Author: Tilman Strasser
Translator: Agnes Bethke, Nancy Chapple
Hasenmeister is about a young violinist who has fled from his final recital and locked himself into a practice room at the conservatory. In the form of flashbacks, he thinks back on his life until then. In this passage, he introduces us to his third violin teacher.
Father accompanied me to the first lesson. He had been looking for my third teacher for a long time. The man had an excellent reputation: word had it he’d been a virtuoso. When he opened the door, he bowed—at that time he was still doing fine. He ushered us into the only room that seemed to be in use. The floorboards were arched like ship planking. A chair, a small table, piles of sheet music in the corners. Father placed himself in the middle of the room; my third teacher sat down. I played for him; he nodded knowledgeably and said he discerned talent. We could achieve a great deal together, I had more to learn, he was looking forward to it, and by the way it was out of the question for my father to attend my lessons.
Father fumed. Heinous. What impertinence, a gross impertinence. He was paying money, he knew the ropes, he wanted to see progress. What kind of methods were these supposed to be? Where would we end up? My third teacher nodded. He understood completely. But unfortunately he couldn’t help it. Having to teach two people would be more than he could take. He said nothing else.
Father railed at him. Outrageous. Idle talk. Drivel. Insanity! Not like this, Father ranted, not like this, he spat, under no circumstances, Father roared, and pushed me out of the door. He pushed me out, across the veranda, across the lawn, onto the street. He stamped after me and sputtered with indignation, with rage. Father fulminated and blustered until we turned the corner and my third teacher’s crooked house was out of sight. Then he fell silent. For the rest of the day he didn’t say a word. He kept silent on the following day as well. He was silent all week long, and whenever I saw him, he was staring at the floor with a grim expression. The time came for my second lesson, but he didn’t budge. Even when I took my violin case, pocketed the map, put on my jacket, even when I slowly went out the door, my father remained silent.
My third teacher played the wrong way around. He held the violin on his right side and pressed the strings with the fingers of his right hand. He clamped the bow between the stiff fingers of his left hand. He compensated for the lack of mobility with his arm and shoulder. That strained him. He tensed up and sweated. His sound, however, was flawless. Wheezing, he lowered the violin, wiped his face and throat, and assured me it wasn’t as difficult as it looked. It was just that he had started late to practice this way. But practicing! my third teacher said, practice ennobles all efforts. I nodded and he knighted me with his bow.
My third teacher was ill. It consumes me, that was all he said whenever I asked him. For five years I went to his lessons every week. On good days he was buoyant and would bounce through the hallway ahead of me; on bad days he would limp and prop himself up on the door handle. Then he would cower on his chair, his coughing would puff his neck out; it consumes me, he coughed, and consumes and consumes and consumes me. One day it would eat him up.
My third teacher laughed. I had asked him about his little house. It seemed to me that passersby followed me contemptuously with their gaze when I turned off the sidewalk, crossing the lawn to step onto his veranda. My teacher admitted that he heard that quite often. City hall had been sending him letters for years. They wanted to buy his land; they were constantly increasing their offers. He fetched some papers, leafed through them, read a figure out loud and whistled through his teeth. Then he tugged me along after him. Let us see, he exclaimed, whether there’s anything wrong with my place. Outside the blades of grass were bending amid gentle gusts of wind. We walked around the house, and with his intact hand my teacher brushed along the boards of the exterior wall. When we reached the entrance again, he came to a halt. He scratched at the moss. I glanced towards the street, and saw eyebrows raised critically. My third teacher said that he would occasionally, as an act of defiance, invite people in who were passing by. But nobody wanted to come any closer. It was the same as with music. People had a feeling for what fit their times. He sighed, pushed the door open and said that was why he was never going to sell.[…]
[The narrator’s third violin teacher was originally a Wunderkind, a great virtuoso. When his early success goes to his head, he embarks on a series of thrill-seeking adventures. Alone on a climbing excursion in the remote Ural mountains he falls, waking up in a simple hut, its ceiling blackened by the soot of centuries. He is paralyzed and cannot speak. The hut belongs to a family: father, mother, son and daughter. The violinist tries as hard as he can to move his muscles, thinking at first that his block is merely mental in nature. But to no avail. Though he would love to be able to demonstrate his gratitude to the family for rescuing him, he can communicate only with his eyes. There are no hospitals in the area, so the family brings in a series of priests and miracle healers to try to heal him. The son sits next to him every afternoon and reads aloud from the three or four dusty old books the family possesses or shows him pages in an atlas. (Tr. )]
My third teacher stayed as he was: couldn’t move, couldn’t die, could only wait. He lay there, ate and slept.
