TRANSLATORS' NOTE: In 1924, Hans Janowitz returned from Berlin to his native Bohemia to run his deceased father’s business and began work on a novel that was deeply influenced by his years in the dissonant, turbulent, and ultramodern German metropolis. Jazz, which was to remain his only novel, was published in the series “Novels of the 20th Century” by Die Schmiede in 1927. In its day, Jazz received praise from literary critics primarily for its topicality and originality; emphasizing this view, Janowitz’s friend Willy Haas characterized it as “A magnificent book. A novel of its time . . . in the truest and best sense of the word. A work that presents ‘jazz’ as the symbol of our multifaceted times and blazes a trail toward a new novelistic form.” Like so many other books written shortly before the ascendancy of Nazism, Jazz had long been consigned to obscurity before it was recently reissued by a small German publishing house. Previously discussed in “That Weimar Jazz” (an essay by Cornelius Partsch published in NER, Fall 2002), Janowitz’s fascinating novel has never before been translated into English. In the following excerpts, we attempt to provide a representative sample of the work’s offbeat “jazz” texture, its narrative complexity, its modernist blending of high and low, and its parodic humor. We hope that English readers will share our pleasure over the particularly palpable “jazzings” of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and a Sherlock Holmes–Dr. Watson tête-à-tête.
As for the biographical particulars: Hans Janowitz was born on December 2, 1890, in the Bohemian town of Podebrady, and spent his childhood in comfortable bourgeois surroundings. He attended high school in Prague, where he became acquainted with Franz Werfel, Franz Kafka, and Max Brod. His first literary works, influenced by expressionism, appeared in a journal edited by Brod. Janowitz left Prague and moved to Munich in 1909 to prepare himself for taking over his father’s business, a vegetable oil mill, by working in the grain trade. But Janowitz quickly discovered that he preferred the bohemian life associated with artistic and intellectual circles to a career in commerce. After a short stay in the military in Salzburg, Janowitz moved to Hamburg, where he found employment at the German Theater as an assistant producer, writer, and actor. His theatrical career was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. In the course of his subsequent military service, Janowitz outwardly succeeded as a soldier, but his hatred for the war grew more and more intense, as indicated by his letters to the much-admired Viennese satirist Karl Kraus. In 1917, Janowitz lost his brother Franz at the battle of Isonzo.
When the war came to an end, Janowitz found himself in Berlin, where he was radicalized by the revolutionary turmoil following the fall of the Wilhelmine empire; at this point, he became engaged in writing a number of pacifist essays. In February of 1920, advertisements throughout the city urged the war-weary and starving Berliners to enter the fantasy world of the cinema: “You must become Caligari.” As co-scriptwriter, with Carl Meyer, of Robert Wiene’s blockbuster expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Janowitz celebrated his greatest artistic success and achieved instant fame. In addition to responding to the rising demand for his film scripts, Janowitz began writing satirical songs and poems for the cabaret, most notably for Trude Hesterberg’s Wild Stage. Most of these texts for the cabaret were published in 1924 in a volume entitled Asphalt Ballads. During these years, Janowitz was part of a group of innovative, brash young artists, many of whom are today associated with the German “golden” twenties, but also with the demise of the Weimar Republic and the subsequent horrors of National Socialism: Walter Mehring, Kurt Tucholsky, Kurt Gerron, Blandine Ebinger, Bertolt Brecht, Friedrich Holländer, and Mischa Spoliansky.
The aftershocks of the rampant inflation of the early 1920s forced the cabaret to close its doors in 1924, and Janowitz returned to his hometown. Little else is known about Janowitz’s life until his arrival in New York in 1939, soon after the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia. In the United States, Janowitz shared the fate of many European exiles, unable to establish himself culturally or professionally. He attempted unsuccessfully to produce a remake of Caligari and to find a publisher for his manuscripts. As the war raged on in Europe, he became active in a number of Jewish organizations such as the HIAS (Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Society), for which he organized a benefit concert. Most of his relatives fell victim to the Nazi extermination program. After the liberation of Europe, Janowitz decided to stay in the United States, feeling unwelcome both in Germany as a Jew and in the new Czechoslovakia as a German. He attained American citizenship in 1950 and lived in New York until his death on May 25, 1954.
Our translation of these excerpts from Jazz, A Novel is based on the German edition edited by Rolf Rieß, and published by Weidle in Bonn in 1999.
