[Paleopsych] TLS: Heinz von Lichberg: Lolita

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Heinz von Lichberg: Lolita
The Times Literary Supplement, 4.7.23
translated by Carolyn Kunin

    Earlier this year, admirers of Vladimir Nabokov and scholars of modern
    literature were startled by the revelation that the Lolita of
    Nabokov's great novel was not the first fictional nymphet of that name
    to have enchanted an older lover: her namesake had appeared in an
    eighteen-page tale, also called "Lolita", by the obscure German author
    Heinz von Lichberg, published in 1916. (See the TLS, April 2, and
    correspondence that followed.) We now publish, for the first time in
    English, von Lichberg's story, translated by Carolyn Kunin.

    During the course of conversation someone mentioned the name of E. T.
    A. Hoffmann and those musical tales of his. The Countess Beata, our
    young hostess, put down the orange she was about to peel and said to
    the young poet "Would you believe it - his stories - and I don't read
    them often - can keep me awake all night? My rational mind tells me
    they are just fantasy, and yet . . . ."

    "Perhaps they are not mere fantasy, my dear countess."

    The diplomat gave a good-natured chuckle. "You don't think such
    outlandish things actually happened to Hoffmann, do you?"

    "But that is exactly what I do think," countered the poet. "They did
    happen to him. Of course I don't mean that he saw them with his own
    eyes. But because he was a poet, he experienced everything that he
    wrote - psychically, spiritually.

    Perhaps I should say that he only wrote of things that he had
    encountered in his soul. In fact I would say that this is what
    differentiates the poet from the prose writer. The poet experiences
    the fantastic as reality."

    Silence fell over the beautiful countess's little Empire-style room.

    "You are absolutely right," said the professor, a sensitive man of
    youthful appearance. "Will you allow me to tell you a story that I
    have carried with me for many years? To this day I am not certain if
    it actually happened to me or if I dreamed it. It won't take long."

    "Please do tell us," said our hostess.

    The professor began his tale:

    "Towards the end of the last century, more than twenty years ago, I
    was studying in a very old town in southern Germany. I lived where it
    pleased me to, in a narrow street full of ancient houses. Not far from
    my rooms was a tavern - one of the oddest I have ever seen. I often
    went there in the evenings in late autumn when I could take a break
    from my work, just before nightfall.

    "There was only one room, rather rickety with rafters sunk in gloom.
    Near the window facing the street stood two well-scoured tables and a
    few rough-hewn chairs. Back in a dark corner where the tile stove
    stood there was a third little table and two remarkably colourful
    chintz armchairs. Over one of them was draped a black silk mantilla,
    the kind women wear in Spain on holy days. I never saw any other
    customers there besides myself and I still sometimes wonder if it
    really was a commercial establishment.

    "Sometimes on the stroke of seven the door would be locked and the
    shutters closed. I never asked about this, but my curiosity had
    already been aroused by the proprietors of this odd establishment.
    Their names were Aloys and Anton Walzer and they gave an impression of
    great age. They were unusually tall and lanky. Both were bald but
    sported full, scraggly, reddish-grey beards. I never saw them wear
    anything but yellow breeches and black jackets that hung loosely on
    them. They must have been twins, for it was impossible to tell them
    apart, and it took quite a while before I was able to distinguish
    Anton's slightly deeper voice.

    "As soon as I came in, without needing to be asked they would place a
    glass of marvellous sweet Spanish wine on the table near the stove for
    me with a friendly grin.

    "Aloys would take the armchair next to mine while Anton always stood
    leaning with his back to the window. They puffed away on their pipes
    full of aromatic tobacco, the kind of pipes you see in old Flemish
    pictures. Somehow I got the feeling that they were waiting for

    "I would almost say that the impression they made on me was grotesque,
    but that wouldn't be quite the right word because the grotesque always
    has something of the comic about it. But there was something
    inexpressibly sad and troubled about the Walzer brothers - almost
    tragic. There was no trace of a female presence in the place and I
    certainly never saw a woman there.

    "As winter came on with its early dusks and long nights, I found my
    visits to the smoky tavern becoming almost a daily necessity. As the
    proprietors came to know me better, now and then they would talk a
    little with me. But they always spoke of things that had happened in
    times long past and their voices made the same dry, rattling sound.