He didn’t know how much time had passed since his fall. He hadn’t counted the days. It was easier that way; measuring how much time had passed would only have nurtured a ridiculous remainder of hope that he intended to starve. When, one afternoon, the son did not reach for the books or pull out the atlas, he had the feeling that an eternity had passed since he had last noticed the piano. The boy took a chair from the table, sat down at the instrument, and lifted the lid. My teacher was not sure whether, instead, he might have preferred to look at the continents again. He had hardly thought of music at all since he had been lying there. It had become alien to him. As a matter of fact, after just a short time, he had come to regard the piano as a piece of furniture. Although it was a mystery to him how such an instrument had made it all the way up to this wasteland, he wasn’t really that interested in solving the puzzle. Possibly it was an heirloom from relatives from the far-away next town, or the result of an absurd barter. He doubted that it produced sounds at all, but when the boy pressed a few keys, he realized that it was still in working order—a little out of tune, but serviceable. The boy limbered up his fingers, played some chords and then pulled out a book of music. It was a heavy volume, bound in leather. Another heirloom, my teacher thought. Were he now to really play pieces, then somewhere in this godforsaken place, among its miracle healers and dubious doctors, there had to be someone who gave lessons.
After just the first bars he recognized Bach: the first prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Incredible, my teacher thought, Bach has made it to even the most remote corners of the earth. The boy did not play badly. A little ineptly, of course, he lacked practice. But someone had done an excellent job with the child. He had the faculty. He took the prelude slowly, with a steady beat, hit the right notes and highlighted individual voices. With just a few more years of lessons, well, probably with many more years, and with great diligence, this son of a farmer could become a decent pianist. My teacher closed his eyes. It was a comfort to listen to the sounds of an instrument again. He thought about how he had always liked Bach, had always felt he was noble, almost sublime, though he found the partitas for solo violin rather too cerebral. He thought Bach was something like pure music, far from any idle shenanigans. He thought that Bach took structure so far that everyone who followed him had no choice but to gradually blur it. He thought about Bach and fell asleep.
My third teacher was awakened by a searingly bright pain. Behind his eyelids light was accumulating until his retinas burned. He tore his eyes open. Confused visions flickered through his mind: outer space, darkness, dull golden rods. He would have liked to scream. Pain steamrolled him, surged through his limbs; one couldn’t tell where it came from. It seemed that from everywhere blistering spikes pierced his flesh, and sparkling blades cut along his skeleton and left scorched wounds. He gasped. His sense of pain, which had been lying dormant for who knows how long, cried out, screaming with every fiber. The next wave was already descending upon him; heat was climbing as if he were burning up from inside, and from far away the first fugue of the volume penetrated to his ear. He passed out, found himself again in black nothingness, and there were the dull golden rods again, pieced together into a peculiar construct that, when he hovered closer to it, seemed to change shape of its own accord. He remembered that this had been his dream: a strange figure, a structure of braces of different lengths that shimmered in the darkness; they were complementing each other, switching places so that a new image always developed without an interruption; and he himself, circling around and trying in vain to find out how this was possible. But before he could become fully aware of this strange dream world, a new pain swept him back into reality. This time it was a physical tempest that travelled through his entire body, from the legs upwards, swept up his neural net at great speed, seemingly bursting every node open. Without thinking about whether this was actually in his power anymore, he opened his mouth wide and struggled for air.
