Benjamin Paloff is the recipient of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his translation of The Game for Real by Richard Weiner. In both its stylistic pyrotechnics and psychological intensity—the prose is poetic, self-reflective, and funny in a way that becomes increasingly horrifying—The Game for Real is the crowning achievement of Richard Weiner’s career and one of the most powerful works of Czech Modernist literature. Weiner’s work is finally available in English in Paloff’s masterful translation.

Read Paloff’s essay on translating The Game for Real here.

On that day—it was already dusk—I was playing Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” on the gramophone. The main theme of the rondo inevitably arouses in me the associative image of a happy, carefree, and obstinate boy who does not appreciate the troubles of the grown-ups, whose experience he regards as a horrid and impenetrable nuisance. The adults advise him, they reason with him. He plays innocent and keeps his schemes to himself. But once they’ve quit their sermon and turned their backs to him, walking away smug and high-mannered, he sticks his tongue out at them and goes back to his prattle. And the theme confesses that this boy has not listened to them; he’d kept quiet as long as they’d encouraged him to, but he’d done so only out of a derisive superiority and because he is impatient—had he talked back, the sermon would never have ended. He is happily, carelessly, and obstinately impatient; he’s racing toward the unknown, the menacing “what’s ahead.” This theme is the master key, with it I get through closed doors; it is the ladder to what cannot be believed; and the difficulty by which it unfurls like a vine loses the name of difficulty and comes to be called desirability.

When the rondo’s theme had returned for the third time, it whispered to me that if I were to wish to see Fuld today, I would see him, I need only try. For a moment earlier I had, in fact, felt a desire to meet with Fuld. (And thus we see that the rondo’s theme is prescient as well.) I dressed and went to find Fuld at a café in Montparnasse. We had arranged nothing. He never went to that café. That’s precisely why I chose it, for I felt like a meeting with Fuld as though with some unlucky star—I mean that, and not with a lucky star—and why make yourself out to be such a star in a place where such a star cannot be? Meeting someone we wish for like an unlucky star must be unlike any other meeting. Or else it’s better not to do it. Fuld, of course, was not at that café. I was neither surprised, nor annoyed. My failure merely inspired me to look for Fuld at a café by the same name on the Champs Elysées. He didn’t go there, either. But I was driving blindly toward Fuld: that is, I had become dependent upon him; in other words, I was proceeding methodically, and most methodical of all is to proceed in the absurd. It was absurd to look for him in Montparnasse, even more absurd to look for him on the Champs Elysées for no other reason than that he had not been in Montparnasse. Great, then, was my expectation of finding him. It was a certainty. – I hailed a cab.

The cab driver, who was already going who-knows-where, veered suddenly from a remarkably dark and quiet street into some artery, strikingly bright and busy. The shift was so jarring that I unintentionally glanced out the window to orient myself. But the motorcar had already come to a stop, and I got out. I was in front of an enormous house with glaringly bright, yet veiled, ground-floor windows. It was a massive house, but, for whatever reason, from the côté cour it gave the impression of a theatrical backdrop. Besides that, it struck me that the bustle on that lively artery was of a nature entirely its own. There were many carriages driving, many people walking. It’s not that their movement was quiet or spectral. The acoustics were not at such odds with the optics. But immediately past its source the din, while quite distinct, was as if sucked away and carried off elsewhere. I had the impression of a waterfall. Or else, the more I looked at the house, the more powerfully it reminded me of a certain house up on Rue Lamarck, just below the Sacré-Coeur Basilica; the whole time it was reminding me of that house more and more, but not for a moment did it lose the certain optical accentuation that marked it as not being that house at all. There’s a tavern there. Steps plunge long and steep from Rue Lamarck down to Rue Muller. I couldn’t see them, but I had no doubt that they were here somewhere, for how else could one explain the waterfall-like din? It is true, of course, that at its higher end Rue Lamarck is quiet and at that hour of evening entirely empty. There was therefore reason to wonder at the unusual movement, but how could I wonder, when my budding amazement was suddenly deflected to an even more worthy phenomenon?

That is, I spotted a shadow on the curtain of one of those ground-floor windows, and I immediately recognized that shadow as belonging to Fuld. Not only did I recognize it, what’s more is that I ascertained Fuld was listening intently to something being said by the silhouette sitting across from him. That was Mutig.

