s too small. It’s not so much of a country as a boat club. Plus the place is crawling with racists these days.”

“Really? Even the tolerant Dutch fallen victim to the caprices of modernity?” said Baummüller, appearing with a glass of punch in his hand. “I couldn’t help noticing you’d met Maria; one of my best students.”

“Well, she seems very happy with you too,” said Sebastian.

Rich lit his cigarette and watched the two men, eyes glazed.

“Maria takes detailed notes on everything, quotes mercurially, and shows the makings of a first class academic.”

“She certainly knows my work, so much so that’s she’s thinking about moving to Holland.”

“Holland! A move that could only be restrictive to a woman of her intellectual proclivities. Stimmt das nicht, Maria?”

But she had gone. The two men stood before each other, suddenly awkward in their skins.

“Well — Prost,” said Sebastian; to which Baummüller sourly replied, “Gesundheit.[8]

“There’s a list of your lectures in your pigeonhole, starting with the seminars tomorrow. And I wondered…”

“Yes?”

“There is football tomorrow; I wondered if you fancied going to watch the game.”

“Live?”

“No, no, in the boozer.”

“Chelsea Arsenal,” said Rich. “There’s hurling at 4.00, too.”

“Hurling?”

“Hockey for psychopaths,” said Rich, and puffed.

“Me, I’m an Ajax man,” said Sebastian with pride.

“Fine, suit yourself. If you want to come along I’ll be in the Craich and Blarney, wearing an Arsenal shirt and drinking Guinness, extra cold,” said Baummüller, blushingly silenced.

But Sebastian did not make the game the next day, or the week after, and soon his term and schedule started to fill up, as he fell into some kind of gentle fame — a genuine living writer, extant from the time when people grew up reading books and socialized with each other in the flesh. The irony was that Sebastian had not written much in years, his intellectual ambitions being almost entirely satisfied by his careful reading of several aphorisms of Epicurius, the words attaining ever more grace now that he had students to quote them to. The other great satisfier were late night reruns of American teen shows; he was surprised how much more easily he welled up at My So Called Life than at Shakespeare or at Bach; those series went straight to the emotional jugular for him.

He had arrived at a time of life when his answer to most of the questions du jour was ‘Well, I won’t be around to see it.’ He had had glory days and he didn’t mind reflecting on them as the procession of staid, well-funded events rolled past…

What didn’t fire him up were the rounds of literary events that made up his academic calendar: Germanist drinks, best young writers, Samuel Beckett prize, Poetry by Candlelight, Scrawl, Scribble, Urge and Slop or whatever the various undergraduate magazines were called. Looking round the audience at such events was a sobering sight; the white hairs on the wooden pews, the smell of decay; the average Irish pub was a school disco in comparison. At least at a sports game there wasn’t the chance of someone dropping dead during proceedings, a sporadic but undeniable feature of these geriatric evening soirées. One time a woman collapsed near the front at the Brendan Behan prize-giving and Sebastian spent the next hour staring at her for signs of life, which did not occur.

Still, he was out of it. He had arrived at a time of life when his answer to most of the questions du jour was “Well, I won’t be around to see it.” He had had glory days and he didn’t mind reflecting on them as the procession of staid, well-funded events rolled past that term. In the blauwkrijt[9] group they had debated radical change. Talk of revolution abounded. But what fired up Sebastian — so much as this disciplined Dutchman let himself get fired up by anything at all — had been the debate about style and form. Wim De Vrees was back from France and had picked up that strange back-and-forth verlan that had grown out of the immigrant communities. Susan Vandelman painted exclamation marks, of which he had a red one back at the house. And Bert de Papus, who set himself the challenge of writing exclusively using words beginning with the letter t; his masterpiece, “T,” was much discussed in their circles. Some nights they challenged each other; to justify, to debate, or perhaps to compose pieces impromptu, to the most absurd and complicated of titles — “Eenhornstraat,” “Cruyff Agonistes,” “de Paapaguys.” Piece after piece was read, debated and shelved, holed up in little tobaccoey flats around the Vondelpark. Most of their stuff was crap, of course, but the blauwkrijt group genuinely, actively, passionately, wrote. This new lot didn’t even talk about it.

Still though, he was out of it; the students that contacted him were unreachable, glazed over, overwhelmed by the plurality and uniformity of their age. He watched the sun going down before his bay windows night after night and felt that his life, too, was setting, and he felt it with nothing but peace.

Le livre, 1911
(Oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm)
BY Juan Gris
Musée national d’art moderne, Paris

One of the most persistent foisters of sheaves of poems upon him was young Rich, and despite being possibly the worst writer in the world, his personal manner was amiable and also, he knew that girl, that one who had appeared at the party. He arranged to meet him at a small riverside café.

The shaggy student was already there, a mug and newspaper before him, the tea smoke ringing his brown curls. The older man appreciated that, knowing what an effort it must have been for the young man to be on time. In his own student days — Anglistiek and Pedagogiek, UvA, 1964-8, he remembered rattling his bike up to the faculty with those bloody Amsterdam psychopaths zooming at you from all angles. So, well done, young man: but he soon saw that any words of praise would be received with limited appreciation.

Addressed, Richard looked up, strung out, beyond the nerves that meeting an éminence littéraire would naturally entail: he whispered, “Hello.”

“So — your poems, I’ve got here — ” taking out the handwritten pieces from his satchel, he said, “Yes, yes, here they all are.”

Rich sipped his tea mournfully. “Thank you for reading them.” His voice was Northern, maybe Mancunian.

“It’s not a problem. Some of them … Well, this one. ‘The Lobsters Claw.’ Tell me about that.”

“I was thinking about lobsters — you know, how they’re small, yet have the capacity to inflict damage. And I thought that was like, poetry, y’know.”

“Short poetry, yes.”

“No — I mean that it was like, poetry to say that. It was sweet.”

The last word eluded him. “You’ll have to forgive me, Rich. I’m just not up on youth slang from — uh — Manchester…”

“Stockport.”

“Right, Stockport, of course. Now, you asked me about some poets to recommend. One man you might like is Hugo —”

Rich looked away, held his head to one side deliberately for a second, than leant back with an audible sigh. “What’s wrong?” asked his partner.

“Nothing, it’s nothing. Just that…”

“Seriously, what is it?”

Rich gave another sigh; then, with a scrunching up of his face, began to talk. “Well — you know Maria, right?”

“Ah yes, the ingénue.”

“She’s ingenious, right. And she’s really pretty and, see…”

“Mm?”

“The other day I got a text message from her. But it wasn’t meant for me, see. It was meant for Karl Baummüller. I know because it was written in German.”

A pause; Sebastian allowed his interest to simmer encouragingly into the air.

“And what did it say?”

“I wrote it out.” And indeed Richard had transcribed the text messages onto his little note pad, which contained poems, shopping lists and now other people’s texts. “Hallo Freddy treffen wir uns im Phoenix um 20.00 bis später Maria.[10] He sniffed. “Kiss kiss.”

