Sam and Jim

Sam and Jim

Paris 1971 … an American and an Irishman meet by chance in a bar.

The young American tries in vain to attract the attention of a waiter for another beer. Nearby the Irishman reads a newspaper and sips a whiskey.

Excuse me. Excuse me. S’il vous plaît. Une bière. It’s no good. But hey, it’s Paris. (turning to SAM nearby) Excuse me, sir, can you speak French?

Would you like some help?

You live here?

Yes. A long time.

I live here too, now. Not so long.

I see. How do you find it?

Hey man, it’s Paris. But I can’t speak the language. That kind of bums me out a little.

Why don’t you learn it?

Why don’t I learn to play the guitar too… why didn’t I just plod away in my own garden?

Are you interested in music or gardening? Or do you like both?

More like music is interested in me.

I don’t follow you.

I’m in… eh, show-business, back home.

But you just said you live here now.

I’ve got the soul of a clown and it’s taken me a long way, so far. But who knows what’s round the next corner? I came here to get away from something.

Haven’t we all? What do you play? Maybe you sing. Is that it? Do you sing?

Classical buff, I imagine? Thought so. Well, it ain’t Schubert. Let’s just say I’m a troubadour. A minstrel. But where are you from?

Eh, Dublin.

Getting nowhere here with this waiter reminds me of a play by an Irish guy. It’s about two bums on a road, just shooting the breeze. Years ago, when I was back there in some school or other, I had to write a paper on it. I put forth the proposition that it was a Civil War story. It had a Grant, a Lee and a Slave.

What part of America are you from?


Warm and dry. People can swim. They can be happy.

The water is very cold. I’m Jim.

Sam. I was in New York once.


It was a few years ago now. The people there… were all a bit odd.

I should have been a poet. A love poet, perhaps… I wish I was a girl of sixteen/I’d be the queen of the magazine/And all night long you could hear me scream.

Ah, sweet sixteen. An exceedingly unhappy birthday, zero by the chronometer. But why a poet?

Feelings are disturbing.

Einer muss wachen, heisst es. Einer muss da sein. Someone must watch, it means. Someone must be there. Find someone you can talk to. It’s just a bonus if you don’t mind the cut of her jib.

Jib – a triangular staysail, set forward of the forward-most mast. That implies going by first impressions. I never heard of an unattractive muse so I’m looking for another flashing chance at bliss.

When I was your age, or thereabouts, I used to console myself by saying that at least, with my initial efforts, Lord help us, I’d achieved creative fulfillment and a preparation for death at such an early age. Later, I maintained that success or failure on a public level didn’t matter and indeed that the latter had a certain vivifying air about it.

I guess you knew what you wanted to do. You just didn’t know what you were doing. What tripped your wire?

It was an extraordinarily bitter season, zero by the thermometer. The winter of forty and forty-one. The Gestapo started arresting my friends. I couldn’t just sit around, waiting for inspiration. But I ended up down South, working on a farm, just for food, until other Americans came, so don’t talk to me about gardens, metaphorical or botanical.

What did you do then? Just come back here and stroll around?

When it was over, I went back to see my mother.

Don’t talk to me about mothers, man.

That’s when I finally saw it. What I had to do from then on. I was nearly forty. Imagine. If only she could have seen that I made something of myself, in the end, on my own terms.

Some of us get the vision early. Maybe it was the acid… This waiter could be a regular guy on a bad day or he could be a real asshole. Were we in former times, back home, way out west, I could just shoot him and put him on my tab. But I haven’t reacted because at least he doesn’t know who I am. I haven’t given him any trouble yet.

It must be a pact with the Devil, setting out down that road into the high life.

It was different with me. Spring came early.

Shed some light.

I think I knew exactly what I was doing, at least at the beginning. Even when no one else knew it.

There are two great, mirror questions of faith, it seems. How should one live and when should one believe that other people actually know what they’re doing.

I knew, man. I knew.

I admire your youthful clarity.

But if you’ve got anything to say, you’ve only got so much of it to say and you’ve got to hope you don’t run out too fast.

I admire your clarity.

If you failed first, when you were young, at least you know you can live with it.

I went on. Like almost everybody.