There was nothing particularly unnatural in this. I recognized both shadows (they were conspicuously sharp), since I know both Fuld and Mutig quite well. It was natural, too, that I was also immediately aware that Fuld was listening to Mutig, and that he was listening to him intently and disapprovingly. Which is to say, I have often seduced Fuld into evil. And this shadow corresponded precisely to the posture Fuld assumed when I was seducing him into evil. Meanwhile, I would usually be sitting like Mutig was now, for evil is comfortable; Fuld would be standing. Standing at the table where we had been talking, and leaning his fingers on the table so heavily that they quite buckled. His head would be bent, and you couldn’t get far beyond the tense, gloomily sad expression on his face: something was cooking in there, but what?

Fuld was un incorruptible. We had long been virtually inseparable, so he knew I was a libertine and a waster—“unselective,” he would say. He didn’t hold it against me, never tried to steer me away. He was disinterested, oblivious, and was equally so toward my debts—debts of every kind—when it came time to pay—never so much as a word of encouragement, reproach, consolation, much less a contribution or aid. Beyond that, I wouldn’t dare say anything specific about our relationship. Once or twice, however, it has seemed to me that he couldn’t get by without me. How happy I would have been had I managed to ascribe that clinginess to the simple attachment of friends; but something got in the way. That is, one day I stood at the very cusp of my undoing. It was within his power to save me. And he did actually save me, too—with a rough, curt, almost brutal, unspoken support. Without reprimand, but also without friendly counsel.

Looking at those two familiar shadows, I was suddenly seized—yes, seized—by the certainty that Mutig was seducing Fuld, as I myself had seduced him, and that Fuld was defending himself, but only feebly. What I will now say in brief occurred so quickly that there are no words for it but those that provide a rough approximation. But it nonetheless occurred in time, and in a continuous sequence. I was seeking out a reason behind this certainty of mine (that is, that he was being seduced and was, but feebly, defending himself). And I came to the realization that if I am seeing them both in profile, then they are facing each other. And it crossed my mind (as if for the first time) that whenever I attempted to overcome his supposed virtue, Fuld would always, and without exception, stand so that I could not see him other than in profile. Did he do this deliberately, or did his genius inspire him toward it unwittingly? Might he, too, have been aware of the peculiar conformity of his face, inlaid—were you to view it head-on—with a kind of provocative irony, something like a pledge of potential complicity, and affixed there as a spur toward increasingly arousing and lurid intimacies? Or else was this an unwitting defense of his purity—oh, it was almost angelic—against the treachery of a Satan who fed on that purity like a parasite? Was this treachery rooted on his lips, on his brow, in that semblance of a double chin? That’s immaterial. What perhaps is material is the fact that he always defended himself against me, to whom he had never succumbed, sideways. Head-on, he enticed; in profile, he disarmed. I see his shadow from the street, and actually, much to my surprise, more than his shadow: not profiles traced broadly, dully upon the curtain, but it looked as if they were motionless, though not expressionless, organdy masks. And for Fuld’s profile, there could hardly be anything more depressingly real: this ironic, wickedly lecherous feature with which he—if I am facing him head-on—invites one so perfidiously—might it be born from that ascetic wrinkle, which I know so well, which has been carved by remorseless and unpersuasive tears and, in profile, disarms my seductions? And that chin—which is as if really his own only when he muses over the unfatherly, severe word he would use to refuse and to shame—he was leaning it on two equally bony fingers; and the nose, too proud even to forebear but a hint of stench; and the brow, so sharp as to be a bulwark!

To seduce him while he turns his side toward his seducer—that is, to attempt to break a resistance so uncompromising that it no longer even tries to defend itself—and I, having foundered before that stronghold so impregnable and God knows how dearly bought, am just stewing in my shame, but I can be rather pleased with my defeat. Such is the sovereign power of purity, that it softens even the non-will of an evil that has been repelled. Here, however, he’s being seduced by Mutig, who is facing him. Mutig is not held back by the hieratic mask so much as spurred on by the face of the disgusted debauchee, who resists only in order to tease and egg on his tempter.

Before the theatrical house, a banal parallel with the twin Janus head: who is Fuld? He who resists me so easily that I am not even worthy of his defense, or he who forgets to resist Mutig as well? Mutig’s shadow is comical, tipped far across the table, his slightly outstretched arms gesticulating immediately above it: it’s the shadow of a merchant haggling. – But the shadow lies. Mutig is not funny, Mutig is dangerous.

This translation is forthcoming from Two Lines Press.

This piece is part of PEN’s 2014 translation series, which features essays and excerpts from the recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.