—CORNELIUS PARTSCH & DAMON O. RARICK
It was the time of “bobbed-hair.” It was the time of “the short skirt,” of “flesh-colored stockings.” It was the time of runaway sons and kidnapped daughters. It was the time when, instead of demanding both possessions and blood from their citizens, as they did in the murderous years of 1914–1918 (when you were not only allowed to die for the fatherland, but also had to kill for it), the fatherlands contented themselves with all the possessions of those taxable subjects who had managed not to get killed in the world war. It was the time when radio waves crashed over the globe day and night, in ever-increasing intensity, a sonic bath whose effects were as yet unknown. It was the time of the first zeppelin flight across the Atlantic Ocean, the strange time when the existence of “The United States of Europe” seemed utopian and a fantasy of idealistic dreamers, which the so-called Realpolitiker mocked—unbelievable, but true! It was the time of historical dissonances between East and West: the first decade of communism in Russia was almost over. A new humanity had emerged in the Soviet hemisphere, strictly separate from the bourgeois West of impoverished, divided Europe, and from the Far-West of over-gilded America. A rift of unimaginable depth had opened up between the two halves of humanity: on one side, the former cradle of civilization and democracy, on the other, the proletarian culture constructing its empire of the future. This dissonance between East and West reverberated through all life on the planet. Indeed, it was the time of turbulent contrasts; it was the time of wild childishness, but a premonition of the tragic upheavals yet to come; it was the time of wild enthusiasm for wild pranks, for wild and disorderly conduct. In short, the true spirit of the times was:
The gypsy who had played to the world before 1914 made way for the pale fiddler who for four years had walked the trenches for International Fratricide Incorporated. But then came his brother, the fool, the man of the syncope, and the violin of death was replaced by the saxophone of life, the executioner’s drum beats by the dancer’s, the tatata of the machine gun by the taptaptap of the stepper. Radical rejuvenation of the world through total nonsense!
The era had found its Jacques Offenbach. It was called “Jazz”! It was the catchword of a time that had adopted the mantra of our foolish psychiatrist: “You must become Caligari.” The world was not exactly Caligari, but it had become jazz, through and through. And now I am here to tell you how it was back then when the world, which had basically come to modernity on its first try, had become jazz.
Had the world really become jazz through and through? Were these good times when this happened? Were these bad times? It’s no good making such judgments, and it will be best if I stick to the lowest common denominator, to the standard truth of the ruling majority, so to speak, which is always and everywhere affordable. Therefore I tell you: the times were no better and no worse than any other times. That’s how it looked to me, and I would like to defend this view especially against all those prophets of the apocalypse who rose up and, huffing and puffing, overexerted themselves under the weight of all their elaborately fashioned morality. Eyeing all those alluring and exquisite female legs, they reckoned that nothing more could be revealed. If they had only been referring to skirts, they would almost have been right. Their cries of “enough,” however, unfortunately referred to immorality and craziness. With regard to the latter, it must be said that “enough” had not yet been attained. As evidence for this, I point to the fact that all that jazz comprised a maddening amount of work and toil and seriousness—certainly no less than at other times. In the morning, the workers poured into factories, the miners disappeared down into shafts, automobiles and buses carted off workers of all ages and races to their places of work. There were students who studied, and even love still looked as it had in all other times. Unchanged utterly was the behavior of the smart and the stupid. The poverty of the privileged and the wealth of the disadvantaged were in evidence as ever. Lovebirds and other sick people suffered the usual pain. And even those girls who wore the shortest hair and skirts and the most flesh-colored stockings, exposing legs well worth seeing, worked by day in their offices, at desks and sales counters, in front of mirrors and windows and typewriters and klieg lights, on stages and ladders, and they did their work as in all other times.
Surely, the world had become jazz, there was no doubt of that and it couldn’t be stopped, but I would venture to say that the world had become jazz only in its spare time . . . At all other times life was industrious and arduous, often dreary, anxiety-filled, even if, oh Lord, it cannot be denied, in all seriousness, thank God, a bit jazzed.
The sound of the train rattling along the tracks made Henry’s blood pulsate rhythmically. His legs and arms flailed about. Fortunately, Lord Henry was all alone in the compartment, and his frantic movements, which had grown into a stepdance, could only bump into plush pillows and walls, not into fellow travelers, who would have responded less forgivingly. After three hours on the train, Henry’s mobility had taken on a quality of tenderness, which would certainly have raised eyebrows among some, but can hardly be regarded as surprising in a twenty-one-year-old. His solo expanded into a duet, a duet with an invisible woman. And the train, unaware of the Lord’s excited state, accompanied this tête-à-tête with a ravishing train-track foxtrot. The poor soloist threw himself unhappily back into the pillows. The small world of this afternoon oppressed him unbearably with its endless monotony, and no one would have been happier than he if the train had been capable of leaping over the dreadful olde English countryside straight into the London train station. Technical miracles, however, take time to develop, and, indeed, who would have regretted more completely such a quick conclusion to the journey than Lord Henry? No one? Well, perhaps there was someone. A young lady whom we have briefly mentioned before. A creature of exquisite quality, an elegant person. She had just been sitting in her compartment with a hungry look, but now she appeared to be unconscious, spread out over the soft velvet pillows, a sight both heartbreaking and wonderfully beautiful. The conductor had been summoned; now he was hurrying through the corridor in search of a doctor. A group of curious onlookers had begun to form when his cry reached Henry’s ear. His heart jumped, making way for a fantastic notion that would soon become reality.
