I recently read Nobel-laureate Heinrich Boll’s The Clown. This short masterpiece describes the plight of a monogamous clown whose wife has left him. He’s had a bad review and it’s become evident that he has to take time away from the stage to become better at his craft. Throughout the novel we meet his rich father, his religious brother, and a variety of devout and Communist friends. But the reason I am writing about it is because it was almost the perfect novel.
The clown is an artist who takes his profession as seriously as I do mine. The plot takes place over the course of one night, and we are redirected through flashbacks to the clown’s history. His meditations and melancholy are piercing and irreverent and I couldn’t help but fall in love with him. Nowhere did I feel that he was part of the lamenting generation of post-war Germans—he clowns them throughout the novel. Schnier, the true artist, separate and apart from his people, resentful and yet needing to please them. Only thing was there was a little too much religion for my taste. Not on Schnier’s part, but on the people’s he hates.
It all made me think about this girl I once had an affair with. I went over to her house when I first moved to Bushwick, she was living with her boyfriend. He sat at their kitchen table when I arrived and I wondered why he was wearing a beanie and orange skiing glasses. When he finally got comfortable, turned out he was a clown and bald as a donut.
“So can you make balloon animals?” I asked. “Do you wear a rainbow wig with a red nose?”
He laughed at my naïveté. “I mime. I paint my face white and wear a cap and these glasses,” he pointed at the orange lenses folded on the table.
A vision of a Pierrot stuck in an invisible box appeared in my mind’s eye. A poor, sad clown from the Commedia dell’arte, always second to Harlequin, which I guess would have been me. I wondered if clowning earned him enough money to pay the rent, or if her family (rich) was fronting the bill. I couldn’t imagine so many people wanted to hire a clown. And even if there were, finding them must be difficult. Unless he had an agent. A clown agent. The very idea was absurd! Who would do something so…
She, the girl I used to know, placed two turkey sandwiches on the table. She had taken extra care to cut off the crusts for her clown. She took a bite of her own and looked up at him. “Do you want some more turkey?”
He nodded. She walked to the counter and picked up a yellow package of Oscar Meyer turkey, which she brought back to the table and extracted two slices from for him and two for herself, finishing it off. She first placed the turkey on his sandwich, daintily, and then her own, this time in a celebratory manner, as though to show me that they could afford to splurge a little here and there.
And I remember being totally disgusted at how far this girl had fallen, here with her clown eating poor-people’s turkey sandwiches. It was horrible. I waited politely for them to finish eating and left. I wanted nothing to do with them.