The joys and agonies of being Karl May

Freuden und Leiden eines Vielgelesenen

By Dr Karl May—1896/7 original text.

Thank you to Karl-May-Gesellschaft for making the original text available.

I have not found a sufficiently clear short English term to satisfactorily translate the title of this auto-biographical, tongue-in-cheek, and brilliant marketing piece that Karl May wrote.

‘Freuden und Leiden’ is easily enough explained with Ecstasies and Agonies, or Joys and Sufferings. But then ‘eines Vielgelesenen’ has me running for cover. The term ‘Vielgelesener’ in itself holds a cheeky duality in that it may mean ‘one who has eagerly read countless books’ as well as ‘one whose writings are being eagerly read by countless readers’. So which is it? A ‘Vielgelesener’ in the first instance may be translated as ‘avid reader’ ‘prodigious book worm’ or even ‘bibliophile’; but in the second instance, a ‘Vielgelesener’ may mean ‘widely-read’ (so so), ‘prolific writer’ (doesn’t imply that his works are being read, like the German term does), ‘popular author’ (popular he may be, but are the books being ‘viel gelesen’, much read?).

Correctly translated (or transliterated; or explained), this title may be given as : Joys and Sufferings of one whose writings are read much by his countless readers and who also reads many books. Pretty correct, but does not present a very inspired translation.

Ecstasies and agonies of a prolific poet? Karl May was more than a poet; he was that, but also a genius and futurist, a humanist and spiritually well advanced human being, among other things.

Joys and Sufferings of a widely-read? I’m sure Karl May would have thought of something more prosaic if he were in my place.

So, instead, I’ve settled upon:

The joys and agonies of being Karl May.

Translated from ‘Freuden und Leiden eines Vielgelesenen’ by K.F. May 1897
By Marlies Bugmann, April 2005 (note: Karl May’s original present tense preserved in the English version).
as posted on Australian Friends of Karl May in its entirety.


“Ei ku guli dichaze, istiriyahn ssi lahzime bechaze!”

When an author is being challenged by his readers, literally besieged, to simply write something about himself for once, he only endeavours to fulfil this wish because he is inundated in this manner; because he falls head first into the dangers of becoming an Abu el Botlahn (1) or Jidd el Intifahch(2) as the Arab would say. And should he call himself widely-read [Karl May refers to the meaning of the original German title], the very first line already reaches a level of danger that cannot increase any further. At the same time, the writer’s inherent fear of dangers is being conquered, and I can tell my dear readers with a free and cheerful disposition, that I am entitled to call myself widely-read because only he can talk of the joys, but especially of the agonies of which at this point I will gladly unburden my heart somewhat.

(1) ‘Father of vanity’

(2) ‘Grandfather of self-conceit’

That I am no Abu el Botlahn, but on the contrary a modest, but on account of my success, heavily burdened writer I can prove by way of the viewpoint from which I dunk my quill in the ink today. Happy, three times happy should that author be whose works are never accepted for publication! He retains the unassailable, spiritual ownership, and he can revel in their beauty without being illegally re-printed, and indulge his work within his own four walls, and among the circle of his own secret admirers as often as he pleases; his writings are allowed to remain so loved and precious like a collection of diamonds that one never sells. Less happy is the author who encounters the fatality of being printed once or several times. He has fallen into the merciless paws of the public lion, is being tossed to and fro and expects the terrible bite that finishes him off at any moment. The reward having been only the bait which put him into a situation from which he henceforth can only escape by means of enormous literary abstinence. There can be no more talk of familiar, cosy, domestically concealed enjoyment of his spiritual fruit! And especially the hapless writer so held fast by this highly esteemed lion that he can never again free himself! He has fallen victim to such a lamentable fate that a human even slightly endowed with compassion, would…but why make this introduction so long! I belong to this class of sufferers myself, and should I tell of my agony, which is emphasized even more by some rare enlightened moments, the pains of my colleagues will be described as well and I have no need to list them first up.

The author should above all be logical and since there is no other logic than the one of factuality, I shall let factuality speak by describing one day, one single day of the week just gone.

It is Tuesday early morning at seven a.m. I am under pressured to produce a manuscript, have been sitting on my desk since yesterday afternoon at three p.m., that being sixteen long hours, and will not, even if left undisturbed, finish up before eight p.m. in the evening. The night, often two, three nights in succession, without being able to sleep during daytime, is my preferred time to work, because of the many visitors who arrive during daytime, to personally meet their Old Shatterhand, or Kara Ben Nemsi Effendi. The door bell below rings, and despite the hour a high school student is being announced to me, who so early travelled from Dresden to ensure meeting me. When he enters the study the sight of the mighty Abu er Rad in the background startles him and he calls “Thunder and knife, that’s a lion, a real genuine lion!”. He forgets to shut the door behind him, takes a leap toward the predator that I shot in Africa, and stumbles over the head of the Grizzly bear.

“Most certainly.” I reply with a smile.

This alerts him to my presence and he turns to me with a seventh-year-secondary-school bow to explain his reason for the visit. He reveals that he has come to ask for the following items: one strand of Winnetous hair, one revolver, because I have so many hanging here, one ostrich egg, and only one quarter pound from the authentic Jebeli tobacco, which I have praised so highly in many of my works. I allow him to fill one Jibuk with Jebeli, and while he reclines on the couch, smoking the pipe with the mien of a would-be lord, I try to continue with my writing but unsuccessfully so because I have to answer a flood of questions. To my delight he requests to see my garden, especially the artificial mountains with the Chinese pavilion. I agree to it; he retreats with a curious bow through the door that has remained open, flings it shut with huge force, and I can finally return to my writing.

The bell rings again. I receive a telegram with the following content: “Today noon, Hotel Europaeischer Hof, Dresden—Herbig.” Because the telegram originates from Leipzig and the name of my agent in that town is Herbig, I decide to travel to Dresden, despite the fact that I find it strange that the man, instead of visiting me in Radebeul, shortens my precious time even further.