I was sleeping on the roof of an empty warehouse and doing a lot of acid. It was then that the orchestra started up, just in my head. All I had was a candle and a blanket and an occasional can of soup. Then I met one of the other guys on the beach and I gave him a blast. The rest is, well, you can guess the rest.

You’re in pop, I take it.

So here I am, an American in Paris, at the end of an incredible springtime. Why are you here?

It was the place that bothered me the least. Why don’t you stop what you’re doing now and go do something else for a while? Clear the head a bit.

Like what?

I don’t know.

I’m an American in Paris. What you want me to do? Start dancing?

You must have some idea otherwise. Plus you can always keep your hand in.

If I try to keep my hand in they’ll take it off at the shoulder.

There’s always the Legion. But you’d have to learn French.

My father was in the navy… could be, still… From a thin raft, one clown could be drowned while the other was saved.

Well, why not?

It’s my job. There’s no going back now. When we started out we dreamed of being big in the city or even all along the coast but then the bullshit took over and I made interviews into an art form. It’s something I invented. But I wish I could build me a woman.

Bastard journalists. I wouldn’t give them the time of day.

I gave them the best time of their lives.

Never say anything under interrogation, if you can help it at all.

Is that something you learned in the war?

In boarding school.

Now I can’t stand it anymore. I’d be so glad if people just didn’t recognize me.

Poor you. The world is full of distress. What did you expect? A land without shadows? Why should you or I think we should be any different?

What gives you the most pain?

Whatever it is, we must master our anguish.

But what gives you the most pain?

What I’ve had to master.

But what-

The past, what else? Christ, what else?

Pain is something to carry, like a radio, to keep us awake.

I usually listen to sports on the radio.

I guess that’s enough pain if it’s your guy who’s losing.

We must master our anguish.

If you hide your feelings, you’re denying a part of yourself, you’re letting society twist your reality.

What I’ve felt has been clear since 1945. I don’t care about society. I just know that I’m not afraid to stand up for my friends. That’s all. That’s me. It’s not about what I feel, it’s about what I do. It’s what you do with it. The tracks of my tears are like invisible ink.

But how’s that trick done?

You don’t have to be a saint. Heaven knows you don’t. When you have to be somewhere, you’re there, that’s all. Someone must be there. Someone must be sound.

You don’t know shit, my friend.

That’s what tortures me.

Tortures you? You’re killing me, man.

You try to grasp a piece of flotsam, only to slip beneath the waves into the black void again.

That’s the killer on the road. Is that all you have to tell me?

For heaven’s sake, boy, go easy on the sauce.

Like I said, who knows what’s round the next corner? Now I think I got to get out of here.

I’m about to leave, myself.

Come on a crawl with me, man.

I don’t think so.

Come on, man. I can show you an amazing hole in the ground just a few blocks from here.

What hole? The earth is full of holes. Getting out at night holds different meanings for us now, Jim.

Come on. Let’s move on.

I can’t go on.

I’ll go on.

Good luck, Jim.

You threw me a bone, you explained your twilight. But I’ve got to believe there’s still manna in Paris for imbeciles like me. So long, Sam.

God bless.


Cré na Cille – the deadly Irish novel

Cré na Cille – the deadly Irish novel

O Cadhain s&b pb 227062.indd

Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906-70) is a name that can be anglicised as Martin Kyne. He was a former IRA prisoner from Connemara who became Professor of Irish at Trinity College Dublin. His 1949 novel Cré na Cille (literally, clay of the church) has been translated into at least half a dozen languages, with two English versions finally appearing in the past five years. It is said the first English attempt, in the Fifties, turned to dust when the young woman hired as translator joined a convent. There have also been stage and radio adaptations and an Irish-language feature film (2007).

The two central characters are the rival sisters Caitríona and Neil (pronounced Nell). Caitríona is dead in a Connemara graveyard but continues to live their feud from beyond the grave. Hence the brilliant conceit but the tragic element, evident from the first chapter, is that Neil took the man Caitríona loved.

Pursuing an ambition to read it in Irish was a proud undertaking in my book, though I was nearly fifty before I got round to it. Before long I got used to the non-standard spelling Ó Cadhain favoured but still had to turn to the dictionary quite often, not being completely familiar with our past customs either. After a hundred pages I hoped Caitríona would be seen yet to have put one or two over on her sister, by way of reprisal. The carry-on at her wake, the treatment of her corpse, is practically sacrilegious, even to a non-believer.

