Gustave Haan needed a break from the house even though he was not someone who usually went out onto the streets of Vienna unless he had been invited somewhere. These days he preferred to remain detached from the self-inflicted crisis the continent of Europe insisted on manufacturing for itself like so much carpet. It was true that amongst the worst of times nothing much disturbed his unclear conscience, but once he found a need for external distraction he delighted in his rediscovered ability to make easy mistakes.
He was used to slow progress but being stuck was a different matter. The perfectly bloody business with his second wife and the genuine sanctimony of previously close friends had penetrated even his thick skin, and so when the wine of his lunch had worn off and it was too early for an evening drink he sought out the open air rather than taking the usual mid-afternoon snooze he used to restore his spirits.
Though it was a little early to draw a line under the first half of the year, the suddenly sour atmosphere encouraged him to desert the capital sooner rather than later with Emma, his new love. He walked on past the Strudelhof steps until he reached the residential back streets of the ninth district. He always avoided such public arenas as the Stadt Park or the Belevedere Gardens where he only met people he would have paid money to avoid. He much preferred the quiet emptiness of what was not mentioned in guide books.
The Ninth district often felt empty even though behind closed doors there was no absence of excuses for life. It was full of people used to living lives of obscurity, who did not overplay their wait for hopeful oblivion. There was time for people of a certain age and certain income to indulge themselves amongst the residual monastic institutions, hospital mortuaries and neglected Religious monuments, and many of them seemed to move here where the apartments were smaller and better suited to waiting for a very matter of fact death. Around and about the area there were uninspiring inscriptions in gilded letters encouraging those who had long since decided against, to invest all they had into what was not knowable. ‘May the light everlasting shine upon them.’
In this way, by careful un-intention, he found he was back where he started, having traced a large figure ‘D’ through the Alsergrund area, going down Lichtensteingasse, but turning off before reaching the Lichtenstein palace and then returning like a boomerang. This gave him pause for thought, because even during a purposeless walk through a land of hospitals, where physical and mental patients were kept in some numbers one could be convinced something important was about to happen rather than that time simply passed by.
It was quite clear to Gustave only a change of scene would offer him any real relief. He needed somewhere surrounded by an unfamiliar language, where it was difficult to pick up either prayer or despair. He needed to be far enough away to be at least once removed from his circumstances. He had become hopelessly nervous lately, and bad tempered with it. What he needed was some expedition, to somewhere if not foreign, then climes a little distance away so he might return to something like he used to be, if how he used to be was someone recognisable after all this time. His immediate desire then was to be elsewhere, and for some reason the thought filled his head with minarets and calls to prayer.
He didn’t need a particular place to work in, his ego being perfectly capable of working its magic in most places, on the other hand he was not a great traveller, finding the process uncomfortable rather than exciting. He preferred the exotic variety of what the world had to offer to be carefully selected and delivered to his home rather than make an expedition to see it. Except that for once he felt the urge to escape the provincial attitudes world capitals always encouraged. He fancied making an excursion out to a Heligenstadt where he could have a mental and emotional adventure. He wanted to shake off futile cosmopolitanism for a while, and have a period of parole from the familiar open prison grounds he wandered around.
There was less to keep him here this summer, as the ‘scandal’ he had got himself involved with this year had rather thinned out his friends, freed up his social time and allowed him to wrestle with the artistic dilemmas of the era without making too much progress on them. He had got to the point some months ago where he had almost managed to finish a large scale piece but for some reason couldn’t manage to complete it. He was left waiting for when he could sit down and finish it smoothly and straightforwardly. It would only need a couple of days, maybe a week when it happened but no matter what he did it refused to be forced. He had never screwed up and thrown in the bin so much paper than when trying to finish this piece to the point where he thought he was losing his touch. He seemed to need time to assimilate new material before he could write a completion date at the bottom of the last page. He had no choice but to put it on one side. Such good work needed to be finished off seamlessly no matter how much time passed between one bar and another, and at the moment he was only in the mood to spot something which wasn’t up to the mark as soon as he wrote it down.
Gustave decided to go somewhere not far away yet sufficiently distant. A night in a wagon-lit would do to take him and Emma to where they could enjoy themselves and he could concentrate without trivial distractions on the work he needed to finish. And so he filled his mind with maps and railway guides as he went back home, thoroughly unaware of his immediate surroundings until he got back to the familiar streets of his neighbourhood with a new purpose.
Gustave Haan was born in Tulln, close to, but not part of Vienna, and so had never entirely succumbed to what most people, used only to capital cities develop, a sophisticated provincialism that allows little travel and less thought. His parents had never talked about anything vital or dangerous and he couldn’t say much about what they were really like, but they had let Gustave come to his own conclusions. Both his parents were not unintelligent and were capable of hard work, though whether it was the right hard work was another matter. They had been interested in but not serious or passionate about the arts. His father had some hopes of art school before social and financial reality sent him out to work at fourteen as an apprentice painter and decorator.
Perhaps because Gustave had been left to his own devices he had always considered himself to be starting from scratch rather than adding on to some ancestral tree. It seemed to him most of what you were was the result of your own conclusions, although there was always the pressure, if not to be the same, then to be similar to what had been before when coming to a considered opinion. Gustave hadn’t had any formal schooling until he was eight. The family moved house often, one step ahead of being on the run, and even managed to get engulfed temporarily in the war of eighteen sixty six, when the family had briefly been living in Pressburg. He also remembered the great stock-market crash of eighteen seventy three without understanding anything about it. He did remember though how all the building work on the new Ringstrasse stopped the day the market crashed.
Maybe such times remained part of him and explained in some small way his boldness when it came to dangerous originality. Not that his fame came easily, because though he had great creative facility he thought it best to try and resist it. He never rushed to put first thoughts down in the interests of fast commercial success. This explained why his first and so far only Opera which had completely changed the musical landscape ten years earlier hadn’t so far been followed up by another one. His first opera was not for the faint hearted and posed problems to an audience about what was actually happening on the stage, which in a thoroughly up to date way was hardly the point. At the premiere the theatre had been full of younger composers listening and learning. Ordinary people were rather thin on the ground. He had produced other works, just enough but not too many, which were considered by once again just the right amount of the right people to be startling.
One of his latest orchestral works threatened to completely fill in the gap between the two competing strands of the previous century by managing to be like nothing else in the world. Old arguments looked like becoming redundant. It was a work which made the new generation look around them wondering what all the previous fuss had been about. Outside of this fierce limelight he had produced enough chamber and piano works to provide the width and depth necessary for even those people who were still reluctant to take him seriously, while at the same time he managed to avoid being labelled prolific. Works came off his production line at a steady rate but with enough time in between them for each to be fully appreciated. In this way he fitted into the modern expectation that anything decent had to have been hard won. The critics were divided about him which was the best occupation for critics, as fighting amongst themselves doubled the potential business available in their so called profession.
As always for the innocent bystander it was important not to confuse the work with the man. The fine sensibility he showed on the page could get lost in his real life. He often didn’t realise quite how insensitive he was being, but as he was always capable of light heartedness this often distracted others from his steely core.
Gustave Haan was not a leader of any school, his kind of originality risked future side lining just as much as it did becoming part of main stream fame. And he ignored the coverage in the breathless press about all those things he’d done some time ago.
He didn’t satisfy the social requirements of fame, because he rarely went out in the evenings, nor was he a moral example, as he didn’t believe in a system of morality and remained uncomfortable and unconvincing as a hypocrite. Yet Gustave was no revolutionary; the temptations of the bourgeois life were strong for him, though he never quite had the money needed to lead the life of a conservative public figure.
He was in debt, but only in the way everyone else was, and its ever presence didn’t interrupt his composition, and possibly even helped to increase it, as composition was an activity which instantly eliminated all other concerns from the mind, and he never needed an excuse to think about nothing else but composition. It was a gift he took no credit for himself, as he had always easily managed to be at once removed from what was supposed to matter. If he had to, he was quite capable of sitting the whole day long doing little else but dream.
As a friend once said about him ‘He thinks there is all the time in the world to be anxious and so he never gets round to it. Instead he takes as much time as he wants to get where he wants to go,’ and at this point the friend opened his palm outwards as if inviting someone to go first.
Such a description of him was close to the mark, though it didn’t suit his looks which had more of the arm wrestler about them than the piano player. He came over as robust, something at odds with the incredibly dense filigree work of harmonic innovation he had produced in his incidental music for Maeterlink’s play ‘Ariane and Bluebeard.’ He wasn’t one to think much about posterity although he knew his own worth. He placed his two books of variations on an original theme, somewhere between Beethoven and Liszt on the shelves of the future.
He would never have used the word ‘disciplined’ about himself but managed to follow a rough routine that was always capable of being interrupted without the risk of serious damage to any work under construction. He did not need special conditions such as a lakeside hut to get on with the only seriously self-absorbing activity in life he had so far found. He didn’t need silence either, often working when there were other people in the room. The only visible eccentricity to the conditions he needed for composing in was the ever present flying pig paper weight which always had to be within his sight line. Though he was never under what might have been called excessive creative strain, few works came entirely easily to him. He met difficult passages by walking away from them and coming back later rather than settling down to tussle with them.
His opera had taken some eight years to complete, admittedly he had not been working on it all the time, periodically putting it aside and spending as much as six months on smaller and more manageable pieces, but eight years was a long time to keep interested in the same subject.
He had never felt the need to rush. He told himself nobody was missing what he did and felt no anxiety in slowing things down even further if he thought the final result would benefit from it. There was much to be said for not being known by the general public or being in a place like Paris where a man was supposed to be ahead of the game all the time, in a race to produce things which were more and more frivolous at a faster and faster pace.
Some composers had an audience in mind who they wrote for, but he had never been able to see one single face never mind a full concert hall. Other people never occurred to him when it came to the act of composition. With him there was nothing more certain than for a commission with a deadline to bring about a creative paralysis on what he had been contracted to do. The expectations for a string quintet would get side-lined by the rapid advance of a one movement piano sonata he had been thinking about for some time without starting. The string quartet would lie around hardly begun until sometime later after everyone had forgotten about it he would deliver the work, two, three, or four years late, and all the better for it. Even the prospect of earning money had no effect on his attitudes, because such money was money he had already long since spent. Left to his own devices he avoided motivation and simply got on with it.
He disliked terms such as symbolism and impressionism the ones the critics used to describe his music, because his music was about so much more than just sounds and images. Critics seemed to imagine creativity was something done in your spare time. They hadn’t the remotest conception about how it meant absolutely everything to him and took up all his time one way or another. Neither did he have much time for singular summarising terms such as ‘spiritual’ about what he did, especially when his intention was anything but ‘spiritual.’ There was no elsewhere and it was about time people stopped wasting what was left of their lives thinking about such fictitious things. Given such unchanging attitudes it was forgivable how he kept quiet about what he thought and let the critics continue to say all sorts of lazy and inaccurate things about what they knew so little about. After all it what they were good at.
Lately though, he had been drawn to a subject which could only be seen as a symbol. He planned a piece involving the iconic figure of Saint Sebastian, but Sebastian as a triumph of the transcendent living alternative, rather than some misguided Religious martyrdom. The music would express both nothing further and everything else. It would be something to really get the teeth into and orchestrated to within a micro tone of fearsome confusion while at the same time being something familiar and comfortable. And though he never thought of an audience, with this work he could see them all sat there with their mortgages, ready to become a bunch of radicals after the first performance.
