Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Cate Haste: Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler

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Alma Mahler

My introduction to Alma Mahler, at the age of about fifteen,  was through a World War II era publication by Alma, entitled Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, translated by Basil Creighton. The book had been produced ‘in complete conformity with economy standards’. My aunt had acquired it in 1948 through a book club and when, many years later, she knew that I was interested in music, she passed it on to me. I’d vaguely heard of Mahler. Didn’t like his heavy music. The book, largely an appreciation of Gustav Mahler with some letters at the end, appeared to have been written by a devoted wife, with no suggestion of the life of dalliance that she was probably still leading at the time of publication.

Alma Bride of the Wind

Kokoschka’s painting, Bride of the Wind, dedicated to Alma Mahler

Next, many, many years later, I saw Bruce Beresford’s film Bride of the Wind — the title referring to a painting by Oskar Kokoschka (one of Alma’s many lovers) that he dedicated to Alma.

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I was almost obsessed by that movie. For me it conveyed the belle epoque of early 20th century Vienna — the exciting discoveries, the flourishing arts, and most importantly it told me a great deal more about Alma Mahler — dwelling on the devastation for her and Gustav on the death of their daughter and, significantly, driving home the fact that when they agreed to marry, Gustav insisted that Alma cease her own musical composition (which was a driving part of her life). This demand seems outrageous today and critics have considered that Alma’s composing can’t have meant a great deal to her. However, she said that she carried her own songs around inside her ‘as if in a coffin’. Particularly at that time there were no role models of female composers and maybe she assumed that her own efforts could amount to no more than some gentile accomplishment.The film ends, well after the death of Gustav, with a concert of Alma’s own works.

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One of Alma Mahler’s compositions

By the time of her death in 1964, Alma Mahler had a reputation as a self-serving, narcissistic gold-digger, who flung herself at many powerful male figures in the arts. It is now interesting to examine her life from a distance and to evaluate it in its contemporary context. A recently published book by Cate Haste provides a detailed and largely sympathetic account of Alma Mahler’s life.

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Alma with her two daughters before Maria’s death in 1907

Alma had huge admiration for her father, the artist Emil Schindler, who died when she was young. She was used to the artistic wealth of early 20th century Vienna. My own belief is that Alma, perhaps unconsciously, saw Gustav as a replacement for her recently deceased father. Maybe because she couldn’t fulfil her life through composition, Alma came to define her life through love – and the list of her lovers is long. Was it from a lack of fulfilment? Artists, such as Klimt, Kokoschka, the architect Gropius (whom she married), ultimately the writer Werfel (who was a best seller in his day). Sometimes, it seems to me, her diaries (quoted in Haste’s book) read like those of a teenager: do I really love him? In the foreword, Haste says that Alma was ‘untrammelled by convention’ (page x) – her liaisons were often wild and it seems she was quite open about her philandering and adultery. In many ways it was a life of peaks and troughs: three of her four children died (Bereford’s film concentrates on her life while Mahler was alive), and there are many descriptions of times when Alma was driven to her bed for long periods of depression. She seems to have been obsessed by her own allure – later in life she was described as ‘an extravagantly festooned battleship’ (page 261) and – more unkind – ‘her figure a bag of potatoes’ (page 286) and ‘a bloated Valkyrie’ who ‘drank like a fish’ (page 353).

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the ‘extravagantly festooned battleship’

For most of her life Alma seems to have had plenty of money. After a horrifying escape from Europe, over the Pyrenees, during World War II, Alma and third husband Franz Werfel ended up in the US and were soon holding salons with their friends from Europe. Alma must have been well read – at one time she is described as packing up 10,000 books. However, although many of her friends were Jewish, she was unforgivably anti-Semitic.

She is known as Alma Mahler – Mahler was her first husband. She also married Walter Gropius, the architect and writer Franz Werfel. But in the end, it seems, she wanted to be remembered through her connection with Mahler.

Alma Jonathan Pryce

Jonathan Pryce playing Mahler in Bride of the Wind



My friend Sally has just reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s brilliantly irreverent song about Alma Mahler:

Thanks very much, Sally!



St Kilda Historical Society Short Story Competition

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I’m involved in setting up an excellent new short story competition to bejudged by local Melbourne writer Lee Kofman   The competition celebrates the 50th anniversary of the St Kilda Historical Society, but it isn’t necessary to be a resident of St Kilda to enter and the story doesn’t have to be historical — just some link to St Kilda. There is no entrance fee and there are good prizes: first prize in the open section is $1000 with prizes of $500 and $250 for second and third places. There is also a junior section with a first prize of $500 and $250 and $100 for second and third places. Full information is at

The competition closes on 7th August.

A Ladder to the Sky

John Boyne’s most well-known book is the YA, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas(2006). I haven’t read it or seen the film that was made. John Boyne, from Dublin, was a guest at Adelaide Writers’ Week.

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It is said that ambition is putting a ladder to the sky, and Boyne’s book, A Ladder to the Sky is about a sociopathic writer who is totally dominated by ambition. We first meet the divine looking young Maurice Swift as he taunts an ageing gay novelist, Erich Ackerman. This part of the book is from Ackerman’s point of view. Maurice teases out a story that Ackerman has never before told, about a terrible act he committed when he was a member of the Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany. Maurice heartlessly appropriates this story, launching his own career with a best seller and ending Ackerman’s career in ignominy.

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The second part of the book, an ‘Interlude’, is from Gore Vidal’s point of view – told in the third person. Writers are gathering at Vidal’s opulent pad on the Amalfi Coast and Maurice, flaunting his good looks, is in tow with a well-known American writer. Some reviewers have liked this part of the book best, but I preferred to be carried along by the breath-taking horror of the next few sections.

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Gore Vidal’s ‘pad’

I found the next section technically very interesting. Written from the point of view of Maurice’s wife, Edith, it is narrated in the second person, addressing Maurice. They are living in Norwich. His writing appears to be at a stand-still while she has just published a very successful first novel and is teaching creative writing at the University of East Anglia. We, the readers, start to sense a creeping menace – why is her computer warm when she arrives home earlier than expected? Maurice can put together a sentence quite well, but has no ideas for plot and, being an utter sociopath, presumably has no interest in character. He appropriates her ready-for-the pubisher second novel. She finds out. She must go. He pushes her down the stairs and she ends up on life support. The end of this section is extraordinary. Narrated by Edith in a coma – she can hear, but cannot communicate. And she knows so much: she is the only person who knows that Maurice is selling her novel as his own work. She also knows that her sister has planted child pornography on her estranged husband’s computer so that he will be barred from having access to their children. