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. A wild guess could have told him the same.

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. Funnily enough, he does not mention the appearance of Charles Bukowski on his show in September 1978. Bukowski’s departure from the studio was like a scene from the restaurant in the Jacques Tati film, Playtime (1967).

Pivot 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.’)


The Schindler Girl

The Schindler Girl

There’s an old saying in the music business. Musicians are a–holes. 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 the cathedral, 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.

Austria, a notebook #1

Austria, a notebook #1

Dr. John Flynn

Austrians tend to make their lives easier, so first of all they are very polite and second they don’t mean it… The difference between Austrians and Germans is very much like Irish and English.

– Christoph Waltz

In Michael Frayn’s Travels with a Typewriter, a collection of articles from the 1960s and 1970s, the penultimate piece finds him in Vienna in 1975. His acquaintance there with a mathematics student from Berlin “outraged by all this charm” makes him consider “these two German worlds” but the effort to reconcile them in his head proves disconcerting. Frayn is, after all, English, and the irony of Austria can be rather more spiritually familiar to an Irish person. That’s if it even bears thinking about.

On the subject of the unwillingness of the Irish to step beyond the English-speaking world, economically or culturally, it is true that most of them…

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Happy Nights

Happy Nights

Happy Nights

© John Flynn 2006


PATRICK, a burglar
MICHEL, a burglar


Happy Nights was inspired by a real event. One night in July 1961, Samuel Beckett’s Marne cottage at Ussy was burgled. According to his biographer James Knowlson, the burglars, as well as enjoying all the food and drink they could find, stole his clothes – even his old underpants – but left a painting that was quite valuable untouched. Happy Nights was produced by Red Kettle theatre company and premiered in Ireland at the Waterford Festival of New Plays in April 2007. John Hurt was the special guest at the first performance.





A representation of a window is seen in the centre at the back. A bookcase stands to the left of the window. A rectangular bureau desk, stacked with papers, stands to the right, with a chair. A round dining table should be placed in front, flanked by two wicker chairs, each with arms and a cushion on its seat. A small wicker footstool and a large wicker wastepaper basket should also be present.

– – –

The scene is darkness apart from moonlight in the window. From off left come the sounds of a shutter being forced and a window broken.

Enter PATRICK and MICHEL, dressed as tramps. PATRICK switches on the light and MICHEL ducks under the furniture.

PATRICK limps, having hurt his leg gaining entry. He grimaces, mutters, holds his knee. MICHEL observes but makes no comment.

Hope nobody comes.

We won’t wait around.

They take time to size up their surroundings.

What time is it?

Past midnight.

Never knew such silence.

At this place, at this moment, all mankind is us.

I like it that way. We should have plenty of time.

We have time to grow old.

They begin to search through books and papers and quickly make a mess.

MICHEL is rougher at this and shows less finesse. He throws books on the floor.

Take it easy. Have some respect. For the books, at least.

MICHEL takes it easier. After a couple of minutes, PATRICK halts.

I’m hungry. Do you want to go and see if there’s anything to eat?

That’s an idea. We could feed ourselves.

MICHEL exits left.


Calling after MICHEL

Don’t bother with anything like carrots or radishes. No vegetables of any kind!

PATRICK examines the contents of desk drawers. Pots and pans rattle off left.

MICHEL returns with a re-corked bottle of wine and two glasses. He pulls the cork with his teeth. They sit on the wicker chairs.

PATRICK holds his knee. MICHEL sniffs the wine in the bottle.

This wine should still be all right. There is a couple of unopened bottles too.

Any food?

Some tins. But I couldn’t find an opener or a corkscrew.

Brief pause as PATRICK reflects.

How did prehistoric man open cans? What did he use?

They sample the wine.

It’s a pity. I’m hungry too. Damn.


Producing a knife

Be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything.

PATRICK hands the knife to MICHEL, who exits left.

PATRICK resumes the search.

MICHEL returns with a couple of open tins and sits again. He samples the contents before passing it to PATRICK, who tops up their wine glasses.

PATRICK tries the contents of the tin and they both drink some more wine.

MICHEL stands up again and exits left. He returns with his arms full of clothing and footwear (a pair of boots, a straw hat, a working jacket and an old pair of underpants).

