A Memoir of K
When Posterity comes to judge the nineteenth century - this
great Age of ours whose thought and deed are scarce equalled by the
Renaissance - its eye may chance to fall, as on a footnote which yet revises
the whole text, on the singular figure of K. So far-sighted is he that
years, decades, a century may pass before his works are estimated truly. He
is certainly the greatest thinker this nation has ever bred, although this
distinction is (as he says) a satire on himself rather than otherwise, as if
he were to be declared the best-dressed man among... the savages of Van
Diemen's Land. For our little country is but a wen on the face of Europe,
its chief city no larger than a market town compared to Paris, London or
Berlin. Girdled on three sides by the Sounds that swell and echo with the
waters of three mighty seas, our capital resembles nothing so much as a
brave little ship, forever breasting the cold northern waves.
Like the stormy petrel which appears when tempests
threaten, K holds to his post in the crow's nest, hedged about by icy
shrouds and sheets as sharp as razors, menaced by clacking sails, facing
down the gale. While we remain below decks, drunk with the triumphs of the
Age; while even the captain has slipped down from the bridge to join the
revelry; while the great unpiloted hulk glides through the night - he alone
clings to the tip of the thrilling mast and, his frosted hair standing on
end, espies the terrible white speck of the approaching storm. And if some
officer pokes his head outside to take the air, he takes no notice of the
piercing shrieks from above: they only come, after all, from a passenger; no
one, that is, with any authority.
And so, dear Reader, there is my opening. A little rough to
be sure, but not unpleasing as a first draft. If I strike a somewhat
apocalyptic note, well, there is a suspicion of the pale horseman about K.
For I am placed in a peculiar position: I am recording my impressions of a
man's life and work while he is still alive, albeit (as he insists) not long
for this world. Moreover, not only is he still alive - he is in the
adjoining room. If I lean forward and look through the double doors he
sometimes leaves open, I can see into the library where he is writing - at
high speed, racing his imminent demise - his last book. I doubt that many,
if any, will read it. Ever since the success of his first, the Diary of a
Seducer, which everyone took to be an account of his notorious love-affair
(although it was not, or else it was a great deal more than that, as I
should know), his literary career has declined. The number of copies sold
seems to decrease in direct proportion to the importance of his message and
the quality of his writing. He is forced now to publish at his own expense,
and so to lose money.
He is standing at a sort of lectern, designed by
himself for writing rather than reading, such as I imagine a medieval monk
employed in the scriptorium. There is a flat surface for lamp, quills and
inkpot; and a sloping piece for the sheaf of white paper which Vilnoers
replenishes daily. When he is not writing, he paces. Here he comes now,
through the doorway into the Blue Salon where I sit at the bureau, composing
these sentences. He strides past me as if I were not here and passes
through the opposite set of doors into the Breakfast Room - so-called
because the family used to break its fast there, at the long table in front
of the east-facing windows. These are the three first-floor rooms -
high-ceilinged, well-proportioned, tastefully furnished, with tall windows
overlooking Market Square - which principally circumscribe our lives. I
tend not to enter the library, although it is far from forbidden, just as
he tends not to stay any length of time in the Breakfast Room, where I can
be more private if I wish. The Blue Salon is where our existences overlap:
where my books and papers wash up, as it were, against his; where the twin
wing armchairs are pulled up in front of the fire. Behind his chair there
is another lectern, just as there is a third in the Breakfast Room so that,
if he is seized by a thought in the course of his pacing, he can dart to the
nearest and record it.
Occasionally he will burst into the Blue Salon,
still wearing his hat and coat from one of the long rambles he takes daily
about the town, and will scurry over to his lectern to begin writing even
before the umbrella he has let drop clatters to the floor. K is like the
swift, always in flight, pacing or walking, writing or talking, his legs
appearing too wasted to sustain such activity, yet marvellously able to keep
moving day and night until, suddenly, he will fling himself into his
armchair across from mine and exclaim: 'Talk to me, Victor!' And I will put
aside whatever I am doing for the pleasure of talking to him.
Now his rapid footsteps are growing louder as he
retraces his route. I have known him to pace for three hours together. It
does not disturb me. On the contrary, I find it mildly soothing. If I slip
away to bed, I often fall asleep to the rhythm of his patrol on the floor
I ought to mention at once that I have an ambition to achieve
more than a mere memoir. I wish to make a contribution to psychology.
There is a condition in men which is little noticed and even less
understood, but which in the character of K is writ large. If I can make
some account of it and, in so doing, come to understand it, I believe I may
say that I have thrown light on one of the darker recesses of the human soul
- yes, even on the soul itself. I have only to decide where to begin. I
had thought to hold you, dear Reader, by starting dramatically with that
event K refers to as the Earthquake; or else seductively with the woeful
love affair. Or else with the Father, alone on the fell Heath at the heart
of Vasteland. But then they seemed merely meretricious devices. So I will
begin by describing how I met K and how I come to be here in Number One,
Market Square, the city's best-appointed house, which K left after the
breach with the Father, and to which he returned after the Father's death.
In short, I will begin with my story.
Some eight or nine years ago, I was summoned by the Father.
It was common knowledge that he had been ill for some time - hardly
surprising in an octogenarian - but it was difficult to picture him
diminished in any way. His image was still strong in my mind: short but
well built, his broad peasant's face full of restrained force. He always
wore a long beige coat, its pockets full of the peppermints he dispensed to
his acquaintance, and carried a gold-topped cane, the only ostentation he
permitted himself. His appearance and manners were old-fashioned, but no
one thought the less of him for that. On the contrary, they seemed to be
the outward sign of values which were elsewhere threatened by modern
laxity. Although he was rich, he lived frugally. He set much store by the
cardinal virtues, the chief of which was obedience. He had the right to be
obeyed without question because, while he was subservient to no man, it was
felt that he was obedient to some higher power more exacting even than
himself. Thus, although I had not seen the Father since I was a boy, it did
not occur to me to disobey his summons. K was the only person I ever knew
Nevertheless, my nervousness at meeting the Father again made
me drag my feet on the way to Market Square. Although it was bitterly cold,
an east wind straight from Siberia slashing my face, I unconsciously took a
circuitous route from my lodgings near the Quays. I climbed up to the old
ramparts and followed them around for a while, pausing to gaze down blankly
at the choppy, slate-grey sea. Then, realising I was late, I hurried on,
cutting down to Northgate Street where the expensive shops are interspersed
with aromatic coffee-houses and brightly-lit restaurants; past the
University and St Mary's, where the fashionable listen to Menster's
incomparable sermons, to Market Square whose bustling stalls, bellowing
traders and troops of street entertainers had been severely thinned by the
inclement weather. Everything is to hand in our city, like a microcosm. I
put my head down into the wind and pushed my way across the cobbles, past
the central fountain (now waterless), until I stood before the five steps
that led to the portal of Number One.