“Freddy?”

“Baummüller, Karl Friedrich. That’s his name. They’re meeting at the International Cinema. There’s a foreign film every Tuesday — ” he indicated the paper on the table before him — “and tonight, Francois Truffaut, Jules et Jim!”

Sebastian had always liked that film; all that gallivanting about brought a half-smile to his face just picturing it, especially with la belle Maria substituted for Jeanne Moreau. “Jules et Jim indeed. And I suppose that would make you… Jules, the Frenchman. Do you want a coffee?”

“But anyhow, the lobsters…”

“No, no, let’s go on with the other theme a while, shall we?”

“I don’t mean to go on about it.”

“No, no,” said Sebastian, and came out with the point. “The question is why you got the text.”

“My surname is the same letter as his.”

“What’s your surname?”

“Brinsley.”

“Ah, but I think there’d be a few surnames between yours and her, surely. I imagine Maria’s got a lot of names on her phone.”

“I don’t know. Maria’s not a very social person … y’know, she reads so much.”

“Does she?”

“Yes, she really reads.”

“And Baummüller too … but the fact remains you are in her mind in some way. I mean, surely if her subconscious wasn’t talking she would have noticed the error in the recipient. And sent you — another text.”

His face lit up at that, then said: “Depends on the keypad of the phone.”

“What?”

“It depends…” but Richard had picked up on his evident confusion. “I just don’t think it’s right for her to be knocking round with Baummüller. I mean, the guy must be fifty.”

Sebastian didn’t flinch, “It’s quite normal. It’s a phase girls go through, to be attracted to older men. It’s to do with status and the wish for children.”

“I have it on authority that Baummüller lives alone with a Dachshund. And was sighted eating in the staff room eating baked beans out of the tin.”

Sebastian laughed. “It would seem then that the gentleman is right at home in academia. Tell me, though, why should Maria spend her time with a kid like you?”

“I like Maria,” said Rich, “I’d look out for her.”

He took a look at the man opposite, the curls of pube-like hair, the puppyish under-chin, the troll nose splodged on like a reddened light bulb, and felt confronted with a much younger man than himself. “Yes,” he said, “You do like her, don’t you? Can you tell me why?”

“She’s so pretty, so clever, and she really cares about art.”

“Ha! It’s like that is it — the muse is singing.”

“I wrote a song for her,” he said, “on my computer.”

Sebastian, technologically illiterate, took his cap off to that. “Well, young master, I have a proposal for you. Why don’t you write and ask her to visit us for dinner? I’ll cook, and there might be one or two others there. How about next Saturday night?”

“Uh — Saturday night is difficult; we’re having a Star Wars evening.”

Sebastian raised an eyebrow.

“Oh yeah, dinner,” Rich announced. “Sure, sure, at yours — I’ll bring some wine; there’s a cheap offy near mine.”

“Right you are — shall we say, eight thirty?”

“That’s late.”

Sebastian checked again. “We’ll say eight. And …” “Yes?” “Will he be there?”

“You’ll have to wait and see,” said Sebastian smilingly.

Slaving away at the stove in the standard-issue little kitchen, stopping only for the occasional helping of white wine, steam wafted up from the pan into his nose and eyes. He took a moment and coughed several times until a laugh came out of his throat. Huwah! He did again just to amuse himself, moved to the pan, and dipped a spoon into it.

Mesquite chicken was the dish today. Then he had even invented a story that Ben Chadwick of the German department and his wife Pria had cancelled at the last minute. They could have drunk the Chablis he now peremptorily poured, they could have eaten his spicy chicken. He went through to fetch his tobacco pack; on the living room table, a first draft of a poem lay. It had surprised him more than anyone, just turned up one morning. He had reached the stage where his works’ publication swiftly followed their composition: after this had occurred, appropriately enough, the words had dried up. Yet here was a tiny chink of light.

De mensen interesseren mij; God is onverstaanbaar.
Wij willen overtreffen,
Wij geven de melkkar sporen
[11]

… was where he was up to, and, as he came back into the kitchen bouncing the lines in his head, the bell went. The poem would have to wait — it was time to take up his intrigue like a retired lady picking up her crochet.

The first guest at the door was Karl, and now Sebastian had a chance too for another look at this respected man. Author and editor of Kleist: seine Zeit und Auswirkung, Visions of Prosperity in Swiss Literature and The Small Collins Guide to German Slang — which had outsold the rest of his printed works put together — the eminent Karl Baummüller stood at the door. His slightly peregrine face went forward into the flat with a stoop. “I’m not too early?’” Sebastian, before answering in the negative, saw at that moment how Karl might have been attractive to women, he after all having the air of a man caught up in very important things, when in fact he was battling the iniquities of a life-long squint.

“You’re dead on time,” said Sebastian, “Drink?”

“Uh — gin tonic, no ice,— said Karl, moving into the lounge at Sebastian’s behest.

“You’ve been smoking in here, I can tell.”

“Smell it? — Yes, I had the odd stogy or two.”

“Sto — gies?” repeated Karl, seating himself on the divan and placing a cushion over his knees.

“A slang word for cigar — beloved of General Patton, I believe. Ice in that?”

“No ice — I said.”

“My bad, as the students say. Here we are with you. Skål!

Gezondheid,” said Karl in genuine Dutch this time, but it was just a gesture. Karl was in English tonight. “So how is the term going?”

“I don’t know. You tell me. Are the students enjoying it?”

“Do they like you, you mean?” Karl asked. It was unclear whether it was a joke. “As much as they like any of us, nineteen as they are.”

“I get the impression very few of them read my books.”

‘Very few of them read books,” Karl replied. It was true; these days so few people read that one could make a career out of it, as the Professor himself demonstrated.

“How’s the GT?”

“Delicious,” said the guest flatly, at which point the doorbell rang.

Rich stood at the door with a shirt on, long hair brushed oh so calculatedly back though liable to straggle into infirmity over the course of the evening, blinking. His lips were slightly atremble, instructing, gearing himself up for his entrance line “goede avond,” but he fluffed it, the “g” going somewhere through the “d” and the second word being turned into a seal-like baying sound, upon which Sebastian intervened, “Come in.”

Once inside, Richard took an interest in different things than Baummüller had; “Wow man, gnarly pictures!” The various substandard watercolour landscapes and the single frame of a smoky Dublin tavern had piqued his interest; pointing to the potage the drinkers ate, he asked “Is that what we’re having?”

“You’ll have to wait and see,” said Sebastian, moving him on into the lounge. “Now, young man, what can I get you?”

“Err … Bacardi and coke? I’ve been drinking lots of Bacardi and coke recently. I don’t know why, I don’t even like it,” said Rich, in a distracted voice.

“I don’t have any Bacardi, but I do have a rather fine bottle of Cuban rum that I happened to bring with me from Holland.”