Then he heard it. With a clarity that dispelled any thoughts, he suddenly perceived each individual tone. The fugue washed over him, filled him up entirely, and he understood that his dream—outer space, the rods—had been nothing but the helpless attempt of his imagination to find a visual image for something for which there was none. For the first time he listened to music as it should be listened to. With his whole being he gave himself over completely to the sound; every note touched him to the quick, and for a bitter second during which his pain subsided, it flashed through his mind that he had had to travel to the end of the world, had needed to be completely paralyzed first, had almost to die in order to completely surrender to music—which had enabled his life in the first place. Now he understood why an inexplicable feeling of remorse had defined his days, why he had considered his fate a just one. But then another flood washed over him, his body ripped up with a torment, as if someone were mercilessly turning a thousand screws into his bones at the same time. Vaguely he felt something snap into place in his left knee. Then the boy stopped.
The fugue was over. All of a sudden, the pain vanished. He looked at the ceiling; he must have thrown his head back; his left knee joint felt sore, but he felt it. He couldn’t lift his head. Keep going, my third teacher groaned. Keep going! He heard footsteps. The boy’s serious face appeared above him; he looked down at him, frightened, bewildered. He would probably call for his parents, or for another crazy healer or charlatan. The thought was excruciating. There was nothing more important than continuing with the music, nothing whatsoever more urgent. But the fact that he had spoken, had moved, seemed to confuse the child. Somehow he had to make him play again; he had to, at all costs. Keep going! he rasped, please keep going! Although the farmer’s son did not speak his language, although frightened by him, the boy apprehended, understood what was demanded of him, hesitated, then hurried back to the piano, opened the next page and began the second prelude.
He hadn’t practiced it as well as the first one. It was bumpy; maybe he was also nervous, but he pulled the piece together, at a very moderate tempo but fortunately unmistakable. It sufficed. Straight away my teacher was swept away by the pain, but he welcomed it, inside rejoicing exuberantly in the torture. He found it very easy to immerse himself in Bach; completely unclear, by contrast, why he had not done so much earlier on. You only had to listen. He vaguely discerned the golden rods again, the constructs that repeatedly constituted themselves anew, and now his elbows were creaking; his right arm jerked, and behind all the torment he felt that his body too was re-constructing itself, regaining its form. The fractures mended. The bones rubbed together, looked for connections and alignment, and it was almost impossible to bear; yet sound was now hovering above it all. Keep going! my teacher bellowed. He ignored the pain, abandoned himself completely to the music; the second fugue began and his intestines twined around each other. He could feel how new life was massaged into them; the broken ribs re-aligned themselves. His shoulders folded the other way around provisionally without him being able to do a thing; now he did scream, because for moments the agony had been too great; but something had already sorted itself out; the plates and the joints found each other and were reunited. The third prelude. My teacher could hear that the boy was trembling. His touch was tremulous; the lines clattered, and he had mastered this piece even less than the previous one. But he was genuinely talented: he succeeded, and bone by bone my teacher re-constituted himself, until every part of his body was throbbing. With an effort, he hoisted himself up. Keep going! he roared, and slid from the bed. He nearly crashed. His legs were excruciatingly weak. He grabbed a bedpost and held it, caught his breath. How good it felt to be able to move! Carefully, he pushed his feet together. He did not deflect his attention from the music for even the blink of an eye. As if in a trance he tried it again, pushed himself up, attempted to walk a few steps. He must still have serious fractures. Everywhere angry epicenters of pain awakened; some movements were not possible, but all that was still a blessing compared to the paralysis or the initial pain thereafter. The Third Fugue. My teacher dragged himself to the door, pulled a chair from under the table, and pushed it under the door handle. The risk of being interrupted by the family or anyone else was just too great. Keep going! he yelled. The child was