I cannot recall that moment without in turn remembering -
thus is memory a nest of Russian dolls - the first time I climbed those
steps, as a child. Owing to the sort of absurdity parents are prone to, I
had been designated a suitable playmate for K. I was older than he, but
still nearer in age to him than his six older brothers and sisters. My
greatest fear was that one of my friends would get wind of this visit to a
boy who, at school, was a despised junior, beneath notice.
However, everyone had in fact noticed K. He was
an oddity. He dressed in an old-fashioned style - a skirted coat, breeches
and stockings instead of trousers, shoes instead of boots - which, we
fancied, was something to do with his religion; for we knew (as who in the
city did not?) of the Father's reputation for piety. Even parents lowered
their voices a shade when speaking of him. When I first glimpsed K in the
schoolyard one misty morning, he reminded me of a frail old man, with his
thin legs and his slightly stooped gait. Some bigger boys were baiting
him. I moved closer in order to hear what he would say, for it was rumoured
that his tongue was as quick as a stiletto.
He only spoke as a last resort, it seemed. He
uttered no word as the bullies began to pinch, and then punch, but lashed
out with his little fists. I watched a fascinating ribbon of blood come out
of his nose. I wished he would go down before he was knocked on to the hard
ground. He was so thin I could already hear the sickening snap of his
bones. But still he fought wildly and ineffectually on, buffeted to and
fro, until the boys grew somewhat embarrassed, and scuffed off, vaguely
jeering. K stood for a moment in silence. Then his legs collapsed under
him. Ashamed that I had not intervened, I hurried forward and offered my
hand to help him up. He ignored it. 'Are you hurt?' I asked. He threw me a
haughty and furious look. 'Not in the slightest. And I'll thank you to go
He has not changed. He paces past me now, his fists clenched,
ready to spring on to a lectern and lash out at the white paper, bloodying
its nose with ink. I have learnt two things since that encounter in the
schoolyard: that there was more to K's collapse than met the eye; and that
you do not, ever, approach K with even a suspicion of pity on your face.
And so I was late, eight years ago or so, when I knocked on
the door of Number One, Market Square, just as I had been late on my first
visit, when I had loitered in the Market to watch some gypsy tumblers,
wishing that I did not have to call on my odd and hostile schoolmate.
A thin-lipped housekeeper admitted me, a very different state
of affairs from the full complement of butlers and liveried footmen which
had intimidated me as a boy. The grand vestibule, with its marble floor and
its great sweep of staircase leading up to the principal rooms on the first
floor, was as I remembered it, if inevitably diminished. But I had
forgotten the unique atmosphere of the house. The air was somehow thicker,
more laden with itself, so that it was difficult to breathe, as if you had
pushed through a membrane into another world. Even the bustle and clatter
from the Square was suddenly muffled and remote. I had the same sense of
foreboding I experienced as a boy - although, in those days it had been
dispelled or, at least, disguised by the sound of voices and laughter,
especially if K's sisters were at home.
Severine, I recall, had already married; yet she
was often there, full of fun and games. Andrea, the brainy one, already
betrothed, had been as far above you as a goddess - who yet stoops to notice
and even tease you. Petra was, well... Petra. The beautiful. I
yearned.... Of the four brothers, all younger than the girls (I should say:
women), I saw least of Peter who seemed already to be a bookish, remote
man. Michael and Nils, nearer to me in age, were outgoing and strong. I
admired them, wondering how on Earth they had come to have such a brother as
K. Dimly I thought it must be to do with the Father's being three score
years at least when, out of the blue, his seventh child, the runt of the
litter, was born. Abraham himself could not have looked more fondly on the
impossible, beloved son of his old age than the Father looked on K. Only K,
it seemed, could soften the severity of the Father from whose brooding
presence emanated the sense of oppression we all - even the house - laboured
The housekeeper directed me to the second floor,
where the bedrooms are, and told me that I would be met by the Reverend
Doctor. She meant, it turned out, Peter. With leaden feet I climbed the
stairs to the long gallery which, to the left, overlooked the silent stable
yard that used to be so loud with the rattle of carriages; and, to the
right, opened on to the library and the Blue Salon in which I am now
sitting. I remember that I could not resist giving the door a little push.
It swung open a few inches just as it had on my childhood visit, when I had
been left outside the same door and, hearing voices from inside, had pushed
it. At once I had found myself eavesdropping on an extraordinary
'They're gaining on us,' said a high-pitched
voice, tinged with fear. 'I can see their burning eyes, Father, and their
'They must be starving or they'd never risk an attack,' a man's deep voice
'The horses are breaking their rhythm, Father!
They're spooked by the moaning of the wolves.'
'Hold them steady, son. Keep the reins taut but
do not pull at their mouths... yes, that's it... good.'
'It's no use, Father. The wolves are right behind
us. They'll be leaping on to the back of the troika. God help us!'
'We must distract them,' said the man excitedly.
'I know, I know. Throw out the food.'
'Our winter supplies? We'll go hungry...'
'Better that than eaten by wolves! Throw it out,
Father. Ham and venison first.'
'Ham and venison gone!'
'Now the chicken and the game pies. We'd better
keep the candied fruit. And the jellies.'