They inspect and swap these items continuously until PATRICK is wearing the straw hat and jacket and MICHEL the boots and the underpants (on the outside). They sit again.

PATRICK raises a toast.

To our absent host.

He’s a writer or something, isn’t he? Personally I wouldn’t know him even if I met him.

They guffaw.

To the maestro.

What if he comes?

Maybe he’ll come tomorrow. Back in Paris, he is sleeping. He knows nothing. Let him sleep on.

But while we’re not sleeping…

Others suffer. We’re no saints. We make no appointments.

But arrive unannounced.

Unlike billions.

Pause to look around

Far from this Marne muck.

As though the world were short of slaves.

It’s a vile planet.

MICHEL empties the first tin, scrapes it and leaves it on the table.


Cocks an ear

What’s that? What’s happening?

A robbery is taking its course.

Hope nobody comes.

You should know better. There’s no hope of that happening. Not now. Relax.

I don’t know. I can’t relax. I can’t go on like this.

PATRICK limps to the window to look out past the curtains.


Do you think we’ll ever be caught?


Deep breath first

The chances are fifty-fifty, I’d guess. Over an entire lifetime of crime, that is.

It’s a reasonable percentage. From a life.

Or maybe one of us will be safe, while the other is damned?


Trace of anguish

Until then, must we go on?

We’ll go on. Unless you have a better idea.

I have no idea. Well, none worth talking about.

We won’t despair. Whatever we find here.

We won’t presume, either.

Never presume, except that somebody might be hanging around. It’s safer to presume that much, at least.

Yes, but-


Maybe you’re different but I don’t have eyes in the back of my head.

I think you’re hearing voices.

A normally reliable little voice told me about this place.

And? Drink your wine and count your blessings. I wanted to do this one because it’s an ugly little thing.

I thought this chap would have lots of stuff.

MICHEL tosses more papers onto the floor.

Quite spartan, isn’t it? Never mind. It’s good to be in his den, in his old rags. And we always find something, eh, to leave the impression we existed?

There are still those bottles of wine.

Points off left

There’s a painting out there too, if you want to take a look at it.

MICHEL hands the knife and the second tin to PATRICK and then pours more wine.

And what if we do get caught? What if? One day – one night – happy pickings, and then – bang! – all our troubles are only beginning.

MICHEL takes the empty tin from the dining table and throws it on the floor.

What time is it?

Stop asking me the damned time. Are there any more tins?

Billions. This was the break we needed all along.

PATRICK looks up. He puts down the knife and tin, as if something is dawning on him.

Do you have some aspirations?

I think more of resolutions, these days.

To drink less?

Brief pause

And to eat more, at this very moment. Are you sure there’s nothing else?

There are some bananas. But they’ve gone off.



Have you grown attached to those underpants?

I’m going to keep them.

After you, I wouldn’t want them back.

Brief pause



No, I wouldn’t want them back.

PATRICK removes the jacket and puts it on dining table.

Have we sunk so low that we’ve gone too far?

There must be something in here.

Don’t you think we should stop?

Spreads his arms

While the going is bad.

All life long the same questions.

The same answers. You should have been a lawyer.


Indicates his shabby clothes

I was.

Brief pause

And if we do get caught?

They’ll make an example of us. So much happens around here.

So many robberies.

We’d have to repent.

Our being thieves.

All the break-ins.

Brief pause



We’d be crucified!

They both ponder in silence.

Then we’d wonder if we’d have been better off alone, each one for himself.


In the meantime, let us converse calmly.

We are capable of being silent.

They go silent.

How’s your leg?


But you can walk.

I’ll live.

Is this any way to live?

Brief pause

We should have done something else.

We should have thought of that a million years ago.

Back in the Fifties.

They think of the Fifties.

We have our excuses.

It’s because we want drink.

Add naked bodies.

So she said, last night.

We should have done somewhere else.

MICHEL kicks papers around.

PATRICK replaces a couple of books on the shelves.

PATRICK then sits again, grimaces again. MICHEL follows suit.

Have a last look in the kitchen.

You look this time.

But my leg-

If you tell me any more about the blows you received I’ll stick a carrot up your arse.

PATRICK limps off left. More rattling. He returns with some more tins and puts them on the table.

Then he exits right again, this time returning with two bottles of wine. He puts them in the same place.