Eight a.m.! The first lot of mail is delivered; thirty letters from readers, among them four with a total of eighty Pfennig [German currency] excess postage, an almost daily occurrence; further three packets and one box. The packets contain manuscripts of those blissful authors who don’t find a publisher; I am to improve and then forward them to editorial offices that offer generous royalties. The box contains two half-bottles of wine, posted by a reader because he was so delighted with my work. I open one and taste its contents after paying two Mark and ninety-five Pfennig for omission of postage and payment of duty. As a connoisseur I detect that it is a Paysan for fifty Centimes [French currency] per bottle. Naturally I am not as delighted with the work of the sender, as he is with mine, but I feel obliged to send him a thankyou letter for twenty Pfennig postage.

As I proceed to sit down to continue my work, I cast a glance in the garden. The student is raiding my raspberry. I ring the bell to have the maid convey the message to him that my good housewife will not derive raspberry juice in this way and Old Shatterhand will be deprived of his lemonade; he leaves highly indignant and I learn that he earlier also let my precious giant strawberries, which I raised with great effort and through a number of years of hybridising from one single plant, go the way of all berries. He probably thought that it wasn’t befitting a great west man such as Old Shatterhand to browse on sweet strawberries!

I have written perhaps half a page, when I hear my name being spoken repeatedly on the street below. I step onto the balcony and look down, hidden behind a dense plant screen. Four young men are standing there, lovingly admiring the villa, and are exchanging their quietly meant but very audible remarks.

“It’s correct, indeed correct! We didn’t get lost after all! Don’t you see the large, gold letters up there, you dummy? That says, Villa Schschschatterhand. We are at the right address! Now you can ring the bell!”

“No way, not me!”

“And why not?”

“I’ve got the jitters!”

“Nonsense! He won’t bite you! You’ve read what a marvellous fellow he is!”

“What if he’s in a bad mood today!”

“Why especially today? Just ring the bell; keep pressing that button! You’ll promptly see that it is electric!”

“Noo, I’m not pressing anything!”

“Well, then you press it, August!”

“Me neither! Listen, what if he does get angry? We should rather go home!”

“Emil, you?”

“Nope, I’m scared stiff!”

“Well, I’ll tell you what we’re going to do? We’ll draw lots and the one who wins has to push the button, but hard, to make sure it will be heard!”

They draw their lots with matchsticks, and then shove the winner toward the button. The bell rings, and they scatter with a start. I step back into my office and soon the four admirers are announced to me. They are pieceworkers. Their boss is celebrating his birthday; they don’t have to work today and the resulting cheerful mood has given them the courage to visit the creator of their favourite books. Of course I invite them in. They stand in the doorway one next to the other like organ pipes, stare wide-eyed at my hunting trophies, and out of fear dare not speak. But my friendliness takes effect and soon the bravest of them explains:

“Actually the four of us have been sent as a delegation. Because you are being read by the entire factory, even though its only from the lending library. But we’ve all grown to love you, and even the managers would rather hold your books than go to the pub. The director says that you are a real blessing to his entire production line!”

I show them everything there is to see and make them happy with a glass of wine, because it’s a birthday, and let them go with my best wishes to their superior and their co-workers. Proud as Spaniards they leave and after the door below falls shut, I hear their verdicts about me:

“Well, wasn’t he altogether pleasant? Just like one of us! He doesn’t seem to be arrogant, not at all!”

“Yep; he chatted with us just as if we had accompanied him in America or Egypt. I liked him very much, indeed; I mean it!”

“And the many, curiosities he’s got, goodness-me! It felt real weird having the buffalo gaze at me like that, and the coyote and the leopard! And the lion especially! And we got to drink some wine, too! Well, come on, lets get back home so that we can tell everyone, before we forget anything! The others will get cross that they didn’t come too. But that’s how it is when you have no courage; they didn’t get to see what we did!”

In the meantime the clock advanced to nine a.m. and I am concentrating on my work so deeply that a renewed ringing of the bell escapes me. My wife, who knows well how urgent my work is, hesitantly asks whether I may be interrupted. I decline emphatically but learn that a lady arrived in a coach with two young gentlemen who wishes to tell me her name only on departure, but still couldn’t be refused a visit, because of her apparent high social standing. I ask the group to enter; they stay with me well over an hour in which time I have to answer another hundred questions, and upon parting I learn that it had been my honour to entertain Her Highness Princess J. from Vienna and her Princes. The Princess only reveals her identity at this moment to prevent me from applying special considerations because of her standing during the visit. I accompany the party to the coach and notice a gentleman approach whom I instantly identify as a man of the cloth. He remains aside respectfully until the horses pull away and then greets me by my name. He recognises me from the many pictures in circulation and introduces himself as the head of a seminary for priests, where every teacher and student belongs to my readership. I have often and gladly exchanged letters with this respectable man and am extremely pleased about his visit, invite him to be my guest, but ask for permission to travel to Dresden for the next two hours first to talk to my Agent from Leipzig who telegraphed earlier. The man accepts my invitation and agrees to return the day after tomorrow because he also has business in Dresden today and tomorrow, and together we walk to the railway station half an hour later to catch the train.

On the way a lady in mourning approaches us and asks for direction to the home of Dr. May. I describe the route without disclosing that, unfortunately I am the far too often visited owner of that property, because I am convinced that, should I do this, we would miss the train. On the railway station I am accosted by a local man who asks me when I would be available today for a meeting; he is entertaining visitors from Breslau, a gentleman and a lady, who don’t want to miss the opportunity to tell everyone at home, that they have met me; they wouldn’t be here by tomorrow. I set a time because I know now that I will not finish the manuscript by eight p.m. but will also have to work through the next night. On arrival in Dresden, I part from my visitor until the day after tomorrow and, so as not to be late, hire a taximeter to the Europaeischer Hof.

Because my agent is nowhere to be seen, I have to wait and order a bottle of wine because there is no beer available. On another table three men partake of breakfast. After some time, a forth, by the name of Helbig, joins them. I approach them, give them my name and ask him whether he was the one who had telegraphed me earlier in the morning from Leipzig. Pleased he jumps up and offers me his hand and exclaims:

“Yes, that I did, that I did! I am from Nuremberg, a travelling salesman of toys. You have many friends and readers there and I have been instructed to call on you to precisely describe what you look like.”