'Capital, my boy. Chicken and pies only.'
'Are they slowing, Father?'
'Yes - but they're coming on again. Lay on the
horses! We'll see the lights of the dacha just around this bend. Then
we'll be safe. But lay on now! They're coming up on us and I've only one
pie left. Lay on, I say!'
Throughout this drama father and son had been
pacing the salon's long polished floor, strewn with expensive rugs. Then K
saw me standing in the doorway, my mouth open. The expression on his face
was bemused, as if the blizzard he was galloping through was taking a moment
to clear. As his eyes came into focus he let out a howl, uncannily like a
'Ah,' said the Father. 'You must be Victor.
Welcome to the steppe.'
At the top of the second flight of stairs, my apprehension
increased to trepidation. I told myself that I was no longer a small
boy, but a vague sick feeling persisted. I advanced slowly, wondering
where Peter was to be found, until I heard voices in the bedroom which now
belongs to K - but which was then, as I soon learned, the Father's.
The door was ajar. I listened.
'Will you not speak to your friend, father?'
'Friend?' came the weary reply.
'Bishop Mænster, father.'
'No, Peter. I will not presume upon my friendship
in order to obtain preferment for my sons.'
'You often help my brother heheh.' These last
syllables represent Peter's characteristic laugh or, rather, the nervous
mirthless bleat he involuntarily appended to, or interpolated in, certain
'That is another matter. The subject is
closed.' Although the Father's voice was thinned by time and sickness, it
retained its authority. It was unthinkable to re-open a subject once the
Father had closed it. But, whether through self-absorption or simple
foolhardiness, K's eldest brother persisted:
'But do you think I should seek a living, father?
In a simple country parish?' he wheedled. I was embarrassed by his hunger
for approval, and afraid - the Father's silence was ominous. If Peter
noticed, still he could not stop himself: 'After all, it might seem
meritorious on my part to give up my academic career, even though I am
likely to become the youngest professor at the University heheh...' He
paused as if to allow the Father to make a remark, which was not
forthcoming, '...but I have never set any store by worldly success. It has
always seemed to me infinitely preferable to fulfil one's ethical
obligations in a humble position, rather than to add, however profoundly heh,
to the sum of philosophy.'
'You have not your brother's gifts in that
respect,' the Father said shortly. There was a silence.
'He certainly seems to agree with you,' Peter continued in a
strained voice, 'since he disdained to study under me heheh, and chose the
Reverend Professor Morten Mortens instead. But I do not take such things
personally. We can only hope that your faith in young K's philosophical
powers is well founded. No doubt, when he deigns to publish something, it
will easily outshine the dozen or so articles and essays which I have
produced. Meanwhile, there are no indications, I fear, heheh, that he is
even working on his thesis for the privatdocent examination.'
'I am aware of that.' The voice was far away. I
had to crane forward to catch it. Peter entered a final plea:
'You would prefer it, father - would you not? - if
I were to give up scholarship and preach the gospel in some rural setting?'
'It is a matter for your own conscience - now go
and see if that young man has arrived.'
'I do not understand, father, what Victor Eremita
can do for you that I cannot. I do not see that you need him when I _'
I managed to step quickly back from the door so
that, when Peter swept through it, I was scrutinising a picture on the wall
a good few paces away. He was little altered: the same bruiser's build and
somewhat doughy face, with a large shapeless nose, and eyes buried in
pouches. He shot a suspicious glance at me before his mouth assumed the
fixed, habitual half-smile that I remembered so well. He bowed with an
exaggerated movement, intended perhaps to be ironic, indicating that I
should enter the bedroom.
It was spartanly furnished apart from the
four-poster bed. Both lamps were turned down so that I had to move with
care towards the bed in which I could discern the supine shape of the
eighty-year-old man, his large head propped on pillows. His face was in
shadow; but the bedside lamp threw a dim pool of light over his workman's
hands, ponderous and yellow as vellum against the white linen.
'It is I, Eremita,' I said, taking a seat on the
chair placed towards the end of the bed. 'You sent for me.'
'It was good of you to come, Victor. Forgive the
gloom. My old eyes cannot bear too much light.'
'May I ask the nature of your illness, sir?' The
waxy hands raised themselves slightly and then dropped back on to the sheet.
'Old age, Victor. At least, I pray that my ills
are from the body alone.' There was a silence during which I could hear the
swish of the sea out in the Sounds. I thought vaguely of the vast mass of
water, all but surrounding the city's little peninsula, and pressing on it,
as if it would break us off and bear us away to the bitter Arctic. But the
sea-sound, I realised, was the slightly laboured breathing of the Father.
'How may I be of service to you?'
The dark head shifted on the pillow. It was said
to contain the largest brain in the country. The abundant, barely grizzled
hair made the head seem bigger still.
'It is my youngest son, Victor. He will not
communicate with me in any way. Yet I hear that he is dissolute. He is
supposed to be studying at the University, but he drinks and gambles and,
for all I know, worse. He mocks religion and respects no one. I would like
you, a man of the world, to find out how things stand with him.' Although I
had been back in the country but a short while, I knew K's reputation.
'I hear he spends a lot of money, certainly,' I
'I make him a liberal allowance. Perhaps I spoil
him. I do not want to put checks on the boy - who knows how long any of us
has on this Earth? Besides, why should he not enjoy himself? I myself have
played the rake in my time. Yet he runs up huge debts, which I am obliged
to pay in order to avoid scandal. Perhaps I should not pay them. But I
always hope that if I continue to do so he will be returned to me _' his
voice suddenly became odd and high _ 'it has been nearly three years,
Victor. I have not seen him since his twenty-second birthday.' Old age and
illness had mellowed the Father beyond all recognition, when I thought back
to the strictness of K's upbringing.
'I have not heard that his debts are so very
large,' I murmured in a spirit of consolation, 'nor that his crimes are so
very great. You may be worrying yourself unnecessarily.'