“Yeah, whatever,” said Rich, “Don’t forget the coke!”

Still Life with a Plate of Onions, 1889
(Oil on canvas, 49.6 × 64.4 cm)
BY Vincent Van Gogh
Kröller-Müller Museum

In the kitchen the sauce had thickened and gained in flavour; the little slices of onion were saturated now, their sliced bodies glazed with sauce. He held a glass of wine to his lips and savoured the interaction of flavours. Whatever one said, British food had improved. He remembered one day in a dark hotel room, doing interviews to promote de duivelwals, working his way through a sandwich of unspeakable dryness and, just as he was asked to offer his analysis of contemporary British poetry, retching.

A ring of the doorbell was anticipated but did not come; he moved back to the lounge, brushing himself down and bearing the unadulterated rum with him. “Couldn’t find any coke I’m afraid so I mixed in a little ice and lime with it; see if you like it.” Best to give the boy his alcoholic education on the sly.

Averting his eyes from the young man’s swigging he turned to Baummüller. “So, who are you writing on at the moment?”

“An American author actually — Philip Roth,” said Karl. “It’s such clever stuff. Really, it’s hard to find a contemporary German author of comparable range.”

Saved from literary chat by the bell ringing, Sebastian rose to answer it, taking his apron off as he passed the kitchen. Making sure his natty waistcoat and shaved neck were on full display, he walked in to the hall.

“I walked all the way round the block and looked for the staircase and then — well, I found you, I guess!” Maria stood there, resplendent in black and green, a choker tight around her neck. Bloody hell! After a moment, “A drink?” he said, as much for himself as her.

She was still talking as she came in, “And the buses…”

“Absolutely,” he regained himself; ‘tore himself together,’ as the German nicely put it. “Well, welcome to my pad; would you like a glass of wine?”

“Oh, just orange juice for me,” she said, having moved into the lounge where the boys were seated.

Both of them seemed to straighten up as she entered. “Maria!” — said Karl. Rich put down the ashtray and just nodded, simply, deeply nodded.

“It’s nice to see you; how are you doing Professor — ”

“Oh, please, call me Karl,” the Professor intervened. Maria looked at him nervously; Rich lowered an eyebrow.

Na — können wir dutzen dann?” said Sebastian to Karl, appearing, and everyone laughed, even Rich, though he had failed to understand the joke. “Now, if you’d care to come through to the kitchen — dinner is served.”

On the table, napkins, the bottle of wine and candle-holders waited for them on a table oddly steely for such a rustic kitchen. “You can smoke,” he said to Richard, budging up past him to attend to the pan.

“It smells lovely,” said Maria, raising her spoon in her small hand.

“Are you writing anything at the moment?” asked Baummüller, standing up against the stove.

“I’m writing a story about a saturnine old Professor who comes to Dublin and finds himself up to his neck in admirers,” said Sebastian, with the abandon of one who knows his sexual days are through. “Maria — the wine.”

Baummüller and Richard watching her, Maria raised the glass to her lips, carefully, cautiously sipping. If one looked closely — and they did — one could see minute traces of condensation on the rim; her lips shook.

“I must say,” said Baummüller, leaning back, “when the term began, I had never thought to be sitting at the dinner table of Sebastian Beetjes, author of de duivelwals; never in a thousand years.”

If one looked closely — and they did — one could see minute traces of condensation on the rim; her lips shook.

“It just goes to show,” said Sebastian tersely.

“I’ve read three novels this week,” said Maria, “and all of them have been by you!”

“Oh, you poor girl. You must need something stronger,” the author said, raising the wine bottle. “Anyway forget that,” he said over the pouring, “What I’ve been reading are the works of the marvellous young writer here — Master Rich.”

Rich, his head dozily back, said nothing at all, though one could see tiny blotches of red spreading over his cheeks.

“Really?” said Baummüller, “Really worth reading?”

“They come highly recommended. Listen guys, I’ll tell you what I told Rich: Er schuilt een echte poëet in hem.

“He’s a voice for the future?”

“Indubitably,” said Sebastian, and took a bread roll.

Maria, just a little curiosity visible in her now, said, “And which of his poems do you consider the best?”

“Oh, that would have to be the ‘Self-Portrait at 20’; yes, I like that one very much. How does it go? — Well, perhaps I should let the jonge meester do the honours,” and he bit.

Rich paused, six eyes looking at him, two of them having been there already. “I’m — I’m not sure I know it.”

Doch,” said Maria, “I know you can do it.”

He paused, and half-laughed, “But it’s — I don’t — ” and then, suddenly, “Self portrait at twenty,” he began.

“And what were the days were the days were the days
Some sad night in the afternoon
Chew out your heart in the different ways
Retrieve the time that went too soon.

But if you have moments you find emotive
Childhood’s tin whistle and the noise it did peep
You’ll know that that melody was a leitmotiv
For the kind of enjoyment that doesn’t keep.”

The air settled, the world unperturbed as ever by incantation; at length, Maria said “Beautiful.”

Sehr schön,” said Karl.

“I tell you he’s the cat’s pyjamas! The tin whistle of childhood! Peep! Peep! — you can’t teach that.”

“No,” said Baummüller. “You can’t. High praise for you tonight young man, indeed!”

Maria looked over. “Rich?”

He accepted their attention, their silently ebbed waves of approval, their warm smiles, in vague, detached manner: a perfect simulation of a poet, playing a blinder and not even sensible to the fact, thought Sebastian. Before his pupil got in the way of things, Sebastian asked “Dessert wine?” and, to avoid over-scrutiny of what had happened, moved proceedings on.

Later the table showed the detritus of the meal, dishes and plates at angles from each other and little bird-baths of olive oil where salad had been. Maria smoked; the rings trailed around her face while the averted eyes of Baummüller looked down to his cup of espresso, his coat still on. So sated was the mood, so deep the absorption of each in their own personal world — or as Maria would no doubt call have called it, given the chance, their struggle — that Sebastian stood, unnoticed, and began shaking out his legs before the scullery. He looked over the faces in the lamplight, crockery and smoke.

Unstoppable, unturnoffable, here is a device if not as powerful at least more relentless than the human mind — lulling us all into a techno-stupor that reality can never hope to match and — you can forget literature, too.

“Mark my words though Kinder,” he said to his guests, “what’s really done it is the Internet. That’s doing more damage to human prospects than any invention since the gun. All information available, all entertainment — how do you say? — downloadable, the ability to find out anything at a click. Unstoppable, unturnoffable, here is a device if not as powerful at least more relentless than the human mind — lulling us all into a techno-stupor that reality can never hope to match and — you can forget literature, too. No more Heine, no more Goethe, no more von Kleist.” He addressed the last statement to Baummüller, whose eyes raised up slightly, then fell down again. “And who could ever turn it off? I can’t even live without it for a day! All the simple pleasures pale next to it; even sexuality is now eine erledigte Sache, a finished thing. When I played at school a scrap of pornography was passed around the playground as if it were ancient papyrus. Nowadays an eight year old can download a clip of group sex — and that’s it’s first experience of human sexuality! Mijn God! Where’s the growth, the progress, the Bildung — the Internet accomplishes everything too fast.”

