|Dr. Henry Selwyn||p. 1|
|Paul Bereyter||p. 25|
|Ambros Adelwarth||p. 65|
|Max Ferber||p. 147|
|Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.|
At the end of september 1970, shortly before I took up my position in Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live. For some 25 kilometres the road runs amidst fields and hedgerows, beneath spreading oak trees, past a few scattered hamlets, till at length Hingham appears, its asymmetrical gables, church tower and treetops barely rising above the flatland. The market place, broad and lined with silent facades, was deserted, but still it did not take us long to find the house the agents had described. One of the largest in the village, it stood a short distance from the church with its grassy graveyard, Scots pines and yews, up a quiet side street. The house was hidden behind a two-metre wall and a thick shrubbery of hollies and Portuguese laurel. We walked down the gentle slope of the broad driveway and across the evenly gravelled forecourt. To the right, beyond the stables and outbuildings, a stand of beeches rose high into the clear autumn sky, its rookery deserted in the early afternoon, the nests dark patches in a canopy of foliage that was only occasionally disturbed. The front of the large, neoclassical house was overgrown with Virginia creeper. The door was painted black and on it was a brass knocker in the shape of a fish. We knocked several times, but there was no sign of life inside the house. We stepped back a little. The sash windows, each divided into twelves panes, glinted blindly, seeming to be made of dark mirror glass. The house gave the impression that no one lived there. And I recalled the chateau in the Charente that I had once visited from Angouleme. In front of it, two crazy brothers -- one a parliamentarian, the other an architect -- had built a replica of the facade of the palace of Versailles, an utterly pointless counterfeit, though one which made a powerful impression from a distance. The windows of that house had been just as gleaming and blind as those of the house we now stood before. Doubtless we should have driven on without accomplishing a thing, if we had not summoned up the nerve, exchanging one of those swift glances, to at least take a look at the garden. Warily we walked round the house. On the north side, where the brickwork was green with damp and variegated ivy partly covered the walls, a mossy path led past the servants' entrance, past a woodshed, on through deep shadows, to emerge, as if upon a stage, onto a terrace with a stone balustrade overlooking a broad, square lawn bordered by flower beds, shrubs and trees. Beyond the lawn, to the west, the grounds opened out into a park landscape studded with lone lime trees, elms and holm oaks, and beyond that lay the gentle undulations of arable land and the white mountains of cloud on the horizon. In silence we gazed at this view, which drew the eye into the distance as it fell and rose in stages, and we looked for a long time, supposing ourselves quite alone, till we noticed a motionless figure lying in the shade cast on the lawn by a lofty cedar in the southwest corner of the garden. It was an old man, his head propped on his arm, and he seemed altogether absorbed in contemplation of the patch of earth immediately before his eyes. We crossed the lawn towards him, every step wonderfully light on the grass. Not till we were almost upon him, though, did he notice us. He stood up, not without a certain embarrassment. Though he was tall and broad-shouldered, he seemed quite stocky, even short. Perhaps this impression came from the way he had of looking, head bowed, over the top of his gold-rimmed reading glasses, a habit which had given him a stooped, almost supplicatory posture. His white hair was combed back, but a few stray wisps kept falling across his strikingly high forehead. I was counting the blades of grass, he said, by way of apology for his absentmindedness. It's a sort of pastime of mine. Rather irritating, I am afraid. He swept back one of his white strands of hair. His movements seemed at once awkward and yet perfectly poised; and there was a similar courtesy, of a style that had long since fallen into disuse, in the way he introduced himself as Dr Henry Selwyn. No doubt, he continued, we had come about the flat. As far as he could say, it had not yet been let, but we should have to wait for Mrs Selwyn's return, since she was the owner of the house and he merely a dweller in the garden, a kind of ornamental hermit. In the course of the conversation that followed these opening remarks, we strolled along the iron railings that marked off the garden from open parkland. We stopped for a moment. Three heavy greys were rounding a little clump of alders, snorting and throwing up clods of turf as they trotted. They took up an expectant position at our side, and Dr Selwyn fed them from his trouser pocket, stroking their muzzles as he did so. I have put them out to grass, he said. I bought them at an auction last year for a few pounds. Otherwise they would