“But you have not called on me, but have ordered me here to Dresden!”

“Because I had no time to drive to Radebeul; I have to leave again soon. Please take my hand! We would dearly love to know whether you really are as strong as is written in your works.”

“So, because you have no time you believe I have to have some? If all of my readers take the liberty in such shameless manner to order me about then I shall throw out my pencil in consideration of this inconsiderate behaviour! Don’t you feel you treated me like a domestic servant whom one can order about as one pleases? And you want my hand? Here it is!”

He places his still outstretched right hand in mine. I intend to squeeze hard to dish out my punishment, but have not fully closed my fingers , when he howls:

“Oh ouch, oh ouch! Stop this; let me go! You’re mad!”

The others jump up as he cries in pain; he holds his right hand in his left and hops from one leg to the other. I pay for the wine and leave, dissatisfied with myself for not having squeezed his hand harder, he would have had to forget about writing telegrams, and more, for a while.

Time is nearing two p.m. when I return home. The lady in mourning is sitting in the salon; she is intent on speaking with me and nothing had been sufficient reason to convince her to leave, not even my wife’s explanation that her kitchen duties would leave the visitor on her own. Half surprised and half angry at such insistence I join the waiting visitor. She recognises me and reproaches me for not divulging my identity earlier; her business is of such importance that I would not have gone to Dresden, but would have returned home together with her. She continues:

“My husband had been a border official and besides that, a highly talented artist. During his last, long illness you gave him some of your books after our priest asked you for them. His excitement about the contents inspired him to illustrate them and now, after his demise, I’ve come to sell you his works of art. In this way I will receive the means to my upkeep, and you will become even more famous than you already are, and make the best deals, because when your works will be published with such illustrations, the sales of these will amount to hundreds of thousands in the first year alone.”

“Dear lady, I don’t aspire to be famous; I pursue an entirely different, higher reason. I wish to be the friend of my reader, nothing more. What occupation did you husband hold before he became a border official?”

“Sergeant. He received a blow over his head from a sword; the effects of which bothered him so much in recent times that he was laid off work.”

She reaches into her bag, pulls out a paper packet and hands it to me. It contains the illustrations. I open it and let sheet by sheet glide through my hands. They resemble the pencil exercises of a first year grammar school student. The annotations refer to names and situations that appear in my travel tales; were it not for that, one wouldn’t recognise what these works of art should depict. Poor woman! Instead of being angry, I feel but sincere compassion for her. The blow of the sword not only affected the skull but also the mind of her husband, even though this injury only became noticeable later on. And she, the inexperienced, believes in his talent! While I think about how to tell her the truth without insult and excessive disappointment, she looks at me with restless, almost feverish eyes and pulls out a letter, no doubt to hasten my favourable verdict, which the priest has written and addressed to me. I read it.

It is as I suspected. Through her suffering she has become feebleminded and is convinced that everyone who claims the drawings are worthless is an enemy; nothing has deterred her from travelling here to sell the pictures to me for a high price. I have to be cautious and invite her to be our guest for a few days until I have time to consider the situation. Happily she accepts and I go to the kitchen, which I only rarely do, to ask my less than impressed wife not to be cross at me.

The table is being set and we sit down with the new inhabitant of our house. No sooner have I tasted the soup, I have to put down the spoon because the local gent arrives with his visitor from Breslau. The good people announce themselves a good two hours early because they were walking along here by sheer coincidence! That they are intruding is not important to them. The Breslau reader is a fat, jovial gentleman with a full moon face; I can’t be angry with him, but am hungry and thus allow myself a very humble and probing hint, that my wife is expecting me at the table.

With a hearty laugh he explains, “Doctor, man should take in more drink rather than food; I have a thorough understanding of this because I am a beer brewer! We’re going to have a good look around your place and afterward, you’ll come with us to have a glass of pilsener. Someone who has endured such thirst as you have in the Sahara and also in other places, must drink, drink, drink!”

“Provided he has time and an appetite for it; but I have neither one nor the other. Especially today my time is so meagrely apportioned, that …”

He doesn’t let me finish but interrupts mid-sentence. He explains with admirable credulity that a writer who receives such love and esteem must always find time for visiting readers. Merrily he elaborates on the invaluable joys I must derive from the written and personal affection of so many people, and irrevocably proves to me that I have the duty to gratefully accept the resultant and unavoidable, small pains. Out of hunger and to cut the lengthy speech short, I exclaim, hands clasped in resignation, the opening proverb, “You’re right, too right! Ei ku guli dichaze, istiriyahn ssi lahzime bechaze!”

“What’s this mean and which language is it?”

“It’s Kurdish and means: If you wish for a rose, you must also wish for the thorns!”

“That is correct, indeed! Take my wife here as the rose and myself as the thorn and you have both, all your wishes are fulfilled! And should you again in one of your next works complain about the many letters and visits so title your sighs with this same proverb, so that I don’t remain the only person who has to consider himself a thorn! We readers cannot but regard us as your friends and … listen! Wasn’t this the door bell ringing?”

“Yes.” I reply, and a sinister suspicion is sneaking up on me as if it were an enemy red Indian.

“Hopefully another visitor! It should please me greatly!”

I would gladly administer my famous hunting blow to this sweetly smiling beer brewer; but we are not in the Wild West but in my study, and he’s rubbing his hands together in honest expectation of meeting one of my readers, thus my frustration remains subdued. My suspicion hasn’t betrayed me because the maid approaches to ask whether my wine merchant may enter. He is an avid reader of the Deutscher Hausschatz [German Magazine that published Karl May’s writings] and sees it as his duty to ensure that my wine cellar only contains unadulterated drops. This I appreciate. He is a carefree fellow and like all his colleagues, he’s always on the lookout for business; there’s hardly a mortal man around who hasn’t placed an order after half an hour in his company. Today, like many times before, he’s brought his wife along. I greet both most obligingly because just now, a devilish thought has formed in my mind: this devotee of Bacchus* from Frankfurt-am-Main is going to free me from the sticky disciple of Gambrinus* from Breslau; without either suspecting it! I’m introducing the ladies and gentleman and throw in a few million yeast particles to help in the fermentation process of the dialogue. The subject is of the highest interest for both parties and the bridge on which they can acquaint themselves. Then I lead the wine merchant to the library in the next room to pay my bill and casually throw in the remark, “This gentleman would probably order a barrel of Niersteiner or Josephshoefer.”

