It is you youngsters who have thought up the idea that life is short, said the old man quietly. You tell me tales where life and death swirl along as fast as red and black interchange when the roulette wheel spins. I have seen many good plays you have written and read much good verse, better plays and poems than written by the old ones, but there was something missing from all of them, something you do not know—time, the perspective which life gives. I am always surprised, for you think of life as something like birth and death; yet it does not take more than a day to be born or to die, but you cannot live your life in a day. Love, despair, exultation, for you they follow each other like the links of a chain, as if each moment were the whole of life. Don’t you know how terribly long life is, and how still and unchanging is that boundless and silent sea of eternal truth which swallows up the three or four roaring moments in which we feel and recognize our fate? When I look back on my life it seems to me as if a thousand years were behind me, a vast, vast book which I read for a thousand years, where I underlined everything and learnt everything. I see my childhood far-off, a terrible, empty distance away, such as you youngsters can only visualize when you read history or think of dark medieval castles. Everything that has happened to me lies in the deserts of time like the bones of dead camels, in a far distance, on the caravan routes that cut through the desert. In this long, long life unbelievably little has happened to me. It has been an endless long night that I spent walking, and I know nothing more about it but that it was long. You talk of sunshine and happiness; will you believe me when I tell you that I only saw the sun three times, in the whole of my life? I saw it three times and these three days were divided by an eternity. Three whole lifetimes which knew nothing of one another, and which I can only see as one from here, from a distance.
At first it floated on a wide, white expanse, later on I discovered that this white expanse was a mirror hanging on our nursery wall. I faced it on first opening my eyes. It was a superabundant incomprehensible brilliance, I reached out my hand and I was surprised that I couldn’t touch it. I would have so loved to stroke it, or put it in my mouth. Later on when I understood that it wasn’t as simple as all that, I got cross and forgot about it.
An indescribably long time passed after that. A long time in which hardly anything happened to me, and all the more inside me, in my heart and brain. I grew a little taller, and my moustache grew too, two. or three centimetres in two or three years, and in fifteen years my blue eyes turned a shade darker. While within in the dark, my heart lived through worlds and centuries, my face without became a little paler, and two thin furrows cut their way around my nose and mouth. This was all that changed on the outside. I waited impatiently to see what would happen, and what it was that had made one wait so long.
One afternoon I met a woman. Some can still remember her; after all, for many, many years, for an eternity, it seemed to me, we were together after that, amongst men. It was two in the afternoon when we met, and we stayed together till seven in the evening. I was a young man, I thought I might conquer her. I started to tell her things and she listened attentively. She was a beautiful woman, her perfume was overpowering. We held each other’s hands and pressed them. We arranged to meet the next day, but she never came. Something had gone wrong. I chafed, I tormented myself over what might have happened. I truly longed for this woman. We met again, and I was half out of my mind already, I desired her so strongly. Again we went our own way, and then it seemed that we would never meet again.
That day, it was an autumn afternoon, I understood that all my life long I should desire this one woman alone, that no other woman would mean anything to me, and that what I had waited for, and longed for and hoped for, was just this woman whom I could not have. Once I understood this, an illimitable happy tranquillity took possession of me. I made up my mind to die, and I knew I was content and happy to die because I loved her. I walked to the bank of the river and sat there and wept. I ran my fingers through the grass and I thought how soft it was, and sweet, like her hair. The sound of the water was like her voice, it was so soft and rippling, and the sky was silken-smooth like her skin. After an hour a hand fell gently on my shoulder. It was hers. I only half turned, and went on crying, and she sat down beside me. We sat there for many hours, and we knew we could never part. Then, when I was left alone, the evening was hushed and peaceful, I laughed with joy and bathed in the river. I talked to the trees and the trees swayed their branches towards me, gracefully, like women lifting their hands to be kissed. The wind was a delicate and diaphanous blue veil that played around my arms and legs.
That was when I saw the sun for the second time in my life; it was descending between two hills. It was resplendent, glowing and magnetic, like the dear and warm heart of a woman behind the double covering of white lace and cherished rosy skin.
