Frigyes Karinthy

The New Life

In the morning, when we woke, dense fog lay across the street—though there must have been a clear sky above the fog—a dreary sun loomed through it like a blood-red disc, and a suffocating smell filtered in through chinks and holes. He was tired; he felt a quite peculiar sort of tiredness this morning, one that was both pleasant and disturbing. The anxieties he had undergone during the last few days were gone, and he now decided that they must never return.

The thought occurred to him several times while he was dressing. There was this, a very simple way of getting rid of your worries and anxieties and agonies: you only had to say “one, two, three” out aloud, making up your mind that by the time you said “three” you would no longer be thinking of the thing you had been thinking of the moment before. Or this way: “I’m feeling blue, but it isn’t a pleasant feeling; so I want to cheer myself up. I say ‘One, two, three’—I expand my chest and open my eyes wide—which have shrunk to slits through depression and listlessness and I smile—and by the time I have said ‘three’ I’ll be in good spirits. It’s a very simple thing. Purely because I want to be in good spirits and don’t want to be depressed.”

He was amazed at the simplicity of it all and wondered why it had never occurred to him before. From now on it was going to be like that all the time, he told himself, and the thought greatly reassured him. He already found himself speaking more cheerfully to the charwoman—as a matter of fact (it flashed across his mind afterwards), a little too cheerfully, perhaps. She looked at him, slightly surprised.

How very simple it was, he pursued to himself later in the street. And whistled a tune. The fog floated down on to the Danube quays; far away ships were sounding their foghorns. He didn’t go to the Exchange: he had a vague idea that at this moment it was quite unnecessary. The Exchange and all that sort of thing—why, nonsense! What use was it all? He remembered how depressing and terrible everything had been during the past few days and recalled standing about, gaunt, clutching his temples, for long stretches of time at the Exchange, and how dreadfully miserable the whole business had been. I won't go and see the doctor either, he added. The doctor had lately adopted a habit of staring stupidly and asking stupid questions. The doctor wanted to. . . ah. . . er. . . do that thing to him. . . What was it—? Spencerize him. Hell, no. That wasn’t the word. Mesmerize! That’s it. The doctor wanted to mesmerize him. Mesmerize. Mesmerize. That’s what they call it-—mesmerize.

This cheered him up once again. There were few passers-by on Szabadság Square; he came very near to stopping a man coming from the opposite direction and telling him that the word was “mesmerize”. However, he didn’t eventually utter the word, he just opened his mouth and gave the man a faint smile. The man looked back at him, following him with his eyes.

All that had happened so far had been sheer misery—that was clear. And now he went over the whole matter in his mind and came to the conclusion that his moment of truth had come. Only he had a feeling that he’d forgotten to do something. “Just what is it I’ve forgotten to do?” he thought. “Maybe I’ve forgotten to speak to my wife.” He made up his mind that he would go and speak to his wife that afternoon and tell her about it. Tell her about what? Oh, never mind.

He walked down the street: he was completely conscious that at the corner he looked back and, screwing up his eyes, read the inscription on a signboard. After that there followed a long period of silence.

His memory came back around three o’clock in the afternoon. He found himself in a café: he had the kind of feeling a man has when trying very hard to remember what it was he dreamt a few minutes before—and suddenly it all comes back to him. It now came back to him that he had been roaming the boulevard for hours, with shopping between whiles—there were some parcels on the chair beside him—talking to people, throwing his arms about and generally being rather vociferous. It seemed to him that at one place he’d even had a row. Afterwards he’d gone into this café. Now, why had he come to this café? This was not a haunt of his. And suddenly a feeling of distress and uneasiness overcame him at the sight of unfamiliar windows and unfamiliar waiters. Then, in a second, he cheered up as he remembered the “one, two, three” he had devised that morning. His spirits rose, so much so that he began humming a tune and, with his hands thrust into his pockets, cocked an eye on the headwaiter. The head-waiter, for his part, was cocking an eye at him—the man had a funny kind of expression on his face. This put him off. What on earth could be the reason for it? He remembered his son and a letterbox. He was overcome with emotion and thought with great warmth of his son, saying to himself under his breath: “My dear boy—he loves me. My dear son loves me as dearly as sons have loved their fathers throughout the whole history of mankind.” He uttered the sentence and found himself stunned by the solemn magnificence of the words: for a moment he was quite dumbfounded at the thought that he was capable of thinking of a great idea like that. Yes, mankind, he said once again, deeply moved; how was it possible that he hadn’t thought of that before? Yes, love and mankind.

