MICHAEL O’SULLIVAN writes about a 30 year fascination with W.H. Auden in ‘Silence Turned Into Objects : W. H. Auden in Kirchstetten, edited by Ricarda Denzer and Prof Monika Seidl and published by Literature Edition Niederosterreich.
An Honoured Guest
(In Memoriam Stella Musulin)
“Fresh addenda are published every day.”
“Not everything about Wystan Auden was very appetising, his private life was a mess. But he was kind, generous and unpretentious, and personally I was devoted to him. [He was] an amazing mixture of awe-inspiring talent, high scholarship, wretchedness and squalor”.
In those few words, his friend, the writer Stella Musulin, sums up the essence of the man.
So central has he become to my life that there now never appears to have been a time that it could possibly have been otherwise. He has become, for me over the past thirty years, a talismanic touchstone. My conversation has become so peppered with quotes from the work and about the life, that I am frequently asked to say when I first met him. I was still at school in Ireland when he died in 1973. His niece married an Irishman and the poet’s great-niece was at university with me, however Auden, the great peregrinus, visitor to nearly thirty countries, never set foot in Ireland.
I was first made aware, by my English teacher and early mentor T.F. Lane, that it was Yeats and not Ireland who featured in Auden’s poetry. “Ireland has her madness and her weather still” is the nearest we come to an Audenesque Hiberno travelogue. Later I discovered that he enjoyed telling of how immensely proud he was of having written a poem in a complex Gaelic meter.
He was, of course, an influence on modern Irish poets, including Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon. He appears as a terse footnote in Finnegans Wake in which Joyce was, I rather like to think, either acknowledging the young poet’s Nordic roots when he wrote ‘I bolt that thor. Auden’, or perhaps he was merely displaying, yet again, his extraordinary knowledge of ancient myths and may have been referring to the Norse god Odin. Auden had certainly read Finnegans Wake soon after its publication and, like Evelyn Waugh, was not especially taken by it. However it did have a limited influence on aspects of The Age of Anxiety. He had a brief youthful flirtation with the mystical verse of Yeats’ friend George Russell (AE) and rather brilliantly described Oscar Wilde as “a phoney prophet but a serious playboy”. And there, with those flimsy associations, ends the possibility of any more substantial Auden links with Ireland.
My own link to Auden and his world began at Trinity College Dublin, when I chose him as the subject of my postgraduate work in the English Department. Charles Osborne’s biography, the first full-length biography of Auden, had just been published and serialised in The Observer. I recall reading the first extract on a wet Irish Sunday in March 1980 in my rooms in a college quad called Botany Bay. I was fascinated by the details of a life which were largely unknown to me and I found them an absolute revelation, if not indeed something of a sensation. That book, however, was soon to be eclipsed by the biography which Humphrey Carpenter, was about to publish.
“Burn my letters” Auden exhorted his friends through the medium of his Estate. His literary executors were instructed to place advertisements in newspapers requesting such action. Fortunately few of his friends obeyed his command and most of those who were contacted by Humphrey Carpenter gave him access to their correspondence with Auden.
Throughout his life he railed on and on about his abhorrence of the idea of someone writing his biography. ‘A writer is a maker, not a man of action’ was the oft repeated mantra. To read a man’s personal letters after his death, he claimed, was as impertinent as reading them while he was still alive. In this, as in so much else, he was a mass of contradictions. While waiting in his tutor’s rooms at Oxford he casually picked up letters from his desk and began reading them. When his newly appointed tutor, Nevill Coghill arrived Auden told him that a page from a particular letter was missing and asked him where it might be found. So, while not wishing other people to be tourists in his life, Auden had no difficulty making occasional visits to the lives of others.
A letter from me to Humphrey Carpenter brought a most courteous, if slightly guarded reply. I had been given a research award to look at Auden’s papers and related material at Oxford, and thought it a good idea to contact his biographer who lived in the city. We arranged to meet at a public house much frequented by Oxford students. After a few ice-breaking drinks my youthful enthusiasm for Auden seemed to strike a chord with Humphrey and he invited me home to lunch with his wife and family. Only after much convivial banter did I realise, to my absolute surprise, that the real purpose of the invitation was to show me the vast quantity of material he had amassed during the course of his research for the Auden biography. To my even greater surprise, when I was leaving he handed me a large box containing much of that material saying “this should help you with your research”. I then moved through a sweltering Oxford, with this weighty gift, quietly in awe of my generous benefactor and thinking how lucky Auden was to have had such a man as the chronicler of his life. It was the beginning of one of many friendships which were initiated through my burgeoning Auden obsession and which brought me into the direct path of many of his friends.