All updates come from the newly buried, though a French pilot arrives after a plane crash and no one can understand French. A hundred and fifty pages in, Caitríona gets her first bit of good news since she was lowered. It seems her previously despised daughter-in-law is a new woman since going over and hammering Neil’s equivalent over an insult and, when Neil tries to intervene, shoving her into the fire.

There is a key section near the middle of Cré na Cille – a passage of criss-crossing accusations of rural stealing and robbing this, that and the other – that performs two non-comic functions. It reminds the reader (a) not to take all that is said here at face value and (b) similarly not to take all that the living Irish say as gospel.

Towards the end of the book I began to wonder nonetheless would the whole prove less than the parts. With fifty pages to go it looked like there would be no climax, as I read a diverting passage of hospital slapstick about the mixing of two patients’ innards. That life goes on above ground seemed to be the overall message but I didn’t want to finish it just feeling sorry for Caitríona.

Nevertheless there is a kind of climax, in the end, when one ghost likens Neil and Caitríona to two pups he once saw watching a dying mule. In stopping the other getting at the mule, the one gets so worked up that it expires but, when the mule itself goes, the other pup just slinks away, leaving it all to the dead one.

agus nach bhfágann ansin ag an gcoileán caillte é.

It thus seems the positive reports of Neil that torment Caitríona have something to them and that she really wasn’t so bad after all… once Caitríona was gone. Otherwise, half the community – above ground – ends up in court and/or prison.

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Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin

Photo (c) Paris Review

Philip Larkin (1922-85)

Christopher Hitchens saw Larkin and George Orwell as embodiments of a certain type of Englishness. Both men loved the English countryside and feared for its future. Neither had any religious faith but both respected and learned a lot from the simplicity of Anglican prayers. When his collection The Whitsun Weddings (1964) appeared, fellow poet John Betjeman felt Larkin had “closed the gap between poetry and the public” with his down-to-earth, casual, often humorous style. Larkin and Orwell also admired English church architecture and furthermore both cherished the English affection for animals. In At Grass, Larkin writes of former champion horses in retirement; horses that were famous years before.

Silks at the start: against the sky
Numbers and parasols: outside,
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass: then the long cry

He wonders for a moment if “memories plague their ears like flies” but then observes they have “slipped their names, and stand at ease”. He is glad that they, at least, can enjoy their well-earned, care-free retirement, so the mood of the poem is human nostalgia for the passing of those old glories; those “classic Junes” of racing seasons past.

In MCMXIV the faded photograph is of an English crowd at the start of the Great War. The poem indicates colossal loss as he writes of the army recruitment lines having been like crowds gathered for sporting occasions at “the Oval or Villa Park”, uniquely, innocently

Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark

The poem is packed with everyday details of the vanished world: the coins; the “tin advertisements”; the children named after royalty; the large number of domestic servants. They were all enveloped in hazy summer when the war began, when all these men signed up for the carnage.

The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

A personal suspicion and fear of marriage features strongly in Larkin, even when writing of the excitement it can initially bring. The Whitsun Weddings title poem was inspired by a journey from Hull to London in 1955. Traditionally Whit Saturday was a popular choice of wedding day for the working class. A few years before his death, Larkin recalled the genesis of this, one of his most famous poems.

I hadn’t realized that, of course, this was the train that all the wedding couples would get on and go to London for their honeymoon: it was an eye-opener to me… there was a sense of gathering emotional momentum. Every time you stopped, fresh emotion climbed aboard. And finally between Peterborough and London when you hurtle on, you felt the whole thing was being aimed like a bullet – at the heart of things… Incredible experience. I’ve never forgotten it… It was wonderful, a marvellous afternoon. It only needed writing down. Anybody could have done it.”

The poet vividly sets the scene in terms of touch, sight and smell as the journey begins, “all sense of being in a hurry gone”, giving us sensations like hot cushions, blinding windscreens and a smelly fish-dock. Industry breaks into the countryside, in the form of “floatings of industrial froth” on a canal and “acres of dismantled cars”.

