Auden’s Austrian summer

A frustrating study suggests that the relationship between a British-born Viennese Aristocrat and W.H. Auden was crucial to the poet’s late-flowering.

The house of W. H. Auden at Kirchstetten.
The house of W. H. Auden at Kirchstetten. Credit: mauritius images GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

The Poet & The Baroness: W. H. Auden and Stella Musulin, a Friendship, Michael O’Sullivan, Central European Press, £21.95

In the index to the fullest and best biography of W. H. Auden (Edward Mendelson’s two-volume life) there is an absence between ‘music’ and ‘myth’.

Auden (1907-73) took up residence in Austria in 1957, and soon became close friends with Stella Musulin (1915-96). She was a writer and historian who was, by then, a pillar of Viennese life, but whose position in Auden’s has gone mainly unchronicled. Born into Pembrokeshire gentry as Stella Lloyd-Philipps, she had worked in British intelligence during the Second World War before marriage into the Austrian aristocracy made her the Baroness Musulin von Gomirje. Her book Austria: People and Landscape (1971) became a seminal text. Auden wrote its introduction: ‘I know of few books of this kind that are at one and the same time so instructive and such fun to peruse.’

Living in New York and flush with funds from an Italian prize, Auden had wept with delight on buying his first and only property, a yellow farmhouse at Kirchstetten, seventy kilometres west of Vienna, where he spent each summer. Auden’s companion, no longer lover, Chester Kallman, on whom he was fiercely dependent, brought men home to the spare bedroom, and left Austria and Auden each July for the sexual opportunities of Greece. Auden, meanwhile, fell first for an American student and then for a young Viennese called Hugerl, who served time in prison for house robbery. Kallman, alcoholic and struggling beneath the weight of Auden’s love, was deteriorating. The poet was also in physical and emotional decline. At fifty, he was smoking himself silly and was hooked on Benzedrine. What Derek Walcott called his ‘runnelled face’ was already grooved and dewlapped, the forehead a chequerboard of wrinkles so neat they would serve for a game of noughts and crosses. ‘He was’, Stella Musulin thought, ‘an amazing mixture of talent, high scholarship, wretchedness and squalor.’

The friendship between poet and baroness is a fruitful one for a joint portrait, adding another figure to the list of women important to Auden (Rhoda Jaffe, for a time his mistress; Elizabeth Mayer, his surrogate mother; Thekla Clark, whom he asked to marry him; Hannah Arendt, ditto; Thomas Mann’s daughter Erika, whom he did marry, so as to secure her a British passport). It also provides the opportunity to reconsider Auden’s time in Austria and the work he produced there, about which critical opinion, usually focused on his lives in England and New York, has been both scant and divided. In 1986 Edward Mendelson, the poet’s executor, gave us the superb Later Auden, which argued that ‘much of Auden’s most profound and personal work was written in the last fifteen years of his life’ (the exact span of his acquaintance with Musulin). This was in polar opposition to Philip Larkin, who insisted that ‘almost all we value is still confined to the first ten years’ of Auden’s output and dismissed the later verse as ‘too verbose to be memorable and too intellectual to be moving’.

It is a bold move for Michael O’Sullivan to publish this book as one of his own authorship, for he has contributed only 70 of its 195 pages, providing a long introduction to what is essentially an edition of Musulin’s memories and Auden’s letters. The book is released not long after a digital edition of the ‘Auden Musulin Papers’ has been made available online by the Austrian Academy of Sciences. O’Sullivan’s appears to have been an independent project but, although it will please Auden completists, who like letters to smell of paper, it is rendered obsolete by the digital resource, which contains all the material of O’Sullivan’s book and more, and is superior in every respect.

The introduction is eccentric and spends very little time either narrating the friendship or arguing its significance. Its four discrete sections seem to have been written separately for other purposes and glued together, for they sometimes repeat sentences verbatim. The first tells us all about an Auden symposium that O’Sullivan organised in 1984, replete with photographs (‘the author with Leonard Bernstein’) and anecdotes about the famous people he met. There were ‘hilarious moments at the reception desk’ when Stephen Spender was ‘always addressed as ‘Sir Spender’’. Poor Sir Stephen, who after recovering from the hilarity will have had to deal with O’Sullivan’s false apprehension, stated twice here, that he was ‘England’s Poet Laureate’ (he was a ‘Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry’ to the Library of Congress).

O’Sullivan then spools backwards to provide a long description of Auden’s death and funeral, in a style that veers wildly from the high-flown (‘a perpetual caliginous miasma’) to the unthrillingly thriller-ish. Auden was devoted to detective fiction, but that is no reason to write his life in the manner of Dan Brown: ‘The tall, elegant figure of Stella Musulin… suddenly looks frail and vulnerable. She grips the steering wheel tightly.’ O’Sullivan is asleep at the wheel: much of his narrative is taken from a piece by Musulin he later reproduces in full, apparently oblivious to uncited borrowings. ‘[Chester] hated everything in the shape of pompes funèbres’, she writes, ‘the whole pomp and circumstance of a traditional Austrian funeral was abhorrent.’ O’Sullivan: ‘The mayor argues the case for a full grand funeral with the utmost degree of pomp and circumstance [… but] pompes funébres was anathema to Chester.’ O’Sullivan is grave but rarely acute; his French accent markings are acute when they should be grave.