doubtless have gone straight to the knacker's yard. They're called Herschel, Humphrey and Hippolytus. I know nothing about their earlier life, but when I bought them they were in a sorry state. Their coats were infested with lice, their eyes were dim, and their hooves were cracked right through from standing in a wet field. But now, said Dr Selwyn, they've made something of a recovery, and they might still have a year or so ahead of them. With that he took his leave of the horses, which were plainly very fond of him, and strolled on with us towards the remoter parts of the garden, pausing now and then and becoming more expansive and circumstantial in his talk. Through the shrubbery on the south side of the lawn, a path led to a walk lined with hazels, where grey squirrels were up to their mischief in the canopy of branches overhead. The ground was thickly strewn with empty nutshells, and autumn crocuses took the weak light that penetrated the dry, rustling leaves. The hazel walk led to a tennis court bounded by a whitewashed brick wall. Tennis, said Dr Selwyn, used to be my great passion. But now the court has fallen into disrepair, like so much else around here. It's not only the kitchen garden, he continued, indicating the tumble-down Victorian greenhouses and overgrown espaliers, that's on its last legs after years of neglect. More and more, he said, he sensed that Nature itself was groaning and collapsing beneath the burden we placed upon it. True, the garden, which had originally been meant to supply a large household, and had indeed, by dint of skill and diligence, provided fruit and vegetables for the table throughout the entire year, was still, despite the neglect, producing so much that he had far more than he needed for his own requirements, which admittedly were becoming increasingly modest. Leaving the once well-tended garden to its own devices did have the incidental advantage, said Dr Selwyn, that the things that still grew there, or which he had sown or planted more or less haphazardly, possessed a flavour that he himself found quite exceptionally delicate. We walked between beds of asparagus with the tufts of green at shoulder height, rows of massive artichoke plants, and on to a small group of apple trees, on which there were an abundance of red and yellow apples. Dr Selwyn placed a dozen of these fairy-tale apples, which really did taste better than any I have eaten since, on a rhubarb leaf, and gave them to Clara, remarking that the variety was aptly named Beauty of Bath.
Two days after this first meeting with Dr Selwyn we moved in to Prior's Gate. The previous evening, Mrs Selwyn had shown us the rooms, on the first floor of the east wing, furnished in an idiosyncratic fashion but otherwise pleasant and spacious. We had immediately been very taken with the prospect of spending a few months there, since the view from the high windows across the garden, the park and the massed cloud in the sky was more than ample recompense for the gloomy interior. One only needed to look out, and the gigantic and startlingly ugly sideboard ceased to exist, the mustard yellow paintwork in the kitchen vanished, and the turquoise refrigerator, gas-powered and possibly not without its dangers, seemed to dissolve into nowhere, as if by a miracle. Elli Selwyn was a factory owner's daughter, from Biel in Switzerland, and we soon realized that she had an excellent head for business. She gave us permission to make modest alterations in the flat, to suit our taste. Once the bathroom (which was in an annexe on cast-iron columns and accessible only via a footbridge) had been painted white, she even came up to approve our handiwork. The unfamiliar look prompted her to make the cryptic comment that the bathroom, which had always reminded her of an old-fashioned hothouse, now reminded her of a freshly painted dovecote, an observation that has stuck in my mind to this day as an annihilating verdict on the way we lead our life, though I have not been able to make any change in it. But that is beside the point. Our access to the flat was either by an iron staircase, now painted white as well, that rose from the courtyard to the bathroom footbridge, or (on the ground floor) through a double door into a wide corridor, the walls of which, just below the ceiling, were festooned with a complicated bell-pull system for the summoning of servants. From that passageway one could look into the dark kitchen, where at any hour of the day a female personage of indeterminable age would always be busy at the sink. Elaine, as she was called, wore her hair shorn high up the nape, as the inmates of asylums do. Her facial expressions and movements gave a distraught impression, her lips were always wet, and she was invariably wearing her long grey apron that reached down to her ankles. What work Elaine was doing in the kitchen, day in, day out, remained a mystery to Clara and myself; to the best of our knowledge, no meal, with one single exception, was ever cooked there. Across the corridor, about a foot above the stone floor, there was a door