Melchior

Francis Spufford

In early spring of 1904 the blue limousine draws up beneath the baroque convent of Melk. There is snow on the ground; it is a crisp, bright day; the chauffeur drops one of the patented thermos-flasks as he carries the picnic up the hill in the wake of the family and it breaks, staining the snow a rich vegetable mulled-wine red. The family ensconce themselves in rugs and overcoats on the snow just below the gentle crest of the hill which hides the yellow walls of the convent from sight. Uncle Joseph trots to this crest for a moment to admire the view and architecture, before returning to where they have already laid out the food – all hot, all sensible – and started to chatter. Back at the car the chauffeur is leaning against the engine, which he has swathed in an enormous horse-blanket, just in case, and has lit a popular brand of cigarette, which he smokes hands deep in pockets. The well-wrapped-up four-year-old has run several times around the party, almost knocking over the soup, and now makes for the pinewood which climbs the valley to the left of the picnic. On the other side of the valley the ice-floes move slowly down the Danube; the family are glad that they can enjoy their picnic and be gone, insulated from the ground by several layers of wool, fur and leather, for the nights here are very, very cold, and there are still unexterminated wolves unconscious of the etiquette of picnics. The talk turns to painting. Aunt Paula, who is sometimes a watercolourist, explains principles of composition, while Uncle Joseph promises to visit some of the galleries in Vienna the others recommend to him. Meanwhile the four-year-old has been brought back from the pinewood by his nurse. He is clutching three finely-elongated pine-cones, which he gives, solemnly, to his mother. Thank you, pigling, she says. Perhaps he is a truffle-hunting pigling, offers Aunt Paula. No, says the child’s father, punning on the place-name: he is Melchior, bringer of gifts.

In late autumn of 1938 Melchior burns the library left him, with the house, by his father. At first he laboriously carries the volumes in heaps out through the french windows into the kitchen garden and dumps them on a bonfire he has lit especially. Before adding each load he pokes the books around the edge of the fire into the middle with a convenient long stick. Later, he pulls the books from the shelves and douses them with gasoline on the library floor. He waits a while before bringing buckets of water from the kitchen (he insists on carrying them himself) to put out the blaze, which has almost gutted the room and irrevocably spoiled the plaster moulding on the ceiling.

Why?

1. The catalogue of the library

What did the library contain?

The catalogue, a small brown book which survived the burning because Melchior had lent it to a friend of his father’s in Bucharest three weeks before, contains about one thousand two hundred titles: but perhaps I should give you a scene instead of a list. Every fortnight or so the postman came from Bad Karlovy with a number of packages wrapped in brown paper. Because of the length of the walk from the road to the house he left them under cover in the wooden summer-house – painted yellow – among the trees in the home meadow, unless a maid or the governess happened to be walking in the direction of the house. On the other hand, carrying parcels is something a governess would probably not have done, and I have no idea whether the summer-house is or was yellow. My favourite memoirs, which avoid this problem, are those of my uncle, the labour-leader in Pittsburgh, who began, ‘I am writing these notes of my life to give some impression of the incredible events in which I have participated,’ and then died of a heart attack, leaving the single sheet of foolscap at the bottom of the wardrobe, with the bills.

The packages of books were posted to Melchior’s father from his agents in Paris, Berlin, London and Prague, each of whom, one may assume, had been given certain guidelines on what to buy, since, for example, the London agent appears to have bought mostly finely-illustrated ornithological texts; the Paris agent, new books from the private presses; the Berlin agent, bound collections of lithographs and woodcuts; that in Prague, with the resources of the ghetto at his disposal, works of theology and Talmudic commentary. Melchior’s father tore away the wrapping-paper and slit the pages with an ivory paperknife, sitting in a well-stuffed armchair about which he was particular, and spread out before him Egon Schiele prints, or the Editions Lavrentine Dante in vellum, or a slightly foxed 18th-century Maimonides translated into Ladino and printed in Sofia, or, sometimes, a regretful letter from Paris explaining that the volume of Klimt had been sold to a collector from Virginia, whose agent had, that particular March day, outbid everyone for everything at the auction rooms of Emil Hirsch. What could one do? If one was Melchior’s father one could push aside (metaphorically: they were a close family) the letter from Joseph in Vienna asking for a loan until the results of the medical exams were out, and the invitation to lecture from the Jewish Cultural Society, and wait until after the war when things were different but not completely, for the Nouvelle Revue Française’s Proust, a winter treat for when the ice on the Danube had turned dark grey-green, and the postman wore foot-cloths and felt boots.