Gustave remained distant from the laboured life of the present, and yet was recognised as someone who might offer an escape route from the conventions of misery being touted around as the latest elixir by the usual suspects. Others warned against his music as if it seriously undermined the seriousness of the age and needed to be stopped. Though if Gustave had ever been asked what his aim was, he might simply have answered it was to briefly transport serious listeners to somewhere they had not been before.
He took a wide and comprehensive approach to a personal and isolated age. He attracted the higher minded listener as well as the Bohemian brawler. His brilliant track across dark times surrounded by telegraph wires and piano rolls seemed to confirm, to both types, how their time and place had produced a true original.
He had been awarded his first public prize at that age, thirty one, where with promise and a decade of apprenticeship safely negotiated, he could now be converted into a kind of official mascot by the authorities. He began to receive prizes, to him an anti- system of patronage which gave money to those who had no need of it but never gave anything to those who would have benefited from the help. Privately Gustave had no interest in being a figure head for things he almost completely disagreed with. He didn’t need extra attention when he was always in the limelight, but for the sake of a quiet life he accepted awards for work he had long since forgotten finishing.
Gustave had an inventive ability to make the same mistakes again. In this way, ever since he had been young he had seemed mature for his years. This natural confidence of his progressed by degrees until he became a man of ‘genius’, though he didn’t like the term and never thought of himself as one no matter how many other people did. He knew only too well the hard work and revision that went into what were his very approximate attempts at perfection. Most of what he tried was way off the mark, though he felt some of his attempts brushed the outer ring of the target. He also found what it was he punctured outside of the picture frame, way left of what he had been aiming at interesting. In many ways what he was best at was within the arena of the unknown where his true strengths could concentrate on what was definitely out of reach.
He found it easier to make progress where there hadn’t been much before, rather than rework what was well worn, and this was the land where his natural invention struggled to be comprehensible, always managing not to be entirely understandable. It was when Gustave most enjoyed the technical slog needed to get anywhere.
At the same time as being able to appeal to a small and select audience he wasn’t interested in producing the kind of music which would only attract the appreciation of a dubious set of disciples. He always widened his difficult language back out to a public he had no interest in, which made him to a limited degree ‘popular.’
He was against any of the social systems opposed to so many of his hopes, without ever being a revolutionary. His ambivalence might best be summed up in the way he wasn’t prepared to trade in his convictions and behaviour for uncomfortable respectability. He didn’t think avoiding the conventional in pursuit of art led to the catastrophic Bohemian life of a derelict, a vagabond, with the artist leading a cursed life, no matter how many French poets managed to lead by example.
Through the discipline of his own works he had turned the flank of the bourgeoisie, complacent in its belief nothing of lasting significance was important. And he had done it without arousing any suspicion in them, to the extent the bourgeoisie increasingly mistook him as being one of their own. His thin veneer of a surface seemed to correspond to their deeply held values. On the one hand he managed to set them an example of how things might be, and on the other he kept himself at a safe distance from the filthy moral tangle of their hypocritical lives. Without too much effort he became many things to plenty of people. He was naturally antagonistic towards the naturalistic but it did not make him some simple cardboard cut-out among the latest technological advances. What it made him was one of the most important artists of the age.
Gustave came from an ordinary working background rather than the land of means and private education and so he remained light in the water, his suitcase mentally packed, always ready to leave quickly with nowhere to go. Full of genuine talent he hadn’t stood a chance of being held back by a conservative and prejudiced system. He had simply and quickly cut right through everything to the top. Before the fidgeting middle classes knew what was happening they had been left behind, unable to have their usual baleful effect on developments.
State accolades now piled up, and he even wore a few of the ribbons he had been awarded at the few formal events he attended. It seemed to Gustave this was how you reached the age of fifty.
Vienna, that combination of the one and only and the last and least of places was Gustave’s home just as it was to the thousands flooding in from the many outposts of the empire. An empire which managed to be all outposts with a centre whose grip was definitely slipping.
He’d married for a second time not entirely unhappily some twenty years earlier, but as time went by something became increasingly lacking until though he was admired across the cultural capitals of Europe he had never felt less settled.
The restless intellectual world he spent so much time in demanded he kept a youthful outlook, and had encouraged his natural inclination to avoid the middle aged social game his wife enjoyed. But when he suddenly left her for another woman half his age he clearly hadn’t thought about the wider consequences of his behaviour.
With his new love by his side he told wife number two he’d left her by letter, and was genuinely surprised when a few days later she attempted to commit suicide just like his first wife had twenty years before when he’d left her.
Gustave Haan, compact, a little taller than average in height, with thick dark hair was used to over- coming adversity. He had a distinctive and attractive face without being what might be called handsome. His clear brow seemed free of storm and stress, which gave him the look of someone unconcerned, someone immune to the struggle of life with no need to fight hard for dubious victories.
He still had good eyesight and didn’t need to wear spectacles. He had a rather sensual mouth which looked like it was used to getting its own way, but this was moderated by a firm jaw and clear cheek bones which gave the misleading impression of a reliable character.
Given the circumstances Gustave thought it was best to leave town for a while, something which was easy to say but not so easy to do. In fact it took more than a month to close up the extra town house he had bought with the royalties from his Opera, but somewhere between the middle and the end of July with the house finally shut up for the summer Gustave and Emma took the evening train out of Vienna for Trieste and the Adriatic coast.
Trieste had plenty of opportunities for a sensitive artist and Gustave looked forward to spending time in a stimulating environment using a language he didn’t have a good knowledge of but could get what he wanted in. Now full of the freedom of having just made the break, he felt there was no better position to be in than being just the right side of not understanding what was being complained about.
There would be very few people from Vienna in Trieste, the bulk of the summer crowd on the train would travel on to the Adriatic islands lying off the Istrian coast and he and Emma would be happy to let them go. They would lag behind. Neither would they make for ‘La Serenissima,’ across the water. Venice was never good for the health at this time of year, and though Gustave was perfectly comfortable with the idea of not living for ever, he felt by taking a little care he had maybe another twenty years to make what further artistic progress was possible in a single lifetime. And maybe two decades with a new woman would help him do just that. Together who knew what they might be capable of achieving. Naturally Emma would give up her own composition now that all their efforts would be joint. Such were Gustave’s thoughts as the two of them settled down in the reserved first class compartment of the express train standing at Gleis Drei in the Sud Bahnhof ready and waiting to take them to Trieste.
The very optimism of the age could be summed up in a railway timetable. A place where for the first time in human history there was the chance of things running on time. Inside the South Austrian railway livery carriage everything was how it should be. There were plenty of people in second and third class but few in first. More importantly there was no one else in their compartment and by simply drawing down the corridor blinds they would be free from interruption.
Gustave and Emma were travelling to Trieste to be themselves, whatever that was these days. For a short time they would be able to leave behind what they had lately become. The tickets to Trieste acted as a disguise, allowing them to be both anybody they wanted to be and no one in particular. Travelling at 100 kilometres an hour held out the promise of much ‘becoming’ and no ‘being’ which was just how the two of them increasingly liked it. Gustave’s previous worries had been sheeted up along with the rest of the furniture in their town house while Emma had always wanted to be whisked away.
‘I have never been to Trieste,’ Emma said knowing little more about the place than Gustave did, who had never been there either. Before they set off they talked about everything without needing to confess anything, nothing was accusatory or judgemental between them, which was exactly what had attracted them to each other in the first place. They shared an attitude rare in the first decade of the century, and come to think of it in any earlier period you cared to consider. It was a quality both found more arousing in each other than any commonplace sensuality, though both of them had no trouble with the outright sensual when it was clearly what was needed.
There would be no need to change currency for the Austrian Riviera as this part of the Adriatic coast was part of the Dual Monarchy; They would still be inside The Austro-Hungarian Empire, ‘Koenigliche Kaiserliche,’ or Ka Ka, as it was sometimes shortened to.
Outside the window was the organised chaos of other people’s intentions. There were people waving relatives off who had over stayed their welcome and others on the first stage of emigration to Argentina, who would probably never see Europe again and for the most part were glad to see the back of it.
Serious minded Trieste was not the type of place that attracted day trip pleasure excursions, if you were going that far you were going there for a reason or else passing through into a wider world. Gustave liked the idea of going there for a reason rather than passing through to somewhere else. And his reasons for going there weren’t something that would fit comfortably in a hotel register.
Trieste had a bit of a reputation for artists and exiles so Gustave wouldn’t by any means feel he was on his own, but for the time being within the very selfish system that was called happiness he didn’t pick out anybody who was particularly like minded on the train. Emma was the only person he saw, clearly sat opposite him, as if she were the only describable person in a world knee deep in description. She was broad faced but with features time had spent effort on making more than simply attractive. Her face was made all the more desirable by plenty of dark hair which never managed to hide her perfectly proportioned head and shoulders. Gustave didn’t bother with any further description. He wasn’t making a police report about her, or a set of notes for an illustrator to work from. He simply settled down to look at her as if her wonderful surface was the very least of it.
While they waited to set off Emma closed her eyes, but as the train began to move she opened them to get some purchase on the sense of movement she was feeling. With a steam engine the biggest pull of power was at zero revolutions and it created the lightest of touches on Emma’s face, almost inexplicably they slowly accelerated away from the scene, negotiating the points and slowly passing other stationary trains which made some people inside them, who had lost concentration, letting their brains go into neutral, feel that it was they who were moving forwards past a stationary train alongside them. In general there were a set of physical effects flying around which made no sense until they were out of the station going at speed on a straight clear line that left subtlety way behind.
Once the train started to fly the novel sounds of travel soon faded, becoming a background to the accompaniment of a rushing foreground of telegraph poles acting as bar lines with the wires skipping between them.
The background slid by more slowly the further away its landscape features were from their wheeled and steam powered sitting room. The Semmering pass, worth seeing appeared and disappeared, but by then Gustave and Emma had grown tired from the effort of getting started in the early hours and were trying and failing to catch up with their lack of sleep as they bobbed in and out of focus and consciousness. For a while they shadowed each other’s unconsciousness, until like two animals in synch they awoke within seconds of each other.
They made their way through to the dining car for lunch. Once seated they chose something light and suited to travelling; lamb chops with garlic and herbs followed by apple tart. To drink they shared a decent bottle of Gruner Vertlinger though the wine wasn’t in the best of condition because of the constant vibration of a moving train.
After lunch they started on the long drawn out prospect of arrival. They filled the time up with the small actions of preparation, and filled themselves up with the prospect of an untroubled stay.
The transition from North to South was never less than startling no matter how many times a person made it, and this time was no different. They broke through a lot more than just a physical barrier, as in a matter of minutes the palpable descent to the Adriatic coast was matched by an increasing sense of well-being. There was a real Helios in the sky rather than the pale substitute they had laboured under before. The transition was never any other way, but surely it had never been like this.
The city of Trieste pushed at the line of the open sea and got no further as the train curved downwards and around on its track. By leaning out of the window, something neither of them did, both the front and back of the train could be seen. Trieste, still just far enough away to not yet be quite real had still managed to shake off everything about Vienna.