(*Bacchus, The Roman god of wine and intoxication, Gambrinus, mythical Flemish king, to whom the invention of beer is attributed.)

“Really?” is the hasty and keen question. “Then I won’t bother you any longer, Doctor. What are the gentleman’s plans?”

“He wanted to go and drink a glass of pilsener.”

“Beer? I don’t think so! I’ll steer him toward Lechlas wine tavern, immediately. Please don’t accompany us! I wouldn’t want him to be distracted by your presence. Don’t take it the wrong way; I bid you adieu for today!”

Two minutes later I see them leave through the gate accompanied by their wives, heading toward Lechlas arm in arm. I am completely convinced that both will visit me again tomorrow to inform me that Gambrinus hasn’t departed yet because Bacchus has pleased him so extraordinarily well. But I have succeeded with my deception and can return to the dining room.

During the meal I remember that I haven’t emptied the letter box of the second mail drop and that the third would have arrived by now too. After ten minutes my meal has concluded and I go to collect the mail. The box is affixed to the inside of the gate. While I remove its content, a gentleman approaches. He wants to ring the bell but refrains when he sees me standing here. He introduces himself as publisher N. from Vienna, tells me that he read my Ave Maria in Winnetou III and would like to publish a volume of poems from me. I tell him that it is impossible for me to enter contracts with new publishers and that my poems were only to be published after my demise. I know its rude to fob him off across the unopened gate, and he utters a remark accordingly, but I’ve turned into the worm that wants to squirm for once. After so many interruptions I want to have the study to myself for the rest of the day!

Finally I’m sitting at my desk again and peruse the envelopes of the received items. I have no time to open and read them today. One of the letters has a short address: Mr Shatterhand, Dresden; it goes without saying that it had been forwarded to my Radebeul address. One letter from Cologne-on-the-Rhine carries the address: Author Karl May. The sender has omitted the destination place; the post office’s annotation says: probably Oberloessnitz-Radebeul-bei-Dresden, Villa Shatterhand. The postal employee must be a Hausschatz reader. Another letter is from the Caucasus, possibly another invitation to an aurochs hunt. I put everything aside and recommence writing. Despite the recent diversions my writing begins to flow well and I am delighted with the assumption that I might not have to work all night after all, when the bell rings again. It needn’t be for me, but I put down the quill to listen. A lively exchange of words resounds from the gate. I hear someone, who is refused entry, talk of importance and unavoidability, and then the maid brings me his card. The gentleman could not be turned down; he has to meet with me at all cost because the matter must be solved today. The entry-demanding person is described as a secretary of the court on the business card, and for the authorities one has to be available at all times; I consent to have him introduced to me.

He steps up in a polite, even subservient manner; I offer him a chair and notice that his boots are somewhat open-ended, and his attire in a positively thread-bare condition. He obliges the unspoken request, that he may have detected in my gaze, with extraordinary slickness and proceeds to tell that the love for the quill had caused him to abandon his promising legal career to become a journalist. His inner calling had fated him to become a critic, and in this capacity he had become a specialist associate for the most influential newspapers in Germany. Unfortunately, the critic himself is paid below poverty line, and it is also impossible to avoid making influential enemies; both circumstances, combined with the third, that especially the genius is the most easily overlooked and most persecuted, have slowly caused him to loose his positions and, respectfully noted, eaten a hole of such proportion into his wallet that a few days ago the last of his cash had slipped through it. He is en route from Berlin to Vienna, and his wife and two children are held up in the Inn at Dresden, guarded by the waiters because a three-day bill has to be paid. Making the rounds among the journalists in Dresden had been fruitless and now, Karl May seems to be the only lifeline for him.

“How much do you require?” I ask with the intention of shortening the affair.

“Around one hundred and fifty Mark.”

“I have to call this ‘round’ too! You were right, of course, when you explained to the maid that this affair was an important and urgent one; but I would have expected that it wasn’t meant for you but for me. To a genius, such as yourself, I mustn’t offer a handout, but I will give you the opportunity to earn this sum in a short time, by creating a new catalogue for my library.”

“Catalogue?” he is astonished. “I’m an art critic, not a librarian.”

“That is usually not regarded as a disadvantage, because in exceptional circumstances, even a critic may need the skills to work out a useful catalogue.”

“You seem to speak with irony, doctor!”

“Indeed! I am prepared to help you in a respectable manner through which you needn’t feel humiliated; but you seem to be curious about my obligingness.”

“That is my right, I need money, but not work.”

“Should I require money, I work for it. Since you do not want to work but still demand money, you seem to assume that work is for some, but money for the others?”

“My assumptions are none of you business! I refuse your work as well as your money. You probably have nothing but debts anyway. A writer who won’t part with a lousy one hundred and fifty Mark to help a colleague is, in my opinion, worth nothing; mark my words. Adieu!”

He walks out of the door with a disdainful, contemptuous gesture and is too self-opinionated to close it behind him. I wait until the gate shuts behind the genius-critic and recommence the work he interrupted, but not before I instruct the maid that, irrespective of the name or position of any visitor, from this point forward I am not to be available to anyone.

I remain uninterrupted and manage to write four or five pages, listen to the door bell ringing repeatedly, but don’t pay any attention, because I’m ‘not at home’. Then my wife enters the study and informs me that a stranger has forced his way onto the property and is now walking around the garden.

“A stranger? Enforced? Who is he?” I ask.

“I don’t know; he doesn’t say. He wants to surprise you. He looks like a vagrant, talks in a strange way and wants to wait until your return. The curious person insists that you will then immediately invite him to stay.”

“I better check him out. Come!”

I step out of the study that faces the street, and into the library from which a second balcony faces the garden. At that moment something crashes against the railing, and I can see the upper most rungs of my tree ladder that has just been positioned to lean against it. I rush out onto the balcony and as I reach the balustrade, the ‘curious person’ of whom my wife spoke, appears on the ladder.

