"A bleak, black book, it engenders awe and despair. I have read it in its entirety 4½ times, each time finding its resonance and beauty so great as to demand another reading. As I read, I found myself devastated by the thoroughness of the book’s annihilating sensibility and revived by the beauty of its language, the complexity of its design, the melancholy, horror and stoic sympathy in its rendering of what we used to call the human condition."
—Michael Silverblatt, The Los Angeles Times
Life in a chair
Yes, I’ve sat too long, no wonder it’s painful, though this is the great Tabor’s own chair, which I had shipped from Germany. It swivels smoothly, tips without a sound. In the mornings he lectured at the university. Scholars, statesmen, writers, filled his afternoons. My day commences, he said to me once, his fingers grazing on a slope of papers, when I come to rest in here at the end of an evening and begin making Greek and Roman history up out of German words, French wit, and English observation. He scrawled his famous smile across his face, hastily, like an autograph; but he was old, already ill, and his hand trembled. German words, he said, not German feeling. Tabor spoke ironically, of course, yet what he said was true: he woke because his neighbors slumbered; he spied upon their dreams; he even entered their dreams eventually, and brandished a knife in the nightmares of Europe, Magus Tabor. Mad Meg, they called him. One day they’d say he wore the decade like a diadem. His baldness glistened like a forest pool. There’ve been times when this chair’s been my only haven, he said, and his lids closed over his protruding eyes. Night had fallen behind them-in Mad Meg’s head. You see how obedient it is; how swiftly it turns, like fortune in history? He spun the chair hard, his eyes still in lids. So I find it easy to reverse my position. He laughed with the stutter of an angry bird and I managed a low social chuckle. It really was a dream for him, all this: our conversation, the lecture of the morning, the interrupting applause and tumult of shouts at the end, the famous I and powerful who waited for him while he spoke with an unimportant, young, and dazzled American. Those deeply curtained eyes reminded me that we were drifting through the middle of his sleep, and that I was just a wraith who would evaporate the instant he sank into his circuiting chair-sank into the past-into death-into history.
The study of history, gentlemen
the study of history
The hall was full. There were hundreds-crowds in the doorways, everyone still. The heads of the great grew like blossoms from the pillars lining the walls: in a rise along one side-Lessing, Herder, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling; in a fall along the other-Möser, Dilthey, Ranke, Troeltsch, Treitschke. My first time in that room I had sat by the bust of Treitschke and read the inscription plaqued beneath it on the column:
ONLY A STOUT HEART WHICH FEELS THE JOYS AND
SORROWS OF THE FATHERLAND AS ITS OWN CAN
GIVE VERACITY TO AN HISTORICAL NARRATIVE.
It was longer than I care to admit before I realized that for Mad Meg, too, truth was the historian’s gift to history.
That’s not nearly strong enough. And my—my what?—my naiveté? my admiration? my vanity?—something—prevented me from understanding what he wrote—he preached—so many times so plainly.
The window of the car would not roll up and Lou’s face looked warm from the cold wind as if freshly slapped or shamed or elsewhere loved. My hand fell to hers, too, somewhat like a discarded glove, and she took it with a squeeze, so that the chilled soon lay within the chilled, I thought, like a bottle of champagne. Cold hand, moist part, I said. Hers slipped away.
Drafts lapped my neck. I cobble history, Tabor shouted when he saw me again, placing his huge, rough-knuckled fists against my chest. We met at a large impersonal affair, a reception held at a chancellery, and I had finally burrowed to the stair to scan the crowd, perhaps to find a friend or two, when I observed him in the middle of the room, over his head in hair and shoulders, burning quietly, the only thing alive among the potted ferns and suits of armor. The icy marble floor was flopped with Oriental rugs and steadily enlarging spills of people. He was alone, ill. I was astonished to see him in such a place. I cobble history the way a cobbler cobbles shoes, he said. Wretched fellow, I thought: in the midst of this crush, you’re composing a lecture. If it were not for me the Roman Empire—here he made a hard white ball of his hands—would not, an instant—I heard his harsh laugh bubble from the crowd-stay together—and his hands flew apart with startling violence, fingers fanned. There was a terrible energy in that gesture, although he was, by this time, a sick old man, so weak he tottered. His ears seemed unnaturally fastened to his head, and his arms emerged from the holes of his sleeves as if the flesh had remained as a lining. I swaddled my neck in my arms and would have turned my collar if I’d dared. Light spewed from the chandeliers. Countless pairs of glistening boots reechoed from the marble squares. Then an angry woman in a powdered bosom passed between us, and I was glad to be carried away. Poor Tabor. His lips were still moving when he disappeared behind a heavily forested Prussian chest. Wise eyes slid sneakily down the stairs. Voices were impeccably coiffed. A moist mouth relieved a sausage of its stick. Long gowns whispered like breezes together, and I saw several backs begging to be amorously bitten. Bellies were in belly bras. Consequently postures were perfect. Since coming to Germany and manhood at the commencement of the thirties, I had known few such opulent days. There were so many bits of brilliant metal, so much jewelry, so many cummerbunds and ribbons, a gently undulating sea of silk-tossed light, that the gilded ceiling drew away like heat and seemed a sky. Thus I beheld him for the first time (or anyway eyed him out); and I felt the smile I’d penciled in above my chin fade like the line beneath the last rub of an eraser. Never mind. There was no need then for fidelity, only for entertainment. Elaborate and lie. Describe the scene to your quam diu friends: Link, Hintze, and Krauske¾friends who faded, whom heat cannot bring back even in the palest outline like lemon juice on paper. Describe¾and make it rich, make it fun, full of rhetoric and episode¾Mad Meg in the Maelstrom.
I faced the four corners, cupped the bowl of my glass like a breast, began the construction of my anecdote, and let the wine die.
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