They glided at half speed through the approach cuttings and over the viaducts by which railway engineers kept cities secret and into the very heart of Trieste. They trundled through signals and points before finally, as if at the last possible moment, they saw the station platform sign spelling out Trieste in the letter type chosen for anywhere and everywhere inside the dual monarchy. Suddenly and completely they arrived under a large and extravagant wrought iron station canopy called the end of the line.
They arrived on time and at the same time got the impression there was all the time in the world. No one seemed to be in a hurry to leave the station having only just got there. People were met, luggage was carried, walking sticks became entangled and someone was even arrested, and still there seemed to be no hurry. A group of young naval midshipmen piled out of a third class compartment, laughing and joking looking for the train onward to Pola. They were well bred young men from good backgrounds with shallow and active intellects which had quickly adapted to the rougher coarser type of life they now led. They were happy, as yet undisturbed by some point in the future where the time would come for them to leave the service for country estates, marriage and quite probably duty as a local justice of the peace.
Gustave and Emma left for the hotel in a cab as if there was nothing to hide. But when they were safely inside with the luggage stored up above they stripped down to their more essential selves, mouths and tongues in close up, seeing just how much moaning and groaning they could make now the sounds they made were masked by the clatter of the trotting horse and the general clamour of the city of Trieste.
As they settled deep down with each other their thoughts and passions matched the dull black upholstery on the inside of the cab, and they became oblivious to everything except their own experience. Even so it was all timed perfectly so they were disentangled from each other with nothing skewiff when the cab stopped and the lyrical Italian of the cab man up on top announced the name of their hotel to them.
Gustave stepped out, looked up at the cab man as he paid him and was surprised to see a handsome young man in summer attire, well built, maybe only one step on from a long term peasant background which gave him a hardy edge and resilience but had already been rounded out by modern attitudes and new opportunities into something more picturesque and sociable, his face still classical in the matter of fact way lots of young Italians had.
‘Enjoy your stay Signore’ he said happily accepting the generous tip Gustave saw no reason not to flash.
‘We’ve made a good start,’ Gustave answered back, smiling in the engaging and winning way he’d always managed, before helping Emma down and taking her into the Hotel, while the porters saw to the luggage.
The splendid Hotel Foyer matched any there was in the Imperial capital, looking bigger and more opulent than necessary without attracting any attention to itself, just as all good Hotel Foyers did.
They were expected and the manager, a small soft dapper man with a black moustache and a caressing way with him wearing a French frock-coat, himself took them up to their rooms in the lift.
They were very pleasant chambers, furnished in cherry wood and with lofty windows looking out to sea. The rooms were decorated with the strong-scented flowers the area was famous for, a smell which remained insistent for about as long as it took for a customer to be satisfied with the arrangements and give out a tip. As this was the manager and the two porters who had brought the trunk and the cases up to the room had long since disappeared no tip was needed and besides the precise moment for such a transaction was missed as the manager once more expressing his happiness at their choice left them taking the aroma of the flowers with him.
As soon as Gustave and Emma were alone they went to one of the windows and stood looking out onto a larger picture in late afternoon emptiness, the sun playing with the long low waves sweeping in with a rhythmic beat. Gustave knew that now their first series of expectations had been met they should not confuse the relief they felt with real life, where what you expected to happen often didn’t and just at the wrong time too.
There was time before dinner for the intense and inarticulate feelings they had travelled with all day to change into something more appropriate for the seaside. Emma’s undergarments needed to be removed furled and replaced before the two of them could make an appearance in the dining room. All the excess fabric Gustave stripped off Emma gave him a sense of being under sail, especially as just over her shoulder he could see the sea, rising and falling rather like he was.
And afterwards with everything just as it should be and nothing out of place they were conveyed to the ground floor by the green uniformed Swiss who ran the lift.
Few people stayed long in Trieste, which was exactly why they had come here happy to be overtaken and left behind by everyone they had no interest in spending any time with because now they weren’t interested in anyone else except each other.
They were indifferent to the other guests and the overnight stays they were having before they continued on to the various resorts of the Dalmatian coast, or in some cases were lured onwards to Venice, the incomparable, like nothing else in the world, however detrimental to their health it might turn out, and where in Gustave’s experience the adventurous traveller immediately managed to bump into someone who lived two streets away in the Josefstadt.
They were a little early for dinner when they got downstairs and so sat in the large hall where a number of guests with faces there was no need to remember gathered. What German conversation there was got lost in a mix of Italian, Slovene and further away there was what sounded to them like English. As two people so closely involved with each other, Gustave and Emma remained inexpressive to others, who in turn wrapped up in their own concerns sat around on the wicker chairs not particularly on the lookout for anything very inexpressible. The other guests were nothing remarkable in any case. There were no isolated individuals with intellectual grappling hooks ready to pull at any stray significance lying around and make something of it. Everyone simply waited for dinner in their own way.
Gustave looked directly at Emma with a gaze that had already abandoned any attempt at summary. She had all the experience of a Greek Sculpture about her. A certain distance capable of both restraint and fine feelings but also demanding close quarter adoration and regular libations. It was this kind of summary which Gustave stopped trying to make while waiting for dinner to be served.
Emma’s thick, wavy luxuriant dark hair was nothing if not unfashionable compared to the tight straight honey coloured stuff favoured in the novels and plays of the day. She was someone who was easily overlooked by those searching for the latest thing, which was one of the reasons why Gustave, who was always on the lookout for something special had found her. There had been plenty of other women, but now he was sure there had never been anyone except Emma.
There was something hard fought about her easy grace and she engaged with the larger unanswered questions as if she wasn’t too concerned about herself. That first day, straight away she was a lot more than merely erotic to Gustave. But her brightness, strength, and unusually for the woman he had been involved with, wit, was all of an unforced natural variety. Before meeting her he had sincerely believed no woman was ever intentionally funny, but with her he often found he was in a state of genuine rather than polite laughter.
A waiter announced, in English dinner was served, and the temporary threat of proximity and conviviality between people waiting was replaced by dispersal to allocated tables. The hotel was busy even though no one seemed to be staying more than a few nights and all the tables were taken. No one needed to try and make acquaintances and ‘dining’ in the French style, where conversation and its pauses took a grip was switched for simply ‘eating’ the meat and vegetables without much chatter. Except for their own lone high spot over by the window, there was a downright subdued atmosphere to the dining-room despite all the fancy electric lighting.
In the steadily silent room Gustave recalled his only very recent emotional isolation surrounded by domestic troubles and how it had prevented him making even the least progress on vital works. It had been very slow solo work when he made no headway either with composition or with life.
When Emma and Gustave first met each other both were delighted by what they didn’t yet know about each other. If part of the deal had been to never ask the other’s name they might even have kept to it. But apart from a healthy regime of make believe between them they also liked to know most of the time they spent together was made out of emotional cast iron.
They finished their meal and didn’t linger in the dining room, preferring to be back in their suite, away from the larger and broader concerns of European society such as sickness, financial disarray and looming world chaos, concerns they couldn’t do much about. Anyway as two people who still had much to find out about each other there was far too much to do on the personal front to properly consider the wretched state of the continent. And so after a long day travelling they opted for an early night full of deep sleep.
The following day was a brilliant one, beneath one of those skies made from the clearest of blues a warm sea breeze blew, and they felt it was pretty much what they deserved. It was good to have arrived somewhere so approximate to paradise and they decided to stay. They opened the bedroom windows, looked at the distant, poetic horizon, let its outside in and unpacked their things in preparation for going no further.
A little after nine they went down to the buffet, which lay between the hall and the dining room and served as the breakfast-room. The solemn stillness of the previous evening still reigned here; the kind of atmosphere it was always the ambition of expensive large hotels to achieve. The waiters moved around on noiseless feet. There was a rattling of crockery, a whispered word. There were no other sounds.
Gustave and Emma seemed to be the only people around not on a timetable as everyone else seemed to be going onwards if not upwards. Several groups managed to come and go while they took their leisurely breakfast, working their way through breads, jams and coffee in between lengthy breaks when they looked deeply into each other’s eyes.
No letters had caught up with them yet and even if they did there would be less of them because they had both cut down on their correspondence as part of their plan of escape. They wanted to create a bit of a blank if only to open up a Tabula Rasa for any future biographers to speculate about. What had they done in Trieste? What had they talked about? Maybe Haan had been running through the dialogue of an opera libretto he was thinking of adapting, something by Oscar Wilde maybe, while Emma looked perfectly at ease as she made light of reading a Florentine tragedy.
‘Why did you not tell me you were so strong?’
‘Why did you not tell me you were so beautiful?’
That kind of thing.
In any case the conversation Gustave and Emma increasingly murmured to each other in was already a language only understandable to each other.
The other tables in the breakfast room emptied out until the two of them became singularly noticeable as the only two who couldn’t keep their hands off each other, though in the decorum of the hotel breakfast room they actually made do with eyes unable to tear themselves away from each other. They were entranced by each other’s reflective surface, until the bell sounded for the end of the round in their total self-indulgence contest.
They finished off the breakfast they had never seemed to really start and without in the least hurrying walked past the staff waiting to clear. They set out for the ebb and flow of the morning promenade without going back to their room.
The beaches weren’t close to the hotel, though it was possible by a short excursion to find gentle shelving sands and shallow sea at places such as Barcola and Muggia, little bathing places not far from Trieste, where there were children wading, fist fights, sand castles, bathing huts and too much ice cream. The bathing spots were populated with happy Russian families, who were capable of who knew what in the motherland so they could look contented in the sunny south.
Emma and Gustave having hardly arrived didn’t want to go so far afield for the moment and stayed close to where they had only just got to know, which left them a little at sea on a distant shore and looking to get proper bearings on their new surroundings.
Trieste looked something like the real thing; a sophisticatedly discontented society giving itself over to a simple life. In front of them a small regatta of boats painted yellow and blue headed out towards a competition start. Indeed in a more general way it seemed a kind of new beginning was promised in this place both on the edge and at the centre of things, drawing in and then flinging back out an international mix of people, attitudes and ideas.
Gustave supposed this was the way Trieste had always behaved while waiting for the next form of government to come along, and Gustave and Emma fitted right in with its priorities in the way it didn’t have any. They settled down to watch everyone else pass them by rather than alter their own lack of direction. Already they took great pleasure in the daily drama of others as long as this didn’t threaten them as the centre of each other’s attention.
In this new Adriatic blue setting Emma became quite a different animal, tempered by the clarity of the surroundings into something altogether stronger. Now she was away from Viennese society she could concentrate and focus on being completely at home in a much more natural environment. And to Gustave getting away to the coast altered Emma’s perfume from the modern concoctions of an industry intent on selling more of the same into something much more primal.
Gustave was at that exact point of infatuation where he couldn’t imagine anything Emma ever did would annoy him, and Emma working along similar lines was in no mood to disappoint him.
In this frame of mind they looked towards a promenade bandstand where an Austrian army band had struck up an arrangement of the Prinz Eugen March. Emma’s brow darkened and a frown appeared, not because the playing was bad, but because away from the collaborative atmosphere of living in the capital she was very much for her nation’s independence from the double headed eagle of ‘Kakania.’
Gustave immediately noticed the change in Emma and was excited by seeing momentary hatred rise to her surface. He didn’t think he’d actually realised before how the Hapsburg Empire simply had to go.