Why the burst of sensibility?

Because during the winters, when the family were trapped in the house, it seems that for Melchior’s father the postman’s packages made landmarks. In 1919, the year Melchior went to England, he writes to Joseph that ‘the new Proust arrives when the Danube has turned that particular grey-green, in the deep spots, and is finished about mid-February, when the cistern in the roof usually explodes, and I go back to Anatole France.’

Were the winter months a burden? an imposition?

The family – Melchior, his father, his mother, the twins – spent the summers in Vienna, in a tall town house with red railings. When everyone left the city for the period of dust and heat, they arrived; when everyone (everyone: households of a certain kind) flocked back to console themselves in the frosts with opera and torte, they returned to the house by the Danube. There they lived from September to May, bedevilled by exploding cisterns, downed telephone lines and bad roads. The KuK insignia on the postman’s cap was the nearest civilisation came to them. They hardly saw anybody.

From lecture notes

Rabbi, Mr Goldmann [Goldmann: the only Zionist bore on the Vienna lecture circuit], members of the Jewish Cultural Society, I am as surprised as I am honoured that you should ask me to address you. I am neither erudite enough to talk to you about philosophy, nor devout enough to speak of religion. [Rabbi Wechmann will interrupt. With luck some kind soul will shout ‘nonsense!’] What is heaven, you ask me. Thinkers, I think, assume that heaven is elsewhere, and cite the misery of mortal life. But could not heaven be present, I ask with temerity, in those parts of our lives which are good, which, in fact, we are blessed by. In this way I myself find heaven in certain particular things: the fall of snow, fire contrasted to cold outside, the laughter of children ... But come come, I say to myself, have you forgotten your religion completely? [&c]

What happened in the war?

Melchior was too young to serve. His father was too old. When war broke out Melchior’s father shaved off his Franz Joseph moustache; that winter he began to grow sideburns. Later he grew a full beard, and was caught by his wife standing in front of a mirror with a portrait of Darwin in his left hand for comparison. She complained in private that it tickled. ‘Why should I not experiment?’ he asked, and in an idle moment listed in the back of the library catalogue, in pencil, the styles of facial hair he had not tried. He threatened her with a goatee. His wife switched her direction of attack and discreetly drew his attention to his increasing weight; to his immense satisfaction he found that in the later stages of his obesity St Thomas Aquinas had had a semicircular piece taken out of an altar so he could continue to say mass, but in the winter of 1915 he dieted strictly and listened to his wife play the piano with greater attention. When the Italians declared war and advanced on the Tyrol Melchior’s father made a point of acquiring an agent in Rome. His parcels of books invariably arrived mutilated by the military censors, at which he developed an agreeable indignation (tut!) until the day he found one of the books systematically defaced. A semi-literate had scrawled ‘dirty Jew’ on every page of a Boccaccio. He burnt the Boccaccio.

A part of the garden of the house by the Danube was ploughed up to be sowed with turnips. After the war the postman took the KuK insignia off his cap.

Uncle Joseph brought back a wooden leg from the war. He tried to give it to the twins for play-acting, but he had forgotten that they would be four years older than when he saw them last, just before he conducted his first amputation at Tannenburg, on secondment to the German medical corps. Melchior’s mother thought, perhaps rightly, that the leg was in bad taste. After dinner Joseph and Melchior’s father drank brandy in the library. Melchior’s father put the leg on the table between them, and the two men stared at it.

Thinking of the past? In tearful recollection? In dry appreciation? With an ironic smile at its numerous ambiguities?

Hardly. By ‘the past’ the family certainly did not mean the imperial past, they meant a private past; and I may as well note that much later Melchior thought, in connection with the house, of an idea of ‘pastness’ itself. If what happen in the public world are events, and the flow of public events makes for the passage from past to future, then those standing outside look backwards just because they are standing still – and they watch the debris pile up in the wake of events. When the family touched the public world they were surprised and amused. In 1908 they went on holiday to the Balkans. There they are, Melchior in a sailor suit, the twins, the governess, Melchior’s parents and Uncle Joseph with a flower in his buttonhole, sitting in a reserved compartment of a wagon lit on its way to the sea. Joseph and Melchior’s father have taken out maps and are explaining the route to the children, who have started to chant the names of the provinces, because they are so funny. Their chant goes like this:

Bosnia, Carinthia, Moravia, Bohemia,
Galicia, Carpathia, Bukowina and ...

