Apocalyptic Occasion with a Curmudgeonly, Andy-Rooneyesque Beginning

Can you believe the newspaper?

Have a look at the last two graphs from a recent article in the business section detailing the long lines and general excitement associated with the release of the new Blackberry Storm:

Standing on line in San Francisco’s financial district, Fred Vassard, a systems administrator, said he owns both versions of iPhone but was dissatisfied with its phone capabilities. He wants Storm for work and personal use.

“It’s a touch-screen, so it has more real estate,” Vassard said. “The reviews were so-so, so I’m hoping I can find some positives in it. But the phone part will work better than iPhone.”

All around this gentleman, in surrounding articles, the daily litany marches on: frozen credit, foreclosures, layoffs, downsizing, debt deflation, recession. While the very sky falls, Mr. Vassard could join a clown troupe and juggle his PDA cellular phones, so many does he have. I’m not inclined to criticize him—in fact he may be heroic, an example of man’s ability to endure against seemingly insurmountable odds.

What a tableau – this man buying his 3rd cell phone, apparently with no sense of irony whatsoever. I imagine his face as Sphinx-like, his voice even and matter-of-fact. His mention of “real estate” isn’t a conscious allusion—he’s just using the metaphor that best helps him make his point. His attitude is un- and anti-complex: “What do you want from me? All I can tell you is the truth as I see it.”

***

There’s a great character in Josef Skvorecky’s novel The Engineer of Human Souls called the green man. The green man served as a bombing raid lookout for the Reich, during which time he’d been blown out of his post several times, turned green (somehow), and witnessed all sorts of civilians’ bodies and houses destroyed. A man of many experiences, he’d also been subjected to tortures in boarding school (e.g. placed in a concrete room that slowly filled with water until he had to stand on tip toes and breathe through his nose for 12 hours), and forced to bury people alive as a gravedigger, then dig them up if it was suspected they had gnawed their way out of the casket (which they sometimes did, and then gnawed their way into other caskets, where they cannibalized the dead (or not yet dead), since, the green man noted, there was nothing else to eat down there).

The green man plays the role of scatological guru in the novel. The characters spend more and more time in the bathroom of a Nazi-controlled Czech Messerschmitt factory as the war progresses because the bosses become less interested in keeping the factory on schedule. Each time they return to the lavatory, there he is, describing some other horror he’d witnessed or endured: armies accidentally blowing themselves up, families obliterated at dinner time, pilots targeting birthday parties. The others scream at him in disbelief and call him names (often the names of animals—anaconda, buffalo, etc. Czech humor depends a good deal on zoology) but he just continues speaking. His trials rendered his face unable to take on any expression at all. His voice is without affect or modulation. And he’s green from head to foot.

The straight man infuriating those around him is the trademark of another Czech-lit character, Hasek’s Svejk, one of the really great and frighteningly relevant characters in 20th century literature, who humbly demonstrate that doing one’s duty in the midst of disaster is just silly enough to be quintessentially human.

***

But who has time for novels? What the Blackberry story compelled me to re-read was a very short story by the German writer Wolfgang Hildesheimer called “A World Ends.”

The story’s narrator briefly describes the background to his tale:

  • gambling debts forced him to sell a bathtub in which a famous person had been murdered,
  • the sale of this tub brought him in contact with the wealthy cultural elite, and
  • he took to attending some functions, including an evening party which took place on the Marchesa Montetristo’s artificial island.

The main story concerns this party. The narrator encounters there all the expected stuffed shirtiness and self-absorbed patronizing pretense. He has several awkward conversations with the guests, who are eagerly anticipating the world premiere of two flute sonatas accompanied by the Marchesa herself. Alas, the party ends unexpectedly when the artificial island sinks into the sea! The narrator is the sole survivor, because he alone leaves before the end of the second sonata. Everyone else is too concerned with propriety and the mores of artistic society to save their own hides. The narrator tiptoes out, trying not to disturb those listening with rapt attention as puddles form on the floor. Herr von Perlhuln, one of the auditors, casts a “half-contemptuous, half-melancholy glance” in his direction.  Isn’t that Fred Vassard himself?

***

Yes, I can believe the newspaper, because I’ve been taught how to read it. It’s my green man, my Svejk, my Countess Marchesa. I yell; I laugh; I embrace. I sigh and quote out of context the last lines of one of Melville’s sad short stories: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”