Chapter 5 in We Are Prisoners recounts Graf's first attempts at getting himself published. 


Chapter 5 - Work

My money was disappearing at an alarming rate. I had gradually less and less even though I hardly ever went to a tavern for lunch – not out of frugality on my part but because of the miserable affair at the café – and instead made broth with my boullion cubes almost every day and ate bread with cocoa or tea. It was unbelievable. At the end of two weeks only about eighty marks were left. But whenever I became really anxious about the future, I remembered that I had paid for three months’ lodging. For three months then, I shouldn’t need a penny, just boullion cubes, bread, and spirits.

I did not write home. I had written twice but only to Nanndl by way of the shoemaker. In the second letter I enclosed a calling card. As my first appearance in print it had to impress her. And so it did, as her first letter showed. Moreover, she promised to send me money and food secretly. That was something to look forward to. I purchased Schopenhauer’s Aphorisms on the Wisdom of Life, sat down every evening at my table, and read them aloud to myself. I read with such eagerness and stubborn determination that I soon knew them all by heart. At the same time I was writing two plays. The first was called The Fear of Another and the second The Ruins of Society. The fear of another was the guiding principle of current social life, and the ruin of society was suspicion. In the meantime I was also beginning to grow accustomed to life in the city.

“Can you write out a play if I read it aloud to you?” I asked one day, upon entering a typesetting office in Sendlingertorplatz.

“Yes, we charge one mark fifty an hour for dictation,” said the lady with the high collar as she led me into a small room. In two weeks – at the rate of several hours per day – I happily had the manuscripts of my first two plays in hand. Then I set to work. I wrote twenty letters a day. I bought all the newspapers, journals, and Sunday magazines, and searched in books for publishers’ addresses.

I wrote, “Dear Sir, I have completed a play and am ready to let you have it for publication. It is a tragedy. I would accept a thousand marks. If you are not prepared to pay so much, we can discuss the matter. It ought to be published promptly and will certainly be staged immediately for it is highly dramatic. Yours respectfully, Oskar Graf, Author, Crown Prince Hotel, Zweig Street, Munich.”

I wrote more confidentially to the larger publishing houses, such as Bong, Cotta, and Fischer: “Dear highly respected publisher! A young man of talent appeals to you in the utmost distress. I, the undersigned, have written a play that is likely to have a phenomenal success the moment it appears and will sell widely. Please help me. I am living in extreme poverty and will let you have my work for any price you care to offer. I hope I to hear from you soon and receive payment. I will then send the manuscript at once. I thank you in advance and remain, Yours Sincerely, Oskar Graf, Author, Crown Prince Hotel, Munich.

To others I wrote with a query, “Dear Sir or Sirs, Could you make use of a popular drama of contemporary life? At your request I can send you two plays, each in four acts. I will accept any offer, but the plays must be published right away. I enclose stamps for a reply. Thanking you in advance, I remain Yours Sincerely, Oskar Graf, etc.”

There was a rain of rejections, printed, typed, and handwritten. It was incredible. I sent the plays myself, and got them back promptly, or not at all until I wrote and inquired about them. These letters of inquiry were usually rude, “Dear Sir, I thought you had to be the only publishing house that would read everything sent to it and help a young man of talent in distress. I hope that I shall hear from you tomorrow. There are other publishers waiting. I must therefore request that you return the manuscript. It’s a pity, but I am compelled to write you to that effect. Yours sincerely, Oskar etc.”

Then the manuscript generally came back without a letter. I shook my head. It was no use. Oh well, I thought, they can’t possibly have read the play. If they had, my name would already have appeared in a theatre program.

I was inconsolable.

I went to have a look in the bookshop display windows. What had just been published and what was favorably reviewed? Comic tales by Georg Queri. Immediately I wrote a volume of Upper Bavarian comic tales and offered them to all sorts of publishers. No one accepted, no one even asked to see the manuscript. One publisher to whom I had already sent the manuscript wrote back, “Who would print and publish such stuff?” I went back to recommending my plays.