“The Internet is a great source for learning languages,” said Richard. “With the Internet I can listen to German cultural podcasts.”

“And do you?” responded Sebastian. “Even if so, surely not exclusively! For most of the time it’s — it’s — “

“Porn and ringtones,” Rich went on.

Genau!”

“But what about the possibilities of it all? The Internet can expose abuses of power before the big old press can put their spin on it. What about the ability for musicians of avoiding selling out to big corporate labels? My band — we’re not together anymore, but when we were, we could put up all our music on MySpace.” Realising he had strayed a little too far into articulacy, Richard capped his sentence with a perfunctory mumble.

“But where’s the struggle then?”

“There’s no money…”

“Ah yes,” said Sebastian. “That’s always a struggle.”

Maria carried on smoking; she was down to the filter now.

“I could build you a website. I did it for the library, and they get loads of hits,” said Richard.

“My days of having hits are over,” smiled Sebastian, but no one laughed.

Baummüller looked up again to Maria, as if about to address her; she remained, aloof, cold-eyed, sad. His hand made a quiet gesture toward her.

“Seriously mate, you should blog.”

“Blog?” Baummüller’s hand had connected and Maria, not looking up, rose. “That’s what we used to call a — ”

“We’re going,” said Baummüller. He had stood up, arms spread in midair. “Thank you for the lovely meal.”

Der Vergnügen war ganz meinerseits,[12] said Sebastian, stepping to Baummüller and regarding him analytically for the first time in the evening. “Wir sehen uns Montag?!

“Monday, yes.” Karl gave then a look of total bewilderment, Richard’s face pulsing with resentment of him. A tiny noise emitted from Baummüller — sort of an onomatopoeic sound of both understanding and pride, not quite a word or even a particle in either of the languages he spoke — whereupon he turned out of the kitchen. Maria went one step behind, not having looked at the remaining men.

They had made no gesture of intimacy or even affection to each other but it was clear they were in this together. Richard felt it. “Don’t worry,” said Sebastian, laying a hand on the younger man’s shoulder, “We’ll sort it out.”

… Sebastian set about moulding Richard into someone else. His clothes were altered from baggy ensembles to tidy sports jackets; his shoes became leather, and he even began to read. Little poems, too, were supplied — and delivered.

And so Sebastian set about moulding Richard into someone else. His clothes were altered from baggy ensembles to tidy sports jackets; his shoes became leather, and he even began to read. Little poems, too, were supplied — and delivered. “Of course, you can do what you want with them,” Sebastian commented, though he had the feeling they arrived at Maria — ceta obscura object el desairo — pretty much as penned, though Rich in fairness chose the envelopes. Pretty soon chinks showed, a stray SMS — “how about a phone call?” or “Coffee sounds nice” and Sebastian gave the young man his firm advice then: retreat. Show little interest, if any. Reply late, if ever. This mixture of distance and neglect was calculated to kindle Maria’s interest and leave her in a state of eroticized uncertainty. Sebastian would have given in to it himself.

Meanwhile news of the grandson’s christening came via email; he thought of answering it, sitting before a computer screen. The baby had been dipped in water under a sweltering sky; local notaries had sung and ethnic kitsch had been daubed liberally on all those participant. He stared at a photograph of the event. Paused like this, trying to reply, a sudden sense of consciousness came to him of the changes he himself had lived through. To the 68ers a book, a newspaper, even a letter had still had a vastheid — a solidity — an authority. Now there were books, magazines, cds, DVDs, chatrooms, forums, blogs — what were blogs? —, DJs, VJs and even, now, a Second Life. As if the first one didn’t present problems enough. Now the babble of all the word was united in a polyphony of all voices, and people just walked on. The people out there just walked on as if nothing had happened. Of course, it was true that young people still wanted to change the world — into something comprehensible.

Sebastian took the long view, and moved to the stack of magazines on the chair. “Vorsprung durch Technik,” he said or, as they had joked back in the seventies, “Vorspiel durch Technik.” Fascism had been defeated and Europe’s reward was a half-century of ecstatic cultural degeneration. But it was ever thus; every human being needed a good wallow in the muck bath of pop culture from time to time. Sebastian thought of his collection of Playboy, the pages curling gently in his mouldering home. Some issues were always with him…

The doorbell rang and so, riskily propping the cheroot on the ashtray’s side, he went to answer it. “Hallo?” he said, tremolo on the vowel.

Ik ben daa…” came a voice from behind the door, very close to Dutch but — Maria. He opened the frame and she was there in full; petite, velveteen, with what appeared to be black clogs set upon her feet. Her face opened; “Hallo, Sebastian: mag ik binnenkomen?[13]

Before Sebastian could answer she was past him, wandering around the room and speaking a most agitated mixture of English, Dutch and German: “ik heb ihn just opgehaald und —

“Maria,” he said quietly, “Speak English. Everybody else does.”

She paused, then said. “Right. Yes, you’re right.”

“Can I get you a cup of coffee?”

“A cup of tea.”

“Sugar?”

She nodded.

When he came back in she was looking at the baroque spoon on the wall. “That’s a Celtic love spoon,” she said. “The designs symbolize love, and a belief in its enduring power.”

“I eat my soup with it,” said Sebastian, and placed down the tea. “Why are you here?”

“I’m here because … Oh that’s nice tea, really nice.”

She was talking, Sebastian noted, flirtatiously. One of the advantages of being at his age was that he was free to behave as outrageously as he wanted in such circumstances; there was nothing at the end for him anyway. But he was genuinely taken aback by her manner.

“I’m in a situation,” she said.

Pregnant? He thought; her eyes darted up, as if she’d read it.

“Excuse me — I wanted to talk to you — you know them both. Karl and Richard.”

“Well, Rich better,” he replied. She was right; the tea was good.

“The thing is — Karl has asked me to … move in with him.”

“Well great!” said Sebastian and almost stood up, thrilled with all the vicarious intrigue of it all. “And what do you say?”

“I don’t know because of…”

He looked at her.

“Because of you.”

“Me?” The words sunk in; even after a good long pause he still felt knocked about.

“Maria, me — dat kan niet.[15]

“Why? You’re not married, at least it says on Wikipedia you’re not…”

“Was married. I was.”

“Was married. I was.”

She looked at him; “Sebastian, I want you to know that I like you.”

Sebastian said, simply, “I can’t.”

Maria said, “Why not?”

He said, “Rich…”

“Rich!” Now she was incredulous. “Was geht ihn das an?[14]

Sebastian went on, “He loves you more and more purely than I do.”