    "I told them of my travels and whenever I mentioned southern climes, a
    frightening, leery look would come into their eyes, along with the
    usual melancholy expectation. They seemed almost to be living in a
    particular memory of the past. I could never leave without feeling
    that something dreadful was about to happen, yet at the same time I
    had to smile at such thoughts.

    "One evening I was passing by the place rather late and from behind
    the shuttered windows came the strains of such a lovely tune played on
    the violin that I stood there in the street, entranced. The next day
    when I asked the brothers about it, they only smiled and shook their

    "Several weeks passed, and again I was passing by the tavern late at
    night, even later than the previous occasion. From behind the shutters
    I heard a desolate cry and then such an extremity of quarrelling and
    cursing that I was frightened out of my wits. There could be no doubt,
    the shouts came from within the tavern, but it was not those two weak
    old men quarrelling - these voices were deep, young and bellowing with
    rage. It sounded like two strong young men having a dreadful row.

    The shouts became even louder until they reached a pitch of frenzy
    punctuated by the blows of a fist crashing on a table.

    "Then I heard the silvery bright laugh of a woman's voice, and
    immediately the enraged voices swelled into an insane bawling. I stood
    frozen in my tracks. It never occurred to me to open the door and see
    what was going on.

    "The woman's voice screamed, just a single cry, but in such fearful
    anguish that I have never been able to forget it. Then everything was

    "The next day when I went into the tavern, Anton placed my glass of
    wine on the table with his usual friendly grin, and everything was so
    unchanged that I began to wonder if I had dreamt the whole episode,
    but I was too ashamed to ask.

    "One afternoon towards the end of Winter I told the brothers that I
    wouldn't be coming any more, as I was setting out for Spain the
    following day.

    "This news had a strange effect on Anton and Aloys, for their hard,
    weathered faces paled for a moment and their eyes fell to the floor.
    They left the room and I could hear them whispering outside. After a
    while Anton returned and asked me in a state of some excitement if by
    chance I would be going to Alicante, and when I said I would, he
    turned and almost skipped back to his brother. Later they both came
    back in, behaving as if nothing had happened.

    "While I was packing I forgot about the brothers, but that night I had
    a confused and complicated dream, something about a crooked little
    salmon-coloured house in a derelict street in the harbour of Alicante.

    "On my way to the railway station the next day, I was surprised to see
    that Anton and Aloys had their shutters closed tight, although it was
    broad daylight.

    "During the trip I soon forgot all about my studies and little
    adventures in southern Germany. One so easily forgets everything while

    "I spent several days in Paris to visit a few friends and see the
    Louvre. One evening, tired out by going round the museum, I dropped
    into a cabaret in the Latin Quarter to see a poet whom one of my
    friends had recommended. He turned out to be an ancient blind bard who
    sang beautifully in a simple, sorrowful voice. He had a lovely
    daughter who accompanied him skillfully on the violin. Later she
    played a solo piece, and I immediately recognized the melody as the
    one I had heard coming from the Walzer brothers' house. (I found out
    it was a gavotte by Lully, from the time of Louis XIV.)

    "Some days later I travelled on towards Lisbon and, in early February,
    passed through Madrid on my way to Alicante.

    "I have always had a soft spot for the South in general, and for Spain
    first and foremost. You feel like a god there, and every experience
    seems heightened. In the sun you can live an unfettered life. The
    people, like their wine, are strong, fiery and sweet, but excitable,
    and dangerous when aroused. Then, too, I believed that the Southerners
    had a little of Don Quixote in their blood.

    "Actually, I didn't have anything in particular to do in Alicante, but
    I spent several inexpressibly sweet nights there - those nights when
    the moon rises over the castle of Santa Barbara and suffuses the
    harbour in a mysterious chiaroscuro.

    A bit of lyrical romanticism stirs in the German breast on such

    "My first sight of the town brought memories of the Walzer brothers
    and their strange establishment flooding back. I know it might be
    hindsight or imagination, but it does seem to me that my mule turned
    very unwillingly at the Algorfe Palace as I drove him down towards the
    harbour. There, in one of the old streets inhabited mostly by sailors
    I found the place I was looking for.

    "The boarding house run by Severo Ancosta was a crooked little
    building with large balconies, wedged in between others just like it.
    The landlord, friendly and chatty, gave me a room with a wonderful
    view of the sea, and I looked forward to enjoying a week of
    undisturbed beauty. That is until the next day, when I saw Severo's
    daughter, Lolita.