My money came to an end. Damn it!

I wrote to Nanndl. She sent twenty marks and promised more. Thank God! I plunged into my work. More and more letters. And at night – Arthur Schopenhauer’s Aphorisms.

No more money. Nanndl sent five marks and wrote, “I can’t send you any more. It’s impossible. And don’t send any more letters to the shoemaker. He won’t have it.”

What now?

I had no peace.

Night after night I read Schopenhauer from dusk to dawn. The lady in the next room, a Baroness, sent me a letter: “Dear Mr. Graf, As your neighbor I should like to make a request which I hope you will not resent. As much as I honor your studious diligence, I would beg you urgently and respectfully to read a bit more quietly. Wishing you every success in your work, I remain, Respectfully yours, Baroness So and So.”

What was I to do? Curse it! Curse it! The old biddy!

I sent out The Fear of Another again. I enclosed a long, beseeching letter. I had even learned in the meantime to send it registered. That had to work. I waited.

Suddenly a letter came from a publisher. He answered that he had read the play with great interest, and that it showed very considerable talent. He was prepared to publish it. It would cost 450 marks. In return the book would appear right away in an edition of one to two thousand copies. I was to receive 25 percent of the published price, an exceptional offer. I made my calculations. This was a victory. I spoke very confidently to the waiter the next day when he gave me a letter from another publisher, “Now they are coming along because I have sold my work! They always hesitate at first.” He only looked at me with a malicious smile. I left in a huff.

Yes, but where was I supposed to get 450 marks?

I wrote an enormously long letter to Nanndl right away, and also to the shoemaker begging him to do me this last favor. As soon as my play was out I would send him complimentary tickets and money, so that he could see it performed.

And Nanndl wrote back, “I have no more money. I can’t.”

What now? I still had four marks. I had hardly been away from home six weeks. I was on the verge of despair and at the height of ecstasy. I read the publisher’s letter over and over again. Then the contract came and an urgent letter asking me to give a definite answer. I wrote confidently, “Dear Sir, I am delighted beyond measure that you have discovered my talent. I will send the money as soon as I can. My sisters are going to send it to me, and they have to withdraw it from the savings bank. I’m requesting that you give me a little bit more time. I promise to send the money soon. Yours, in sincere confidence and gratitude, Oskar Graf, Author.”

And now I had to take a decisive step.

At that time my eldest sister, Theres, was also in the city apprenticed as a hat maker. I had her address from Nanndl. But I was ashamed to go see her and had to arrange it so that we seemed to meet by chance, without any effort on my part. So in the evening I went discreetly to the entrance of the shop where Theres was apprenticed. She was bound to come out at seven o’clock. I stood a short distance from the entrance and observed as each person came out of the gate. I paced back and forth tormented with anxiety.

At seven o’clock sharp, Theres came out with several of her companions. After quickly bidding them goodnight she walked down the path towards me without seeing me. I went towards her as if I were in a great hurry. About five paces away suddenly she recognized me. She stopped short for a moment and said in shock, “Oh, Oskar!” I begrudgingly held out my hand and tried with great force to seem indifferent. And then came the questions, “What are you doing? Have you got work? Where are you living? How are you?”

I evaded all her questions with a mysterious air, and said only, “I am writing.”

“Oh… What are you writing?”

“I have written two plays.”

She shook her head, “But are you earning anything?”

I said, “You’ll see in a month’s time.”

Her curiosity was peaked, “What happens then?”

“Well, a book of mine is coming out in a month.”

“Are you getting enough money to live on?” asked Theres urgently. She eyed me critically and continued, “And where do you live?”

“In Zweig Street, second floor,” I said curtly.

“How much rent do you pay?” she pressed me further, looking more and more unsettled.

“Thirty marks a month,” I answered drily.

“Where did you get the money? How do you live? Where do you eat?”