It takes him a while to notice the fuss at the stations, mistaking it for “porters larking with the mails”, but he is soon leaning out the windows, to see the girls in “parodies of fashion”, the “mothers loud and fat”, and “an uncle shouting smut”. These are not rich people but Larkin does not despise them. He uses ambivalent phrases like “happy funeral” to describe the mixed feelings and tension among the female onlookers before turning to the “fresh couples” catching their breath aboard the train.

It speeds up for the last fifty minutes of the journey as the couples sit side by side and watch the passing landscape, all oblivious of the others sharing this same special, brief experience.

And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Though the poet later said he meant the last line of the poem to indicate fertility, to go with the postal districts of London “packed like squares of wheat”, many people have read the transformation into rain as a sad metaphor. Thus there are other aspects of Englishness in which Hitchens thought Orwell and Larkin also had a share. This was the world of bad food and watery drinks, drab and crowded accommodation, bad plumbing, long queues, poor hygiene, rain and uncultured ignorance.

For a man who knew such things yet never really engaged with life, not to mind entertaining the idea of an afterlife, Larkin had an excessive fear of death. Ambulances is a meditation on how near and random death still is (“They come to rest at any kerb:/All streets in time are visited”). Today people may see them as a positive intervention, preserving life, but, when the poem was written, in the Fifties, to be carried away in an ambulance was a very bad sign, when passers-by could be morbidly hypnotized by, for example

A wild white face that overtops
Red stretcher-blankets

He links his personal and cultural obsessions again in Church Going, by which he means his habit of visiting churches. His comical English diffidence appears again at the very beginning. Only when he is sure there’s nothing going on does he step inside. He has no hat so he takes off his cycle-clips “in awkward reverence” before he moves to “the holy end” and gets up on the lectern, where he imitates a vicar. Back at the door, he signs the book and, in a cynical yet funny gesture, donates an Irish sixpence.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into

He muses about who will be the last person to go to the church just because it is a church. Will it be someone like himself?

Bored, uninformed…
…yet tending to this cross of ground
… because it held…
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these

So it actually pleases him to stand in silence there. He becomes a spokesman for all those who, lacking belief, nevertheless find some spiritual need satisfied by churches. “A serious house on serious earth it is”, where individuals can at the very least place their own lives in the context of the life and history of their tribe.

And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious

Larkin once told an interviewer, “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,” and he found much of his inspiration in the overcrowded, grubby society that he so much claimed to resent. After his death, the publication of his letters led to him being widely condemned as a misogynist and racist but, as Clive James has written, Larkin really was the greatest poet of his time, and he really did say awful things. Nonetheless he didn’t say them in his poems, which he thought of as a realm of responsibility in which he would have to answer for what he said forever.

In his last interview, Larkin recalled judging the final stages of a poetry competition. When he commented on the absence of any poems about love or nature, the organizers told him they had thrown all those away. “I expect,” said the disappointed and politely disapproving Larkin, “they were the ones I should have liked.”

The Kafka of Sociology

The Kafka of Sociology

In November 1952 Erving Goffman took a phrase from the world of confidence trickery for the title of his essay “On Cooling The Mark Out”, which was subtitled “Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure” and published in the journal Psychiatry. A mark in the jargon is the victim of a scam. For the mark, such cooling is a process of adjustment to a situation arising from his having defined himself in a way that the social facts (e.g. his loss) contradict.

In stark cases, as in those of physical death, the role of spiritual cooler is given to doctors or priests. A priest must not so much save a soul as create one that is consistent with what is about to become of it. A second typical solution to the problem of reconciling a mark to his loss consists of offering him another status that provides something else for him to become. Usually the alternative presented to the mark is a compromise of some kind. As examples, Goffman offers the lover who may be asked to become a friend and the student of medicine who may be asked to switch to dentistry.

A third standard method of cooling the mark out is to perform a controlled explosion. If this eruption of emotions does not find a target, then it at least serves as a release and catharsis. When a blow-up of this kind occurs, friends of the mark or psychotherapists are often called in. Friends are willing to take responsibility because their relationship is not limited to the role the mark has failed in. Psychotherapists, on the other hand, are willing to take responsibility because it is their business to offer a relationship to those who have failed in some other relationship.