Through the open door, Henry heard the conductor’s query: “Is there a doctor here? A lady has fainted!”
Aflame with curiosity on the inside, displaying the earnest matter-of-factness associated with that profession on the outside: that is how Henry parted the sea of gentlemen and ladies, who willingly stepped aside, as he entered the compartment.
This scene—had he not expected it? There lay the woman—she was so enchanting in her brown dress—completely unconscious. Henry felt her pulse. What a supple joint, what fingers! What skin!
A very serious glance to the conductor: “Her heart has stopped beating.” A mood of great concern moved like an autumnal wind through the onlookers. Was the angel of death visiting this train? One of the nervous ones turned away, afraid that the train could derail at this moment. He went back to his seat. Others followed.
A gesture, hardly a word, and the conductor fetched the doctor’s bag. Henry took out his eau de Cologne and let the scent do its work. The unconscious woman’s nostrils shivered slightly, her eyelids twitched. The conductor was moved to tears about his own accomplishment, having secured the services of a competent doctor so promptly. He cast a benevolent look at Henry, who nodded back solemnly but hopefully. Then he began to massage the patient’s forehead, using only his fingertips to perform such tender work.
The lady’s eyelids opened for a fraction of a second. Encouraged by this, Henry put on a professional expression and motioned to the conductor to leave the compartment. The man tiptoed away and slid the bolt into place cautiously. Henry drew the curtain. Now the scene was inaccessible to the anxious gazes of those standing in the corridor. Henry’s hands moved slowly from the patient’s temples to her ears and cheeks when her green eyes opened wide.
“How do you feel?”
“Better. Thank you.—Your flacon, if I may.”
She took in the scent again while looking deeply into his eyes. The ending of that look was odd. Actually, it was a giggle that began in the eyes, only to spread to her entire face—and to his. It remained slight even after shuddering through her whole body. Evidently, it was nothing more, after a deep fainting spell, than a fairly inexplicable laugh.
He understood her perfectly.
She: “I was so terribly bored.”
He understood, understood her perfectly.
She incredulously: “As a doctor?”
“No. I am as much a doctor as you were unconscious. What I understood was your boredom. I understood that perfectly, as an equally bored passenger.”
There we have it. She understood, understood it perfectly. It is hard to believe how quickly two human beings can come to understand each other so perfectly!
Two minutes later, a doctor who wasn’t a doctor danced a duet with an unconscious woman who was never unconscious, to the sounds of a train-track foxtrot. It was a duet of perfect mutual understanding.
The end was very ugly. The other passengers and the conductor understood nothing at all. When they entered the compartment, plop, the lady was once again unconscious, and Lord Henry had to endure unendurable troubles.
It is unacceptable for a doctor to behave in an amorous fashion toward an unconscious woman and to be caught in the act. It is even worse when he isn’t really a doctor but a young lord who has—shockingly—pretended to be a doctor.
Since the lady knew instinctively that she would be misunderstood as well, she decided to faint all over again.
In this way, she avoided the consequences.
The same cannot be said for Lord Henry.
What now became of the lord was inevitable. He had received the most excellent schooling. He was a magnificent tennis player and even better at music.
He had learned nothing else.
He understood completely that he would have to become a professional musician, now that his lordship status had been—how shall we say?—revoked.
It was his new profession, and it involved boisterous music. But for him the music was a matter of the heart. He understood that one’s profession should always be a matter of the heart.
He went on to become
a legend among musicians who performed dance music on cruise ships.
He sold his elegant clothes, kept the violin, and took the train—third class—to Paris.
No lady fainted this time in the adjacent compartment. It was a passenger train. Farmers’ wives with small children, tradesmen, and the wives of stokers.
“Burned out, sir? Do you know what it means to be burned out, completely burned out?”
During this journey the first blues sprang from Henry’s soul. He imagined a train-track foxtrot underneath the melody, let out a sigh, and fell asleep, a precious unconscious woman in mind. He pursued this memory with a tenderness of which we did not think him capable.
It was no coincidence. They had understood each other so perfectly but never seen each other again.
Who was she?—He imagined her on her estate . . . on a horse, in an automobile? Daughter? Dancer? Hunter?
In these dreams he considered that she could perhaps be his mother. It was all far away from him—like his home, left far behind.
In front of him lay Paris. Next to him his violin. When he stepped off the train he understood that, perfectly. That is why he took a room in a small hotel in the Latin Quarter, not at the Savoy, where the other lords lodged. Those who would have never pretended to be a doctor, no matter how bored they were.
