Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Sternstunden, Toxic Pacts and the Silent Woman’s Tryst of Blood

A star-hour! A Sternstunde! Extraordinary though it may seem, on a rare trip to London to the sales, in the flurry of my alighting from a black cab I found myself clutching a stout notebook written in a stranger’s hand, an object unknown to me.

A double take and then realization dawned ... evidently an earlier fare had mislaid the thing on the passenger seat. I was mildly intrigued. So, a little later, in retreat from the tireless hordes, I snatched a moment to examine my find over coffee as – hidden from me – my short-lived star-hour was drowned by the chatter of the sixth floor cafeteria above Peter Jones’s, all unaware of the notebook’s fate-bound worth. 

Its closely packed pages revealed much and little ... little of the identity of the note-taker (a draft letter to a correspondent was signed ‘Stella’) yet much about her literary preoccupations, both prosaic and strophic.  But there was no clue as to a home address other than a New York state zip code (Rosedale) and a single scribbled telephone number, which proved to be that of the American Women’s Club in South Kensington.

What an agony for a writer its loss must be
, I thought with true fellow feeling.  So at once I resolved the lost property would be restored to its rightful owner, care of her ex-pats hunkered down in the Old Brompton Road.

Meanwhile, I confess, I took illicit delight in rummaging through the private contents of another’s mind ...  a city-smart Algonquinian mind rich with pert allusivenesses that recalled the works of Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman or, even, Edna St. Vincent Millay.

It seems invidious of me to place Stella Rosedale in this wise-cracking metropolitan company – New Yorkers all, nonetheless – but I can’t resist quoting one draft lyric of hers (uncorrected on the page, so probably unpolished) that chimes with my present pre-festivities mood ...

Drop a Dress Size and Make Things Happen.

She slips the shackles of Time and sighs;
locks tears and wristwatch in a secret drawer;
casts off the freight of lips and eyes,
dispenses nite cream from a rejuvenescent jar.

Stripped of the last apparel of her power,
she folds up hunger in her dream-wear closet.
Naked on scales she can outstare her mirror;
but does she lie when she says: ‘I am happier to lose it.’

How uncompromisingly true!

Yet, notwithstanding the genuine bite of a number of these snappy little squibs of hers – no doubt casually thrown-off – I was drawn more to Stella’s drafts for what appeared a major work-in-progress, the libretto for a Met opera, no less. And the subject? When I read her title, Mayerling: Tryst of Blood, my hands shook ... so stunned was I by a choice of subject so nearly a shadow my own fixations.

Death Without a Witness?

Were you to read a key segment from my fiction, Honeymoon Without Maps (Salt, 2008, Sister Morphine) you might just begin to understand the tingling tremor that ran through me. 

So here is an extract. As her husband, Howard, sleeps, the narrator, Esther, discovers that he has jotted down, with criminal intent, a reference to the notorious Mayerling death-wish, and it ...
... led me to recall the sordid suicide pact between Crown Prince Rudolf Habsburg and the beautiful young Baroness Mary [Marie] Vetsera at the Mayerling hunting lodge.
    Apropos of which, I was in the first night audience at Covent Garden, when the ballet Mayerling had its world premier, and I remember reading then about the doomed, depression-prone Rudolf. And had not that drug-addled rake, according to his biographers, exhibited a pathological fear of living alone? And was that not why the poor booby also feared death alone ... too afraid to die without a witness?
    Mayerling! As if shaken awake by that shock of recognition, I considered the coincidences with new insights.
    Of course, it was the fate of the baroness, full of life and aged a mere seventeen – half Rudolf’s age – to be the ‘chosen one’, his Companion-in-Death, in the adulterous prince’s insane plan to attain self-deliverance ... except he allegedly shot her first before he shot himself.
    Howard and Rudolf.
    So alike in base motives.
    I can compare these two men for I feel I knew them both.
    I could so clearly understand the psychology of Howard ... his primitive fear ... how essential it was for him to know that he had a secure exit if he needed one.
    Still, I do recall he once wrote a disputatious letter to a national newspaper, some years ago, citing the philosopher ‘K’ as a lifelong advocate of euthanasia, and refuting claims that the wife of ‘K’ was an unwilling partner in their suicide pact. (In her suicide note, Howard quoted with emphasis, she wrote: ‘I cannot live without him, despite certain inner resources.’)
    ‘Hogwash! Tommy rot!’ Howard had shouted when he’d read another correspondent’s counterclaim on the letters page hinting at foul play.
And how had Stella Rosedale resolved the characterisation of Rudolf’s similar criminal narcissism? Rather well, I thought, riffling through her pages, to judge from this promising start to an aria:

My shadow casts a stain.
The sun foretells Golgotha’s slain.
Stars glitter through their tears
for you and me . . . Marie . . . 
dicers, vinegar, spears . . . Gethsemane. 