“What do you want? Climb back down immediately!” I call out to him.

“Not down, but up!” he replies and hoists himself over the railing. He is a small, thin but sinewy fellow with a strongly-marked, crafty-looking bird-like face. A thin beard that reveals the skin between the individual hair covers his cheeks, the upper lip and chin. His feet are encased by grey, wide-meshed so-called paradise [desert] shoes, on his head he wears an old, battered luffa [tropical] helmet; add to this the brown, worn trousers, a yellow-green jacket and a pale-blue vest, over which the long ends of a red neckerchief dangle. He takes off his helmet, inspects me with a wily look and asks in fluent but strangely pronounced German:

“You are Mister Kara Ben Nemsi Effendi, true, Sir?”

“Yes.” I reply.

“So I have calculated correctly, very right! I have promptly detected that your little maid lied to me when she insisted that you were not at home!”

He seems to be a man of the West or something like that, and for that reason I reply in a much milder tone than I would have used otherwise:

“And when you are denied entry, you simply force your way through the gate, go walking in the garden and even climb the ladder to the balcony! Who are you?”

“My name is Kraft,” he laughs, “and I climbed the ladder because I thought that you might be found up here. Very excellent idea, no?”

“Indeed; but I don’t know a man by the name of Kraft, who unquestioningly would be allowed to climb about on my ladders!”

“I believe it, believe it well, Sir. Perhaps another name is much better known to you than mine; I want to speak of a certain David Lindsay for example.”

“Lindsay?” I’m all ears. “You know him?”

“Sure do! You know where he is right about now?”

“No, unfortunately not. He went to Australia on my suggestion, to cross the mainland on camels, has brought the most difficult expedition to a happy ending, as was reported in all large newspapers, and found in the process not only Gold but, what I deem of more importance, very respectable coal fields. But I don’t know where his present whereabouts is.”

“Therefore you have before you the right man to inform you, because during the overland trek I was with him and also later remained in his company for some time. When I prepared to travel to Germany a few months ago, he asked me to visit you and deliver a letter from him.”

“A letter from my old Lindsay? This is an extraordinarily happy occasion for me! Do you have it on you?

“Yes, in the bag. I only climbed the ladder to give you the paper as soon as possible, even before your return home, Sir!”

“Come in! Are you hungry, thirsty?”

“Hungry like a lion and thirsty like a camel!”

“Hurry, Emma, look after the man! He will stay with us for as long as he pleases.”

While my wife withdraws, I lead the unexpected but highly welcome guest into the study, where I leave him to examine the furnishings among Ah’s and Oh’s, while I pour over the long letter comprising twenty, tightly-written pages. I have not finished reading when the maid appears with a snack. He pats her heartily on her shoulder and asks:

“Well, my plum, was I correct or not? I am a guest here as long as it pleases me, and if I like it I’ll stay as long as it takes to grow roots from my feet. Bad consequences follow when one attempts to cut uncle Kraft’s nose off by slamming the gate in his face.”

Of course there can be no more talk of finishing my work today, and whether or not I will be able to do so tomorrow or the day after, remains uncertain also. Who knows what sort of visitors I have to receive and how long Kraft will take to detail everything that is mentioned briefly in the letter.

One shouldn’t be led to believe that I have described this Tuesday because the interruptions to my day might have been unusual; there are many other occurrences! One day I receive a Hungarian professor, only for two hours; he remains my guest for nine days. A reader from America wants to shake my hand, nothing else; his wife also wants to be able to say over there that she held Old Shatterhand’s hand in hers. I oblige and so we shake hands for two long weeks, that’s how long they stayed. A high-standing gentleman pays me a visit while I am severely ill with influenza; out of consideration to his standing I rise and while I suffer from 39 degrees Celsius of fever, I must answer all sorts of possible and impossible questions for an entire six hours. That ordeal weakens me so much that, henceforth, when I see this gentlemen, a kind of feverish attack comes over me. It is nearly impossible for me to carry myself in my usual calm manner. Less dangerous is the following little episode:

I plan to attend an afternoon concert with my wife, and am observing three junior high school student who walk up and down outside without daring to ring the bell. When my wife and I step through the gate I am neigh to devoured by six eyes and hear the words:

“That’s him, yes, its him! That’s his wife! Come on, lets follow! I have to know where he’s going!”

They are following us, sometimes closer, then further away and we hear the following opinions:

“Listen, she’s not bad, his wife! Almost majestic! He’s a bit bow-legged; it wouldn’t be so noticeable in dark trousers. Maybe from sitting in the saddle so often; that bends the bones!”

“I don’t like the moustache; it should be larger!”

“But his elastic walk makes up for it; the pure Apache! Listen, she’s taking his arm! Mister and Squaw Old Shatterhand! I wonder whether they are heading for the Jaegerhof [hunter’s inn]? There’s a concert. If only we could go in! But we can’t afford it!”

We enter the mentioned concert garden, and the three leg critics line up alongside the fence and persist with eyeing me off so that I approach them and ask:

“You are staring at me! Do you know the repercussions? What do you choose, pistols or blade?”

Frightened they gawk at me with bright red faces, until the oldest explains:

“We didn’t stare at you, we only gave you a passing glance.”

“That’s neither here nor there! Do you know me?”


“Then come inside! We have to discuss this incident!”

“We cannot come inside; we haven’t got enough nervus rerum [ready cash].

“Doesn’t matter. Come to the cash register!”

They follow this invitation with dread in their hearts and sit down to their beer, which I buy them, with a despondent expression. But when I make no further mention of staring, duel and second, their disposition gradually lightens; they find the courage to raise their glasses, and soon I sit before them to be examined and so thoroughly questioned about my travels that at the conclusion of the concert I am unable to recall any of the tunes played by the brass band. But the threesome parts company from us with the assurance that although they had received an awful fright, they very soon noticed that I had only been joking with them; and now they are asking me with grateful hearts, never to forget that the two happy hours here in this garden made for the best day of their lives!

