Author: Michael Lentz
Translator: Steven Rendall
You Worry Too Much
Do ideology and politics concern nature as well? Brecht wants to test this out by means of an example. When he’s invited to plant a tree on the edge of the hill in Paseo Miramar, only a few meters from the ocean, he immediately accepts. Plant a tree. Planting trees is at least a step taken against the self-Americanization that is taking hold among the exiles, the mild climate is probably corrupting the German emigrants, planting a tree is a useful thing, a way of putting down a substitute root, unlike the overeager German emigrants who would prefer to be Americans today rather than tomorrow, who try very seriously to put down roots in the language here too, but those are aerial roots that can never breathe, here the air doesn’t contain anything one could absorb, so Brecht plants a tree, and as he is standing in front of his tree, Randy comes up to him, Randy the millionaire who grills such fantastic steaks, who drives a splendid car, Americans come into the world as drivers, Brecht says, so Randy comes up to him, looks at the tree that Brecht has planted with great care, really looks at Brecht himself for the first time, it seems, looks at the tree again, while all the other people whom Randy has invited to plant trees on this sunny day gather around the two tree-observers, and Brecht is the only German among all these Americans with whom he has hardly spoken during the tree planting. “Typically German,” Randy says, and Brecht doesn’t understand what he means, but is pleasantly surprised that something here is typically German, he wouldn’t have expected an American to be able to identify it, then Randy leads the group to the edge of the area on which Randy has had a hundred trees planted over the past few years, from there you can best see what he means by typically German: Brecht’s tree stands straight as an arrow, the only one. The tree planting remains a lonely highpoint of this thoroughly boring time in California, which is tasteless, the food is tasteless too, the boredom is eating him up, making him physically ill, he can’t even think about working every day, here in America he has to pretend inwardly not to be in America, he tries to transport himself into a European condition, so that he can go to his desk as usual in the early morning and get going, but he succeeds in forgetting the cheap prettiness all around him for only a short time, then he is suddenly Francis of Assisi in the Aquarium again, Lenin in the Prater, a chrysanthemum in a mineshaft, as he wrote in his Work Journal on March 23, 1942. There is nothing he can do about it, the European condition he has conjured up doesn’t last long, and in fact it is typically American, that is, artificial, to want to pretend something, the front yards here are also just pretend, if the homeowners can no longer pay for the water the yard dries up overnight and the desert takes over again, the truth. Another truth is, admittedly, that Randy makes the best steaks in the world, and for that Brecht almost reveres him, anyway he returns again and again to Randy’s steak, with pleasure, and tells him so, too. What is the secret of your steaks, Brecht asks him. You see it and you like it, Randy says. Brecht decides to write a poem about Randy’s steak. However, he quickly realizes that no poem about these steaks will ever suffice, no poem will even come close to embodying the goodness of Randy’s steak. His steak is poem, Brecht forbids himself ever to announce such corrupt nonsense, that’s the worst and most disgusting capitalist talk there is.
In Randy’s company Brecht keeps coming back to the foreign language problem. It’s already hard enough to conduct a conversation in German in such a way that one doesn’t have to ask questions every other sentence, Brecht stumbles in English, in American, over every other word. Talking with Randy, Brecht finds this embarrassing, shameful, but doesn’t let on. Moreover, he can tell Randy about this problem only in English. Then Randy listens in a very friendly way, nods now and then, dismisses him and says “don’t worry” again, and lays his hand on Brecht’s shoulder, not to mention that it seems that Randy neither takes an interest in this nor sees it as a serious problem. Relax, Bert, Randy says, and Brecht is greatly annoyed that this steak-griller calls him Bert, everyone else is supposed to call him Brecht. However, Randy has a trump up his sleeve with his steaks . . . Brecht stops. A steak up his sleeve? How do you say that in American? Can’t imagine. That’s where it starts, the problem begins already with Randy’s steaks, so just eat and keep your mouth shut. The steaks are thicker than usual. They are nonetheless uncommonly tender. Your teeth go through this meat as if it were butter. So it must be meat from special steers or the secret of its tenderness must lie in the way it’s prepared. The preparation: the already marinated steaks are . . . Brecht can’t figure it out. He detects a special something in the taste, Kirsch, maybe? In any case you have to get used to it at first, Brecht concedes, it activates massive prejudices in relation to America, against which we Europeans find it so hard to defend ourselves, perhaps not Kirsch, but something in the spirits line, anyway, in short, they’re the best steaks I’ve ever eaten, Brecht says, if only all Americans understood my plays and screenplays as well as I do Randy’s steaks, because these are definitely American steaks, Brecht thinks, completely excessive, mouth-filling, and too much of everything, exhibition pieces without a museum. The blood runs into Brecht’s mouth and he likes it. He can’t say, I like it, he has only the distinct feeling of pleasure, no that’s not quite it, a feeling of satisfaction. A thoroughly petit-bourgeois word. A word that could out-smug smugness itself. When have I ever been satisfied with my plays? Never. Why am I constantly rewriting my plays, telling friends and editors, agents and directors, that the play is finally finished, the letter is sent off, I immediately sit down to work on a new one, I was hasty, the play is not at all finished yet, I’m just now starting to work on it, it has to be rewritten from the ground up, and then I ask Reyer, Auden, Bentley, Laughton, to help me prepare a new translation, the opening night and subsequent performances will all be catastrophes because the American theater is unusable. “Fear and Trembling” will be the result of all these evenings in the theater with his plays, and most of all for himself. He knew that from the outset, and so he must have control over everything from the ground up, he mustn’t let anything go out before everything is clarified, light has to be shed on the whole thing.