“He’s just a kid! A kid!”

“You’re just a bloody kid! And what about his poetry?”

“Haha — His — Can’t you see he’s conning you? It’s all a complete ripoff of Wim de Vrees.”

“You know Wim de Vrees?” he spoke as if charmed, then reasserted himself; composure must be maintained. “Maria, I have grandchildren. There’s little Hugo, and Lemuelje. One of them was just christened, far away on some tropical island. I’m an old man, too old to be chasing girls around. Richard is young and full of — potential.”

“But…”

“Writing has taken the place of sex in my life,” said Sebastian, “And now reading has taken the place of writing.”

“What do you want?” she said suddenly.

“I would like to enjoy my last few years in peace,” he said benignly. “Really, I’d like to see Ayers rock — ja, wanneer ik dat gedaan heb, mag alles voor mij voorbij zijn.[16]

She sipped the tea, quite cooled down now. There had been an element of that Selbstinszenierung again; perhaps inevitable considering the hints of drama her very presence evoked. “So — you really rate Richard?”

“He doesn’t say too much, and I like his attitude. He’s a good member of a group rather than an individual. But…” He felt the strain of speaking at length. “Look, he puts you on a pedestal, I know. But give him a chance.”

“If I give him a chance, will you give me a chance?”

Sebastian drew himself up. “And how is it with Baummüller?”

“How is it? It’s … difficult.”

“I mean what is it, what, what. Do you love him?”

She said, “He loves me. I think he’s very smart.”

“No one ever built a statue to a critic,” Sebastian quoted; she laughed and stopped after a beat, displaying her very strange ability to switch into sudden complete seriousness. “Do you think I’m expecting the impossible?”

“We all expect that. But three men are enough for anyone. Wouldn’t you give some other girl a chance?”

“Richard has always had girls around him,” she followed up.

“But it’s you he wants!”

“Listen,” she said, going right to his ear, “entering a sexual relationship is not the same as negotiating a contract. You either feel it, or you don’t. And I don’t feel that way about Richard. He’s like an — embryo.”

An embryo! But it was all too much — “Oh fucking Eros,” he almost mumbled, swearing, as usual, in English; “Go to the bedroom then, and lie on the bed. Ignore the bedspread please; I didn’t choose it, and I’d chuck it out if they wouldn’t then charge me for it. I’ll be through presently. But…”

“Yes?” she said, paused at the door with her large handbag slung over her shoulder.

“… We’re not going to make love.”

“Yeah, whatever,” she smiled, and moved out through the door.

In his later novella de ronde tafel (1983), Sebastian Beetjes places an assembly of esteemed guests at dinner; Henry James, Simone Weil, Jeanne d’Arc and Johann Cruyff, convened through space and time to converse in polite and referential style about matters of love and books. The idea, though, was better than the execution and Baummüller — removing his glasses to rub his tired brow — thought he noticed a certain dilution in the style. Throughout the late works the good ideas seemed too, well, ideational, the characters too representative of the external — compared at least to the erotic charge supplied by young Molly Dudgeon et al. Naturally Karl had never written a novel although, of course, that had once been his intention. Long ago, he had sold himself going into academia to support his creative life, but the poems, novels, plays, diaries and essays had never shown up.

Maria had briefly illuminated things, her startling body, her Hessian cries. There at least he had experienced a homecoming of sorts.

A photograph on the marble mantelpiece showed the young Karl Baummüller, fresh from his graduation at the University of Köln, just preceding his vow never to live on German soil again. The barely repentant materialism of the late Bundesrepublik had repulsed him out to Ireland. There followed an academic career of gradual but resolute distinction; of caped dinners in the old hall, lectures in concrete auditoria before rows of plastic chairs, and middle-aged dates at the cinema. Now, he drank most nights, or spent them re-reading passages from his favourites (Kleist, Brecht, Effi Briest by Fontane — in that order) and listening to the Cello Concertos on MP3. He had embraced a life of quiet achievement, and no longer felt particularly concerned about anything, seeing his own life now as simply rather better than its own alternatives.

Maria had briefly illuminated things, her startling body, her Hessian cries. There at least he had experienced a homecoming of sorts. He laughed at this, distracted from the novel entirely. For him it was all about sex, he could stand anything if he was having regular sex. To him it was as essential as a passport before embarking on a journey abroad; it was validation that he was still an attractive man. There was nothing, he was proud to feel, embarrassing about his middle-aged frame, his attire, his hair; he had kept it all in shape.

The emergence of young Richard onto the scene had offered some sport as the Elizabethans like to say. Sport; he’d lift up the little prick and throw him against the wall, more for amusement value than anything else. Th — whack! The complaint forms there’d be to fill out for such a deed. And for all of it, Maria’d move on regardless — Doctorate bagged, move on to lecture in the Anglo-German University like the provocative child she had always been at heart. And she’d never have to struggle in either tongue; as for himself, tucked up at the Western edge of Europe, Karl liked to joke that he’d have been bilingual but he didn’t have enough to say. Over the course of his time in Ireland he had developed a joke for most of the standard situations.

Suddenly he was out of sorts, unable to concentrate on the stack of novels on the table or the essays that had to be marked. Suddenly he was not an academic but a bullfighter, teeth bared, the blanket draped across his knees no more than a cape.

That evening, despite his generally calm attitude and like the first waves of a storm shaking the sea, his blood was stirring, and he found himself speeding to the phone after it beeped. No — simply an offer from his phone provider of free minutes. As if he had that much to say! As if anyone did! — How could people talk so much? On the train, on the bus, at the shop in the streets or in the pub — what was there to say? In Germany, people kept good quiet on the public transport; he missed that, along with a few other things; Leberwurst, Fasching, Bleigießen.[17]

Suddenly he was out of sorts, unable to concentrate on the stack of novels on the table or the essays that had to be marked. Suddenly he was not an academic but a bullfighter, teeth bared, the blanket draped across his knees no more than a cape. He rose and paced the room, mouthing to the people in his life saying, “You had better watch out!” and “Ein Dichter — na und?

What had brought about this sudden agitation? What had got Karl’s back up? He cooled himself at the window, where the rain and people were coming down the street. He had lived in this town for decades and considered it mean and untidy; disliked the back alleys, the vomiting, the drunken nouveau riche in their mock sportswear. He disliked this twee house, these narrow rooms.

His fingers were now on the keypad of his mobile phone, gradually tapping out a text message, lip bit down. At the same time images of the past came to him; his Uncle’s farm in the Sauerland; the image he always saw when reading Von Kleist, of him walking the broken-up fields struggling to do up a tie. Only years later had he learnt to do it properly. It was ein hartes Brot; a hard bread, as the Germans said; no, as he would say.