'Do you think so, Victor? I have little to do
these days except lie in a half-darkness of memory and imagining. I am
comforted by your unconcern about the boy. It may be that he can be easily
saved. What really torments me _' the fingers of his left hand kneaded the
air as he groped for his next sentence _ 'what is really killing me... is
my fear over his spiritual state. Is there more to his indolence and wild
behaviour than meets the eye? I fear there is. I fear he is succumbing
'God forbid,' I said conventionally. The
interview was becoming a little alarming. 'I ought to say at once, sir,
that you may be under a misapprehension about me: I am not ordained, nor
likely to be so. I am not the man therefore to oversee your son's spiritual
welfare. Indeed, I can scarcely watch over my own. You would be better
advised to seek the help of one of the university clerics. K's tutor, for
'K will take no counsel. O, I do not wholly blame
him. I have come to see that I was not without blame myself in our
little... contretemps.' He added, with a chill in his voice: 'I had hoped
that an old friend, who knew K from a child, might wish out of affection
rather then duty, to take an interest in his well-being.'
His stiffness re-awoke my childhood fear of him.
I never doubted that he was a kindly man; it was just that he exuded in
spite of himself - perhaps unknown to himself - an aweful power. At the
same time I was irritated by his presumption of a bond between K and
myself. It suited him so to presume because he wanted a conduit to K; but I
was not in fact close to his puny son, who had always repelled me as much as
he had fascinated me. It was difficult not to obey the Father's wishes
without question, but I managed to say, with comparable chilliness:
'I fear I must decline your invitation to spy on
your son, sir.'
'You are offended, Victor. I beg your pardon. It
is the last thing I intended. I am... desperate, you see. I wanted only to
beseech you to seek out K, and to keep an unobtrusive eye on him.'
I was softened. 'Well, that might not be
impossible,' I said. 'After all, I am curious to see how the K I knew has
grown into this rackety individual.'
'And perhaps you might be persuaded to call on me
again? To mention anything germane about K's condition?'
'I make no promises, sir.'
'Of course not, my dear fellow. Forgive me for
pressing you. A father's anxiety.... But is it not cold in here? I abhor
the cold. It comes back a little more every day, the cold. Comes from my
childhood. I never believed, as they say, that the older you get, the more
vividly your early years return. But it's true. My cold childhood comes
back to haunt me, not just in thought, but in fact. I was raised in Vasteland, you know.'
'An inhospitable place,' I remarked politely, for
I was eager now to be gone. 'Or so I have heard.'
'Ask K about it. He has been there. Or did I
imagine that? Things are not so clearly defined these days. In any case,
even K, for all his pretty wit, could not do justice to Vasteland. It is as
bleak a peninsula as ours is cosy and civilised. It is indescribable. At
its heart, Victor, is the Heath where I grew up. A place beyond imagining.
We lived on the edge of starvation. The sheep I was sent to tend could
barely eke a living out of it. The interminable winters were not more
terrible than the summers, when the sun, like the very eye of God, scarcely
sets. Yet it never seems to be warm. It is like being at sea. The
undulating land holds out the eternal hope that there will be something
beyond the next rise, something to look at. But there never is, unless a
single stunted larch, a misshapen rock. The land rolls emptily away under
the huge sky, soundless except for the soughing wind and the animals tearing
at grass. No cranny in which to hide from God's eye; no shelter from the
bitter wind. It was commonplace for folk to go mad there, oh yes, or kill
themselves. A terrible place where a child, hollowed out by cold and
hunger, might come to believe something terrible about the universe... might
come to believe that... that...' The heavy head moved in the shadows. The
big yellowish hands clenched and unclenched.
'How fortunate that you were saved,' I said. The
whole city knew the story: how his mother's brother, having a hosiery
business in the capital and no heir, visited the family hovel on the Heath;
how, out of the hungry brood, he chose the starveling Father, like King
David summoned from the flocks to be anointed King of Israel. How, on the
relative's death, the Father multiplied by many times the size and value of
the business, importing in exchange for wool, everything from East Indian
spices to West Indian syrups and coffee beans. How, even when he became the
richest merchant in the city, he always and modestly styled himself
'Fortunate...' the Father murmured. '...saved.'
his voice was fading now from fatigue. 'Perhaps. Or was it all a
I judged from the morbid, rambling turn to his
discourse that my interview was over. I took my leave of him.
'Goodbye, K,' the confused old man replied. 'It
is a terrible place we are in... where there are offences we can only fight
against with God's continual help.' The fingers of the big hands jabbed the
Outside the Father's room, I found myself a little
short of breath. The house was oppressively quiet compared to the old
days. I was filled with nostalgic longing for the sounds of Michael and
Nils wrestling, of clever Andrea's teasing voice, of lovely Petra's singing.
For a second I thought: 'What if Petra and I...? I smiled. Petra would be
a middle-aged matron by now, with six children.
I was passing the door of the old nursery, and
could not resist taking a look. Inside, the furniture had been stacked at
one end of the unexpectedly warm and dusty room, except for the heavy oak
cupboard which was where it had always been. A shaft of pale sunlight was
swirling with motes. There was that hushed tension peculiar to rooms long
unused, as if it had a secret life I had caught in the act. A faint scent
of cinnamon, fleeting as the perfume of violets, brought back the toast and
tea I had taken with K all those years ago.
Arguing about who was the greatest hero in The
Iliad - K favoured wily Odysseus, while I championed hare-swift Achilles -
we were interrupted by the appearance of the Father.
'Greatest heroes, eh? Have I never shown you
this?' He unlocked the oak cupboard and took down from its highest shelf a
large slender book. 'On these pages are pictures of the greatest heroes.'
He eased himself behind the boy's desk where K did his homework, and we
stood on either side of him, craning over the book as he turned its pages.
He said very little, content to let the jewel-like pictures speak for
themselves. They were so gorgeous that your eyes, greedy for them, almost
hurt. There was Perseus, slaying the viper-haired Gorgon with a flash of
his golden sickle. Heracles held aloft, in a death-grip, the swart and
hairy Antaeus. Blind Samson pulled down the Temple of Baal. Sigurd urged
his magical horse through the fire that circled the beautiful valkyr
Brynhild. Each image was more fabulous than the last.