When he limps off a third time MICHEL sits up and pays attention.

When PATRICK comes back he is carrying a bottle of whiskey.

Finish your tin.

Finish your own.

Pause for MICHEL to indicate the whiskey bottle.

I suppose you’ll want to keep that for yourself?

You can have the wine. And the clothes.

We ran out of stuffy little bourgeois types to rob. Then you just picked on people you didn’t like.

Ignorant apes.

Just what do you want now?


Pause as PATRICK examines the bottle.

Even then I didn’t let you take anything of sentimental value.

Brief pause

For sentimental reasons.

People get sentimental about money. I needed money. Now I’ve saved some.

Brief pause

Why don’t you just leave this place?

I can’t, I’ve spent mine.

Don’t you ever think of something you’d like to do, apart from this?

Lie on my back and fart and think of Beckett.

MICHEL finds no answer to that.

Just how much money do you think you need anyway?


After a little hesitation

Enough to open a little shop.


Laughs wildly

That’s no job for a man.

Maybe not, but there’s no money here for us, buried up to our necks in books and papers.

If you ever open that shop I’ll rob it. And lose my last friend here. Maybe then I’ll leave.

MICHEL exits left and brings in the painting. He examines it from various angles before PATRICK grabs it, turns it the right way up and props it against a leg of the dining table.

The audience cannot see it.

Don’t put a boot through that.

I’m more cultured than that. What makes you think…?

Whether you do it on purpose or accidentally, on purpose.

These boots are starting to hurt me.

Take them off.

I can’t. They’re stuck.

Just like the underpants.

They sit again, facing each other, having moved the chairs and footstool closer together.

PATRICK pulls off the boots. MICHEL sighs, puts his shoes back on, then picks up the boots.

I’ll keep them anyway. I might even give them to some tramp.

MICHEL puts the boots on the table. PATRICK examines the unopened tins.

Are you going to take that stuff too?

I thought I might eat it. But I’ll give it to the dog.

MICHEL begins to assemble a clothes pile on top of the boots. PATRICK grabs the jacket and puts it back on, rubbing his knee.


Referring to the old jacket

Don’t worry, I’ll give you this later.

What about the painting?

Put it back. How would we get rid of it around here?

Except hang it from a tree?

They pause for an un-enlightening bout of reflection. PATRICK sticks tins in the jacket pockets.

Well, shall we go?

Take off your underpants first.

MICHEL removes the underpants, folds them and puts them on the straw hat on top of the boots.

PATRICK picks up the bottles of wine and passes them to MICHEL.

Then MICHEL picks up the underpants again, in order to wrap the bottles after he places a bottle in each boot. Finally he places the hat on top of the finished pile.

PATRICK lifts the whiskey bottle and then takes a book from a shelf. He shows the book to MICHEL, who lifts the pile in his arms.

He signed it. I’ll sell it, down the line.

I can’t do this anymore.

That’s what you think. We are French. We don’t care. Nobody cares unless it happens to him.

They take a lingering last look around the room.

Well, shall we go?

Yes, let’s go.

They leave.


Planet of the Naked Stranger

Planet of the Naked Stranger

…the Sixties trip viewed through the prism of three period classics: The Naked Ape (1967); Planet of the Apes (1968); and Naked Came the Stranger (1969). That two of the texts have a Taylor only adds to the minor challenge of quote attribution.

“You don’t seem too cut up about it…
It’s too late for a wake. She’s been dead nearly a year.”

“Ah, yes – the young ape with a shovel.”

“When a wife smashes a vase on the floor it is, of course, really her husband’s head that lies there, broken into small pieces.”

“Dammit, Taylor, if you break my chair,” he roared. But they didn’t hear him. For a moment Taylor lay there. “In a wheelchair,” his boss said softly. “That’s something, Taylor.”

“Taylor, don’t treat him that way!
Why not?
It’s humiliating!
The way you humiliated me? All of you? You led me around on a leash!
That was different. We thought you were inferior.
Now you know better.”

“I’d forgotten there was more to life than mowing a lawn.”

“Well, Taylor, we’re all fugitives now.
Do you have any weapons, any guns?
The best, but we won’t need them.
I’m glad to hear it. I want one anyway.”

