There’s an old saying in the music business. Musicians are arseholes. The first time I heard that, many years ago, it was said by a musician. He was a Dubliner who by then had already spent thirteen years making a living in a Bee Gees tribute act but he based his view on all the bands he had ever been in. The most recent affirmation I came across appeared in a magazine interview with Danny Fields (real name D. Feinberg), former Doors ‘publicist’ and manager of the Ramones.
Mention of the Doors leads on to a qualification at the outset. This is about the young Alma Schindler (1879-1964), with only passing references to her later life. It’s like explaining the reason for being chiefly interested in Jim Morrison and his creativity before he became famous. Why not later? That’s when the bullshit took over.
Die Schindlerin, or the Schindler girl, as the young Alma was often called, was a musician herself but it seems clear from her early diaries (January 1898 – January 1902) that her famous musico-sexual entanglements with Zemlinsky and Mahler were not in her best interests. Treat ’em mean and keep ’em keen, as the chauvinist motto goes. The drama queen Zemlinsky, whom she met in February 1900, was a bad influence on her (and on her diaries, where she eventually becomes a bit of a bore) but at least he did acknowledge that her birth as a girl did her talent no favours in the music world.
Simply put, she had started to think like a groupie. Mahler ‘rescues’ her (and the reader) at the end, if only by virtue of a speedy courtship, but his monstrous demand that she give up composing to be his skivvy demonstrates just how this bad influence evolved in a more fateful direction. I think life with Mahler drove her cracked, as the Irish phrase puts it. After they married, he expected her to open the door for him in silence when he arrived home for lunch and to remain silent for the meal, so that his artistic thoughts would be undisturbed. The joke label of ‘Mahler in the morning’ for the common earnestness of his fans did not appear out of thin air.
Furthermore, in a funny Daily Telegraph review (2004) of Mahler’s Letters to his Wife, Tom Payne observed
“When he failed to buy her a birthday present, he wrote: “What more can one give, when one has already given oneself?” Considering the sacrifices she’d made for him, you’d think a nice hat would have been a start.”
She had sold her soul to Mahler but, given her time and place, there really wasn’t much else a clever and good-looking bourgeois girl with a piano but without a husband could do. Ironically, as the 1898-1902 period in her own words reveals, music was not even where her true artistic talent lay. She was really a writer.
It is vital to note that there are two versions of these diaries:
(a) the German original, deciphered by Susanne Rode-Breymann in collaboration with Antony Beaumont;
(b) the shorter and very different English translation, for which Beaumont alone is responsible.
Though the English one too is packed with incident and observation (and too much material of interest only to musicologists), the introduction is enough to earn the recommendation that the volume should be consumed with caution. For example, it is there that the translator, sneering at Alma’s poor grasp of musical notation, comments that her first teacher – the blind Josef Labor – could only judge her compositions by what he heard. The subject is music, after all, and a complete inability to read it made no difference to Lennon or McCartney or the opinion of their admirers.
Furthermore, the translation is prone to the occasional howler. To give just two examples, he makes ‘physical’ out of psychisch (a passage where Alma contrasts the attractions of two men becomes unintelligible as a result) and – even worse, in the Austrian context – renders Schmäh as ‘smear’. In his history of Austrian humour, Georg Markus links Wiener Schmäh to Vienna’s ethnic mix and defines the particular sense of humour as a mixture of melancholy, sarcasm and a little malice.
By my own count there are also fifty-four important textual omissions in the English version, including several sympathetic remarks about Jews that don’t fit the picture of an antisemitic monster that is often hawked around, even now. The final important omission is her vivid account of a day in late August 1901 that she spent on a mountain hike in the Salzkammergut. Prevented by rain and fog from the final climb up Hainzen (1,638 m or 5,374 ft – I checked) she instead made it to the top of Katrin (1,542 m / 5,059 ft). This demonstrates how vigorous and tough she was (and Beaumont does include the day she extracted one of her own teeth) but it also prefigures how at sixty years of age (in 1940) she was able to lead her second Jewish husband (Franz Werfel) and a motley crew of refugees over the Pyrenees, away from the Nazis.
