I got to know Bismarck early on, he was on the sewing machine or next to the sewing machine, on which my mother was patching the bed linen for one of those Pomeranian nobleman’s estates, Lossin or Wunkenhagen or Demeritz, and Bismarck was cast in bronze, he was wearing boots that were one hundred percent bronze, he was holding a bronze saber in his bronze hand, and on his bronze head perched an eagle, also bronze. On his bronze helmet. The figure looked as though it meant to intimidate me. Bismarck weighed a lot, and I wasn’t able to lift him at the time, but if a grown man had got hold of him, then he would have been able to kill another man with him. The lord of Lossin or Wunkenhagen or the lord of Demeritz didn’t do that. He had a shovel that he used to kill people with. But the lords of Lossin or Wunkenhagen or Demeritz didn’t use their shovels either. They used their staff. They had always had staffs on Lossin or Wunkenhagen or Demeritz, and even after the suspension of feudalism and the abolition of the authority of the lord of the manor, people continued to be born on Lossin or Wunkenhagen or Demeritz or people were brought to those places for the purpose of killing others. That estate called Lossin, or Wunkenhagen or Demeritz, it had belonged to my mother, or to my mother’s mother, I was never quite sure, I had heard it too many times and it was told me or not told me in too many different ways, and it was true that my mother did sewing work on those estates, but she couldn’t sew, even though people seemed to take it for granted that a woman in her position would be able to sew, and so she stitched the sheets of rough peasant linen for a mark a day, and the great perk was that she was able to take me with her. And so I sat under the sewing machine, and watched my mother’s feet as they operated the treadle, and the sheets passed under the needle of the sewing machine, and they rose and fell and rose and fell before my eyes like the curtains of a stage on which Bismarck appeared, or where an actor playing the part of Bismarck stepped forward to thank the audience for their applause. Cast in bronze, and torchlight processions of students passed out of the town to the Bismarck Tower, where they dropped their burning torches at the feet of the monument, and Bismarck, he too in bronze, stood firm-footed on his pedestal, firm-faced, firm-expressioned, firm-fleshed, all bronze, in the flickering torchlight in the darkness, and nothing could go wrong again. At that time, sitting under the sewing machine next to my mother’s feet moving the wheel, it never occurred to me that the bedsheets that rose and fell and flickered before my eyes might have been likened to funeral shrouds or to the white flags of defeat.
I was a witness, but I wasn’t there in person … that was my fortress sure, my camp, my mattressphere. Kitty-cornered was my mother’s bed, it was empty on that evening or at that hour, later on my mother’s bed was always occupied, and then it was always empty, until finally I sold it or it was lost. Then there was the table where we sat when my mother was home and there was something to eat, or where we sat when there was nothing to eat and we just sat, and sometimes we talked to each other and sometimes we didn’t, and we got along or we didn’t. In the cupboard was the bread when we had bread, and my mother kept the cupboard locked when she went out to work, so that I wouldn’t eat up the bread, but I had a nail that I’d bent and managed to flatten, and with that nail I was able to pick the useless lock of the old cupboard, and I took the bread and bit off a piece, and I stuffed myself on the bread, and it choked me because I knew it would make my mother cry. An electric bulb hung from braided wires under the low ceiling, it burned feebly and wasn’t supposed to burn at all, I was supposed to be either asleep or sitting in the dark, if I switched the light on I was wasting it, my mother wasn’t able to cut it off, but then a man came with a bill and he cut it off, and then we both sat in the dark, my mother and me, and a woman who had come to us had called the bulb naked, a naked bulb, and I liked that, a naked bulb, naked light, they put up a tent, outside was the town, the enemy, the enemy in the field, there were wolves and hunters in the forest, and on the ripped wool blanket I wrapped myself in were books from all the libraries of the town and the university, and Pastor Koch, seeing the books, said, you’re not a Bolshevist are you, and I looked at him, and I counted the duelling scars in his feisty red face, and I asked him what’s a Bolshevist, and I looked through him perhaps as far as Russia, and then there were the magazines our town was avid for, and that I delivered for Alt’s bookstore, and they had names like The Bachelor, Color Magazine, and New Life. They could have taught me what life is. I never learned.
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Translated by Michael Hofmann
Wolfgang Koeppen was born in 1906 in the German Baltic town of Griefswald and lived on the Baltic Coast until 1920, when he began many years of travels, finally settling in Munich. He was an outspoken liberal journalist as well as a novelist. These reminiscences form a part of Youth, a volume of autobiographical writings soon to be published by The Dalkey Archive. Koeppen’s novels Death in Rome, The Hothouse, and A Sad Affair were also translated by Michael Hofmann.
Michael Hofmann has published six books of poetry, most recently his selected poems in 2009, and some sixty books in translation from the German. At Little Star we have published his translations of Durs Grunbein and Gottfried Benn. His selected essays will be published by FSG this winter.