“One, two, three,” he said and again looked at the waiter. The poor waiter, he didn’t know about mankind. He was suddenly overcome with affection for the waiter—his eyes nearly filled with tears—and he opened his mouth, meaning to tell him about it. But he changed his mind.

Love, he told himself: the love of one’s fellow men. . . that was it: loving one’s fellow men. Oh, why hadn’t he thought of that before? That was the reason, maybe, behind all the sorrow and evil that had fallen to his share up to now—oh, yes-—his selfishness: his preoccupation with himself, his failure to consider charity. But this morning. . . Why, this morning he had seen the light. “One, two, three”—that had done the trick. Now, suddenly, the whole business became quite clear to him, so much so that he nearly shut his eyes against the intense luminiscence of it. It was as if what had been before had been nothing but gloom and darkness and some sort of swirling suffocation at the bottom of the darkness. But now, in a flash, all was clear. Henceforward the meaning of everything would be revealed in the light of love, and that meant for him the beginning of a new life. Thoughts chased each other in his feverish brain; they raced and clattered at breakneck speed, more and more of them. On a sudden, without any transition, he remembered Christ and the love of one’s fellow men. “Love, love, one ought to love mankind, poor, poor, sweet, sweet, sweet mankind, beautiful, dark mankind. One must prostrate oneself before mankind. That’s why I suffered, and was in torture until now—I didn’t know. Because I have always been preoccupied with myself, have turned my mind inwards upon myself, spencerized myself. I gnawed away at myself—-there was nothing outside for me to grasp. But now a pure and happy love for mankind begins—a new life, in the great harmony of this feeling!”

Yes, a new life! . . . “New life! New life!” he exulted. . . Then, abruptly, he was seized with fresh uneasiness. Would he be able to explain all this to them? He felt a burning desire to tell someone all about the new life that had now begun and that from now on one would live in a totally different world.

At the door, he was reminded by the waiter that he had failed to pay his bill. He grinned at the man and with a shaking hand gave him a crown. Now everything felt so light—he even remarked to himself that a great ecstasy like this accompanying the birth of a new truth, was very much like drunkenness. And, indeed, his blood had mounted to his head and he walked with somewhat unsteady steps.

Dusk was falling.

The streetlights were wrapped in swirling fog; the shopwindows were lighting up, one after the other. Far away, down at the far end of Váci Street, the letters of the alcohol rub advertisement glowed into light, one by one.

“Um. What shall I do now?” He worried for a minute.

I’ll go to the café and see a newspaper editor. He’ll have to be a very bright chap, for what’s going to follow now will happen quickly and vigorously, and all will be clear.

He ought to see some newspaper man. But he’d better be quick about it, for his temples were throbbing alarmingly.

“I’m quite cool, though, relatively,” he said a minute later. He had said it aloud.

“Please?” said the waiter.

“Coffee,” he said nonchalantly; and felt happy. The waiter couldn’t possibly have noticed anything, he thought; for he had ordered his coffee with an air of unconcern, as though nothing had happened. He decided he would have to watch himself carefully to make sure his manner was nonchalant and elegant.

He drank his coffee and hummed a tune to himself. He felt a flurry of happy excitement at the waiter’s failure to notice anything. He almost laughed. He was suddenly tempted with the desire to prove it with the waiter again. He walked over to another table and called to the waiter:

“Bring me a coffee.”

He looked up and saw two men standing at the table in the centre, eyeing him. For a moment he was flustered, then felt something harden in his heart.

“Aha,” he said. “They’re already watching me. Very well.” He looked them straight in the eye. His temples were throbbing wildly. He clenched his teeth and laughed at them. Then, suddenly, he realized that he knew one of them. Why, it was all right then.

“Hello, Schwartz,” he said loudly. He saw that the man did not smile, and felt angry. “I am at home in this café,” he said to himself, breathing heavily, “here, at least, they can’t raise their brows when they see me. And I have a perfect right to drink coffee.”