And that too, endured for a lifetime. It was dusk and mist again for many long years, a brilliant mist sometimes, when I think of it now, as in reading books about the Renaissance. Yes, the whole of nature made sense at that time. Our blood coursed through the trees and our incandescent imagination painted everything in gold. All things impinged on me only as they served my happiness. There were only hard things and soft things, soft like a woman’s lap, or hard like a sword.
But one day, after many, many years I discovered that the woman had betrayed me. You mock me because I am old and say this with composure: for you a woman’s betrayal means death and disaster, a revolver shot, a black abyss, because you do not know the meaning of time. That day—it happened in the evening—I felt like that too. I was stunned, and I stood there in the middle of the room, waiting, thinking that I would kill. But I did not kill. I went out into a forest near the town and spent the night there. I tried to call up the woman’s face as I had watched it through the years, trembling, with an anxious heart. I called it up and I waited for my hand to close into a fist, I waited for the deadly and familiar spasm of jealousy to grip my heart. Again I saw her two eyes and her lips. But nothing happened to me. I was wearied and resigned, I thought that it was an apathy due to shock, that my life had changed into unbearable hell and that I would feel its burning embers as soon as the apathy passed, and from then on for ever more.
But the apathy passed and nothing happened. By the morning I was hungry and I went into a shop where I bought some milk and a roll. As I drank it I savoured its taste as something wonderfully new and solid. The taste of a love that had lasted many years mingled with the taste of the milk while I drank, and changed it.
Then I went out into the woods again and took a deep breath. I smelt the heavy smell of the earth. It was revivifying and fresh, and I comprehended that for many, many years love had been mingled with the air, and I had no longer tasted the air.
By then I had already begun to suspect what that day meant to me. I looked at a tree, I saw the bark and I waited for the buds to blow. The sight absorbed and excited me, and that was when I understood that for many years love had veiled the buds from me, and the smell of new leaves.
Men and women had come and gone, a whole world in each of their faces, and for many years I had not seen a single face.
stone fell from a house that was being built. I stopped and wondered
why that stone had to fall. I considered, and discovered that I was
home, and this made me joyous. I was home again.
The town in which I had lived for ten years had become so new, so fresh to me, that it was as if I had come back there that day for the first time after ten years. I was home again in the town which I had not seen for ten years, because though I had been in it, I had been in a prison, the prison of love.
I stumbled around as if drunk, I was so happy, and then, between one street and another, found myself looking at the horizon. At that very moment the sun rose above the skyline and I looked straight at it, for the third time in my life. It shone, it sang. And I, like someone waking from a long, long sleep, rubbed my eyes and understood that for many, many years love had veiled the sun and painted out its colours.
It was spring again in the world and in my heart. I stood there in this spring, with arms outstretched and called in bliss towards the rising sun: “Oh you, my life which I have regained! Oh you, the joy of existence and discovery which is beginning afresh! I don’t love her any more! Oh God, God, blessed God, merciful God, I don't love her any more.”
I cried with pleasure. I lay in the grass and embraced the earth restored to me so that once again I could be its dear child, its lord and king, all which had been reft from me.
But that was also a long time ago, an unbelievably long time ago. And darkness also followed it. When was I right, when I said yes, or when I said no? I only know it as an irresolute man knows counting his buttons: “Yes, no, yes, no,” who says yes or no—with decision when he comes to the last button, but who knows in his heart that he only said it because it was the last, and not because he believes that it told the truth.
SOURCE: Karinthy, Frigyes. Days (Napok), translated by Rudolf Fischer, in Grave and Gay: Selections from His Work, selected by István Kerékgyárto, afterword by Károly Szalay, binding and jacket by István Bányai, 2nd ed., (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1973), pp. 31-35.
Karinthy, Humorist and Thinker"
by Miklós Vajda
Frigyes & Ferenc Karinthy in English
Frigyes (Frederiko) Karinthy (1887-1938) en Esperanto
Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Sándor Szathmári (1897-1974): Bibliografio & Retgvidilo / Bibliography & Web Guide
Frigyes Karinthy @ Ĝirafo
Frigyes Karinthy @ 50 watts
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