Monday, 27 October 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 8 Images of disillusion (1)

Cologne, slough of despond.

I woke stiff, dirty and miserable to find George leaning over me. He was just about to wake me, he said. He was going to find the toilets; would I keep an eye on his rucksack? I crooked an arm through a shoulder strap and went back to sleep.

When he came back he said: Watch out if you go into the bogs. There's a mont in there, a seedy little bloke. Or there was, till I caught him with my belt. He tried to climb over the partition, the dirty sod.

'Mont' was a current school term for a predatory homosexual.

I asked George what had happened. On the way in he'd passed a small man leering at him and making suggestive gestures. He'd lashed out at the intruder with the buckle end of his belt when he tried to climb over the cubicle partition. There was a cry of pain, he dropped to the floor and ran off. When George came out there was nobody else about.

This nastiness clouded from the start the pure etherial beauty of my images of Cologne and the uplifting events I imagined happening there. I despaired of any actual contact with Adèle, but there remained certain evocations of her presence to attend to.

A man, even an 18-year-old obsessive, needs an occasional break from Beethoven. An amazing discovery when I was 16, a rising sun in whose warmth I basked, bathing my psyche in every rainbow colour from the white light of its emotional power, was Dichterliebe, Poet's Love, a cycle of 16 songs by Robert Schumann to words by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), an apostle of disillusion and a very individual voice among the German Romantic poets. I fell on these with an insatiable hunger and not so much swallowed them as bolted them.

No.6 of the cycle is set in Cologne:

Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome,
Da spiegelt sich in den Well'n,
Mit seinem grossen Dome,
Das grosse, heilige Köln.

In Dom da steht ein Bildnis,
Auf goldenem Leder gemalt;
In meines Lebens Wildnis
Hat's freundlich hinein gestrahlt.

Es schweben Blumen and Eng'lein
Um uns're liebe Frau;
Die Augen, die Lippen, die Lippen, die Wänglein,
Die gleichen der Liebsten genau.

[Cologne, great and holy, with its great cathedral, is mirrored in the waves of the Rhine, the sacred river.
In the cathedral there's a portrait painted on golden leather, which has illuminated the wilderness of my life with kindness.
Flowers and cherubs surround the Virgin Mary; the eyes and lips, the lips and cheeks remind me of the most beloved.]

(My paraphrase. I had problems with this, partly because of the hopeless wetness of the verse - although Schumann's setting has a Bachian majesty to it - and partly because I really didn't want to come out with 'Great Holy Cologne' (Das grosse, heilige Köln) which would sound as though Batman had finally cleared Gotham City of crime and was passing the evening of his Batlife in genteel translation. Heine has no defence at all against ridicule. On with the story.)

It seemed to me that this could only refer to a painting I understood was housed in Cologne cathedral, Stefan Lochner's Madonna of the Rose Bower, a chocolate-box, Christmas-card image (at the top of this post) if ever there was one, but maybe one that has sometimes shed a kindly light on those whose life has become a wilderness. I was more interested in comparing the eyes, lips and cheeks of the painting with Adèle's, the most beloved's; to do so in Cologne cathedral would become a sort of sacrament, a confirmation that our eventual union was recognised elsewhere than in my mind and that all would be well.

I can't remember if George came too. I don't think so. It was hardly something he could share in, even if he'd wanted to. Cologne cathedral stands beside the railway station. Scaffolding covered much of the building. Dirty, unshaven, unkempt, in clothes slept in and unchanged since Ostend I joined a trickle of clean, shaven, kempt and Sunday-best dressed people heading for the main door, I suppose for early Mass. Just inside, a uniformed and beadle or verger barred my way, thumbs stuck aggressively in his heavy belt. He said various things of which I only understood Eintritt verboten, entry forbidden.


Back at the station we went into the same Imbiss Stube we'd frequented the previous night and ordered coffee. Presently a one-legged man, wreathed in smiles, came and sat opposite us.

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