Germans, he thought, assimilated well into other cultures because they had so little of their own to betray, or, at the very least, their betrayal was seen as less despicable by their fellow countrymen; but here, he felt, he was making a defiantly obtrusive, expatriate gesture. “Hands off Maria you stupid Wichser (wanker in German)”; he finished the text message, signed it “K.B.,”and, his ludicrous rival’s number selected, sent it.

He had known from the instant
he had sent it that his charm,
and hence his effect on her,
had been lost.

Minutes later he began to regret the decision but it was too late. The phone gave a harsh beep in reply: a terse message that brought him little comfort. He re-seated himself and worked at his books until the phone beeped once again, upon which, with a quick glance over the body of the text, he absorbed the answer in silence. He had known from the instant he had sent it that his charm, and hence his effect on her, had been lost. And he had sent it to her phone.

The television was flickering in the half-light that Saturday afternoon. Bodo, Richard’s flatmate — nicknamed so because of his similarity to Elijah Woods’ character but with a “b” instead of an “f,”due to his bodacity — was silently working a weed grinder over some newly imported Amsterdam skunk. Dope, more than Memling or the novels of Sebastian Beetjes, was the main Dutch cultural influence in Richard’s life. He himself was finishing his last joint now, feeling the last toxins disperse through his nostrils.

Bodo was busy typing away at his blog and, joint finished, Richard sought distraction in the form of that most old school of diversions, a book. He picked up the leather band volume and worked his eye over the lines: difficult, martial rows of High German, declining and alternating among themselves with the steadiness of a wrought-iron fence. He squinted; occasional words and phrases made sense to him, and he tended to mark them in pencil, little life buoys of understanding that he grasped onto while flailing across a sea of incomprehension.

CUPIDO, loser, eigensinninger Knabe!
Du batst mich um Quartier auf einige Stunden.
Wie viele Tag’ und Nächte bist du geblieben!
Und bist nun herrisch und Meister im Hause geworden
!”[18]

He was just about to turn this into understanding when the doorbell rang; the button in the street had been pressed. Rich put down the book gently. He liked holding books in his hand. Bodo continued typing undisturbed, listening to his iPod. Richard went to the door. “Yes?”

Maria said, “It’s me.” She had visited once before for a party at the start of term. He paused for a moment, then let her in.

She had been there again too as of a few nights ago, appearing unexpectedly with a bag of clothes under her arm; she had sort of moved in. Richard had done nothing to her, just smoked his skunk joints and pretended to read in the corner of the room; but then, unexpectedly, she had kissed him on the lips — she standing, he reclining in the old wicker chair with her hands around his head and her solid homely thighs level with his chest. Then they had spent a session touching, caressing and exploring each other.

But today Maria looked different; the rain was fresh on her dimpled cheeks. He stood up, joint in his hand, and was left hovering alone as she walked past and into the bedroom.

“Bodo — ein Minute,” he said, moving frowningly on.

Maria was leaning forward packing her things into a travel bag. “Eine Minute,” she said smilingly. “The feminine minute.”

Genau, exactly,” he said. “Do you want a cup of tea?”

“No. Listen, I’m going to be away for a few days. I’m packing up,” she indicated her various possessions; makeup, books and clothes.

He paused, “You know, I’d like a cup of tea.”

“Make yourself one — I’m a bit busy here.”

“You can leave your things here.”

“No — I need them.”

“Oh well, if you need them,” he said, and moved a step closer to the curtain. His hand was shaped as if to touch her, but paused in the air. “Rainy day today.”

“Yes, my hair got very wet while I was pedalling to the library.”

“You work on a Saturday — that”’s so cool,” he said.

“No, it shuts at one and I needed to get the books back in time.”

“It shuts at one? Really?”

“Really.” She placed the final object into her bag and brusquely zipped. “There. Auf gehts.[19]

“Are you coming back?” he asked, flat.

She had stood. One of her hands went to his face and pushed at a single lock of hair.

“You’re stoned, right?”

“Yeah a bit but … you can still stay. Watch DVDs and Bodo’ll cook rice.”
Maria shrugged her shoulders. “Give me a few days, okay? I need to think.”

“About — what?”

“I”m going to stay with my friend Stacey in Waterford. For a few days, I’m not going to think about anything but — trees.”

“I like trees.”

“I like trees too.”

“Well, have fun with them. And with Stacey;” and he cracked a big,
lusty smile.

“Right!” she said and kissed him on the cheek.

He now hanging about in that slightly wriggly state of high-spiritedness those in love enter into while building up to the last of a series of goodbyes. As she turned to go out, her blonde streaks ordered for action, he spoke more volubly than before. “Say — I’ll be here. What I wanted to say … You know, you could always give it a shot. I mean, in football, there’s the loan system. It could be like — you give it a go for six months, and if you don’t like it, we break it off. I mean — you could decide.”

Maria, paused with her back to the door, said, “Rich, what are talking about?”

“If you wanted to — give it a go. You couldn’t lose.”

Maria smiled and said loftily, if not accurately, “I couldn’t lose,” and went out the bedroom door; he followed sheepishly behind.

A week or so later, with Maria absent and out of touch, the gentlemen decided to make good on their long-mooted plan to watch the football, it being one of the many big games that seemed to give the essential form of the modern social calendar, for man and woman alike. Given that half the world was in Irish pubs that afternoon anyway, they were as well to take up the opportunity to watch the titanic clash of Blue and Red in one of the capital’s own Irish pubs; although, this being Dublin, they were, to expand upon a Jerry Seinfeld routine, simply pubs here. Given that it was Sunday, and they had spent the weekend at what could be grouped under the rubric “literary pursuits,” they elected to first take a refreshing walk in the park, culminating at a pub in the __ area of the city, where Guinness would be drunk.

The three men came along the road to the park, Sebastian lanky and rosy in his grey suit, Karl grumpy and Richard all hair and mumbles. They turned into the park. Surprisingly, they were talking, and after a review of their various predictions of the likely outcome, they turned to the subject of their mutual passion and interest: Maria.

“Of course, I’ve known her the longest,” said Karl.

“Well — that doesn’t prove anything,” countered Richard.

“Mmm,” said Sebastian. “Vielleicht. Finders keepers, as it goes.”

“I”m the person she’s departing from, you see. The blueprint.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, alter Fuchs!

Silberfuchs,” Karl retorted.

“It seems to me we’re all got something invested in this girl.”

Richard smiled, and laconically forwarded, “Yeah, like a love square.”

“Ha! That’s good!” said Karl. “I do like that very much.”

Richard continued, “Ich finde — ich finde — es ist besser, wenn sie zu mir kommt. Ich schreibe ihr ein Gedicht, ein schöner Gedicht … Ich meine.”[20]

Ich,” said Karl, correcting Richard’s incorrect pronunciation of the fricative.

“Perfect!” said Sebastian. “He’s trying to speak Platt.”

