Every Curve of Flesh

Gabriele Annan

  • Diary of an Erotic Life by Frank Wedekind
    Blackwell, 183 pp, £25.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 631 16607 6

‘It’s ages since I got over being a sexual psychopath,’ Wedekind wrote, ‘and yet, I shall never forget it: those were happy days.’ His Diary of an Erotic Life is a record of those happy days between 1887, when he was 23, and 1894. A few pages of short entries cover the period 1908 to 1918. That was the year he died, after several botched operations on his appendix. The last entry is a poem to his wife Tilly. She was a beautiful actress much younger than he was, and they had two little girls. In the poem, Wedekind sets her free. The marriage was going badly – she had tried to commit suicide a few months before. He speaks of his dreary illness: perhaps he foresaw his death. The poem is an affectionate, fatalistic farewell ballad – the ballad form used ironically, as Heine used it. Wedekind admired and regularly parodied Heine. In order to get a rhyme the translator has decided to call Tilly ‘dear lass’. Wedekind just calls her Tilly. The invocation has to be repeated three times because it occurs in the refrain, and that is a pity. The translation of the prose, on the other hand, gets Wedekind’s throw-away, disillusioned tone rather well.

The Diary is prefaced by an autobiographical note written in 1901 and, so the editor says, of doubtful accuracy. But at least it gives an idea of Wedekind’s liberal, even revolutionary ancestry. His father was a North German doctor who worked for the Sultan of Turkey. He returned in time to take part in the 1848 revolution, and sit in the Frankfurt Diet. When the liberal regime collapsed he had to leave the country. He set up as a doctor to the German community in San Francisco, and married an actress from the local German theatre company. She was an orphan half his age, brought up in Vienna and South America by her sister, who had made a career there as an opera singer. Their father had organised a political conspiracy in Germany in 1830, and been imprisoned for it: when he got out, he invented phosphorus matches and set up a chemical works in Zurich. Frank Wedekind’s father eventually settled in Switzerland too: he bought the romantic cliff-top castle of Lenzburg, and that is where Frank and his five brothers and sisters grew up. One of the sisters also became an opera singer. It was not a conventional background, but even so, the unconventionality of Wedekind’s work remains astonishing, in form as well as content.

Frank (short for Benjamin Franklin) Wedekind started writing and performing plays and sketches when he was still at school, and continued to do so while he dropped in and out of the universities of Lausanne, Munich and Zurich. At the age of 22 he spent seven months in incongruous charge of publicity for Maggi soups. After that, he wrote for satirical magazines like the famous Simplicissimus, and worked for and on the stage and in cabaret. A photograph shows him as a member of the Eleven Executioners, balefully poised over his mandolin: one wonders what savage text he is about to sing. His published poems and songs are sexy, subversive and blackly humorous. Had he had a Weill to set them, they would be part of the repertoire. As it is, Brecht owed him a lot and said so in his obituary.

Wedekind worked in theatres in a number of German and Austrian cities, with a long spell in Berlin. He was an early member of Max Reinhardt’s company, and Reinhardt directed him as Tartuffe; but chiefly he acted in his own plays – which is how he met Tilly Newes. She was not the first Lulu, but played the part over and over again, with Wedekind himself appearing variously as the Animal-Tamer, Dr Schön and Jack the Ripper. He spent several months in jail for lèse-majesté in a poem about the Emperor; and fought a successful case against the censors who seized the first edition of Pandora’s Box. He consorted with the avant-garde in Germany, Austria and Switzerland: but (unless you count financial rows with Reinhardt) very little of this comes into the diaries. They are about sex and social life in bohemia and the demi-monde. Twenty-nine cafés in Munich, Berlin and Paris are listed in the index: and that is not counting establishments like the Folies Bergères and the Moulin Rouge, or beer cellars like the Hofbräuhaus and Kindlbräu, or disreputable taverns like the Kletzengarten.

At the end of his stay in Paris, Wedekind remembered ‘Alice, Rachel, Germaine, Marie Louise, Raymonde, Madeleine, Lucienne and my little Christ child’, and commended them to the care of Gaston Fero, who was seeing him off on the train to London. He forgot to mention ‘the little blonde piglet’ (perhaps the same as the Christ child?), Bertha, Susanne, Léontine, Fernande and many others, including the enchanting Egyptian Kadudja after whom he named his second daughter Kadidja. And who was Gaston Fero? He sounds a bad lot, possibly a pimp. There are conscientious notes at the end of the book about all sorts of fairly irrelevant characters such as ‘old Stahl’ (a retired cellist) and Carl Gürtler (‘subsequently Professor of Philosophy’) who only appear once – or twice at the most: but Gaston Fero remains an enigma. He seems to have acted as a cicerone to the wilder shores of sex.

