Last summer I first came across Rainer Maria Rilke's short story “Frau Blahas Magd” (1899) and immediately felt it contained more (about) theatre than most 'theatre productions'. So it's not surprising that although it is not very well known, Frank Castorf (the artistic director of the Volksbühne http://www.volksbuehne-berlin.de/) has apparently repeatedly used it as material for his productions. This is perhaps beside the point, but as the German media keep slagging off his productions for being simultaneously "worse than those in the 90s" and "exactly the same as in the 90s", I wanted do drop in his name positively - his new production of Friedrich von Gagern's trash-piece "Ozean" is definitely not rubbish, or perhaps it is rubbish burned live, releasing huge amounts of energy into the audience.
Back to "Frau Blaha's Magd" - a little translator's preface: on a linguistic level, the story reads very strangely and I had trouble with the translation as the tenses and aspects of the verbs sometimes change within a sentence; particularly the long descriptions of habitual action (“every day, every now and then, she would do this...”) are awkward in German and even more so in English. So while the story seems like an old-fashioned straightforward narrative at first sight, some of its sentences are internally fragmented in a subtly untranslatable way or an untranslatably subtle way – and sometimes it seems just as if Rilke had never proofread it. My initial plan was to send this translation to various friends (probably including YOU) as a Christmas present, but because of my problems with the translation and because the idea suddenly seemed more narcissistic than generous, I decided to publish it here instead.
I'd still greatly appreciate any response (particularly concerning mistakes/clumsy expressions; or if you know of a previous English translation) and hope the story will give some of you a Christmas-puppet-theatre-blank-faced-morbid-or-other form of pleasure or sadness.
P.s.: The German version can be found here: http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/?id=5&xid=2252&kapitel=1#gb_found (or in the insel-edition of Rilke's Erzählungen).
Frau Blaha's Maid
Every summer, Frau Blaha, married to the minor Turnau Rail officer Wenzel Blaha, went to her hometown for a few weeks. It is a town in flat and miry Bohemia in the area of Nimburg and rather poor and insignificant. When Frau Blaha, who regarded herself as somewhat urban already, saw all the small miserable houses again, she believed herself capable of an attempt to do good. She went to see a peasant's wife with whom she was acquainted and whose daughter she wanted to take into her service in the city. She would pay her a small and modest wage, and, moreover, the girl would have the advantage of being in the city and learning many a thing there. (What exactly she might learn there wasn't fully clear to Frau Blaha herself.) The peasant's wife discussed the matter with her husband who kept squinting; his only immediate reaction was to spit on the ground. After half an hour, he came back into the room and asked: “Well, and does the woman know that Anna is like this?”, swaying his brown wrinkled hand back and forth in front of his forehead like a dry chestnut leaf. “Fool” – made the peasant's wife, – “obviously we won't!...”
That's how Anna came to the Blahas. Most of the time, she would spend the whole day on her own. Wenzel Blaha was in the office while his wife was out sewing, and there were no children. Anna would sit in the small dark kitchen with a window into the courtyard and would wait for the organ grinder to come. This happened every day before dusk. Then she would lean far forward into the small window; her pale hair would hang in the wind and she would dance on the inside until she became so dizzy that the high and dirty walls were swaying towards each other precariously. Frightened, she would begin walking through the whole building – down the dark and dirty stairs into the smoky tavern where every now and then someone was singing in the onset of drunkenness. On her way, she would find herself among the children running around in the courtyard for days without anyone missing them; oddly, the children always wanted her to tell them stories. Sometimes they would even follow her into the kitchen. But then Anna would sit down at the stove, covering her empty pale face with her hands and say: “Must think.” And the children would be patient for a while. But when Annushka kept thinking and the dark kitchen became all quiet and frightening, the children would run away and not see the girl tenderly and dolefully beginning to cry and becoming tiny and helpless from being so homesick. What it was she longed for is uncertain. Perhaps also a bit for the spankings. But most of the time for something undefinable which had existed at some point or which might just have been a dream. With the children demanding so much thinking from her, she slowly began remembering. First red, red, and then many people. And then a bell, a loud bell, and then: a king – and a peasant and a tower. And they speak. “Dear king”, says the peasant …. “Yes”, replies the king with a very proud voice: “I know.” And, indeed, how should a king not know everything a peasant has to tell him. –
Shortly thereafter, the woman once took the girl to the shops with her. As it was an evening in Christmastime, the shop windows were brightly-lit and filled exuberantly. In a toy shop, Anna suddenly saw what she had remembered. The king, the peasant, the tower … Oh and her heart beat more loudly than her steps sounded. But she quickly looked away and walked on beside Frau Blaha. She had a feeling as if she mustn't give anything away. And so the puppet theatre remained behind them, as if unseen; Frau Blaha, childless, hadn't taken notice of it at all. – Shortly after this, Anna had her Sunday off. She didn't return that evening. A man whom she had previously seen in the tavern below joined her; she couldn't remember exactly where he had led her. It seemed to her as if she had been away for a year. When on Monday morning, she came back to the kitchen, tired, everything was even colder and greyer than usually. On this day she broke a soup terrine and was severely scolded for this. Frau Blaha hadn't even noticed that she had stayed out that night. Roughly until New Year's, she stayed out three more nights. Then she suddenly stopped walking around the building and started locking the flat anxiously; she would no longer come to the window every time the organ grinder was playing.