Nee, isch schwätz der Platt![21] snarled the Professor in his best Saarlandisch. Karl would have objected to anything Rich said now. He would have objected to praise. Here he shook his hands, flustered; “Enough — enough now. What are we going to do about Maria?”

Richard said, “I don’t understand but — I think it’s creepy, you know, you two.”

“I have no one else. I’m forty-six.”

Richard went on, “You could.”

“Maria is a potentially brilliant student.”

“Is that really where your interest lies?” said Sebastian.

“And yours, entirely altruistic I’m sure.”

They had wandered up a small mound within the park, and now stood in a half circle with the city and the hedge around it out visible below. After a moment’s quiet, Sebastian was the next to speak.

“As I said, I think those days are over for me.” The wind blew a bit more.

“You know it’s a resigning matter.” It was Richard who had spoken, as if thinking from a distance.

“What do you mean?” Karl replied.

“Like, having a relationship with a student. Es geht nicht.

“Well, there we have it then,” said Sebastian, measured. “The University has it.”

“Not if you’re prepared to resign,” Karl said, and there was a quiver in his voice.

“What?”

“If it”s a resigning matter,” Karl said.

The wind tugged at the old man’s hair; the air was too cold for him.

“And what will you do — write? Come on, I’ve read your books,” said Sebastian.

“Really? Did you like them?”

“I’m in love with her,” Richard went on, which seemed to go almost entirely unnoticed.

“Well well — I fear we have reached something of an impasse. And the match is on in forty minutes; we’d better get our skates on,” said Sebastian.

The three men walked out of the park and into a crowded lane, where great crowds of fans were already milling around the pavement along the strip of pubs. There was a bright, zesty springiness to the day, beneath all the smoke and car horns and fog that now drifted into view, and the gentlemen approached O’Riordan’s in good spirits. Karl gave rather formal hallos to the waves of a group of laddish football shirted students, sat at the beer table with their golden sloshy pints. A glass of beer broke and everyone cheered.

There was a bright, zesty springiness to the day, beneath all the smoke and car horns and fog that now drifted into view, and the gentlemen approached O’Riordan’s in good spirits.

Inside the pub there was talk aplenty and people seemingly rammed into every cranny; even immediately at the entrance, heads craned up at a tiny screen. Richard had now met friends and Karl disappeared to the bar leaving Sebastian looking for a place to hang his hat. Overdressed, suited indeed, he battled on down the corridor and was somewhat relieved when Karl appeared into view, holding a pint of lager. “Here.”

Through the next room and the scene raised in drama — there were multiple screens, rows stuffed full, girls laughing as beer was spilt by rowdy suitors on their replica shirts. The whole place smelt of beer and fat. The furniture, of a uniform brown, was almost entirely occupied, except for a chink of space over at the room’s side, surrounded by thick-necked, red-faced supporters of the blue team today.

In football, Sebastian was without alliances — except to the 1974 Dutch side of course — and so made himself a place among the blues; where, indeed, his seniority brought a little respect from the football fellows who moved and addressed him as Sir. Dear Sir!; like Pierre Bezukhov adopted by the soldiers in War and Peace. If they had only known how he had ruminated in his days among them, how he had thought ill of their country, so brash and nouveau riche just like the football club they followed. But they were not necessarily any more local than he, there being a patchwork of nations in there today, Poles, English, even Germans, all apparently prepared to stay indoors in good weather to survey the exorbitant wares of the Premier League.

The players were well into the opening minutes now and already ripples of noise, spasms of chant, were drifting around the pub audience. Sebastian had watched the occasional Ajax Amsterdam game back in his vaderstad but it only equated on final days and European nights to the scale of fanship before him now. When Bayern were beaten in 1972. How he rankled at the faces before him, seeing their energy consumed so entirely by something so tribal and meaningless; if their passion could have been channelled into literature for just one day…

A kind of funny fury took over him, only deflected by his gazing defiantly over the swelling, supportive crowd. His two rivals sat about him and he found himself looking at them. There was Richard, his protégé, the tousles of his hair shaking while he rolled a cigarette before stowing it in his pocket for later. The young man had not displayed an ounce of perturbation in face of the tremendous art he spent his life surrounded by and any exultant moments he had stumbled across must have been falsely comprehended by him. Yet just the other night the young man had sat in his room, Bach endlessly on loop, watching the smoke rise to the ceiling. There were no words needed to grasp that sound.

Elsewhere a ball flew past the post and the crowd reacted with a collective pant of breath. Idiots. Ireland, the land not of Dichter und Denker but of dickheads and drinkers — and there Karl, perfectly assimilated, joyously complicit in the general sporting rapture. What was wrong with the FC Köln? What was wrong with Germany? Why did its people have to work so assiduously hard at becoming just about anybody other than themselves? — Even, in Karl’s case, to the extent of speaking Dutch with him! Meanwhile the Richards of this world managed to avoid learning German while doing a German degree, um Gottes Willen.[22]

They, these rivals, these sweating rivals, were certainly not fit to clean the boots of him, Sebastian Beetjes, author of, albeit in 1974, de duivelwals. And that was a part of the problem: start with a book like that and you got pretty much a lifetime off, you were excused from duties. After that life had not presented enough of a challenge but now, like an elderly football coach bad-mouthing his younger rivals, he felt exerted once again. Maria was too good to leave to these dolts; he pictured her now, in a kitchen, looking at the sea, hearing the gulls. The gulls cawed. When she returned he would make sure that their relationship was resumed, complicated and established, hoping to make her the final augmentation of his reputation. At this stage of development the rivals had gathered together to pause. Upon her return, love letters ought to be handed at her from all sides, entreaties made of her, the comedy resume once again: may the best man win.

At this stage of development the rivals had gathered together to pause. Upon her return, love letters ought to be handed at her from all sides, entreaties made of her, the comedy resume once again: may the best man win.

Maria closed the door behind and began to walk down the driveway. Stacey’s mother was at the window, chopping up a salad, and she gave a little wave to her through the glass; the same answer came back to her from the kitchen.

She took the route along past the school, walking along the treed lanes to the park. As ever her thoughts slid between German and English and sometimes her thoughts would change language within a single sentence, like this: schön look die Bäume this year. Like most bilinguals — and her German studies had certainly recovered some of the damage inflicted by that fleeing father — she associated certain vocabularies — Germany, friends, Karl — with one language, and certain — breakfasts, hurling, Richard — with another. But to her credit, in contrast to many bilingual people, Maria refused to praise one of her languages at the expense of the other, and a need to denigrate her Germanness had never been in her either. Why should it? The Germany she visited now was a peaceful, verdant land, full of tolerant if a little inflexible people of often considerable physical beauty. How she was looking forward to her stay abroad next year in __ster, not least to check out the local boys. Perhaps it was time to give herself to someone for a while.