Alma did admire Hitler on meeting him before the war but she always liked a drink and was wearing champagne goggles at the time. As Rode-Breymann has recently (2015) observed, Sie hätte sich von Werfel trennen können und wie ihr Stiefvater, ihre Halbschwester und deren Mann in die Nationalsozialistische Partei eintreten können (‘She could have separated from Werfel and, like her stepfather, her half-sister and half-sister’s husband, joined the Nazi Party’). Instead, she walked the walk.
So, what kind of writer was she? My initial feeling on spotting all the gaps recalled Noel Coward’s advice to Little Jimmy Osmond. My dear boy, you have Van Gogh’s ear for music. Even more than having such an ear (e.g. for Wiener Schmäh), though, the translator sometimes seems blind to the sheer colour in Alma’s writing.
Several themes loom larger when one studies the omissions. Some important details of her relationship with the painter Gustav Klimt are left out, as are multiple occasions that detail the hassle and harassment that women – in all times and places – experience, which is a topic of particular public interest at the time of writing.
Beaumont does not do enough justice either to her powers of observation, powers of which she herself was very aware. He includes an early passage on the Kaiser’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations (1898) that eerily matches the tone of Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March but, as that of a woman in imperial Austria, her chronicle of the absurd and the farcical more often reads as a counterpoint to Hašek and The Good Soldier Švejk.
The only sensible way to present the most striking of these omissions is chronologically, the source being a diary after all.
There is a scathing, sarcastic account of a ball thrown by the Austrian railways minister, Wittek, where, in her words, it rained excellencies, counts and barons. She details the exaggerated bowing of the ladies before old toffs and she resents being introduced like an exhibit in a gallery.
She is still only eighteen and the family is staying at the Franzensbad spa, in western Bohemia, for a funny little bedroom farce with some hotel neighbours. Alma first describes the arrangement of the rooms. A lady has the one beside her mother; beside the lady is the room with two of the lady’s gentlemen friends; then it’s Alma sharing with her sister Gretl; and beside them again lies another one of the lady’s admirers. In the course of the night the lady compensates the poor outlier with a visit, whereupon Gretl wakes Alma to complain about her shaking the bed. Then the girls realise the noise is coming from next door. Bald konnten wir auch eine hohe Frauenstimme vernehmen – und wir wussten alles (‘Soon we could hear a high female voice – and we understood everything’). She adds that their Mama could not get to sleep for a long time, due to the four hearties (Wackeren) drinking champagne, heavily.
Alma gets propositioned on a Viennese street. A year later Beaumont includes the entry about her being followed by a young man on another street.
She presents another farce, this time concerning the antics of a singer called Oberstetter who visited their home. Aunt Xandi cleared away the afternoon tea debris into the girls’ room and O. gallantly opened the door for her. He then noticed the girls’ collection of photographs and went in to have a look at them. Alma had raced downstairs in the meantime, in response to the arrival of two unexpected lady visitors. She brought the two ladies upstairs. Alma looked around the living room but O. was not to be seen. Suddenly, in the doorway to her room, a tall young gentleman appeared. The two lady visitors were astonished.
Die Situation war peinlich. A young man, from their bedroom. When the first shock was over, the guests sat down and Aunt Xandi made some small talk. O. now sat backwards at the organ bench, where he busied himself by taking his ring out of his pocket and putting it on, before searching for some sheet music and then disappearing a second time.
Alma decided to present some of her compositional work but the elder of the two lady visitors felt it was disturbing and said goodbye. As they reached the hallway, the door of the mezzanine opened with a great noise. Herr Oberstetter appeared on the scene once more. From behind him came the thunderous sound of water flushing. The elder lady took a few steps back but with just a few words he bounded down the stairs and fiddled with his winter coat. The two ladies greeted him with a slight tilt of the head and skedaddled.
Then came ‘the most beautiful part – the catastrophe’, as Alma puts it. Mama. She was very agitated that O. was even there, when he knew that she had gone to see his wife, so the fact that he had given that a miss offended her vanity. She came charging in ‘like an angry tiger’ and, when she heard the details, she screeched at O.
What, you came out of the girls’ bedroom!? Was the conversation not good enough for you!?
As he later departed, Oberstetter said, Now, I have to tell you, as you’ve done today, no one has ever received me, and I couldn’t help it.