    "By our Northern standards she was terribly young, with heavy-lidded
    southern eyes and hair of an unusual reddish gold. Her body was
    boyishly slim and supple and her voice full and dark. But it was not
    her beauty alone that attracted me -there was a strange mystery about
    her that troubled me often on those moonlit nights.

    "Sometimes when she came into my room to tidy up, she would pause in
    her work, her red, normally smiling lips compressed into a narrow
    line, and she would stare with fear into the sunlight. Her bearing at
    such times was that of a great tragedienne's Iphigenia. I would take
    the child in my arms and feel an imperative need to protect her from
    some unknown danger.

    "There were days when Lolita's big eyes looked at me shyly, with an
    unspoken question, and there were evenings when I saw her break into
    sudden convulsive sobs.

    "I had ceased to think of moving on. I was bewitched by the South -
    and by Lolita.

    "Golden, hot days and silvery, melancholy nights.

    "And then came that evening, dream-like yet unforgettably real, when
    Lolita sat on my balcony and softly sang to me, as she often did. But
    suddenly she let the guitar slide to the floor and came towards me
    with faltering steps. And while her eyes sought out the shimmering
    moonlight on the water, she flung her trembling little arms around my
    neck like a pleading child, leaned her head on my chest, and began to
    cry. There were tears in her eyes, but her sweet mouth was laughing.

    "Then the miracle happened. 'You are so strong,' she whispered.

    "The days and nights that followed were suspended in a song of
    imperturbable serenity and beauty.

    "Days turned into weeks and I realized that it was time to continue my
    travels. Not that any duty called me, but Lolita's immense and
    dangerous love had begun to frighten me. When I told her this she gave
    me an indescribable look and nodded silently. Suddenly she seized my
    hand and bit me as hard as she could. Twenty-five years have not
    erased the marks of love she left on my hand. By the time I was able
    to speak Lolita had disappeared into the house. I only saw her once

    "That evening I spoke seriously with Severo about his daughter. 'Come,
    sir', he said, 'I have something to show you that will explain
    everything.' He led me into a room that was separated from my own by a
    door. I stood in amazement.

    "In that narrow room were only a small table and three armchairs. But
    they were the same, or nearly the same, as the chairs in the Walzer
    brothers' tavern. And I realized instantly that it had been Severo
    Ancosta's house that I had dreamed of on the eve of my departure.

    "There was a drawing of Lolita on the wall, which was so perfect that
    I went up to examine it more closely. 'You think that's a picture of
    Lolita,' laughed Severo, 'but that is Lola, the grandmother of
    Lolita's great-grandmother. It's a hundred years since she was
    strangled during a quarrel between her two lovers.'

    "We sat down and Severo in his genial manner told the story. He told
    me of Lola, who in her time had been the most beautiful woman in the
    town, so beautiful that men died for love of her. Shortly after giving
    birth to a daughter, she was murdered by two of her lovers, whom she
    had driven to madness. 'Ever since that time a curse has lain on the
    family. The women all give birth to just one child, a daughter, and
    within weeks of giving birth, they go mad and die. But they are all
    beautiful - as beautiful as Lolita! . . . My wife died that way,' he
    whispered, serious now, 'and my daughter will die the same way.'

    "I was at a loss for words to comfort him, overcome as I was with fear
    for my little Lolita.

    "That evening when I went to my room I found a small red flower,
    unknown to me, on my pillow. Lolita's farewell gift, I thought, and
    picked it up. Only then did I see that the flower was actually white,
    but had turned red with Lolita's blood. Such was her love.

    "That night I couldn't sleep. A thousand dreams pursued me. Then
    suddenly, it must have been close to midnight, I saw something
    frightful. The door to the next room was open, and sitting at the
    table were three people. To the right and left were two strong young
    fair-haired fellows, and between them sat Lolita. No, probably not
    Lolita but Lola - or was it really Lolita?

    "On the table were glasses of dark red wine. The girl laughed out
    loud, uninhibitedly, but something hard and insolent played around her
    mouth. The two men picked up violins and began to play. I felt the
    blood in my veins pulse faster - I recognized the melody: the gavotte
    from the days of the Sun King. As the tune ended, the woman wantonly
    threw her glass to the floor and let out another bright, silvery

    "At that moment one of the two fellows who sat facing me laid his
    violin down on the table. 'Now,' he cried, 'tell us, which of us will
    you choose?'

