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Avenged

by Thomas Mann

      "On the simplest and most fundamental truths," said Anselm late at night, "life will often waste its most original instances."

    When I met Dunya Stegemann I was twenty years old and extremely foppish. Busy trying to sow my wild oats, I was far from done. My yearnings were boundless; without scruple I devoted myself to satisfying them, but along with the inquisitive depravity of my way of life I sought to combine in the most graceful possible manner an idealism that led me, for instance, to desire heartily a pure, spiritual–a completely spiritual–intimacy with a woman. Concerning Miss Stegemann, she was born of German parents in Moscow and grew up there, or somewhere in Russia. In command of three languages–Russian, French, and German–she had come to Germany as a governess. But endowed with artistic instincts, she had dropped that career after a few years and was now living as an intelligent free woman, a philosopher and single, providing second- or third-rate newspapers with articles on literature and music.

    When I met her on the day I arrived in the town of B., at the sparsely occupied table of a small boardinghouse, she was thirty years old, a large person with a flat chest, flat hips, light-greenish eyes incapable of looking confused, an extraordinarily fleshy nose, and a drab hairstyle of indifferent blonde. Her plain, dark brown dress was as bare of coquetry and decoration as her hands. I had never seen such unequivocal and resolute ugliness in a woman.

    Over roast beef we got into a conversation about Wagner in general, and Tristan in particular. Her free spirit stunned me. Her emancipation was so involuntary, so without exaggeration and emphasis, so calm, assured, and natural, that I was amazed. The objective composure with which she wove expressions like "incorporeal lust" into our conversation unhinged me, as did her glances, her movements, the comradely way she laid her hand on my arm...

    Our conversation was lively and profound, and after the meal, when the four or five other guests had long left the dining room, it went on for hours. At dinner we saw each other again; later we played on the out-of-tune piano, exchanged more thoughts and impressions, and understood each other to the core. I felt great satisfaction. Here was a woman with a totally manly mind. Her words went straight to the point, steering clear of personal coquetry, while her freedom from prejudice enabled that radical intimacy in the exchange of experiences, moods, and sensations, which in those days was my passion. My longing was fulfilled: I had found a female companion with a sublime uninhibitedness that allowed nothing disquieting to rear its head, a companion with whom I could rest assured that nothing but my mind would be stirred, for the physical charm of this intellectual woman was that of a broom. Indeed, my confidence in this relationship only grew stronger, for as our spiritual intimacy increased, everything physical about Dunya Stegemann became more and more repellent to me, almost repulsive: a triumph of the spirit more dazzling than I could ever have longed for.   And yet...and yet: despite the perfection of our evolving friendship, and the innocence with which we visited each other in our apartments after we had left the boardinghouse, still there was often something between us, something that ought to have been utterly foreign to the lofty coldness of our idiosyncratic relationship.... It always stood between us just when our souls were about to bare their last and most chaste secrets to each other, and our minds were working to solve their subtlest mysteries.... An unpleasant impulse hung in the air, sullying it, making it hard for me to breathe.... She seemed totally unaware of it. Her strength and freedom were so unfettered! But I felt it, and suffered.

    So one evening, more sensitive to each other than ever, we were sitting in my room engaged in a psychological discussion. She had eaten with me. Everything but the red wine, of which we were still partaking, had been cleared from the round table, and the completely unceremonious state in which we smoked our cigarettes was characteristic of our relationship: Dunya Stegemann sat upright at the table while I, facing in the same direction, was slumped down on the chaise lounge. Our probing, dissecting, and totally open—hearted discussion about the psychological state instigated by love in men and women took its course. But I was not at ease. I did not feel free and was perhaps unusually irritable, as I had drunk a great deal. That something was present...that vile impulse was in the air, sullying it in a way I found increasingly unbearable. An urge came over me as if to throw open a window, to banish this unfounded, disturbing feeling immediately and forever into the realm of nothingness. What I decided to voice had to be dealt with and was no stronger or more honest than many other things we had confided to each other. My God, she was the last person to be thankful for considerations of politeness and gallantry.

