BAGATELL / BAGATELLE (2nd, revised edition)
Publisher: Pesti Kalligram
Publication Date: 2015
He’d been strewing sadness all over the streets of Germany for three years now, lugging it along like a vendor packing his wares. Of course this was only three months times three, but he was in the habit of calling it three years. Perhaps his sense of time had gone askew. No, not at all in such a way that would have left him unable to distinguish between seasons and months. That much, he more or less had down pat. What was more of a challenge was how to tread over those nine months of the year he spent back in Hungary. He would most gladly have hibernated, if he could.
The emissary of sorrow set to music, that’s what he was. No matter how jovially people had been chattering away, a somber reserve invariably befell everyone all at once wherever he showed up, set down his bags, set up his music stand, unpacked his flute, and began to play. With the exception of certain rare instances, during this period of “slow movements,” as he would later come to think of it, all the breath he sent into his flute invariably came out as largos, andantes or, at most, andantinos. Only much later—after he underwent a comprehensive physical—did it occur to him that this tendency toward melancholy music during those years could not have been pure chance, for even then his circulation was not exactly in order.
Indeed, this flutist of the streets often gave the impression of being a living advertisement for some new Tristessan cult of sadness that had embarked into the world from Lusitania, as if he and his music were infused with all the longing, the saudade, of some Portuguese tune set to Pessoa’s poetry. If melancholy were a sought-after commodity he would have been an ad kiosk fought over by top salesmen. Back then, this manifest sensitivity of his invariably got the better of him so much that, as soon as he arrived in a city and happened upon the most peaceful café, he’d sit down at a table after discreetly seeing to this and that, open up whatever newspapers happened to be on hand, and peruse the obituaries. He studied the photos of the deceased, occasionally happening upon someone he recognized. For example, the kindly priest of a church he’d often played in front of, a priest who’d toll the bell after every single victory by his favorite Formula One race car driver and whom he consequently came to think of as Father Formula One.
The newly deceased were usually strangers, although he couldn’t exclude the possibility that he might have exchanged a word or two with one or more of them, or that they’d at least seen each other in passing. Sometimes the obituary would mention the date and time of burial, and if no distractions intervened, he’d reflect upon the person at the appointed time. Indeed, this habit must have gotten the better of him, for while he was engaged in such deferential contemplation of the dead a pedestrian would occasionally approach him and ask, in a tone of concern, whether something was wrong, or if perhaps he was ill. He just stood there more often than not in the brilliant summer sun, at the heart of a city brimming with youthful energy, and pretended not to understand a thing. Yet he had a good many dead to mourn.
And then there were those dead whom certain pedestrians would talk about when he took a break from playing. Yes, occasionally a woman overcome with emotion not only couldn’t hold back her tears, but her most grievous words. Often these words concerned children who’d committed suicide. But all this really got to him only when he learned that it was on account of his instrument that a woman’s wounds had reopened to the point where she divulged her secrets, because more than one among those who’d left the world so prematurely had played the flute.
Then, once he’d finished also poring over the names of the survivors, each and every day he would fold up the newspaper and look about him trying to guess who among those sitting there would be the next unwitting advertiser on this page; for this, too, was part and parcel of this ritual of his. Only then did he gulp down what was left of his coffee. After ruminating on the dead in this manner he would step back out onto the bustling street with the zeal requisite to convey the memory of Herr Winderberger or Frau Krumbachtel to hundreds of pedestrians by way of his flute.
Funeral home operators would have done well to hire him, had they been resourceful enough. No doubt the competition would have been negligible. For one thing, in keeping with the demands of the era, he performed on the international stage, and so he would have made his weekly lineup of appointments as geographically varied as need be—and not only in Germany, for he would have had no problem finding a ready and waiting clientele in Italy, say, or for that matter, Scandinavia. For another, he would have verily made a killing if this were to get off the ground, seeing as how he was already well practiced at funereal tunes or doleful farewell songs, which invariably cropped up in his daily repertoire. Indeed, he was inclined to devote a bit of time to such works even when playing amid brilliant sunshine at some health resort. Surely it wasn’t by chance that he pulled off his occasional big successes among those listeners most apt to frequent such resorts, those who were in that certain high-risk age group; those who were still around to let the world know that, so far, their names had eluded that inauspicious section of the newspaper. Sometimes he’d glance at a patient little audience of a half dozen or fewer old ladies and gentlemen, and on hastily adding up what he estimated as their ages, he often came up with a figure of around 500. Perhaps this was why, more than once while playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor, he imagined that the more fainthearted seniors around him were perhaps already imagining the sound of clumps of earth knocking against the wood above their heads. Ah yes, he’d sometimes half whisper to himself, someone is home, but they’re not about to open the door just yet.
Not a single funeral home director sought to hire he, however, though he often dreamed of doing this sort of work. This was not by chance. Simply put, he was so familiar with practically everything the shady characters who worked the streets were dealt from life that in the eyes of some he’d come to resemble them; that is to say, he knew a thing or two about how beggars and prostitutes lived, even while he tried to reconcile his own status with all the many expressions of prejudice that had chanced to grace his ears. If experts were to compile a book of criminal psychology on the topic, he would have been able to quote plenty from its pages without reading a word.
