Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku. Image source: Boston Library Consortium Member Libraries.

The story of a Viennese boy who became a German man, thanks in unlikely part to Benjamin Franklin.

When Max Merz was a boy, he wanted nothing more than to grow up to become an intellectual. He was ten years old when he first had this idea, studying English under the casual tutelage of an American student who found in Max an eager pupil and extra income every other weekend at the Merz family grocery. To teach the boy clauses and tense shifts, the student loaned him a copybook featuring the writing of Benjamin Franklin. The words were designed to be traced, to hone penmanship rather than theory, but Max found utility in both. And so his very first experience with philosophy came to him in a new language. Florid and lush, Franklin’s paragraphs bloomed in his own hand, the central tenets half obscured by his own understanding but slowly revealing themselves, the curtain drawing aside.

He began to take an immodest pleasure in his book each night, arranging himself by the lamp and touching the silver nib of his pen gently to his lips as a serious scholar might before tracing Franklin’s words with passion and vigor, pausing at times as if he were inventing the ideas and then noting them swiftly, before they flew away. He repeated the action, laying sheet after sheet of parchment over the original and tracing until the words were etched onto the page.

Max loved the feeling of writing more than the process of thinking, and it was immaterial to him that the words he put down were not his own. He copied another page from memory, daydreaming of long nights at the dinner tables of his future professors at university. He would communicate with these men as equals and love them as brothers. Late into these intellectually rousing nights, the professors’ young wives would pour themselves another thimble of port and smile at Max with the same tender look of sentimental pride they had once given their husbands.

Once he mastered every word and knew it all by heart, he took an empty notebook to a café. He seated himself at a straight-backed chair and copied the entire book from memory. It took a full hour to get everything down, including a short break wherein Max pretended to consult a menu. When he was done, he gazed at his work until eventually a man came out from behind the counter and chased him off.

Max took on more hours at the grocery and began making deliveries to collect an additional stipend. With his meager savings he bought a biography of the man, which included more of his writing. Franklin, who, despite speaking of Austrians as stupid and swarthy, otherwise seemed like a worldly fellow. He pursued knowledge all his life. When he was twenty years old, he created a virtue list designed to keep the course of his mind straight through the wickering ways of adulthood. Even as a youth he appreciated silence and order, chastity and industry. It was as if he knew how powerful he would become.

Max enjoyed the biography, but the copybook remained his most faithful friend. He kept it under his pillow, sneaking a secret glance every night after he pressed his hands together and made the studious murmurings of prayer.

Keeping it close was his first mistake, he realized in hindsight; it would have gone completely ignored had he kept it stacked on the table with his ordinary school materials. His second mistake was in how he reacted the morning his mother found it.

She was changing his bedsheets when she found the book under his pillow and an unopened tin of tobacco under the mattress. She left the tobacco tin on his desk but brought the book to him, holding it pinched at the base of its spine like a rat she intended to thrash against a wall. His heart broke to see it like that, and he burst into shameful tears, further dismaying his mother.

Frau Merz was a devout woman, and hated idolatry in all forms. She was horrified to see her son following the dark path; as Nebuchadnezzar worshiped Daniel, so Max worshiped this American politician. Something would have to be done.

She pushed him into the backyard, where the first thing she saw was the bucket of muddy rainwater she kept by her vegetable garden. Taking him by the back of his neck and forcing him to his knees, she ordered him to put his beloved copybook into the bucket. He refused, hoping for a simple slap in the face, but she was coursing with horror at his betrayal and duplicity. In one motion, she tore the book from his hands and plunged it into the water herself, and when the pages touched the murky surface Max screamed as if bitten. He pleaded with her, sobbing, but she took both his hands and made him hold the book down until the bubbles quieted.

Finally, she let him take it out. The words had gone cloudy and slipped from their bloated pages. Max bowed his head and was sick. His mother watched him clean himself off, her anger turning to shame. As a kind of consolation, she allowed him to bury the book beside the turnips and left him alone while he said a few final words.

It would cost him dearly to buy his tutor a replacement copy but the worst part of it all for Max was the feeling that he was burying Franklin himself, a man who had already suffered the indignity of one death and didn’t deserve to suffer again. He scraped the earth over the ruined book with a sad little spade—his mother used nothing larger to tend her garden—and, wiping his face with a dirty hand, resolved that he would commit thenceforth his strongest-held ideas to memory so as to keep them safe. There in the garden, chewing on a carrot he had accidentally unearthed in the interment, Max made an oath in the man’s memory and with the man’s words: Lose no time.

 

Excerpted from Isadora, a novel based upon the life of Isadora Duncan written by Amelia Gray and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Amelia Gray

Amelia Gray is the author of five books, most recently Isadora. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Guernica, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Tin House, and VICE. She is winner of the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, of FC2's Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize, and is a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. She lives in Los Angeles.

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