“The Story of the Tramp” — Thomas Bernhard


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.


The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp — W.H. Davies

The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp documents W.H. Davies’s picaresque adventures in America in the last decade of the nineteenth century. In bildungsroman mode, Davies begins by relating the story of his childhood in Wales, where he was raised by his grandparents after his father died and his mother essentially abandoned her children. Despite his grandparents’ care, Davies soon turns to petty crime, shoplifting for sport (as well as to provide trifles for his girlfriend). He’s caught, tried,  and beaten, an early run-in that would set a template for future dealings with authority figures. A restless spirit with a hankering for adventure, Davies has trouble attaining steady work; he’s a bit of a romantic, always stuck in a book. He elects to set off for America. In one of the funnier moments in the book, Davies describes writing a letter comparing America to England. Davies mails the missive home—only he’s still in Liverpool and has yet to see the New World, let alone the open sea. Of course, after years trekking across the US, Davies got to know much of the national characteristic; here he is reflecting—

My impression of Americans from the beginning is of the best, and I have never since had cause to alter my mind. They are a kind, sympathetic race of people and naturally proud of their country. The Irish-American is inclined to be the most bitter, remembering from his youth the complaints of his parents, who were driven through unjust laws from their own beloved land; and such a man is not to be idly aggravated, for life is a serious subject to him. This man is not to be aggravated, especially under the consideration that our conscience is not too clean in this respect, and that we are apt to be very slow in making that open confession which is good for the soul. The most pleasing trait in Americans, which cannot for long escape us, is their respect for women and the way in which the latter do deserve it.

In a strange moment that’s never quite fully explained (there are lots of these in Super-Tramp), upon arrival in America, our hero elects to take up with a vagabond named Brum, who teaches the would-be tramp the ins-and-outs of jumping rail, beating trail, and begging from town to town. In one inspired episode, Brum takes our hero to Michigan, where vagabonds could wait out the winter in warm jails with plenty of food (and tobacco). Here, the tramps could barter their own sentences with the complicity of the judge and jailers, who were basically working a scam on the taxpayers. (Luckily, no one makes undue profits by overcrowding prisons in America today. Right? Right?) Brum is one of the first players in a large cast of indigents and outsiders, men of dubious honesty and strange talents whose common thread is that they are all aliens to mainstream society. These are self-exiles whose only telos is movement itself.

These themes of travel and outsider status link Davies’s narratives strongly to those two Jacks of all trades, London and Kerouac, although the clean, spare style of Super-Tramp shares more blood with London’s reportorial rhythms than Kerouac’s unbound typing. It’s also hard to read Super-Tramp without recalling Steinbeck’s bindlestiffs, and just as in Steinbeck’s finest works, there’s depth, humility, and pathos in Davies’s writing, whether he’s describing picking berries, sharing a drink with the fellows, or moving cattle across the Atlantic.

And if Davies demonstrates empathy for his fellow man, that empathy extends to his keen descriptions of nature and animals; his tender descriptions of the poor cattle he helps transport to England are especially moving. Here, Davies shows the reader his naturalist sympathies—

I like to see to a good scientific bout by men who know the use of their hands, but would rather walk twenty miles than see animals in strife. Although of a quiet disposition, my fondness for animals is likely at any time to lead me into danger. After reading cases of vivisection I have often had dreams of boldly entering such places, routing the doctors with an iron bar, cutting the cords and freeing the animals, despite of any hurt I might receive from bites and scratches. Perhaps I should cut a ridiculous figure, walking the crowded streets with a poor meek creature under each arm, but that would not bother me in the performance of a humane action.

These dual drives—empathy and outrage against injustice—guide Super-Tramp, set against an abiding spirit of freedom and nature. As the narrative progresses, Davies repeatedly foregrounds the Darwinian peril the emerging capitalist industrial culture places on ordinary people. His note on vivisection above becomes tragically ironic late in the book when a terrible accident on the rails claims one of his feet.

Despite his hard (if self-elected) life, Davies would later become more comfortable as one of the most famous poets of his age in England, lauded for his plain, naturalist style, and championed by George Bernard Shaw (who wrote the preface to Super-Tramp and helped get the book published). The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp is an engaging page-turner that will likely appeal to fans of Jack London and John Steinbeck or anyone fascinated by the grime and romance of a hobo jungle. With its emphasis on the human face of those who refuse to play into the capitalist system, the book is as timely as it ever was.

And yes, the band got their name from the book.

The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp is part of Melville House’s new Neversink line.