in the wall. Through it, one entered a dark stairwell; and on every floor hidden passageways branched off, running behind walls in such a way that the servants, ceaselessly hurrying to and fro laden with coal scuttles, baskets of firewood, cleaning materials, bed linen and tea trays, never had to cross the paths of their betters. Often I tried to imagine what went on inside the heads of people who led their lives knowing that, behind the walls of the rooms they were in, the shadows of the servants were perpetually flitting past. I fancied they ought to have been afraid of those ghostly creatures who, for scant wages, dealt with the tedious tasks that had to be performed daily. The main access to our rooms was via this rear staircase, at the bottommost level of which, incidentally, was the invariably locked door of Elaine's quarters. This too made us feel somewhat uneasy. Only once did I manage to snatch a glance, and saw that her small room was full of countless dolls, meticulously dressed, most of them wearing something on their heads, standing or sitting around or lying on the bed where Elaine herself slept -- if, that is, she ever slept at all, and did not spend the entire night crooning softly as she played with her dolls. On Sundays and holidays we occasionally saw Elaine leaving the house in her Salvation Army uniform. She was often met by a little girl who would then walk beside her, one trusting hand in hers. It took a while for us to grow used to Elaine. What we found particularly unsettling was her intermittent habit, when she was in the kitchen, of breaking into strange, apparently unmotivated, whinnying laughter that would penetrate to the first floor. What was more, Elaine, ourselves excepted, was the sole occupant of the immense house who was always there. Mrs Selwyn was frequently away on her travels for weeks at a time, or was about her business, seeing to the numerous flats she let in town and in nearby villages. As long as the weather permitted, Dr Selwyn liked to be out of doors, and especially in a flint-built hermitage in a remote corner of the garden, which he called his folly and which he had furnished with the essentials. But one morning just a week or so after we had moved in, I saw him standing at an open window of one of his rooms on the west side of the house. He had his spectacles on and was wearing a tartan dressing gown and a white neckerchief. He was aiming a gun with two inordinately long barrels up into the blue. When at last he fired the shot, after what seemed to me an eternity, the report fell upon the gardens with a shattering crash. Dr Selwyn later explained that he had been finding out whether the gun, which was meant for hunting big game and which he had bought many years ago as a young man, was still in working order after decades of disuse in his dressing room. During that time, as far as he could remember, it had been cleaned and checked over only a couple of times. He told me he had bought the gun when he went to India to take up his first position as a surgeon. At that time, having such a gun was considered obligatory for a man of his caste. He had gone hunting with it only once, though, and had even neglected to put it to inaugural use on that occasion, as he ought to have. So now he had been wondering if the piece still worked, and had established that the recoil alone was enough to kill one.
Otherwise, as I have said, Dr Selwyn was scarcely ever in the house. He lived in his hermitage, giving his entire attention, as he occasionally told me, to thoughts which on the one hand grew vaguer day by day, and, on the other, grew more precise and unambiguous. During our stay in the house he had a visitor only once. It was in the spring, I think, about the end of April, and Elli happened to be away in Switzerland. One morning Dr Selwyn came up to tell us that he had invited a friend with whom he had been close for many years to dinner and, if it was convenient, he would be delighted if we could make their twosome a petit comite. We went down shortly before eight. A fire was blazing against the distinct chill of evening in the vast hearth of the drawing room, which was furnished with a number of four-seater settees and cumbersome armchairs. High on the walls mirrors with blind patches were hung, multiplying the flickering of the firelight and reflecting shifting images. Dr Selwyn was wearing a tie and a tweed jacket with leather patches at the elbows. His friend Edwin Elliott, whom he introduced to us as a well-known botanist and entomologist, was a man of a much slighter build than Dr Selwyn himself, and, while the latter inclined to stoop, he carried himself erect. He too was wearing a tweed jacket. His shirt collar was too large for his scrawny, wrinkled neck, which emerged from it accordion-style, like the neck of certain birds or of a tortoise; his head was small, seeming faintly prehistoric, some kind of throwback; his eyes, though, shone with sheer wonderful life. At first we talked about my work and our plans for the next year or so, and of the impressions we