“I – I usually cook my own dinner,” I said, stammering a little. She grew more and more perturbed. One shock after another showed in her face.

“Can I come and see you? I’d like to come today,” she begged.

We went to the hotel. Gradually I grew more depressed, and little by little the truth came out. I told her about the publisher and that I had no more money. I complained about Max and about everything and said pathetically, “My talent can’t go to waste! You don’t know what a brother you have.”

When we came to the door Theres got a real shock and said “What! – You live in a hotel? – That’s impossible! You can’t afford it! It must be incredibly expensive.”

“It’s paid for already,” I said, drily and defiantly again.

“How is that?” she asked.

“Well, I have paid three months’ rent,” I replied in the same tone. Then we went up to my room. Theresa just stood there absentmindedly and said over and over, “Thirty marks! Thirty marks, o boy, o boy!”

Then I showed her the publisher’s letter and implored her until we both started crying, and she promised that she and Emma would give me the money for the publisher. My spirits rose immediately, and I said solemnly, “Some day, after I am dead, this will bring you silent fame.”

I took her home. She gave me a little money, and four days later Emma knew everything and sent five hundred marks. I sent the publisher his fee at once, together with the signed contract.

Every other day I wrote a long-winded letter to my “publisher” and already felt like a great poet.

Three weeks later some proofs arrived, together with a letter from a bankruptcy lawyer for the publisher, announcing that the firm had gone belly up and asking me to state my claims. It was like a blow to the head. I ran to Theres and bemoaned my ill fortune. My pleas would have melted the hardest of hearts, but Theres was adamant.

“You have to leave the hotel,” she declared resolutely, and promised to search for a room.

“You must look for some real work,” was her second dictum. “Scribbling poetry will be the death of you.”

The next day during midday break she ran over to me and said decisively, “Come on, I’ve got a room for you.”

We walked down Schiller Street. A few days later I moved into the second floor of the backside of house number 16. Theres had paid for the room. It cost sixteen marks a month. We tried to get back the last half month’s rent from the hotel, but met with a refusal. I hated this haggling, because I always assumed the waiter might lose respect for me and wouldn’t consider me a rich and distinguished writer, and because if the money was already gone I didn’t think twice about it. It’s possible Theres’ efforts to get the rent back failed exactly because I didn’t give her the slightest support in her demands.

The room in Schiller Street was quite gloomy and full of imitation old German furniture. The landlady had a cunning face, like a lynx, and her overzealous attention made me suspicious of her from the start. It also seemed that Theres must have discussed me with her beforehand, for I couldn’t get rid of the impression that I had been placed here like a pupil under observation.

“There, that’s all we can do, and now you must either find work or go back home,” said my sister when we were alone in the room, and she was on the verge of tears. Then she left me.

My defiance started to grow again. I wrote to Nanndl begging her to help me. Several food parcels arrived, but no more money. I began to look for work.

I saw in the paper, “Wanted immediately, an elevator operator. Apply at Röckenschuss, No. 2.” I went to apply. It was a large fabric warehouse.

“What do you want?” said an older man, eyeing me critically.
“Please, sir, I saw in the paper that you’re looking for an elevator operator,” I said timidly.

The man smiled, “Yes, but…” and he looked at the visiting card that I handed him. “You are an author? – Do you want to work a lift now?”

I nodded awkwardly and pleaded with him, “Do take me on. I want to do the job well.”

After asking a number of questions – where I came from and what schools I had attended – the man told me to follow the house-porter, who took me past several houses and showed me my station. It was a four-story store on Marienplatz. I took the lift up and down several times, and the next day I began my duties. I earned seven marks a week.

That same evening I went to see Theres to tell her about it. She relented and promised to do all she could to help me. Actually I was deeply offended, but I put up a good front. Some day I will make my mark, I thought secretly, and then I will take my revenge, revenge for all these humiliations and insults to my genius. I was continually calculating how I might save money, but I did not get rich on my seven marks.

