Ahh, Diana Ross. How the occult eroticism of her exotropic strabismus haunted my teenage pysche!
Which brings us to the first installment of several Max Goldt translations, in honor of his upcoming receipt of the Kleist Prize (g). The column originally appeared in Titanic (g) in May 2007 and, I have it on good authority, won't be included (at least in its present form) in any upcoming Max Goldt books.
Therefore, this is a web-only, English-language German Joys exclusive. More translations coming in Week Two of Max Goldt Weeks. Enjoy!
May the Diva Ascend from the Rubbish (Report on a Current National Flaw)
By Max Goldt
(translated from the German by Andrew Hammel)
The Scandinavia correspondent of the FAZ recently reported that a German church-organ repairman had emigrated to Sweden. Not for the better working conditions, but because his own people's indiscretion and chattiness had gotten on his nerves. As I read that, I thought, 'well, if you have to talk about national stereotypes, they might as well be accurate, for a change.' Indiscretion and chattiness – indeed, those are the most objectionable traits nowadays. To be sure, Germans are normally accused of humorlessness. And since the German middle classes, the “mainstream,” have lately become accustomed to pre-empt and amplify every criticism from outsiders, they have, for quite a while now, been the loudest in denouncing their own humorlessness. However, nobody really puts enough thought into the matter. Humor – that is, the talent for regarding your own destiny from outside, for extorting some consolation from the daily grind of misery – why should this gift, which is something utterly individual, differ from region to region? Perhaps this cultural error is explained by the fact that humor is often confused with wit – even with the telling of jokes and the reaction of the listeners to them. After all such charm, esprit, and friskiness is regarded as unchaste and suspect in social systems known for piety or other forms of rigidity. One has a sense of humor, however, not primarily among companions, but alone. Why should the representatives of one people have more of this quality than others? There is no reason to believe this is.
Europe’s national clichés are probably about 200 to 300 years old. What‘s amazing is that the nations of Europe seem to have so little desire to update them. We can only speculate where they came from – but only a fool, while speculating, would leave wars out of the picture. The Seven Years’ War, for instance. In that conflict, many a young European got mixed up with soldiers, or was forced to make a living as mercenary in foreign armies, or was taken prisoner by the Prussians, let’s say. Now, it’s true that the Prussians tended to be rather grim customers. You wouldn't want to tangle with them. After the war, survivors dispersed all over Europe with tales of the not-to-be-tangled-with Prussians. Since even back then people tended to confuse a lot of things with a lot of other things – such as a disciplined regiment with humorlessness on a state and individual level – soon everyone was talking about the humorless Prussians.
Today’s German is stubbornly obsessed by the antiquated notion that the rest of the world – and even more, members of his own nation – think he has no sense of humor. Since he's just as skilled in confusing things as all other peoples at all other times have been, he believes that he can show his superiority by laughing frequently and loudly. Now, I obviously don’t travel the world with a microphone, recording the laughter of other peoples and then generating sound-oscillograms to produce laughter-loudness statistics. I can think of better things to do with my free time. Therefore I’m in no better position than anyone else to say which country laughs the loudest. But I’ve had some experience in the matter. For example, I once observed that Spaniards laughed quietly and Germans laughed loudly under the exact same conditions.
I sat in a fine art-house theatre in Madrid, watching a Woody Allen film. It was considered one of his quieter ones. The Spanish audience watched with careful attention. Nobody munched snacks, nobody whispered. People sat in their chairs and displayed their pleasure in the events on the silver screen by grinning and giggling, at the most. A week later I watched the same movie again in Berlin. Not because I found the movie so outstanding, but because I had promised to accompany someone. Another fine old art-house theatre. But the behavior of the horde of visitors was completely different: They showed an iron-willed determination to recoup their investment in the film on offer, and howled their delight from the very beginning. Keep in mind – these were settled people, ripe old members of the left-liberal milieu still very much present in the central districts of West Berlin, mostly between 50 and 60. One would assume these people had more than a little culture. However, they behaved like drunkards guffawing at a low-rent comedian in a beer-tent. A woman who sat behind me greeted even the quietest aperçu with: „Fantastic! Sin-gu-lar!" Even 20 minutes of this was intolerable. Perhaps some other time I shall address the question why the left-liberals, of all people, are so egocentrically loud these days.