“A belief in the validity of the acquisition of knowledge and a scientific understanding of the world we live in, the creation and appreciation of aesthetic phenomena in all their many forms, and the broadening and deepening of our range of experiences in day-to-day living, is rapidly becoming the ‘religion’ of our time.”

“It lacks the element of challenge, luck and risk so essential to the hunting male.”

“There’s got to be an answer.
Don’t look for it, Taylor. You may not like what you find.”

“Doctor, I’d like to kiss you goodbye.
All right, but you’re so damned ugly.”

“…faster, quicker, faster, needful… lost in immense, billowy softness and riotous colours and roaring winds; he was the sand, the sea and the star-pierced sky.”

“What will he find out there, Doctor?
His destiny.”

“It was easy enough to decipher loins, hores, bores, penny kings, panders, tapers and leapolds, but almost impossible to be certain of the species referred to as bettle twigs, the skipping worm, the otamus or the Coca Cola beast.”

“She was driving, floating actually, toward her new house, floating past the freshly butchered lawns dotted with the twisted golden butts that were the year’s first fallen leaves, past the homes built low and the swimming pools and the kempt hedges and all the trappings that went into the unincorporated village of King’s Neck.”

“The threat-faces of cars have become progressively improved and refined, imparting to their drivers a more and more aggressive image.”

“Ernie found what Cervantes and Milton had only sought. He thought the fillings in his teeth would melt.”

“Her skin, the colour of India tea at summer’s end, flowed nicely over a slender frame.”

“Imagine me needing someone. Back on Earth I never did. Oh, there were women. Lots of women. Lots of lovemaking but no love. You see, that was the kind of world we’d made. So I left, because there was no one to hold me there.”

“She knew she had aroused the creature in the torn, paint-spattered T-shirt.”

“In my world, when I left it, only kids your age wore beards.”

“He simply couldn’t. (He could.)”

“It is the white colour we have to watch for here: this spells activity.”


“I’m pretty handy with this.
Of that I’m sure. All my life I’ve awaited your coming and dreaded it.”

“Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”

“With that he thrust Gillian back onto the bed and made a flying leap with the clear intent of pinning her down to stay. But she swerved to one side and the holy man, stiff with lust, came down standard-first on the bedpost. For a full two minutes he did not rise; he lay there, crumpled up, hissing incoherently.”

“Anti-contact behaviour enables us to keep our number of acquaintances down to the correct level for our species.”

“She stretched the tiny member to its full length, and it seemed to shrink even more in embarrassment.”

“You are right, I have always known about man. From the evidence, I believe his wisdom must walk hand and hand with his idiocy. His emotions must rule his brain. He must be a warlike creature who gives battle to everything around him, even himself.”

“Our fundamental biological tendency, inherited directly from our monkey and ape ancestors, is to submit ourselves to an all-powerful, dominant member of the group”

“The pre-copulatory patterns are brief and usually consist of no more than a few facial expressions and simple vocalizations.”

“… faster and faster they communicated. Fingers on skin, teeth on skin, then great shudders of total communication, and explosions of understanding.”

“The screams were not meant for him, they were meant for the other girls in the audience.”

“If these non-stop grooming sessions are to be successful, a sufficiently large number of guests must be invited in order to prevent new contacts from running out before the party is over. This explains the mysterious minimum size that is always automatically recognized as essential for gatherings of this kind.”

“Then methodically she drained him a second time, emptied him, calmed him and gentled him.”

“On this planet, it’s easy.”

“And that completes my final report until we reach touchdown. We’re now on full automatic, in the hands of the computers. I have tucked my crew in for the long sleep and I’ll be joining them soon. In less than an hour, we’ll finish our sixth month out of Cape Kennedy. Six months in deep space – by our time, that is… the Earth has aged nearly seven hundred years since we left it, while we’ve aged hardly at all. Maybe so. This much is probably true – the men who sent us on this journey are long since dead and gone. You who are reading me now are a different breed – I hope a better one. I leave the twentieth century with no regrets.”

“She was at that moment gently massaging him at his point of greatest altitude with a bottle of pink Johnson & Johnson baby lotion.”

naked came the stranger

Robert Musil’s Diaries

Robert Musil’s Diaries

Robert Musil (1880-1942) is best known for Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (‘The Man Without Qualities’), an unending, unfinished novel, of which the first volume appeared in 1930. I tried to read it once but found it too essayistic (Musil’s diaries agree) and boring and thus gave up. The first funny thing reminiscent of Jaroslav Hašek that I came across in the diaries was the farcical account of the seduction of a seventeen-year-old pal of his. Let us call the story The Cougar of Brno, as narrated by the pal and recorded by the teenage Musil.