The consequence of that encounter on the train between Lord Henry and Mrs. Mae R. was, among other things, the absurd fact which I am about to present to the reader and for which I would like to take a moment to prepare him. Eight musicians replied to the notice reproduced above, on a Thursday afternoon in the suburban Café Idyll. The joint belonged to a Madame Hip-Hip and her husband. She fit perfectly the type of the good old aunt; he was average, except for a much too thick, obviously artificially grown and enhanced mustache of exemplary shape and blacker-than-black hue. The café was the meeting spot of the ladies’ club “Hortensia,” which consisted of 378 widows of low-level bureaucrats. Every Thursday afternoon, the officers of the club sat around a Biedermeier table and enjoyed a cup of coffee. Annually elected committees took turns on alternating days of the week. On Sundays and certain holidays, a large part of the club assembled at the café. A massive and extravagant object hung above the table, adorned with wreaths of green glass beads and green pine branches, and this source of light radiated such softness and coziness as to produce goose bumps in any bachelor who might accidentally have entered the premises. On the floral-design wallpaper next to the table was a delicate placard displaying the following words in letters drawn to look like brown coffee beans:
Coffee is eternal youth.
Underneath this legend sat the club’s officers, offering expert advice to Madame Hip-Hip on the selection of musicians. Also present was the delegate from the Committee for the Fine Arts, Music Subdivision, and finally the delegate from the Committee for Aesthetic Culture.
Behind the buffet sat the only young girl in the joint: it was Mademoiselle Bully, a niece of Madame Hip-Hip entrusted with menial tasks—Madame, of course, personally saw to the brewing and pouring of coffee. Critical assessments, calls for motions, and even decisions were exclusively in the purview of the club with Madame Hip-Hip’s assent; Monsieur Hip-Hip and the young mademoiselle were to remain silent.
“Gentlemen without mustaches are not even to be considered,” decided the high council. And Monsieur Hip-Hip rushed to announce this verdict to the eight musicians crowding the foyer . . . Thus the little group of mustacheless men, whom fate had chosen to perform common deeds, was weeded out. Five in number, they stood before the café, looked at one another, commiserated with each other, and made each other’s acquaintance. That’s how life is! They had been rejected because they did not have a mustache—but to think that this moment of rejection marked the birth of the unparalleled glory which “Lord Punch’s Jazz-Band-Boys” would go on to attain—yes, in such cases it is always said: that only happens in novels. I hereby testify that this event actually occurred exactly as I am telling it.
In the café, the audition took place, a test in which each of the three remaining mustached ones had to demonstrate his skill.
Outside, however, a small, Semitic-looking fellow of approximately sixteen, seized by sudden inspiration, left the group of rejects, making his way on legs whose curves might generously be described as plum-shaped, and crossed over to the other side of the street, where he was seen disappearing into a hairdresser’s shop.
Soon after, one more musician with a mustache stood before the spectacles of Madame Hip-Hip and the lorgnettes of the ladies of the board. This newcomer was, however—though his fresh mustache stood out in unrivalled luxuriance, comparable only to the host’s, if not as dignified in growth and hue—this little man was rejected, for he could not play an instrument. Why then had he even presented himself as a musician? But he hadn’t actually presented himself as a musician, it turns out, but rather as a conductor . . . All the evidence indicated that he was not to be considered for the position. To this, he responded by vehemently removing his mustache, donating it to the assembled ladies, and quickly disappearing.
Five beardless faces,
whose exuberance knew no bounds, now found themselves together. Their
noisy lamentations in front of the Café Idyll had joined the young
gentlemen together in their first concert. The small Semitic-looking Siegi
conducted the band. Lord Henry played violin. A retired Dadaist clown
named Punch, a former sailor named Tobby, a Neapolitan street balladeer
named Tino—these are the characters appearing in the next chapters
and the creators of this cacophony. The performance ended with a kitchen
window being opened and an ebullient Mme. Bully lowering a bottle of liqueur
to the little conductor, whom she found more attractive without a mustache
than with, as a small reward for his revenge upon Madame Hip-Hip and the
Ladies Club “Hortensia.”
Tobby had been seasick every day of his sailor’s life.
For three years,
he, his comrades, and his captain had witnessed this. It did not get better.
He never felt any better. The situation was untenable. Tobby was obliged
to pursue another line of work. It was said: “My God! It’s
impossible . . . a sailor must not get seasick!” But what exactly
did “must” mean here? Tobby simply stood at the railing and
threw up that dreaded word, so that it did not dare come aboard again,
knowing full well what would happen to it if it ever did.
Why relate the case of Tobby the Sailor with such affection here? I do not do it just for his sake alone. At one time or another, Jazz-Band-Boys have been something like sailors who always become seasick. That’s the reason why they did not remain sailors but instead became Jazz-Band-Boys. It really doesn’t matter, of course, whether they were failed clowns, who, like Mr. Punch, caused the audience to cry rather than laugh; or prospective general managers in leather-upper shoe factories, where, as in the case of Siegi Winter, clanking machines caused one to forget any notion of business and forced one to conduct an orchestra of machine gears; or street musicians in Naples, handsome tenors all, who, like Tino Cecconi, would rather render Neapolitan women any other services but those gallant courtesies demanded of street musicians precisely because of a certain historical claim to such services. No, it really doesn’t matter; all I’m saying is that all Jazz-Band-Boys have at one time or another been sailors, who, like Tobby, invariably became seasick.