It was also an old friendship, coupled with some new ones that brought me to Austria and towards a more tangible connection to Auden’s Austrian life. In 1982 the Irish scholar and writer Patrick Healy introduced me to the American artist Timothy Hennessy, who was in the process of organising a major exhibition of his work in Paris as a tribute to James Joyce, as part of the centenary celebrations of Joyce’s birth. A central part of that exhibition was Patrick Healy’s reading of the complete text of Finnegans Wake, and on the sidelines of that event I met the then Vienna based linguist and translator Lise Rosenbaum. It was she who told me of the existence in Vienna of The International Auden Society, founded by Peter Muller of the Bundesdenkmal Amt together with the author Karlheinz Roschitz.
A letter to Peter Muller brought a reply inviting me to stay with him in Vienna and within a week of arriving was born the idea of an exhibition and symposium to mark the 10th anniversary of Auden’s death, which fell the next year.
Muller was an extraordinary man and though he travelled extensively in the rarefied world of both the Austrian intellectual and aristocratic set, he never lost touch with his roots in a small village in Lower Austria. He possessed a charm and self-assurance which left him equally at ease in a castle or in a cottage. I remember him bringing me to see the blood-stained uniform of the murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand when this relic of Sarajevo was being inspected by his office. For a moment we were alone with the glass lid lifted. We looked at each other and at the uniform and then he suddenly said “Go on touch it, touch all that terrible history”.
He brought me on many a pilgrimage to places and to people associated with Auden’s Austrian life. As Auden was but ten years dead there were many people in Austria who remembered him and Peter Muller knew all of them.
But none would have as much influence on me personally or on my understanding of her friend W.H. Auden as an exceptionally intelligent woman called Stella Musulin. She was born Stella Lloyd-Philipps to an old family of landed gentry in the ancient Dale Castle in Pembrokeshire. Her marriage into the Austrian aristocracy brought with it the moniker Baroness Stella Musulin von Gomirje, but she wrote extensively, cleverly and with piercing insight on a polyglottal range of subjects as plain Stella Musulin.
“She was very close to Auden”, Peter Muller told me as we arrived in the courtyard of Schloss Fridau at Obergrafendorf some few kilometres from Auden’s house at Kirchstetten. The castle, a ghostly presence in the distance, had been occupied by the Russians at the end of World War II and left in a completely uninhabitable state. The family had moved to the adjacent courtyard to rooms made elegant by unpretentious good taste.
Later, when I was introduced to some of them, I realised that the list of names of the extended family members was like reading entries in the Almanach de Gotha of people who had been significant figures in the glory days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Stella’s father-in-law had helped write the ultimatum to Serbia in 1914 and her husband Janko Musulin was an important figure in the resistance to the Nazi occupation of Austria. But for now I was meeting a woman who, in Peter Muller’s conspiratorial whisper, had been “very close to Auden”.
The quadrangular configuration of this Austrian rural Eden had the feel of a small Oxbridge college. In the wing which we now entered, a staircase led to a long corridor, at the end of which lay the set of rooms occupied by Stella Musulin. The door to these rooms was open in welcome and there stood this delicate, almost fragile woman with a ready, courteous and friendly welcome. While Muller engaged in the courtly ritual of “kuss die Hand Frau Baronin” — “I kiss your hand Baroness” — I was aware of her looking at me as if to take an initial reading of the cut of my jib. I learned later that such a reading was at one time a natural instinctive reflex, for she had been an operative in British Intelligence during World War II. Once, when asked if she thought someone had been a spy, she replied “I am sure he was, there was something about the back of his neck.”
She spoke in perfectly accentless German to Muller and when she switched to English her voice was that of the English upper-class RP which for generations defined a whole class. Debrett’s records her as directly descended from a 9th century Welsh king, and though her upbringing was in that part of Wales known as ‘Little England’ she proudly laid claim to her Celtic ancestry but never engaged in any form of tiresome nationalistic jingoism. Over tea, as the conversation and my endless questions turned to Auden, I understood at once why he would have liked her.
She was the author of two important books on Austrian history: Vienna in the Age of Metternich and Austria: People and Landscape. Auden wrote the Introduction to the later. So here was a formidable, well-stocked mind and one which I later greatly benefited from exposure to as we became friends. Her essay on her own friendship with Auden has been published in Auden Studies so I will restrict myself here to some details that are not published therein.