In an increasing number of cases, the mark is given professional help of some kind. The psychotherapist is, in this sense, society’s cooler. His or her job is to send the patient back in a condition in which he or she can no longer cause trouble to others and can no longer make a fuss.

As a fourth cooling procedure, the operator and the mark may form an understanding according to which the mark agrees to act as if he were leaving of his own accord and the operator agrees to preserve this illusion. Bribery is a form of exchange. In such cases, the mark guarantees to leave quickly and quietly and in exchange is allowed to go under what the writer calls a cloud of his own choosing.

Goffman also writes that persons who have died in social ways come gradually to be brought together into a common graveyard that is separated ecologically from what he terms the living community. For the “dead”, this is at once a punishment and a defence. Jails and mental institutions are the most familiar examples but other important ones exist.

In America, he observed the interesting tendency to set aside certain regions and towns as retirement asylums for those who have died as workers and as parents but who are still alive, financially. In Europe we can view the south coast of Spain as a parallel zone.

Hobo jungles provided another case in point for Goffman but, just as a residential area may become a graveyard, so also certain institutions and occupational roles could take on a similar function, he maintained. The religious ministry in Britain, for example, had sometimes served as a limbo for the occupational stillborn of better families, as had the British universities. Nonetheless Goffman accepted that there were few positions in life that did not group together some people who were there as failures and others as successes.

In this sense, the dead are sorted but not segregated, and continue to walk among the living.

Bernard Pivot & Les Mots de ma vie

Bernard Pivot & Les Mots de ma vie

Bernard Pivot was the literary face of French television for thirty years, chiefly on the long-running shows Apostrophes and Bouillon de culture. On p. 38 of his lexical memoir Les Mots de ma vie (2011) there is a quote describing the author (“un concentré de Français”) that suggests his book will reflect both sides of the French coin – bittersweet romance and meaningless abstraction – but coins have three dimensions and here there are also many passages of wit and comedy.

Pivot seems to have been especially amused by Vladimir Nabokov. Marguerite Duras turns up a couple of times too, such as when he didn’t want to encourage her after she rang him at two in the morning to read some newly written text over the phone, but the account of Nabokov’s studio demands is perhaps the funniest.


That Nabokov’s teapot contained whiskey was well known but on Apostrophes the great man didn’t want to present the French public with the spectacle of a man drinking on live television. Therefore a verbal formula was devised to enable him to tipple away discreetly on set. Encore un peu de thé, monsieur Nabokov?

The novelist also insisted, on the basis of some prostate trouble, that an emergency urinoir be installed behind the studio decor but this demand was quietly ignored and of course Nabokov forgot all about it. He kept talking long after the final credits and then used the regular toilets like everyone else.

Such a happy ending did not ensue the last time someone was allowed smoke on Bouillon de culture. An unfortunately placed camera made it look like a female guest – Jacqueline de Romilly, already nearly blind – was engulfed by the cigarette smoke of Philippe Sollers. This led to the switchboard being inundated by protest calls and a snowstorm of letters accused Pivot of complicity in such boorishness and barbarity.

Invited by RAI to watch an episode of an Italian programme he was told was inspired by his own, he emerged horrified after an hour of shouting – fuelled by a noisy presenter – in which the guests brandished books like the Red Guards waved the thoughts of Chairman Mao. Though he never learned English properly, Pivot also mentions he was reliably informed that English political and literary talk shows, in contrast, were just boring.

He claims that foreign writers, especially Americans, were surprised to be able to talk about their books on French TV with a host who had actually read them. This happened without being interrupted by ads or having a minister, a stripper or a golf champion on as fellow guests. Pivot then likens the differences in talk shows to different national styles of playing soccer. His love of le foot is a recurrent theme that helps put a more regular face on the writer.

In other passages he is an anorak, not least about food. Only a Frenchman could be an anorak about food, though his exploration of its impact on French slang and idiom is instructive. There is also a pair of funny food stories, as in the time Pivot, as a young journalist sent to report on a theatre, was nabbed trafficking spuds into Belgium.

On his way to Brussels he stopped off to see his wife’s family in the Pas-de-Calais, where a thirty-kilo sack of potatoes was placed in his car boot by his father-in-law. A Belgian customs officer demanded that he open the same boot, whereupon a bunch of them converged to accuse him of smuggling potatoes. They asked if he didn’t know Belgium was already a great producer and consumer of chips / fries and if the sack was a present for the director of the theatre he was about to visit. In the end he had to turn the car around and give the potatoes back to his beau-père.