The distant past had never been part of Gustave’s own identity, even as a young man he had always thought he was essentially starting from scratch, other people’s examples and experience being of limited value to his particular case, the Gustave Haan case. Emma had given the toy soldiers on the bandstand a matt finish for him. But despite the treatment she’d given the band and the military music ‘Prinz Eugen’ remained one of Gustave’s favourite marches.
Other people’s feelings were never the real strength of any true artist, and Gustave was no different, what with him spending significant amounts of his time, either amplifying or dampening down the sounds of perpetual social motion until he got closer to the ‘gaps’ between the seconds, the place where he tried to come up with an approximate musical notation for something like the whole. His job was to absorb all this ordinary relentless material, and if necessary filter it down to its very essence, after which something like assimilated it came onto the very tip of his pen, when he made sounds rather than shapes absolutely as meaningful as a herd of reindeer on a cave wall. In this way the ideas and interests bouncing around at the back of his mind usually sorted themselves out and formed an orderly queue of notes where rhythmic time was more important than traditional form.
It was then the struggle really began, as hard as the darkest winter night and once it started there was no hope of a quick finish. That was when Gustave took on a hang dog furtive look which suggested he needed to indulge in some kind of cathartic vice and get it over with as quickly as possible.
He had brought the manuscript he’d been struggling with at home along with him on the off chance a change of scene would do the trick. He had already looked at it again in the sea air. Still nothing was doing. He made a mental note it was time for the beginning of its end but clearly its end was not just at the moment. After such a brief, silent and futile struggle with himself Gustave needed something to take away the slight taste of postponement it had left in his mouth.
No one knew who they were here and no one they knew was around either. His fame being limited to the realm of the serious music lover he found he could do what he pleased. He operated at an altitude well over the heads of the local newspaper reader and there was a lot to be said for such a thing when it came to leading a private life.
Yet Gustave felt sure here was the kind of working place full of static impatience right for moving the creative work on as well. Not that he believed anything as rudimentary as surroundings influenced any final form. Personally he had no need of mountains and sunsets for what he was up to and wasn’t inclined to spend much time down by the harbour when there was no need. He didn’t have to have special conditions to transform his self-consciousness and anxiety about the future into the blithe unconcern of an eternal present. It didn’t matter to his end product if he was in a land of Italian dialect and Slavic words which sounded like they mightn’t make it out of the throat because the mouth opened so little. Gustave thought he might get a similar effect if he spoke German backwards, but decided against trying it out. Not understanding what was said to him made him feel free for once.
There were snacks of pork and mustard, sausages, Prague Ham and tripe as well as Krupfen und Strudel, cakes and even Hungarian style dobos and rigojanci were all available in the small buffets scattered around the place. There was just enough of central Europe to remind them they weren’t entirely in the sunny Italian south. Near these eateries a vendor positioned in the perfect place for the most sales sold big bright sweet cherries. They bought some and fed the refreshing fruit to each other off of small wooden forks.
Six months ago Gustave thought Emma had saved his life as surely as if she had entered the room as he had placed a revolver in his mouth. He’d seen her, put the gun down and settled for falling in love at first sight instead. Put like that it sounded simple enough to be true. Falling in love at first sight actually took some time, but it had been worth the extra effort now she was with him wearing a tilted black and white hat whose rather formal look didn’t get in the way of her easy going and easily pleased nature.
Gustave was in short sleeves, which still being on the youthful side he could get away with wearing. They also made him stand out from all those people looking the same as everyone else who he didn’t notice anyway. Only when he took his eyes off Emma did he realise ordinary life continued around and about them but with so much time taken up by each other there was hardly any time for surroundings.
As the midday heat grew the people disappeared from the streets to practise dining lengthily, sleeping or gazing off silently into space. No one seemed to have much trouble over-riding the recent terrible North American fashion of having to have something to do. A couple of hours got set aside for doing nothing in and Emma and Gustave took advantage of the opportunity to disappear from the social stage set and return to their suite at the hotel.
Inside their rooms the mirrors multiplied up their reflections as if what was outside were some glimpse of make believe, and within a few minutes the mirrors began to reflect how what took place behind closed bedroom doors would shock the general public.
In Vienna Gustave’s usual routine was to compose for three hours a day in the morning, the time when that favourite new plaything the subconscious as well as his own sense of creative adventure usually came up with more or less the goods. But lately diminishing returns had set in, and it had been this, along with a sudden set of social circumstances that had suggested he needed a long break somewhere. Though truth be told, something Gustave was usually reluctant to do, the longish holiday was less to do with the creative juices and more to do with the social circumstances.
In fact the tonic of Trieste only needed a few days to take its positive effect on Gustave and he made it clear to Emma at the end of the first wonderful week that some mornings he might need to keep to the hotel room to work on the important score he needed to complete. And if he did do this he would meet up with Emma in the lounge around midday. Otherwise she could decide what they did together, whether it was trips further afield or meeting people he wouldn’t usually be seen dead with.
At the beginning of the second week they decided to take a street car out towards the Miramar Palace, to see where Maximillian’s tragic Mexican adventure had started from. By 1905 everyone knew how everything the ghastly Napoleon III touched had turned to ‘Scheizer’ but Gustave imagined how Mexico must have seemed like a good idea to Maximillian at the time. Or maybe it had always been a bad idea, the worst possible outcome suspected but over-ruled for political and personal reasons. To Gustave’s way of thinking pure will power never overcame even the puniest of circumstances and no doubt Maximillian got what he deserved. If someone chose what they wanted from the menu of disaster it wasn’t fair to give the ghastly consequences a bad review. It was easy to set off on an adventure but difficult to escape from a nightmare. The whole episode wasn’t a complete waste of time though, because Eduard Manet had got a great painting out of it.
The Miramar palace stood on a headland looking as if it was already afloat and on its way across the Atlantic to Mexico. Its white stone looked slightly pinkish in the bright light rather in the way the buildings of Lisbon managed to look as the sun sank.
The guidebook talked at length about Maximillian’s and his wife’s happiness in the building without ever getting anywhere near what either of them were really like.
A great perfumed smell hung low in the gardens of the palace in the way history became heritage when it wanted to avoid an unpleasant past. An episode from the not too distant 1860’s tried to become more like something from the middle-ages or ancient Greece and failed. Which was really all there was to see of the conceited catastrophe, nice though the house and grounds were.
Back in the centre of Trieste Gustave and Emma wandered through the type of pleasant streets which had managed to improve with age. Streets that needed to be searched for, off the tourist track where things weren’t so ready to be noticed and were taken no notice of. Here things had been left behind by a century picking up speed with no idea where it was going. It was where some of the best artistic work in Europe was being done. Close by great sentences, not too many but just enough were being written.
Gustave and Emma, hand in hand went into one of the better looking street front café bars. It had a good mirrored interior and a Slovene businessman was having a discussion in English with a Berlitz language teacher. Though Gustave wasn’t in the frame of mind to notice too much new stuff, his English was good enough to pick out a rather literary, ‘time worsted’ and the phrase ‘the irrationality of character’ from the pair at the table, phrases he was fairly sure weren’t part of the Berlitz method and rarely came up in ordinary conversation. But even he, important central European cultural figure that he was, knew the sound of the non-German speaking future when he heard it as he swung by the new ‘lingua franca’ bobbing about in the air on his port side.
Gustave and Emma found themselves a corner with grand mirrors and crimson chairs which was good enough to spend an hour or so doing precisely nothing in some style.
As usual they had chosen the right spot to be with each other at the right time because it was always the right spot and the right time to be with each other. They agreed it was exactly the right choice when it came to one place being just as good as another for what they were interested in. Gustave never felt there was one absolutely more important spot that existed at the expense of all others. For him ‘true Austria’ was not the ‘whole world.’
Trieste was a comfortably old but not ancient environment with a modern commercial approach well suited to the times, summed up by the out-sized Austrian –Lloyd Company building which kept its world-wide business activity firmly behind the scenes with an architectural screen of indeterminate renaissance re-hash. A fakery which didn’t get in the way of underwriting some very healthy profits through which the modern world was kept running. It might be argued Trieste was a place that was actually needed and had a reason for being unlike Venice across the water out of sight but not out of mind still capable of driving someone out of their mind.
There were newspapers from across Europe available in the cafe for those who wanted to know about events they could do nothing about. Gustave and Emma didn’t want to know about them. They were quite happy waiting to be served without the need to be distracted by either national or international events.
Drinks as well as pastries were being carried between the tables. Over in another corner two men with briefcases seemed to be getting nowhere with each other as they tried to relax from a difference of opinion they hoped would be forgotten about by two good mochas and a couple of almond flavoured croissants.
From where they were Emma and Gustave could just see the street through big plate glass windows. Horses and coaches pushed and shoved their way around in a commercial world going at its own hectic pace entirely separate from any true significance.
The times were changing for the worse just as surely as a thing of beauty remained a joy for ever. Gustave and Emma also seduced by the chance of almond croissants lingered longer, loath to disturb the mutual guarantees their shared intimacy seemed to offer against wider sets of circumstances.
Gustave found there was nothing more leisurely than to be surrounded by the Mediterranean version of hard work. The Roman saying, ‘the man who invented hard work died a long time ago,’ seemed to have some truth behind it.
Emma was saying something along the lines of how there were no general rules for self-discipline to him but Gustave wasn’t exactly listening to what she was saying. Her words strung out one after another in a line looking strongly like a phrase but whose meaning had stalled on him. Gustave was back among the shapes that needed to be made and put into the spaces available and a bit oblivious to what words were being used. The melodic line was still something without bar lines but full of long term creative to and fro, and something which looked capable of standing up to the demands he would make on it later. It was exactly what he’d been looking for.
He didn’t ask what the delight of his life had been saying as he couldn’t afford to be distracted from what he needed to get down on paper as quickly as possible before he forgot it. He couldn’t afford to lose what might absolutely change everything.
Emma recognised his symptoms and unhurriedly assembled up her personal items. They finished off, paid, and quickly left the café.
If you looked more closely which neither of them did Trieste was full of Hapsburg buildings which looked uncomfortable. They had been transported from Vienna and given salt water views that didn’t suit them. Here it might be possible to come up with new ideas for a new kind of disaster not based on past principles and it felt like a calamity of true originality was in the offing.
Gustave considered in the over thought way the era specialised in why he hadn’t been to Trieste before, or to put it in much the same way but the other way round why he was in Trieste now. Hardly any time ago he had been in his study in Vienna sat at his desk without his usual energy with his creative urge running into the metaphorical sand that was starting to stretch far away from him making him feel increasingly like a pair of trunkless legs of stone, and he imagined it had something to do with it.
He’d never had trouble working through previous lacklustre weeks and had always come out of the other end with material stronger than he’d had for some time, but the last time for the first time he had felt it wasn’t going to happen. Most likely it was to do with the effect Emma had on him and the desire he felt to take the new woman in his life away somewhere, not too far but far enough. A break from the usual surroundings wouldn’t do anyone any harm and indeed the trip had started to do what Gustave thought it would, unlock the other more profound creative side of his life. Yes, they’d stay on longer. There was no point in rushing back when they had hardly arrived.
With the idea of staying on and on, Gustave felt proper joy return at the prospect of the creative innovation just ahead of him. And he needed inner delight to compose at his best. He could tell when the work was mainly shaped by the need to keep anxiety and reality at bay. To him it always showed. To the innocent ear the work he produced under conditions of duress sounded just as good but he always knew it wasn’t. However good these works might seem to others they never meant as much to him.