Wedekind’s sexual curiosity and appetite were sensational. Rising in the afternoon, he would pick up a girl, buy her a drink, or a meal if he could afford it, take her home or go home with her, have sex in every way they could devise, get up, find another girl, take her to another bar, take her home – and so on, notching up perhaps five or six girls in 24 hours (sometimes they came in pairs). No wonder he complained from time to time that he got no work done. But he was writing his plays and getting help with them from another set of women: these were a group of emancipated bluestockings, mostly Central European, who lived in Paris as political exiles or because they liked the intellectual climate. Most of them were feminists and poor, but if they could not help Wedekind with money, they helped him with introductions and literary advice. He must have been very attractive in his sinister, dandified, crop-headed way, and in spite of his false teeth: ‘While I’m waiting for breakfast in the morning I place my teeth on the bedside table for convenience. A dozen flies instantly pounce on them, browsing their way from one tooth to the next and obviously revelling in the process.’ The teeth were inconvenient when exchanging love bites: but he managed to train them.

He did not merely want women, he liked them. He liked the way they looked, talked, arranged their lives, coped with their problems. He was truly sorry for them when they were abandoned or destitute or suffering from TB or syphilis (the thought of syphilis sometimes worried him, though he put up cheerfully with bedbugs). He tried to help the girls out and give them pleasure in any way he could. In this, as in his amazing appetite, he resembled the author of My Secret life, who wrote: ‘women were the pleasure of my life, I loved cunt, but also who had it; I liked the woman I fucked and not simply the cunt I fucked, and therein is a great difference.’ Wedekind was forty years younger than this man, and in his sensibility he belongs to a different, post-19th-century world which was germinating in the avant-garde circles he moved in. He can hardly he blamed for not being a fully-fledged feminist at a time when feminism was only beginning to get under way. True, the Animal-Tamer in the Prologue to Earth Spirit promises to show the audience ‘the true animal, the wild, beautiful animal’ – meaning Lulu; he is not contrasting her female animality with the humanity of males, however, but with the tameness of all civilised human beings, whether men or women. Long before he had a daughter, Wedekind drew up a carefully thought-out programme for her education: it was to fit her to have a rich physical life, a rich inner life, and to enjoy them both. A few years earlier he was describing bizarre sexual fantasies about an imaginary small daughter; a few years later he is disgusted by an experience in a London music hall. A four-year-old girl wearing lace knickers and a monocle performs a sexy dance: ‘As she withdraws into the wings, a veritable battle-cry goes up, a howl such as you might hear in a Kaffir kraal, a bawling, screeching and whistling as in a menagerie when the meat appears in front of the animal cages.’

With the Schiele exhibition hanging in the Royal Academy, it is tempting to draw parallels between Schiele and Wedekind: two Central European artists obsessed with sex and explicit about their obsession. But Wedekind’s editors have chosen instead to decorate the dust-jacket and text with reproductions of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work. I think they were right. Lautrec and Wedekind were born in the same year; the women they describe were taking off the same kind of corsets, the same kind of petticoats – at least at the time of the Diary. Schiele was a generation younger; the merry brutality and affectionate cynicism of the Naughty Nineties had given way to disturbing and tragic feelings about sex. The tragedy of Wedekind’s first important play, Spring Awakening, comes from the fact that sex is forbidden: the boy commits suicide, the girl dies of a clandestine abortion. Later, with the Lulu plays, tragedy comes from sex itself: the characters torment, humiliate, degrade and kill one another. The diaries chart the development of Wedekind’s feelings about sex from pure enthusiasm to the first stirrings of anxiety and sadness.

One does not feel that they were written for publication, but to remind himself of every curve of flesh and nuance of skin tone, every piece of furniture and domestic arrangement, every degree of gaiety and resilience, every sulk, every moment of harshness, tenderness, lust, anxiety, despair. The descriptions are suffused with affection, or at the very least with sympathetic appreciation and amusement; and this applies not only to descriptions of girls, but of children playing in a park: they are scrutinised with a mixture of zoological exactitude and empathy, their shifting relationships charted and understood. Animals get the same treatment: ‘I observe a fellow sufferer in the form of a great Dane. The dog is lying on his lead and obviously also suffering from his lack of company. He’s extremely worked up, and at the same time evidently suffering from mental depression, as his facial expression shows.’ There’s an account of Wedekind’s cat having kittens in his manuscript cupboard:

I leave the door slightly ajar so that the light does not fall directly on her. After a while she begins turning and twisting. She groans and purrs, bends over backwards and licks herself. Then comes a stiff, regularly recurring tensing of her body. Now and then she snaps at the poems stacked up beside her. Then she uses her mouth to guide out the first one. I hear her eating something and see her vigorously chewing. The procedure is repeated five times. The confinement lasts a good hour. After she has licked her young properly all over, they start squeaking. I fetch my mandolin and play Brahms’s cradle song for their benefit.

When Wedekind was 25, his friend the dramatist Gerhart Hauptmann told him he thought him capable of love and self-sacrifice. Wedekind was not particularly pleased: ‘for me such feelings denote weakness rather than strength. They would not reinforce my moral fibre, but undermine me.’ It sounds as though he might be planning a toughening-up programme for himself. The impression made by the Diary is that it didn’t work: he comes across as a tout comprendre c’ est tout pardonner kind of man. He loved scoundrels, tolerated bores as well as bedbugs, and only drew the line at antisemites.