Sunday 29 March 2015


This is another passage from the memoir of Carmen Sylva (pseudonym of Elisabeth, Queen of Romania), in which she reminisces about the distinguished scholar Jacob Bernays (1824-1881).

The great scholar Bernays was a trusted friend of our family. He spent many hours in the company of my mother who hung on his lips and always learned from him. I was a child then and wondered why he never had dinner with us. He said he was a Jew and wished to comply with his traditions. But he had more knowledge of the New Testament than we, and his thoughts were exceptionally profound.

Bernays always said that the Jewish religion was the only religion free of fetishism. He was right, for the Christian religion was obliged to adapt to all the fetishisms it encountered in diverse countries. That is the disadvantage of a religion that wants to spread its faith. It is forced to make concessions and loses depth. If the Christian religion was still the way it came out of Christ’s mouth, it would be a different faith from the one we call Christian now. If we compare our deeds and thought with the Sermon of the Mount, we can only shut our mouths and blush.
The Jews have maintained a purer religion, and that’s a fact, but they never adapted it for the purpose of introducing it elsewhere. They suffered persecution for hundreds of years, and did not diverge from their religion and never tried to impose it on others. Thus the persecution of Jews is not based on religion but on race. A nation does not want to see another nation in their midst gaining more power than they have themselves. That’s the simple truth.

(Source: Carmen Sylva, Mein Penatenwinkel; my trans.)

Thursday 26 March 2015


Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was a child prodigy. She went on her first concert tour at the age of eleven, and soon played to sell-out crowds. She got to know her husband, Robert Schumann, when he took music lessons from her father and became a lodger at their house. The following (somewhat inaccurate) account appeared in the memoirs of “Carmen Sylva” , the pen name of Elisabeth, Queen of Romania.

My father and mother were divorced. From childhood on I was a little hard of hearing, but my father decided that I should become a musician. At the age of 12 I was already able to give a public performance. At one time he took me to visit my mother in Berlin. He merely pulled open the door and said: Madame, I bring you your daughter. It was very difficult for me because I adored my mother, but my father had remarried, and my stepmother was not good for me.

When I was fourteen, Schumann came to our house. We fell in love and became secretly engaged. He was eighteen, I was fourteen! We kept my strict father in the dark. He had other plans for me.

When my husband was twenty-two and I was eighteen, I stood before a judge between him and my father. Schumann proved that he was of age and fully capable of supporting a family. My father had written a letter to my bridegroom which contained eighteen injurious remarks, which is why he took him to court. And there I was, standing between them, but the judge awarded me to my bridegroom. My father foamed at the mouth, for he had always said: My daughter will not marry a common musician. She is too good even for a duke or a prince.

He threw me out, without allowing me to take my clothes or linen. My stepmother even ripped a small ring from my finger, which I had from my mother, and gave it to her daughter. Thus I was cast out and walked away with my husband, but it was heaven! Ten years of Heaven!
(Source: Carmen Sylva, Mein Penatenwinkel, my trans.)

Sunday 22 March 2015

Luise Seidler

Twenty-year old Luise Seidler reports on the aftermath of the Battle of Jena:
After the victorious French troops occupied Jena, the castle was turned into a hospital. Every morning at nine o’clock, with terrible punctuality, the funeral carriage rattled into the courtyard. Shortly afterward it left with its gruesome freight, which was covered only lightly with straw, from which heads, arms, and legs stuck out. The carriage passed through the gate, which shut with a creak of its hinges.
Pans filled with tar were set on fire, to prevent epidemics and cleanse the air polluted with the exhalations of the sick and dead. For many days after the battle, badly wounded soldiers were brought in. They were in terrible condition and had survived on grass and dew. Most of them died almost immediately after being taken in.

The water supply in the city had been interrupted.
The cannons being transported through the city had shaken up the ground and ruptured water mains. People had to make do with water from the Saale river, in which dead horses, human remains, and bloody rags floated around.

Trade came to a standstill.
The victors confiscated all food. We could only satisfy the most urgent hunger by begging of the enemy tickets called “bons”, which entitled us to have meat and bread delivered by the superintendent of the military...It was only at the beginning of the new year 1807 that conditions in the hard-hit city normalized to some extent.

During the Napoleonic occupation, Luise made the acquaintance of the French physician in charge of the hospitals, Dr. Geoffroy. He became a frequent visitor to her house.
He read to me his favourite poets, Corneille and Racine, and we made music together, he playing the cello, and I accompanying him on the piano. Our mutual interest grew…at last he asked for my hand in marriage, and my parents agreed.
Their romance ended in tragedy, however. Dr. Geoffroy was transferred to Spain and died there before the wedding could take place.

(Source: Luise Seidler. Erinnerungen und Leben; my trans.)

Thursday 19 March 2015


Luise Seidler was twenty years old when French troops passed through her native town to fight the Prussian army.

