The Circus

by Frigyes Karinthy

translated by György Welsburg

No doubt, it was a passionate yearning that drew me to the circus, but perhaps I longed just as much to play the violin. I got the violin first, however, and I was not taken to the circus; so this may be why, from time to time, I kept now and than dreaming of the latter. Once I saw that circus far away, behind the hills, and I felt as if somebody were leading me there by the hand. Another time I was standing in the very middle of a great unknown city; yet there it was – the same circus, the same entrance, and the lobby with doors opening in opposite directions. This time I might even have had a ticket and gone in, but at this point, my dream became confused, and again I was left outside.

At last, I dreamed the dream out to the end. There I was standing at the entrance, behind the box-office, and a limping, bearded, excited man, the manager of the circus, stood next to me, drawing aside the gaudy-coloured curtain with one hand and gabbling loudly: “Come in, gentlemen, come in, this way, please, just step in, the show is about to begin, this way, this way, please!” People were streaming in, no end of people – a motley crowd, domestics, soldiers, well-dressed women, well shaved men – pushing one another, laughing and chatting at the top of their voices. I knew very well that the manager would spot me immediately. He noticed me indeed and, grabbing my arm, asked angrily: “Hullo, hullo, have you got a ticket? If not, out with you!” My heart died within me, I began to stammer that I had no ticket, that I did not want to enter as a spectator anyway, but here, look at my violin, I want to … and I desperately showed him my fiddle, which I was carrying under my arm. He bent down close to my face and waited angrily till I had finished stammering that I had no ticket but had composed a song, all by myself, on my fiddle, and if he would but let me in, I should play it to the audience. At this he laughed so loud that I could see right down his throat, like into a deep, deep tunnel, and then he said roughly: “Young fellow, you are off your beam, your head is surely full of steam.” I found this a very witty piece of poetry and saw that the manager was flattered by my involuntary acknowledgement. He gave me a pat on the back and told me to wait a moment, something could be done about it perhaps, anyway we would talk it over.

Later on he actually came into the dark gangway where I was standing all a-tremble, and said with a patronizing air that fiddling was just gobbledygook. I understood immediately that he had not much confidence in my prowess. I protested vehemently, whereupon he became serious and told me, well, all right, we might as well have a try, but first he had to speak to the superior military authorities where I could get a stamp as an imperial and royal hoity-toity. Till this was arranged, he would like to show me the whole circus from behind the scenes – the actors, the animals, everything – so that I should have an idea what it was all about and what the audience wanted. My heart beat with joy and happiness at the thought that I was in on the show at last; nevertheless, I was scared, too. Tightly pressing the violin under my arm, I endeavoured not to forget the melody. The manager led me past many, many curtains on which all kinds of pictures were painted. High above, men in red garments were working. I expected to see actors and lady riders now, but no! a broad, high staircase came next. The manager scampered up the stairs so quickly that I could hardly follow him. Then we passed through rooms hung with velvet drapery. By mistake I opened a door, through which poured a deafening din, and I saw a swarm of human heads inside. The manager shouted at me to close the door immediately. That was the audience, he said, waiting for the performance, and it ought not to see what was going on here.

Then he opened a small iron door. An enormous, semicircular hall spread out deep below us. In the middle of this magnificent hall with its fountains and palms, a good-looking man with taut lips and wild eyes was in the act of strangling a woman. Her throat merely gave forth heavy, rattling sounds. It was horrible to behold. I began to scream and curse, and demanded that the woman be freed from the man’s grip. But the manager held me back. “You fool,” he said, “don’t you see, these are my actors, it’s only a play; besides, they are not human beings at all, they are only wax-dolls, like in a wax-cabinet.” I looked more closely and saw that the woman’s face was quite unnatural and that her eyes were of glass.

I was ashamed and began to speak of something else, but my heart was still throbbing wildly. Now the manager led me into a big, untidy room, where gaudily dressed boys and girls with made-up faces were sitting on benches like in a school-room. This was the school for clowns. I too had to sit down on a bench, and the manager called one pupil after the other to the teacher’s desk. One of them came up walking on his hands and intermittently striking the floor with his head. He had to repeat this act. Then the manager called a tall man who drew out a knife and ripped open his own breast. Lungs and blood and guts streamed from the wound, and the man collapsed with a loud groan. The manager nodded approval.

“That’s good,” he said, “they’ll like that.”

The suicide went back to his place, took needle and yarn from his bench and sewed up his breast, hissing and grimacing all the while. Now I saw that his chest was stitched together in ever so many places. He was followed by others, who distinguished themselves in a variety of ways. There were ventriloquists who imitated human and animal voices with such admirable accuracy that I could hardly believe my ears. One of them impersonated a child so perfectly that tears rushed into my eyes when his voice became that of a dying child; but looking into his face I saw with amazement that his eyes and mouth remained motionless. Another one created the illusion of a crying and scolding woman. He was succeeded by other imitators of women’s voices; lewd, hoarse laughter struck my ears, and I saw threatening eyes glowering in the darkness.

Then the manager glanced into a book and called me by my name. I rose from my bench, his eyes measured me from head to foot, and he shot this question at me: “Well, what can you do?”

I pointed to my fiddle and again stammered something about the melody I had composed. A burst of laughter rang through the room, and the manager furiously banged his desk.

“Do you still want to annoy me with that damned fiddle of yours?” he asked. “What rubbish!”

I wanted to tell him that the melody I had composed was quite exceptional, and that I should like his permission to play it. However, he hailed one of the boys and ordered him to show me the musical instruments.

