Not Sex, but Sexy

Gabriele Annan

  • Alma Mahler-Werfel: The Diaries 1898-1902 translated by Antony Beaumont
    Faber, 512 pp, £25.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 571 19340 4

‘You see, it is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication.’ This is Cicely in The Importance of Being Earnest refusing to let Algernon look at her diary. But it could easily be her flesh-and-blood contemporary Alma Mahler protecting hers. In fact, the exchange preceding Cicely’s remark crops up in several variations in Alma’s pages, each with a different male in the role of Algernon. It goes something like this:

Algernon: I hope, Cicely, I shall not offend you if I state quite frankly and openly that you seem to me in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection.

Cicely: I think your frankness does you great credit, Ernest. If you will allow me, I will copy your remarks into my diary.

Alma did just that; and she, too, was very keen on frankness and openness, and proud of her own: some of her ripostes in the conversations she gleefully records are frank to the point of insult.

The difference between Cicely and Alma is that Cicely is just any debutante and Algernon just any deb’s delight (though wittier than most). Alma, on the other hand, craved to be ‘a personality’ and no man who wasn’t one could aspire to her favour. She did well in the course of her long life. She had minor affairs, some consummated, some not quite, with a large number of major and minor artists, writers and musicians; a major relationship with the major painter Oskar Kokoschka, one of whose major paintings shows both of them sailing through space in a flourish of drapery: it is called Die Windsbraut (‘Bride of the Wind’) – a romantic German term for ‘hurricane’; and finally, she married three famous men, one of them a genius. As Tom Lehrer wrote in his song about her,

Alma, tell us
How can they help being jealous?
Ducks always envy the swans,
Who get Gustav and Walter – you never did falter –
With Gustav and Walter and Franz.

Franz Werfel may not have been quite up to the standard of Gustav Mahler or the architect Walter Gropius, but at the time of their first meeting in 1917 he was a hot literary property – and again in 1941 when he wrote the somewhat yukky Song of Bernadette, which became a Hollywood hit with Jennifer Jones starring as the saint of Lourdes.

Alma was the daughter of Emil Schindler, a Viennese painter, and his German wife, who had been a professional soprano. At the time of Alma’s birth in 1879, Schindler was still struggling, and the family was seriously poor throughout her early childhood. But by the time her father died in 1892 his work was much sought after by the Viennese public, and Alma’s diaries – which begin six years later – describe a seriously rich lifestyle. A photograph shows her surveying a table laid for a banquet at the family villa, with four wine glasses for each setting and garlands of flowers trailing from the chandelier. In 1897 Frau Schindler married her late husband’s pupil and assistant Carl Moll, who had also become a success. He was a good deal younger than she was, and a member of the Secession, whose inaugural exhibition was held in 1897. Alma adored and worshipped the memory of her dead father, but she seems to have got along well with her stepfather and was a committed groupie of the Secession. She rather despised her younger sister Gretl, casting her as Martha to her own Mary: while ‘I’m dying of passion’ for Wagner’s music, ‘Gretl is … copying recipes out of cookery books’; and she never liked her mother. Her diaries are full of complaints – more insistent after Frau Moll conceived and then produced a baby in 1899 – about being unloved, unwanted and misunderstood. But then she rather went in for being misunderstood: a condition conventionally held to be a mark of genius, which in turn was a condition to which Alma aspired.

She was intelligent, genuinely interested in intellectual matters, mad about Goethe, Nietzsche and Wagner, and a thoroughly modern Millie in every art. She was also a talented musician, but as her composition teacher Josef Labor pointed out, ‘your environment is detrimental to you. Your life of luxury. You should be poor, forced to earn a living. And then the Secession, the detrimental influence on you of all those young, immature artists.’ Alma’s comment on this is: ‘He’s right. I admit it a thousand times over. My environment is my death. If only I could make a reputation for myself: that would be the fulfilment of my dearest wish.’ Her acceptance of his criticism is characteristic, combining disarming self-deprecation with guilt-shifting. She was always on a trapeze between humility, on the one hand, and gigantic conceit, ambition and self-deception, on the other. One entry reads: ‘I am utterly vulgar, superficial, sybaritic, domineering and egotistic.’ But when she heard that some of her friends had called her a megalomaniac, she wondered: ‘Am I really so hollow? Or am I so gifted they can’t apprehend it?’ Three biographies of her have appeared in English in the last 15 years: an American one by Karen Monson; a French one by Françoise Giroud; and an English one by Susanne Keegan – all of them show that she was a monster of ego-mythomania. But in these diaries the monster is still very young, and there is something endearing about her absurdity – delightfully enhanced by Alma’s sketches of her elaborate and stately toilettes for the multitudinous social events she graced.