(Some Very Handsome) Books Acquired, 10.18.2011 (Melville House Debuts The Neversink Library)

The good people at Melville House, debut The Neversink Library this week, a line of international titles that have been overlooked, neglected, and under-appreciated, many languishing out of print for years. I was pleased as punch to get three from the fall line up (another Neversink title coming out this Fall is a new edition of Karel Capek’s War with the Newts, covered by Biblioklept affiliate Noquar just a few weeks ago). Pics of the titles below—you can see how handsome and unified the design is here.


Georgi Vladimov’s Faithful Ruslan

Set in a remote Siberian depot immediately following the demolition of one of the gulag’s notorious camps and the emancipation of its prisoners, Faithful Ruslan is an embittered cri de oeur from a writer whose circumstances obliged him to resist the violence of arbitrary power. “Every writer who writes anything in this country is made to feel he has committed a crime,” Georgi Vladimov said. Dissident, he said, is a word that “they force on you.” His mother, a victim of Stalin’s anti-Semitic policy, had been interred for two years in one of the camps from which Vladimov derived the wrenching detail of Faithful Ruslan. The novel circulated in samizdat for more than a decade, often attributed to Solzhenitsyn, before its publication in the West led to Vladimov’s harassment and exile.

A starving stray, tortured and abandoned by the godlike “Master” whom he has unconditionally loved, Ruslan and his cadre of fellow guard dogs dutifully wait for the arrival of new prisoners—but the unexpected arrival of a work party provokes a climactic bloodletting. Fashioned from the perceptions of an uncomprehending animal, Vladimov’s insistently ironic indictment of the gulag spirals to encompass all of Man’s inexplicable cruelty.

20111018-170446.jpgThe President by Georges Simenon—

At 82, the former premier lives in alert and suspicious retirement— self exile—on the Normandy coast, writing his anxiously anticipated memoirs and receiving visits from statesman and biographers. In his library is the self-condemning, handwritten confession of the premier’s former attaché, Chalamont, hidden between the pages of a sumptuously produced work of privately printed pornography—a confession that the premier himself had dictated and forced Chalamont to sign. Now the long-thwarted Chalamont has been summoned to form a new coalition in the wake of the government’s collapse. The premier alone possesses the secret of Chalamont’s guilt, of his true character—and has publicly vowed: “He’ll never be Premier as long as I’m alive . . . Nor when I’m dead, either.”

Inspired by French Premier Georges Clemenceau, The President is a masterpiece of psychological suspense and a probing account of the decline of power.


I think this is the one I’ll dip into first: The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W.H. Davies—

An untutored Welsh tramp who became a popular poet acclaimed by the conservative Georgians and the vanguard Ezra Pound alike, W. H. Davies surprised his contemporaries with the unlikeliest portrait of the artist as a young man ever written.

After a delinquent childhood Davies renounced home and apprenticeship and at twenty-two sailed to America—the first of more than a dozen Atlantic crossings, often made by cattle boat. From 1893 to 1899 he was schooled by the hard men of the road, disdaining regular work and subsisting by begging. Crossing Canada to join the “Klondyke” gold rush, Davies fell while hopping a train. His foot was crushed and his leg amputated. “All the wildness had been taken out of me,” Davies wrote, “and my adventures after this were not of my own seeking.”

Praised by Osbert Sitwell for his “primitive splendour and directness,” Davies evokes the beauty and frontier violence of turn-of-the-century America in prose that George Bernard Shaw commended to “literary experts for its style alone.” The insurgent wanderlust that found an American voice in Jack London and Jack Kerouac is expressed here in a raucous true adventure story by the man Shaw called “the incorrigible Supertramp who wrote this amazing book.”

George Bernard Shaw’s Death Mask

Word of the Day: Sillograph

From the OED:

“A writer of satires or lampoons; applied to Timon of Phlius (268 BC).

1845 LEWES Hist. Philos. I. 77 His state of mind is finely described by Timon the sillograph. 1849 GROTE Hist. Greece II. xxxvii. IV. 526 The sillograph Timon of the third century B.C.

So sillographer, sillographist.

1656 BLOUNT Glossogr., Sillographer, a writer of scoffs, taunts and revilings; such was Timon. 1775 ASH, Sillographist. 1845 Encycl. Metrop. X. 393/1 Menippus indeed, in common with the Sillographers, seems to have introduced much more parody than even the earliest Roman Satirists.”

Famous sillographers include:

Timon of Philius (as noted above)

George Bernard Shaw


Jonathan Swift

Mark Twain

George Orwell

Kurt Vonnegut

MAD Magazine

Stephen Colbert