Thursday, 30 April 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 12 A Group of Noble Dames (1)

Immortal Beloved candidate No.94: Amalie Sebald

Beethoven never married.

Very shortly after his death in the spring of 1827 his executors searched his apartment in the building known as das Schwarzspanierhaus, the House of the Black Spaniard. They were looking primarily for seven share certificates Beethoven had in a Viennese bank, which he had left to his nephew, Karl. Among those present was Gerhard von Breuning, an intelligent, cheerful and outgoing 13-year-old whom Beethoven nicknamed Hosenknopf, 'trouser-button'. Beethoven had known Gerhard's father Stephan since they were children in Bonn together, and they had had a rather up-and-down friendship ever since.

Beethoven's writing desk, which eventually came into Gerhard von Breuning's possession, yielded nothing, and it wasn't until Karl Holz, a pupil and friend of Beethoven, pulled on a bent nail stuck into a wardrobe that a drawer came out, revealing the shares, a miniature portrait, one or two other memorabilia and in particular a letter that has intrigued Beethoven biographers ever since.

Immortal Beloved candidate No. 94: Giulietta Guicciardi

6th July, in the morning

My angel, my all, my I - only a few words today, and those in pencil (with yours) - I will not know until tomorrow where I am staying … Can our love exist otherwise than through self-sacrifice, through not demanding everything, can you alter the fact that you are not completely mine and I am not completely yours - Ah God, look at Nature and calm your feelings over what must be - love demands everything and rightly so, so it is for me with you, for you with me - but you forget so easily that I must live for you and for me, if we were wholly united, you would feel the pain of it as little as I.

… we will probably see each other soon, and anyway today I can't tell you the thoughts about my life I've been having over the last few days - if our hearts were always close together I would probably have no such thoughts, my breast is full of things I must tell you - Ah - There are times when I think speech is vain - be happy - be my true and only treasure always, my all, as I am yours - as for the rest, the gods must send what must be and what shall be for us -

your faithful ludwig

Monday evening, 6th July

… Ah, wherever I am, you are with me, I tell us both how I imagine that I can live with you, what a life!!!! like this!!!! without you - Pursued here and there by people's kindness that I think I wish to deserve as little as I do deserve it - the humility of man to man - it hurts me - and when I consider what I am in the universe and what he is whom they call the greatest - and yet here again is the divine part of mankind - I weep when I realise that you probably will not hear from me until Saturday - however much you love me I love you more - but don't ever hide yourself from me - good night - as I am taking the waters I must sleep now -
[crossed out: come with me, come with me] - Ah God! - so near! So far! Is not our love a truly heavenly building, as strongly founded as the firmament.

Good morning on the 7th of July

Even before I get up, my thoughts hasten to you, my immortal beloved, thoughts sometimes joyful, sometimes sad. Waiting to find out if Fate will hear our request - I can either live wholly with you, or not at all, yes I have decided to wander until such time as I can fly into your arms and say I have wholly come home to you, until I can send my soul enfolded in you into the spirit world - yes, sadly it must be so - you will compose yourself all the more because you know my constancy towards you, never can another possess my heart, never - never -
Oh God why must one go so far away from one's beloved, and yet my life in V[ienna] now seems a wretched one -
Your love makes me the happiest and the unhappiest at the same time - at my age I need a uniformity of life - can this exist in terms of our relationship? - Angel, I've just discovered that the post goes off daily, and I must therefore close so that you get this l[etter] as soon as possible - be calm, only through calm consideration of our existence can we achieve our aim of living together - be calm - love me - today - yesterday - what tearful longing for you - you - you - my life - my all - farewell - love me always - never doubt the most faithful heart of your beloved


ever yours
ever mine
ever us

[My translation. Not an easy task. In the white heat of his passion Beethoven sometimes writes ungrammatically, or without bringing his sentences to a conclusion. His handwriting is very difficult to decipher, and some words are so illegible as to be open to different readings. Worse, the original manuscript was first copied and 'rationalised' by one Anton Schindler, an acquaintance of Beethoven who subsequently wrote one of the earliest biographies. Where Schindler was uncertain, he was inclined to invent, and even to tamper with primary documents to support his invention. Most of the far-fetched, romantic legends told about Beethoven originate with him. When Schindler comes in, serious Beethoven commentators hide behind the sofa.]