I had an intuition that something was closing in around me… I was vaguely aware that something was going on and in my youthful anxiety I asked my friend to accompany me. I stationed him in some bushes… we found a quiet bench and read the letter. My friend… explained to me I had to visit her… She received me in her nightgown and was charming… Then she was going with her husband to visit her son at the school for cavalry cadets… ‘You’re coming with us, or rather not with us but after us.’ … When I got to W., the train in which her husband was travelling was just departing… she locked the door behind me and went straight back to bed… There was a frightful sensuality in her eyes. We had lain in bed for three hours when there was a knock at the door. It was her son… She quickly locked me up in the adjoining room… I heard her telling her son to be quiet as his father was asleep next door… I had the impression that the son had some inkling of what was going on. During our meal we drank champagne… This was how our affair started. We rented a room in Brünn… Finally, for the sake of my health, I had to restrict our relations to once a week. This was evidently too little for her for soon afterwards she was unfaithful to me with another one of her son’s friends.

Musil’s early years were strange, to put it mildly. The sleeping rule (hands outside the covers), the presence of ‘Uncle’ Heinrich in the house and Musil’s deal with Herma Dietz are just three of the oddities.


Musil was small but combative and from early on he exhibited the small-man syndrome. Herma was a servant girl who looked after Musil’s grandmother but was let go after the old woman died. Musil, then a student in Berlin, offered her a place to live on condition she became his ‘mistress’. His flat description of her reaction (“She doesn’t say yes nor no nor thank you”) seems repulsive to modern eyes. He later gave her syphilis, she had a miscarriage and she died in 1907. Soon afterwards he married a Jewish widow (Martha) seven years his senior and they stayed together until his death from a stroke in Switzerland in 1942.

Reading Musil’s account of his ill friend Alice’s crazy adventure (1910) that ended with her being locked up in Venice, I made a note at the end. This is mental, in more ways than one. It appears in a context where he expresses an interest in sodomy and incest. Raised an only child, he was long obsessed with a sister who had died before he was born. Musil was a bit of a perv (i.e. prurient) and only occasional passages are worth reading until the seventh notebook (1913). The translator says Musil was “at the height of his receptive powers” then but he probably means most observant, with less navel-gazing.

Musil is quite morbid too. A brief passage about dying consumptives in Rome exemplifies how morbid, while his description of a tour of a mental asylum there reads like a thriller. In that light, Musil’s wartime notebooks are also well worth reading. He was an officer on the Italian front before his transfer to a desk job in propaganda. There are touches of everything from The Good Soldier Švejk to Apocalypse Now in his war experiences.

In the sanatorium hut of the Prague garrison prison, Švejk explains to the other inmates that he’s got rheumatism. Even the dying consumptive, who was shamming tuberculosis, joined in the laughter. It’s already a war in there between the malingerers and the medics. All the tricks and rehabilitation tortures are outlined, leading to few firm conclusions.

All those illnesses where you have to foam at the mouth are difficult to sham…In Vršovice there’s a midwife who for twenty crowns will dislocate your legThe best thing to do… is to inject paraffin… My cousin was so fortunate as to have his arm cut off under the elbow...

Corroboration of the barbarism Hašek describes is evident from a Musil diary entry written in Prague in 1916.

Faradization. Suspicion of shamming, the young lad is faradized [i.e. shocked] every day. “Hu, hu, hu, hu, ayaya, ya,” he wriggles. One warder and four nurses stand around him laughing, holding his arms and legs and pressing the contacts to his body. He pulls faces as if he were laughing.

The sight of a wrecked Red Cross train at the bottom of an embankment is a topic of much discussion among Švejk’s crew in the East before the occultist cook Jurajda produces a bottle of cognac he stole from the officers’ mess. Then they get down to playing cards, at which Marek quotes Scripture and proves invincible. Up to this, as battalion historian, he has spent most of his time in the wagon inventing heroic deaths for his comrades. Just in case anyone might think Hašek exaggerates the fun, Musil is again instructive when his diary describes a transport of wounded. If anything, his diary suggests Hašek may actually have toned down the surrealism.