After a segment on Auden’s attachment to the island of Ischia, and its ‘sordid miasma of claim and counterclaim’, O’Sullivan finally offers 24 pages, the most valuable in the book, on Musulin, whom he knew personally. Her perception is matched by her vivid turn-of-phrase. Of Kallman: ‘a Dorian Grey figure, sparkling and damned, hero and victim, immature and over-ripe, sensitive and heartless’. Of the Salzburg festival: ‘a great meeting place for retired birds of paradise such as Lady Diana Cooper’. Of Auden’s head: ‘straight out of the Icelandic sagas, or a prehistoric head from the bogs of Jutland. Auden should have been carved, much larger than life, by Henry Moore and placed in effigy on a high hill.’

Musulin checked Auden’s German translations and was sent draft poems for comment. When Kallman disappeared into what O’Sullivan calls ‘the miasma of homosexual bars in Vienna’, she dutifully spent the night trawling the city’s grubbier establishments in search of him. I wonder, though, whether O’Sullivan slightly overeggs the importance of the relationship, cast as one of ‘immediate best friends’ by the book’s blurb. ‘So comfortable had the friendship become that… Auden insisted that she come down to the courtyard to look at his VW car.’ Come down and see my Volkswagen isn’t quite come up and see my etchings. There was ‘a hole in the car’s bodywork which he proudly announced as “a bullet hole”’. We are not told that the bullet-hole was acquired when the car was loaned to Hugerl, the Viennese lover aforementioned, who was speeding away from a burglary.

Cars are a running theme of Auden’s letters to Musulin, which cover the death by road accident of Kallman’s lover Yannis Boras. These documents’ survival and publication are cause for celebration but it would be hard to pretend they are of seismic significance. The three poems that he sent her for comment – ‘Joseph Weinheber’, ‘August 1968’, ‘Stark Bewölkt’ (dedicated to Musulin) – are included, in versions identical to those published, as is a talk, ‘Freedom and Necessity in the Arts’, which can be found in Auden’s Complete Works (Prose, V). The letter of 3 February 1966 is of value, an eloquent variation on his claim that poetry makes nothing happen and never saved a Jew from the gas chamber: ‘One must admit that the political history of Europe, with the same horrors, would be what it has been, if Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Titian, Mozart, et al, had never existed.’

O’Sullivan is a wayward editor. The section he calls ‘Stella’s Journals’ is formed of two undated essays, ‘The Years in Austria’ and ‘In Retrospect’, their provenance unexplained. A glance at the digitised archive shows that ‘journals’ is misleading: these are memoirs, typed between 1976 and 1990, intended for a book that never materialised. And where O’Sullivan helpfully provides explanatory footnotes for Musulin’s work, he has not annotated the letters, and does not say whether he is including everything extant (fewer than fifteen are given here). German goes untranslated, references unexplained. He publishes letters from Auden with no replies from Musulin, although he claims to have read ‘correspondence between them’.

For whom is this slim paperback intended? Its style strains every sinew to appeal to the so-called general reader, but its narrow focus and academic publisher may yet consign it to university libraries, where students of Auden will find a book with little new information, patchy scholarly apparatus, and a miasma of niggling error (‘Montieth’ for ‘Monteith’ and so on). Meanwhile a forthcoming edition of ‘Personal Writings’, to include selected letters, and an ‘intellectual biography’ from Seamus Perry are eagerly awaited. These will surely bring to the fore what disappears in O’Sullivan’s book: the work to which Musulin bore witness and which she may have inspired.

Were those Austrian summers an Indian summer? Anthologies still gravitate towards Auden’s pre-war poems. But Larkin’s dismissal of the later work could be easily countered by reference to the librettos for Hans Werner Henze and Nicolas Nabokov, or by the essays collected in The Dyer’s Hand (1962). Auden himself told Muriel Spark that he was ‘expressing what he thought and felt more precisely in [the 1960s] than he had been able to do [in the 1930s]’. A volume of ‘last poems’ was published posthumously under the title Thank You, Fog. The very last is three lines long, its autobiography held at one remove by translation into the third person:

He still loves life

But O O O O how he wishes

The good Lord would take him.

That four-ply O is a wail of anguish for which Auden’s tarry lungs could not have mustered the breath. He intended the two pairs of Os to be elided, giving the poem the seventeen syllables of a haiku. It was a collective wail – or perhaps a giggle. Auden’s dying words are Hamlet’s, in the First Folio (‘O, o, o, o. Dyes.’). They are also Lear’s. Not just King Lear (in the First Quarto: ‘Thanke you sir, O, o, o, o’) but Edward Lear, from The Complete Nonsense Book: ‘Last week I called aloud, O! O! O! O!’. And they are T. S. Eliot’s, from The Waste Land: ‘O O O O that Shakespeherian rag’. Loving life but welcoming death, stolid but syncopated, full of sense and complete nonsense, Auden’s dying fall was a curiously jaunty tragedy, even a bad joke, a ragged ragtime somewhere between music and myth. As he told Stella Musulin: ‘I believe that the only way in which, to-day at any rate, one can speak seriously about serious matters (the alternative is silence) is comically.’

The Lord was merciful; the rest is silence. In September 1973, Auden left Kirchstetten to give a poetry reading in Vienna and began to suffer heart failure. O, o, o, o. Dyes.


Oliver Soden