Sometimes the urge to engage in a bit of name calling got the better of a particular city’s first flutist out to protect his territory. One fine and sunny morning it happened, for example, that he was dubbed a “baroque bastard.” However, he swallowed his pride on hearing this somewhat hostile greeting and proceeded in the minutes that followed to deliver a choice selection from across the range of that particular musical era. Other frequenters of the street accused him of adding to the chaos of the streets, and honored him with words otherwise in standard use by patients at psychiatric clinics. Their comments enabled he to measure the average level of refinement among this class of locals, with a particular view toward their psychological bearing. Yet others spat out insults that stretched the limits of good taste. But he managed to appreciate even these designations for reinforcing the foundations of his professional identity—that is, either as a twittering vagabond or else a common swindler, both of which he more or less accepted with some reservations. Only the most discerning of such folks—those who had more practice at transcending cliches when judging others—accorded him a somewhat nobler status. Which is not to say they refrained from critiquing his distinctive approach to playing the flute. But most of those who spent an inordinate amount of time on the street appeared to look down on him for eating the bread of the truly down-and-out, especially if they themselves would have preferred to be the ones eating this bread.
Before long, then, such comments hurled his way put him on intimate terms with the perspective of those city dwellers without roofs over their heads. And while he might have found plenty to take exception to in this, he didn’t worry himself over it. Instead he turned the more favorable aspects of his precarious condition to his advantage. He may have had a thing or two to learn yet about the ways of the world, back then, but at least he knew how to make the best of his misery. Moreover, with the exception of some rare, unmistakably successful “recital” of his, during this time he devoted his energies not to convincing the public-at-large of his talent as a flutist but to undertaking hard-to-characterize sociological surveys. Herein lay his secret. Had he dazzled passersby with salient virtuosity, why then no one but a few genteel souls accustomed to outlandish feats of profundity would have paid him the least bit of attention. And so, since he was capable of performing in such a way as to draw appreciative listeners from all corners of society, things looked quite different for him. Had this not been the case, surely Herr Mayerberg would never have given him a second look back then! When folks even more off-center than he—those plainly inept at sniffing out quality—took to singing his praises, he told himself that perhaps their enthusiasm hinted at a miracle to come. Years later he often thought back gratefully on the psychological self-advice their reactions had yielded. And yet he reflected less kindly upon those moralists who, within moments of popping up in front of him, had verbally cast doubt on the future stability of his character.
He had plucked up a fair share of his erudition off the street. Such was the case even early on when, on Anna’s advice, he decided to stay enrolled in university back home. He had reached this crossroads despite an overwhelming temptation to drop out after those heady summer days when he’d first taken to the streets. He had debuted in front of the city hall in Bamberg rather amateurishly only to see dizzying success, and this was followed by similarly lucrative days learning the trade in front of the Salamander shoe shop in Munich. Yet, despite those exhilarating early days as a budding young street musician, he came to see this phase of his life as “academic”; for in the fall, winter, and spring back home in Budapest he was vying quite seriously with literary scholarship, secretly hoping that one day the critical world would be all agog over his discoveries. Indeed, he was busily formulating a new approach to reading literature. He’d conceived an enterprising if callow theory on the interpretation of poetry based on the study of medicine, a theory that would have seen him explicate poets’ more successful opuses using technical terms prevalent in vascular or internal medicine.
But how, after all, could he have compared this stage of his life with his more recent and highly mobile circumstances, especially now that he had several dozen cities under his belt?
He owed many thanks to the emissaries of religious sects who roved the streets with unflagging zeal. True, missionaries hit upon him as easy prey, and despite the language barrier they invariably found a way of explaining what awaited him in the final judgment that was soon to come. But the unpleasant aspects of such tirades were amply compensated for by the opportunity to partake in a richly detailed theological arguing match; for this fortified he’s German conversation skills in a way that a conversation about political or economic topics unfamiliar to him would not have.
For a Jehovah’s Witness, only the conviction that endless patience must be witnessed toward a chosen partner in conversation outdoes the conviction of faith. Indeed, a bit of wrangling with a gentleman of such persuasion allowed he to more quickly discover the secrets of the German language than would have been the case had he found himself a tutor. His receptiveness vis-à-vis matters of faith paid off when, in the course of such discourse, he comprehended a few rules of inflection, a half dozen new idiomatic expressions; or, as invariably happened (here in the case of his shaky French) in the French part of Switzerland after the composed citizenry ventured back out onto the streets after staying conspicuously at home on the morning of their national holiday and inundating the restaurants by noon: the flawless use of the subjective and, above all, correct pronunciation. (It was here, by the way, that his “restaurant phase” began, that extended period during which restaurants, whether the sidewalks or the tables in front of them, became his concert venue of choice.)
Since he had been devoted to pondering questions of faith ever since he could remember, it must be said that he was predisposed to such conversations for reasons far nobler than the promise of free language lessons. All the same, once he spoke German passably he finally did break faith with these agents of the soul. For had he continued parlaying only with them, he would have had to devote less attention to passersby of philosophical predilection, and to those who expounded so wisely on economic topics. However, never did he forget the pioneering role of these missionaries in his ability to communicate abroad.
The increasingly frequent occurrence of philosophizing gentlemen around his music stand saw the language of moderation take a turn toward the secular. However, it must be said that these men nonetheless resembled missionaries in their dogmatic insistence on either traditional orientations or the teachings of some saint of the latest fashionable school of critical thought. All this revived vivid memories in he of his youthful flirtation with philosophy. Indeed on some days he embarked upon his musical repertoire hoping above all that he and a passing stranger could soon have a go at some obscure detail of Nietzschean philosophy, for example.