quaking. Sweat was pouring down his temples; the boy was as pale as a corpse and stared at the music, evidently not daring even to turn his head. His fingers still hit the right keys at the right time. The dull golden construct rotated in my teacher’s head, changing extremely quickly; as if intoxicated he seized individual notes, hardly able to grasp the beauty and clarity that suddenly presented itself to him. And still, inside him, there was scraping, scrabbling, cracking; individual parts of his skeleton were shifting into shape; skin tightened itself, muscles stretched. He ripped off the bandages. Beside his bed he found his rucksack, his climbing gear stored tidily next to it. He pulled out a few items of clothing; put them on with great effort, inebriated by every phrase, enlightened by each one of Bach’s triads. Fourth Prelude. The boy hesitated; he had probably never played it before. Keep going, my teacher urged, and when the child still hesitated, he pulled the machete out of his pack with which a few weeks earlier he had chopped his way through the rainforest. He held it to the child’s throat. Keep going! Keep going! Frightened, the boy gave a shout, stumbled into the tricky bars, and now someone was rattling at the door, the door handle wobbled. A voice from outside, the mother. She knocked against the wood and by mistake he cut into the waxy skin of the boy’s throat. Two drops of blood poured out. The boy squealed but continued, played some wrong notes; the golden construct became hazy and was in danger of disappearing. Keep going! My teacher noticed a jabbing in his toes, a tingling in his scalp, a tugging at his hips, in his throat. They were the most wonderful sensations he had ever felt, a stinging in his throat, a pinching and jerking in his leg; and now outside the little daughter was also drumming on the door and shrieking that the father would come soon and break the door down by force. Keep going! Fourth Fugue. He pressed the blade under the boy’s chin. The boy played the theme, tottering with fear; then his left hand came in, he played wrong, broke off, swallowed and fell off the chair. He lay on the ground rigidly, as if frozen. My teacher stared at him. The child had not changed position; he kept his legs at an angle, his hands at chest height, as if he intended to start playing again immediately. His eyes stared unyieldingly. Outside, footsteps approached. My teacher hastily crammed the machete back into the rucksack, stuffed in the climbing rope as well, fastened it onto his back and looked around.
My third teacher said he fled across the fields. He broke the window, jumped through it and ran. He traversed a barren, hilly landscape. He stumbled twice and fell down, not yet used to walking, but he clenched his teeth until he came to a forested area. Then he kept going. Towards evening he found fruit. Not a single time did he look around. For days he ran, almost without stopping, across stone deserts, fields, through swamps in the mountains. Even at night he struck out, as if he had accumulated an almost inexhaustible reserve of strength during his paralysis. Finally he came to a village; from there he hitchhiked to the next village. Then he continued with a bus, then another bus, ending up in the next city. There without delay he took the first plane home. He renounced the life of an adventurer, commissioned his violin and changed his life.
The first stage of our translation process is that each of us does a complete translation. We then meet and present our versions to each other. What we particularly enjoy about our method of joint translation is the dialogue inherent in a good translation: what was the author really saying? And how can this be said best, most aptly in the other language, while somehow remaining close to the feel of the original?
Any one individual would have her own idiosyncratic choices—thus limiting the richness of the possible solutions that could be developed. But in our case, each of us has a complete command of both her own mother tongue and the other language. The last word is the best word—not necessarily the native speaker’s word!
We were drawn to Tilman Strasser’s Hasenmeister, published in May 2015 to positive reviews, because of its discussion of a musical upbringing: music has played an important role in both our lives from our earliest childhoods, including years and years of lessons and practice. The specific translation challenges here related to the richness of Strasser’s language: he chose particularly interesting verbs which we wanted to render equally strikingly in English, as well as his use of ellipses, the sometimes ambiguous and unclear references within sentences.
From Hasenmeister © Salis Verlag, 2015