As a consequence of this, for the three students so highly important event, I received a beer [club] card issued on behalf of all students in their class.

Beer cards! I can bravely state, that there isn’t anybody who has received so many beer cards as Karl May. Who knows how many May-Clubs there are, of which I am an honorary member? Who knows the number of my many birthdays and name days that are celebrated by these clubs? Who counts the connections, the academic and non-academic singing clubs, the reading clubs, fencing, gymnastic and other clubs, the pub, card and coffee clubs, that prove through telegrams, letters, cards, flowers and other gifts that I have around twenty birthdays and thirty name days per year? Among all the much-visited places, between the Alps, the Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea, is there any one location in which no inebriated reader ever toasted Old Shatterhand and his men of the west, and subsequently informed me of their merriment in the form of a dignified, or not so dignified, rhyme? Didn’t the very first Karl May Club in L… in Friesland (there are now two in existence there) post four sausages on the 29th February to me because my birthday can only be celebrated during leap-years, those that can be divided by four? I never answer the queries about my r e a l birthday, and never disclose that this could easily be found in any writers’ register.

Since I’m talking of congratulations and gifts, the cherished, blessed Christmas time must be mentioned. An astonishing mass of letters in all shapes and sizes arrives during the last half of December right through to the New Year! These are the days when it becomes clear to me how large the family has grown that thinks of their ‘beloved literary Dad’. Not only letters but gifts from all corners of the globe arrive! The finest Rigolet wine from Karst, a 140 pound cheese from Switzerland, Cigars from possibly ten different places, the best Chinese tee from the most famous house in Leda, a work of art created out of marzipan from generous people in Hamburg, a masterpiece in plastic from Duesseldorf, a side of ham from Westphalia, beer from Bavaria and Bohemia, butter from Holstein, caviar from the Russian border, et cetera, et cetera, and, last but not least, a gigantic bottle of the best ink from the most beautiful harbourside on lake Constance. But you, big spender from Deidesheim I will not mention here because you will hear from me through other means. In the meantime I greet you and the dear ‘organ pipes’! I would rather name the very honourable Zepf Brothers, Cincinnati, 236 fifth Street, Umbrellas and Canes, Repairing and Covering at lowest prices, who were smart enough to send me a cheque to the amount of one Dollar, and with this advance payment ensure postage for a reply to their charming letters addressed to Old Shatterhand.

The birthday and Christmas wishes I mention in all objectivity; whosoever knows me, also knows that I much, much rather give than receive! To prove my words I am given plenty of opportunity, as the reader will discover later on. But at this juncture, I will continue to speak of the ‘joys’ of a ‘much-read writer’.

I am moved the most by correspondence that refers to the religious, ethical, as well as the social effects of my simple stories. Please allow me to re-print some of the words, withholding the names, of course.

“When we, the eight undersigned, became students of philosophy, we didn’t believe in God. The lecture of your works has returned our faith to us, and we will hold onto it even tighter. God bless you!”

“I was a bad person, a disappointment that sent my parents to their early graves, have laughed God away, but was saved after reading of your talks with Marah Durimeh and Old Wabble.”

“Then my son read your account of the grim ride through the Llano Estacado and was so moved that he dropped the frightful thought of suicide. You see, your ‘Surehand’ has saved the only son of a poor widow!”

“I am a missionary, and so are you; my most valued treasures here in the centre of Africa, are the word of God, and your books which reach me via Marseille as soon as they are published.”

“You will recall my earlier letters. The greatest suffering for me, the poor catholic house keeper, was being laughed at for my beliefs by my protestant millionaire employer. Gradually I convinced him to acquire your works; today he is a completely different person. First he ridiculed you; now that he has learned that you are severely ill, he asked me to invite you to come to us; he will put at your disposal the entire alpine lodgings for your recovery. I am ever-so happy.”

“The poor teacher in the Dolomites, that being myself, has a dear, dear friend who helps lighten the load; that friend is you. You will hardly believe how attentive the poor, simple folk listen to my voice when, after their hard day’s work, I read to them in the evening! I can state that wicked people don’t exist anymore. Please accept a thousand thanks for the gift of your books!”

“Now I am a happy woman again. I had to watch silently and with dread how my husband fought his inner battles, but Winnetou’s death and the Ave Maria have helped him to secure his win.”

“We are poor and can’t offer any treasures; but you shall have our thanks. Since we have read your works we’re no longer ‘Social Democrats’ [members of a political party], and notice with pleasure that everyone who borrows the books from us to read, slowly switches camp as well.”

It surprises me greatly to hear that my works serve as models of style on higher learning institutions, et cetera. I have no time to design, or craft a concept, to polish, fine-tune, correct and then re-write a clean copy. I sit down at my desk in the evening and write, write without interruption, place page upon page and in the morning wrap the stack of paper, without a second glance, into an envelope and send it off with the next postal pickup [franked mail was still picked up from the place of residence in those days]. I don’t think of style in the least. It may just be the best thing. I let my heart speak and write and have always been of the opinion, that thoughts which originate from within the heart are much wiser than those that the smart ego has to devise first. Because I tell of my own experiences and describe what I have seen with my own eyes, I have no need to invent; the words simply flow from the quill and I think that polishing and clipping spoil rather than improve things. Speaking honestly: whosoever wishes to make the acquaintance of some undemanding, natural writing, may read one of my books; I don’t intend to offer anything else, and I’ve also never aspired to becoming a ‘style artist’. I would rather quench my thirst with water from a fresh natural spring, than from a bottle of soda water or fizzy lemonade. Thus I’ve treated the foreign languages, too. The famous orientalists Fleischer and Wuestenfeld were my teachers, but the true fluency I obtained on location. Genuine penetration into the spirit of a language can only be achieved as a member of an ethnic group who speaks it, and those who have read my tales know that I’ve always strived to attain such, albeit internal, membership.