“Hello, Schwartz,” he said, still more loudly, and banged the table. Several people rose. He shrugged, got up and whistled a tune through his clenched teeth. With his fists thrust into his pockets, he ambled over to the billiard room. “I don’t care. I am in good spirits all the same. If those chaps don’t like it, they can go and jump in the lake. I have found the way to put oneself into good spirits. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three.”

He went right up to the window. He felt blood rising to his cheeks. He looked out of the window—and continued to hum the music-hall song he had started some moments before, beating a devil’s tattoo on the window-pane. Then slowly he turned around and found himself facing the door.

He saw a lot of faces, all turned towards him: people were standing, crowded at the door. For a moment, he gazed in wonder. What was the matter? Had something happened?

He looked out of the window to see if that something might not be out in the street. Then he shifted his gaze back to the crowd at the door. His uneasiness only lasted for a moment: suddenly, he saw daylight.

“Ah, the new life! They have found out about it!” '

Through his anxiety, he felt a thrill of joy.

At last he caught sight of the newspaper editor, who stood in the crowd. He made a bee-line for him.

“Good afternoon,” he said breezily, somewhat huskily. “Well, I certainly am very glad to see you, sir. Plenty of trouble they're giving you, aren’t they, these journalists? Eh, what? Ha, Ha!”

“That was good—it’s a good thing I’m playing it cool like this,” he reassured his jittery, alarmed nerves. He walked right up to the editor and patted the man's shoulder. “This isn't enough,” the thought flashed across his mind. “He doesn't seem to have recognized me. I've got to show him how I love him."

Suddenly, he threw his arms round the editor’s neck and rested his head on his breast. He closed his eyes and was overcome with a melting mood of infinite love. He felt his eyes filling with the hot tears of affection. It seemed to him as if the terrible chaos around him were clearing, and he burst into sobs.

A moment later he saw dense clouds in front of him, and flickering fire in the distance. Crimson tongues of flame leaped and shot up from the direction of leaden and forbidding hills. Behind slanting, steel-blue clouds stood three crosses—the Calvary. Above it all was an orange sky. Jesus’ head still twisted; in His eyes was a look of immeasurable suffering and love.

He lifted his tear-stained cheeks—the editor was still there, trying to hush him. Around them, there was a dreadful chaos of faces, of peering people.

These people have got scared, he thought. Well, let ’em. Let ’em get scared some more. He bared his teeth and raised his eyebrows. “Pah!” he said, and was alarmed by a feeling that now they were very frightened indeed. He was seized with mortal fear—at seeing them afraid. He released his hold of the editor and started off, stumbling, looking away. They opened out for him. He made for the gallery, staggering. He heard a rustling noise; a number of women and young men were abandoning the gallery in a wild stampede as he mounted the stairs, racking his brain in agony to discover where all these people might be rushing to, and why. Must be some trouble down below, he tried to reassure his heart, which was pounding with alarm. Must be some real, big trouble down below. Oh, it must be some dreadful trouble, something terrible, to have made those people panic so. Oh, it would be something ghastly and horrible; an abysmal darkness . . . some hideous monster, with crooked claws and gaping eye-sockets.

He reached the head of the stairs: the gallery was emptychairs and tables overturned. . . not a living soul among the columns. “What’s the matter?” he suddenly asked himself in dismay. “What is it? What is it? What is it?”

“Waiter,” he said huskily and menacingly, his heart palpitating wildly. “Waiter, bring me a coffee.”

He had an idea that he simply had to get some coffee; that he absolutely must get service; that if he did this nightmare would pass. If he behaved sensibly and asked to be served coffee—quite coolly asked to be served coffeethen everything might yet turn out well, and the monster would not come here.

“Waiter. . . Bring me a coffee.”

On the same instant, however, he regretted having said it; he felt that he had said it a shade louder than he should have. He had made it something of a screech—and he now repeated more softly “a coffee”. He sat down on a chair next to the balustrade. His legs were trembling and shaking.

He looked down.

On the ground-floor he saw a confused crowd, a sea of innumerable faces around the foot of the balustrade columns. He was sitting all by himself in the gallery, on a chair beside the balustrade.