Contentment opened up new ground for him to run around in whereas restless disquiet made him err on the side of re-organising old territory. At the moment he was deep inside the first set of conditions.
The first requirement for his best work had been achieved – forgetting. ‘We’ve come here to forget. Forget what? I’ve forgotten.’ Which was an old joke. Gustave could forget about owing money anytime, and already had. In any case Emma didn’t know anything about cutting back, which was one of the reasons they got on so well.
Emma watched him at the hotel room desk scribble away at the manuscript paper. ‘Just ten minutes’ he said looking up at her, which turned into half an hour, which turned into an hour before he noticed her again.
The following day took on the already familiar pattern, but underneath the cool calm Gustave had expectations of a breakthrough. Emma hoped there would be no such interruptions today like there had been yesterday. Whereas the previous day Gustave had got the taste again on what was a bit of a dry run, a kind of dress rehearsal for what he hoped might happen today. Gustave felt some serious stuff was about to start, like the good old days when he made startling progress while feeling he was hardly doing anything special. He looked at Emma again, but it was only a glancing blow as he realised how he had been going down the wrong track and up the garden path into a dead end for some time and hadn’t realised it. And he wasn’t sure he had the right expression on his face for such self-realisation.
They were fortunate they were only twenty minutes away from the hotel when on the back of mentally putting a big line through earlier attempts, a new passage in fully orchestrated form suddenly appeared to him like the solution to a murder. Once again he wrote the vital cell of the music down on his cuff with a reservoir ink pen he always carried around with him so he didn’t forget it until he could get back to their room where the manuscript paper was piled up.
Emma wasn’t really sure what happened to Gustave during the scribble and scratch. All she knew was that another hopefully endless afternoon had been rudely interrupted before it had even begun. Gustave said nothing much as he tried to hold the more detailed phraseology of the idea in his head, concerned it might all disappear like a set of keys down a street drain. Emma kept quiet.
They got back to the Hotel with Gustave striding on ahead and Emma trying to keep pace. In the lobby the few staff around at this time of day, remained unmoved by the couple’s unexpected re-appearance, because nothing was ever unexpected in the Hotel Excelsior.
‘Stay in the lobby Emma. I’ll only be half an hour,’ said Gustave and went upstairs in the lift as if he’d forgotten his Baedeker. But once inside his room he laid out the manuscript paper, sat down, got his reservoir pen out again, and started on the full score. Rapidly and smoothly with everything already thought through he filled the staves and hurdled the bar lines. He missed out no details because everything went down in one go completely orchestrated. Sometimes composition was like this – total and instant – nothing, then everything. When it was like this it could reach such levels of intensity that the time taken to finish some great works – three weeks for a complete symphony say, risked making the general public incredulous, equating as they did greatness with struggle. But as anyone inside the business knew, it was not what was happening there and then with pen over paper that counted so much as the lifetime of experience that had gone into it before and which produced the flawless fluency on display.
As he put the final touches down Gustave looked at the travel clock he had brought with him, and it was half an hour later, just as he’d told Emma it would be. The missing link of the movement had appeared, the solution achieved. He even had a couple of minutes to spare. He tidied his creative equipment up and went back down to the lobby.
Gustave re-appeared downstairs relieved from the creative force he’d had to hold back like a full bladder. Freshly drained of the build-up of forces he felt human again and he wouldn’t have been surprised if bunting had appeared in the hotel to mark the occasion. He returned all the more determined to put all creative work on one side. What was hardly more than the nervous habit of an adult life shouldn’t be distracting him from Emma, especially at such a sensitive time, when she needed his full attention.
Now free of all clutter Emma and Gustave could flutter before a healthy breeze like pennants at sea. They were under full sail with each other, as one, innermost thoughts and all.
Now daily they moved with the shadows as they first whitened and shrank towards noon, and then later when the shade lengthened out and darkened as the afternoon advanced. In the evening they found their natural home among the perfumes of the botanic gardens. At night they enjoyed the brightness of the stars, and at a distance there was the warm beat of the sea against the shore.
With nothing to stop them they concentrated on emptying their minds so they could refill them with each other. They fancifully contemplated the idea they might never return to Vienna, with Emma painting a plausible picture for him of how it might be.
Gustave enjoyed hearing about the idea but now he was back on the compositional horse and fifty he felt he had both so much more to say as well as a feeling he didn’t have enough time to say it in. But for now he wasn’t going to say that. For now he had no wish to disturb the pleasing monotony of the style of living they had so quickly got used to. Yes they would have to return, but there was no hurry.
Emma alternated between light silks for the hot morning hours by the shore, simpler forms for the afternoon and then to finish off the day evening dresses, which hardly managing to stop on the right side of social convention helped continue the art of conversation far beyond what was acceptable to a moralist.
In the afternoon shadow of a canvas awning it was by now a real effort for Gustave to remember how only six months before he had left his wife for Emma. He’d lost several friends over the incident, which gave him several openings for new friends, but he didn’t yet feel the need for any replacements.
They passed by a piazza café orchestra doing some popular concoction of tunes less than justice and Gustave ignoring the racket thought everything he’d previously composed was now redundant. Nothing previous he’d done before seemed relevant any longer with the new sounds he had in his head.
Trieste like most coastal places was full of bad music, it was almost a law – they played music designed not to offend anyone and to not offend anyone in the worst possible way. It was the kind of music which had been composed for people who didn’t actually like music and it suited them.
Anything would do when people weren’t bothered and Gustave wasn’t bothered about these people. So the noise that passed itself off as performance was fine by him. Metaphorically speaking he put his professionalism on one side and let the trombones do their worst.
Emma looked at Gustave through lowered lashes as if she lived in a land of glimpsed nymphs and plentiful wine where there was no need for any effort or struggle with the travesty that was the present day.
Between the narrow area between a sea front hotel and a promenade two people can get very close but was it possible for two people who were already very close to get any closer? Their daily routine stretched out before them over which they would sail to some horizon and back.
Gustave and Emma never managed to recognise anyone else while on their own expedition however much they were surrounded by others. Gustave didn’t need anyone else’s help to study someone who was so close to hand and could be so easily referred to. He knew every line and pose of her form and if someone had asked him to he could have drawn it down quickly without need for thought. Even when she was doing nothing she managed to do it with passion, the turn of her body arousing and quite unconcerned about the excess of pleasure it gave. The thick dark hair, the strongly feminine form, the air of neutrality about her which he liked to ignite by firing her up. And all of this was even better for having nothing to do with him. She was a separate realistic force without ideals. He could only take a little bit of her and give a little back. Gustave had always done what he wanted and now he did it with her. And as nobody was around to see he slapped her affectionately on the backside.
But no matter how rapturous the row of sunny days were that followed on so pleasantly one after the other Gustave increasingly had the feeling something was biding its time just out of sight and mind.
Gustave never needed any encouragement to get up late and Emma wasn’t someone who reacted quickly to the starting pistol associated with the dawn either. Both of them preferred a period of slow reorientation before they dashed off in the wrong direction or got too deeply involved in things which turned out not to be so important after all. Neither of them thought they had any solutions for the world at large and didn’t pretend they had. They both agreed the time others spent on activity and anxiety was often better used having a Siesta; a time when just as life threatened to get far too serious tools could be downed.
Once settled into doing more dozing Gustave became less dependent on the artificial additive called humour with all its dangerous side effects. Back in Vienna he was well known for his steady wit, which he dispensed regularly and often on the deadly seriousness everyone else seemed to frequently suffer from.
In-between naps, Gustave concentrated on mentally undressing what he frequently undressed. He gave special attention to where Emma’s breasts expanded from the rib cage, to be even more precise about the matter he focused on the somehow straight but circular demarcation between the two. While he was doing this, he heard every word Emma was saying and never saw her lips move once.
Gustave was a bit like Pan but tempered by the discipline of a Ganymede. After his earlier lapses in pursuing pure pleasure when musical material long mulled over had popped into his head fully formed, he was determined to put any further musical thoughts on hold. The music could wait while Emma couldn’t.
Hardly had he decided to be resolute in this when his thoughts turned to how he felt he had reached the point where there was nothing more he could do with the conventional development of musical material. The last century had increasingly got diminishing returns from its insistence on a certain kind of process and he thought something better was needed in a purer form. A clean break needed to be made with continuity without running the risks and dangers of devising some system destined for a dead end.
It was easy to compose music that would interest only other composers. On the other hand he didn’t have any firm idea of the public except that there were some people out there who were interested. In this Gustave never defended himself from the accusation he mainly composed for himself, except no matter how hard he tried he was aware of the thousand or so people who took a proper interest in what he did, and this awareness somehow kept him putting the notes down one after the other until one page then another was filled in by sound.
Emma’s eyes which were still the unusual colour they always were, very light brown with a golden quality, the eyes of an animal. Apart from their colour they lightened and darkened without connection to the rest of what her features were doing. Her eyes were often unrelated to the expression on her face which was unsettling if you weren’t prepared for the effect, but for Gustave it made amusement out of what might easily have become too serious.
Gustave didn’t like looking away from her for too long because he felt he would then have to start all over again and ask her who she was and why she was here. And it was best not to get too lost in any depths when it was Emma’s surface sheen that was the key to having any clear understanding of the matter.
He didn’t see why they couldn’t carry on like this forever or else until he grasped the enormity of the situation, whichever came first. Whatever happened it would take some time because no matter how hard Gustave tried he was never quite able to keep hold of how the exact gleam of her hair or the ever so slight gap in the front teeth worked unless she was within four feet of him.
He tried to make do by knowing off by heart how the fabric of her dress, iridescent like the plumage of some exotic bird of the jungle transplanted to the Adriatic shimmered over her naked body just below its surface. And such cheap images were forgotten as soon as she was in motion, a mixture of suspense and anticipation animated, revealing all that was new and needed to be embraced. In all these ways of hers she was nothing if not perfectly natural. Her thrilling performance was only an innocent willingness to please. And it was a performance that continued whether he was watching it or not. When he went off to get more cigarettes he usually came back to find some younger man asking her questions and then listening to her answers as if she had singled him out from hundreds of candidates for two minutes of her valuable time. Which was another reason Gustave rarely let Emma out of his sight unless he needed to get some more cigarettes. But when she was in his sight again her hair was sleek and flowing, her clear neck something the connoisseur of vertebrae would never consider as too long. Her thin envelope of skin managed to enclose who knew what depths beneath a calm untroubled surface, and it was a surface which glowed so much it might have been made of amber.
But despite such a display he couldn’t completely keep away from thinking about his art. His art was like a bright yellow painting hung in an art gallery. No matter where it was its presence throbbing in the background could be felt as it used up all the oxygen in the room.
If he wasn’t actually tussling with small fragments, he was running through how he would handle things when he got the chance to get to proper grips with them within a larger framework, putting them through a technique that never strove for precision at an early stage, but built layers up quickly which could be worked on in more detail later. Only later would he add or subtract things so as to clearly convey what was going on at the core. Eventually he would stop, hopefully with a work of sheer genius glinting on the table top in front of him.
Gustave knew he wasn’t someone who put things down perfectly first time without corrections. He couldn’t hold long sequences in his head. Rather he let one thing lead unexpectedly to another as he wrote, without, and this was his real skill, ever losing sight of the overall. No matter how brief the finished work it could always be said to have an entirety at its heart.