   "Listen," I said, pulling up my knees and crossing one leg over the other. "There is one thing I keep forgetting to say. Do you know what gives our relationship its most original and delicate charm for me? It is the close intimacy of our minds, which has become indispensable to me, in contrast to the distinct aversion that I have for you physically." Silence.  "Well, well," she said, "that’s amusing." And with that my interjection was brushed aside, and we resumed our discussion about love. I breathed a sigh of relief. The window had opened. The clarity, purity, and certainty of the situation, which, without doubt, she had needed also, was restored. We smoked and talked. "Oh, and one thing," she said suddenly, "that needs to be brought up...you see, you don’t know that I once had an affair." I turned my head towards her and stared at her in amazement. She sat upright, very calm, and gently moved the hand in which she was holding her cigarette back and forth on the table. Her mouth had opened slightly, and her light-greenish eyes were staring fixedly straight ahead.    

    "You?" I exclaimed. "A platonic relationship?"    

    "No, a...serious one."    

    "Where...when...with whom?"    

    "In Frankfurt, a year ago. He was a bank clerk, a young, very handsome man... I felt the need to tell you...I’m pleased that you know. Or have I fallen in your esteem?"     

    I laughed, stretched out on the chaise lounge, and drummed my fingers on the wall beside me. "Most likely!" I said with airy irony. I was no longer looking at her but kept my face turned to the wall, observing my drumming fingers. With one stroke the atmosphere that had only just been cleansed became so thick that blood rushed to my head and my eyes clouded.... This woman had let herself be loved. Her body had been embraced by a man. Without turning my face from the wall, I let my fantasy undress this body and found it repulsively appealing. I gulped down another glass of red wine–how many had I had? Silence.    

    "Yes," she repeated softly, " I am pleased that you know." And the unmistakably meaningful tone in which she said this sent me into a despicable bout of shivering. There she sat, towards midnight, alone with me in my room, with a waiting, offering steadfastness, upright, motionless... My depraved instincts were in turmoil. The idea of the cunning that a shameless and diabolic digression with this woman would involve made my heart pound unbearably.    

    "Well," I said, my tongue heavy. "This is extremely interesting!... And this bank clerk, did he amuse you?"     

    She answered. "Yes, indeed."    

    "And," I continued, still not looking at her, "you would have nothing against having another such adventure?"    

    "Absolutely nothing."     

    Abruptly, in a flash, I turned to her, propping my hand on the pillow, and asked with the impudence of violent craving: "How about us?"     

        Slowly she turned her face towards me and looked at me in friendly astonishment.        "Oh, my dear friend, whatever gave you that idea? –No, our relationship is too much of a purely intellectual nature..."    

        "Well, yes, yes...but it would be something else! We could, regardless of our other friendship and completely apart from it, get together in a different way for a change..."         "But no! You heard me say no!" she answered with increasing astonishment.
    I shouted with the rage of a rake not used to having even his basest whims denied:    "Why not? Why not? Why are you acting so coy?" And I began moving towards her threateningly–Dunya Stegemann stood up.    

        "Pull yourself together!" she said. "Have you lost your mind? I know your weakness, but this is unworthy of you. I said no, and I told you that our sentiments for each other are of an exclusively intellectual nature. Don’t you understand that?–I’m going now. It is getting late."

      I was sobered and regained my composure. "So I’ve been rejected?" I said, laughing. "Well, I hope this won’t affect our friendship."    

     "Why shouldn’t it?" she answered, giving me a comradely handshake, a rather mocking smile playing around her unlovely lips. Then she left.     

     I stood in the middle of the room with a vacant look on my face while I let this dearly cherished adventure run once more through my mind. Finally, I clapped my hand to my brow and went to bed.


Translated from the German by Peter Constantine