In the entry on freeloaders and gatecrashers, Pivot distinguishes between those who come just for the show and those literary ones who come to eat and drink, wolfing glasses of wine and sandwiches in the morning and champagne and petits-fours in the afternoon. Always located very near the table or the bar and sometimes shoved aside by impatient publishers, without ever protesting they give way just enough to regain their strategic position with minimum delay.

Not all Pivot’s comedy is intentional, though, as in the classic line, Certains couples lisent au lit, puis mettent un marque-page, referment le livre, éteignent et font l’amour (‘Certain couples read in bed, then place a bookmark, close the book, switch off the light and make love’). Only a Frenchman could solemnly sketch that scene that in the English-speaking world would always be played for laughs.

Pivot retired as a regular TV host in 2005. The day after the maiden broadcast of his first programme, Ouvrez les guillemets, back in the early Seventies, the channel boss Jacqueline Baudrier phoned him to tell him the show had not been good but that was normal, as it was his first time out.

Ne remettez cette veste : vous aviez l’air d’un garçon de café. Je suis sûre d’une chose : vous êtes fait pour la télévision.

(‘Don’t wear that jacket again, you looked like a waiter. I’m sure of one thing. You were made for television.’)


A Writing Life

A Writing Life

Chuck Ross submitted a freshly typed copy of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1969 National Book Award winner, Steps, to fourteen publishers and thirteen agents as an unsolicited manuscript. All twenty-seven failed to recognise it and all twenty-seven rejected it.”

The Cynic’s Handbook, p. 63

Apart from a streak of cynicism like that shown by Chuck Ross, what’s really required for a writing life? Anybody that’s interested will be familiar with the usual advice from how-to books and features: try to write something every day, get an agent and be prepared for all the rejection slips. To my mind, though, it would be much better if all those books and advisers started off with the following quotation. It doesn’t matter how pretentious or down-to-earth the writing ambition is. We all think we have something to say and we want the world to hear it.

“The creative artist seems to be almost the only kind of man that you could never meet on neutral ground. You can only meet him as an artist. He sees nothing objectively because his own ego is in the foreground of every picture. (…) If he is a writer, he tends to associate only with other writers and with the various parasitic growths which batten on writing. To all these people literature is more or less the central fact of existence. Whereas to vast numbers of reasonably intelligent people it is an unimportant sideline, a relaxation, an escape, a source of information and sometimes an inspiration. But they could do without it far more easily than they could do without coffee or whiskey.”

– Raymond Chandler

If you can stand that much detachment, you then have some questions to ask yourself. For example, would you really like to spend most of your time, when you’re out of the house, attending literary lunches and book festivals, seeing the same kinds of faces, hearing the same conversations and answering the same old questions? Would you cope with sitting for hours in bookshops, waiting to sign something, anything? Could you take it if a customer finally came up and you lifted your pen and then the person only asked if the bookshop had a toilet? Even prize-winning scribblers have endured that… and worse.

Right now I’d like you to try and see the writing life from the point of view of a witness to a couple of literary bigwigs in live action. In this case, I was only present to help a book dealer friend get stuff signed. In 2006, in Listowel in Kerry, the Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee made a rare festival appearance. It was hot enough in the hotel function room already but his first reading – a piece about agri-tourism in an arid region of South Africa – did not encourage the will to live. It was hardly accidental when audience applause filled a gap between sheets of paper, when he was slow to turn a page. Next Coetzee read from his then work in progress (“Diary 2005”). In other words, these were his musings from the year before. He seemed to be preoccupied by George W. Bush, as many people were at the time, I suppose.

The next day, in the hotel, John Banville worked the same crowd with some dry self-deprecation. When a woman near the front got up and left without a word he felt obliged to ask, “Was it something I said?” The only time he smiled was when he quoted something he’d written at the age of twelve. I wondered if it was sheer coincidence then, or just a writerly dig, when he mentioned he might have sold the kiddie stuff to the University of Texas in Austin – the place where Coetzee had studied, according to the festival programme.