‘Ruritania?’ suggests Uncle Joseph.

‘It certainly looks fictional,’ says Melchior’s father, peering out of the window as the train rumbles south. Then they must check their money and, since the children have never seen one, a crisp blue thousand-schilling note is passed around the compartment. On one side there is a peasant girl, very pastoral, in blue shades. On the other is the amount, printed in a script that Melchior’s father knows is vaguely Celtic. It is the kind of money that suggests, like a one-hundred rouble note, smoothly folding wads and outrageous losses at casinos; again, the children laugh, because it is funny. The image Melchior uses, though, to convey the slowness of the family in relation to the outside world is not the slowest possible public one – the white-enamelled trellis-patterned steps of a wagon lit sliding to a halt at a platform, perhaps – but a private one, of his mother’s jewelled easter egg rolling across the floor and dropping, leisuredly but irretrievably, into the wholly personal dust between the floorboards.

Interview with Klaus Krems, who visited England with Melchior in 1919, at his villa in Cabourg, France

k: ... tweed carpets.

int: What?

k: You asked me what I remembered about our trip to England: what I remember, dear boy, is tweed carpets. There was a waiting-room at a station somewhere in the Midlands, with a tweed carpet on the floor, a picture of a stag on the wall, and a lamp made out of an antler. Tweed? Can you believe it? Would you like some jasmine tea?

int: Thank you, but –

k: – but you would prefer me to be getting on with it? Let me see. M and I were students, you know that, and in December that year he proposed that we take a month and escape. I borrowed a little money and, at his suggestion, we went to England.

int: What for?

k: I really don’t remember. ‘Bright lights’ maybe – have you noticed how young people travelling, no matter who they are, always seem to become ricks from the sticks? Do I have that right?

int: I think you mean hicks from the sticks.

k: Thank you.

int: Well, what happened?

k: Nothing very much. We got to London, couldn’t speak English, kicked our heels in slush, took a train north on the chance that England might get more interesting, found ourselves in tweed-carpet-land, and came home again.

int: Oh.

k: I’m afraid we didn’t have any formative experiences. We toasted Red Revolution in the dining-car on the way back and were thrown out by the waiter. Would that do? I can see by the fanatical light in your eye that it won’t, dear boy. Let me see, I stayed over Christmas in the house by the Danube, and I think I could describe it in some detail, while Benny gets some tea, if that would be any use?

int: Please.

k: Hmm. We hired a car as far as Bad Karlovy, where the drifts became too deep, so we got out and walked. It was very cold. Eventually we came to a yellow ... pagoda by the roadside. M scrabbled about inside and found a package. The house was not very much further on. We knocked and ... and the door was opened by a short fat man, who embraced Melchior, and shook my hand, I think. Mm. There was an extraordinary light, rising from the snow through the windows of the hall and reflecting from the ceiling. Very cold, very clear. The only colour was a very red Persian carpet on the floor – carpets seem to be becoming a theme, eh? In the drawing-room the servants were raising an enormous Christmas pine. M’s father chuckled at my surprise. ‘I may be an unregenerate Jewish agnostic,’ he said, or something similar, ‘but I also seem to have turned into the Lord of the Manor. We may not get it right, but at least we don’t get it wrong.

So far it is as if Melchior’s burning suddenly intruded the public into the house, suddenly produced an event, as if there was a simple contrast between thirty years of familial bibliophilic stillness and the movement of the giver of gifts’ blue limousine, winding its way up the valley into the distance in the driving rain, blue on sodden green, after the burning.

Is there anything left of the library?

Not as far as I know. If there was anything left after Melchior burnt it, it was destroyed when the new tenants arrived shortly after he drove away across the Brenner Pass. They turfed everything out of the house – furniture, carpets, pictures – into the home meadow to rot, and ran past the heap each morning in singlets before breakfasting and folding away the camp beds. Later on the new tenants ran a black electric cable from a diesel dynamo in one of the farm outhouses across the meadow, past the tall trees of the avenue, down into the cellar.

