The first time I read Eva Menasse’s short story collection Lässliche Todsünden (‘Venial Mortal Sins’), I was flabbergasted at the way she manages to judge people so ruthlessly and at the same time with such affection. In her stories, Menasse searches for archaic patterns in a postsmodern society. More than anything, though, she shows with psychological brilliance and superfine irony how we humans fail each other. And how we fail ourselves. When Fritz talks to ‘that Hilda woman’ in the bar called Paradise Now, even though she’s sitting in front of a grass-green cocktail, it could be his last chance to change tack – to wrest a little happiness of his own from his ex-wife and daughters. And already the vexed puzzle of self-perception and the perception of others has begun. Is this a man who’s wasting his life? Is he being manipulated by his own daughters? Or is it the reverse? Is he, in fact, clinging to the only things that really matter? Fritz’s happy sense of security, the suffocating confinement of the life of slothful ease he has settled down to, his excitement just before the putative severing of the Gordian knot – all this is written into this apparently light story with immense sophistication. In the end, nothing is solved; the vital questions have only grown more urgent. But for that very reason, "Sloth", like so many of Menasse’s stories, leaves us all the wiser.
Fritz had met ‘that Hilda woman’ in a bar called Paradise Now – sheer chance, really. He never usually went to places like that. For years he had been rotating among three or four pubs and coffee houses, a handful of traditional restaurants, the staff canteen and the espresso bar attached to the squash courts. One night, when Karin had one of her fits of hysteria, she had still had the presence of mind to ring her way through these establishments in some order or other, eventually hunting him down, soon after midnight, at Blaubichler or Jakobinerwirt. Fritz was predictable; he wasn’t one to stray from the beaten track. That’s why, for all those years, he had only had affairs with colleagues or – rather more rarely – with his squash partners’ wives, and looking back he would console himself with the thought that a woman like ‘that Hilda’ had never really fitted into his life at all.
She was very good looking, though, even if she was dark. Dark-haired women were something else Fritz had little experience of; for some reason he had always ended up with blondes. He couldn’t have said for certain whether that constituted a preference. Karin was as blonde as a Swedish nymphet, and both their children were blonde, of course – no wonder, he was extremely fair himself. Even Judith, the daughter Karin had brought into the marriage, was as blonde as a cornfield, so the five of them looked like a proper happy family. So much blondness is rare in these parts – too many Slavs had passed between the local legs, Karin was fond of joking, and it seemed to make her feel daring. Only years later, after he had moved out, did Fritz realise that Karin’s girlfriends were all blondes too – although not necessarily natural ones. But even then he had attached no importance to it.
Be that as it may, it had seemed a bit funny to Fritz to approach a woman who was sitting in front of a grass-green cocktail garnished with a slice of peach. In his circles you drank beer and good wine; the women liked champagne. But somehow the whole evening had been odd because of his colleague Wolfgang. Sitting in the canteen with Fritz after the late shift, Wolfgang had suddenly vomited up his life story – his broken marriage, his handicapped child – and then coerced Fritz, quite against his habit, into accompanying him to Paradise Now. Fritz hadn’t been able to say no. In the face of those natural forces otherwise known as emotions, he was defenceless. And he wasn’t used to talking about personal matters, although quite a few rumours about Wolfgang had been doing the rounds of the editorial office. When Wolfgang ordered his third stein of beer, fixed him with bloodshot eyes and announced that he was seriously contemplating murder and suicide – he just couldn’t decide whether to kill his wife or whether surviving him might not be the best punishment for her – Fritz had had the uneasy thought that Pavlovic, the scheming editor-in-chief, would never have got herself into such a situation. He, on the other hand, had a reputation for being an honest bloke. People poured out their most intimate details to him – details that would have run off others like oil but left him feeling embarrassed. Fritz broke out in a sweat, and agonising minutes passed before he realised that Wolfgang wasn’t expecting advice of any kind. And so he had ended up going along to Paradise Now out of relief and guilt and a gently stirring feeling of omnipotence skilfully disguised as a sense of responsibility.