He didn’t work large sections out in his head and then put them down without a pause, which wasn’t to confuse the stop, go nature of his writing with struggle. Generally if his pen was moving it was moving fluently, with a carelessness about it which was aware it would fill in any gaps in the texture later and at leisure.
In fact quite a bit of his first attempt and its more inventive passages proved to be ephemeral. Around a third of it got cut or altered beyond recognition, but the brief presence on the page of keyless wonders still contributed to the final whole, even though they had long since been expunged from the record. This approach resulted in music both accessible and recognizable to those who thought they knew what they liked, but at the same time allowed those who thought they took things seriously to remain absolutely serious about the way they were hearing the sound of Europe’s chaste underclothes being roughly ripped away.
Gustave resisted the urge and mentally settled back into the soft cushions of a seaside sensibility. His parents were from Bohemia and he had a Czech name but Gustave was well acquainted with that Austrian condition called ‘Schlamperei’ and could loll when he had to, though as someone who was always on the look-out for a quick decisive win he wasn’t really suited to transforming victory into defeat in a twinkling of wilful inaction.
He really was trying to forget his art for the rest of the holiday but this void made room for him to wonder what habitual flaw of his it was that had turned his two previous marriages to ashes. It was something mysterious to him but no doubt perfectly obvious to others and there he tried to leave it. What he needed was something else to occupy his mind. It seemed he repeatedly forced perfectly decent people into a corner with a loaded revolver and then was genuinely at a loss to explain how he was mainly responsible for it. He didn’t see how he was to blame for either incident. He believed the two women involved had been independent characters with their own concerns. Concerns which he could do nothing to stop reaching their own conclusions.
Despite low points Gustave had always been able to fasten a rope round the higher things in life to help pull himself through. Many kinds of mantras might be used at different times such as ‘are you eating or being eaten,’ and ‘you’ve only got two things to worry about, whether you live or whether you die,’ that kind of thing, but one of his best standby’s was remembering how all the arts aspired to the condition of music. This had been helpful to him on many occasions. Such were his artist’s thoughts.
He had not expected to stumble across a new world at fifty, but here he was on a joyful island ready for what he hadn’t thought of before, no longer very interested in what he had done earlier, and he ran through the idea again unable to let go of it. He had finally arrived where he wanted to be and was filled with the desire to stay firmly put amongst ancient plane trees and deep sunshine in a hallowed shady spot, fragrant with willow blossom where he had glimpsed a nymph bathing in water so clear it made nakedness transparent.
And in that same moment, the nymph glimpsed had vanished, replaced by the hint of something vast and light as a feather made out of blocks of music called the future. Gustave did not resist and mentally noted down some material he might be able to use later and felt a little closer to the human endeavour called civilisation for having done so. He was tempted to go as far as to say he felt there was a chance to unify the previously unknown range of humanity into a whole. What he’d thought was previously inexpressible now seemed perfectly possible. All he had for the moment were large fragments. Ones which might well still refuse ever to fit together, but it was a risk he would have to take.
It was as if he had regained his balance and realized what he truly delighted in was finally completing a manuscript and writing the date of completion at the bottom of it. The secret mysterious part of him had now been aroused and Emma would simply have to amuse herself for a couple of hours as best she could.
Back in their hotel room again his thoughts eased into the give of the paper, the old fluency was back guiding the mind towards the artist’s highest joy. And though he made no references directly to the crises of the times each note had an undeniably contemporary context.
Gustave quickly got down to his distinctive seamlessness. He could write anywhere and the hotel room was no different, though he had to admit he hadn’t yet written anything in the middle of an artillery barrage. Anyway he now had a couple of hours to come up with a defence against the times, and though he couldn’t guarantee to come up with a complete plan for survival he thought he would be able to get some kind of idea about what was actually needed. So his pen sped on, no pauses or revisions were needed. He was simply guided by the little finish line he had set himself. When he left off it seemed only minutes since he had sat down. The familiar distortion of good times had returned, and the two hours had passed without any point of reference outside of what was inside his head.
When he returned to Emma in the lounge she told him he hadn’t missed anything. She had been talking to a very beautiful Polish boy who was on his way back to Poland with his family. ‘They’ve cut short their stay in Venice,’ she said.
‘And how long are they staying in Trieste?’ he asked.
‘They catch the Vienna train tomorrow.’
‘And then onto Warsaw I suppose’
The next morning as they left the hotel Gustave and Emma didn’t need to think about what they were doing because between the Grande Piazza and the Via Battisti they already knew where everything was they wanted to go.
Though Gustave and Emma spoke the same language to each other a lot of it got lost in translation. They had reached the stage where they didn’t really listen to everything the other person said. It was a good development because to have continued for much longer at their previous pitch could well have led to one of them having some kind of seizure.
Gustave was used to the fact nothing was simple and how effort was often needed especially when a person thought for once they might be able to coast. He knew only too well how energy always needed to be put into the system to create something which could be loosely termed ‘good’ because all that was needed for things to go ‘bad’ was inertia.
He’d always had trouble with complacency and had never quite managed to get it right despite his many attempts. Instead he always seemed to take the long way round to get back to the point he could recognise as somewhere he had been before. But Gustave didn’t deny how over the last few weeks and on more than one occasion the idea of giving up music completely had occurred to him. It would be a relief to put the discipline of making his usual daily progress against the odds to one side and abandon the capricious and licentiousness years of a late period, a final style he hadn’t even started on yet. And in the same moment he always knew doing such a thing would never work.
There was no chance of such a thing happening when he was in the middle of a wave of fresh ideas. All he could temporarily do was put them on hold while he tried to give Emma all the attention she deserved.
He now had in mind an idea for a set of piano pieces he imagined would as important as Schumann’s had been to the 1830’s. Even when he wasn’t thinking about them he still worked on them but at a deeper separate, ‘subconscious’ level, to use one of the new fresh phrases for such phenomena that he’d read about somewhere.
The diurnal then the nocturnal performed their familiar party tricks fitting into Gustave and Emma late starts and later finishes. Their favourite time was the hour of dusk, that time when what had happened couldn’t be changed and what might happen tomorrow would have to wait.
The eastern hemisphere filled with ink and the highest west facing windows turned to gold. The heat of the day cooled and the brightest of the distant stars began to glimmer. The reddened layers of the western sky bedded down. The Pleiades fleeing everyone who was anyone clung together in the summer sky. Only the youngest of them, Merope looked disappointed to miss out on the excitement of the mortal life she’d left behind, shining glumly compared to her six sisters.
Gustave could always see how far everything was above him and never needed to be told how far he was below. Close by Emma shone brightly enough for him to escape any mythological shortcomings he might have. Under the dark velveteen of sudden night no tocsin or alarm bell sounded. Everything was forgetfulness and oblivion, two of Gustave’s favourite conditions. Both were very different to the intermittent but rapid activity needed for his creative trade crafting feelings into shape and creating the right emotions for the future, leaving the present standing. The past was something he had well and truly buried. And on days like this he was sure everything without exception was best forgotten.
As the blinds were drawn down on the day both of them felt wide awake. The earlier hours they’d filled with wasted time had disappeared and now the pressure was off they settled down with some seriousness to idling enjoyment.
The moon appeared, large and creamy but not yet full, moving counter to a sphere of musical motifs not powerful enough to stop that sexual maternal disc moving along its ecliptic.
The faint whiteness of its edges was no longer caught by sixteenth century Venetian painters but by a contemporary art overwrought with the symbols of what could hardly be imagined. Now there were spiders with faces, single eyes became balloons, a Cyclops slept, things best not dreamt about.
And in the morning the Sun edged round the room much too early while they lay entangled with each other like Zeus and a swan, both insensible to the fresh promise of the new day. Though they were wrapped up in each other in every way, neither of them was quite sure who was who.
They had begun to think differently with the new prose style needed for a new age while still being aware of ancient times. In this they were unusual and contrasted with the general tiredness that had taken over a population failing to keep up with progress. Whereas Gustave and Emma could imagine an educated late Republican Roman transported into the future would take like a duck to water to the ennui of this second stage industrial age.
By now Gustave and Emma were two people who knew each other very well except for those essential things they couldn’t fathom even in themselves. They instinctively turned away from a tangle which would only crush understanding flat. They closed delicate fluttering membranes over their all seeing eyes and floated on with the eyeless look of the marble faces from antiquity.
When they did open their eyes again there was the banality of the instantly familiar. Its dull finish lay on the surface of the self and they drew a bold outline around each other for safety.
Given the daily pattern they followed they never took the same track two days running to go nowhere in particular with. They were content to have lives which seemed outwardly un-dramatic yet used the highest inner emotions allowed. They didn’t go out of their way to avoid people but still didn’t meet anyone sitting with a glass of blood red wine and a note book while struggling with some sequence of language, a passage of prose. Someone who might look up and at them and then beyond them as he tried to sort out the fluent line or fragmented mosaic that sorted out and simplified the age. There was none of that.
They had set up a self-contained world, a double star system that revolved around each other. The pair’s denser emotional gravity warned sauntering folk off. Though sometimes when they glanced away they found someone was staring at them in the Italian manner. And they stared back at them in the same relaxed Mediterranean way where people are watched with mild interest without implications or meaning.
They knew spending all this time together was no kind of preparation for married life. Neither of them had any false expectations and both of them agreed there was no hurry for a civil ceremony.
They often came back late from some restaurant or other they had tried by the grand canal, returning through the bluish light of night time arc-lamps that whitened out their colourful experience.
The stories of mythology were no help to the present day. Theseus grew tired of Ariadne’s love, Aeneas reminded of his duty by Mercury secretly left Dido to her grief and an alternative arrangement. And then there was Kullervo and his sister which quite frankly was no kind of example for anyone to follow and so they retired to their room to conduct their own set of behind closed doors exercises in the language of love.
During the fourth and final week of their stay, Trieste filled up with new people as if there was some sort of once a year equestrian show going on, or else the city’s Saints day was coming up. Just as the summer season was on the wane, when the reduction in guests first became noticeable there was an influx of people which took the hotel back up to full occupancy. The German tongue almost disappeared in the tide of Italian and Slovene and they had the pleasant feeling of being further away than ever before from any return they were going to make, while knowing full well they were a lot nearer to the end than they were to the beginning. But the end was still far enough away for it not to have yet become a physical presence.
One afternoon they went to a public hall just off of the Grande Piazza to see a demonstration of moving pictures. The charges on the door were low enough to allow virtually anyone with some money to spare to see what was a very recently discovered new world, which explained the mix of people gathered together in one place, a range of society usually only found on a racecourse. But on a racecourse the different ranks of society were in separate enclosures while here in the semi darkness everyone was pretty much in the same blackened boat.