But what was it all about, he asked himself with unspeakable dismay. What had happened? Why didn’t anybody speak to him? And why wouldn’t they tell him where the monster was hiding? It might be hiding down in the basement or else among the columns here. Or it might be lurking underneath the gallery. Or quite possibly it might have crept right upstairs and was now stretching its limbs, perhaps, under this very table—which might well be the reason why they were staring up at him so. Or—good God!—could it be that it had crept up his back and was now lying right across his face and squirting its hideous gaze from his own very eyes?. . . No, no, no.

No, no, he just had to reassure these people or else something awful—oh, awful—might happen. But why on earth wouldn’t they approach any nearer? For heaven's sake, what’s happened? He lifted his hand—the gesture scared him to death: he could not remember wanting to lift his hand—his hand had lifted from the table by itself. He now had a premonition of more such motions following—he was going to get up, and walk, or bump into something or start talking—in a minute or two, or even right now—-and each of these actions would be against his wishes and would take place all the same. “Maybe I’m dreaming after all.” The vain, shuddering hope flashed across his mind. But he did not believe it any more.

“Come on, come on quick,” he encouraged himself. “Come on, quick. Speak up. Do something, so they’ll see you’re awake.”

He strained desperately to think of something to talk about. Something of general interest, he thought, something everybody would understand: something that would make them all see immediately that everything was in order, and that he had nothing to hide.

“Gentlemen,” he said loudly, “Socialism is guiding us towards Liberalism. Long live the Minister of Finance!”

As he repeated these words, the question, alarming and painful, thrust itself on his mind: “How did I get here, anyway? And what was I doing just now? What’s happened?” But he could not remember. One thing, he felt, was certain: he would have to go through with it, now that he’d got started on the thing.

“Socialism, gentlemen, provides the only solution, gentlemen. . .”

He was gesturing in the air. . . Suddenly, it all came back to him like a flash of lightning.

“Gentlemen!” he shouted at the throng of people. “Gentlemen! Love! Why don’t people love their fellow men? Gentlemen. I love mankind! I love them. . . New life. . . Gentlemen. . . Humankind. . . New life . . . One, two, three—and new life’ll spring up. . . You must love, love mankind. Oh, you must love them boundlessly. . . Sweet, good mankind!. . .”

A whirlpool eddied; the columns tilted and stayed so. He flung his arms out, and stayed so, flooded through with the sublime thought of love for humankind, like Christ on the Mount. Only in his heart there was still a frightened little child, whining and whimpering, trying to get out of this place, get out and away from this dreadful café—creeping on its way, on all fours, somewhere under the tables and in between chairs, so no one might see him. Covering its eyes—get out into the open, into the happy sunshine, then run, run off. . . Get out, away from these hateful and malignant and indifferent faces. Get out of this horrible café, where in a moment the whole place would be crashing down, leaving nothing but fetid blackness behind . . . Get out of here. . . get away from the ropes which in another moment would be coiling around his hands and twisting his arms behind his back. . . Get out of this place before they stopped his mouth and pushed him onto some dark hole of a room whose walls were lined with leather, those walls against which he would hurl his fettered body gnashing his teeth and spewing blood in his rage, trying to bite and claw at those walls. . . to tear out his ears and rip open his mouth. . . to clutch at his brains and shake them—his brains, which had betrayed him and let him down. . . and which had become numb with terror. . .

He scrambled to his feet, groaning and staggering. It was too late. Two men in blue caps were advancing towards him. One of them walked right up to him.

“What do you want?” he said, turning deathly pale.

“Come along with us.”

“Where to?” he asked. His voice fell hollow on his ears. “I won’t. Don’t touch me. I’ll knock your brains out.”

“Come along with us or I’ll have to tie you up.”

“No, no,” the madman whimpered to himself. “Something must be done. . . I don’t want to have them tie me up . . . I don’t want to have to fight. . . I wish they’d let me just go along like this, peacefully. . . I wish only that, let me have just that, if nothing else. . . If only he’d say something, so I could go along . . . peacefully. . . I wish he’d trick me. . . Would say he was only taking me for a walk. . . so I won’t have to fight. . . if they take me there. . .”

He smiled faintly.

“But we’re only taking a walk?” he said, smiling.

“Yes,” said the ambulance man surprised by the help. “Taking a walk. Then we’ll get in a car.”

And quietly, peacefully, they filed down a lane through the gaping crowd.

SOURCE: Karinthy, Frigyes. “The New Life” (Az új élet), translated by István Farkas, 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. 78-88.

"Frigyes 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
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