In short—and this is what I am getting at—the path to becoming a Jazz-Band-Boy has a syncopic structure as its prerequisite. In its characteristic, sudden curve, it resembles the course that the saxophone’s sound—so beloved by all our contemporaries—tends to take.
Children who have been born to be Jazz-Band-Boys already bear the mark of the musical somersault on their forehead: they constitute a secret order that displays the syncope on its crest and that harbors wicked sounds. While the intellectual has not necessarily expressed his demand for tortoise-shell glasses while he’s still in diapers, all baby jazz musicians insist on their right to make syncopically broken, atonal, and disharmonic noise.
Many songs have been written about the aura of the nightclub. The closer we get to the nightclub, whose lustrous rooms will accommodate the main part of our story, the more I feel compelled to dedicate a chapter to our love affair with the nightclub: both as a kind of introduction for the reader into the new milieu, and because I enjoy employing a syncope to interrupt the so-called story line once more—always one more time. For let us not forget, ladies and gentlemen: it’s a jazz novel that is being put together here. Somewhere along the way, the jazz character finally has to break out. Because so much has already been broken in this chapter, he should break out in the next.
Who are these knights of the nightclub, shrouded in suicidal melancholia and buoyed with elegant conceit? Who are these knights, who with unrivalled condescension escort salaried, provocative ladies of the house in the dance of the day through the chambers of the night? Their dance steps are surrounded by invisible spotlights—no earthly creatures stride that way!—poster images have come to life and have descended onto the dance floor!
Descended, that is the correct word.
The melancholic opens his mouth, and you realize why he is so melancholy. He is Hungarian, and in bygone glory days he was a Hussar lieutenant. Many operettas extol the noble blood of the Magyars. Here we see it manifested in him. Of course he is a blue blood—or as he says, “blu bluut”—and the chateau of his ancestors had been seized by the Bolsheviks after the revolution. Don’t ask for more details: they’re always the same. Gambling debts and morphine addiction, combined with the legendary elopement with a prominent society lady, create a particular atmosphere about the Eintänzer?—here the term is not a translation of One-Step into “Swastikaese” but derives from eintanzen, or warming up to dance: the atmosphere in which he moves, in the passionate company of a knockout dancing partner with a gorgeous figure, rouged like porcelain, fantastically coiffed, and attired in a radically slit and revealing outfit (ach, frustrated by her unwillingness to commit herself beyond the dance, he has of late come to fancy an adolescent waiter—which is fascinating), this is an atmosphere consisting of morphine shots, revolver bullets, baccarat shoes, and hearts aflame, and all of this simply can’t fail to impress the sophisticated ladies of our big cities. Hautgoût, hautgoût, nicotineffien—the smoky perfume of the fast set—serves to bring out his complexion, matted and bronzed by the electric lights . . . And as he dances right past me, this fragrant tragic figure, I see him cast his melancholic eye over his dance partner to speak to the gilded gypsum decorations on the wall. The noble, subdued tone of artificiality penetrates the radiating crown of electric bulbs above to repeat itself in the marble of the walls, and he withers under its reflection as if it were his family’s coat-of-arms now under hammer-and-sickle somewhere in the puszta. I hear the words—and if one didn’t recognize that eyes alone can speak so clearly, I might even find the words convincing: “And even I was not sung to while in the cradle . . .” And now, while his legs unerringly fulfill each requirement of the dance, professionally demonstrating the latest stork-step on the parquet with ease and bravura—he is admittedly a wonderful dancer—his legs are joined by lovely, if somewhat brainless, girls’ legs displaying their innate adroitness with the rather naïve pride of proletarian suburbia. “My God, to be seen with Kitten on your arm!” Kitten is nothing more than a touch of nature, false, clever, vain, flirtatious, as the sex demands. Kitten is wrapped in sweet silk, while her arms and shoulders flaunt their nakedness. Her décolleté serves as the favored rendezvous for the gaze of landowners—please, only well-heeled gentlemen frequent this establishment—while the eyes of exhausted city denizens fail to reach such heights, attending instead to the dazzling play of silk around her legs. Kitten is a flower that regularly blooms under the lighting of the night, then is found placed before a bowl of goulash in an early bird café as the dew falls on her home meadow. The flower closes again as the first electric streetcars appear and sleeps the day away in a furnished room, rented from month to month. At night she dances again, be it with a dithyrambic, stumbling bank employee or a juiced-up buy-it-all. Kitten sits on the laps of gentlemen in their chambres séparées, with the requisite supply of champagne. In other places, the police would interfere since this constitutes an offense against the law. Floating in the arms of the Eintänzer, she is recuperating from her exertions during those sparkling wine sessions. He, however, gazes beyond her, into the marble distance. My Lord, where have the days gone when one would duel over a woman . . . Every once in a while, the proprietor of the Château d’Or will make an advance on Kitten, and then she is obliged to bed the bulging bear, all the while pining for the Eintänzer. In our survey of the scene, we should not