had, coming from mountainous parts, of England, and particularly of the flat expanse of the county of Norfolk. Dusk fell. Dr Selwyn stood up and, with some ceremony, preceded us into the dining room next door. On the oak table, at which thirty people could have been seated with no difficulty, stood two silver candelabra. Places were set for Dr Selwyn and Edwin at the head and foot of the table, and for Clara and me on the long side facing the windows. By now it was almost dark inside the house, and outside, too, the greenery was thickening with deep, blue shadows. The light of the west still lay on the horizon, though, with mountains of cloud whose snowy formations reminded me of the loftiest alpine massifs, as the night descended. Elaine pushed in a serving trolley equipped with hotplates, some kind of patented design dating from the Thirties. She was wearing her grey full-length apron and went about her work in a silence which she broke only once or twice to mutter something to herself. She lit the candles and shuffled out, as she had come in, without a word. We served ourselves, passing the dishes along the table to one another. The first course consisted of a few pieces of green asparagus covered with marinated leaves of young spinach. The main course was broccoli spears in butter and new potatoes boiled with mint leaves. Dr Selwyn told us that he grew his earlies in the sandy soil of one of the old glasshouses, where they reached the size of walnuts by mid April. The meal was concluded with creamed stewed rhubarb sprinkled with Demarara sugar. Thus almost everything was from the neglected garden. Before we had finished, Edwin turned our conversation to Switzerland, perhaps thinking that Dr Selwyn and I would both have something to say on the subject. And Dr Selwyn did indeed, after a certain hesitation, start to tell us of his stay in Berne shortly before the First World War. In the summer of 1913 (he began), he had completed his medical studies in Cambridge, and had forthwith left for Berne, intending to further his training there. In the event, things had turned out differently, and he had spent most of his time in the Bernese Oberland, taking more and more to mountain climbing. He spent weeks on end in Meiringen, and Oberaar in particular, where he met an alpine guide by the name of Johannes Naegeli, then aged sixty-five, of whom, from the beginning, he was very fond. He went everywhere with Naegeli -- up the Zinggenstock, the Scheuchzerhorn and the Rosenhorn, the Lauteraarhorn, the Schreckhorn and the Ewigschneehorn -- and never in his life, neither before nor later, did he feel as good as he did then, in the company of that man. When war broke out and I returned to England and was called up, Dr Selwyn said, nothing felt as hard, as I realize now looking back, as saying goodbye to Johannes Naegeli. Even the separation from Elli, whom I had met at Christmas in Berne and married after the war, did not cause me remotely as much pain as the separation from Naegeli. I can still see him standing at the station at Meiringen, waving. But I may only be imagining it, Dr Selwyn went on in a lower tone, to himself, since Elli has come to seem a stranger to me over the years, whereas Naegeli seems closer whenever he comes to my mind, despite the fact that I never saw him again after that farewell in Meiringen. Not long after mobilization, Naegeli went missing on his way from the Oberaar cabin to Oberaar itself. It was assumed that he had fallen into a crevasse in the Aare glacier. The news reached me in one of the first letters I received when I was in uniform, living in barracks, and it plunged me into a deep depression that nearly led to my being discharged. It was as if I was buried under snow and ice. But this is an old story, said Dr Selwyn after a lengthy pause. We ought really, he said, turning to Edwin, to show our guests the pictures we took on our last visit to Crete. We returned to the drawing room. The logs were glowing in the dark. Dr Selwyn tugged a bell-pull to the right of the fireplace, and almost instantly, as if she had been waiting in the passage for the signal, Elaine pushed in a trolley with a slide projector on it. The large ormolu clock on the mantelpiece and the Meissen figurines, a shepherd and shepherdess and a colourfully clad Moor rolling his eyes, were moved aside, and the wooden-framed screen Elaine had brought in was put up in front of the mirror. The low whirr of the projector began, and the dust in the room, normally invisible, glittered and danced in the beam of light by way of a prelude to the pictures themselves. Their journey to Crete had been made in the springtime. The landscape of the island seemed veiled in bright green as it lay before us. Once or twice, Edwin was to be seen with his field glasses and a container for botanical specimens, or Dr Selwyn in knee-length shorts, with a shoulder bag and butterfly net. One of the shots resembled, even in detail, a photograph of Nabokov in the mountains above Gstaad that I had clipped from a Swiss magazine a few days before.