This famous letter, written as a continuous outpouring on three sides of paper, is addressed to die unsterbliche Geliebte, the Immortal Beloved. Oceans of ink, midnight oil and massive swathes of computer memory have been squandered on identifying the woman Beethoven addressed it to, but no one has conclusively established who the lady was. Nor has it ever been explained how the letter came to be in Beethoven's possession at his death. Was it never sent? Was it returned? How strong are the indications that the Immortal Beloved was already married?

Immortal Beloved candidate No. 94: Antonie von Brentano

Thursday, 23 April 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 11 Fingers of Improvidence (3)

That night George and I slept between sheets.

Prophet Gefängnisvogel vanished as summarily as he had appeared and was seen no more. In the interests of a good story I would like to describe how, nearing Limburg an der Lahn, a town not far from Frankfurt, he had at last seen - no, 'descried' is better - he had at last descried in his rear mirror distant flashing lights of pursuing police cars, and how his cigar tip threatened to burst into flames as his Mercedes' speedometer needle felt its way up to 250 kph. I would like to embroider this further by invoking (again) The Wind in the Willows, where Toad, escaping from jail by train, is pursued by a locomotive bristling with policemen waving truncheons, detectives waving revolvers and, by a genial swerve of the imagination, ancient warders waving halberds. I would so like to able to tell how Prophet Gefängnisvogel, approaching the Limburg an der Lahn autobahn exit, reckoned he might just be able to give his pursuers the slip by putting on maximum revs., how the needle actually snapped off against the stop-pin on the 280 kph mark, how he slewed his Merc screeching down the slip road; how he braked hard leaving a tortured banshee scramble of tyre burns that were later acclaimed and preserved as a masterpiece of action art, urged us blinking through the flames of his cigar to jump for it, good luck, lads, break a leg, may the force be with you, see you in Blighty . . . but if any of this happened it has unaccountably slipped out of my mind. All that comes into it is a remembrance of being dropped in Limburg an der Lahn and the rhythmic clink and clank of water-bottles and saucepans suspended from our rucksacks as we trudged in search of somewhere to spend the night.

What passed for my planning of this expedition a month or two before was a lot of empty talk, the persiflage of a Luftmensch*, posing as an ur-Romantic, fired by the heroic energy of Beethoven, deeply in love - a necessary concomitant - with Adèle, although in fact she was just the latest in an unending line of flames, licit and illicit. But in a world where image was paramount I also wished to be thought of not merely as a latter-day Young Werther and martyr to refined artistic sensitivities, but as a man of physical prowess too, a sportsman. Scowling did the trick: scowling with a Beethovenian truculence at everyone except my closest associates conveniently bridged these two extremes. To this day there hangs in a lavatory at home a school athletics team photograph from that summer: the others gaze at the camera, bland, placid. Some grin. I scowl.

George prepared himself with his usual calm, efficient and unfussy deliberation and did practical things like bringing more than one change of clothes and joining the International Youth Hostels Association, something that in my careless improvidence I never bothered to do. According to him there was a Youth Hostel in Limburg, and in fact we found it not far from the autobahn exit. George produced his membership card and they accepted him readily, but no amount of pleading could persuade them to take me in too. George sighed deeply but said nothing, noble soul.