By then it was well into question time and many present were no longer listening. Some of the elderly were dozing in the heat, while the people sitting by the windows had already been diverted by an incident on the racecourse, just across the river, where a horse ambulance had to be called to the scene. Banville is known to ask, “Why do we do it?” and “Certainly not for the money” is one of his answers but, of all the people there that day, my dealer pal at least was in it for the extra money that the writer’s signature would bring.

I was there to carry up half the large stack of books. To lessen the bad impression, in other words, but, assuming the writer got paid for his appearance, why would anyone in their right mind have been there otherwise, especially on a hot day? The most sensible answer, to my knowledge, comes from Bret Easton Ellis, who said he only went to such events as an unknown because he wanted to make contacts. Evidently he could stand the bullshit. For getting involved in such stuff is, in the end, a matter of temperament.

When does a writer first become an unknown? It’s when he or she decides to write. In my case, the age was seventeen and the genre was poetry. At eighteen, I got my first rejection slip. It came from the old Irish Press newspaper, in early 1983, the year I started keeping a diary. Later, the most interesting period of my younger life came between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-six, when I wrote diaries about, among other things, my adventures in various jobs in Belfast, Dublin and London. A variety of jobs is good for a writer, as it is good for any person, but the point of such reminiscing is that as late as 2012 I was still fussing with those diaries, thinking there’s a novel, a book there, somewhere.

A Hollywood lawyer called Fred Leopold once said real people as characters in films can have lattes and muffins but cannot say, “Let’s go and have sex in the bushes” and you may get positive comments from traditional publishers about your writing about your own life but, unless that life is a horror story and/or a triumph of the human spirit, nobody else will publish it.

Then you may be tempted to become your own publisher. After all, it’s a long-established practice in the music business, with no stigma of vanity attached. New technology has made even paper book production cheaper – no printer should manage to con you into paying for printing plates any more, for instance – so you shouldn’t have to risk your life savings on your masterpiece either, not least because you now have the option of e-books.

So, what kind of writer are you? If you manage to restrain your urge to tell your whole life story, you might pick a subject that allows you to express your view of the world in a way that just might possibly be of interest to others.

Another key question is, if you are a writer, is that all you are? Now we are getting down to the business of books. According to Samuel Johnson, no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money. I first got into self-publishing in 2002 but mention of that year means a digression about protecting one’s interests. It was then that I had to act on the upshot of one of many false dawns. There is never any shortage of what Samuel Beckett called “discourteous bastards who won’t let you know where you stand” so let’s talk for a while about silence.

In 2000 I submitted a play script to a Tony-Award-winning theatre company (i.e. Druid) in Ireland. Then one of the company’s representatives asked to meet me in Dublin, in April 2001. At this meeting the chap described the script as like a middle-class version of British TV’s The Royle Family and he said they wanted to do it later that year. At the same time, though, my driving instructor – he was an actor – warned me not to expect too much from that quarter and he was right. In March 2002 I got back in touch.

“You may rest assured of the lasting impression made by the lack of courtesy shown me by you and your company. I’d ask for my script back only I couldn’t see the point, given that an e-mail costs less than the price of a stamp and I haven’t received even that minimum after almost a year. Such casual, arrogant rudeness may seem to cost little or nothing when dealing with someone who is unknown and without the influence that can command prudent good manners. That would be a short-sighted view. Whatever fortunes rise and fall in the future, the fact that I was misled and shabbily treated will remain uppermost in my mind.”

In the end the excuse was they hadn’t the money and so I didn’t make my dramatic writing debut there. I finally got another play, called Happy Nights, professionally produced, in both senses of the word, by another Irish company (the late Red Kettle) in 2007. Based on a real-life break-in at Samuel Beckett’s country cottage in 1961, when thieves stole his wine and even his old underpants, this short play imagined two tramps burgling their creator’s house. John Hurt showed up and he liked it but nothing grew out of it afterwards. But what really could have come of it, theatrically or financially? Of sixteen new plays by established writers that were put on in London’s West End in 2005, only two made any money.

