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01/10/2007

Martin Mosebach's novel "The Moon and the Maiden" - an excerpt

Excerpt:

(Chapter 1, pp. 5–15 of German edition)

In searching for an apartment, you know one of those rare moments when it really seems that you are in charge of the future course of your existence, for where and how you live, in both senses of the word, sums up your life itself. The young man who was riding his bicycle through the streets of Frankfurt, a city still new to him, had married a few days earlier and was looking for the first apartment that he and his wife would share. "My wife" … the words didn't yet come naturally to him. "My wife." Didn't that suggest something of a matronly character? To become "my wife", the girl he had married must lose all that was now hers: her childlike quality, her butterfly delicacy, her elfin lightness. Those were not his exact thoughts, he wasn't going to venture on poetic flights of fancy, but it was a softly tinkling fragility, as if of fine glass, that came into his mind when he thought of the girl, a tender crystal chime, a silveriness in her voice and her hair. She was not so very much younger than him, but hers had been a sheltered middle-class background, and she had grown up like an exquisite early vegetable that may be touched only by warmth and dew, not frost and rough winds.

The first weeks of this marriage were not quite what might have been expected in such well-regulated circumstances. Countless guests congratulated the young couple. Most of them were complete strangers to the bridegroom, and were still strangers when he looked at the wedding photos; you could have put any picture in front of him at random, and he would have been ready to believe he'd seen that face some time or other on the wedding day. But after this mariage à la mode the famous ritual of the honeymoon did not, unfortunately, take place. Nothing could be done about that. It had proved impossible to postpone the start of his new job, his first after university, and no really serious attempt had been made to do so, for what was once supposed to happen on a honeymoon had, as usual, taken place long ago, and at least three little honeymoons had preceded the wedding itself. There was no time for sentimentality, as his mother-in-law put it, and in her vicinity not only sentimentality but all the other emotions found it hard to assert themselves.
Even more than emotions, however, the lady abhorred any kind of effort, and though everything that could possibly be delegated had been left to assistants, there was no denying the fact that the wedding had been, first and foremost, an immense strain on her. Only a few days after the fireworks of the bridal evening had burned out, she went on a trip to the south and took her daughter with her, because she didn't like to meet other people on her own. If she was not to be too easily overcome by a strange environment, she must always have someone from her own sphere of life with her. The young man had nothing against this trip on principle. He always liked to think of the girl having a good time, and it was much less complicated this way: he moved into a small boarding-house in Frankfurt, he would very soon have found an apartment, house-hunting in the evening after work and at weekends, and when she came back he would surprise her – a delightful thought – and they would have the removal van full of wedding presents sent from Hamburg and start unpacking and settling in.

But what did surprise him just a little, now that he was on his own to think it over, was her unquestioning acquiescence to her mother's wishes without weighing up the pros and cons. Whether he could have done with his newly-married wife's support in these early days in a strange place hadn't even been considered. Ina did not look happy when she told him about her mother's plan, but in view of the objective necessity of it – for without any doubt that was what her mother's demands amounted to – her regrets were a minor matter. It wasn't the first time she had been similarly commandeered, but before they were married it hadn't really bothered him. The girl's deep attachment to her mother was all part of her childlike nature. His mother-in-law was a widow, so wasn't it natural for Ina to take special care of her? If only he hadn't come to feel that this woman didn't need anyone to look after her at all.
Frau von Klein was not as delicately built as her daughter. Her pretty face was not an older version or further development of her daughter's features, it was just slightly more ample, and of course the skin showed a fine network of lines, touchingly and appealingly aging the childlike appearance that the mother herself still retained. She was the most beautiful imaginable mother-in-law, and moved with slow, effortless languor. She had worn pink at the wedding without looking silly, and heaven knows how many idiots – most of them women – had not shrunk from uttering platitudes assuring everyone that mother and daughter looked more like sisters – "Oh dear, I do hope not," said Frau von Klein, her expression unmoved, when she heard such remarks.

The young man saw her before him as she had been after the wedding reception, sitting with distant relations in the hotel lobby and three times dismissing the hairdresser, an ugly little Italian who kept timidly approaching, even though she had summoned him herself. The desperate man had to perform extraordinary feats of logistics, constantly changing the other ladies' appointments, without earning more from her than a blank gaze without any trace of even pretended apology.