The extroverted, sometimes even aggressive laughing emanating from these enlightened people cannot be regarded separately from the reason for migration cited by the organ-restorer above. It is part of the chattiness, an expression of indiscretion.
People can suffer from this national chattiness by becoming victims of gossip and harassment, even for the sole reason that they refuse to take part in the chattiness. Indiscretion, however, can also be agonizing, since it often drives one to sink to the level of entertaining ugly thoughts about others. I This tendency will now be addressed.
One day, rather a long while ago, before anybody drank Bionade, back when our country was governed by a ravenous man with Godzilla-paws, I checked into a hotel in Cologne. The receptionist, after looking around carefully to make sure nobody could hear him except for me, murmured to me smugly, ‘just between us guys,’ that he had an especially nice room for me: The day before yesterday, you see, Diana Ross had slept there. And further: “Nobody was in there between you and her.” Once I reached the room, I noted with relief that someone else had indeed come between me and Diana Ross (with whom I now formed a buddy-like plural, from the porter’s point of view): a conscientious maid. In any case I found no hairs, although I could hardly avoid being on the lookout for them, considering the information that had been forced on me. In any case, I did not even entertain the disgusting idea of pulling down the sheets to check for fresh bloodstains on the mattress. However, the desk clerks' loose lips still forced me to try to pin down the singer’s age at the time of our successive visits to Cologne, to determine whether she even still capable of befouling the sheets in a feminine manner. Repulsive! I still remember that a heavy scent remained in the room and the mouthwash cup seemed to have been very thoroughly cleaned. At which point, however, I thought: Did my predecessor really have to rinse her famous throat with this shabby, greenish-brown marble-pattern plastic cup? Wasn’t her last hit, come to think of it, quite a while ago? Can it be that this legend is now reduced to so-called ‘bread-and-butter gigs’? Must she now borrow the eel-monger’s amplifier to sing her guts out in the marketplace? Will we see her now – heaven forfend – amusing insurance-louts with 'humorous' ties, who prattle at her in their slimy barfly-voices that she oughta sing something ‘normal’ like ‘A Horse Was Standing in the Meadow’? What? You don't know that one? You call yourself a singer, and you don’t have a famous song like that in your repertoire?
Ah, the travails of an international bombshell! The room rented by her and then me was, by the way, roomy and light-filled. By my standards, it was downright princely. However, it was hardly a suite with a Bechstein piano, champagne bell on a velvet rope, and terrace full of ornate trees. From the hit parade to the gutter – or at least to the chipped mouthwash cup. The history of show business is full of these ‘rise-and-fall’ stories. What even more repulsive fates could have been dreamed up for our highly respected artist by someone with a less merciful imagination than my own? For example, that after her humiliating performance, she went to the world-famous potato-fritter stand which stood near the entrance to the main train station back then? Which, as spawns of the imagination go, actually wouldn't be all that horrible – after all, half of Hollywood went there. Much more disturbing is the notion that our dear Diana Ross, so sorely missed by the guardians of the hit parade, slunk to the almost more sorely-missed potato-fritter stand, and secretly licked the applesauce from the paper plates in the waste basket. Anybody who even so much as imagined the like would have to be driven out of the country, wouldn't they? But no, we need drive only the receptionist from the country – the one who, through his chattiness, practically forces hapless travelers to entertain suspicions which would otherwise never have entered their heads. To the rubbish-heap of exile with all porters who tell guests who it was that slept in the hotel room before them! On the other hand, may the Diva ascend from the rubbish-heap of these induced foul thoughts and sing something really nice!