Eventually we passed an unpretentious hotel near the station. We looked at each other with an unspoken shall we? or shall we spend yet another night in a rhododendron thicket - on the floor in a mad evangelist's living room - under an oak tree in a park - in a pestiferous corner of Cologne Hauptbahnhof? Without actually saying anything we pushed clumsily though a revolving door, fully expecting to be propelled out through it again double quick on account of our tramp-like filth. The cheapest room was an attic with twin beds. And a bath. And a lavatory. Never did hotel manager admit guests more enthusiastic about staying in his premises. Never was hot water more gratefully sunk into, never was bog more thankfully sat on, never was sleep sweeter.

Prophet Gefängnisvogel's only involvement with deception, we decided, was in his absurd pantomime about being on the run. But the taste for speed, utterly compelling and addictive, never left us. Henceforward any moment not spent travelling, the faster the better, was wasted, a sort of purgatory of impatience and recrimination. We even begrudged the time it took next morning to find a bank in Limburg where I could change my Belgian francs into Deutschmarks.

* Many thanks to my friend Dave for this word, exactly expressing the sense of air-headed fainéantisme I wanted.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 11 Fingers of Improvidence (2)

There aren't too many occasions in adult life when you entrust yourself deliberately and unconditionally and with no means of withdrawal into the hands of a person not known to you. Surgeon, hypnotist, airline pilot, maybe. Confessor, financial adviser, dorsal tattoo artist. And escaped convict. Conversation wasn't easy. What are you supposed to say to someone who says he has just burst out of jail, stolen a Mercedes (for all we knew) and whose only preoccupation is to put as many kilometres between himself and the screws as fast as possible? An inane barbershop-cum-dentist's-waiting-room dialogue formed in my mind: Escaped from prison, you say? Well, there you go, squire. Some do, some don't. Turned out warm again, eh? See Dexter had a good knock last week, ton and a half v. Middlesex. Nice country round about here. Reminds me of Devon. Ever been to Devon, mein Herr? I couldn't have said this fluently in German, anyway. Eventually I put enough bad German together to ask him what he'd been put inside for: warum haben Sie in Gefängnis gewesen?

Betrug, Schwindel, he answered, which I took to mean fraud, but only because Schwindel sounded like 'swindle'. If this was true maybe things weren't so desperate. Weren't con-men usually gentle people, less violent than, say, murderers, rapists or gun-runners? Maybe we wouldn't be used as human shields when the police caught up with us? I started to consult George, but Herr Gefängnisvogel (i.e. gaolbird, but we didn't refer to him as this until much later) objected to us speaking in English. Meanwhile signs to Bonn on the right flashed past, and soon gave way to other towns further up the Rhine, Königswinter, Bad Honnef, Andernach, and I knew I would never get to Beethoven's birthplace.

It didn't matter. It didn't matter that we were probably accessories, that all this could end quite nastily. The great god Speed had gathered us to his bosom, his prophet Gefängnisvogel was preaching the word, George and I, lowly neophytes, could only worship and know the heavenly ecstasy of travelling at transcendent speed from A to - who knew where? It occurred to me that the great god in whose arms we were folded should have a grander, more magnificently remote name than 'Speed'. 'Velocity', 'Celerity', maybe, but then I thought No: the greatest gods have simple names, as easily accessible to the most humble as to the most exalted. Jehovah really means 'I am'; Jupiter is really a way of saying 'Dad'; maybe the god Speed should be known as 'Whoosh!' or 'Vroom!' or even, in a bizarre onomatopoeia for speed I saw in Mad magazine at about the time of this epic journey, 'Fagroon!'

Prophet Gefängnisvogel was clearly enjoying his liberty, humming and chuckling to himself while flakes of cigar ash snowed on to his tie and shirt-front. (Please don't ask what an escaped convict was doing wearing a tie.) Fast-lane kilometre swallowed kilometre, the speedometer needle seemed stuck on the 200kph mark, in a celebratory pageant of our juvenile understanding of Einstein's Theory of Relativity in which the Rhineland passed before our eyes, rather than our eyes passing over it. Rarely a glance from the Prophet in the rear mirror: wherever the avenging legions of Polizei were, they weren't on our immediate trail.