Alma describes walking home with her mother and Klimt. Her stepfather Carl Moll and a man named Spitzer walked in front of them, while Gretl alone had hurried ahead, deep in her own thoughts. Near the University a horde of drunken students emerged from a coffeehouse. Three of them descended on Gretl. She turned around and waited for Carl and Spitzer. Two of the three moved away but one remained behind her, with glazed eyes, barely able to stand. Carl came up and told him to get lost. He gave some lip, whereupon Carl gave him a slap. The women grabbed at Carl’s arms, trying to calm him down. They were about to move on when one of the onlooking pack shouted something smart. Wie eine wilde Katze, Carl waded in again and began boxing their ears, one after the other. Fortunately, writes Alma, the lads were so drunk that they did not resist, otherwise Carl would be no more. Klimt stood in front of a bunch and told them off, while Gretl kept screaming in her high-pitched voice, ‘Shame on you! Shame on you!’ Mama screamed for the police and started to cry. In freeing himself to get at them, Carl had pushed her violently in the chest. Alma felt temporarily unwell. Her mother was pregnant.
Of all the events of an extended tour of Italy, the dramatic trip to the edge of the Vesuvius crater is inexplicably left out. After the last stop of the funicular, there was a very hard, ten-minute climb in high ash. Sometimes they had to stop and stand still because the sulphur was so heavy on the chest. Just before they got there, Vesuvius spat a bit more so that head-sized pieces of pumice flew over them. Once they reached the top, they first marvelled at the size of the crater. Inside, it was so green, like an old copper kettle, constantly emitting yellow vapours that hung like a cloud high in the sky. Soon they heard a thunderous sound in the depths, then saw a flash of fire, with the ejection of glowing bits of lava, then a high column of smoke. Just before they left, there was a bigger eruption, so that glowing lava and a shower of ash flew over their heads. Their guide quickly placed some coins in the lava and Carl lit a cigarette with it. The black landscape, the fire, the steam… Ich war so aufgeregt, das mir die Knie zitterten (‘I was so excited that my knees were shaking’).
Alma is unimpressed by street thuggery in Amalfi and Sorrento. After a journey to Amalfi that had them swallowing dust for three hours, her party watched boys fighting in front of their hotel. One of them ended up lying on the ground, covered in blood. Immediately the speculative begging came to the fore again. The rest pointed to the injured one and asked for money for him – die edlen Feinde (‘the noble enemies’). In Sorrento the day before, Alma’s group was walking down the main street, Via Duomo, when they heard insane yelling. Up to ten boys were stamping on the stomach and head of a small one. Alma and the others drove them away and gave the child a few coins. He was no longer able to stand up on his own and he looked pitiful. Wir kochten alle vor Wuth (‘We all boiled with rage’).
Klimt’s rigmarole of an explanation as to why he couldn’t marry her is omitted, yet two weeks later, without this ironic preamble, Beaumont includes his fuming expression of the impossibility of them doing anything except blending completely into each other (i.e. he would have to throw the leg over).
When he finally lets her down, she marks the diary day with a cross. This mark is in both versions. Er hat mich kampflos hingegeben, er hat mich verrathen. ‘He gave me up without a fight; he betrayed me.’ This disappointment had a deep effect on her. It sounds so like Claire Zachanassian in Dürrenmatt’s 1950s play Der Besuch der alten Dame (‘The Visit’) … Ich liebte dich. Du hast mich verraten … that is said as the death sentence during her final meeting with Alfred Ill (‘I loved you. You betrayed me.’)
Again no justice is done to her powers of observation by the omission of the vignette about a sign at a Gasthaus. It was spotted during an outing to Grafenstein in Lower Austria. The sign politely requested guests not to carve up their food on the tablecloth. For Alma this anguished cry from the poor landlord made her wonder just what he had grown used to from his guests.
Alma’s fascinating account of her aunt Xandi’s twenty-one years as a mistress is too long to spell out here.
Beaumont includes details of a road accident in which a young man named Ernst Zierer is showing off on his bicycle and almost ends up under the wheels of a horse-drawn cab. Nonetheless he leaves out the most important part, given the Austrian context.