Satisfaction looks different. When you speak about satisfaction you imagine leaning back in your chair, pausing and enjoying. That’s perhaps the fundamental difference between literature and food. The latter can satisfy. How does good old Albert-Birot put it? “Sit down and don’t talk so much about things you can’t eat.” German exiles, ladies and gentlemen both, should have that engraved on their brains, Brecht thinks, and Randy asks him,
“What are you thinking about, Bert?”
“I was just thinking that the Germans here and their literature, it’s all merely provisional, something directed toward a later time, and later no one will need it any more, but I’m writing for postwar Germany, there people will need my plays, they’ll be recognized.”
“The best thing for you to do, then, would be to stay here,” Randy says.
“Stay here? Here there’s only development, but nothing that develops,” Brecht replies.
“The only thing that will really help you in your postwar Germany won’t be your plays, but my steaks. But you can get those only here, Bert.”
“There’s Kirsch in them, isn’t there?”
“Only a little squirt.”
“Red wine, no Kirsch?”
“Excuse me, but they don’t taste like Kirsch.”
“I haven’t drunk any for a long time, I can only compare the taste with my memory, and it made me think of Kirsch.”
“But think about it. Red wine is the same color as blood, red wine leaves a mark, the color leaves a mark, you won’t find anything better for a steak than red wine.”
“Yes I will, Calvados.”
“In France, however.”
“There, yes, but these steaks have something very subtle about them. I love the softness, the tenderness, and that’s produced only by a soft but hearty red wine.”
“Do you know what ‘faire le trou normand‘ means?”
“No idea, something to do with truth.”
“Clear out the stomach.”
“That’s a good truth.”
“Literally, it means ‘make the Norman hole’.”
“Ah, so it has something to do with war.”
“If you tell me your recipe, Randy, I’ll tell you the recipe for the Three Penny Opera.”
“Not good enough.”
“Then I’ll tell you something about the film Hangmen Also Die.”
“Have you made a film?”
“Yes, here, with Fritz Lang.”
“What’s it about?”
“The murder of Heydrich in Prague.”
“And who is Heydrich?”
“The Reichsprotektor for Bohemia and Moravia.”
“Never heard of him.”
“What about Fritz Lang?”
“I’ve heard of him, he lives right around the corner here, Summitridge Drive, Beverly Hills.”
“If I tell you a funny story about Lang, will you tell me your recipe?”
“Let’s hear it!”
“Since as a director he ‘d lost a few projects, Lang asked his manager to give him back the $80,000 that he was supposed to put away for him. The manager confessed that over the years he’d spent the money himself, and tried to commit suicide. Thereupon Lang went to an ophthalmologist, who did what an ophthalmologist always does, he covered one of Lang’s eyes and asked him to read a couple of numbers. Gladly, Lang says to him, only you’ll have to turn the light on. The lamp, however, had been burning all the time. He was in danger of going completely blind.”
“That’s it?” Randy asks.
“That’s it,” Brecht says.
“But that’s not funny at all!”
“I think it is, in a certain way.”
“I find it absolutely not funny.”
“So fork over the recipe, Randy!”
“The steaks are especially thick. Before they go on the grill, they are marinated. It’s very important that while they are being cooked you take them off the grill from time to time and put them back in the marinade. The sauce has the following ingredients: 1/3 cup soy sauce, five garlic cloves, two ounces of balsamic vinegar, and the red wine, but just a squirt. Sometimes I also put teriyaki sauce in it, but not often.”
“Are the garlic cloves pressed?”
“The garlic is pressed. You have to like that. But if it stays in the sauce too long, it loses its bite.”
“A great recipe,” Brecht says. “From now on I’m going to eat only steaks, with the exception of pork cutlets, red cabbage, and potato dumplings at the Feuchtwangers’, wear a leather jacket, smoke cigars, and drive through the Hollywood Hills in a fabulous car, and then I’ll drive to New York, all the way across America, and I’ll plant trees everywhere. And I’m going to revolutionize the Hollywood film.”
Randy, wide-eyed, stares at him.
The contemporary Hollywood film is not at all contemporary, Brecht goes on, it’s opium for the people and it’s in large measure what makes them so stupid.
“Do you know that Hollywood films are part of the global drug trade, that Hollywood is the center of the world drug trade, and that every single Hollywood film makes people stupid?”
No, Randy says, that had never occurred to him. But Brecht himself wanted to be part of this trade, didn’t he?