Thus, winter passed into a pale, timid spring. In the courtyards, it is a season of its own. The buildings are black and damp, and the air is light, like often-washed linen. The badly-cleaned windows twitch and glow and various small pieces of rubbish dance in the wind, past the various floors. The sounds of the whole building are more clearly audible, the bowls clank differently, more brightly, higher-pitched, and the knives and spoons clatter differently.
Around this time, Annushka gave birth to a child. It came completely unexpected to her. After she had felt bulky and heavy for weeks, it suddenly emerged from within her one morning and was part of the world, God knows where from. This happened on a Sunday, and everyone else in the building was still asleep. She looked at it for a while without her face changing in any way. The child hardly moved, but suddenly a very high voice started from within the small chest, and at the same time Frau Blaha shouted and a bed cracked in the living room. At this point, Annushka grabbed her blue apron hanging close to the bed, tied its strap around the small neck and put the whole blue bundle into the bottom of her suitcase. Then she went into the living room, opened the curtains and began making coffee. On one of the following days, Annushka counted the wages she had received so far. They came to fifteen guilders. Then she locked up the door, opened the suitcase and put the blue apron, which was heavy and motionless, onto the kitchen table. She slowly untied it, looked at the child and measured its length from head to foot with a tape measure. Then she ordered everything else as before and went out. But, unfortunately, the king, the peasant and the tower were much smaller. She still took them and some other puppets with her. That is: a princess with red round dots on the cheeks, an old man, another old man who had a cross on his breast and looked like St. Nicholas because of his beard, and two or three others which weren't as beautiful or important. A theatre as well – the curtain of which could be raised and lowered so that the garden behind would emerge and disappear.
Now Annushka had something for the loneliness. Where had the homesickness gone? She set up the big beautiful theatre (it had cost twelve guilders) and positioned herself, as one is supposed to, behind it. But sometimes, when the curtain was open, she would quickly run to the front, and now she would look into gardens and the whole grey kitchen disappeared behind the high magnificent trees. Then she would step back and take two or three figures and let them speak their minds. It never developed into an actual piece; but there was speech and response; it also happened that two puppets would suddenly bow to each other as if frightened. Or both would bow to the old man who couldn't do it himself as he was completely made of wood. From gratitude, he fell over each time.
The children rumoured about Annushka's playing. And since then, at first suspicious and then increasingly trusting, the children of the neighbourhood would gather in the Blahas' kitchen and stand there when dusk fell in the corners, keeping their eyes glued to the beautiful puppets which always spoke the same. Once Annushka's cheeks were all hot and she said: “I also have a very big puppet.” The children trembled with impatience. But Annushka seemed to have forgotten it again. She placed all figures into her garden and leaned those that didn't remain upright against the scenery on the sides. Among the others, a kind of harlequin which the children couldn't remember emerged; he had a huge round face. Increasingly excited by all the splendour, the children asked for the “very big one”. Just once, the “very big one”. Just for a moment: the “very big one”.
Annushka went to her suitcase in the back. It was already getting dark. The children and the puppets stood opposite each other, inanimate and similar to each other. But from the wide-open eyes of the harlequin which looked like they expected something dreadful, such fear burst upon the children that, without exception, they suddenly ran away screaming.
With the big blue one in her hands, Annushka returned. Suddenly her hands were trembling. After the children had left, the kitchen had become so quiet and so empty. Annushka wasn't scared. She laughed quietly and knocked over the theatre with her feet and stepped on the individual thin boards which signified the garden, making them split in half. And then, when it was already completely dark in the kitchen, she went around and clove in two the heads of all puppets, including that of the big blue one.