Coming from Poland… a goods wagon with cots carries the most severely wounded who are not expected to survive the journey. A man with a severe bullet wound in the lung, and another whose hip joint is smashed… One is Tyrolean, the other Viennese. The Viennese insists that the Tyroleans were no good at all in the war. The Tyrolean gets worked up about it. The Viennese with the bullet wound in the lung is constantly chipping away at him. Often the whole wagon can’t stop laughing. […} On arrival, the Viennese is dead. […] When the train stops most of them start to bellow like animals, feel unbearable pain, and relieve themselves. Officers and men.

A scene that could be from Apocalypse Now unfolds from a ridge in Slovenia, from which lines of men snake slowly downward. Below, flares rise up, rockets, the river lights up, trees – a fireworks display… the air is warm. Drugs the senses. With this the stubborn feeling: you are stepping into your grave. Single, melancholic rifle shots; occasionally heavier fire – melancholic in the night.

In the Thirties he’s again very interesting, this time on the Nazi takeover, which happened while he was living in Berlin.

Three days ago the Reichstag went up in flames. Yesterday the emergency regulations to eliminate the Communist Party and the Social Democrat Party appeared. The new men don’t wear kid gloves… all the liberal fundamental rights have now been set aside without one single person feeling utterly outraged… It is seen as a spell of bad weather. The average individual does not yet feel under attack… a police car with swastika flags and singing officers, speeding down the Kurfürstendamm. It is alarming that Germans today possess so little sense of reality… the streets are full of people – “Life goes on” – even though, each day, hundreds are killed, imprisoned, beaten up

Usually, otherwise, these are not really diaries at all, more often just notebook ráiméis, to use the Irish language word for rambling nonsense. There isn’t a huge amount of comedy and not much observation outside of key historical and personal moments.

From Cannes to Antibes

From Cannes to Antibes


14 May, Saturday

The flight descended to Nice over pale red roofs looking more washed-out than baked. Palm trees were new to me the previous time, in May 1998. At night the monkey suits still mill around the Palais. When I got here I couldn’t contact M. so I left my bag at reception before heading off to Morrison’s, the pub I hadn’t managed to find by the night The General won a big prize in the festival, in 1998. While I was there, a text from S. told me he’d probably passed out in the apartment because that was what he’d done to him, last year.

When I gave his name back at reception the black lad found it on a sheet and brought it and me (with my bag) upstairs. He unlocked the door and looked in and around it, to the left. Then his head re-emerged. Il dort (‘He sleeps’). M. is snoring in there now, on and off, fully dressed. I looked for any food, snacks, but there’s only a small bottle of Power’s whiskey. The Irish Film Board party was on earlier. This is bullshit.

15 May, Sunday

1 pm on the balcony. He burst into my room at 5.15 this morning. “I found you!” he exclaimed. It turned out he’d walked away from wherever he was. White wine was involved. They had kept refilling his glass. Jim McDaid, our former Cabinet minister, gave that explanation for driving the wrong way down a motorway. Anyway, he, not Jim, had collapsed here at ten.


A little bottle of Stella is €11 in the bar of the Carlton. We went in there after picking up my badge and stopping off at the Irish Pavilion. From there we managed to find La Pharmacie du Festival, which then enabled M. to have three small beers in the Quay’s pub. I suggested dining on the way back to base.


I knew he wouldn’t stir later but I too slept for a couple of hours. Then I showered again and headed off by ten.


I climbed Le Suquet and took some photos of the night view; I got some ice cream on the side of the street below; and I went to Morrison’s. There I met an English director called Alan. He looked like he’d had a long day in his suit but I had three pints with him before he’d had enough, finally.


I didn’t stay too long after him but on the way home I stopped in McDonald’s where a French boy called Thomas, with sunglasses (on) and some kind of movie or video camera under his arm put his talk on me, as my father would say. He was on something, I’d say. The queue was going nowhere so when some big beard came in and started talking to him I slipped away.

16 May, Monday

This morning I climbed Le Suquet again for some daylight shots. Then I got the hill from La Croisette.