The road was so narrow that the cannons couldn’t be pulled by horses. The soldiers had to carry them. A handful of Prussians could have stopped and destroyed them.
But the Prussians confronted Napoleon’s troops on the plain of Apolda. 

A few hours into the day -- 14 October 1806 -- a large number of wounded men and refugees poured into the city and were put up in houses, churches, and public buildings. They spilled over into the streets and plazas and told the story: the Prussians had been trounced. Soon afterwards, the victorious French army marched into the city and occupied the castle. They began looting stores and houses. The Seidler family was spared only because their quarters were occupied  by Field Marshal Jean Lannes. Luise's father was sent out with a driver to requisition food and wine for Lannes and his men.

 Half an hour later, the driver came into my room, out of breath and pale as a corpse. “For Heaven’s sake, come quickly,” he said. “They are killing your father because he can’t make himself understood.” I rushed down to the lower floor, which had been occupied by French soldiers of all kinds. I looked them over and grabbed the arm of one whose noble face gave me confidence, and dragged him off. “Mademoiselle, que voulez vous?” he cried out, surprised. I explained the situation to him. He went with me and found a hussar with his sword drawn and threatening my father. My protector explained what was doing on. My father was requisitioning wine for the French troops. The Hussar thought he was looting on his own behalf.
The next day Napoleon arrived. Through the anteroom, I could see him standing at the window for a long time, deep in thought. In his hands he held a watch, allowing the chain to slide slowly through his fingers. Later he walked up and down, dictating a message to his secretary who was busy writing it down.
            It was a wet and cold day. A Saxon regiment, which had been captured, was waiting in the courtyard…They were waiting for the order to swear an oath that they would not fight France during the remainder of the campaign. At the end of that ceremony, Napoleon, dressed in his signature grey coat, climbed into an open carriage and drove off.
CONT. in next post on Sunday.

(Source: Luise Seidler. Erinnerungen und Leben; my trans.)

Sunday 15 March 2015


From the memoir of the Weimar court painter Luise Seidler (1786-1866):

At the age of fourteen, Luise enrolled in Stieler’s boarding school, where she made the acquaintance of a fellow pupil, Fanny Caspers.
Fanny Caspers
Her rich fiancé had entrusted Fanny to the school to accustom her to a regulated life and to teach her the economics of housekeeping.  At the end of that term he was going to marry her.

Luise and Fanny soon became close friends.
Fanny had lived the preceding years with her sister, a singer and actress at the court theatre in Weimar. Life there had been free of constraints. The bubbly young woman found the severe house rules burdensome and soon tried to reform them. When we put on our grey overshoes to go on the regulation walk, Fanny cried with mock indignation: What? Are you bear-ladies that you want lumpish feet? Her words fell on fertile ground, and thereafter we strenuously resisted putting on those overshoes that made our feet look clumsy.

Fanny treated her fiancé badly. She asked Luise to answer his letters on her behalf and to tell him:
She couldn’t think of any reply to his boring declarations of love except that he should send her sufficient pink taffeta for two dresses…The weak fool fulfilled the senseless and wasteful request of his bride to win her heart, which he clearly did not possess. A few months later he appeared at the school with his arm bandaged. He said he had fought a duel for Fanny’s sake.

But apparently it was an act he put on to gain her love. The headmistress interfered, and Fanny confessed in tears that she couldn’t stand the man and accepted him only because she was desperately poor. Thereupon the headmistress offered her free instruction and board for one year to train her as a teacher. She also assumed the delicate task of informing the man that his fiancée wished to be released from their arrangement, and he departed with a heavy heart. That was the end of the affair, and Fanny began to blossom.

More on Luise’s adventures in my next post on Thursday.
(Source: Luise Seidler. Erinnerungen und Leben; my trans.)

Thursday 12 March 2015


I’m in California. Over the last two months we’ve had a couple of rainy nights. Otherwise it's been blue skies day after day. It was almost boring, except that I’m Canadian, and we are never bored by good weather.

Of course Californian weather isn’t always like that. There are earthquakes, like Northridge 1994, and I can tell you (courtesy of yesterday’s LA Times) that the San Andreas Fault is most likely to host the next big one. HOST an earthquake -- I like their genteel wording.

If you want to prepare your kids, reviewer Scott Holleran recommends a fun quake book, called Earthquake! It’s part of Simon & Schuster’s Natural Disasters Series. Now that’s gotta be fun, right?

But my go-to man for Californian weather is Wallace Stegner.
  • Montana, he explains, doesn’t seem to have the same kind of boom because they haven’t got that much sunshine. But even Stegner admits that the weather in California isn’t always sunny.
  • There are days when there is no bland sky, no cool morning overcast, no placid afternoons fading into chilly evening. It's practically North Sea weather.The sky boils with cloud, the sun glares out now and then like the opening eye of a doped patient.
  • But the birds make up for the bad weather.The field next door is suddenly full of robins who arrive like blown leaves, picnic awhile, and depart all together as if summoned.