Just as cities have their own seals, and their own rules and regulations established by their city councils, most also have self-appointed half-wits who straggle over their streets, a few of whom specialize in philosophical questions. He met with more than one of these. In contrast with their peers, they while away their evenings not in the entryways of closed shops as if only to check that any security guards inside are doing an honest night’s work, nor do they hang out at bus stops ostensibly so as to promptly file a complaint if a bus isn’t running on schedule. No, driven by a somewhat more resolute internal impetus they take it upon themselves to think in place of their fellow citizens. And in Königsberg, this category of person invariably conformed to the perspective of the city’s most famous son, Herr Kant. He observed the louder among them from a respectable distance, for he couldn’t be sure that their intellectual fury wouldn’t be followed up by a bodily sort. Indeed on one occasion a full-framed gentleman very nearly struck him with an attaché case he’d earlier opened to reveal several pounds of handwritten notes. What had happened was this: He made the mistake of interjecting a comment into the gentleman’s monologue concerning the city of mass culture and elitism, observations peppered with quotes from Ortega y Gasset; and although he meant his interjection to express concurrence, the gentleman first swung an arm his way, and would surely have struck him with the attaché case had he not ducked at the last moment.
Those savants of the street who by contrast quietly muttered away appeared to pose no threat. Sometimes these gentlemen found that there was no better place but right beside he to share with pedestrians their reflections on the world. They must have imagined that their timid trumpeting of the truth called for a musical backdrop, perhaps out of a desire for totality. So it was that on occasion the space in front of some butcher shop or flower shop, for example, was positively transformed into a zone of ideas and music, allowing pedestrians to choose freely from the menu.
Although he took kindly to the professional thinkers, it wasn’t them he was really drawn to, but to the amateurs. For the amateurs approached their chosen theme by way of music; in so doing they avoided ideological motifs, which back then he’s language skills wouldn’t have allowed him to adequately appreciate, anyway. For example, if he happened to be playing a piece by Schubert, a professional might be prompted to expound upon Wittgenstein’s Silence, whereas a little old lady lugging along a prodigious bag of groceries was bound to deliver off-the-cuff conjectures on “speech beyond silence.” Yes, even before she spoke, her glittering eyes were worth a thousand mysterious words more promising than any contradiction-free, mathematically airtight pronouncement. A melodic passage in D minor would effervesce in her to yield a sort of awe, and by the time she voiced words on the subject, her face emanated an indescribable light. The sentences that then issued from her mouth served as a stepladder, as it were, with which she could venture little by little further into her musically marked self.
Traditional discourse was nonetheless the preference of most everyone. The opinions of certain philosophers on music represented a recurring theme. Above all, such citizen-commentators were apt to voice a celebrated assertion by Nietzsche—namely, that life without music would be a life lived in error. By way of explanation, some self-appointed savants insisted to he that the eminent, music-crazed sage had formulated this assertion in a weak frame of mind; for as they saw it, existence had a hard enough time of it writhing about as far the threshold of error even with musical seasoning. However, such people, irrespective of their provinces or cities of origin, were in the minority overall. On other subjects, street-pundits often proved to be hard-hearted. Even when it came to Nietzsche. While acknowledging for example that Nietzsche was right in many respects, they never failed to mention that the zealot of truth had an easy time of it shooting about thunderbolts of lofty thought thanks to his being at the receiving end of a big fat annual allowance. Moreover, they suggested, Nietzsche managed to distance himself from society all the faster by escaping everyday reality through music. And yet, no matter how often such curbside thinkers yanked at the reins of rigor, sooner or later they too were overcome by respect for the master.
Time passed, but he still occasionally found himself on the receiving end of distasteful comparisons by someone happening upon him for the first time. For example, one cloudy afternoon a man from Stuttgart relegated him to the “caste of flute-playing hetaeras.” Only after much explaining did the gentleman manage to clarify just why a solitary flute player on the street should call to mind those cultivated courtesans of ancient Greece. What happened, the man now confessed with no little presentiment, was this: while listening to the largo he had just been playing, he had managed to perceive the unifying principle of Kierkegaard’s stages that the esteemed Dane had worked so hard to refute. He was unable to hear the gentleman’s synthesis in full, however, since he had an appointment that day to play at a wedding; a wedding that, for once, was to be held at a municipal building and not a church. In any case, he didn’t take offense at the analogy. While packing up his things under an impish smile, he mused over the fact that he’d expanded the bounds of his craft with the added service of awakening ideas in the minds of pedestrians.
Certain thinkers who happened upon he had an advantage over their colleagues. Such was the case even in his early days as a street musician, in Bamberg—where that eminent dialectician, Hegel himself, had taught so long ago. There, on the day following his public debut, he had set up shop in front of the city hall. This was just across from the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk that dutifully fulfils its subject’s role, as elsewhere about Europe, as the patron saint of bridges. Back then he was more or less able to chatter away in English, or rather, in something akin to pidgin English. But it must be added that this half-baked fluency had a downside, as revealed all too plainly in what he came to think of as the “Lufthansa affair”: Even now he remembered with a shudder how a reporter had come by one day as he played away in front of the city hall to take his picture and hold an off-the-cuff interview, in the course of which he spat out something that came out sounding quite ridiculous. Well, this was quoted all too faithfully in his pidgin English alongside his picture a week later in Lufthansa’s in-flight magazine, as he discovered quite by chance when a friend of a friend arrived from abroad, magazine in hand. Yes, there was he’s picture along with his linguistically bungled comment that he preferred “playing streets” to concert halls.