2. The Account Books

What are the constituents of the house’s ‘pastness’? Here is the cook’s double-ruled domestic account book; here are Melchior’s (hand-written) bank statements; here are his father’s. Here is a receipt from the piano-tuner who attended to Melchior’s mother’s piano in 1917. Here are the bills from the various book-agents in different parts of Europe. Bills for lamp-oil; gasoline; new curtains. Tickets for the Opera. A substantial contribution to the Jewish Cultural Society, with a rude remark about Rabbi Wechmann on the cheque-stub. The constituents of life are, in fact, mundane. They hardly seem to be connected to my picture of the family; no, no, I have that wrong, to be connected to my picture of what was important to the family. Look: on 17 November 1908, for dinner, they consumed two bottles of hock, a large sole, various green vegetables, a pineapple (in November? How did they get hold of it?), cheese, brandy and one Romeo y Julieta cigar. So what: all this amounts to one belch between two paragraphs of Anatole France. Once, in early 1914, they ate a dolphin, procured by accident by Uncle Joseph from Trieste. How rubbery. Yuch. Between 1902 and 1920, say, assuming they were in the house for precisely half of each year (one hundred and eighty-two days), the family munched 18 × 182 × 3 = 9828 meals – excluding snacks or spur-of-the-moment cold collations. In the same period they ran through a quarter of a ton of lampblack, and defoliated the equivalent of one thirty-second of the land area of what is now Northern Chad. But I am forgetting that they did not live alone in the house; they maintained, or were maintained by, a domestic staff of thirteen, who presumably ate too, so I should adjust the figure upwards. How much did it cost? That much?

My calculations are easier because they have been done before. The same sums are written in black ink in Melchior’s hand on the back inside flap of the domestic account book. When did he do them? At the death of his father in January 1934 (the cistern exploded, startling the old man, who fell down the stairs, a copy of Time Regained held firmly in his right hand) he collected the keys to the house from the offices of Lublin and Piat on the Ringstrasse. The black portfolio containing the accounts was his, so it seems fair to guess that he did his thinking sometime between 1934 and the fire. And in the portfolio I also find something to answer the question ‘Where did the money come from?’ which, after all, is no more than a summary or recasting of the earlier question, ‘What are the constituents ...’ In a flat green cash-box there are about twenty share certificates; Melchior’s father’s largest holdings were in Krupp, Skoda and Birmingham Small Arms. It seems that a confidential agent in Britain steadfastly collected BSA’s hefty dividends for him during the war years. A very gentle kind of war profiteering ... while Melchior’s father decided that the Franz Joseph moustache had to go, and fended off the outside world. So let me back-track a little here and think.

At the very least there is a connection on the gastronomic level. You are what you eat, or, to be precise, the difference over a period of time between what you eat and what you shit; it is the residue left by shitting that is able to say, the new Proust arrives when the Danube has turned that particular grey-green colour. Food is important; without food there are no ‘important things’.

And domestic economics are inseparable from affection. The governess was paid a little more than other governesses. Melchior’s father was sleeping with her. One hot day in Indian summer Melchior fell asleep on the flat yellow roof of the gazebo. He woke up at dusk. The summer-house was vibrating beneath him. The only tangible evidence of that affection left is the slightly higher wage.

But let it be. The image of the residue works the other way around. The movements, or bowel-movements, of history don’t make the house, or the grey-green ice, any less real. History gnaws. History shat on Robert, the older twin by ten minutes. I want, he said in a foolish bloodthirsty dialectical moment, to see the blood of social change swirl around my ankles. Standing at the back of a crowd listening to a speaker at the Karl Marx Hof, he was trampled to death when the police charged and the crowd turned. Later people found ochre-coloured stains on their shoes and socks.

When Melchior’s father died was the residue of the family precious? Did Melchior burn the library to destroy or preserve?

In Melchior’s house in Goa I opened the wrong door by accident and found myself in an aviary. The shock of the sunlight was enormous – I had accustomed my eyes to the deep shade of the shuttered rooms and the sweating Portuguese mahogany wardrobes, large as rooms, rustling with invisible lizards. A green parrot whisked out a stream of droppings onto an old copy of the Andaman Times.

Downstairs Melchior was waiting for me in his study. Outside on the beach aged hippies panhandled vigorously as the tourists flowed past. The study was bare. One wall opened onto the balcony; the others were empty except for a portrait photograph in the dead centre of each. The first was of Hitler, the second of Nehru, and the third of Ben Gurion. They had the airbrushed look of Pictures of the Great (Mao had a pimple on his chin on the Long March; by 1949 it had been removed by the miracles of cosmetic photography) and they glowered neutrally, neither household gods nor ironic decor. Melchior had mixed me a drink while I set up the tape machine.

Why?

He paused.

‘I may not have done the right thing but at least I didn’t do the wrong thing,’ he said.