Then the Father turned the page on to a man,
nearly naked, his ribs showing, his eyes rolled back. The picture was dull,
apart from touches of crimson here and there, at the wrists and feet for
instance, where nails held the man to a wooden post and cross bar. K
recoiled. I said: 'What's this?' Of course, I knew the name well. It was
just that I associated it with a star and wise men, angels and shepherds,
presents and Christmas pudding. I had not been prepared for this horror.
Especially among all the heroes, richly caparisoned and rejoicing in their
strength. And then to be told soberly - as only the Father can be sober,
causing the nursery furniture to shift and buckle - that this wretch, the
epitome of weakness and failure, was... 'the greatest Hero of them all.'
Well. K and I dared not look at each other, never discussed it - never
even mentioned it. A kind of shame forbade it.
For years the picture of the crucified Saviour of
the World came back to ambush me at odd times. The racked face, the white
eyes, the tearing muscles on the outspread arms - I have never been quite
able to put that image behind me. And at that moment of my return to the
nursery, it importuned me more than ever, its power undiminished by the
passage of time. I thought: 'Where has all my dabbling in philosophy, my
toying with religion - all my travelling and talking and half-hearted
studying - really got me? Perhaps it is time to engage with that naked
creature on the cross, and to fathom why he was the greatest hero of all.'
Eight or nine years on, I am both nearer and farther from a solution to that
I was startled out of my reverie by a footfall.
Peter was looking at me quizzically, with that half-smile which had always
seemed to combine contempt with a desire to appease. His dress was sober,
as befits a clergyman, but with expensive little touches - a silk stock, a
gold pin, so forth - which proclaimed him a fashionable University man
rather than an underpaid parson.
'My brother's playmate,' he said. 'Not that I
recollect you with any clarity, Victor.'
'I was a good deal younger than you.'
'And still are, I shouldn't wonder heheheh.'
'I am sorry to see your father so much reduced.'
'Was there anything particular he wanted?'
'To be candid, Peter - if I may be equally
familiar - I am not sure how confidential our conversation was intended to
be. So I had better say nothing.'
'Ah. I surmise that father wishes a
reconciliation with my reprobate brother heheh, and has enlisted you to that
end...' I gave no indication. 'If you need assistance from one who,
perhaps, knows both parties better than anyone, I am at your service -
although, the Lord knows, K does not deserve my goodwill heheh. I do not
mind that he prefers to be tutored by Morten Mortens, a less qualified man
than myself, incidentally. I overlook the fact that he neglects his
studies, and his religion. It is scandalous, however, that he should
neglect his obligation to his father as he does, especially when that father
is magnanimous enough to ask for K's forgiveness. Why K withholds it, when
the father's transgression was only to have been, well, too... loving - I do
not know. All families have secrets heh. It is time young K ceased his
histrionics and understood that.'
'What secrets?' I asked, with interest.
'My dear Victor, they would hardly be secrets if I
were to tell you, eh? Heheh.' For a second, he looked almost frightened,
as if his self-importance had led him into a punishable indiscretion.
I paid little heed to Peter at the time. Standing
in the old nursery, I was still in thrall to my recollection of the
disturbing picture of the Crucifixion. But when I began my investigation
into K's incurable condition, whose main symptom is that no one suspects he
has any such thing, Peter's mention of family secrets came back to me. It
gave me hope that I might uncover the cause of the condition or, at least,
find out enough to break K's silence and compel him to tell me what atrocity
had induced that silence in the first instance.
Three days later I met K. I had been visiting a certain house
in the Docks, as I was sometimes inclined to do in those days. It had been
snowing all afternoon. I trudged through the narrow, ill-lit streets and,
taking a wrong turn, found myself in front of the tavern where I knew that,
in a chamber above the tap-room, the Devil's Advocates convened. Indeed,
the Reverend Professor Baggesen had suggested that very day, when I ran into
him on Northgate, that I should drop in on the evening's meeting.
At one time, the city burghers would purse their
lips and their wives exchange looks at the mention of the Devil's Advocates,
although their disapproval was not undiluted by a kind of civic pride in the
knowledge that our little capital boasted an intellectual clique as
dissolute and free-thinking as any in Paris or Berlin. However, the group
which gathered for debate at the time I stood before the tavern, was
rumoured to be tainted with too many academics and to have grown rather prim
and, alas, undiabolical. Nevertheless, since the immediate gratification of
my recent excursion had been superseded as usual by that sense of emptiness
and ennui which makes a man loth to return to solitary lodgings (and since a
man's boots were soaked through), I determined to beard these hellions in
It was more dismal than I had feared. I was shown
into a low-ceilinged smoky room. The remains of a supper littered the heavy
oak table. Candles had gone out and not been replaced, leaving large areas
of shadow. The fire had burnt down to glowing embers. Several, perhaps
most, of the 'Advocates' had already departed, while those who remained were
clearly under the influence of the brandy and port wine which still
circulated. Whatever hilarity had obtained earlier, had given way to a
sombre mood, presided over by the 'elder statesman' Baggesen and by his
younger (but more senior) colleague, Morten Mortens - who waved me towards a
seat without breaking the flow of his address to an audience of what
appeared to be three students.
'Objectivity,' he was saying, 'is the key to
truth. We must awaken from the subjective dreams, emotions and beliefs of
Romanticism and enlist the help of hard philosophy to establish the
objective truth of Christianity, which is currently threatened by the
biblical criticism emerging from Germany.' With his thin pointed nose and
shrewd eyes gleaming beneath thick eyebrows, he seemed to embody the
penetration of inductive reasoning. He pulled on his long pipe and blew a
rod of smoke out of the corner of his small mouth.
Baggesen was nodding vigorously. 'Quite so, quite
so. I hope I have devoted the best part of my working life,' he said, his
handsome mutton-chop whiskers trembling with vehemence, 'to the meticulous
paring away of subjectivity, and to that stringent objectivity which alone
guarantees truth.' He threw little darting glances at the three younger men
as if daring them to contradict him.