She met Auden soon after he bought the Kirchstetten house in 1957. Correspondence between them from the period shows that they had settled in, almost immediately, to an easy friendship. Notes passed to and fro setting dates for lunches at Kirchstetten or at Fridau. So comfortable had the friendship become that before one luncheon at Fridau, Auden insisted that she come down to the courtyard to look at his VW car. He then showed her a hole in the bodywork of the car, which he proudly announced to be “a bullet-hole”. Auden was in the habit of giving his car on loan when he was away from Kirchstetten, and on the last occasion he did so it was stolen and used in a robbery. He was immensely proud of the latest addition to the many dents which were the result of less dramatic uses of his car. His driving skills were the subject of much good-natured humour in and around the Kirchstetten hinterland. Someone once explained his tendency to ignore a red traffic signal by saying that he was possessed of such supreme self-confidence that when he came to a traffic light he expected it to be green!
Auden came to rely on Stella’s impeccable German for translations of things such as speeches he had to deliver on official occasions in Austria. He was also in the habit of sending her drafts of his poems in his letters to her. This is something he reserved for close friends whose opinion he valued. It began when he was an undergraduate, often sending his drafts to Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender and he continued the practice throughout his writing life.
To illustrate Auden’s personality, Stella told the story of a lunch party at Fridau at which her young son Marko was also present. Advising the boy that a famous poet was coming to lunch and no doubt also advising best behaviour, she was surprised that her son’s curiosity led him to ask Auden what exactly a poet does? She then recalled how this colossus of English poetry sat and explained in terms that a young boy could understand, exactly what a poet does. This she felt was the mark of true genius and of Auden’s great humanity.
Auden also came to rely on Stella in the more intimate area of his personal relationship with Chester Kallman. Keeping Chester in purdah was an impossible task. He was, Stella recalled, “addicted to promiscuity”. When Kallman sometimes disappeared into the miasma of homosexual bars in Vienna for long periods, Auden occasionally telephoned Stella, who had a pied-a-terre in the city, to seek her help in finding him. She recalled once finding herself searching the seedy bars of the Linke Wien Zeile late at night for the straying Kallman. Apparently her gentle admonishment “now Chester time to go home” always worked and she would then return the prodigal to Kirchstetten, and to Auden, the next day. She felt that it cannot have been easy for Chester to live in the shadow of this genius whose life was lived to a rigid, sacrosanct and almost inviolable timetable. She developed a certain sympathy for Kallman’s role, which was seen by less sympathetic observers as second fiddle to the great man and by those completely lacking in sympathy and understanding as that of a sponger. She remarked on the importance of Auden’s role in Kallman’s life too when she recalled that after Auden’s death Chester had “lost his signpost in life” and began to disintegrate rapidly. A home movie made by a neighbour shortly after Auden’s death shows Chester in company at the dining table in Kirchstetten. He looked a complete shadow of his former robust image. Here now was a broken man, adrift and lost like the lighthouse of Portus. Stella was always willing to give him credit for the role he played in Auden’s life and ready to point out that he too made sacrifices, not least amongst them a certain loss of dignity which came from being financed by Auden for most of his life. Stella Musulin described Chester as “a Dorian Grey figure, sparkling and damned, hero and victim, immature and over-ripe, sensitive and heartless, a man capable of loving and being loved”.
Stella’s final role in Auden’s life was, for her, the saddest. She was driving back to Fridau from Linz on the 29th of September 1973 when the news of Auden’s death was announced on the car radio. With tears streaming down her face and in considerable shock, she drove straight to Kirchstetten where she found a somewhat chaotic scene at the house. Chester, tranquilised but still in a distressed state, finally and in absolute frustration and grief, asked Stella to take control of the funeral arrangements because it seemed to him, a non-practicing Jew that he was about to be forced to accept some sort of overblown state funeral for Auden in Kirchstetten. So Stella’s final act for her old friend was to use her diplomatic skills to ensure that the burghers of Kirchstetten and the grieving Chester, came to an amicable agreement about the nature of the send-off for the village’s most honoured guest.
Austria, his final resting place, his adopted homeland and arguably the place where he was happiest during his lifetime, continues to be the country where Auden is most honoured. It was in honouring Auden’s memory that I came to enjoy my own first meaningful role in the Audenworld and one that, happily and fortuitously, brought me into contact with some of his friends and family.