The chairs arranged as in a concert hall stretched backwards from a screen like in the music hall but without the crimson upholstery. The hall was designed, if that was the right word for it, to hold numerous types of events, from dancing to simple plays, and had easily been adapted without any signs of strain for showing moving pictures. With everyone packed closely together the outer doors closed, the lights dimmed and everyone momentarily disappeared from view submerged in a deeper gloom familiar from the theatre and Opera House. The whitened wall flickered into a life and another time and place took over the interior leaving any previous exterior far behind. Guns and trains appeared in the room, the tension of what would happen next was beaten out in a primitive tattoo of images suddenly switching from one scene to another. The audience were silent concentrating on not losing the flickering thread. Horsemen rode on and out of the frame to who knew where, made clear as day in the darkened room. Gustave’s complex compositional world certainly seemed light years away compared to the images on the screen which took people over without any need for education or preparation. The vague figures in the audience watched without any need to understand. And at the end of the film the leader of the outlaw band took aim and fired point blank at the audience to simple screams followed by the laughter of relief.
Emma had enjoyed the show but Gustave was not so sure. His thoughts had drifted into the unknown regions and towards their approaching departure from the joyous island they hadn’t crossed any water to get to. During the film he had become more certain of the difficulties waiting for him when he returned to Vienna, sure it would be the same old same old again but with a few fresh horrors thrown in.
No matter how many times he told himself it wasn’t necessarily going to be like that, and how he now didn’t have to repeat the same mistakes but could move on to making fresh mistakes, he knew it would turn out to be just the same. He felt off balance, unnerved, as if he had seen how far he could go and no further. On the other hand Emma thought she could see how the world was changing and how she might become even better.
On getting back to the hotel Gustave sought the table in the lobby and buried himself in the newspapers. The Italian-language sheets had nothing in them. But in the German papers there were reports of tinder box tensions. The word Bosnia Herzegovina appeared far too frequently for somewhere too few people had heard about. There were nationalistic grievances, the worst kind of grievances which were easily distinguishable from say, the iridescent playfulness of a rainbow.
In Vienna Gustave knew a few politicians who were keen on the present status quo, but only because he had started to receive awards from them, socially he kept well clear of their dull hypocritical world largely because he rarely received an invitation to their get-togethers. The little he knew about them was quite enough to know how they were perfectly capable of making the worst kind of mistakes.
Gustave thought the present political kerfuffle might well be a try out for something later and on a larger scale. There was the taste of compound error in his mouth as he read through the articles. Previously firm footings were becoming slippery slopes. He didn’t say anything to Emma because as was the way with wild speculation nothing had happened yet. Still there was the unpleasant stale vegetal smell of something kept under wraps too long about it all, something soft. He looked up at Emma. She was watching him closely. Gustave decided it wasn’t anything to do with him, or rather that he couldn’t do anything about it and stopped short of trying to slow down a bandwagon which was already rolling downhill. He put the hotel newspapers back on their wooden rack.
Gustave wasn’t against blows being struck against the bourgeois structure. As an artist he had no practical part to play in its over- decorated social fabric and had little time for the ponderously realistic artifice many others thought was vitally important. On the other hand he wasn’t someone to attract attention to his disputes with the system and satisfied himself by just keeping out of the way of the kind of single minded progress the powers that be had in mind for everyone. He had no difficulty in finding plenty of labyrinths to spend his time usefully in rather than following on the straight line of ascent the establishment had pegged out for him. Artificial straight lines brought in to help those who had already given up on things were of no interest to him. In comparison he found labyrinths comforting and familiar, made up as they were of the darkness of the secret self and full of a variety of dimly illuminated ways. Not the right ways perfectly possibly but with lots of revelatory fragments glinting in the torchlight of adventure.
Gustave and Emma were not hamstrung by any religious beliefs and were as detached from the timetable of convention as the era allowed. They were not unusual in their lack of religious belief, most people were happy atheists who assumed the latest versions of city life with its electronic lights and telephones and sanitation without particularly thinking about them, but Gustave and Emma followed a very different approach to the masses when it came to understanding the possible consequences. Gustave for one didn’t need any encouragement with taking a new path. And with Emma and in Trieste it was a good time and place to do such things. There were two sides to Trieste, the bright, on the surface without a care side and the sad, melancholic and hidden side. Given their circumstances the two of them naturally turned towards lightness, excursion and novelty.
The Opicina from Piazza Oberdan to the Villa Opicina was a railway or funicular, it wasn’t easy to exactly say. Gustave and Emma clambered into the vehicle. There were plenty of young couples making the trip up to the Villa and its grounds at the top and after a few minutes of ascent, the young men with their girls had exactly the right looks on their faces needed for listening to what they had already heard from their girlfriends many times before.
They were all at the top almost before the journey began, and the travellers streamed out looking for the best spots where very close quarters could be combined with distant views. From up here the city had been changed into an indistinct tapestry of roof tops against the Adriatic. The viewpoint made the town surrounded by a flat blue sea as uneventful as a picture in a frame.
The previous day the bar/restaurant at the top had been busy with Saturday marriage receptions, but today was quieter.
Wherever Gustave and Emma cared to look the passions were out in the open but involved in their own madness, ‘La folle’ to put it in as artificial and self-dramatizing way as possible they took no notice of them and found their own spot in a small orchard under some cherry trees. There were a few cypresses and some carved commemorative monuments guarding the cherries. A band was playing somewhere, the sound drifting in and out. It was distant enough for them not to be able to tell what they were playing. Only the three four time survived the journey, it was a Waltz rhythm punctuated by the little shimmies for resetting the feet in. The same tune seemed to go on and on threatening an eternal roses of the south. But all the music played wasn’t from a bygone era. Latin American rhythms made an appearance fresh off boats from Havana and Buenos Aires and with tempos that looked to the future made what had only just gone before seem like the distant past. And as with dance rhythms so thirty years of social stagnation was being overtaken by change. Artillery fired further, messages were misinterpreted faster and the errors made were much bigger.
Back in Vienna the apartment Gustave had kept on for himself through both of his marriages was being totally redecorated. Until he could finalise a settlement with his wife she would keep possession of the other house, but in the meantime Gustave wanted to signal a fresh start. He had decided upon a bold aquamarine complimented by a clean but dark red to set off his and Emma’s natural colouring backed up with creams, silvered grey and an autumnal brown. He wanted to fix the memory of these joyful weeks in Trieste back in the capital through the skills of interior decoration.
Trieste looked outward and ahead rather than inward and behind. It had its back to the land mass and its face in the sun of the Mediterranean. Gustave knew this was a very simplified and artistic view of the place, but he only had to look at Emma with her thick glossy hair and sense of liberation to believe there was something to be said for simplified artistic views.
If everywhere was heading towards general catastrophe at the same speed, and there was less and less reason to think it wasn’t, Gustave couldn’t think of a better place for waiting and seeing exactly what was going to happen next.
As well as visiting the heights during their stay Gustave and Emma managed to plumb the depths. Only the previous year caves had been discovered and opened to the public and they decided to visit them.
The tourists arranged themselves around the waiting guide stood at the entrance and when everyone seemed ready they went inside. It was not long before a subterranean chill took hold of them making the surface, with its warmth and colour scheme of green blue white and brown seem artificial compared to this new reality.
And suddenly they were in an immense space which took them by surprise. The Guide said St Peter’s in Rome could fit into this single cavern, but without St Peter’s in Rome on hand to give it a sense of scale the space seemed much bigger. It looked more immeasurable to man and Xanadu like than any other volume. Unfathomable and distant the void replaced the ticking clocks and clouds with something sightless which ran much, much deeper. And at the deepest depths Gustave felt at home. His breathing became easier and more relaxed surrounded by an immense enormity around him. With this unforced, natural, unassuming and relentless anti-nature at his side the somewhere up above already seemed imaginary, a thin envelope of misconceived activity pushing its envelope outwards on the look-out for fresh disaster. While down among the rock strata and minerals there was the opportunity for a different approach. Something geological and static offered up the complete transformation of hardly moving towards anything at all. The suspicion the Universe might be expanding completely disappeared and Gustave saw how there was no need to delay any further with all the new stuff he’d been holding back on.
Emma’s mouth was slightly open, her breath clouding into vapour, giving her the look of some imaginary creature wrapped up in the unteachable Baroque of the cave.
Once again Gustave felt capable of pretty much anything and couldn’t wait to get back to the clean music manuscript page to make good use of it. No one else needed to know about what he would resort to or the lengths he would go when it came to music matters.
He rarely imagined he was on anything like the right track, though as he thought of himself as not being from anywhere in particular and not especially interested in where he was going he didn’t see it as handicap but maybe he exaggerated his sense of isolation. As sometimes happens when a different future opens up he was buffeted by a wave of the past. His parents were still alive so he did still come from somewhere. He had no problem with the place name on his birth certificate and he liked his parents except when they tried to change. When he was younger he’d always wanted them to change and now he wanted them to stay just the same.
They had often moved addresses when he was young, kicking over the traces of what hadn’t gone to plan, one step ahead of debt collectors. And his parents had never stood in his way about being a composer, which seemed as good a profession to them as any of the others they had no personal experience of either. They certainly never had any set ideas about what he should become and he was extremely grateful to them for it. And there would be more praise and honours waiting for him despite the present temporary embarrassment when he returned to Vienna. There was no going back for the establishment once the powers that be passed the point of no return with someone because their own version of events didn’t need to refer to the truth.
There was no need for the public to know how the least little difficulty caused Gustave to change direction or how he tended to give up very easily at the least difficulty, and it was this quality of avoiding things which could only be hard won which gave the works he managed to finish their incredible fluency shine and resilience. He felt like he didn’t need to repeat what he knew full well about himself and so moved on hardly thinking about the audience.
People easily forgot what had previously been important to them and a cultural history through artistic achievement was even more forgettable to them. Within two generations loved ones were completely forgotten, but people continued believing their lives and their children’s were vitally important to the enterprise despite the terrible treatment they kept suffering. Gustave’s modus operandi was the complete opposite.
Gustave bore all his rewards stoically, as if he had been equally unconcerned by any previous neglect. He had long since mastered the ability to selfishly work in very much the same manner whatever the outward circumstances. And when you didn’t particularly depend on anything, nothing much ever got in the way of your aim of entirely changing the world through music.
Gustave felt no need to take up ridiculous bolt upright mental positions when being photographed. He assumed the relaxed attitude best suited to a daily routine which was why even at his age there were still no studio portraits of him. Only pictures taken by the new box brownies in cafés documented his activity. Emma quickly took a snap shot of him turning through the two day old newspapers at the dead centre of Europe. No doubt the casualty figures were mounting somewhere on distant frontiers, intractable problems remained unsolved and were unsolvable except by shooting first and asking questions afterwards.
That evening the hotel had organised a band of street musicians to perform in the hotel gardens after dinner. Gustave and Emma were the only ones who seemed to prefer going in the opposite direction to this musical crime. Neither of them were ever prepared to feel uncomfortable and embarrassed for the sake of being sociable and they made their excuses. Most people had no trouble with having no musical taste but Gustave and Emma still could not sit through music designed for people who did not like music. They skirted round the pantomime and back to their suite now full of their early stage packing. The luggage which had been stored away so as not to remind them was now all back out on display shouting out loud.
They could hear the mandolin, guitar, harmonica and violin of the strolling players even up in their rooms. Dubious vocal numbers alternated with dodgy instrumental ones. A woman’s high shrill voice sang a love duet with her partner’s saccharine tenor falsetto. Laughter gusted round, fanned by the troupe comedian. It sounded awful. But once they got down to the ‘vorspiele’ of their own passionate performance even the sentimental din from down below was screened out.
Sealed off from everything vulgar outside they drank wine with each other in the bath. Then with the rooms filled to bursting with the perfume from inside a rose they drank champagne.