Ernst took someone else’s bike and went after the coachman. A row ensued. The coachman sarcastically said, You are a daredevil cyclist and I’m a miserable coachman. I had to mind my horses and save my lady thousands. It then turned out Ernst already had the pleasure of knowing the lady, having often bought his cigars from her. Alma explains she had been a tobacconist of very dubious reputation in Bad Ischl. She had gone on to marry a very rich man.
This is a Schwarzfahren story. In the station in Nuremberg, Alma notices that the return ticket for herself and Gretl has expired. The man of a couple there to see them off quickly gives them a hundred marks to get rid of them. The girls decide to get on, each with what she calls a bad conscience and a resentful heart. On the way the controller comes along and asks for their tickets. When they tell him ‘everything’ he continues grumpily on his way. Then comes the conductor. He fears punishment – for the girls. In Munich a friend is waiting at the station – fortunately for them – because they are intercepted and interrogated by railway officials with red caps. The controller keeps saying, ‘The ladies are having us on’, which Alma finds so very embarrassing. She adds if they had not had their friend there, they would still be in the company office. Oh, es war scheusslich. In the end they have to pay double the ticket price – 72 marks – as a fine.
The Rhine Maidens episode involves a boat chase on a lake. At the outset Alma prefaces it by saying this would seem far-fetched in a novel. She makes a similar comment after two wedding proposals are received in one week (see Beaumont). Anyway, she and some other ladies were in a rowing boat, whistling some Wagnerian riff at a woman’s house to attract her attention. A young man appeared on the shore instead and whistled back at them.
Tired of heavy oars, they changed to a smaller boat at a boathouse, where the young man quickly rented one in order to follow them onto the water. If they went fast, he went fast. If they turned, he turned the same way. The pursuit reminded Alma of Wagner’s elusive Rhine Maidens. They returned to the boathouse, so he did too. They abandoned the boat and hurried up the road. Then they heard the voice of a young man they knew, calling them back to the water. They turned to their saviour for protection but when the two young men spotted each other there was a cry of joy and big hugs. The girls were astonished. The two chaps were best friends.
Rosa Kornbluh was a friend who had a weird experience with Klimt on an Italian train, where he terrified her in a tunnel. That much is in Beaumont but here Alma details Rosa stalking her Italian fiancé. He had come to Vienna but hadn’t let her know. She ran into him on Graben and followed him into a church, where she fainted. When she came around, he told her he’d thought she was in Budapest. Alma then describes two occasions watching the pair at the opera. The second time she sees them sitting together in a porch during an intermission. ‘He: sulky and silent. She: like a sleepwalker, excited, with glazed eyes. She must be crazy… He has my sympathy now… He cannot save himself from her, from her love, from her jealousy.’ Er kann sich ja nicht retten vor ihr, vor ihrer Liebe, vor ihrer Eifersucht.
The girls buy some sausage and pretzel sticks on their way home in the evening and consume them on the quiet streets in an unladylike fashion. The sudden appearance of a couple of people makes Alma hurriedly conceal a piece of sausage in her leather bag. Die ist nun fettig. Eine kleine Berührung, und der Fleck ist da ewig (‘That’s greasy now. A little touch, and the stain is there forever’).
In the English version, there are three proposals of marriage. In the German, there are five. Beaumont omits the surreal pair. Alma gets up on New Year’s Day to be offered the hand of Onkel Fischel, a quite elderly, sickly and impoverished family friend. She cannot believe her ears and thinks he’ll end up in an asylum. Man müsste lachen, wenns nicht so traurig wäre (‘One would have to laugh, were it not so sad’). The following day, she writes about the experience again. Während er sprach, sah ich immer von den goldenen Zähnen auf die Glätzel, von der auf die knöchernen Hände, von da auf die befleckte Hose… while he spoke, her gaze constantly shifted from the gold teeth to the little bald head, to the bony hands, to the stained trousers.
Alma’s dinner conversations with two gobshites at the Hotel Victoria are worth retelling. Wärndorfer asks her is she sure she has nothing to regret. Out with it, says Alma. He elaborates on his stalker-like observations at an exhibition (the first man to approach her – no, not him – the second – no, not him either – the third – ah, he’s the one – he knew it aus jedem Muscel ihres Gesichts (‘from every muscle of her face’)). He adds that the beautiful Alma has for once been left picking for scraps, that the shoe is on the other foot. She is disgusted by his creepy introduction of ‘such a delicate subject’ and when he asks what other way was he to take it she tells him to make of it what he will.