Fritz naturally regarded himself as someone who thought things through. Karin had often accused him of sloth, but if he did coast, he told himself with some pride, at least he was always fully aware that he was coasting. He would have fiercely denied having any blind spots. If he took some things as they came, it was because he saw no point in resistance. In effect, then, he regarded his non-resistance as a conscious decision. On that point he was adamant. Hadn’t such decisions – the ones that had come about without unnecessary effort on his part – profited Karin more than anyone? Just look at the way they had hooked up. It had been so rushed that anyone else would have objected on principle. What other twenty-five-year-old would move in with a woman and her baby after just one night of lovemaking? In the years that followed, too, Fritz had often been convinced by Karin’s pragmatism. Why should she bother looking for a new flat now, when in six months time she and Fritz would have got to know and love each other all the more, and it would only be too small again? And she had needed a flat. Though it’s true that her daughter’s father, a young director had remorsefully left her the flat they had once lived in together after confessing to his affair and making a quick getaway. Still, I’m not taking a thing from that bastard, Karin had hissed, although I wouldn’t mind fleecing him, and she had pulled her lower lip into her mouth in a way that would soon be all too familiar to Fritz. At the time, though, Fritz had thought recently abandoned young mothers were teary, red-eyed creatures, and couldn’t help admiring her focused fury. Here, at last, was a woman who knew her own mind, rather than a girl with a fringe and a stash of greasy paperbacks in her bed like the ones he had thus far caught himself at university or at parties.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later, after they had signed the rental agreement, that Karin told Fritz she was pregnant. He hadn’t minded – getting her pregnant on their very first night was almost something to be proud of. And it was a good thing for little Judith, who was already struggling under the dad swap – they were in agreement there. The director, Judith’s father, could actually have been a lot worse, but Fritz had kept that to himself. Karin had emotional issues in that area, which he thought he understood. While Judith and Paula were growing up – they looked like twins – Fritz had sometimes mediated between Karin and the director. It was always about money; it always is in such cases.
He had often found himself feeling almost sympathetic towards the director. It was of course possible that the director was paying too little overall, and that the reason for this was that he screwed up his tax returns – Karin spread this rumour wherever she could. But why Karin had to explode because of a winter jacket bought in the sales, why that of all things made her scream for lawyers and judges and social services, that was something even Fritz didn’t understand. He would never have owned up to it – no more than he would have owned up to the amicable nature of his mediation talks with the director. He always went armed with a precise solution, usually after trying to figure out just what Judith wanted at the time. He would make his proposal to the director right away, and then they would settle down to drinking red wine and discussing the cultural scene.
After the winter-jacket affair, it had been a day skiing at Semmering. The weekend dad had even invited Paula to go along. That didn’t necessarily take the wind out of Karin’s sails – the stingy bastard skimped on his own daughter when it came to day-to-day things, only to go and play the amazing adventure daddy! But it did at least put a stop to her legal ventures; the letter to her lawyer lay on her desk for another few days, after which it disappeared for good – and not into the post box.
Otherwise, the director was very little trouble. He took his daughter on holiday every summer and often in the winter too, had her to stay every weekend without fail and exposed her only very sparingly to his succession of partners. Especially in her teenage years, Judith seemed to enjoy her mysterious second life with her father. It was said that father and daughter read Beckett and Brecht aloud to one another on Provençal beaches, divvying up the parts.
The only quarrels, as mentioned, were about money. When Karin suddenly decided that Judith should drop her father’s name and take Fritz’s, Fritz was pleasantly surprised at the director’s lack of resistance. Karin had sent Fritz to probe him. As per instructions, Fritz explained how much easier it would make things for Judith at school. She would be saved the stigma of being a child of divorce; Judith herself (Fritz hammed things up a bit here) had often asked why she had a different name from the rest of the family. And so it came about, although the director had made a very peculiar face, almost quivering, as Fritz later reported to Karin, who seemed to draw a rather vulgar satisfaction from this detail.
As Fritz squeezed himself onto the bench opposite ‘that Hilda woman’, his shoulder brushed an artificial palm frond. She smiled at him. Her voice was far higher and more girlish than her racy appearance suggested. She lived alone and had a grown-up son. She had, she said, always regretted having just the one child, but her marriage had been complicated enough as it was, breaking up soon after. She was effusive in her envy of Fritz’s ‘two and a half children’. Why did he suddenly say ‘two and a half’? He had always said ‘three’ in the past, but since splitting up with Karin, he had the creeping feeling that he ought to give something back to the director. Or share something with him – he didn’t think about it too closely.