Antony Beaumont, the diaries’ translator and co-editor, says that to him ‘reading The Diaries is like raising a curtain behind which stands the Vienna of 1900 in all its majesty, and so close that one can almost reach out and touch it. The vitality of everyday life, eye-witness accounts of significant artistic events, unique insights into the behavioural patterns and linguistic conventions of homo austriacus – all these serve to make the book unique.’ Alma lived in the thick of it all, whirling in an upper bohemia of dinners, lunches, tea parties, walking parties, boating parties, bicycling parties (her mother gave her a cycling cape and trousers for her 19th birthday), café sessions and, above all, visits to the theatre and opera, to concerts and exhibition openings. Amateur or semi-amateur recitals in private houses took place several times a week, with large numbers of people, so it seems, able to perform – though none, perhaps, more eager than Alma. ‘It’s not the first time my playing has moved someone to tears,’ she noted after one performance, ‘and it won’t be the last time either. Those tears reflect my anguish, deflected towards others by the lightning conductor of my playing.’

All these gatherings were crammed with friends and relations. She was certainly close enough ‘to reach out and touch’ – and even kiss and be groped by – quite a few members of her glamorous world of artists and patrons. The lucky ones included the painter Gustav Klimt; the architect Joseph Maria Olbrich; Felix Muhr, another architect; and the director of the Court Theatre, Dr Burckhard. In her own words (later Marlene Dietrich’s in The Blue Angel), ‘men were hovering about me like midges round a lamp’; and so she was able to provide close-ups of, for instance, Gustav Klimt’s eyes (blue and beautiful), Erich Wolff’s smell (bad) and Alexander von Zemlinsky’s chin (absent). Poor Zemlinsky was also ‘small … when we walk together he reaches up to my shoulder. But then, all famous men were small – almost all.’ Zemlinsky was Jewish to boot, but as he was a famous composer, she could overlook his shortcomings and do Lewinsky-like things with him: not sex, according to the latest definition, but sexy. She even became engaged to him, though only until Mahler came into her life at the very end of the diaries. With him she did go the whole hog and conceived her first child before marriage. Mahler was Jewish too, and so was Franz Werfel (who belongs to a much later phase). Alma’s biographers are baffled by the contradiction between her sometimes virulent anti-semitic remarks (though not about ‘upper-class Jews’) and the fact that she married two Jews and had affairs with several more. This can be explained by the intellectual atmosphere of Vienna in her time, or more simply by the fact that logic and consistency were not her thing.

She was an indefatigable flirt, always on the look-out for an amorous eye to make contact with, but also for opportunities to radiate contempt or cut someone dead: she was a great one for taking offence and going into huffs and miffs; though not usually for long. She switches from the loftiest sentiments or deepest Weltschmerz to the most trivial triviality and highest spirits: the whole entry for 3 December 1898, for instance, is a cry of despair, ending: ‘Often I imagine that I shan’t live long. I’m so dreadfully sad.’ The following day begins: ‘Spent yesterday evening at the Geiringers’. It was great fun and went on until 2.45.’ Too late to alter the previous entry. Three pages before the diaries end, on 27 December 1902 ‘the bomb dropped’ and Alma’s engagement to Mahler was announced in the papers. He was then the director of the Vienna Opera, so ‘for the first time in the director’s box … my appearance in the box was a veritable debut. Every opera-glass was focused on me – every single one. I felt offended & withdrew.’ Alma had no problem with having cakes and eating them.

It is certainly true, as Beaumont says, that her diaries give a breathtaking (and breathless) account of cultural life in Vienna at the turn of the century. The general avidity for art, music, literature and ideas can fill one with mortification and envy, the aims of the Secession, as well as the changes in them, especially so. The scene is exactly as Carl Schorske said in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: by contrast to other European capitals ‘the cohesiveness of the whole élite was strong. The salon and the café retained their vitality as institutions where intellectuals of different kinds shared ideas and values with each other and still mingled with a business and professional élite proud of its general education and artistic culture.’ What you don’t get here is any idea of what the writers, artists and musicians actually produced: just cries of ecstasy or condemnation (‘I shall always prefer Böcklin to Raphael’). Above all, however, this is a social comedy of wooing, as funny as can be. Not even Oscar Wilde could have got away with a character as preposterous as Alma.