On her other side, Hancke, whom she always sees as an ass, begins to sound plaintive. Then he tells her he has considerable capital in Vienna, from various sources, if she gets his drift. She asks him what is he on about. He starts coughing, which gives her a chance to change the subject. He then draws her a picture of his future apartment and says he’ll have a room too many. ‘Get yourself a butler’ is her advice. Then she turns back to Wärndorfer.
Regretting performing (dancing madly, talking nonsense) at a social gathering, Alma states that at least going out had brought the benefit of someone asking Carl for a painting. She then discusses the tricky financial situation of the family, at a time when Carl is not selling enough pictures. Den Zins für den 1. Februar haben wir noch nicht zusammen. Eine solche Lüge steckt in unsrer Existenz – wir leben weit über die Schnur. They hadn’t got the interest (repayment) together yet for the first of February. ‘Such a lie is planted in our existence – we live far over the line.’
Alma makes notes about two balls on the same night. The first, chez Baronin Odelga, consists of Jewish civil servants, while the second, at the Lanners, is a mix of Jews and the military. At the first she is given a noble introduction as “Fräulein Alma von Schindler”, which makes her write them off as dopes (Trottelvolk). At the second only the maids were drunk but otherwise it was classy.
Alma gets a letter from Baronin Odelga, noting that she hasn’t shown her face in the weeks since the ball. Her presence is demanded at another do, which Alma considers an impertinence, but, having made excuses not to dine there, she and Carl attend in order not to piss these people off too much. At the event, an old Jewish lady pesters Alma to sing but Alma says she does not sing. The old lady says that it’s a pity because she wanted her to take part in an operetta. Then she pesters her to dance a minuet with another young woman. Alma turns away from her. Carl stands up and says he must go. Alma is delighted and follows him to the door. Before they can leave the old lady catches up to ask her to come back for dinner on Tuesday but Alma remembers that she is going to Budapest. For three weeks, she hastily adds. In conclusion, she promises herself not to go back to this kind of hassle any time soon.
She has always detested Herr Krasny and done little to hide it but in response to his feverish marriage proposal she tells him to be quiet and when he starts trembling all over she recommends some cold water (kaltes Wasser – eine kleine Douche). The encounter is deemed unpleasant … ich sinke … this kind of thing gives her a sinking feeling.
That same evening Alma observes the Schadenfreude of the tenor Erik Schmedes in the audience, when another singer has throat trouble. Though Beaumont reluctantly includes the fight at the opera – when it seems Schmedes beat up a rival who made a smart remark about him skipping a high note – he gripes that Alma’s hearsay account doesn’t tally with the part of the score of the opera in question. The German edition states the fight would probably have erupted later in the wings but in general Beaumont leaves out too much of Schmedes. He is the most entertaining musical character. He seems to have had the soul of a clown.
Alma makes a comment that Zemlinsky being ill would at least give him the chance to give a rest to the ants in his pants.
Carl is awarded a gong and doesn’t know why. One of his well-wishing visitors is a State official for whom he had previously lobbied. The man had got the job, an achievement which Alma mentions also involved large-scale bribery on his part.
Alma refers to Zemlinsky as a miserable coward but kisses a card from him. Her mother later asks why she has ink on her mouth. Again, in the German at least, her sense of humour has not quite deserted her.
Is it English prudery that left out what Alma was doing with her finger in bed on this day? In the introduction, Beaumont primly says he was uneasy about including “the indiscreet account” of the divine Mahler’s fiasco when he first attempted to have sex with her. He still saw fit to omit Alma’s expression of feelings of shame immediately after the line (that he kept) where she wrote she longed for rape (24 July 1901).
In the end these differences in quality between the German original and the English translation made me think of another great diarist, Alan Clark. In the preface to his first volume (1983-91), Clark concluded by listing all the criticisms that he saw could be levelled against his chronicle. He kept his trump card for the last line. But they are real diaries.