She's completely independent of the approval of other people, thought the young man, she hardly even notices them. At supper, however, her helmet of hair was immaculate, as if she had spent all afternoon under the drier. True coldness has something in common with complete justice. It may even appear to be strength, initially muting other people's indignation. All the same, by now a touch of rancour was forming in the young man's mind. "Frankfurt, oh, a terrible city!" said Frau von Klein, when he proudly told her about his new job. Was that all she had to say on hearing his good news?

Ina hung on her mother's lips, but when she glanced at him she smiled. And that was how it ought to be. He wanted their new start together to fill Ina with joy and confidence. Whether she too would soon find a job in Frankfurt didn't matter for now. You lived in the city where you worked. What was a terrible city anyway? Certainly not the one along whose streets he was now cycling after work.
He still wore his dark pin-striped suit, the uniform of an Assistant Executive, as his business card described him, but he had put his tie in his jacket pocket, for when you left the air-conditioned glass tower block where his office was located you met a wall of heat. It was only June, but here in Frankfurt the weather was already hotter than on the Mediterranean, as he knew from Ina. She spoke of grey skies, and almost uncomfortably chilly evenings on the Bay of Naples, while Frankfurt was covered by a glowing bright blue sky that turned softer towards evening, but was by no means fading yet.

Outside the city centre the streets were empty. Riding a bike was like gliding through caressing, saturated air. Even the exhaust fumes, when they happened to rise to his nostrils, added their aromatic abundance. A certain heaviness, a sense of substantiality as if of cotton wool, is a part of city air. Large amounts of dust and dirt in the atmosphere give the light an incomparable beauty, as anyone who has seen the sunsets of Delhi or Mexico City knows – filtered through smoke, the sun becomes gigantic, radiating a red-gold splendour unknown in purer spheres. Not that the air of Frankfurt was dirty enough for such displays, and no one would miss those exotic plays of light when the houses and front gardens here presented such a picture of demure evening tranquillity, quiet after the working day was over, and you could even hear a church bell ringing. There must be a chapel somewhere near; the sound was too clear for a big bell. The roller shutters were down over many windows to keep the sun out during the day. And now there was a faint rolling sound as they were pulled up again to let the excluded light back into the rooms, once it had shed its burning heat at last. The streets along which he was cycling, with no special plan in mind, had probably been laid out a century ago. Apartment buildings of three or at the most four floors were often made of the red sandstone of the river Main area, or at least the doorposts, the base of the masonry and the window frames were red; there was something both provincial and very German about that stone, a certain civic and ecclesiastical gloom. Now, however, the light fell on it so softly that it almost glowed from within.

What would it be like to live here? the young man wondered, looking into a living room where a lighted, handsome lamp stood in front of a large mirror. There was another room next to it, and he caught a glimpse of green through the window at the back. Then he thought: no, definitely not a place on the ground floor. Ina was nervous, and wouldn't be able to sleep with the window open in a ground-floor apartment. But they could take one on the first floor; those certainly didn't get quite so much light but had ostentatious little balconies with heavy Baroque balustrades. They would probably put terracotta pots containing clipped globes of box out on the balcony, as the inhabitants of this building had done. A whole row of buildings was thus adorned, as if their discreet inner life were making its way out through the thick walls, to show the street what good taste prevailed in the interiors. In the warmth of the summer evening the solid houses seemed to breathe and became large resonators, like the soundboxes of musical instruments quietly echoing and vibrating when they are touched, or when the air blows through them.

The young man was so overcome by the beauty of the street, silent as it was, yet full of life, that all his doubts disappeared; he stopped wondering whether an apartment to suit Ina and him could be found in this city. He felt as if all these dwellings, few of them with any lights on yet but obviously inhabited, were at his disposal, as if the people opening their windows and pulling up their shutters were simply showing him what life here was like until he had decided on one of the apartments. Without asking himself what he was really looking for, he got off his bicycle and went through an open wrought-iron garden gate, down the passage leading to the heavy front door of the building and the smaller gate, also furnished with wrought-iron bars, that led past the back stairway and into the yard.

A huge chestnut tree stood there, with a wealth of leaves that immersed the whole yard in green light. The tree towered above the rooftops. The small yard had put out this growth like a palm tree: a green column, a green waterfall, a miracle of nature had come into being here. Among the roots of the chestnut stood a sandbox with buckets and spades, looking as if the children had only just run indoors. Playing and growing up under this tree, in the presence of its peaceful size – surely such a youthful experience could compete with any childhood spent in the high mountains!