The catalyst in those years for all things celebratory in relation to Auden in Austria was Peter Muller. While staying with him at his flat in the Schlosselgasse in Vienna in 1983, a moment which I can only best describe as high ‘camparama’, gave rise to Muller’s notion that I should organise an exhibition and symposium to mark the 10th anniversary of Auden’s death, which fell in September of that year. He was showing me a crystal wine flagon and glasses from his collection which were once part of a suite made for the Empress Maria Theresa and at that moment he said “Let’s fill these up with wine and toast the idea of the Auden exhibition”. I like to think that such high camp style would have amused Auden, who was not adverse to the odd incursion into the world of high camp himself.
Once the heady intoxication of the wine from Maria Theresa’s wine accoutrements had worn off next day, I was faced with the reality of honouring a commitment to Peter Muller — who took such matters most seriously — to give Vienna the most significant ever public celebration of Auden’s life and work. Vienna was accustomed to hosting impressive arts events and I quite soon realised that what was expected was something on the grand scale. Within a week Muller had arranged a meeting with the director of the Niederosterreich Gesellschaft fur Kunst und Kultur, Dr Eugen Scherer. This organisation was the cultural arm of the Lower Austrian government and they had under their control one of Vienna’s premier public arts spaces, a gallery in the Kunstlerhaus, which was within a biscuit throw of some of Vienna’s major cultural icons — the Konserthus, the Musikverein, the Secession and the State Opera House. Eugen Scherer was immediately taken by the idea and almost instantly guaranteed the not inconsiderable funding it would take to assemble the celebration of Auden on the scale that we now had in mind.
In principle we all agreed that the event could not be a dry academic affair and it would have to be attractive to a wide parish, not just to Auden enthusiasts. A strong visual element was essential; there would be music, film, commissioned artworks, audio works and of course the Auden texts in their many and varied forms. In tandem with all this it was agreed that a symposium of Auden scholars would deliver a day of papers in the gallery, and from that a book of essays later appeared.
Looking at the scale of what was involved it was also agreed that the event would not happen until 1984, thereby missing the actual date of the 10th anniversary of Auden’s death by a few months. But what emerged as the process of organising the event went ahead was the massive global goodwill that there was towards Auden and the way in which a veritable cornucopia of the world’s most important literary and artistic institutions were willing to weigh in behind an unknown but enthusiastic young scholar from Trinity College Dublin in the most trusting and helpful manner. That was truly and deeply touching. The acknowledgements in the catalogue which accompanied the event are a ‘Who’s Who’ of that world.
As always with such events, the cast of personalities which emerged lent itself to some great anecdotal lore. As the event got under way, Vienna played host to many of them. Stephen Spender arrived from London along with Auden’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter. They were billeted at The Bristol Hotel — then a rather grand but elegantly chipped and faded establishment. By this time Spender was Poet Laureate and sported a knighthood, under which moniker he was registered at the hotel. It caused hilarious moments at the reception desk where he was always addressed as ‘Sir Spender’, making him sound like something altogether different to any passing English speaker. Chaperoning him around Vienna was a delightful task. He knew the city quite well from his period living there in the1930s. 1984 was the time of the coal miners’ strike in England and news of its progress was his abiding obsession. In those pre-internet days we did our best to keep him updated.
Raymond Adlam of the British Council in Vienna — a man of immense charm and erudition, a much-travelled Council officer and straight from the pages of an Olivia Manning novel — did much to keep the ever-increasing group of distinguished guests entertained. We organised a dinner for Spender in Auden’s favourite Vienna restaurant, the Ilona Stuberl, an unpretentious Hungarian bistro on Braunerstrasse in the inner city which Auden liked because it had something of pre-1956 Budapest about it. Amongst the guests was the young artist Mary P. O’Connor, then working with Eduardo Paolozzi. Her massive and highly charged images of Auden’s face — “that wedding cake left out in the rain” — had been commissioned for the exhibition and Spender very much admired them. The poet had never seen a Swatch watch and was fascinated by the one the artist was wearing, especially because it had a rotating image of Mickey Mouse.
Another guest was Paul O’Grady, a brilliant Irish-American scholar whose work on Catholics in the reign of Henry VIII also interested Spender. Snatches of the conversation floated up the table, with O’Grady delivering this sentence in support of some point about Auden’s Christianity: “I think Auden would agree that a melange of incoherent prejudices is very far removed from a firm Catholic theology, anti-papal or otherwise”. One could see how such a man could get him around to talking about his relationship with Auden. What emerged was Spender’s extraordinary revelation that “Auden loved me but he never really liked me”. That provided much fuel for post-dinner speculation as the guests, including Caroline Delval whose organisational and acute literary skills did much to make the exhibition a success, wandered off into the Vienna night. Later in a nearby bar Paul O’Grady and I gave full vent to our musings on what England’s Poet Laureate could possibly have meant. We came to the same conclusion, that Auden indeed loved him but what he didn’t like about him was his abandoning his early flirtation with homosexuality or the fact that Auden had intended Spender to be the novelist of the ‘Auden generation’ but he had disregarded that advice and ploughed on with poetry.
