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[Readings]

Knife Play

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From The Lost Writings, a collection of fragments, which will be published next month by New Directions. Translated from the German.

I was sitting in the box next to my wife. We were watching a rather exciting play, all about jealousy, in a hall of gleaming pillars, a man was just raising a dagger to stab his wife as she was walking off. Tensely I leaned over the parapet; against my temple I could feel a lock of my wife’s hair. Just then we both shrank back; what we had taken for the velvet-upholstered parapet was the back of a long, thin man, who, slender as the parapet, had till that point been lying on his front and now turned around to shift his position. My wife clutched me in shock. His face was very near mine, no larger than the palm of my hand, pure and clean as wax, and with a black chin beard. “Why are you alarming us?” I demanded, “what are you doing here?” “Forgive me!” said the man, “I am an admirer of your wife’s; the sensation of her elbows in my ribs made me happy.” “Emil, please, protect me,” cried my wife. “My name is Emil as well,” said the man, propping his head on one hand and lying there as on a chaise: “Come here, little wifey.” “You vagabond,” I said, “one more word out of you, and you’ll be down in the stalls,” and, certain this word would be forthcoming, I made to push him down, but it wasn’t so easy; he seemed to be part of the parapet, built into it in some way. I wanted to roll him down, but he laughed and said: “Forget it, you silly fool, don’t waste your strength, the fight is only just beginning and it won’t end until your wife gratifies my desires.” “Never!” exclaimed my wife, and turning to me: “Please push him off!” “I can’t,” I cried, “you can see how hard I’m trying, but there’s some trick here and I can’t.” “Oh dear, oh dear,” wailed my wife, “what will become of me?” “Calm yourself, please,” I said, “your getting excited just makes things worse. I have a new plan: I will take my knife and cut through the velvet upholstery, and tip the whole thing down, along with this man.” But then I couldn’t find my knife. “Do you know where I put my knife?” I asked. “Do you think I left it in my coat pocket?” I was on the point of running down to the cloakroom when my wife brought me to reason. “You’re not about to leave me on my own now are you, Emil?” she cried. “But if I don’t have my knife—” I shouted back. “Take mine,” she said, and with trembling fingers groped through her little handbag, of course to produce a tiny mother-of-pearl-handled thing.

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August 2020