Sunday, August 23, 2015

People on Sunday


AUGUST 23, 2015


The following essay was drawn from “The Hotel Years,” a collection of Joseph Roth’s journalism (newly translated by Michael Hofmann), which is out on September 29th from New Directions.

On Sundays the world is as bright and empty as a balloon. Girls in white dresses wander about the streets like so many church bells, all smelling of jasmine, sex, and starch.

The sky is invariably freshly painted. The buildings swim in sunshine, and the towers scramble nimbly upwards. At the edge of the city Nature takes over, as one can tell by the proliferation of Do Not signs. It is mostly green, and consists of postcard views tacked together.

Nature is particularly important on Sundays. Basically, Sunday has been instituted for the sake of nature. All the communications disrupted on weekdays between nature and humanity have been restored on Sunday. In fact, Sunday is the bridge to the forgotten and discarded Holies of the world: such things as woods, the Wannsee, the Luna Park, and the Almighty.

People ring in Sundays with bells, the beating of carpets, and indolent coffee in bed. They throw open their windows and sniff freedom. They ransack wardrobes and chests of drawers and put on special items to celebrate the day of idleness on which their souls dangle.

On Sunday I stand by the window. The house opposite has thrown open all its windows like glass butterfly wings as though—whoosh, didn’t you see it!?—to fly away. It can’t, though, it is too weighed down by furniture, people, and destinies.

Which have changed as well: my neighbor, a double-entry bookkeeper only yesterday (at the same firm for twenty-five years “without a bonus”)—and today, not even a single entry. With God in his heart and the taste of coffee still in his mouth, he hurries over to the window in his shirtsleeves to fill his lungs with a draft of freedom.

When I see him in the week in his threadbare jacket his hands are dangling from his sleeves as though the fingers were a frayed part of the jacket; now he looks to me like the hero of a story, or several stories. He could, I am thinking, be offered a much better-paid job, but he is unable to resign. Perhaps he even stood once or twice outside his boss’s double doors, and his courage was quelled, as the movements outside the double door are quelled, and his heart resembled a squishy cushion, one of those plump leather cushions a manager likes to sit on.

One Monday morning, after he’s stuffed himself full of courage the whole of the day before, he went to work, and the boss walked in and presented him with some trifling thing, maybe a fountain pen, or an inkwell, and the employees put flowers on his desk, because that Monday marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of his entry into the firm, and he had forgotten about it. And so now he can’t resign.

I think I am going to call him Gabriel.

Today, on Sunday, Gabriel will set his gramophone on the table in front of him. And a Caruso record put together from shellac and song will pour over Gabriel the chant and melody of an unfamiliar world where figures and steel nibs are unknown.

Canaries like to mark Sundays as well. In the first-floor window is the birdcage and the canary recites an Eichendorff ode. Or maybe it’s something by Baumbach.

On the red tablecloth rests a white crocheted doily. The children can’t be dissuaded from propping their elbows on it, and rucking it up.

I have never seen the mother except in a blue dressing gown. She is very quiet, I think she was born in slippers, and I’m sure she has a shuffling and embittered soul.

She scolds the children for rucking up the tablecloth. What does she have to have a tablecloth for, I wonder, and once I sent her a couple of drawing pins in a matchbox, with instructions for their use. But she went on chastising the children.

Today, on Sunday, she had cake for them. The children rucked up the tablecloth, but their mother stood in the window and took delight in the declamations of the canary. She had on a white blouse. And no trace of any slippers.

But Sunday evenings are sad. I see the tabby cat sitting on the third-floor windowsill. The teacher has gone out.

Each time the clock sends a quarter hour ringing out over the copper roofs of the town, the cat stretches. I suspect that she is keeping count of the strokes, and is impatient for her mistress to come home.

Sometimes she looks down, and for want of a handkerchief, wags her tail when she sees the teacher coming.

The teacher has gone to visit her brother, who is a retired infantry captain with hearing loss. It takes her forever to tell him there is no news. That’s what has caused the teacher to be gone such a long time.

“I swear I’m going to sack her!” says the cat, and is terribly agitated.

Sunday evenings are thin and mealy, as if they were already part of Monday. Gabriel is back to being a double entry-bookkeeper, and the girls iron their creased white dresses and smell of bread and butter. The world is full again.

Berliner Börsen-Courier, 3 July 1921


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