She was now at the gate to the park, and she pulled up her skirt to be sure not to get mud on it at the seam. Last month there had been a festival here the there was still the one billboard against the fence there. There was an ice cream truck, too, but the weather had been bad all morning and business slow. But tell a lie, the sun was coming out amidst the clouds: island clouds as grey as the iron of the playground. She went to sit on one of those hoop — mounted wooden horses put there for the children’s amusement. Maria wasn’t particularly big, so she could still sit comfortably on one in her third decade.

Dreiundzwangzigjahre! Und nichts für die Unsterblichkeit getan![23] — so, she thought, quoting Don Carlos in Schiller’s play, she had two years left. And yet what if some of the things she had heard were true? That the ambition went, that, like her mother said, when she had got past her degree she’d wanted to do nothing more than settle down and meet the right man. Unthinkingly, she had never believed it, but she feared now for her ambitions and her own sense of being special. She wanted to do a PhD, go to Burning Man, and learn Arabic, which necessitated spending some time in what her two native languages denoted as either the Middle or Near East. She had so many ambitions and so little time, even if she secretly felt that she had.

It was warmer now in the small suburban park, the trim little area covered in sun shine and the young couples orbiting the playground”s wood staves. Most young women of her age didn’t even go for walks, let alone disappear for hours on end, mobile off, emails unchecked. She spent her time looking at the young mothers, digging their prams out from the wood staves beneath the swings, smoking their value brand cigarettes. They seemed happier than she was.

One of the kids was crying quietly, steadily, its tears on show; the mothers were stressed, no doubt, in all kinds of ways unknown to her, although she too felt a pang of anxiety as she thought of the work she had to do: the term paper for Doctor Muur, the round robin email for the photography club. She should have brought her camera out now, in fact: Stacey would have liked to have seen evidence of the outside world, holed up as she was today with her medical books — but at least, as Stacey was quick to point, they had pretty pictures in them. Later that afternoon they would both put down their books to cook pottage and head out the local art cinema, which tonight was showing, of all things, The Sound of Music.

She had risen now from her short horse and begun the gradual meander back to Stacey’s. At the gate, back on the path, a jogger came bristling past, awash with sweat on his pudgy face. Maria put her hands in her coat pockets and walked quicker. From behind, she heard a sudden scuffing sound; the jogger appeared to have caught their leg on a gate or a post, and gone forward, skittering to a violent halt; now they writhed in a tumble of their own shoes and legs, groaning. She walked down the hill, his muted sobs drifting away from behind her ears, thinking about the food that would be made tonight, and of maybe the possibility of an hour alone reading before eating.

Wedded to her dreams, engrossed in herself, complex in her outlook; there was Maria, the wonderment of any passing male. And yet to each of those her thoughts seemed only to distance her from the rest of the people in the world around her.

There were some girls though, she thought, hands ever deeper in pockets, who managed to get into really good positions at an early age: a girl called Naomi had already got an internship at the Irish Times, and the Taoiseach’s daughter had sold that novel of hers. She thought it was pretty stupid, all told, all those beautiful people socializing in fashionable ineloquence; better Kleist’s Marquise from O, who was so well brought up she couldn’t even tell she’d been raped. It seemed clear that these things had always been going on; it was more the attitudes to them that changed, she mused, caught in spirals of thought she could barely contain or brake.

Thinking, then, in her own manner, furrowing her brow, she moved back along the road in the crisp late summer air. Wedded to her dreams, engrossed in herself, complex in her outlook; there was Maria, the wonderment of any passing male. And yet to each of those her thoughts seemed only to distance her from the rest of the people in the world around her. She wouldn’t speak much more today, just a few words at dinner, like reading aloud the SMS she had received earlier, or having a brief chat before heading off to bed and into gnomic dreams, alone.

THE AUTHOR WOULD LIKE TO THANK JEROEN NIEUWLAND
FOR EDITING THE DUTCH PASSAGES IN THE NOVELLA
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GLOSSARY OF TERMS

  1. Onbeschammdheid: An outrage, a travesty.
  1. Wenn ich die Nase aus dem Fenster stecke, das Tageslicht wehe tut, das mir daraufschimmert”: “If I put my nose out of the window, the light that falls on it causes me pain.” From one of von Kleist’s last letters, written to his sister Marie on the 10 November 1811, eleven days before his suicide.
  1. The last stanza of Rilke’s poem “Die Erblindende” (“A Woman Going Blind”), from Neu Gedichte (New Poems) (1907).
  1. Geil: a German word for “horny,” a multi-purpose adjective in modern German for stressing a thing’s positive attributes.
  1. Denn ist recht: That’s alright, then.
  1. Karl’s comment: “Dutch isn’t particularly difficult for me. It’s more like a dialect of German, isn’t that right?”
  1. Translated, the conversation between Maria and Sebastian runs as follows:

    (German): Good evening.

    (Dutch): No, good evening. How are you?

    Great — thanks! Do you like Dublin?

    Absolutely. The airport was just as nice as my living room, and those are the only two rooms that I’ve seen until now. I suspect that there are other rooms in Ireland — cinemas, restaurants, bedrooms, for example. Maybe you could show me one of the latter?

  1. Prost means “Cheers” in German. Gezondheid means “Cheers” in Dutch.
  1. blauwkrijt: The “Blue Circle” group.
  1. Freddy treffen wir uns im Phoenix um 20.00 bis später Maria“: “Hello Freddy, let’s meet at the Phoenix at 20.00. Until then, Maria.”
  1. Sebastian’s lines:

    People interest me; God is incomprehensible.
    We want to outdo ourselves,
    We spur each other on.

  1. Der Vergnügen war ganz meinerseits.” The pleasure is all mine. Sebastian makes an error in his choice of article for das Vergnügen.
  1. Ik ben daa: It’s me. Mag ik binnenkommen?: May I come in?
  1. Was geht ihn das an?: What’s that got to do with him?
  1. Dat kan niet: It’s impossible.
  1. Ja, wanneer ik dat gedaan heb, mag alles voor mij voorbij zijn: Yes, when I’ve done that, that’s enough for me.
  1. Leberwurst: Liver sausage.
    Fasching: Carnival.
    Bleigießen: Divining patterns in ink, practised by some Germans at the start of a year.
  1. This is the first stanza of a poem by Goethe, composed during his Italien travels, in 1787:

    Cupid, you stupid selfish boy!
    You asked to stay for a few hours.
    How many days and nights have you stayed!
    And now you’ve become bossy and the master of the house!

  1. Auf geht’s: Time to go.
  1. Richard’s incorrect German is translated as: “It’s better if she comes to me. I’ll write her a poem, a beautiful poem. I mean…”
  1. Nee, isch schwätz der Platt: No, I speak ‘Low German’. Karl is referring here to his local dialect.
  1. Um Gottes Willen: For God’s sake.
  1. Dreiundzwangzigjahre! Und nichts für die Unsterblichkeit getan: A famous line from Schiller’s Don Carlos (1787), which translates as “23 years old! And nothing done for immortality!”

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