“The Hollywood film, my dear Randy, is a mental laxative, and when people no longer have a mind they get stupid.”
“You worry too much, Bert,” Randy says.
Now I really have to forbid him to call me Bert all the time, this Bert business is itself part of lulling the masses to sleep. Brecht already sees himself as a leather jacket-wearing, cigar-smoking, car-driving comic figure.
“Randy,” Brecht says, “you know that Hollywood is doubtless the cultural center of four-fifths of the world, and here we can have everything except dollars. I’m making a Hollywood film to end all Hollywood films, I’ve always got that in mind. No one wants it. Because it’s not suitable. Not suitable for whom? For the past. Here everything is defined by the past. If something is appropriate, it’s not appropriate for the past. I don’t have Hollywood taste, only Brecht taste. I try one storyline after another, one screenplay after another, and slam straight into the Hollywood wall, but I keep going, the point is to educate not only theater audiences but also movie audiences, and that’s it.”
“Sure, Bert,” Randy says, “I’m relieved that you’ve got something to keep you busy for the rest of your life.”
“However, I’ve had bad luck,” Brecht says, “Feuchtwanger managed . . . ”
“Unfortunately, I don’t know him, either.”
“A colleague. We worked on a drama together, Feuchtwanger made a novel out of it, but for me the thing was done once the play was finished. Feuchtwanger gave the play and his novel to Goldwyn, that Hollywood movie mogul whose name says it all. Anyway, no one ever understood our drama, but people liked Feuchtwanger’s novel, Goldwyn bought the film rights. Naturally, nothing came of it. But we signed a contract and I got $20,000. I found out when I was in New York. What did I immediately do? To celebrate, I bought myself a new pair of pants.”
“You can live on that, Bert. Now all at once you’re a big earner, Hollywood will be on your side.”
Great, the new steaks are ready. Eating steak is an opportunity for Brecht to go into a little more detail.
Although Brecht finds current Hollywood films unbearable, he loves crime novels. He wants to read English novels only in English, as if one were unthinkable without the other. They impel him through the pages. The hunt for the murderer excites him, he wants to finally find out, and he does find out, but he wants the book to tell him, and that’s what’s really marvelous, to know right from the start that Harry is the murderer, and to know it for the next two hundred pages, during which this knowledge is constantly present, and then on page two hundred and one Harry can finally be convicted of murder, and it occurs to Brecht how the crime novel pulls that off, it isn’t written in literary English, in polished English, but rather in a wonderful, colloquial, graphic underworld English.
Reading crime novels has made him realize that in discussions he doesn’t say what he wants to say, but only what he can say, and this is far too little, even when writing poems he’s not one to swear by metaphors, not one who needs showy metaphors, but he himself isn’t in complete control of German, and that sometimes stops him in his tracks, he’d like to tell Randy that, but he can’t, he just gives him a look that says, you know what I mean, and Randy puts his hand on Bert’s shoulder again, “You’re a nice fellow,” and that’s what Brecht finds hardest to bear.
He can’t stop thinking about it. Brecht tries to think his way into the foreign language, to feign his way into it. He decides that henceforth he will speak only American to himself, which seems to him to be perhaps the insuperable hurdle for his work. Maybe he no longer wants to ruminate on the painful suspicion that in America he won’t achieve anything because he is after all exclusively German, an exclusively German writer far from home, suffering from homesickness and nothing else.
“To be wise is to be productive, that’s my motto,” Brecht says, after he’s eaten a second steak. “The best medicine is work. Even when I was running from the Gestapo, I never failed to do my daily work.”
Germans! Randy can only shake his head. “Like with the tree, Bert, everything straight and according to plan.”
“When you mentioned the tree again it reminded me of something,” Brecht says, “the second house that we had in Santa Monica had a little garden. I could never stand the house, I couldn’t work there, there wasn’t enough room for a big table. Practically every day I thought about moving out again. We stayed in the house for a year. As I said, I couldn’t work there, and so when it wasn’t too cold I often went into the little garden. However, I couldn’t stand it in the garden either until one day I discovered a spot that had a decent view. What did you see? Only greenery, bushes and big-leaved fig trees. I was especially taken with the fig trees. I could look at them for hours without getting bored. A very strong tree, an athlete among trees. Moreover, if you placed the stool right there, you were spared the view of the slutty petty bourgeois houses with their depressing cuteness. A real gift, I thought. You saw only a tiny garden shed, maybe a square meter and a half on the ground. This little shed was the culmination, it was falling down, and its decay ennobled it, reminded me of the decay of European houses that had withstood time in just the same way. This view made me reflect that maybe we should stay in the house. Work comes before nature.”
Brecht is tired. Delightful steaks. He’d gladly come again, very gladly. If only America were like the steaks . . . Then America would be completely impossible to resist . . . But the opposite is the case . . .
“Du machst dir zu viele Gedanken,” from Michael Lentz, Pazifik Exil, pp. 319-329, © S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2007. All rights reserved by S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main.
Translation © Steven Rendall