Strangely enough, both Edwin and Dr Selwyn made a distinctly youthful impression on the pictures they showed us, though at the time they made the trip, exactly ten years earlier, they were already in their late sixties. I sensed that, for both of them, this return of their past selves was an occasion for some emotion. But it may be that it merely seemed that way to me because neither Edwin nor Dr Selwyn was willing or able to make any remark concerning these pictures, whereas they did comment on the many others showing the springtime flora of the island, and all manner of winged and creeping creatures. Whilst their images were on screen, trembling slightly, there was almost total silence in the room. In the last of the pictures we saw the expanse of the Lasithi plateau outspread before us, taken from the heights of one of the northern passes. The shot must have been taken around midday, since the sun was shining into our line of vision. To the south, lofty Mount Spathi, two thousand metres high, towered above the plateau, like a mirage beyond the flood of light. The fields of potatoes and vegetables across the broad valley floor, the orchards and clumps of other trees, and the untilled land, were awash with green upon green, studded with the hundreds of white sails of wind pumps. We sat looking at this picture for a long time in silence too, so long that the glass in the slide shattered and a dark crack fissured across the screen. That view of the Lasithi plateau, held so long till it shattered, made a deep impression on me at the time, yet it later vanished from my mind almost completely. It was not until a few years afterwards that it returned to me, in a London cinema, as I followed a conversation between Kaspar Hauser and his teacher, Daumer, in the kitchen garden at Daumer's home. Kaspar, to the delight of his mentor, was distinguishing for the first time between dream and reality, beginning his account with the words: I was in a dream, and in my dream I saw the Caucasus. The camera then moved from right to left, in a sweeping arc, offering a panoramic view of a plateau ringed by mountains, a plateau with a distinctly Indian look to it, with pagoda-like towers and temples with strange triangular facades amidst the green undergrowth and woodland: follies, in a pulsing dazzle of light, that kept reminding me of the sails of those wind pumps of Lasithi, which in reality I have still not seen to this day.
We moved out of Prior's Gate in mid May 1971. Clara had bought a house one afternoon on the spur of the moment. At first we missed the view, but instead we had the green and grey lancets of two willows at our windows, and even on days when there was no breeze at all they were almost never at rest. The trees were scarcely fifteen metres from the house, and the movement of the leaves seemed so close that at times, when one looked out, one felt a part of it. At fairly regular intervals Dr Selwyn called on us in our as yet almost totally empty house, bringing vegetables and herbs from his garden -- yellow and blue beans, carefully scrubbed potatoes, artichokes, chives, sage, chervil and dill. On one of these visits, Clara being away in town, Dr Selwyn and I had a long talk prompted by his asking whether I was ever homesick. I could not think of any adequate reply, but Dr Selwyn, after a pause for thought, confessed (no other word will do) that in recent years he had been beset with homesickness more and more. When I asked where it was that he felt drawn back to, he told me that at the age of seven he had left a village near Grodno in Lithuania with his family. In the late autumn of 1899, his parents, his sisters Gita and Raja, and his Uncle Shani Feldhendler, had ridden to Grodno on a cart that belonged to Aaron Wald the coachman. For years the images of that exodus had been gone from his memory, but recently, he said, they had been returning once again and making their presence felt. I can still see the teacher who taught the children in the cheder, where I had been going for two years by then, placing his hand on my parting; I can still see the empty rooms of our house. I see myself sitting topmost on the cart, see the horse's crupper, the vast brown earth, the geese with their outstretched necks in the farmyard mires and the waiting room at Grodno station, overheated by a freestanding railed-off stove, the families of emigrants lying around it. I see the telegraph wires rising and falling past the train window, the facades of the Riga houses, the ship in the docks and the dark corner on deck where we did our best to make ourselves at home in such confined circumstances. The high seas, the trail of smoke, the distant greyness, the lifting and falling of the ship, the fear and hope within us, all of it (Dr Selwyn told me) I can now live through again, as if it were only yesterday. After about a week, far sooner than we had reckoned, we reached our destination. We entered a broad river estuary. Everywhere there were freighters, large and small. Beyond the banks, the land stretched out flat. All the emigrants had gathered on deck and were waiting for the Statue of Liberty to appear out of the drifting mist, since every one of them had booked a passage to Americum, as we called it. When we disembarked we were still in no doubt whatsoever that beneath our feet was the soil of the New World, of the Promised City of New York. But in fact, as we