“The Story of the Tramp” — Thomas Bernhard

Books, Literature, Writers

The STORY OF THE TRAMP

In the larch wood he ran into a tramp. His first thought had been that it might be the escaped showman, but the tramp was nothing to do with that. Not at all. The painter had been startled, because he had failed to see the tramp, and tripped over him. “Like a corpse lying in the middle of the road,” says the painter. A hypothermia victim, he had thought, and taken a step back. From the man’s clothes, he could tell he wasn’t from here. Where is he from? “Striped pants, you know, the sort that circus people wear, particularly circus directors.” Assuming the man was dead, he had tried to flip him over with his stick so that he could see his face, “because the fellow was lying facedown. It’s natural to want to see someone’s face,” said the painter. But no sooner had he applied the stick to the “dead man,” than he had emitted a scream and leaped to his feet. “Oh,” the tramp is said to have said, “I was just playing dead, I wanted to see what happened when someone comes across somebody else, lying flat on his front like a dead man, in the road, in the middle of the forest and the middle of winter.” With those words, the tramp had got up, and brushed down his pants. “If you think I’m the escaped showman, you’re mistaken, I have nothing to do with those showmen. You don’t have to worry about that. Let’s shake!” He held his hand out to the painter, and introduced himself. “He gave me such a complicated name that I was unable to remember it,” said the painter. “Then he buttoned up his coat, which must have come undone. A dignified but completely reduced appearance,” said the painter. “It could just as easily have been a trap, I mean, God knows whom I could have encountered.” That was no one’s idea of a joke, the painter had said, one did not simply play dead, that was a prank, a silly prank of the sort teenagers might indulge in, to give their parents a fright. “Just imagine if the shock had given me a heart attack!”—“Then I would have run off,” the tramp is said to have replied. Anyone could have a heart attack at any time. “Yes. Of course.”—“No involvement from any other party would have been suspected,” the tramp is supposed to have said. “Of course not,” the painter. In any case the road was full of tracks, who would have taken the trouble to trace all the different footwear. “No, of course not. If you should happen to be in financial straits,” the painter is supposed to have said, “then I must point out to you that I have no money. I am a poor man, and my situation is miserable.”—“Oh,” the tramp is supposed to have replied, “I’ve got enough money.” He was amazed that the painter should take him for a robber, was it perhaps the fault of the circus pants he was wearing. “Oh, no,” the painter is supposed to have said, “I’m an artist myself.”—“It’s remarkable how little understanding is displayed by people one would expect to have a lot of understanding,” the tramp is supposed to have said. Besides, he did not dislike the painter. “When I heard someone approaching, I lay down in the road. It was just an experiment.”—“An experiment,” the painter is supposed to have said again. “Yes, an experiment. And what happened is exactly what I thought would happen. I listened to every step you took. The way you walk, it’s as though you were on deer hooves,” the tramp said. “I had a fantastic image of you in my head as you approached. A completely fantastic image of you!” His pronunciation was a little northern, it might be that he was from Holstein or Hamburg. “A deer is coming to present itself to me,” he said, and: “That was pure poetry.” The painter: “I understand.” What profession did the tramp pursue, inquired the painter. “I am the owner of a movable theater,” he is supposed to have replied. “The way you’re dressed, one would have thought you’d just come from some rather dubious society piece,” the painter is supposed to have said. “You’re not a million miles out there,” the tramp: “I appeared in this costume three hundred times in Frankfurt am Main. Till I could stand it no longer, and ran away. You should try playing the same part in a play three hundred times, and a pretty boring play at that, a so-called George Bernard Shaw play, and you’ll go crazy too.” But he was surely a man who could live by his jokes. “Oh, I should say so too. I have always lived by my jokes.”—“And how do you propose to continue now? Since, as I am forced to assume, you are pretty much at loose ends, drifting here and there? How do you mean to continue?”—“I never asked myself that,” the tramp is said to have answered. Since he, the tramp, the theater manager, the director of a so-called movable theater, had no children, it wasn’t so very difficult to live “unto the day.” But was that entirely realistic, said the painter. Men of his (the tramp’s) type had freedom, disrepute, and humor written in their faces. “I am said to have picked up a few magic tricks from my father,” the tramp is supposed to have said, “that everyone likes. For instance how to make my head disappear. It’s very easy.” He could do a demonstration, “if the gentleman cared to see,” and the painter did care, and the tramp duly made his head disappear. “The man only extended as far as his Adam’s apple. What I say is true. It may strike you as thoroughly implausible, but it’s as true as the fact that I’m standing in front of you