I am far less surprised that my books are being utilised as tools of education. It is my highest wish to be not only a teacher to my readers, but in time also develop a kinship with them that convinces them that I have but their best interest at heart and wish to see them as happy as they can humanly be. And because there is no happiness without God, I endeavour to give them easily and cheaply something which I gained through great difficulties during fifty years of sacrifice, hardship and struggle, namely the unshakeable belief in God and the equally unimpeachable conviction that our earthly life is a short but very serious preparation for the eternal hereafter. Those who have the ears to hear the surf that separates the two, from where they stand, cannot possibly be what I call a bad or unhappy human being.

Therefore it pleases me that my works are being read for this reason in many schools and educational institutions. Excluding disobedient students from reading my books is regarded as a proven punishment that brings about their betterment. When I talk in this manner about my books, it happens in an entirely objective manner. I don’t let anything I have experienced and subsequently put to paper, cause me to grow vain. Whatever I am and create, that I am and create through the grace of God, and whosoever sinks the anchor of his inner and outer life into the grace of God knows that he is but one of God’s humble tools and thus committed to unending gratitude; but there is no gratitude without humility.

With such gratitude I remember one event that I do not wish to withhold. There was one famous higher learning institution where my books were read after the midday and evening meals, and where a few black sheep resisted every effort to be brought into line. That’s when the principal asked me for my photograph. Because he detailed the reason for his request I sent him a copy. To see the picture was a feast for each and every student; but the students concerned weren’t allowed a glimpse. A few days later, the principal informed me that he had succeeded in his endeavour; the reluctant students apologised and promised to strive for improvement. On the same day I received a voluntary letter from the students in which they thanked me and promised to always include me in their prayers.

Prayer! If anyone should know the power of prayer it would be me! So many times prayer was the rock that saved me! And if my tales work some good here and there, I thank next to God, not myself, but the prayers of my readers. I know from their letters that hundreds of them pray daily, and I too include them in my prayers. If so many people ask God to bless my quill, then it is true that it is not I that should show pride about what I write! It is the messengers of God who bring the words to me. If every author would write from this point of view, there would be less useless books, but more belief, more love and trust!

I remember the poorest of poor widows in Taus in Bohemia. She wrote to me that she had always been unhappy and had for this reason quarrelled with God; then the pastor of her congregation had lent her my books, and she subsequently became calm and content. Now she would like to know what I look like; would I not consent to mail her a photograph, albeit an old one. And because she knew how much photographs cost, she included her entire savings; but I was to be certain to send her a picture. She would pray for me and would like to see me before her. The letter contained—an old, well-worn one Gulden [old German currency]! Isn’t that touching?

The old widow offered me all she had in return for an old photo. But how many of my readers, and not necessarily poor ones, don’t even bother with a modest amount of respect; they don’t ask for, but demand a photograph. They believe that by buying my books or even by reading them from a lending library, they have acquired the right to have my picture mailed to their address at no cost to them. At this point I copy the first few lines of one particular letter:

“Dear Dr May, Old Shatterhand! I have borrowed and read all your books. I don’t want to read anything else and neither do my friends; that’s why you will send your photo immediately, and write your name on it so that I have your handwriting as well!”

This letter, written by a well-to-do baker, cost me 20 Pfennig in excess postage; the fulfilling of his wish, or rather demand will cost me 3 Mark and 40 Pfennig and one letter. And he hasn’t even bought my books but borrowed them! Last year I have received over 900 requests in similar tones for my photo; the current year’s demands will be even higher. That amounts to a bill of thousands of Mark that my readers expect me to wear. The fact that the photographer Adolf Nunwarz in Linz-Urfahr is selling pictures of Old Shatterhand and Kara Ben Nemsi doesn’t mean anything; they want them for nothing.

The same goes for the books. Last year I gave away around 800 volumes, but have only satisfied half of the requests. Because the number of my free-of-charge author’s copies nowhere near filled the orders, I had to buy most of those myself. And gratitude? The requests I receive, yes; but after posting the books, I can count on silence from around half of those who receive my books.

But onwards! Would it only concern pictures and books, I would remain silent. I put my hand inside the folder and at random pull out some petitioner letters.

“…as mentioned, 3000 Mark would suffice for the improvement of my business. This sum won’t matter to you, but would make me, your biggest fan, very happy indeed, if I could receive the money within the week.”

“We don’t ask for a church, but only that you build a chapel for us. This would cost only 10-15000 Mark; the parish is too poor for this.”

“For this devout building only another 30000 Mark are required which you will no doubt make available. Should you be unable to do so, one word from you would certainly be enough, and your filthy-rich friends Lord Lindsay or Sir John Raffley will lend you the money.”

“Because I have neither friends nor family, you are the only one I can turn to in my sad, unfortunately self-inflicted situation. If the 1100 Mark aren’t replaced in the till by Monday, I have no choice but to shoot myself!”

“So please, most venerated Doctor, would you please be so kind as to sign on the attached payment form! I will certainly cash the 950 Mark on the due date!”

“Because we haven’t got the means to send him to the university, my wife and I have come to the agreement to put the following suggestion to you: you take in our Franz as your live-in student and take care of his upkeep, food, washing and clothing, teach him all the things he would learn at the university, especially all the languages you speak and when he turns nineteen in four years time, you can take him along as your companion for free on all your travels for the next three years.”

“She is the most beautiful girl in town, but wants to marry outside the community, as far away as possible. With your large number of acquaintances you would be the right person to suggest a proper groom, from whose fortune you will receive five percent or more.”

“Because I haven’t got the means to it, I wish to sell to you my entire business proposal. Each archbishop and bishop in Germany must deliver one free sermon, in this way we receive sermons for each Sunday and religious holiday for nothing; you print those sermons which of course will be purchased from around the world because they have been composed by the highest ecclesiastical dignitaries and after only one year you will be filthy rich.”

I could go on for hours, even days. It is truly irritating to be deemed this rich or dumb! But so as not to miss out on humour, I will include the very original request of one noble son of a muse.

“Dearest Old Shatterhand,
I am all broke and skinn’d;
Cashing a note of promis’
I must in five whole days,
Els’ I must tempt Schmul Veit*,
Prolong the time of tithe.
Round about eighty quid
Is all there is I bid.
Send money please quick smart
Postrestant on my part.”

(*Old expression. Yiddish name, presumably coloquialised to mean money lender because in earlier times most money lenders were Yiddish.)