learnt some time later to our dismay (the ship having long since cast off again), we had gone ashore in London. Most of the emigrants, of necessity, adjusted to the situation, but some, in the teeth of all the evidence to the contrary, persisted for a long time in the belief that they were in America. So I grew up in London, in a basement flat in Whitechapel, in Goulston Street. My father, who was a lens-grinder, used the money he had brought with him to buy a partnership in an optician's business that belonged to a fellow countryman from Grodno by the name of Tosia Feigelis. I went to primary school in Whitechapel and learnt English as if in a dream, because I lapped up, for sheer love, every word from the lips of my beautiful young teacher, Lisa Owen. On my way home from school I would repeat everything she had said that day, over and over, thinking of her as I did so. It was that same beautiful teacher, said Dr Selwyn, who put me in for the Merchant Taylors' School entrance examination. She seemed to take it for granted that I would win one of the scholarships that were available every year to pupils from less well-off homes. And as it turned out I did satisfy her hopes of me; as my Uncle Shani often remarked, the light in the kitchen of our two-room flat in Whitechapel, where I sat up far into the night after my sisters and parents had long since gone to bed, was never off. I learnt and read everything that came my way, and cleared the greatest of obstacles with growing ease. By the end of my school years, when I finished top of my year in the exams, it felt as if I had come a tremendous way. My confidence was at its peak, and in a kind of second confirmation I changed my first name Hersch into Henry, and my surname Seweryn to Selwyn. Oddly enough, I then found that as I began my medical studies (at Cambridge, again with the help of a scholarship) my ability to learn seemed to have slackened, though my examination results were among the best. You already know how things went on from there, said Dr Selwyn: the year in Switzerland, the war, my first year serving in India, and marriage to Elli, from whom I concealed my true background for a long time. In the Twenties and Thirties we lived in grand style; you have seen for yourself what is left of it. A good deal of Elli's fortune was used up that way. True, I had a practice in town, and was a hospital surgeon, but my income alone would never have permitted us such a life style. In the summer months we would motor right across Europe. Next to tennis, said Dr Selwyn, motoring was my great passion in those days. The cars are all still in the garage, and they may be worth something by now. But I have never been able to bring myself to sell anything, except perhaps, at one point, my soul. People have told me repeatedly that I haven't the slightest sense of money. I didn't even have the foresight, he said, to provide for my old age by paying into a pension scheme. That is why I am now practically a pauper. Elli, on the other hand, has made good use of the not inconsiderable remainder of her fortune, and now she must no doubt be a wealthy woman. I still don't know for sure what made us drift apart, the money or revealing the secret of my origins, or simply the decline of love. The years of the second war, and the decades after, were a blinding, bad time for me, about which I could not say a thing even if I wanted to. In 1960, when I had to give up my practice and my patients, I severed my last ties with what they call the real world. Since then, almost my only companions have been plants and animals. Somehow or other I seem to get on well with them, said Dr Selwyn with an inscrutable smile, and, rising, he made a gesture that was most unusual for him. He offered me his hand in farewell.
After that call, Dr Selwyn's visits to us became fewer and further between. The last time we saw him was the day he brought Clara a bunch of white roses with twines of honeysuckle, shortly before we left for a holiday in France. A few weeks after, late that summer, he took his own life with a bullet from his heavy hunting rifle. He had sat on the edge of his bed (we learnt on our return from France) with the gun between his legs, placed the muzzle of the rifle at his jaw, and then, for the first time since he bought the gun before departing for India, had fired a shot with intent to kill. When we received the news, I had no great difficulty in overcoming the initial shock. But certain things, as I am increasingly becoming aware, have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence. In late July 1986 I was in Switzerland for a few days. On the morning of the 23rd I took the train from Zurich to Lausanne. As the train slowed to cross the Aare bridge, approaching Berne, I gazed way beyond the city to the mountains of the Oberland. At that point, as I recall, or perhaps merely imagine, the memory of Dr Selwyn returned to me for the first time in a long while. Three quarters of an hour later, not wanting to miss the landscape around Lake Geneva, which never fails to astound me as it opens out, I was just laying aside a Lausanne paper I'd bought in Zurich when my eye was caught by a report that said the remains of the Bernese alpine guide Johannes Naegeli, missing since summer 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, seventy-two years later. And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.
