Berfrois

Excerpt: 'In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929' by Franz Hessel

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Berlin Street with Hackney Carriages in the Rain, Lesser Ury, 1925

From The Suspect:

Walking slowly down bustling streets is a particular pleasure. Awash in the haste of others, it’s a dip in the surf. But my dear fellow citizens of Berlin don’t make it easy, no matter how nimbly you weave out of their way. I always catch wary glances when I try to play the flâneur among the industrious. I believe they take me for a pick-pocket.

The swift, firm big-city girls with their insatiably open mouths become indignant when my gaze settles at length on their sailing shoulders and floating cheeks. It’s not as if they had anything at all against being looked at. But the slow-motion gaze of the harmless observer unnerves them. They notice that with mine, there’s nothing “behind!” it.

No, there’s nothing behind it. I’d like to linger at first sight. I’d like to capture or recover the first sight of the city in which I live …

In the quieter outlying districts, incidentally, I’m no less of a spectacle. There, in the northern part, is a square with a wooden scaffolding, the skeleton of a market, and right beside it, the widow Kohlmann’s general merchandise shop, which also has rags; and above the bundles of wastepaper, bed- steads, and pelts, on the slatted veranda of her shop, there are pots of geraniums. Geraniums, pulsing red in a sluggish gray world, which I’m compelled to gaze into for a long time. The widow gives me the evil eye. She doesn’t have the nerve to complain, maybe she thinks I’m an inspector; something’s amiss with her papers for all one knows. But I mean well with her, I’d like to ask her about her business and her views on life. Now she sees I’m finally going across the way, where the cross-street starts, to stare at the backs of the children’s knees as they play at hitting a ball against the wall. Long-legged girls, enchanting to watch. They hurl the ball back by turns with their hands, heads, and chests, twisting as they do so, and the hollows of their knees seem to be the center and origin of their motions. I feel the merchandise-widow craning her neck behind me. Will she notify the law about the kind of fellow I am? Suspicious role of the observer!

When twilight falls, old and young women lean at the windows, propped up on pillows. I feel for them what psychologists dispatch with words like “empathy.” But they won’t allow me to wait with and next to them for something that isn’t coming, only to wait without object.

Street merchants who peddle something with a cry have nothing against it if you linger by them; but I’d rather stand next to the woman with a great deal of hair from the previous century slowly spreading her embroidery across blue paper and staring mutely at the customers. And I’m not really one of them, she can hardly expect that I’d buy anything from her wares.

At times, I’m wont to go into the courtyards. In old Berlin, life beyond the courtyard buildings becomes denser and more profound, making the courtyards rich, the poor courtyards with a bit of green in one corner, the carpet rods, the garbage cans and the pumps left over from the time before running water. Ideally, I manage to go mid-mornings, when singers and violinists emerge, or the organ-grinder man, who also regales us with nature’s pipe on his free pair of fingers, or the wonder who plays the snare in front and the kettledrum in back (a cord runs from a hook on his right ankle to the kettledrum on his back and the pair of bells on top of that; and when he stomps, a mallet dashes against the kettledrum, and the bells crash together). Then I can stand next to the old porter woman—or rather the doorman’s mother, old as she looks, and as accustomed as she seems to sitting on her little camp chair. She takes no offense at my presence, and I’m allowed to look up into the courtyard windows, where young type-writer-ladies and sewing girls from the offices and workshops crowd to see the concert. They pause, blissfully entranced, until some bothersome boss comes and they have to shuffle back to their work. The windows are all bare. Only one, on the second-to-top floor, has curtains. A birdcage hangs there, and when the violin sobs from the bottom of its heart and the barrel organ wails resoundingly, then the canary starts to warble as the only voice from the silently staring windows. It’s beautiful. But I also like to get my share of the evening in these courtyards, the children’s last games—they’re called to come upstairs again and again—and the young girls who come home and want to leave again; I alone find neither courage nor pretext to intrude; it’s too easy to see I’m unauthorized.

Around here, you have to have to, otherwise you’re not allowed. Here you don’t walk, you walk somewhere. It’s not easy for the likes of us.

I can count my blessings that a pitying friend sometimes allows me to accompany her when she has errands to run. To the stocking repair shop, for example, where a sign on the door reads: “Fallen stitches taken up.” In this dreary entresol, a hunch-back scurries through her musty, wooly room, which is brightened by new glossy wallpaper. Goods and sewing supplies lie on the tables and étagères, around porcelain slippers, bisque cupids, and bronze statuettes of girls, the way herding animals gather around old fountains and ruins. And I’m allowed to have a close look at all of it, and learn a piece of city and world history from it, while the women confer.

Or I’m taken along to a mender who lives on the ground floor of a courtyard building on Kurfürstenstraße. A curtain, which doesn’t quite reach the floor, divides his workroom from his sleeping quarters. On a fringed scarf hanging over the curtain, Kaiser Friedrich is colorfully depicted as crown prince. “That’s how he came from San Remo,” says the mender, following my gaze, and then goes on to show me his other treasures of monarchist loyalty: the last Wilhelm, photographed and very much framed with his daughter on his knees, and the famous picture of the old Kaiser with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. He’s glad to resew my lady-republican’s green jacket, but at heart he keeps, as he says, “with the old lords, especially as the Republic only cares for the young people. I don’t try to convince him otherwise. My political insights are no match for his objects and objections. He’s very friendly with my friend’s dog, which sniffs around at everything, curious and always on the trail of something, just like me.

I like to go walking with this little terrier. We both get completely lost in thought; and he gives me occasion to stop more often than would normally be allowed such a suspicious person as myself.

Recently, however, things took a bad turn for us. I picked him up from a building where we were both strangers. We went down a set of stairs in which a grillwork elevator shaft had been installed. The elevator was a grim interloper in the once serenely wide stairwell. From the colorful windows, bulky heraldic ladies stared incredulously at this traveling dungeon. And their grips loosened around the jewels and emblems in their hands. Surely it smelled very discrepant in this ensemble of various epochs, which distracted my companion to such a degree from present surroundings and customs that on the first step of the steep staircase, which led down to the foot of the elevator cabinet from the mezzanine, he—forgot himself! Such a thing, my friend later assured me, could only happen to such a civilized creature in my presence. That I could put up with. I was hit harder by the accusation made by the building’s porter at the moment of the embarrassing event, and who, unfortunately, stuck his nose out of his loge just as we were forgetting ourselves. In proper recognition of my complicity, he turned not to the pup, but to me. Pointing with a gray menacing finger at the site of the misdeed, he barked at me: “Eh? Anya wanna be a cultured yuman bein?”

Excerpted from In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929 by Franz Hessel, Translated from the German by Amanda DeMarco. Published 2013 by Readux Books. Originally published as “Der Verdächtige” in Spazieren in Berlin in 1929 by Verlag Dr. Hans Epstein, Leipzig and Wien.

Republished with permission from Redux Books. Readux Books individually publishes short works of literature, in translation and as English originals. It releases four teeny books three times yearly, with the first set appearing in mid-October 2013.