Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 855
Devastated by the sudden and unexplained departure of his girlfriend, Hannah Beyl, from his Berlin apartment, Richard Schroubek quits his job in a bookstore and waits in vain for her return. After a few days of roaming around the divided city, Richard barricades himself in his apartment, closes the curtains, and begins writing a journal dedicated to her (hence the story’s German title, Die Widmung, “the dedication”). His notes are at first short and aphoristic, but as the weeks go by he writes more and more and eventually spends seven or eight hours a day writing. Regarding the separation as only temporary, he writes in the hope that she will return one day and read “his conscientious and terrible protocol of her absence.”
In order to pay off their accumulated bills, Richard sells an inherited etching by the German expressionist Max Beckmann, but very little money remains afterward. One morning, he is visited by a fat young man named Fritz, who claims that he has spent three days with Hannah. She has deserted him as well, and he comes hoping to find out why. Unnerved by someone who regards himself as Richard’s “companion in misery,” Richard locks himself in Hannah’s room, where he has been keeping the manuscript for her. The telephone, which was disconnected because of overdue bills, rings in another room. It is Hannah, who has apparently paid the telephone bills. She wants to talk to Richard, but Fritz answers and excitedly agrees to meet her. By the time Richard unlocks Hannah’s door, Fritz is gone, and there is only a dial tone on the telephone.
His money spent, Richard fires Frau N., the cleaning lady and his last living connection to the outside world. Having given up books for television, he watches intently the news accounts of the catastrophic heat wave that has enveloped Europe since the beginning of the summer. He begins to develop bad habits, such as not bothering to clean the apartment, wearing the same clothes every day, and not bathing. One day, he absentmindedly tips over the honey jar onto his papers. He notices the honey only when he gets stuck in it on the floor. In a panic, he pours a box of laundry detergent and a basin of water over it, then mops up the ensuing mess with old shirts. Another accident soon occurs. He pulls the chain on the toilet too hard and breaks the shut-off valve. In the process of repairing the toilet, he falls into the toilet bowl and breaks his glasses. After he has fixed the valve (“my last silent film,” he says to himself with a bit of satisfaction), he mops up the considerable amount of water on the floor with the gray flannel suit that he wore to work.
Richard writes during the day and spends his evenings in front of the television. In his “TV delirium,” he switches back and forth between channels but retains little of what he watches, besides the latest news about the heat and the payoff of a children’s lottery in which a little girl won a thousand identical dolls. Having consumed the last of the TV dinners and yogurts in the refrigerator, he realizes that he will have to break his isolation soon. He begins to admit defeat: “I can see how my heroic and festive despair is shriveling into a miserable petty-bourgeois sadness,” he writes in one of his last entries.
In his weakened condition, Richard can no longer write. The television is on constantly now, even after the broadcasts have stopped. Hannah calls and wants to meet him at a bar. Oblivious to his filthy appearance, he runs out of his apartment but falls in the corridor, where he remembers his writings, the “biography of his empty hours,” which he gathers together into an old briefcase. On the way down the stairs, he hears his phone ring. He falls again on the way up, but the ringing has stopped by the time he reaches his door. When he meets Hannah outside the bar, she tells him that she called a second time to tell him not to come. She is drunk and disheveled and has ordered a taxi. Richard gives her the briefcase with the manuscript through the taxi window. She promises to read it.
Feeling released from “his stubborn neglect of himself,” he resolves to start a normal life the next day. He finds a new job selling books, cleans the apartment, and restocks the refrigerator with delicacies for her return. When she has not called after a week and a half, he goes to the bar where he last saw her. The host has not seen her recently, but a package has been left for him. It is the briefcase with the manuscript. Hannah left it in the taxi. Richard returns to his apartment and turns on the television. An aging pop singer is performing on a request concert. The man, “dragged in out of the past,” tries to synchronize with the scratchy recording of his own song but can no longer remember the lyrics.