There is mist that no eye can dispel
In January 1984, the news reached me from S that on the evening of the 30th of December, a week after his seventy-fourth birthday, Paul Bereyter, who had been my teacher at primary school, had put an end to his life. A short distance from S, where the railway track curves out of a willow copse into the open fields, he had lain himself down in front of a train. The obituary in the local paper was headed "Grief at the Loss of a Popular Teacher" and there was no mention of the fact that Paul Bereyter had died of his own free will, or through a self-destructive compulsion. It spoke merely of the dead man's services to education, his dedicated care for his pupils, far beyond the call of duty, his great love of music, his astonishing inventiveness, and of much else in the same vein. Almost by way of an aside, the obituary added, with no further explanation, that during the Third Reich Paul Bereyter had been prevented from practicing his chosen profession. It was this curiously unconnected, inconsequential statement, as much as the violent manner of his death, which led me in the years that followed to think more and more about Paul Bereyter, until, in the end, I had to get beyond my own very fond memories of him and discover the story I did not know. My investigations took me back to S, which I had visited less and less since leaving school. I soon learned that, right up to his death, Paul Bereyter had rented rooms there, in a house built in 1970 on the land that had once been Dagobert Lerchenmuller's nursery and market garden, but he had seldom lived there, and it was thought that he was mostly abroad, no one quite knew where. His continual absence from the town, and his increasingly odd behaviour, which had first become apparent a few years before his retirement, gave him the reputation of an eccentric. This reputation, regardless of his undoubted pedagogic ability, had clung to Paul Bereyter for some considerable time, and had, as far as his death was concerned, confirmed the belief among the people of S (amidst whom Paul Bereyter had grown up and, albeit it with certain interruptions, always lived) that things had happened as they were bound to happen. The few conversations I had in S with people who had known Paul Bereyter were not very revealing, and the only thing that seemed remarkable was that no one called him Paul Bereyter or even Bereyter the teacher. Instead, he was invariably referred to simply as Paul, giving me the impression that in the eyes of his contemporaries he had never really grown up. I was reminded then of how we had only ever spoken of him as Paul at school, not without respect but rather as one might refer to an exemplary older brother, and in a way this implied that he was one of us, or that we belonged together. This, as I have come to realize, was merely a fabrication of our minds, because, even though Paul knew and understood us, we, for our part, had little idea of what he was or what went on inside him. And so, belatedly, I tried to get closer to him, to imagine what his life was like in that spacious apartment on the top floor of Lerchenmuller's old house, which had once stood where the present block of flats is now, amidst an array of green vegetable patches and colourful flower beds, in the gardens where Paul often helped out of an afternoon. I imagined him lying in the open air on his balcony where he would often sleep in the summer, his face canopied by the hosts of the stars. I imagined him skating in winter, alone on the fish ponds at Moosbach; and I imagined him stretched out on the track. As I pictured him, he had taken off his spectacles and put them on the ballast stones by his side. The gleaming bands of steel, the crossbars of the sleepers, the spruce trees on the hillside above the village of Altstadten, the arc of the mountains he knew so well, were a blur before his short-sighted eyes, smudged out in the gathering dusk. At the last, as the thunderous sound approached, all he saw was a darkening greyness and, in the midst of it, needle-sharp, the snow-white silhouettes of three mountains: the Kratzer, the Trettach and the Himmelsschrofen. Such endeavours to imagine his life and death did not, as I had to admit, bring me any closer to Paul, except at best for brief emotional moments of the kind that seemed presumptuous to me. It is in order to avoid this sort of wrongful trespass that I have written down what I know of Paul Bereyter.
In December 1952 my family moved from the village of W to the small town of S, 19 kilometres away. The journey during which I gazed out of the cab of Alpenvogel's wine-red furniture van at the endless lines of trees along the roadsides, thickly frosted over and appearing before us out of the lightless morning mist -- seemed like a voyage halfway round the world, though it will have lasted an hour at the very most. When at length we trundled across the Ach bridge into S, at that time no more than a small market town of perhaps nine thousand souls, I was overcome by a powerful feeling that a new life filled with the bustle of cities would be starting for us there. The blue enamel street names, the huge clock in front of the old railway station, and what seemed to me then the truly magnificent facade of the Wittelsbacher Hof Hotel, were all, I felt, unmistakable signs of a new beginning. It was, I thought, particularly auspicious that the rows of houses were interrupted here and there by patches of waste land on which stood ruined buildings, for ever since I had once visited Munich I had felt nothing to be so unambiguously linked to the word city as the presence of heaps of rubble, fire-scorched walls, and the gaps of windows through which one could see the vacant air.