Whenever certain passersby in Bamberg caught on to the sort of loquacious fellow he was, and so decided to engage him in conversation—not least, on philosophy—why then these souls would invariably weave a bit of Hegel into their words. It seemed that self-respecting locals would jump at the chance to actively help cultivate the intellectual heritage and consequent spirit of their city. And so it was that he first heard about the Hegelian precept that quantity can accumulate into quality not in some book, but between two minuets. Although he had only a foggy idea of what was being said to him, on such occasions he stood proud, shoulders straight, for it seemed that a manly posture was very much in order.
He had other dedicated listeners, too.
More than once, a small group of pregnant mothers congregated around he as if they’d arrived at some curbside birthing class. Through his largos and andantes they taught their yet unborn what melancholy is. On such occasions he went all out, well aware that, whether he wanted to or not, in these moments he assumed an almost mystical role in the development of embryos. Sometimes he could all but feel in his fingertips the boisterous stirring of pint-sized little beings in the amniotic fluid, the kicking and flailing about of limbs nearing a finale of their own in that dark inner world of growth. So that the embryos would not be disturbed by overblown harmony, he demurely toned down his treble. Instead he took pains to achieve a rhythmic, modal effect; and, from what he could tell in looking over the coterie of expectant mothers, his effort was not in vain. A few mothers in waiting stood there before him looking all gloomy and glum as he went on playing, while others smiled the smiles of those who’d just been given a breathtaking gift. All the same, he was careful lest the transfiguration this music lesson had inspired in these gentle mothers should shift suddenly into a fluster of excitement. For who was to say but that such ferment might prompt premature labor pains in some of them? Yes, the more neurotic of the bunch might have been endangered by an overbearing musical pastorale. The day he met up with his Senegalese colleague, a street painter named Yusef, in Frankfurt’s banking district (as it so happened, a week before his bungled gig at the Toyota dealer) he imagined just such a woman before him among those in the crowd milling about by the two of them: a woman whose amniotic fluid comes gushing out during a Tchaikovsky melody. Such a reaction would have confirmed the paradoxical bearing of that rueful Russian, a composer who misled those around him not only with his double life but also with his music. Who would have thought that such a gently undulating melody might have such an effect?
After a while, however, even the expectant mothers went on their way, as at other times had mechanical engineers and office workers. While walking off they hummed the melody they’d just heard, one that perhaps now linked them in an even more intimate web with the strange weight within their womb.
On such occasions it seemed to he that all the criticism hurled at other times at him and his trade must fall silent. For he or his music sometimes propelled beings yet unborn in the direction of beauty. And nothing in the manmade world of aesthetics could give an account ofthis. Whenever someone accused him of an artistic sin, he consoled himself by imagining maternity wards here and there where certain little tots were turning about their heads with a tad more intelligence precisely on account of his largos.
Naturally it sometimes still happened that he was caught red-handed engaging in some sort of quackery of musical expression or, what in his eyes served to economize his output of sound, a deliberately skipped trill. And then there was no escaping the tirades of those self-appointed defenders of his honor as a performer. His harshest critics didn’t stop there. If in their opinion he’d been too free in toying with the bounds of public taste, why they’d step right up to him and demand that he stop playing at once.
However, he had gotten so used to the bellicose antics of the increasingly strange characters who happened upon him that he generally ignored their efforts at quality control. Only when he, too, was forced to admit that his interpretation had made a mockery of the piece in question did he give in. Others waited discreetly for him to pause, and only then did they level their criticism at him: comments that under normal circumstances would have been tantamount to slander. He received such words with a look of shame and distress. Women quality control officers were the gentlest of all, satisfied to signal their displeasure with a few good shakes of the head.
On piecing his self-respect back together again after tottering on the edge of a breakdown after such an incident, straightway he saw himself as exceptional; for, he figured, the sometimes scathing reactions of several hundred passersby had only served to polish his aptitude for the trade. And so he got ever closer to confirming that quantity can indeed, at a certain point, turn into quality. The more people who saw in his music an opportunity to realize their right to freedom of expression, the more he rose to the challenges before him.
With time, every cluster of pedestrians surging by him came to seem like some performance evaluation committee. Which was yet another reason why he developed what was to become the engine of his professional development. While continuing to rely on visual tools to make his performances all the more lyrical, by taking obsequious bows and otherwise visually exploiting what psychological laws he could, he nonetheless came increasingly to resemble the most vigilant among the local police. That is to say, he now managed to overcome technical obstacles that had earlier seemed insurmountable not only by practicing at night inside the White Ship but by continually feeding fuel to the fire of his attentiveness. No wonder he was said to be very nearly ablaze. His fear of the sundry shameful and humiliating experiences that each day held in store further stimulated his transfiguration into a living, breathing nucleus of energy.
Thanks to all this self-inflicted poking at his internal lines of force, sometimes he very nearly fell into a state of semi-consciousness. However, just as a sleepwalker does not fall off the roof in the course of a nighttime excursion, he too was safe. And yet surprises did befall him. On one occasion he was at a loss to explain why a little crowd had formed quite suddenly before him, and he was at an even greater loss as to why the onlookers were pointing his way with amused grins. Only on turning around did he understand that, for once, he wasn’t the only one making a spectacle: a man was urinating right behind him. Another time things didn’t pan out nearly as well, indeed they nearly saw him carted off to a police station; for a gentleman decided to indulge in his passion for exhibitionism with musical accompaniment, leaning conspicuously in his direction while doing so. It took quite a bit of explaining before he managed to convince the authorities that this was not a duet.