now. The whole appearance of that tramp … And just imagine this whole scene taking place in the middle of the larch wood, where we take the fork down into the ravine …” Then, in a trice, the tramp’s head was back in its original place. “That’s just a simple trick, making my head disappear,” said the tramp, “what’s harder is playing ball with your own legs.” Of course the painter wanted to see that magic trick as well. And suddenly the tramp’s legs came down from the sky, and he hunkered down on the ground and played ball with them, kids’ ball games. While he was playing, he said: “I’ll stop right away if you feel scared.” The painter could feel a shiver, but he still said: “No, no, I’m not scared.” He was, as you say, astounded by what was put on for him. “I have never seen such consummate magic tricks,” he said. “Now I’m too bored to go on,” the tramp is supposed to have said, and he stopped. “The thing with the head was as baffling to me as the other one, with the legs,” the painter said, “can you imagine it? Of course, as with everything, there must be some sort of knack to it!” All Paris had lain at the tramp’s feet, and if he felt like it, it would lie at his feet again, only he didn’t feel like having Paris lying at his feet again. “I’m bored.” In London he had been presented to the queen. If the gentleman would like it, he would be happy to give him the address of his movable theater. “It’s small, but exquisite,” he is supposed to have said, “and it can go into action anywhere you require.” It was the most exquisite of theaters. The most exquisite theater in the world. But one day he was fed up with magic tricks—“it’s so easy to get fed up with magic tricks”—and had turned instead to pure, true art, the sort of art that isn’t dependent on magic tricks. Now, he was sure the gentleman would love to know which was harder, to perform magic tricks of the sort he had just performed, and which were unquestionably among the best in the world, or else to act in straight theater, to put over a true art form, then, as exemplified by the theater, an art without tricks, as for instance, “playing King Lear.” They were both equally difficult, one was harder than the other, but it was a better thing to act in a play than to perform tricks, he personally found acting far more satisfying, and for that reason he had magicked up his movable theater “out of thin air,” as he said. “Though, of course that too was a stunt, a sort of trick,” said the tramp. Acting, moreover, was highly intellectual, whereas performing magic tricks wasn’t intellectual at all. Only the trick itself was. “Of course it always comes down to the audience.” And he said, supposedly: “The audiences for my magic tricks are a thousand times dearer to me than the audiences who watch me acting.” The audiences for his tricks would know right away what it was that was so astounding to them, whereas the audiences for his acting never seemed to know. “Theater audiences are invariably disappointing. Audiences for magic tricks never are.” And yet he would rather act, even though he was better suited to doing tricks. “Theater audiences don’t make me any happier than magic-trick audiences,” he said. “Audiences for magic tricks are as they are. Theater audiences are never as they are, they are always as they ought not to be, they want to be as they are not …” The audiences for magic tricks were never so stupid that they failed to realize how stupid they were, but theater audiences were, if anything, more stupid. “Most actors are so stupid they don’t even notice how stupid the audiences are. Because in general actors are even more stupid than audiences, even though an audience is infinitely stupid.” Why did he not demonstrate any more magic tricks, the painter wanted to know. “Magic tricks of themselves are not satisfying,” the tramp is supposed to have said, “but a play can be satisfying in itself.” He didn’t know, anyway, why he now preferred acting to demonstrating magic tricks. Right at the moment, he wasn’t doing one thing or the other. “But I will demonstrate my magic tricks again!” he is supposed to have said, “and Paris will lie at my feet again!” Then he supposedly asked what the quickest way down to the station was. “Go down the ravine,” the painter told him. Then: “I’d like to know at what age magic tricks of themselves are no longer satisfying.” The tramp reflected briefly and said: “That’s different in each performer’s individual case. But often the magic tricks are no longer satisfying, even before they have been mastered,” he is supposed to have said. The painter offered to accompany the tramp part of the way down the ravine. “I know my way around here,” he is supposed to have said. “You lose your footing somewhere, and you’ll break a leg. Come with me!” Before they parted, the painter asked him: “What was it that prompted you to try that silly nonsense out on me?”—“Silly nonsense?” the tramp is supposed to have answered. “You mean, playing dead in front of you? That’s a passion of mine, that’s all.” And then he suddenly disappeared. “He was as supple as you’d expect a performer of magic tricks to be,” the painter said. “I’ve never met anyone like that, who claims to be the proprietor of a ‘movable theater.’ Or do you think I’ve made up the whole story?” I think it’s true myself.

–From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost.

 

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