At other times, the silence can be sinister as well as discourteous. In late 2007 I submitted a proposal for a TV history documentary, backed by extensive research, to an Irish production company that took it up with enthusiasm. For a year or so I thought I was in the loop. Then silence descended again, due to funding issues, I thought, until I discovered by accident that the thing had been commissioned and was in production. Legal advisers were then called in and happily the project soon got put back on the rails, contractually. Plus I got paid, even if I had to pay a lawyer out of that. The legal lesson was that copyright isn’t just about plagiarism, it also covers adaptation, and it was nice to win one for a change.

Anyway, let’s get back to self-publishing: in 2002 I had a couple of partners and we were all in it for the money. By the way, if possible you should avoid collaborators who don’t contribute to improving your material. Otherwise, the only partners worth having for paper books are your printer, your wholesaler and your media contacts, if any. Wholesalers are useful for getting your book to places you cannot get to yourself but don’t rely on them to flag your product to booksellers. If a wholesaler takes it on, your book will appear on a list of titles and it’s up to the shops to spot it and ask, “Um, what’s this?”

The original idea – not mine – was to write a series of history books about the Irish in America, with each volume covering a different Irish county. I wrote the text for four of these books in what we called the Journeys in America series. These covered Dublin, Cork, Waterford and Clare. Two of them – the Cork and Waterford books – made a modest profit, selling over 2,000 copies between them, while the other two were an expensive waste of time despite some good reviews, such as in the Irish Times, where “innovative and useful” was the verdict.

Our venture, High Table Publishing, was conscientious about administrative matters – such as getting a tax number and registering a business name – but we lacked experience in the book trade. There are many books about Dublin and the population of that city doesn’t care too much about its history in the first place, so printing 2,000 copies of Dublin Journeys in America was an exercise in cultural futility. Less than 250 were sold and I ended up depositing many of them in charity shops in the city, just to shift some boxes.

When it came to writing about Clare, geography came into play. I left Dublin for Waterford on the south coast in 2004 and found I could even sell my books in supermarkets there, and in Cork, but Clare turned out to be simply too far away. Our wholesaler had in the meantime lost interest. After a while it wasn’t a new title any more and it certainly wasn’t Harry Potter. We had also found out the shops at Clare’s many heritage sites were a state-owned brick wall so the Clare book was doomed, logistically. Three-quarters of 1,000 copies still sit in their boxes.

Nonetheless if you’re still confident and determined and you go ahead with your idea, don’t be mean with free copies to the media. It’s a hit-and-miss approach but it’s unavoidable. Otherwise, you will probably know enough about the world already to assume a degree of critical stupidity. It’s less likely that you will fail to assume critical fairness but remember that the critic almost certainly hasn’t picked up your book as a fan. It is work, to be done in a hurry, and it is your tough luck if you get a smart-arse on top of that.


When it came out in 2010, the then deputy editor of the Irish Independent called The Cynic’s Handbook “smart, funny and illuminating” but sales were neither good nor bad. In the meantime I’ve continued to get out of the house and make a living and maintain the discipline of writing things that other people can understand.

The most recent project that made it to this world was Fiddlers Cross, a film about a new banker in town, making his name, scorching the earth around distressed loans. After another busy day working the guillotine for his employers, he heads down to a local pub to unwind. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it, someone with ambition, and now he needs something stronger than fishing. Silence descends when he walks in past the creaking door. Then, through a random act of kindness from a fellow stranger, with whom he finds he shares a love of angling, our banker turns up a further business opportunity. It will involve a touch of moonlighting but, if he plays his cards right, he’s in for a major bonus. First he needs to borrow some cash that’s just resting in the vault and that no one will miss between two working days.

Starring Gerry O’Brien of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, King Arthur, The Tudors and Father Ted, this short film was the work of first-time director Michael McMahon, with whom I wrote the script. It won first prize in the Best Screenplay category at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in August 2014.

November 2016

The Schindler Girl

The Schindler Girl

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.


30 April
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.

5 August
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.

16 October
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.

13 December
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.


15 March
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.

29 March
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’).

5 April
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’).

16 April
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.’)

18 May
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.

8 June
Alma’s fascinating account of her aunt Xandi’s twenty-one years as a mistress is too long to spell out here.

19 June
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.

3 August
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.

29 August
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.

24 September
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.

2 October
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’).


1 January
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.

16 January
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.

26 January
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.’

7 March
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.

31 March
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.

21 November
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.


21 January
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.

25 February
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.

16 April
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.

7 July
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.