Although he had only begun to develop “variegated thought” into a workable technique of enhanced musical expression, he felt that it not only heightened the quality of his performance, but that it also thrust him that much closer to yet uncharted waters.
The pedagogical hold that some pedestrians had enjoyed over him did not fade away without a trace. Which is one reason why one fine morning, in a small Bavarian city, he assented to an unusual request. It must have been around eleven, and he’d already spent nearly an hour-and-a-half bending and bowing at the foot of a building whose entryway was closed off by metal grating. Suddenly a bespectacled gentleman took to waving at him from a second-floor window. At first he believed he was in yet again for an unpleasant string of events, or that he would at least be shooed away from this spot he’d worked so hard to find. But, just to be sure, he walked over to the spot exactly below the window. The man was busily engaged in tapping a finger on his temple, but then quickly spat out that he’d been watching he for a half-hour already, and that while he really didn’t want to seem pushy, he and his patients would be grateful if he would agree to repeat his performance in their institution.
Only now did he notice the sign on the wall by the front door: PSYCHIATRIC CLINIC. He’d once given in to Max’s scheme for him to perform at that high society soirée at the Toyota dealer, so why shouldn’t he have a go at playing here? And so he packed up his things and approached the entrance, where a porter in a brown smock of the sort many porters wear let him in. Following the man’s directions, he made his way up to the second floor, where he was greeted by the man who’d waved from the window. This man, who introduced himself as the head physician, immediately reassured he that not only would his performance be accompanied by the utmost discretion but by unmitigated congeniality. With that, he led him into a spacious room, a performance hall of sorts, while he went off to see to the patients.
No sooner was he left alone than it occurred to him that perhaps the whole thing was a practical joke, or else a treacherous scheme to get back at him for having affronted the silence of the street. He’d now have to pay the price of being locked up here for a few hours. He was terrified. Before long, however, men and women with frightened expressions that immediately gave them away as patients stepped one after another into the room. He sighed with relief. This was to be a musical therapy session, after all. It was his job to lure the weak-nerved souls in the bunch, and those in the throes of temporary crisis, further and further into a rhythmic snare each time he turned the page of the score before him. Yes, it now seemed certain that the head physician, who presently appeared in the door, was up to some such scheme. Indeed, within a few minutes the doctor gave a speech calling on everyone to give a warm welcome to this musician who was devoting a bit of his precious time during his tour of their city to give them a performance that would surely be worth a thousand instructive words.
This was followed by sporadic and scattered applause. Most people however only stared fixedly at he until he finally launched into his first piece in his temporary capacity as therapist. Of the Four Seasons he chose “Winter,” and within this he opted for the Adagio in G minor. As usual he played the first few bars with his eyes shut. But then he looked up. And it was good he did so; for he saw at once that he’d overshot the mark. Some of the patients were out and out whimpering, while the more disciplined were blinking rapidly in terror. In other circumstances he would have considered this direct manifestation of the soul to be the rarest form of recognition, but now he was ashamed. For all his efforts at proceeding with the melody in the cheeriest way possible, the audience remained disturbingly under the influence of the mood injection he’d unwittingly already given them. The patients budged not an inch from a state of reception that could now be best described as very nearly agitation. The head physician meanwhile flitted his eyes about with increasing alarm, very much aware of the fact that what had seemed a good idea had, at least at this point in the concert, been tantamount to an overdose of medication.
He went on playing, only playing, but no longer did he really believe that anything might stir these people from their stupor. He wanted nothing more than to run away. But of course he understood that this would have been a wretched thing to do, not only toward the gentleman who’d invited him but toward the patients, who would be wrenched back into their darkest memories.
He finished the Adagio. Then came a deathly silence. He didn’t dare look up, for fear that if the patients would see his face, there would be no turning back from the course this performance, which was fast turning into a séance, was taking.
All of a sudden a bumblebee that had earlier perhaps been knocking itself in vain against the window gave up trying to escape and landed on he’s forehead. Try as he did to shoo it away, it kept returning. He was practically gesticulating, much to the delight of some in the audience, when it struck him that he now had the opportunity to make right his earlier mistake: by playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. Only now was he truly grateful to have earlier taken it upon himself to continually expand his repertoire, and he was even happier that he’d “motorized” his approach to performance. Thanks be to that Polish wonder couple back in Munich who’d coached him in this art, and above all, thanks be to Béla.
And so he proceeded in the spirit of the master himself, Rimsky-Korsakov, who had not only been a brilliant musician but a distinguished pedagogue. Instead of rushing things, that is, he first held a little impromptu presentation, a stylistic analysis aimed primarily at painting the musical scene. Then he announced facetiously that anyone inclined to do so should pay close attention to the difference between the buzzing of the music and the real thing. Hardly had he begun, the patients were already busily shouting in varied comments. Some voiced unmitigated support for the bee, whereas others whooped away to signal their enthusiastic endorsement of the rhythmic flourishes streaming out of his flute, crying out that they never would have imagined everything music can do. Meanwhile the head physician smiled with relief, though the alarm that had dominated his expression moments earlier was still lurking in the taut furrows of his brow. But by the time he ceased his rhythm-enhanced pursuit of the buzzing, the real-life bee was already resting on the music stand. Yes, the hurrahs and the applause were for them both. Chuckling away, he took a bow while keeping one eye on his savior. In that moment he would hardly have even minded if the bee had chosen to re-encamp on his forehead and inject its stinger.