Later we went to Antibes. From there the Alps were snowy, far to the east. On the train down there a uniformed little conductress let us on last before she gave the all-clear to proceed. Her peaked cap was nearly bigger than herself but when I got a rear view I told M. that an arse like that wouldn’t be seen on CIE (Irish Rail).


After a ritual stop at the Felix Café in honour of Graham Greene we walked around the vieux port and did some shopping. He got some dried lavender, as ordered by N., plus a couple of sailor tops for the baby. We sat down again at the Hop Store (near the Felix) for another beer.


At the nearest table, a beautiful girl was doing all the talking, holding court like an actress, but for a gorgeous chatterbox she looked humane. “J’étais folle, j’étais folle,” (‘I was mad, I was mad’) was the end of one story. She wasn’t skinny like a model either. She was normal for one so lovely. She had dark skin, short dark hair, white teeth: she looked French but with no hauteur. She wouldn’t have passed for any other Mediterranean nationality. She was at a low table, we were at a high one, and several times she glanced up at me looking down at her. Then M. looked down to see what a pigeon was doing under my feet. It was sucking water from the grooves of a metal insert in the flagstone (a manhole). Then another pigeon opportunistically started to ride it. M. started to laugh. When the nearby beauty was leaving, her parting words to those left at the table were “Bonne soirée!” Her mannerisms reminded me of an Irish girl more than a French one.

Now a book has claimed on the basis of some Czech hearsay that the death of Albert Camus was the work of the KGB, aided by French intelligence. This assertion recalls a story Graham Greene tells about Prague in 1948 in his memoir Ways of Escape. In the midst of the communist takeover, Greene was followed and accosted by a “thin man in a dark suit with a respectable hat” who went on to introduce himself as the inventor of a guided parachute. He asked Greene to contact the British Embassy on his behalf. The Englishman took his name on a scrap of paper but then caution made him ask had the man invented anything else. I have made a machine for building walls. That too I will give to the British Government. It builds a wall one foot every second.”


17 May, Tuesday

Lying in bed before noon. We didn’t do much last night. We had dinner in the Babord half of the Babord Tribord, down by the boats, and then had one drink on the grass at the Grand. My flight home isn’t until ten tonight.


We went swimming at the beach nearby but later I didn’t enjoy the swarm in the hot sun down by the Palais, where the red carpet was being used for something and the CRS were blowing whistles, trying to manage both the pedestrian and the motor traffic.


M. told me of the time he stood back in a crowd so Scorsese’s limo could noisily get through. A bearded American in shades, shorts and sandals ambled along and politely asked could he slip past, through a gap behind him. It was Coppola.

Thomas Bernhard & Holzfällen

Thomas Bernhard & Holzfällen


Only if you’re really independent can you write really well…. I always lived from my own initiative, never was subsidised, no one gave a damn about me, to this day. I am against all subsidies, all patronage…”

– Thomas Bernhard

This is less hypocrisy than an outright lie. In the opinion of the East German playwright Heiner Müller, Bernhard wrote as if he had been hired by the Austrian government to write against Austria. As Tim Parks has pointed out, Austria’s best known post-war writer not only accepted many awards and generous patronage but also had a sugar mammy.

Twice widowed, the wealthy heiress of a famous brand of chocolates, thirty-six years older than Bernhard, Frau Stavianicek became the writer’s protectress, mentor, substitute mother… She believed in his genius, was prepared to finance him when necessary, and was able and willing to introduce him to influential figures in Viennese society.

In 1984 Hede Stavianicek died. At least he was there at the end to care for her, to his great credit, but, in Bernhard, Austria really had a version of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, in which the first word in the play’s title starts as a verb but ends as a sinister adjective describing the central character’s fate.

Though no one would envy him his chronic illness or the cruelty of his family background, it so happened that Bernhard also had a gift for complaining, like another post-war English writer, John Osborne. Past the half-way mark in his Eighties novel Holzfällen, which means woodcutting and which is set on a day that involves both a funeral and a dinner party, I knew I’d have to return to the house in which I’d met the Mitterers (see Austria, a notebook #1).

It meant reliving a dinner party they did not attend, in order to make a point about the universality of awful social gatherings, beyond events such as the ‘artistic dinner’ that is the main setting of Bernhard’s book.