Theres had Emma spread the rumor at home that I had a good position in a court bakery to thwart Max from opposing my plans. Secret food parcels still came quite often.

It was February when I began my elevator post. I had to stand all day in an open, paved corridor from seven in the morning till six in the evening, with a two-hour lunch break. It was bitterly cold that winter. Hardly six weeks had passed when I was overcome by a severe attack of rheumatism, and one morning I was unable to get up. I just stayed in bed, without letting Theres know, and told the landlady I was ill and would she please make me a cup of tea. Theres happened to come by three days later. I was lying comfortably in bed and reading. “What’s the matter with you?” she asked.

“I have been in bed three days; I think it’s rheumatism; I’m in pain all over,” I said.

“Did you tell them at the shop that you were ill?” asked Theres.
“No, obviously I couldn’t,” was my answer.

“If you’re sick, then you have to go to the hospital – here you’ll catch your death!” groaned my sister in disappointment. “And besides, if you haven’t told them at the shop, then you wont’ have your post anymore.”

“I’m just ill!” I snarled in a rage, and went on angrily: “What do I to do with any of you! Leave me alone! I’ve had it with work that just makes me ill! I’ll find another way to fend for myself.”

Theres sat silently for a while and then suddenly she began to cry softly. “But Oskar! … You can’t go on like this… Either you find yourself a proper job or you’ll have to go home again! You’ll go to ruin! Only rich people can afford to write poetry! This is absurd!”

“What does it matter if I am ruined!” I growled angrily and turned around. I was suddenly seized by unspeakable hatred for all my siblings and vowed never to communicate with them any more.

“Hey, Oskar!” Theres sobbed suddenly and shook me. “Be reasonable! Your time will come.”

I turned around and held out my hand to her coldly. She was completely exhausted, and finally she left me.

After about a week I was able to get up. I began to read again, and wrote, and frittered away my days somehow or other. An unpleasant feeling – disgust with myself – took hold of me. I grew full of doubt and despair.

Then I had a new idea. I wrote jokes and sent them to the papers. That might bring in money, I thought. I still had a few marks, and Theres had given me something before she left. I still had food. It was alright.

Wherever I went and whatever I read I wanted to turn it into a joke. I remembered my school days. There was a boy who once made the following sentence from the word ‘hat’: “The hat is too small because the head is too large.” Another time he wrote in an essay about a rooster, “The cock jumps on the hen and pens her in.”

The moment I thought of a joke, I hurried to the typesetting office in Sendlingertorplatz and dictated it to the lady with the high collar, had a letter typed up at the same time, and sent both to the Meggendorfer Blätter or Fliegenden. Constantly. I always made forceful demands, “Dear Sir, Here is a joke. Please take it. It’s a hit and will surely get a good laugh. I will let you have it for five marks. Yours faithfully, Oskar Graf, etc.”

I went on submitting without even waiting for an answer. And I calculated the exact sum that I would eventually receive.

One day I happened to meet Theres.

“Have you found work?” she asked right away.

“Oho! I don’t need work! I’m earning enough now,” I said self-assuredly.

“From what then?” she asked.

“I am a contributor to the Fliegenden and the Meggendorfer Blättern. The first will be sending me two hundred marks for forty jokes soon, and the second about a hundred and twenty marks,” I reported to her somewhat condescendingly.

“Good, is that for certain? Have they confirmed it?” she persisted, stubbornly resolved to get to the bottom of the matter.

“No, but I have sent them in, and now I just have to wait,” I replied calmly.

“Not that I care!” she burst out at last. “I won’t ever help you again. Do whatever you want! Someday you will realize that you can’t survive without a proper job!” And she went on her way.

I couldn’t understand how anyone could fail to grasp such a simple thing as contributing to a paper, and I shook my head.




Congratulations to Ivan Bozicevic whose work "Shaken from a crane's bill" was selected for performance by Random Access Music in Brooklyn in May 2018!


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