forget the welcoming spirit of salutation himself presiding over the establishment—a mute angel dressed in black. He will step up to the table of the guest, look at him, and bow silently. In this way, he circulates among the tables of believer and nonbeliever alike: the exploiter or the exploited—all are equal before him and are greeted by this silent exhorter of eternity. What does he want? Is he a messenger of death? His expression suggests benevolence. He is a stoic headwaiter, who has put the Sturm und Drang years behind him by donning a tailcoat. Now he has committed himself to the cutaway and the stand-up collar. Kitten leaves him cold, all the way to his undershirt. He despises Kitten with the eyes of his wife, whose ample circumference could surely accommodate three Kittens. Kitten is but a little piece, he likes to say, especially if the girl refuses to follow a john into the séparée. He does not greet Kitten; there is no silent message for Kitten. Kitten takes heart, though, for she has power over the billfolds of the gents. The food server carries out her orders when she is seated at the table of a gentleman, but barely acknowledges her wishes when she sits with the other girls, undesired, expectant, and disappointed . . . Everyone depends on the favor of others, in one way or another, and this cycle of need and desire occurs even in the context of a golden nightclub. Sometimes social rules are suspended, creating chaos for all concerned. Has the reader ever dropped into such a vortex? Old headline writers like to speak of a tempest in a teapot when this occurs in politics. I would rather refer to it as a head trauma for relationships, a nosedive into chaos—as a tumultuous catastrophe, for all I care; in any case, it is an extraordinary, singular occurrence for everyone involved, from guests to employees, from Kitten to the checkroom woman, from Mrs. Mae R. all the way to the john . . .
And now, after having dedicated these pages to the poetry of the last knight errant and his surroundings, pages which have offered much too little by way of interesting material but much too much vis-à-vis our story line, I will turn to the Jazz-Band-Boys. In the Château d’Or they have become the most conscientious house band ever seen. They live in a little hotel in Paris. In every respect, things are going well for them. They are very diligent. They have made much progress in their mission in life: translating the whole world into Jazz. Lord Henry galvanizes the Boys in performing great deeds of insane audacity: no one can say where the training ends and the insanity truly begins—begins by ceasing to be a deliberate method . . . And yet, the life of our five Boys has run aground on gentle shores, which the next chapters attempt to recount.
Madame Mae R. is the wife of a most honorable gentleman in London, Mr. Douglas R. She does not deserve to be neglected, not even by the chronicler of her vices. I do not mean to be indiscreet when I point out that she had already been wedded to the honorable Mr. Douglas R. when she had an unusual encounter in the aforementioned express train with a doctor who really wasn’t one. It was an aberration in their otherwise true and peaceful marriage that Mr. Douglas received word of his wife’s fainting spell on that very same night—a fainting spell that clearly wasn’t one. Madame took it upon herself to relate her latest adventure to Mr. Douglas, not neglecting to convey how badly things had turned out for the impostor. But who was that nice, entertaining chap? She didn’t know. She only knew his first name—Henry—and was grateful that he had spared her from sharing in his embarrassment. He wouldn’t allow her to witness the explanations he was forced to provide to the indignant crowd and the conductor outside the compartment. But who was he? A con artist? Well, yes, a con artist. But a con artist with tact and gusto.
Mr. Douglas had a wonderful laugh. He possessed one of the heartiest laughs in London’s high society. But his most boisterous laughs arose whenever Madame Mae told him about her escapades. The young lady often had amused guests gathered around her fireplace, but her most amused audience has always been her husband. There was nothing in the world he appreciated more than listening to her stories, which allowed him to laugh in this way . . . So those are the characters of our novel. I am aware that I have portrayed them somewhat superficially and oddly. I have broken many rules of novelistic practice, such as developing my characters through the plot, rather than “characterizing” them for the purposes of the plot—an infraction that professional romanciers will not likely forgive. Please permit me to defend myself, however, by pointing out that I am writing a jazz novel and that, as a consequence, this book will not turn out to be a conventional novel. I believe this book is subject to different rules, just as a jazz piece is subject to different rules from those that apply to a sonata for piano and violin.
"Saxophone—good tone!” is our motto. So be it! And with that, I would like to turn to a new sequence of tones already running through my head, a sequence made up of so much discordant noise that I hesitate to call it music.
[. . .]
At this hour, on
such a night, when everything was moving upwards, when the gaiety and
the action fused: at this hour when the dancers were turned into one mass
of humanity in the demon’s kettle, in elemental chaos, homogeneous
in all its parts, the gentlemen miraculously still distinguishable and
the ladies barely individual, but each one dissolving into the form of
another, like the scents of different flowers in a colorful bouquet: at
this hour Mr. Douglas and his attorney Dr. Curel entered the lobby.
"Please leave your coat, Dr. Curel. I can’t wait to get out of mine.”