Hilda said she longed for grandchildren; she’d already started pestering her son about it to such an extent that he’d probably deny her what she wanted out of sheer defiance. That, at any rate, was his threat. Then I’d have only myself to blame, she said, laughing.
Fritz was uncomfortable with the topic. After all, his youngest daughter wasn’t even four yet. Karin had wanted her as a late token of love – penance for an affair that Fritz could hardly remember. Judith’s decision to move out as soon as she left school seemed to have played some kind of role too – you’d never have thought it of that mousy girl.
Hilda insisted that Fritz show her a photo of his children. He hesitated at first, considering Paradise Now an unsuitable place for such private matters. She said what everybody said, of course, (‘Ooh, aren’t they blonde?’) and kept the picture in her hand for a long while – but that was the end of the topic for the time being.
They had a few really good weeks after that. Fritz’s initial fears were soon allayed – Hilda lived in the same building as Paradise Now and only went down to the bar when there was no wine left in her tastefully decorated flat.
The best thing about Hilda was her incredible body. After all the years and experience and the often much younger women in the office, Fritz hadn’t expected to be so enthusiastic about a woman’s body again – and this although Hilda had been operated on her spine countless times. But then the scars were on her back, Fritz rarely saw them; he was a conventional lover. Certainly, the exercises she did for her back trouble, the muscle training and the near obsession with all aspects of her musculoskeletal system had kept Hilda slim and lithe. And she had her pubic hair completely removed by a cosmetician, apart from a narrow strip. Fritz thought that honest and even elegant – not as intimidating as the sprawling bushes that had been the norm twenty years before.
Karin was inconsistent on this front. She experimented with creams that brought her out in a rash, cut herself with razors, or else forgot to do either and ended up with stubble between her legs. Then there was the slight, almost khaki tint to Hilda’s skin which fascinated Fritz. Karin had been in the habit of overdoing things in the solarium.
Fritz, at any rate, thought Hilda was perfect, and supplied anatomically detailed descriptions of her to Anton, whose flat he shared since separating from Karin – the two colleagues had both gone through sudden and unexpected marriage break-ups. Anton had laughed and teased, saying he hadn’t realised Fritz was such a sexist. But Fritz had trouble going beyond the physical in his description of Hilda. She was incredibly kind, he said at length, indulgent, caring – not, of course, as strong a woman as Karin, what woman was? He didn’t mention Hilda’s habit of sending him emails with silly flashing hearts and smileys. But once Anton had drunk a glass of wine with the two of them, he seemed to understand anyway. ‘How’s your kitten?’ he sometimes asked with mock envy. The expression stuck in Fritz’s memory like a barb. He didn’t think there was scorn in Anton’s words, but he felt uncomfortable all the same.
It was Paula who suffered most from Fritz and Karin’s break-up. While little Lottie, mercifully, was barely aware of what was going on, and Judith had not only her studies but also her first love to distract her, Paula seemed to be all at sea. She had started to be difficult when Judith left home and had lost an alarming amount of weight.
A few weeks after Karin had thrown Fritz out with a great many threats and curses, announcing that she would, for the time being, be keeping his contact with the children at a minimum, ‘for their sake’, he had been woken in the middle of the night by Anton, who stood in front of him holding out the phone and looking unexpectedly wrinkled in his pyjamas. Karin couldn’t control that daughter of his any more, she wailed, and it wasn’t her fault, really it wasn’t, she wasn’t going to have everything blamed on her. In the course of a two-hour phone call, during which she hung up in a rage several times, but always rang back immediately, they eventually agreed that Fritz would help Paula with her homework at certain prearranged times. Whenever he went round to his old flat in the weeks that followed, he would find Paula on her own. Karin took special care not to meet him, and Paula once snidely let drop that she’d had somebody new for ages.
Fritz got on better than expected with Paula. She was meek as a lamb with him and made an effort with her homework. The only thing was that every time he left she would cling to his neck like a little lover, thrusting her hands under his shirt collar like greedy animals, crying and begging him to take her with him. He would console her guiltily with the promise that she could come as soon as he had a place of his own. There was no way he could take the child back to his messy male flat share – and besides, he didn’t trust Anton, who had been going out with increasingly younger girls since splitting up with his wife. But his flat-hunting efforts could at best be described as half-hearted; there was no question that he enjoyed the sweet unaccustomed liberty of his free and easy bachelor’s life. That much, at least, he was prepared to admit.