By a happy coincidence Auden’s old friend Leonard Bernstein was in Vienna conducting the Philharmonic, and when he got to hear about the exhibition he asked for a guided tour. He ambled over from the Musikverein one afternoon, with his assistant Aaron Stern and spent an hour going through the exhibits in great detail and giving many piercing insights as he went. When he came to a photograph of Auden and Chester, he stopped in his tracks and said “that photo tells you all you need to know about that relationship; there is Auden looking at Chester and Chester is looking at the camera”. I sat him down to view a BBC documentary on Auden in which the closing sequence is footage of Auden’s funeral. The Kirchstetten Village Brass Band is playing some sombre dirge but the director chose to play as the soundtrack under the footage, a full orchestral version of Siegfried’s Funeral March. Auden had requested this to be played at his funeral and Chester had played it on the gramophone in the Kirchstetten house. Auden said he wanted “Siegfried’s Funeral March and not a dry eye in the house”. He got his request. But now looking away from the television screen in the Kunstlerhaus, Bernstein looked up and said: “Wow, not bad for a local village band!” He recalled then that one of his own early orchestral works, ‘The Age of Anxiety’, was inspired by Auden’s poem of the same name. He recited memoriter, September 1st 1939, while puffing with great dramatic effect on an untipped cigarette. He recalled, too, Auden’s love of opera and the poet’s many librettos composed with Chester Kallman.
Soon after the Vienna exhibition I travelled to Athens to meet Alan Ansen, who first met Auden in New York when he attended his Shakespeare lectures and became briefly, in 1948-9, Auden’s unpaid amanuensis. Ansen was educated at Harvard, where he took a first in classics. He had led a somewhat bohemian but scholarly life, enabled by an inheritance from an elderly aunt. He resolved never to take paid employment during his lifetime — a resolution he fulfilled with consummate skill and not a little judicious financial husbandry.
I was aware that Auden held his intellect in high esteem and also had high regard for his poetry. He acknowledges Ansen’s help with The Age of Anxiety and the Portable Greek Reader. Ansen was a sort of muse figure to the Beat Generation and is the model for Rollo Greb in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and for AJ in William Burrough’s Naked Lunch. Indeed he is credited with having typed the manuscript of naked lunch in Tangier.
He was in his sixties when I met him and during the time I spent with him I could still see traces of how Kerouac described Rollo Greb:
He had more books than I’ve ever seen in all my life — two libraries, two rooms loaded from floor to ceiling around all four walls and such books as the Apocryphal Something-or-Other in ten volumes. He played Verdi operas and pantomimed them in his pyjamas with a great rip down the back. He didn’t give a damn about anything. He is a great scholar who goes reeling down the New York waterfront with original seventeenth-century musical manuscripts under his arm, shouting. He crawls like a big spider through the streets. His excitement blew out of his eyes in stabs of fiendish light. He rolled his neck in spastic ecstasy. He could hardly get a word out he was so excited with life.
The library came with him from Long Island to Venice to Athens. He pointed out a chair that Chester Kallman gave him which came from Auden’s house in Kirchstetten. “What should be done with this after I die” he asked me, more as a rhetorical question than one needing testamentary advice, for he was soon on to other subjects.
Over a glasses of warm Cinzano Rosso he told me, with a touching, genuine sadness in face and voice, of Chester’s last days in Athens. Tales of his drinking Ouzo from early morning, tales of his being robbed by Athenian rough trade, tales of insufferable loneliness drowned in a vat of drink. He had, Ansen said, “lost his criterion when Wystan died”. He then recited some lines Chester had written about Auden’s death:
Wystan is gone: a gift of fertile years
And now of emptiness: I found him dead
Turning icy blue on a hotel bed…
I shared his work and like as best I could
For both of us, often impatiently.
So it was; let it be.
He was pleased with the catalogue of the Vienna exhibition I brought for him and glad, he said, that Auden’s adopted homeland remembered and honoured him.
What emerged from the Vienna exhibition and the international coverage it received was above all a sense that Auden’s legend lived on far beyond the borders of Austria, but there was also this all-pervasive sense that Austria had claimed him as one of her own and a feeling too that he would have been greatly pleased to be so claimed by the people he lived and died amongst.
Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers living or dead;
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives;
Because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling: make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.