Afterwards even though they were still deep inside the spirit of the Turkish Haman they had whipped up in the bedroom, the sickening music from outside managed to seep back in to their boudoir with a smell of almonds. Enthusiastic applause erupted from the parterre, which only encouraged the solo turn to go straight for the bad taste jugular with an encore. The rest of the grotesque crew joined in the refrain of his trivial silly and bullying performance which kept just the right side of being offensive, and the audience keeping just the right side of being stupid didn’t think there was anything sticky and unpleasant to the touch about the whole thing.
Gustave had just about got used to the smell of almonds when another aroma emerged; there seemed to be a mixture of frangipane and carbolic around, underscoring but hardly connected to some greater and more significant aroma which escaped him, all in all it smelled like the prelude to something much worse. Something that was not prepared to wait around anymore and could no longer be held back. These smells distracted him from the lack of focus he had managed to perfect over the last four weeks and brought him nervously back again to those familiar thoughts of regular, ambitious, creativity that led to significant achievement. The fresh surroundings had helped him recover and he felt a lot stronger than he had before but for the first time, the formerly bright clear outline of this new place faded and became simply familiar.
It was clear to him, even if nothing else was, that no one else noticed the real challenge laid down, which was to convey in some acceptable way the terrible times in which they lived, and he was in no doubt it would take all the time he had available for him to hardly make any impression on those times at all.
The new century’s high mindedness and perfectionism mixed with radical changes did threaten some composers with silence, but Gustave didn’t think shutting up was an option for someone like him who felt one lifetime, all that he had, was not enough time to get anything except a very rough outline of what he wanted down. Which explained his urge to get on with it.
The oiled machinery of a good hotel kept any haste below its decks and out of sight with the aim of lulling troubled paying souls into a carefree sense of ease so that it took no effort at all to stay on a little longer. So successful was the hotel in doing this to people that it would not have surprised Gustave to see hotel staff carrying the dead bodies down to the basement incinerator of guests who had got carried away, lost track of time and overstayed their welcome
He and Emma had served their time in Trieste and it was time to go. What Gustave had always thought would be a difficult decision turned out to be easy enough. Once they booked the tickets it was as if they had already finished their packing rather than hardly started it.
Emma looked at Gustave, as if familiarizing herself with the years of understanding that lay ahead of her and said, ‘Well I suppose it’s time to face the music.’ Given a fair wind she would outlive him, and get the chance to become more herself again later, unless she was knocked down by a tram or else succumbed to blood poisoning from a bee sting. ‘Whatever,’ she thought.
But there was no need for precipitous flight and the two rail tickets booked for Vienna still gave them a couple more days in Trieste. Once the decision to go was made there was no longer any hurry for them to leave and no tweed clad clerks in English travel bureaus told them they should leave today instead of tomorrow because a blockade could not be more than a few days off.
At the same time European people’s appetite for paying higher taxes to be spent on more and more arms which were still unable to protect the kind of security they were told needed protecting hadn’t waned. And now there were just two big ‘defensive’ blocks staring at each other, each of them thinking they had an advantage over the other. Such a state of affairs could only bring about a certain reckless behaviour from the weaker parties in each alliance given the binding treaty guarantees they’d got hold of.
But there were no reports of any such developments in any of the newspapers. A bit of a health scare in Venice with a number of deceased reported, otherwise there was no sign of fear or urgency.
Europe was in the best and most prosperous condition it had ever been in, yet a third of its population were on the point of starvation. For those who already had money the times had never been better for having more. They’d never had it so good at the expense of others.
Any attempt at this delicate stage to make any serious diagnosis of what was wrong with the continent’s body politic was bound to lead to the wrong conclusions. On balance it was best to postpone thinking about the dread day even as more and more men of fighting age were steadily conscripted.
Few remembered what had happened last time because for most people the ‘last time’ was before their time. Fortunately a sense of History only stretched back a distance of around forty years before it got archived and left to the specialists.
On the surface, and there was never any other way with what was contemporary, the port of Trieste was thronged with cargo ships from around the Mediterranean and even with some from further afield, like Mexico and Zanzibar. But underneath all the seemingly healthy activity it was as if some chronic deleterious condition was at work gnawing its bacteria like way through the whole edifice, first weakening the end of one century and then having a real go at the beginning of another.
The official version, given out through government and commercial agencies was that International treaties and agreements were in place and made up the finest mechanism yet devised for maintaining a general balance of power across the continent, while at the same time being flexible enough to allow minor scuffles of disagreement to run their course without endangering the whole.
Breakthrough after breakthrough was being made in the present age both in terms of the human spirit and medical advance, but to Gustave there was a kind of unthinking regard to change which was taking over from the active intelligence previously used to make sure the skills needed for staying in exactly the same place remained in tip top condition.
People were in the process of throwing their hands in the air and denying all responsibility for the way things were going. The previous week a dubious millionaire in a well-regarded journal had said poverty was nothing to do with him, when in actual fact other people’s poverty was entirely to do with him. But such a sentiment reflected the personal detachment from looming disaster preferred by the bulk of the population because for most of them profound unconcern was the preferred way to deal with any possible danger.
Government and Business supported this trend as Architecture stylised and even eliminated all decoration in a kind of parody of truth, a substance everybody knew should only be used sparingly and as a last resort. It was better to consider truth as a toxin that in its mild form caused the sufferer to become confused and worried. If people got a higher dosage it could sometimes force innocents into intemperate outbursts, indecency and crime. Even revolution might be ignited as the sheer enormity of the situation they were in dawned and they looked for someone to blame.
Gustave had reached that stage where although his compositional skill was at its very peak, with its much commented on effortless flow, he found genuine innovation increasingly difficult, often feeling downright flat footed when faced with the possibilities. Back in Vienna he thought it might be difficult to get back into quality gazing out of the window. He knew he would still be able to continue to shuffle the pack with his hard won automatic dexterity, but he wasn’t so sure he would have the top grade material to put in the mix that he had come to expect. For sure the audience wouldn’t notice, but he’d notice. He noticed straight away when what was supposed to be gold leaf was only gold coloured paint. Back in his apartment near the Lichtenstein Palace in his study he could already imagine being unable to concentrate as he started to become distracted by the feeling he wanted to be somewhere else with someone else.
The dry heat of a summer without end must break up soon, but for now sweltering sunshine still sat amongst the few foreigners in the cafes of the streets and Piazzas. Soon everyone would have dispersed to the four corners leaving the streets of Trieste to be reclaimed by the business of autumn and winter.
Gustave Haan didn’t need to return, after all he could do what he did, given what he did do almost anywhere. However Orchestras, conductors and performances could only be had in certain places, and though he believed ocean vistas and Lakeland views on occasion did produce better work, if you spent too long amongst them all you got were diminishing returns. At the same time doing nothing had started to be attractive to him and he reminded himself if you really wanted to produce absolutely nothing by far the best place to do it was surrounded by the splendours of Rome. But he knew he wasn’t brave enough to move to Rome.
When they returned he hoped how badly he had behaved over the past six months would remain largely unspoken about.
Gustave rarely dreamed to remember and that night was no different. He knew a bit about the foothills of investigation that had been reached when it came to making a map of the mind with names like the id and the ego for its different parts and had no interest in knowing any more. He thought such insights were at a similar stage to how the alchemy of the middle-ages hadn’t linked up too well with modern chemistry. Something might come of it in three hundred years or so, or it may become knowledge that looked as sham as the four humours looked today, meanwhile he couldn’t see any reason to lose any sleep over it.
His dream, such as it was had slipped by in silence during the night. Its main features were, a vast open public space surrounded by palaces and buildings not unlike the ones on the Ringstrasse, but with sometimes two or three buildings occupying the same space one on top of the other. And within the open area, two large sculptures not of generals or titans but composers looked across at each other. At a triangulated point from these two a third statue was about to be unveiled between them. The waiting crowd whispered but could not be heard. As the covering shroud fell away, Gustave saw it was a massive larger than life size muscular version of himself. The crowd remained mute and as Gustave looked closer at them he could see how all their faces were covered up in the same material that had been draped over the sculpture.
Gustave decided to have a haircut and a decent shave before they returned, though he drew the line at a burning match being put under the nasal hair in the Turkish style. He liked his present Bohemian length hair, but he knew this touch of the radical about him would not stand up to the realities of Vienna, what with its cycles of reactionary boom and bust. It would be best to look as if nothing untoward had happened especially as nothing untoward had happened.
He was soon enveloped in white sheeting and the barber began to talk in that well practised way which revealed virtually nothing about the barber yet invited confessions without further consequences from the customer. It was a tried and tested methodology for successfully passing the time the two had to spend together.
Gustave didn’t look bad for his age, naturally he had aged, but he had aged in a way that had only slowly changed his outline rather than radically altered his outlook. He’d kept his hair colour, except for a few touches of grey placed as if to show that he had actually passed through some time. He had just enough grey to show he was glad he wasn’t young anymore, while his generally still strong colouring allowed him to get away with immaturity when he needed to.
This was the kind of wayward thinking twenty minutes in the barber’s chair caused, filled as it was with the kind of idling that for many people was the only real time they ever got to be themselves, when they were lulled by the snip of the scissors and the inconsequential chit chat into a bit of a trance. Gustave after thirty years of creative endeavour found it next to impossible to idle and eventually an idea instant and satisfying sidled up to him and he began to taste his next composition. The ingredients, the combinations and their insubstantial intangible ways appeared and arranged themselves on his mental palate. This was how it always started.
At the end there was a brush of the neck and shoulders, a quick dousing with after lotion, and a brisk shake of the sheet as it was whisked away like a conjuring trick leaving only him behind and intact.
That day it rained a little, a fine drizzle confirming to those remaining visitor’s the suspicion that too much of a good thing could only last so long. Gustave’s own anticipation of the return home was replaced by a sickening in the stomach. Gustave and Emma now filled in their time before departure rather than enjoying any of it. Gustave no longer wanted to go anywhere, which meant as some Englishman had said sometime previously, any direction would do. He’d stopped noticing his surroundings because his thoughts were now firmly on other things. Trieste had allowed him to collect his thinking and help make the wider connections he needed. It had done its job. It could now be replaced with somewhere better suited to the daily production of artistic achievement. In this way Gustave slinked back towards the familiar. Once again he thought he knew where he was going. The disorientated feeling he’d suffered from during all the real enough ninety degree turns left him. He knew he was no longer going in the wrong direction because he was now moving directly towards what he wanted.
The following day they left for Vienna. They had gone to bed early in preparation for the travelling ahead and though they were bright ready and eager to make a start rather than hang around they were still careful enough not to be brilliant with each other at breakfast. Both of them knew it was time to go, and come the hour neither of them wished to cling on to things that had already served their purpose. In the lobby their luggage lay strapped and ready for the off.
The creative urge was running strongly again through Gustave. Calmly transfixed he wasn’t looking at anything else except his own inner life, as if through a pair of binoculars.
‘Gustave,’ said Emma. There was a pause.
‘Gustave,’ there was still no response.
‘Gustave!’ Emma said again, this time more sharply.
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘Marvellous,’ he put his arms round her waist and kissed her. Someone else’s unknown future stretching before them. ‘And I’ve got the idea for a work based on the fall of the house of Usher.’