In the days that followed this adventure of his, no matter how discouraging things otherwise looked, he drew the attention even of those who previously hadn’t so much as batted an eye. Indeed, only the deaf and blind could now have failed to notice him in front of stores, museums, or shopping centers, lighting that radiant lantern which now flickered within him in even the most distressing circumstances into a flaming torch. Yes indeed. He was veritably ablaze. Such were the reverberations of his sense of relief-turned-liberation after realizing while still in that clinic that he wouldn’t, despite his fears, be locked up in this foreign land for abuse of the patients; that all was well beyond belief; that he’d escaped. Yes, he’d cultivated this newfound freedom into a dynamic focal point just waiting to be ignited, opening up sources of energy that simply could not be ignored. He became flesh-and-blood proof of a view that seems ludicrous to many: that life is simply a merry-go-round of continually revolving points of view. Whenever it occurred to him that he might well have been called before an investigating committee to explain why the patients had experienced relapses, he’s sense of liberation only grew. And so he gathered headway, surmounting with an elegance surprising even to him the most challenging technical obstacles of the music he happened to be playing.
What happened did in any case play no little role in his decision—nine years after his city hall debut, and a few years before the festivity that was to decide so much—to adopt a new approach to performance. That is to say, he now considered himself a brewer of mood. People had definitely had quite enough of the ghoulish music that had been his specialty until then, he decided. Besides. All those slow pieces that he’d added spark to only rarely, when necessary, with an occasional allegro, had left even him practically despondent. By contrast, he was surprised to find that people would sometimes break into smiles on hearing works with fast rhythms pulsate out of his flute.
This crossroads sparked a minor crisis in he. Until now he’d believed that only through melancholic, virtually depressing music could he strike a chord in the hearts of passersby, that only the rhythm of grievance could nudge his listeners toward “experiencing art.” Earlier he’d been proud to inject a bit of properly apportioned somberness and despair into the life of this or that city. For the sight of people stridently bustling about looking happy go lucky invariably dampened his spirits. The apparent cheer contradicted not only his poetic disposition but his conviction that we strut our way through vanitatum vanitas with imbecilic cheer.
He’s sudden shift in perspective was accompanied by a mild shock. Which made him think that perhaps he should have opted instead to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a priest. Yes, during Sunday mass, or during Lent, for example, he could have fulfilled every ounce of his longing for dizzying emotion by slyly calling it forth or scrutinizing it in others. He could have espied on the faces of the faithful the tossing and turning of good intentions between the confession of sins. And yet he remained worldly, though not even this condition could keep him from compelling, or at least attuning, those standing before him to repentance, and in so doing to provide them with a bit of mental hygiene. And so it wasn’t by chance that on occasion the corner of the street playing host to he’s “concert” transformed into an open air confessional. His music, like some rhythm-drug that spurs self-revelation, sapped men and women alike of their usual reserve, leading them not infrequently to confide their secrets, as if this would free them of their burdens. On occasion a wheelchair-bound lady appeared out of the blue, thrusting him verily into that priestly role he’d yearned for as a child. He for one felt he could have used the presence of mind of good old Father Formula One when she rolled up to him and he experienced a terrible urge to heal. After listening a bit, the lady leaned down with some difficulty and placed a donation in his flute case.
One time in Baden-Baden, where Dostoyevsky had lost so much at the casino so long ago, he very nearly had to cut short a successful round of playing that had lasted for an hour-and-a-half because someone led a blind woman over to him. In an oddly warm tone of voice, this sightless woman asked him to play Schumann’s Traumerei. It took no little effort for he to play the whole opus, though at first he smiled at the thought that it was his mission to cure her blindness. The fact that he couldn’t cure her caused him no little distress. Sometimes the Church really did call on his services, albeit indirectly. During certain performances that he’d unwittingly gotten well underway in front of a butcher shop or some office building, for example, a young couple might stumble upon him and ask straightway: Might he be up for a bit of extra work by playing at their wedding that afternoon? Invariably he would jump at the opportunity. First, however, so as to augment his fee, he played hard to get, and only when further bargaining would have been awkward did he relent and cut a deal. More than a few newlyweds drew strength and confidence from his art.
Usually he set up shop beside the organist, in the loft. Once Mendelssohn’s rumbling Wedding March had passed, as had the ceremony itself, he took over the spiritual and aesthetic cultivation of those gathered for the happy occasion. The Ave Marias that emerged from his flute rose to the challenge of both the pure and unperturbed enthusiasm of his early years and his more recent musical maturity. The result was applause from even those older guests who were presumably half deaf. Bach’s Arie in particular often came out sounding so splendid that he sometimes imagined that not only the relatives and friends, but the newly wedded couple, too, had momentarily forgotten why they were all there in the first place. They certainly looked transfigured, sitting there through the myriad enchanting grains of sand that unreal melody in D minor held in store. Then, after the newlyweds had left the church and been heaped with everyone’s best wishes, invariably the guests proceeded to clench he’s hand. Above all, the pastor or priest would worm his way through the crowd and thank him movingly for the musical offering. Standing there at the receiving end of all this praise, he resembled a celebrated painter who transposes the handshakes that come his way in the reception following his exhibit into a gauge of his success at perceiving color and space.
