The Grand House Opposite
By Joseph Roth
Translated, from the German, by Michael Hoffman
At the time the following events took place, I was neither rich nor poor. I wasn't doing so badly as to be struck with envy—the consolation of the poor, they say—at the sight of grand houses or rich people. Then again, I wasn't doing so well that I could keep my equanimity at the sight of wealth. Rather, I found myself in the sort of situation where a man is impelled to seek out the proximity of wealth in a sort of secret and carefully unacknowledged hope that it might somehow rub off on him. I found myself in a situation where I thought of my poor surroundings with revulsion, the bad area, the wretched, narrow streets. I decided to move into an area whose very name was as magnificent as the power of its inhabitants. As soon as that name was pronounced or perused, it seemed to designate not a part of town, but an entire, remote empire, where it was impossible to find a person in distress. One easily forgot that the quarter also housed civil servants, domestics, shopkeepers and craftsmen. The name of the quarter eclipsed the poverty of its poor, and if I had happened to run into one of them, it would never have occurred to me that he might also live there, where the great newspaper editors, the bankers and the manufacturers had their proud mansions.
I found a small hotel that was only different from any of those I had patronized hitherto by virtue of the fact that it was in a wealthy suburb. My neighbors were rich people fallen on hard times. Unwilling to leave the proximity of money, because they evidently believed that that way, when their fortunes finally changed, they would have less time and trouble. In the same way a dog one has put out will stay close to the door by which it was made to leave. Opposite my small, narrow window was a large, broad house. Its brown gate was shut, and in the middle of it was a golden knob that caught and intensified and reflected the light, giving the illusion that it wasn't there in place of a humble handle, but to play a spotlight. Sending its light directly to my window, so that by its kindly agency I was made acquainted with the sun, which neglected my hotel and was lavishing itself on the grand house opposite.
In the windows of the house were discreet blinds—drawn at all times. Sometimes I would spend two hours or more watching the big, yellow-brown gates, in the hope of catching someone going in or out. It seemed to me something of the first importance to get to know my rich neighbors. I couldn't spend all day—much less, day after day—in the knowledge that there, staring me in the face, was a secret that seemed to have been put there deliberately to disquiet me. But the gate didn't open. Darkness fell, and I went to bed.
In the morning I was awoken by joyful, bustling sounds. I looked out of my window. The grand house opposite had thrown open all its windows, and its gate as well. Men and women dressed in livery and white aprons were cleaning the windows and the furniture, beating rugs, airing bedding, and waxing and polishing floors. I saw windows, tall and wide as double doorways, sensed the silent depths of rich suites of rooms, the silent and reserved sheen of precious objects, I even thought I could smell the scent of wood from the furniture, and hear the brassy voice of a maid going about her work, belting out an old ballad. An hour later, the windows and the gate were all shut up again and the house once more abandoned. The servants must have left by some separate exit, somewhere at the back. The blinds hung in the windows, taciturn and proud.
The same thing happened every morning. For two months. The winter passed. The sun blazed ever more fiercely in the golden knob on the gate, at midday it was as if it were going to melt, I even thought I heard drops off it splash down on the paving stones, like sealing wax on an envelope. But the gate remained locked.
I asked my landlady. That house, she told me, is where an old gentleman lives, who spends just two months there every year. He was due to arrive soon.
One day, there he was. Slowly he glided through the open gate in a large black car. In the afternoon he appeared on the verandah. He was propped on a stick, wearing a white waistcoat and a brown jacket, accompanied by a dog with an admirable sense of ceremony. The old gentleman's features were fine, gray, clean shaven. His nose was as hard and sharp as the edge of a peculiar weapon. His eyes were narrow and gray, and they were looking straight across at me, without admitting it. It was as though they weren't there to transmit images of the outside world to the old gentleman's consciousness, but to project the images they had been hoarding within on to his retina. Every afternoon the old gentleman appeared on the verandah. A servant came out and brought him his coat. And so the gentleman stood, looking across at me.
One day, perhaps a week after his arrival, I greeted the old gentleman. He replied, hesitantly, but clearly enough. We looked at one another. Before leaving the verandah, he nodded to me, briskly. And every day, for a week, the same scene was replayed. Ten days later the old gentleman died. Suddenly. Overnight. My landlady told me. In the quiet street, the little people—a cobbler, a coal merchant, servants—talked about his passing. I watched the funeral from my window. For an instant, I wondered whether I shouldn't accompany it to the cemetery. But the formality and splendor of the cool, proud mourners put me off.
The house remained silent and locked. I was just thinking about the cruelty of the old man, who had come home so coolly, almost inhumanly, because his death had been waiting for him already, and who had probably lived without love, merely as the administrator of his wealth, when the famous notary M.—whom I had heard of—had himself announced to me. The notary handed me a letter and told me it was from my neighbor, whose will had been opened yesterday. In his will the old gentleman had stipulated that the notary was to hand me the letter. "That'll be another one of his eccentricities!" said the notary, and he set off. The letter read:
As you see, I have learned your name. To what end! Because I have grown fond of you. You were the only one who might have become a friend to me. Because, even though you liked me, you kept your distance, and even though you were curious, you remained discreet. I leave only debts. Otherwise, you would have been my heir. Think of me with kindness.
The next day I moved to a different street.
Joseph Roth was born in 1894 in a small Galician town on the eastern borders of the Habsburg Empire, After serving in the Austro-Hungarian army from 1916 to 1918, he worked as a journalist in Vienna and Berlin. He died in Paris in 1939, leaving behind thirteen novels as well as many stories and essays. His masterpiece is “The Radetsky March”.