Joseph Roth

Translated by Michael Hofmann

Little Titch

Little Titch was a tiny man with a huge head. His eyes were two dark blue marbles, his ears were as red as poppies, and a bloody rage flickered in them, the rage of the little man Little Titch. His face turned purple like a great beet. A whim of nature, the dwarf stood up on the stage. His stout, round trunk looked like a little barrel brimful of seething fury, only barely held in and kept from bursting by the bands of ribs and waistcoat. His little hands dangled down. Each of them had six fingers. Little Titch was ashamed of them, and tried to conceal them. He hid his hands in his fists.

Sometimes he held a frail little cane in his hand. It was a perfectly natural unnatural excrescence, a sort of longer, seventh finger. He swished it about in the air, and so managed to fan himself a little. For a while he would look in front of him dreamily, and then he would lash out with it. He had spotted an air molecule, and smitten it. But the triumph didn’t console him. With his long-soled soft clown’s shoes, that were like two fly-swatters, he took two steps forward in pursuit of some nothing that had escaped him. With his long soles, he smacked the ground, while higher up, he set about another enemy with his stick. Suddenly it slipped from his hand. Evidently, it felt misused, and no longer wanted to get up. All at once it had discovered its own elasticity, and used it to give its owner the slip. No sooner had Little Titch bent down, than it jumped away from him. He sent his foot after the stick. He pinned it by the tail, and still it managed to escape him.

A little spongy felt hat that Little Titch wore on his head used the occasion to drop to the floor. Evidently, it had gotten too hot on his boiling head. But, since the stick mattered more than anything else, he barely noticed. It was just taking advantage of its strategic position to do a bit of mischief. But here it overestimated itself. It was so far from being important, that Little Titch merely threw out a hand at the little hat, just one hand, that, by the fact of being sent after something so unimportant, had become unimportant itself, degraded to a sort of deputy-hand. The little man’s whole rage and effort were still directed against the little stick, his great hatred was boiling against the faithless weapon, which had deserted him at the moment of greatest danger, when he was surrounded by millions of enemy air molecules, and was at grave risk – and then the hat skipped to the floor, and started toying with its master like a mouse with a cat.

For an instant, Little Titch didn’t know what to do. He stared straight ahead, and didn’t move. Bewildering noises came up from inside him, you thought you could hear the fury boiling in his trunk, it was as though a ventriloquist was stuck for words, and was consulting his belly to fetch up the requisite sound. Suddenly – before the little stick could do anything about it – the little man leaped forward with both feet. He had taken it by surprise. It surrendered itself into his grasp. And he started to use it to fish for his hat.

It didn’t seem to take very long, before the stick had speared the hat. Little Titch’s fury was gone. He had smitten all his foes in the air and the void, recaptured the unwilling weapon, and shown it who was boss, and even caught the little hat. His red ears slowly began to cool. The dark blue marbles of eyes rolled calmly back under their lids, and round the tiny, angry mouth of the little man, something began to quiver, that, in any other would have indicated the onset of tears, but with little Titch was a fully grown smile. He spun his hat round on the tip of his stick like an indifferent, even somewhat contemptible trophy. It now seemed that the victor regretted the great expenditure of resources he had used on his conquest. But the applause of the crowd was enough to induce him to leave the stage, visibly flattered.

What now happened to the little fellow behind the curtain concerned me as much as what I had seen of him thus far. Because this wasn’t a sort of mechanical stage performance that he could give in public, and then retire affably to private life. It was a fit of rage, calculated to last a quarter of an hour in the evening, but that during the day had to be carefully banked and soothed, and yet still enthusiastically stoked. It wasn’t possible for Little Titch, as it were, to take himself on holiday. On the evenings when there wasn’t a performance, he might perhaps go to a park instead and unload his fury in a lonely avenue of trees. He seethed for twenty-four hours, till he exploded in the evening. His little body was incapable of containing so much rage. He wasn’t putting on an act, he was just angry. He was exceptionally angry. His entire existence was nothing but a continual annoyance, and all the provocations his soul experienced could find but one release: anger. If a great joy ever came his way, he would have to feel anger at it first, and only then, perhaps, pleasure. Fame, and its heralds, applause, were the barest form of relief for Little Titch. But behind the scenes, his rage about the applause was probably already swelling, and he would have felt like going out and showing those people, and the air molecules, and the little hat, once over.

It would never have occurred to me that Little Titch could ever appear without the little hat, his soothing trophy and his chronic rage-bringer at once, had I not happened once to bump into the little man on the Champs Elysees. It was a well-cared-for spring evening. The mild and polished sunset seemed to have more to do with the silver advertisements and announcements, than with the reddish clouds on the horizon. In this distinguished and faintly scented evening quiet, where even the women’s painted lips seemed to be a little loud, the funny figure of Little Titch seemed to break in with a crash, and, because he was strolling along so improbably gently and normally, at the side of a tall and elegant woman, the mildness of the evening became as incredible as his own. If only he had at least had his little hat on still! But he was wearing a pale gray top hat, with a black ribbon, and on his little arm he carried a thick yellow bamboo walking cane, amputated at the bottom, the stump of a walking stick. His purplish face was just looking up, as if to borrow a reflected glimmer of the blonde’s beauty. You could hear the lady laugh – and you felt thankful to her for doing so. Because it was as though her mirth were correcting a flaw in nature, and as though Little Titch grew a centimeter or two in the nurturing sound…

That was how I remembered him, and then I heard of his sudden death. He died a few weeks ago, aged sixty. It must have been an evening similar to the one on which I last saw him. And I hope that Death will have come to him with the laughter and the allure of the blond lady, when he arrived to escort the little man to the Champs Elysees.