    "She laughed. 'The handsomest - but you are both so handsome. You have
    a cold, foreign beauty that we are not used to here.'

    "Then the other one shouted even louder, 'Him or me, tell us, woman,
    or by God . .

    . .'

    "'So you love me . . . ? she asked slyly, looking from one to the
    other, 'yes, you both love me. Well, if your love is so great then you
    shall fight for me with all your might and I will call on the Blessed
    Virgin to send me a sign, to show me which of you loves me most. Do
    you agree?'

    "'Yes', the men agreed, glaring at each other.

    "'I will love the one who is stronger'. So their muscles swelled so
    much their jackets split. But they realized they were equally strong.

    "'I will love whoever is taller.' Her eyes flashed.

    "And honestly, the men seemed to grow taller and taller, their necks
    lengthened and grew thinner, and their sleeves shot up to the elbows.
    Their faces became so ugly and distorted, that I thought I would hear
    their bones crack. But not by so much as a hair was one taller than
    the other.

    "Their fists came crashing down on the table, the violins fell to the
    floor and they began a profane cursing and swearing.

    "'I will love the elder' she screamed.

    "The hair fell from their heads, deep furrows spread across their
    faces, their hands trembled and their knees shook as they struggled
    painfully to raise themselves to their full height. Their poisonous
    glances became watery and their roaring cries of rage turned to a
    feeble croaking.

    "'By God, woman,' growled one of them, 'speak once more or you will go
    to hell, you and your thrice-accursed beauty.'

    "She was laughing so much she fell forward onto the table, and cried
    with streaming eyes, 'I will love, yes, I will love the one who has
    the longer and uglier beard!'

    "Long red hairs shot out of the men's faces, and they emitted insane
    animal cries of rage and despair. With upraised fists they faced each
    other. The woman tried to run away. But in the blink of an eye the two
    of them fell on her and strangled her with their long, bony fingers.

    "I was unable to move a muscle, my spine turned to ice and I had to
    close my eyes tight shut. When I opened them again I saw that the two
    men in the next room, who stood staring down at the result of their
    vengeful rage, were Anton and Aloys Walzer. I must have fainted dead

    "When I came to, the sun was already streaming into my room, and the
    door to the next room was shut. I rushed to open it and found
    everything just as it had been the night before. But I remember
    thinking that the fine layer of dust I had seen on the furniture was
    gone. And I could smell the faintest hint of wine in the air.

    "An hour later I went outside into the street and found Severo, pale
    and in obvious distress, coming towards me. There were tears in his

    "'Lolita died last night,' he said softly.

    "I cannot describe what those words did to me, but even if I could it
    would be sacrilege to speak of it. My beloved little Lolita lay in her
    narrow bed, her eyes wide open. Her teeth were clenched convulsively
    on her lower lip and her fragrant blonde hair was tangled.

    "I don't know the manner of her death. In my fathomless dismay I
    forgot to ask.

    There was a little cut on her brown left arm - but that surely had not
    killed her.

    She had done that to turn a white flower red - for me. I shut her
    tender eyes and remained on my knees, hiding my face in her cool hand
    - I don't know for how long.

    "Eventually Severo came in and reminded me that the steamship that was
    to take me to Marseille would be leaving in an hour. So I left.

    "When the ship was far from shore I recognized the outline of Santa
    Barbara, and it occurred to me that this angular castle would now be
    looking down on a small beloved body being laid in the earth. My heart
    had never felt such a yearning and I beseeched the towers: 'Send her
    my love, send her my love now before she is gone - and forever,
    forever.' But I took Lolita's soul with me.

    "It was some years before I returned to the old south German town. In
    the Walzers' little tavern, there now lived an ugly woman who dealt in
    seed. I asked after the brothers and learned that they were both found
    dead in their armchairs by the stove on the morning after Lolita's
    death. They were smiling."

    The professor, whose gaze strayed blindly over his dish as he spoke,
    looked up.

    After a while, the Countess Beata opened her eyes. "You are a poet,"
    she said, and the bracelet on her delicate wrist clinked as she gave
    him her hand.

    The editors are grateful for the assistance of Michael Maar.

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