'The professor is an object lesson to us all,'
said an odd, rasping voice which startled me by emanating from beneath the
table. 'His power of objective thought is justly famous. It has led him so
far away from himself as a subject that he will soon attain the enviable
condition of vanishing altogether. Naturally I do my best to emulate him,
but I cannot seem to do away with myself for more than ten seconds before I
find myself back in my own subjectivity. In short, I cannot hold that
complete indifference to my own existence which Professor Baggesen and his
colleagues have all but perfected _'
'You cannot hold your drink,' Mortens interrupted
the disembodied voice, 'but you can still hold others up to ridicule.
Really, K, this carping irony of yours is too bad.'
'Au contraire, revered tutor,' came the rasping
voice, 'it is the art of being good while seeming bad. Just the opposite,
in fact, of hypocrisy - not that you'd know anything about that - which
seems good while being bad. Irony begs its victim not to take it at face
value in order to elicit the truth. Hypocrisy, which I cultivate in equal
measure, wishes to be taken at face value in order to conceal the truth.'
'Yes, you are hypocritical!' - the words burst out of Baggesen
- 'because you publicly attend church yet you privately profess a vile
'I may be a
hypocrite in many things, Professor,' said the voice from below, 'but in
religious matters I am always an ironist. I am publicly irreligious,
yet I attend church because sermons such as yours are one of my most cherished forms of entertainment.'
'Eh?' said Baggesen. Then, deciding to be
mollified, 'Quite so.'
One of the younger men chimed in. Keen-eyed, with
a mass of black curls, he spoke a little too earnestly for the general tone
of the company. The other two - one of them snub-nosed and red-haired; the
other, fair-haired, fat and with unsuccessful moustaches - glanced quickly
at each other.
'I am encouraged by K's amusing contention that the logical
end of the objective thinker is to abstract himself out of existence...
encouraged because I would describe myself as a subjective thinker _' The
other two broke into a slurred rendition of the hymn "Let the Children of
Israel go forth", at which the speaker blinked rapidly and raised his voice
a notch, 'but the trouble is, K, if you can hear me _'
'I hear, O voice of Goldstein,' intoned K.
'The trouble is that, for the subjective thinker
truth is always an inner truth, a truth for him, inseparable from his own
existence - which sweeps on before I... before he can get any purchase on
the world; and so I... he is sometimes all at sea, envying the definite
results of the objective thinker, longing to ... settle things - but I
'Whoa, old chap. Steady,' said the fat young man.
'It's not personal, this philosophy business. Why are you people always so
'By "you people",' came the voice of K, 'he means
of course people such as you and me, Goldstein - people of wit and
discernment who emphatically do take the business of truth personally,
albeit people who take strong drink too liberally.'
'I have no doubt that the latest thinking will
satisfy our young friend's desire for definite results,' Mortens intervened
smoothly. 'The great system of philosophy built by Hegel indicates that the
rational order of the universe will be uncovered, and will be seen,
moreover, to accord with Christian revelation. Indeed, science and
philosophy together may well take us beyond Christianity _'
'You are going too fast for me, beloved tutor,'
said K's voice. 'Shouldn't a philosopher subjectively inhabit his thought
rather then remaining objectively detached from it? Aren't the German
philosophers like men who build fabulous castles - and then live in hovels
outside the walls? And what does our new arrival say? I sense from the
sympathetic mien of his boots that he will take my side.'
'Perhaps I will,' I admitted. 'What little I
understand of philosophy certainly engages the brain but, somehow, leaves
the whole man unsatisfied. It may be that Mr Goldstein feels as I do...
feels like a starving man who, begging the academics and professors for
food, is given - a cookery book.'
'All these glib little similes are most amusing,'
said Mortens, his teeth clenched around the stem of his pipe, 'but they are
no substitute for the intellectual rigour in which you younger men are so
lamentably wanting. While you wallow in your subjective Romantic yearning,
science and philosophy are explaining. If Goldstein were to follow their
progress, he would soon find that he can "settle things".'
'No, no, wise tutor,' protested K. 'He will not
be able to settle things. He will be like the young maiden in love who
yearns for the certainty of her wedding day, when things will be settled.
But, alas, no sooner has maidenly longing given way to wifely yawning than
she finds that she has lost the thing that can never be settled, the
essential thing - the inwardness of love, which has to be continually
renewed and re-acquired if it is not to lapse.'
'Are you saying, K, that no truth can ever be
objectively established?' asked Goldstein.
'I am saying that truth can never finally be found
in an objective thinker's assertions about the world. If it is to be found
anywhere, it will be found in the degree of passion a subjective thinker
invests in his relationship with the world. This means, Goldstein, that you
must continue to live in uncertainty, without settling things, as a lonely
subjectivity, teetering on the crest of existence like a man riding a tidal
wave on a tea tray!'
'Ah, but in that case,' - Baggesen came to life,
raising a forefinger - 'when truth is determined purely subjectively and
inwardly, what is to distinguish it from madness?'
'Nothing,' replied K calmly. 'Pure subjectivity
is a risk. But since the only kind of truth worth the name is established
there, it is a risk worth running.'
'But at least objectivity cannot be accused of
'On the contrary, the absence of subjectivity may
be just as prone to madness. Imagine a patient who escapes from the
mad-house and goes to visit his friends, the Mortenses. He has to convince
them that he is not mad, so he hits upon the idea of impressing them with
some objective truth. He knocks at the door and Professor Mortens appears.
"I am quite sane, my dear Mortens," says the patient, "and I will prove it
to you: five times four equals twenty." Triumphantly he repeats the
equation, marching around the room - and goes on repeating it until the
asylum orderlies arrive to cart him off. Clearly, he is mad. But his cure
does not consist in persuading him to believe that five times four equals
something other than twenty! An objective truth, therefore, is not enough
to establish that the man who utters it is sane. It may even be a sign that
he is mad.'
'It is easy to ridicule anything by taking it to extremes,'
said Mortens, nettled by the ripple of laughter, led by Goldstein, which had
greeted K's conceit. 'You always go too far, K. You should be careful.