But never did he imbibe in such success to the last drop. Indeed, no sooner did he pocket the negotiated fee but that he was already hastening back out to the street. For he held fast to his original program even if he’d been lured away from the street for an hour or so; whether lured away for a wedding or, as once was the case, to provide the background music at a luncheon hosted by the minister of culture of the federal state he happened to be in. With Socratic rigor he heeded his inner voice, thoroughly confirming the opinion of those who maintain that such rash behavior is the hallmark of shady characters.
At such times, on returning to the spot where he’d earlier cut a deal with some “client” of his, he fell into an exceptional state of mind. No longer did he fix his eyes on the coins accumulating in his flute case. No longer did he keep track of how many minutes passed until the next person leaned down before him with an outstretched arm. No, he was now playing for the music only. For the music. Besides the fact that the pretty penny he’d just earned had laid the ground for such purity of performance, his revived sense of independence worked wonders. On some such occasions it even turned out that genuine talent, though buried deeply indeed, was after all lying dormant within him.
About a month after one wedding gig, he set his sights on Lake Constance. The fact that five years earlier he’d been there with a friend would not alone have been enough to lure him back. But two years ago he’d paid another visit––when all at once he developed a wholly unanticipated appreciation for the rhythm of work bound up with dips in the lake. It was there that he recovered from the shock of his disastrous gig at the Toyota dealer.
Perhaps it was a Wednesday when he now arrived in the city of Constance itself, where he then proceeded to play undisturbed in front of the main pharmacy for two straight weeks. But he could not loiter at that venue forever; problems eventually arose. And so, cautiously, after closing time early one evening, he set up shop by a lingerie store. This was in fact the very place where a solitary beggar had once been so nasty with him.
The shop bore a haunting resemblance to the Salamander store in Munich. An impressively deep arcade led from the sidewalk to the door, and this was flanked by the enormous glass panes of two sharply lit display windows. Inside was a rich array of silk panties in various sizes, red and purple bras, and slips featuring both elaborate lacework and positively simple designs. These undergarments sparkled magnificently in the intense lighting, inviting the touch of a hand as they flowed over the edges of little tables and stretched over the limber forms of cross-eyed mannequins leaning a bit to the side. As at the Salamander store and other such shops, he decided to try his luck here on account of the perfect acoustics. It didn’t even occur to him that this particular venue might offer an added pleasure for more sensitive gentlemen and some ladies, too.
Only by the third night after his arrival here did this fully dawn on him. The street was practically empty as he set up shop, and so he began with a Corelli sonata he’d hardly ever rehearsed before. He savored those moments when his chosen venue of the day effectively became a rehearsal hall, and here there was the added plus of a backdrop of lingerie. He must have reached the second movement when two men arrived and began staring intently at the display windows. Immediately he phrased his music with greater discipline. Meanwhile he couldn’t help but notice that the gentlemen were standing near him for an unusually long time. And yet he couldn’t decide whether it was the invigorating display case that had fixed their attention or whether standing about and looking at the display was an implicit excuse to listen to him. After the third movement of the Corelli, he switched all at once to an aria from Don Giovanni that marks the end of the hero’s happy, womanizing days. Would this break their spell?
The gentlemen hardly even flinched. So they’d become spellbound by those panties and slips. He reasoned that this was precisely because they were indeed listening with all ears to the music. Before long other men arrived, followed by a middle-aged husband and wife, and it seemed that each one of them was in fact there to demonstrate their expertise at expediently standing in place with eyes agape. He began another aria, likewise one that set to rhythm the whims of Mozart’s philandering lord. But he did so in vain: the more talkative of the two men who’d arrived first on the scene was quite audibly expressing his indignation over the shapes of the bras. As he saw it, fashion designers might by now have come up with some more original way of making this two-pronged protective gear. When these same two gentlemen then leaned down before him on departing and each tossed a heavy coin into his flute case, their expressions revealed not only respect, but the fact that their preoccupation with sensuality had somehow transfigured into an appreciation of the sounds that had accompanied this experience.
One evening, by which time several dozen men had exhaustively eyed up those silk and cotton undergarments that in the very near future would be concealing the secrets of femininity, he noticed something quite extraordinary: a big fat expensive cigar dangling lower and lower on a string right in front of his music stand. Looking up, he saw a bearded man looking out a third-floor window. This man wasted no time in calling down and encouraging he to go ahead and untie that string—the cigar was his to keep. Although he had been just about to finish the serenade he’d been playing, he opted instead to express his gratitude to the resourceful music lover above. And so he surprised him with a Haydn dance.
Two days later he accepted the man’s innocuous invitation to stop by his apartment. Alexander—this was the music lover’s name—led him into an enormous room and had him sit down by the fireplace while he occupied an armchair by the bookcase. On learning that he was Hungarian, he could not contain his enthusiasm. From here on in Alexander spoke only about the glorious days of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, about hussars, and about how Europe became little more than a beggar with the disintegration of the Empire. Alexander had an impressive collection of weaponry. Indeed, about an hour later, once they’d finished their tea, he leapt quite suddenly out of his armchair, grabbed one of his revolvers from the nearby shelf, and pointed it straight at our momentarily frightened flutist. Though Alexander had meant this as a joke, he began guffawing only a few moments later, when he exchanged the revolver for a medieval codex. While paging through the document, he observed that vital matters do not reveal themselves but remain hidden away.