I was taken to another room. Enormous engines and tools stood there, each representing a musical instrument. Gigantic trumpets emitted a deafening thunder when the bellows, to which they were attached, were compressed. Triangles as large as a room were sounded by means of steam hammers. On top of an enormous kettle-drum trained elephants moved in a circle, beating the drum with their feet. There was also a prodigious organ driven by an electric machine which simultaneously operated thirty pianos and a thousand steel-whistles, ranging in size to the bulk of a factory chimney. The conductor was standing on a high bridge; as he threw out his arms, a single chord blared forth, producing such a blast of wind that I thought I would be swept away. Before each musician there was a keyboard like that of a type-setting machine. They all were wearing spectacles and kept peering at the score.

Giddy and my ears roaring I now found myself in another room where the manager already was waiting for me. I told him I had seen the musical instruments but did not know any of them and was unable to play them. He shrugged his shoulders and said he regretted very much, but in this case I was a goner. Then we were standing before two doors covered with curtains, which led into the theatre. Through one of them the actors, wearing a thousand masks, were hurrying towards the stage. Each time the curtain flapped, the twinkling of varicoloured lights could be seen. I wanted to go in, but the manager told me that as I did not know anything, it would perhaps be better if I visited the mortuary first.

We entered the other door. A dark gangway led down to the cellar. Flickering gaslight was hissing far away, in the dense and foggy shadow, niches opened on both sides. Grimy-faced servants in white aprons were moving in and out. I was seized with fear and did not dare to look in. At the end of the gangway the manager stopped and talked to somebody. I looked around surreptitiously; all along the wall long tin tables were lurking, on which naked corpses were lying in rows: old people, children – I even caught sight of preserved parts of long-deceased bodies. A suffocating, heavy smell of formalin streamed out of the depths. I espied yet another completely dark gangway leading downwards. The manager was speaking about me; he seemed to be recommending me to the doctor with a view to my staying there. The doctor was looking in the direction of the dark gangway.

At this, I implored them not to compel me to stay there; I told them I would rather – if there were no other choice – learn something which would enable me to appear on the stage. They wagged their heads, and the doctor remarked that only acrobatics would do as the audience was already impatient.

Now they took me high up, into a kind of attic. Through little vent-holes I could see the town way below. Long, narrow ladders were leaning against the walls. Ropes, bars and nets lay strewn about, and youthful acrobats, in pink tights, were practising on the ladders. A ladder was placed before me, and I was told to climb up. As I reached the top, the ladder was swung out over the street – I held on tight and looking down could see the whole town with people running about the streets like ants. Then, screaming faintly, I lost consciousness.

But there I was again, and for many a week and month I continued to learn and practice. Up and down the ladder I climbed, and when this went fairly well and I was able to stand on the very top, they reached up a chair which I carefully balanced on the highest rung and then climbed onto myself. Later on, we did the same with two and even three chairs. What seemed like an age, went by in this manner.

And then, at long last, I stood on the stage – but my face had become thin and wrinkled and caked with rouge, like those I had seen at the beginning. It was as though I had been with the circus for many, many years, and I knew every nook and corner in it. I was wearing pink tights, and I prowled about in the semi-darkness of the side-curtains in a state of great fatigue. Perspiring servants were running about with carpets. I heard a continuous wearysome humming, but I was too tired to want to know what it was. Suddenly a sickeningly bright light broke in upon me – and before my eyes the velvet curtains parted. Beyond, a sea of hands came into view. There was a brief clapping, followed by an expectant, whispering silence.

There I stood, all alone, on the carpet in the broad, white light of the stage. I ran to the centre with noiseless steps, the cone of the searchlight following me everywhere. With snakelike movements I bowed repeatedly towards the boxes, on either side. Then I got the ladder and quickly, without making a sound, and so easily that I did not even feel my body, I climbed to a height of four storeys. Up there I cautiously crawled still higher up a single thin pole, swaying a bit, until I got my equilibrium. Next, a table with iron feet, placed on the end of a pole, was reached up to me. I grabbed the table and supported two of its legs on the top rung of the ladder. Then climbing upon the table, I stood up straight, carefully keeping my balance. Now three chairs were set one above the other, and I could hear a contented murmur from below as I climbed up the structure. The legs of the last chair pointed upward, they quietly swayed to and fro, as with bated breath I set an enormous cube point downward on the end of one of the legs. The whole construction was lightly throbbing under me as if the beating of my pulse were running right down to the lowest rung of the ladder. Then slowly I crawled up it. I reached the pinnacle and relaxed. Hot drops of sweat slid slowly down my face. All my muscles were taut as a bowstring, and trembling. I waited till the structure stopped swaying, then, in a deadly silence, I straightened out, opened my robe, and drew out the violin … With a tremulous hand I laid the bow across the strings … now, groping with my foot, I cautiously let go of the pole … bent forward … balanced for a few moments … and, making use of the silence of terror, which tore open the mouths and gripped the hearts in the depths below me, slowly and quiveringly I began to play the melody, which long, long ago had resounded and sobbed in my heart.

SOURCE: Karinthy, Frigyes. “The Circus” (A cirkusz), translated by György Welsburg, 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. 109-115.

See also: "The Circus" (finale) by Frigyes Karinthy, with podcast description & links to recital of this paragraph by R. Dumain (sound file, 4 minutes) & Frigyes Karinthy: the Hungarian Swift & his musical robots (offsite podcast, 57 min.) by R. Dumain.

Frigyes & Ferenc Karinthy in English

Frigyes (Frederiko) Karinthy (1887-1938) en Esperanto

Sándor Szathmári (1897–1974): Bibliografio & Retgvidilo / Bibliography & Web Guide


Frigyes Karinthy @ Ĝirafo

Frigyes Karinthy @ 50 watts

The Circus by Frigyes Karinthy,
translated by György Welsburg

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 22 May 2021

Site ©1999-2021 Ralph Dumain