Nightmare in Ballinterry: at five I drove up to Maggie’s. I hadn’t believed there would be quite so many Steiner types, musicians, homeopaths and general hippies there. I hadn’t guessed they’d all be coming to dinner. When I arrived at six, two Germans were busy in the kitchen. N’s off to NZ – the real reason for the party. M. (the maker of the lasagne) insisted she’s in Ireland for the climate (!?). Then Maggie asked me upstairs to look at some paperwork. Back downstairs, what felt like a horde arrived in stages. I was looking at some strange ham on the table and confessing ignorance as to its identity when some homeopathic twat called E. said, “It’s Parma. It’s a delicacy.” That was before the woman who’d brought the ham revealed that actually it was French and from a bull. In fact, several of the women were individually friendly but I couldn’t drink, with the car outside, and I suppose my tension rose in the long wait for the food. Both Maggie and I tucked into the nachos as an English guy called R. began strumming and picking across the table. He didn’t play anything. I was glad when some late arrival kicked his guitar over by accident as we all stood with pinkies entwined for the saying of hippie grace. In the finish I interrupted another homeopathic lecture in the corner to tell Maggie I just had to go. As for the fount of all this pinkie-linking– the caretaker – he’s got shifty little eyes, that’s for sure.

André Malraux defined an intellectual as anyone who tries to live by the use of reason but experience relentlessly demonstrates the surrealism of life and most of the writers I admire have an underlying, unwritten thread in common. I cannot believe this is really happening. It is a mix of horror and amusement that enables some detachment in the face of the fact that everything is, as Mario Puzo pointed out, personal.

Another time, long ago, an uncle of mine was in an amateur play, after which a celebration dinner was held in a farmer’s house, where, before they all sat down, the seating arrangement began to look a bit tight. It was then that he noticed that a subtle attempt was being made to usher one cast member, a woman who was from a mere cottage, down to the kitchen to eat, on her own, with the excuse that there wasn’t enough room to sit at the table in the parlour. He protested, indicating that he’d leave if that happened. It didn’t happen, that night, but the pathetic provincial snobberies and the insolent slights they inspire will never stop providing inspiration for writing and folklore.

Past two hundred pages in Holzfällen, there was a third of it left to read. Mostly reported dialogue by then, it had turned into a rather good play since the Actor appeared, more than thirty pages earlier, to ramble on and on about Ekdal in The Wild Duck, even while slogging through his soup. Suicide was a theme – the funeral earlier in the day was for a woman who’d hung herself, in some detail – but it had turned blackly humorous, as in when the host Auersberger asked the Actor if working at Vienna’s Burgtheater wouldn’t give someone every reason to do that. Still, the reference to Austria having the highest suicide rate at the time (1980s) asked to be checked, not least after one character (Billroth) claimed that it was most common in the the loveliest places, such as Salzburg. Nowadays, as it happens, it’s practically no different from that of Ireland or Sweden.

With ninety pages to go, Bernhard had returned to the funeral and elaborated on its grotesque theatre by giving us more of the writer character Jeannie Billroth’s antics, such as collecting money from the other mourners, unbidden, in a cigar box, which she up-ended on the table before the horrified chief mourner in the Gasthof to which they had all retreated. Nevertheless twenty pages later Bernhard had lost his way again, mired in shit about Billroth and her female sidekick whom he suddenly decided to name and introduce. Who cares if they were on the state’s payroll? These cultural apparatchiks are everywhere.

Bernhard briefly returns to the grotesquerie when the drunken dinner party host waves his false teeth in the Actor’s face but, having introduced some more of the peripheral characters, the narrator is then guilty of the patronising twaddle of a grumpy old twat when writing of younger attendees who evidently fail to take it all so seriously. Their chief offence seems to be be not to have published anything.

Having rubbished the opinions of the young, the narrator then writes off the wisdom of age as elderly narrow-mindedness that just gets on his nerves. He thinks the way the Actor enunciates the words Wald, Hochwald, Holzfällen is hellsichtig (far-seeing) but this just reflects Bernhard’s mundane ambition to be a country gentleman. His lengthy explanation of why the Actor’s outburst – at best a how-f*cking-dare-you, human protest at Billroth’s cheek – has impressed him is just tiresome. Holzfällen simply peters out. The dinner table row isn’t a patch on the one about Parnell in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where a country’s soul is at stake.