Only later did he understand that this pronouncement had as much to do with Alexander’s day-to-day profession as with the codex. He was a meteorologist. Looking up at he with those deep blue northern eyes of his, Alexander explained that all day long he cowers away in his office monitoring climactic conditions and making calculations, whereupon he prepares forecasts for the benefit of those hoping to hike in the hills or swindle in the streets. He might tell them that tomorrow will bring rain, for example, whereas quite the opposite might prove true.
The unsettling relativity of day-to-day forecasting must have taken a toll on the poor fellow. Perhaps this partly explained why he loathed people. Yes, admitted Alexander, if he could have his way he’d wipe Constance clean of humankind but tourists in paticular, so that finally the residents might breathe freely again in what is, after all, a lovely little lakeside city. Back in the days of the famed Council of Constance, which lasted from 1414 to 1418, his ancestors were among the city luminaries. One of them, recounted Alexander, filched the pope’s lover in those very years. “You know, that courtesan,” he remarked, pointing in the direction of the 23-foot-tall statue of Imperia that revolves on a pedestal in the harbor, a wasted-looking little pope in one upturned palm and an old frail emperor in the other. Indeed, as Alexander explained it, not only did this shaveling of a pope bring trouble to his stalwart ancestor, but to him as well, for the controversy coupled with that statue has since ensured that in Constance there is no peace, that he’s got to put up with the clamor of second-rate street musicians day in and day out. He thanked his lucky stars that now and then a real artist shows up in front of his building to “soothe my suffering with genuine poetry.” With that he stood, pulled a box from among the books, and produced yet another Cuban cigar.
The next day, when the panties, slips, and nylon stockings were in full bloom under the now dazzling light of the open store, he played only for this meteorologist who so staunchly stood by the Monarchy. No longer did he concern himself with window-shoppers, even though some proved to be generous. And yet he didn’t think of himself as dishonest for secretly ignoring them, figuring that the solitary, third-floor resident deserved at least this much. Besides, he was parked practically so close to the building entrance that the store might have been justified in demanding a space usage fee. Like that stout fellow back in Munich who sold Eastern carpets out of his shop on a main street that was the favorite haunt of street performers. Thanks to the machinations of that Polish wonder couple who unabashedly demanded a cut of he’s proceeds for playing close to their winning venues, he found himself repeatedly being forced to pack up and move elsewhere. And he often opted to park himself outside of that carpet shop, whose owner, had he had the means to do so, would unhesitatingly have taken a share of his proceeds for himself. Instead the man kept eyeing him with aversion from inside the store day in and day out until finally managing to chase away he. This happened on the heels of that evening when he’s protector, Vaclav, happened upon him in that very spot. The same evening when he decided to finally bear evidence of the qualitative development he very much wanted to believe in.
Lest anyone think that every one of he’s colleagues back in Munchen would have followed the example of the Polish wonder team, they should think again. Vaclav, for instance, who was earning what he could to support his three kids and his one girlfriend, went so far during he’s first summer in Munchen to take him under his wing. Which is to say that he let him in on secrets of the trade, secrets whose significance he fully understood only much later. That said, it must also be acknowledged that Vaclav, whose music school instructors back in Prague had predicted an illustrious future for him, turned on him the following summer. What Vaclav did was quite simply to occupy Marien Platz, hardly a few yards from the Salamander shop where he had until then been getting by with little cause for concern. Yes, Vaclav and his colossal accordion were more than capable of entertaining as many as a hundred people at once. And in no ordinary way. Whenever Vaclav first struck up a tune on arriving in his chosen spot, it seemed that here was a solemn young man whose hair had turned gray early on, and who saw it as his consecrated mission to make soothing music for pedestrians. But once he got into the swing of things, a completely different picture began taking shape. Vaclav slammed away at that instrument of his like some giant bird madly flapping its wings, as if he were on the verge of an epileptic seizure. All the while his entire body moved convulsively and he stomped his feet like some marching soldier gone mad or as if wanting to strike the keys of his accordion with their help as well. As if he was witnessing his own debut on a very different stage.
(translated by Paul Olchváry)
Blurb of the Hungarian Edition
To the streets with art? Is everyone an artist? Is art everyone’s? No longer does anyone ask the questions that characterized the new avantgarde of the 1960s. Or if they do, taking them seriously has long been out of fashion, for we are all too familiar with the repudiating and contemptuous, sarcastic answers. The narrator-hero of Ferenc Barnás’s second novel could care less about all this. Through many long years he has traveled the big cities of Europe as a solitary musician, uninterested in drawing a crowd. He plays his flute on streets, at outdoor markets, in front of restaurants––that is, on the varied stages of everyday life. He plays works by Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, and others for pedestrians. Why did he not choose a concert hall instead? Is he obsessed? Is he addicted to amateurish performance? Is he a ridiculous dreamer? Is he neither, but in fact a shifty freeloader (in the spirit of the protagonist of Barnás’s first novel, The Parasite) who mindfully counts his cash after this or that “performance”?
As this novel aptly shows, never does a novel give an unequivocal answer to the question: what is art good for?
(original Hungarian text by Sándor Mészáros, literary
critic and editor-in-chief of Kalligram Publishing; translated
by Paul Olchváry)