Sometimes, when he met Hilda after work, she would be laden with big paper bags emblazoned with the logo of an expensive toyshop. She seemed to be constantly getting to know children, and gave presents to her colleagues’ offspring every birthday. She put a great deal of time and love into these presents. The arrival of a new baby sent her into ecstasies. To ensure she was always equipped for such occasions, she kept a small assortment of bootees, comfort blankets and dribble-resistant cuddly toys in one of her office desk drawers. Her colleagues teased her about this, but Fritz was unaware of it. It’s true that the one time he went to pick Hilda up, he’d noticed a vast pin board behind her desk crowded with baby photos, but he had been in such a hurry to get out that he had quickly forgotten it.
Fritz steered clear of any situations that might have made his relationship public. When they went out to dinner, he used the restaurant guide to find places away from his home turf. He just wasn’t quite ready yet, he tried to explain to Anton, his only confidant, although he felt more comfortable with Hilda than he’d felt with anyone for a long time. Maybe the eighteen years with Karin had somehow left their mark on him after all, he joked, usually contemptuous of all the middle-class talk of trauma and emotional processing. He just didn’t want to rush anything, he said, and, besides, it went against his grain to hear the way Judith and Paula commented on the men Karin dated. But when Anton let drop one of his thoughtless remarks (‘Scared of your daughters’ reaction, eh?’), Fritz was furious – which surprised him more than anyone. It was nothing to do with being scared, he hissed. It was a question of respect, his respect for the children and also for Hilda. Respect, understand? Do you even know what that is?
One day Hilda turned up with a green plush frog. She had bought it for little Lottie, although they’d never met – she had to buy it, she whispered, thrusting the toy into Fritz’s hand. He stared at the frog, whose front legs wobbled nervously, and when he looked up, Hilda’s pleading eyes seemed to him in some perverse way related to those of the frog. Fritz lost all patience and control, in a way he had often wanted to with Karin but never had.
What exactly was her idea, he had asked contemptuously, throwing the fluffy thing into Hilda’s lap. Was she expecting him to present it to the three-year-old girl ‘although they’d never met’? Or to pretend the present was from him? And what was she hoping to get out of it? Was she trying to push him into something? Well, he could tell her in no uncertain terms… No, no, Hilda had whimpered, cradling the frog in her arms. She was sorry, she must not have been thinking. She’d just thought the froggy was so gorgeous, and then she’d… completely innocent, sometimes I’m just a bit stupid, please forgive me, can you? Fritz had spent the rest of the evening in the grim elation of a man reluctantly bestowing forgiveness and being thanked with wave upon wave of exuberant, subservient tenderness. This dangerous game continued into the night, when Hilda’s submissiveness reached such heights that in the middle of the editorial meeting the next day, the memory alone was enough to give Fritz an erection, though it did make him feel rather ashamed of himself.
The next thing that happened was that Judith’s pale aspiring vet cheated on her, and Karin, Fritz and the director took turns at her sickbed. The two fathers were charged with collecting Judith’s possessions from the flat on the beltway. Mercifully, they didn’t run into Paleface, because Fritz wouldn’t for the life of him have known how to react. The women’s thirst for revenge knew no bounds, but neither Fritz nor the director was the man to execute their unvoiced wishes. Relations between Fritz and Karin relaxed considerably over the course of these weeks. Focusing on her daughter’s wounded soul and, as Fritz later discovered, on her budding new romance, made Karin almost congenial. And so Fritz saw no reason not to accommodate her and obligingly moved in with the children for three weeks while Karin went off to the Caribbean with her new man.
It was almost like his old life and Fritz couldn’t resist indulging a certain sentimentality. Every morning he got up, made breakfast, took the little one to kindergarten and then drank a cup of coffee at the kitchen table before setting off for the office. Unfortunately he was forced to take a break from Hilda. Inventing evening appointments went against the grain with him; he’d done that too often with Karin. It was an acceptable way to treat your wife, but pretending to the children seemed to him immoral somehow. He found himself masturbating again and, as in the past, was careful only to use the white towels. He consoled himself with the thought that his abstinence was limited, and took considerable pleasure in the dirty emails he and Hilda exchanged during the day. But when the dirty emails suddenly stopped and he instead got a longing, overemotional one full of flashing hearts which ended by asking whether the two girls couldn’t babysit their little sister one evening, Fritz didn’t get in touch with Hilda at all for a few days.