You may end up as mad as the friend you attribute to me if you persist in
decrying objectivity and clinging to subjectivity alone.'
'I hold fast to subjectivity, Professor Mortens,
because I fear a madness even worse than that of your fictional friend.' K
sounded remarkably sober and serious for a man who has slid under a table.
'I fear the madness of objective thinkers for whom truth does not matter a
jot. I meet them at parties: scholars, academics, clever-clogs, who are
completely deranged in relation to the passions - the derangement being that
they do not have any. At least the subjective madman, like Don Quixote, has
an infinite passionate inwardness. His mistake is to attach that infinite
passion to a finite object. His tragedy - and our comedy - is that what
infinitely concerns him is of no concern to anyone else. But whereas I may
shrink from looking into the eyes of a Quixote, lest I am compelled to plumb
the depth of his dementia, I cannot look at a prattling academic madman at
all for fear that he has eyes of glass and hair of carpet rags. I cannot
listen to his deathly twaddle without a cold dread creeping over me, dread
that it is not a human who speaks but a scarecrow with a talking-machine
concealed within. It is discomfiting enough to converse with a Quixotic
madman, but to engage in rational discourse with a scarecrow, Mortens - why,
it's enough to make a fellow lose his reason.' There was a silence, broken
'I rather fear, K, that your career at the
University may end sooner than you expect.'
'I fear you are right,' sighed K. He sounded
genuinely rueful. Meanwhile, Baggesen had by no means finished with the
'If you truly hold such a view, young man,' he said, 'then you
are forced to maintain that a man who stakes his life on, say, the flatness
of the Earth is more in the truth than a man who calculates that it is
round. Thus your whole position is nonsense.' He beamed at each of us in
'A man may err in the matter of the Earth's shape,
but still be closer to the truth,' said K. 'I do indeed believe that the
flat-earther whose whole existence is engaged by the idea of the Earth's
flatness, who incandesces with the idea, who is transformed by the idea, is
more in the truth than someone who merely thinks the Earth is round. Of
course this can only seem like nonsense to common sense; but, above all,
when it comes to truth, the fact of the Earth's roundness is a matter of
indifference. It is essentially trivial. And I would prefer to compare the
subjective and the objective in relation to an idea that is not trivial.'
'Such as death?' I remarked. 'Were we not all
impressed by the Reverend Professor's sermon last Sunday concerning the
uncertainty of death?' Mortens acknowledged my praise with an inclination
of the head.
'Indeed we were impressed,' said K eagerly. 'If
you had been there, Goldstein, you would have learnt something. Not that
death is uncertain, of course. It is the one certainty we all can count on
- death settles everything. No, my esteemed tutor meant the uncertainty of
when death will come, not that it will come. But the strange thing was,
that as I listened to Mortens' uplifting words _'
'Have a care, K,' said Mortens.
'Have no fear, eloquent tutor. I am about to
vouch for the efficacy of your preaching because, you see, for all that the
awful uncertainty of death makes me tremble, the strange thing was that your
sermon, with its scrupulous logic and its moving periods, seemed to mitigate
the uncertainty of death and, do you know, I found myself tucking into my
Sunday dinner with scarcely a tremor. Death may take me to-morrow; yet when
I looked at it objectively, in the light of Mortens' sermon, in company with
a congregation which was admirably calm, the little matter of death seemed
to be settled. I felt nothing but pity for the poor subjective individuals
such as Goldstein - such as myself not half an hour before - who treat death
as a constant possibility, a profound uncertainty that shadows every waking
thought. Such poor creatures do not settle the uncertainty of death once
and for all, before Sunday dinner - they know no better than to grapple with
it every day. They know no better than the superstitious old Greeks who
thought that philosophy is... learning how to die. If only they would apply
modern objective methods, and conduct extensive analyses of people who had
died; if only they would study the statistics which tell us exactly how many
people die each year, and what they die of - then they would have certainty
about death. Wouldn't they? Indeed, I hear rumours from the University, O
tutor, that progress is so far advanced in the objective approach to death
that we will soon be able to get other people to die for us, and so to avoid
altogether any subjective unpleasantness.'
Mortens' smile was strained. 'It will be the
death of you, K, this constant heavy-handed irony...'
'Yes, I am sorry. I cannot seem to help myself,
for what is irony in the mystery of the heart but sadness? The sadness
which comes when we understand a certain truth, becomes, as soon as we are
in the company of those who misunderstand - isn't it so, Baggesen? - irony.'
'Ah,' said Baggesen. Then, without conviction,
When I looked up from writing this recollection of my first
encounter with K since childhood, I found him slumped in his armchair across
the room, surveying me with a faint smile.
'I see you have taken up writing, Victor. Your
'They would make a very slim volume. Especially
since, for the last eight or nine years, I have been virtually inseparable
'Ah, you are writing about me. There's no need to
look sheepish. After all, I write about you.'
'Do you?' I was amazed.
'Yes, my journals are full of reflections on your
philosophical - I ought to say, theological - development.'
'I wouldn't have a development if it weren't for
'Perhaps that is what, Narcissus-like, interests
me. You represent my experiment. You try to act on what I merely write
about. If you also begin writing, we shall have the most complicated
mirror-play of reflection and counter-reflection.' He laughed.
'Shall I cease writing? Does it offend you?'
'Not in the least. And when we have both
finished, we can compare notes and laugh over the cacophonous echoes of our
'I was remembering my first encounter with you as
an adult. You were lambasting Mortens and Baggesen.'
'And look where they are now - heading departments
of philosophy and theology and Lord knows what else - while I.... ' He
'You have written books worth ten of theirs,' I
'Rather more than ten, I think you'll find. But
the credit should go to Father. It was the magic of his philosophising
which spoilt me for that of the professors.'
'I did not know he was a philosopher.'
'When he retired from business, he read long and
deeply as only a self-educated man can. He never entertained as such, never
threw a party for example, but he would admit his friends - his opponents, I
should say - singly to the house and sit them down as if for a business
meeting to dispute with him on philosophical matters. I was often present,
playing with my tin soldiers or simply hidden behind the ottoman with a
book. Father paid no attention to whether I was there or not.'