These two gentlemen had spent an eventful day: in vain, had they looked for Madame Mae. Naturally, they did not want to call on the police; her name was not in the entry lists so they were obliged to rely on their own resourcefulness. We do not want to dwell on their failure and so now move straight to the time when the two men are sharing a glass of champagne to forget their disappointment. The scene takes place in loge number five at the Château d’Or, where the wild waves of excitement from below don’t entirely reach. Separated from the passions and the gaiety, these gentlemen could simply enjoy themselves as observers and give themselves over to private amusements in spite of the noise. Mr. Douglas R. had chosen loge number five because it offered the best view of the jazz band. I wonder if he really enjoyed listening, or if he just had a special talent for giving himself to his private amusements in the midst of all that jazz? His facial expression didn’t reveal much. As always, he was amused and inclined to burst into laughter at the slightest provocation . . . So this was “Lord Punch’s Jazzband”? And that was that blond Henry, the new Pied Piper, whose music was so irresistible that Madame Mae had committed another folly and had suddenly vanished? Mr. Douglas observed that Henry was handsome and thought he had seen him somewhere before. We often believe a fellow countryman to be an acquaintance in a foreign country even if we have never previously laid eyes on him. And Mr. Douglas had actually even seen a picture of this one before, a picture Madame had shown him in a magazine in order to illustrate her adventure on the train.
Mr. Douglas searched his memory but simply could not remember how he knew this blond chap. He suddenly noticed the program book on the table. There was Henry’s blond head. It was the same picture as in the magazine. Now Mr. Douglas became aware of the similarity between the two pictures—there was a sudden circuit in his memory, and he pounded on the table and cried:
“Well, Dr. Curel, I have just made a remarkable discovery! Madame Mae met this violin player during her journey from Watford to London! She told me so herself, I remember it clearly.”
“Mr. Douglas, my dear Mr. Douglas! Didn’t I mention to you last night that Madame had left to come here and listen to Lord Punch’s Jazzband? Did I not deduce this from the fact that she had tuned her radio to a Paris station? From the open program brochure? From the handwritten note left on her secrétaire?? Don’t you remember?”
“But what if I told you that Madame Mae has known the blond chap for a long time?”
“That could have been a factor in her decision to run off, but certainly not the decisive one!”
“Do you think so, Dr. Curel? Not decisive? I will never know . . .”
“Look at him. Such a handsome chap. Blond. Aristocratic features. Very young. Very young.”
“Mr. Douglas, I will bring a libel action against you if you insist on implying such insidious conclusions about Madame Mae!”
Mr. Douglas began to laugh, but in an instant his face turned grave:
“Do you believe in my wife’s innocence? Seriously?”
“Mr. Douglas, I swear—”
“Stop, my dear Dr. Curel; please, no oaths. In questions of the female soul and its abysses you are too much of a naïve bachelor, my friend. Please excuse these harsh words. I should warn you not to invoke my wife’s innocence, because she—”
“In my heart of hearts I swear that your wife is innocent and I will convince you that I did not risk a false oath! Tomorrow I will present my case!”
“You are rather optimistic after this day of failures.”
“Aye, that I am, Mr. Douglas.”
“But not I,
Dr. Curel. Please excuse me, but I cannot be optimistic. Not anymore!
We could probably make inquiries at every hotel and boarding house in
Paris without finding a trace of Madame. The question is how far . . .”
“Compliments, Dr. Curel, what do you have in mind? That . . .”
“It appears that we have switched roles since we arrived in Paris, Mr. Douglas.”
“Yes, ever since we obtained the information at the Claridge that Madame had not checked in there. Let me assure you: Madame has never stayed anywhere else! Even when she came to Paris alone, always at the Claridge. She knows no other place in Paris—”
“My dear Mr. Douglas, you have said so three times already, but it still doesn’t sound plausible. This time, under such different circumstances, there was no reason to stay there—”
“Your conclusion is perfectly correct. It is high time that we find her. Otherwise, my imagination will get the better of me!”
Isn’t it so typical of life, an unmistakable symptom of its outrageousness that betrays its essential nature, that at the very moment when the conversation between these two gentlemen focused on the whereabouts of Madame Mae, Henry should receive the summons of a lady who wished to speak with him urgently—a lady who was none other than Madame Mae? She didn’t enter the establishment from the front, and so the gentlemen could not see her. Henry spoke with her in the narrow corridor outside the dressing rooms. Only a thin concealed door separated them from the jazz stage. Mr. Douglas was looking at that same door, because Henry had just walked through it.