At home his daughters began to seem vaguely restless. Whenever he sat down with them they started talking about the trouble they said they had with their mother, moaning and whining and listing Karin’s shortcomings and iniquities. But Fritz was distracted, unresponsive, and turned a deaf ear to the hidden messages. One thing, though, seemed clear to him: this was not the time to introduce Hilda into their lives.
In the end Hilda broke all their agreements and rang up one evening. It was Paula who went to the phone. First she froze, then she pulled faces at Judith, who, since suffering the heavy blow, was almost always at home. Fritz was both furious and aroused to hear Hilda’s childlike tones. He exchanged only a few words with her and then hung up. He hissed at Paula and Judith that he was going out and would probably stay the night. Judith would, he hoped, be capable of taking Lottie to kindergarten the next day. Then he left noisily, accompanied by his daughters’ silence.
When Hilda opened the door, he grabbed her and pushed her into the bedroom. Afterwards, he realised he had even left the door to her flat open. He fell on her like a madman, blindly, as if that could sever him from her, from Karin, from his spoilt brats, from his entire shitty life. He had never felt so strange to himself. When he reluctantly came to from his frenzy after a powerful orgasm, during which he roared like an animal – Fritz had always abhorred male noises during sex –, he noticed that Hilda had an enormous brown teddy bear buried beneath her. He found Hilda’s blissful gaze hard to stomach. And yet he felt purged. He suddenly found himself lying in her arms making absurd promises. Afterwards they went hand in hand to Paradise Now and sat under the artificial palms, snogging like teenagers.
Later he couldn’t decide who was responsible. Was it Paula, who started to behave like a lunatic and eventually threatened to go on hunger strike? Was it Karin, who returned from the Caribbean as unpredictable, aggressive and menacing as she’d been in the worst phases of their marriage? Was it Hilda, who almost suffocated him with her boundless sympathy? Or had he perhaps brought it all on himself by overestimating the thing with Hilda? Perhaps in the end it was just one of those run-of-the-mill affairs that lose their appeal as soon as there is talk of commitment.
In the years that followed, his elder daughters would sometimes punctuate their rows with remarks about ‘that Hilda woman’, as if they had something on him. In fact, since they had hardly known her, their objections boiled down to the complaint that she was ‘so revoltingly black-haired’. While the whole business had still been fresh, they had said quite different things about Hilda, but Fritz had put that down to emotional strain and thrust it from his mind.
When Fritz celebrated his fiftieth birthday, at Blaubichler or Jakobinerwirt, he even invited Anton. He had somehow lost touch with him over the years; he didn’t know quite why. Karin came too, of course, with her third husband, an official from the Chamber of Industry. Since those awful weeks when Paula had been in intensive care for two days and Karin’s Caribbean tan had looked even more alien under the strip lighting than their wired-up child, things had settled down between them. But Fritz got on a lot less well with the official than with the director. It seemed almost unfair to him that the official got to be at his birthday party while the director was absent. Still, Karin had recently got hold of workmen for him so that he could have the flat done up, and that was long overdue; the kitchen hadn’t been painted since Paula was born. Karin had always had a talent for such practical tasks. She had helped him choose the tiles too. Fritz didn’t mind; she’d lived there long enough herself, after all.
When the business with Hilda was over and he had packed up his things at Anton’s to move back in with the children for good, he had wondered briefly what to do with the boxes he had left in Karin’s cellar back then – temporarily, as he had thought at the time. He decided to leave them in the cellar, which was now his, after all. Anything he hadn’t missed during all the months at Anton’s couldn’t be that important. At some point, in a few years’ time, he could have a look through them; it might be amusing to come across things he had long forgotten. But he’d probably never get round to it. If he had to think back to those awful times, his favourite memory was the scene with Lottie. When he had reached the fourth floor with the first removal box, amidst much puffing and blowing, his youngest daughter had flung open the door, removed her dummy from her mouth with a flourish, and cooed, ‘And now Daddy’s staying for ever.’
*This story is taken from: “Lässliche Todsünden” by Eva Menasse © 2009, Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH & Co. KG, Cologne/Germany.
*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.
*Image: Seung-Hwan OH.