BUT, I hear you grumble, Stegner wrote the old-fashioned way – books, that is. If you are past that stage, I can recommend a Facebook page called Bad Weather California with 2314 likes. It’s actually a fan page for a band, but it has nice pictures of California hosting bad weather.

Or, your can check out the Wikipedia list of California hurricanes. The one I like best is the hurricane that was reconstructed as just missing landfall in 1858. Reconstructed hurricanes are always better than real ones, don’t you agree?  

(These admittedly scattered thoughts have been inspired by Stegner’s Spectator Bird and his Conversations on History & Literature)

Sunday 8 March 2015

More quotes from Joseph O’Neill, THE DOG.

  • Dinner with the locals:The three men jumped on the black goat and wrestled it to the ground and instantly roped its legs. I might have been watching a rodeo. Giancarlo slit the animal’s throat…A short while later the chef arrived with a serving dish. “The liver,” Georges said. “Fresh, fresh.” I accepted a piece, against my will. I did not want to put a part of the goat inside me.
  • Experience: When all is said and done and pondered, experience amounts simply to extra weight.
  • Relationships: Inner absenteeism is inconsistent with the performance of the duties of a loving partner.
  • Suicide: I find it calming that I have no dependents of any kind and am always at liberty to hang myself. On second thought: To put oneself to death would offer a dispiriting example and one ought not to do it.
  • Facebook: A festival of mutual absolution – I wanted some of it. I wanted to divulge my playlists and movie favorites, my moments of wit and hope and wry gloom.
  • America: A strange, gigantically foolish place that sooner or later will be undone by the calamitous mental life of its population…Dolts thrive; one senses an eventual crash of crashes.

Thursday 5 March 2015

#amreading Joseph O’Neill’s THE DOG.

Okay, this isn’t my usual blog post stuffed with historical tidbits unless my years as an expat in non-democratic countries count as a historical tidbits, and Joseph O’ Neill’s book is about an expat in Dubai. It offers some excellent insights into the Kafkaesque experience of life in a country that will always be foreign to you.

O’Neill’s prose may sound a bit strange, or maybe not, given that his protagonist is a lawyer and must therefore be aware that
a word is exactly and covertly what it appears to be, a letters-shaped blackness, which is to say, a kind of verbatim detail of the immovable, possibly entropic, and in any case finally annihilating, residual super-reality of blackness.

O'Neill's character tries really heard to make himself understood, to kill or cage the rats of complexity, but in vain. He produces a cruelly rambling, almost agrammatical near-balderdash of baffling dependent clauses and ultra-boring, ultra-technical phraseology that enveloped the reader in a dingy, alien, almost unbreathable word-atmosphere offering barely a vent of punctuation indentation, or line breakage.
Sound like a description of the pre-nup you signed? Or the disclaimer on the insurance papers?

But don’t think that O’Neill’s lawyer is inhuman. No, he is all too human and realizes that he is in deep shit because he is seized with a knowledge of facts. That’s not good. A fact is where it all starts to go wrong. A fact is a knock on the door.

More bits from O’ Neill’s swamp of plausibility in my next post on Sunday. 

Sunday 1 March 2015

WHEN DIPLOMATS historical novels, that is.

It’s 1904, and the Germans are frustrated. Their fondest hopes of starting a war have been ruined by the entente cordiale, an alliance between England and France.

They did it again, those unbearable Englishmen! The entente cordiale has destroyed all our plans. ..We thought we could roll Luxembourg into the North German League and finally have a good reason to go to war, but those Englishmen, a nation of grocers…those bookkeepers have destroyed all our hopes. But we shall have revenge…and if I’m not mistaken it is brewing already. 

We know that something is brewing because old Chancellor Bismarck gave a dinner the other day,in which he revealed his love of nature. He spoke in the most enthusiastic terms of his desire for a quiet life in the country, to which he would soon retire; and such words, as you well know, always leave a political after-taste in the mouth. Whenever Bismarck retires to the countryside or suffers from rheumatism, it means there is something in the air.

How romantic, you say. I know him as a rather sarcastic man. Here is what I overheard him say at that dinner:

  • A Bavarian is something between an Austrian and a human being.
  • An Austrian could be very intelligent if he wasn’t so fundamentally stupid. His blood is a mixture of Italian, Spanish, and Dutch, a strange brew. Sometimes the phlegmatic temperament of the Dutch bobs to the surface; at other time it’s the Spanish spitefulness.
  • And those treacherous Italians: God made man in his image and the Italian in the image of Judas.
  • And one more thing: French diplomats never speak the language of the country to which they have been posted.
Source: Luise Mühlbach’s historical novel Von Königsgrätz bis Chiselhurst (Stuttgart, 1874) – my translation.