'I had the impression that he liked you to be in
'Perhaps... ' As he was speaking, Vilnoers
knocked and entered in order to draw the curtains and light the lamps. I
suddenly noticed how he has aged. His hair is thin, and his face has a
pinched look. He once told me how K had saved him from the debtors'
prison. And so I understand why K does not sack him for idleness as he
deserves, but brushes his own coat surreptitiously so that Vilnoers will not
be offended. 'Perhaps. At any rate, without becoming aware of it, I found
that I soon became familiar with the terms of the debates, and their
structure. I could even begin to follow them. It was exciting. I did not
know that philosophy was supposed to be buried in Teutonic prolixity. What
I was hearing was philosophy in the raw. However, it was not the content
of the debates which entranced me. It was Father's special way of
proceeding. First of all, he insisted that his opponent state his position
fully and without interruption. I strained to understand the logic of the
argument as best I could and it seemed to me that the conclusion was
inevitable and the matter settled - the speaker was, after all, invariably
some eminent academic who knew his way around logic and rhetoric. I was
struck by the aesthetics of the debate more than anything, its beauty and
the way the world was teased apart and elegantly reassembled in a more
orderly fashion. My heart beat faster at the power of words that could do
such a thing to the world I knew, and to show me a different, more profound
order of reality beneath the surfaces of things.'
'Yes, that is a kind of magic.'
'But this was not the magic, not yet. Father
would assiduously enquire as to whether there was anything his opponent
would like to add to his argument, or to amend. Then it was his turn to
speak. I held my breath. I knew what was to come, yet, every time, I
hardly dared to believe that he would manage it. But lo! Father spoke; and
as his words flowed out of him his opponent's argument unravelled. All
previous certainty became doubtful and opaque - and then clear again in an
opposite sense, everything overturned, as the shark dazzles silver-white
when it turns on to its belly at the instant before it rips you to shreds.'
You ask me why I waited outside the tavern, dear Reader, as
the lights went out one by one, and I was left in darkness except for the
distant twinkle of a street lamp and the blue light of the snow under a
silver moon, wispy clouds blowing like smoke across its face. I would like
to say that, as the east wind cut through my topcoat and whisked clouds of
powdery snow over the cobbles, erasing carriage tracks and making the
thoroughfares pristine, I had some premonition of what I would shortly
behold. But in truth I had no inkling. I simply waited in the cold blue
light and freezing wind.
When the party had broken up, the invisible K had
rejected all offers of help. 'No, no, it is a useless thing,' he insisted
in a comical falsetto voice. 'It is not worth the trouble. It wishes only
to be left here and to be swept up by the maid in the morning.' All the
same, I might have lingered had I not remembered the look of furious scorn
he had thrown at me in the schoolyard when I offered to help him to his
feet. By the same token, I suspected that it was not drink which had caused
him to slide beneath the table, but the inexplicable collapse of his legs
that had plagued him in childhood.
This suspicion was confirmed when the hunched
figure of K at last appeared in the doorway of the tavern. His movements
were not those of a drunkard but of a man whose legs have been weakened by a
long illness. I withdrew farther into the shadow of the wall I was
sheltering against. The figure stiffened, and then launched itself into the
wind, moving in fits and starts like a scrap of paper. Three times it
staggered, nearly fell, then barrelled onwards until it struck the column of
the street lamp, and clung to it for dear life like a sailor to a rolling
The set of his curved back suggested a man bent by
pain, but also highly strung, like a bow. As I silently came up behind him,
keeping to the shadows, he half-turned his head. His profile was as
singular as I remembered: the lack of chin, the slightly protruding teeth,
the prominent sculpted nose, the large grey eyes as mutable as the
conflicted waters of the Sounds. Then, as if in supplication he tilted his
face upwards to the light; and I saw a tidal wave of pain pass across it.
Not a physical pain, but an indescribable oceanic sadness, as if the soul
had burst the banks of the body and, overflowing, rendered the surface of
the man transparent to the depths.
I did not then know that I had been irradiated by
a vision of what K calls his melancholy. I only knew that I felt like the
divine Heraclitus, standing in the cold light of the dawn of philosophy and
marvelling at 'the abyss of soul no man can fathom, so deep and labyrinthine
are its ways.' In the twinkling of an eye I was changed, raised to a new
level, lost. As frightened as I was by the glimpse of K's world-pain, I was
also drawn to those depths as to a promise of anchorage for my own drifting
ghost-ship of a self.
Meanwhile, K had gathered strength and started off
again with such violence that his wide-brimmed hat flew off, revealing an
extraordinarily high quiff of hair whose silhouette on the white street
resembled a crest on the head of some enormous fledgling. K seemed not to
notice the loss of the hat. I retrieved it and dogged him through narrow
gusty alleys to the front door of an unfashionable but decent house not far
from the harbour. I watched K fumble in his waistcoat pocket for a key, and
let himself in.
A light came on behind the curtains of a ground
floor window. I walked up to the door. I knocked and waited, kneading K's
hat in my hands. I had seen something which made it impossible to go on
with my life as it was. I had seen the abysmal soul, whose limitless
capacity for suffering is equalled only by its infinite depth. And I had
been pierced by the possibility of some wholly new existence, as beautiful
As beautiful - but also as terrible. Suddenly,
the susurration of slush-ice heaving in the Sounds like a huge floundering
beast seemed very loud. Snow flurries stung my eyes. I was on the verge of
taking an irrevocable step. My nerve failed. As I turned to run, the door
'My hat,' said K. 'I thank you, sir. It is the
second to escape this month. Clearly I am not feeding them adequately.'
'I am Victor Eremita,' I said, putting the hat
into his hands.
'That is a name I know as well as my own. Come in at once,
Victor, and bathe in brandy and asses' milk.'
I went in. Dear Reader, I went in because, at
bottom, we humans crave reality, and lead but half a life when we choose
illusory happiness over real suffering.