Thursday, October 12, 2017

the last book I ever read (The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, excerpt eleven)

from The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth:

The Kaiser was an old man. He was the oldest emperor in the world. All around him Death was circling, circling and mowing. The entire field was already cleared, and only the Kaiser, like a forgotten silver stalk, was still standing and waiting. For many years his bright hard eyes had been peering, lost, into a lost distance. His skull was bare like a vaulted wasteland. His whiskers were white like a pair of wings made of snow. The wrinkles in his face were a tangled thicket dwelt in by the decades. His body was thin, his back slightly bowed. At home he shuffled about. But upon going outdoors, he tried to make his thighs hard, his knees elastic, his feet light, his back straight. He filled his eyes with sham kindness, with the true characteristic of imperial eyes: they seemed to look at everyone who looked at the Kaiser, and they greeted everyone who greeted him. But actually, the faces merely swirled and floated past his eyes, which gazed straight at that soft fine line that is the frontier between life and death—gazed at the edge of the horizon, which is always seen by the eyes of the old even when it is blocked by houses, forests, or mountains.

People thought Franz Joseph knew less than they because he was so much older than they. But he may have known more than some. He saw the sun going down on his empire, but he said nothing. He knew he would die before it set. At times he feigned ignorance and was delighted when someone gave him a long-winded explanation about things he knew thoroughly. For with the slyness of children and oldsters he liked leading people down the garden path. And he was delighted at their vanity in proving to themselves that they were smarter than he. The Kaiser disguised his wisdom as simplicity: for it does not behoove an emperor to be as smart as his advisers. Far better to appear simple than wise. If he went hunting, he knew quite well that the game was placed in front of his rifle, and though he could have felled some other prey, he nevertheless shot only the prey that had been driven before his barrel. For it does not behoove an old emperor to catch someone in a falsehood. If people smirked behind his back, he pretended not to know about it. For it does not behoove an emperor to know he is being smirked at, and this smirk is foolish so long as he refuses to notice it. If he ran a fever, and people trembled all around him, and the court physician lied to him, telling him he had no fever, the emperor said, “Well, then, everything’s fine,” although he knew he had a fever. For an emperor does not accuse a medical man of lying. Besides, he knew that the hour of his death had not yet come. He also experienced many nights of being plagued by fever unbeknownst to his physicians. For sometimes he was ill, and no one realized it. And at other times he was well, and they said he was ill, and he pretended to be ill. When he was considered kind, he was indifferent. And when they said he was cold, his heart bled. He had lived long enough to know that it is foolish to tell the truth. So he allowed people their errors, and he believed less in the permanence of the world than did the wags who told jokes about him in his vast empire. But it does not behoove an emperor to compete with wags and sophisticates. So the Emperor held his tongue.

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