It was surely a phenomenon explicable by telepathy that Dr. Curel just then began to speak of the transparency of things, at the very moment that his friend could well have used a pair of x-ray eyes to espy Madame behind that door. The doctor’s new topic brought out his fantastic side:
“The things we would see! In modern times, Asmodeus, who once uncovered the roofs so that he could see inside, would possess x-ray vision, I tell you. Where we see a good citizen who spends a worriless evening with champagne and jazz, he would see instead a debt-ridden man about to pawn off his last possessions tomorrow in order to preserve the purity of his signature . . . That dance-crazed head clerk over there has embezzled from his company, and if he doesn’t get some help from his brother-in-law this father of three will put a gun to his head tomorrow . . . That nimble old man over there with the cool look of a falcon—a colleague of mine from the country—handles the trust funds of a few noble families. He has special desires drawing him to Paris and will never be able to pay out the funds when the time comes. He’s already cheating on his expense reports to prevent that from happening. Asmodeus would truly enjoy our vantage point! What a rewarding vista!”
“Yes, in the underworld . . .”
Mr. Douglas smiled and turned to Dr. Curel: “Let’s go downstairs. It is better there than from a safe distance, and so on . . .”
The two men rose and ambled through the Château d’Or. They looked around carefully, committed many of the faces to memory, and paid special attention to “Lord Punch’s Jazzband Boys and Girls.” Naturally, it did not escape them that the brightest, blondest, and loveliest of the five young women—Mademoiselle Baby, who else?—once again wore a look of worry and sadness. Her eyes betrayed her feelings to all who looked. Ach, there was a broken glitter in them today, the most woeful expression. It was a heart-stopping sight, eliciting the deepest sympathy.
So it went with
Mr. Douglas and Dr. Curel when they passed by the jazz band and saw the
musicians for the first time from up close, but the ensemble was not complete.
Henry was still standing behind the concealed door.
[. . .]
Madame Mae R. should have finally realized that Henry would not leave the doll’s ball, even for just half an hour. By the same token, Madame Mae was not going to wait in front of Henry’s dressing room until the morning hours. And so what could no longer be avoided took place: Madame Mae R. went to dance in the doll’s ball. She made her entrance at a time when the peak of the hustle and bustle seemed past—at a time when everything was possible. The spoon and the oven heat had produced a ragout; it was the perfect moment for Madame Mae. She was a natural, organic match for these festivities. For a while, she was seen in the company of Mr. Epstein, who offered her champagne; then she danced again and again in the arms of Arpád, the Eintänzer . . . then she stood by the band, clinking glasses with Henry . . . she moved on from there, laughing, dancing, sparkling—as ever—far away from the anxious moments she had endured earlier. But the patrons in loge number five did not see her. They most certainly did not. Naturally, she danced with many different partners, for it was the doll’s ball and that meant a democracy of the dance, active and passive voting rights for both sexes.
The occupants of loge number five had pulled the curtain before the parapet in order to remain anonymous. Were there new occupants? Or still the old ones? Were they still in there? Had they left? It is unlikely that Mr. Douglas R. and Dr. Curel had enjoyed the company of a pair of dolls, which would have required privacy. My view about such situations is that much more is possible than is generally believed. Perhaps it is more likely that the gentlemen had discovered Madame Mae and were now playing the amused observers, especially since the character of the husband won’t permit readers to imagine him as a jealous observer, peeking through a chink in the curtain.
In any case, the latter half of this night featured several other occurrences that should be mentioned because they preceded the resolution and the proper ending of our narrative.
So we remain at the advancing doll’s ball, with good reason, because an unexpected visitor now appears on the scene and asks Madame Mae to dance.
[. . .]
I venture to say that there’s no need for us to be present when our ensemble of characters slides into a catastrophe, a thrilling climax that may befit a dime novel but will not suffice as the final movement of a jazz symphony. It must be emphasized once again that the music of these pages is subject to different rules from those that apply to a sonata for piano and violin or even to a banal operetta finale.
The story of the five Jazz-Band-Boys is over before it has benefited from any development, from beautiful complications toward a highly desirable resolution. What became of Punch and Siegi and Tobby and Tino? Jazz-Band-Boys. And then: Jazz-Symphonists. And what of the girls with those lovely English names? Girlfriends; wives if you wish. And what becomes of dancers when the time of sweet girlhood has passed?! I absolutely refuse to offer the usual autumnal reflections about this age-old theme. If you want to know what can become of a seventeen-year-old, then you can find out in Maupassant’s outstanding novel A Life and try to look at a seventeen-year-old without falling into a state of depression at the thought of her ultimate prospects.
A jazz novel has the right to fade out quietly, and just to come to an end in the midst of a thematic repetition. To insist on this inalienable right in the first jazz novel that has been written according to the laws of jazz music is my prerogative. You may not agree, but I will now take the liberty to grant the saxophone a postlude, delicately accompanied by violin, piano, and drum; I have to leave it at that. The jazz instrument is hard to control; it likes to follow its own tonal paths. I will let it express itself one more time here, although I can’t help but fear that it might play a prank on the jazz character—against itself, if you will. But I have no means at my disposal to prevent that. In the framework of this story, I am completely at the mercy of my instruments.
Do you think I should go back to playing chamber music?
[. . .]
—translated from the German by Cornelius Partsch and Damon O. Rarick