It wasn't really that the young man was already thinking of children. Indeed, so far he had banished any such thoughts. He wanted to live with Ina as a pair of lovers. She was enough for him, and she had often assured him that he was enough for her too; she needed no one else, didn't want to see anyone else, thought it particularly lucky that her marriage meant moving out of the social atmosphere of her old home at last. But then he saw this sandbox – if the children whose sandbox it was had been there, having children of his own wouldn't have come into his mind. He disliked small children with their self-centred yelling, and he was even more put off by the change in his former fellow-students when, as had happened in three cases already, they became fathers.

But what the empty sandbox in the shadow of the chestnut tree was telling him wasn't entirely out of the question. If Ina with her MA in art history didn't immediately find the right job here in Frankfurt – and just what kind of job that would be had hardly been discussed, for the MA itself had meant several years of nightmare for everyone close to Ina, and no one considered the aftermath – then why shouldn't she spend the free time thus made available to her looking after a child? He walked slowly back to his bicycle and studied the names of the tenants on their letter-boxes, as if they might disclose the character of the building. As he rode on, he saw the pretty garden of an Italian restaurant on the corner, with large Veronese awnings. Women in summer dresses sat there, and he would enjoy going to the place with Ina on a hot evening like this. He felt as if Frankfurt were always bathed in such heat, as if every decision made in hunting for an apartment must take account of unusual heat like this.

He was now riding past a neglected park that seemed to groan under the weight of summer. At the moment it was deserted except for a few young men perched on the backs of benches and holding beer cans, their heads swaying as they listened to music through their headphones, but even so early in the year the grass was already trodden down and parched, and the litter bins were overflowing. How many picnics had been eaten here during the day?
All the same, a nice little park very close, thought the young man. There'd have to be a park. An apartment without a park somewhere near was out of the question. Perhaps he could persuade Ina to jog in this park with him first thing in the morning? The idea had not previously occurred to him, but now he saw before his mind's eye their enjoyable and well-organized life here. And then the city centre was so close. In the whole of this quarter as he explored it on his bike, he hadn't seen a single terrible street so far, and just what did the city so ominously dismissed by his mother-in-law as "terrible" consist of? Its streets, surely. He'd tell her so next time they met, he decided, and didn't stop to think of the blank, impenetrable gaze that she turned on all who contradicted her.

So no potential tenant could have been more ready and willing than the young man. The member of the estate agent's staff who was waiting for him in the large apartment building beyond the park could consider himself lucky. The young man liked the quarter so much that he hardly minded what an apartment was like, as long as it was in this same area.

The stairway looked all right, except that the steps were covered with speckled grey linoleum. But the apartment itself was in a sad state. This was a fine Jugendstil building, many of the original details, such as attractive door handles, were preserved, but otherwise everything possible had been done to go against the natural grain of the place. The two rooms looking out on the street had grass-green fitted carpet. Dirty footprints criss-crossed the pile of this man-made savannah. The walls had been painted blood-red; cold, harsh electric light fell on stains and cracks. The bathroom was a narrow tunnel, but here the estate agent came up with a good idea: you had only to move a wall, take in a metre's width from the room next door, and you had the perfect bathroom. "A pity about the nice room, though," said the young man, for the room next door was the bedroom. He looked out at the crown of a maple tree with rather sparse foliage.
"One can't have everything," said the estate agent. Rather surprised, the young man noticed the agent's abrupt tone. "You'll have to make your mind up at once. There's someone else after it."
Was it really a good idea to go hunting for an apartment without Ina? The young man felt painfully aware of his inability to imagine this one in a renovated and improved state. Horrible things must have happened on this floor and within these blood-red walls. The rooms were full of musty air that would certainly have gone away if the windows had been opened, but now it was like being close to someone with bad body odour: the smell can be dispelled for a while by a bath, but it deprives you once and for all of any desire for a closer acquaintanceship with the unfortunate sufferer. However, he felt he was being feeble as he admitted to the estate agent that he couldn't make the requisite instant decision. It seemed as if his inability to do so was like saying goodbye to this whole part of the city, the area he'd admired so much just now. He had not made his refusal easy for himself.

When he was out in the street again the sky was still pale blue, and the moon had risen. It was so close to the full that it looked as if a thin crescent-shaped sliver had been shaved from the round disc with nail-scissors. The street was as beautiful as before, but now its beauty had taken on something of the nature of a stage set.


Translation: Anthea Bell
Copyright Hanser Verlag
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