On the afternoon that we arrived, the temperature plummeted. A snow blizzard set in that continued for the rest of the day and eased off to an even, calm snowfall only towards the night. When I went to the school in S for the first time the following morning, the snow lay so thick that I felt a kind of exhilaration at the sight of it. The class I joined was the third grade, which was taught by Paul Bereyter. There I stood, in my dark green pullover with the leaping stag on it, in front of fifty-one fellow pupils, all staring at me with the greatest possible curiosity, and, as if from a great distance, I heard Paul say that I had arrived at precisely the right moment, since he had been telling the story of the stag's leap only the day before, and now the image of the leaping stag, worked into the fabric of my pullover, could be copied onto the blackboard. He asked me to take off the pullover and take a seat in the back row beside Fritz Binswanger for the time being, while he, using my picture of a leaping stag, would show us how an image could be broken down into numerous tiny pieces -- small crosses, squares or dots -- or else assembled from these. In no time I was bent over my exercise book, beside Fritz, copying the leaping stag from the blackboard onto my grid-marked paper. Fritz too, who (as I soon learnt) was repeating his third grade year, was taking visible pains over his effort, yet his progress was infinitely slow. Even when those who had started late were long finished, he still had little more than a dozen crosses on his page. We exchanged silent glances, and I rapidly completed his fragmentary piece of work. From that day on, in the almost two years that we sat next to each other, I did most of his arithmetic, his writing and his drawing exercises. It was very easy to do, and to do seamlessly, as it were, chiefly because Fritz and I had the self-same, incorrigibly sloppy handwriting (as Paul repeatedly observed, shaking his head), with the one difference that Fritz could not write quickly and I could not write slowly. Paul had no objection to our working together; indeed, to encourage us further he hung the case of cockchafers on the wall beside our desk. It had a deep frame and was half-filled with soil. In it, as well as a pair of cockchafers labelled Melolontha vulgaris in the old German hand, there were a clutch of eggs, a pupa and a larva, and, in the upper portion, cockchafers were hatching, flying, and eating the leaves of apple trees. That case, demonstrating the mysterious metamorphosis of the cockchafer, inspired Fritz and me in the late spring to an intensive study of the whole nature of cockchafers, including anatomical examination and culminating in the cooking and eating of a cockchafer stew. Fritz, in fact, who came from a large family of farm labourers at Schwarzenbach and, as far as was known, had never had a real father, took the liveliest interest in anything connected with food, its preparation, and the eating of it. Every day he would expatiate in great detail on the quality of the sandwiches I brought with me and shared with him, and on our way home from school we would always stop to look in the window of Turra's delicatessen, or to look at the display at Einsiedler's exotic fruit emporium, where the main attraction was a dark green trout aquarium with air bubbling up through the water. On one occasion when we had been standing for a long time outside Einsiedler's, from the shadowy interior of which a pleasant coolness wafted out that September noon, old Einsiedler himself appeared in the doorway and made each of us a present of a white butterpear. This constituted a veritable miracle, not only because the fruits were such splendid rarities but chiefly because Einsiedler was widely known to be of a choleric disposition, a man who despised nothing so much as serving the few customers he still had. It was while he was eating the white butterpear that Fritz confided to me that he planned to be a chef; and he did indeed become a chef, one who could be said without exaggeration to enjoy international renown. He perfected his culinary skills at the Grand Hotel Dolder in Zurich and the Victoria Jungfrau in Interlaken, and was subsequently as much in demand in New York as in Madrid or London. It was when he was in London that we met again, one April morning in 1984, in the reading room of the British Museum, where I was researching the history of Bering's Alaska expedition and Fritz was studying eighteenth-century French cookbooks. By chance we were sitting just one aisle apart, and when we both happened to look up from our work at the same moment we immediately recognized each other despite the quarter century that had passed. In the cafeteria we told each other the stories of our lives, and talked for a long time about Paul, of whom Fritz mainly recalled that he had never once seen him eat.
Copyright © 1996 The Harvill Press. All rights reserved.