Looking at the verses, I suspect that the requester knows me personally; the handwriting looks familiar. I search for and find the same writing on an I.O.U. [a promissory note] which has been written out by the young son of a friend of mine. He is a happy-go-lucky fellow, otherwise well behaved but doesn’t want to be caught out by his rich father. I help this along; his father pays the I.O.U. and the new debts, and not long after that episode I receive this sequel:

“My dear Old Shatterhand,
Once known around the land
As man of discretion,
And worth the given trust
But such an illusion
Your action mock’d and bust,
You may today have freed
Myself from Schmul Veit’s deed,
But means and manner used,
Have left me unbemused,
From you, who can’t shut up,
To sponge I’ve given up!”

You see, his verses have much the same qualities that he possesses: they are not too bad, and I will add just to everyone’ reassurance, that despite his frightful oath of revenge, he has again borrowed money from me, albeit for only a very short time.

When I continue describing my agonies, I arrive now at a kind of letter about which I have to observe even deeper silence than the one from this son of a muse; but because this genre is not without interest, and because I will not mention any names, I believe not to commit an unforgivable indiscretion when I say in a hushed voice, that these letters have been penned by female hands. These ladies seem to assume that I am younger than I really am and are interested in my persona as much as my books.

“What’s the colour of your hair and your beard? What sort of beard do you grow? What sort of eyes do you have? Do you sing tenor, baritone or bass? What is your stature? How much do you weigh? Do you smoke? Do you play billiards, chess, cards? Are you interested in music? What is your favourite dance? Do you wear light or dark coloured suits? What is your favourite food, your favourite drink? What do you prefer, opera or drama? Do you sleep long hours? Do you travel first or second class?”

These are but a few questions I’m being asked. I answer them:

“I wear a moustache and goatee; both, just like the hair on my head, are very dark blonde; only now a distinguished, but greyish colouring is taking over because I am 54 years of age, but look ten years younger. My eyes are grey-blue. I sing first and second bass, depending on where the conductor places me. My stature is slim and sinewy; I am 166 centimetres tall and weigh 75 kilograms. I enjoy smoking, and participate in all manner of amusement games, but do not derive pleasure from that. I am musical and play the violin, most wind and string instruments, but none to my satisfaction. I can dance all dances but only when required, I’d rather play the shrinking violet. Dark blue is my favourite colour with regard to my suit. Tails and top hat drive me to distraction. I always carry gloves with me, stowed in my pocket. During wet weather I always carry an umbrella but don’t let it get wet. At the moment the umbrella is in Regensburg, while I live in Radebeul near Dresden. My favourite food is grilled chicken with rice and my favourite drink is skimmed milk. I am in the process of composing an opera, but value good drama equally. I sleep very little and travel second class.”

Well, that’ll do for today! But there are more personal questions too, for example whether I am married, since when, whether happily or unhappily, whether my wife is red Indian, Persian, Arab or Turkish and more. There I can say from the bottom of my heart: I haven’t been married very long, but very happily. And since I have declared this herewith openly, I will put aside again the stack of letters I held in my hand just then, because it contains—honny soit qui mal y pense—marriage proposals directed at myself, mostly posed by relations or guardians without the knowledge of the ladies in question.

One very, very inquisitive teenager in Aachen asked me whether I ever had a childhood sweetheart. Oh yes, a very dear one at that, to be exact my dear grandma. My little heart beat only for her and I was so jealous of her like…like, well, just like the lovesick six-year old Young Shatterhand that I was.

There is another sort of letters, for which I would like to express my gratitude at this juncture, because the senders of those are without exception subscribers of our dear Hausschatz, and contain invitations that I couldn’t accept because of lack of time.

As a consequence of the news about my repeated severe illness, members of the most diverse cultural backgrounds offered me their hospitality, to recuperate in uninterrupted peace, away from the stress and haste of the world. I could choose between the Puszta of Hungary, the green Steiermark, the beautiful Achensee, the Swiss alps, the sunny Rhine, and the quiet north Atlantic coast. Even from the Lueneburger Heide a down-to-earth farmer wrote: “I can’t offer you a castle or a palace, but come anyway! You will find what you need, the deepest solitude. And should you wish to interact with someone, there are people here whose hearts you’ve won. Just come; at least try it out once!”

Because I said earlier that I am working on an opera, I would like to commit a second indiscretion by revealing that I intend to bring Winnetou onto the stage. A daring idea? Oh, no! Because of the colour of his skin? Didn’t Shakespeare write his Othello, who was a completely black human being? What’s that? I’m no Shakespeare? Of course, I know that well; but my Winnetou is also much lighter in colour than Shakespeare’s Moor! And whosoever knows Winnetou, without doubt agrees with me that there can be no nobler and more stirring stage figure than this towering chief of the Apaches, who had to die the same tragic death to which his Apache nation is condemned. To this day the sounds of the Ave Maria echoes in my ears, as he lay in my arms and closed his eyes. [When writing that passage] only the first and last verses were given, and many times I’ve been asked by the subscribers of our favourite magazine, to add the missing parts, so that I believe that I best end this writing by fulfilling this wish:

“On daylight’s fading, dusk is brief;
The night is falling, still and grey.
Ah would my dear heart’s heavy grief
Be gone as swift as light of day!
I lay my pleading at your feet;
Oh, send it high to God’s embrace,
And I, Madonna, I thee greet
With prayer’s holy sound and grace:
Ave, ave Maria.”

“On faith’s light fading, bitter chance;
The doubt is rising, cold and grey.
Youth’s bold unswerving arrogance,
To hell with it; and if you may
Preserve, Madonna, in my fall
My childhood’s cheerful confidence;
Protect my harp, my psalm and all;
You’re my salvation’s radiance!
Ave, ave Maria!”

“Life’s light is fading, sleep it brings;
Death’s night is breaking, still and cold.
The soul prepares to spread its wings;
Death must be faced, be faced, be bold.
Madonna, oh, into your hand
I lay my last, but urgent plea:
Please beg for me a pious end
To resurrect in holy joy!
Ave, ave Maria.”

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