His Best Friends

Walter, married to Clarisse, was Ulrich’s best friend since childhood.

Whenever he got there, they were playing the piano together. It was understood that they would take no notice of him until they had finished the piece; this time it was Beethoven’s jubilant “Ode to Joy.” The millions sank, as Nietzsche describes it, awestruck in the dust; hostile boundaries shattered, the gospel of world harmony reconciled and unified the sundered; they had unlearned walking and talking and were about to fly off, dancing, into the air. Faces flushed, bodies hunched, their head jerked up and down while splayed claws banged away at the mass of sound rearing up under them. Something unfathomable was going on: a balloon, wavering in outline as it filled up with hot emotion, was swelling to the bursting point, and from the excited fingertips, the nervously wrinkling foreheads, the twitching bodies, again and again surges of fresh feeling poured into this awesome private tumult. How often had they been through this! (I,45)

Clarisse wants Walter to be heroic in the style of Beethoven, but Walter is being drawn down to Wagner.

Ulrich knew that Clarisse refused her body to Walter for weeks at a time when he played Wagner. He played Wagner anyway, with a bad conscience; like a boyhood vice. (I,47)

Like Ulrich, Walter has been considered promising.

Such older people were accustomed to say the he simply lacked will power, but it would have been equally valid to cal him a lifelong, many-sided dilettante, and it was quite remarkable that there were always authorities in the worlds of music, painting, and literature who expressed enthusiastic views about Walter’s future. In Ulrich’s life, by contrast, even though he had a few undeniably noteworthy achievements to his credit, it had never happened that someone came up to him and said: “Your are the man I have always been looking for, the man my  friends are waiting for.” In Walther’s life this had happened every three months. Even though these were not necessarily the most authoritative people in the field, they all had some influence, a promising idea, projects under way, jobs open, friendships, connections, which they placed at the service of the Walter they had discovered, whose life as a result took such a color zigzag course. He had an air about him that seemed to matter more than any specific achievement. Perhaps he had a particular genius for passing as a genius. If this is dilettantism, then the intellectual life of the German-speaking world rest largely upon dilettantism, for this is a talent found in every degree up to the level of those who really are highly gifted, in whom it usually seems, to all appearances, to be missing. (I,48-49)

Clarisse feels betrayed by Walter. Her goal as a young woman was to marry a genius.

Clarisse was not as gifted as Walter; she had always felt it. But she saw genius as a question of willpower. with ferocious energy she set out to make the study of music her own. It was not impossible that she was completely unmusical, but she had ten sinewy fingers and resolution; she practiced for days on end and drove her ten fingers like ten scrawny oxen trying to tear some overwhelming weight out of the ground. She attacked painting in the same fashion. She had considered Walter a genius since she was fifteen, because she had always intended to marry only a genius. She would not let him fail her in this, and when she realized that he was failing she put up a frantic struggle against the suffocating, slow change in the atmosphere of their life. It was at just this point that Walter could have used some human warmth, and when his helplessness tormented him he would clutch at her like a baby wanting milk and sleep; but Clarisse’s small, nervous body was not maternal. She felt abused by a parasite trying to ensconce itself in her flesh, and she refused herself to him. (I,50-51)


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