Yes. Blustering quasi-religious self-justification for the crime of bullying an impressionable woman much younger than himself to take her own life because the booby was ‘... too afraid to die without a witness.’

The Silent Woman.

How odd they are, then, these threads and connections. And it’s particularly odd to think that the coinage of the term for star-hours of destiny (Sternstunden) – pivotal turning-points in human life – may be found in the writings of Austrian cosmopolite, Stefan Zweig, one of my favourite fictionists, who himself committed suicide in a pact with a wife half his age, Lotte, then aged 33 years and in good health.

Critically, formatively, according to Zweig’s first wife, Friderike, the ‘uncurbed, unrestrained vitality’ of his ‘extremely self-willed’ mother was invariably an unwelcome distraction from his writerly pursuits, and ‘undiminished even in old age, often caused much suffering to her son.’ And referring to Lotte, Stefan’s second wife and ‘Companion-in-Death’, Friderike writes, ‘... Stefan always longed for the “Silent Woman” – the title of the opera libretto, after Ben Jonson, that he wrote for Richard Strauss [Die schweigsame Frau] – his mother’s opposite. The silent, devoted Lotte so tragically fulfilled this idealized conception during his last years!’

Which raises the question – too grave for me to answer here – as to who is the proponent and instigator of a suicide pact? The man or the woman? And who insists it is followed through?

The same question has arisen in the case, mentioned, of philosopher ‘K’, the penologist, whose identity you will guess from the double suicide he carried through in his Knightsbridge home with his wife, twenty-two years his junior, and in good health.

The hallucinatory clarity of certain details observed in these two notable twin-deaths clings to my mind: the bottle of Salutaris mineral water mentioned by an observer of Stefan Zweig’s death scene (shades of Marienbad, his mother’s favourite spa) ... the fact that Stefan left his pencils well sharpened ... and the jar of honey (I can guess its purpose) that stood on the Alice-like occasional table (‘DRINK ME’) in the sitting-room of ‘K’ and his wife . . . and their suicide notes that also lay there addressed ‘To Whom it May Concern’.

No, this sinister question of the dominant party in a double suicide is too complex to examine here (‘sadomasochistic’ tendencies are more than hinted at in the case of ‘K’), so I await with keen anticipation the completed libretti of Stella Rosedale’s Mayerling: Tryst of Blood.

My Note to Stella Rosedale.

I have written a little apology to Stella for rifling through her most intimate thoughts. All the same, I have been emboldened to express my admiration for her Mayerling libretto drafts, expressing my own high regard for those two librettists of superlative skill, Myfanwy Piper (for Britten’s The Turn of the Screw) and lyricist Lillian Hellman (not forgetting James Agee, for Bernstein’s Candide). I do so hope we become better acquainted.

I do not mention the purpose of the jar of honey.  Nor do I mention the pioneering great-aunt of my family, one of the first accredited female pharmacists in England, who meticulously planned her own suicide.  Her very effective recipe is a closely guarded family secret.

Her last words in her suicide note were these: 

Dearest Best Beloved.
It is time for the candle to be snuffed out.
My Love to you All.

So you see, in answer to the bloodless question, so glibly and so frequently asked by psycho-medicos, ‘Have you ever had suicidal thoughts?’ my answer, willing-unwilling, would have to be, ‘Yes.’

Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. Within these disciplines Eisner’s fictions seek to explore variant literary forms derived from psychotherapy and criminology to trace the traumas of characters in extremis. Compulsive recurring sub-themes in her narratives examine sibling rivalry, rivalrous cousinhood, pathological imposture, financial chicanery, and the effects of non-familial male pheromones on pubescence, 
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)
and Listen Close to Me (2011)  

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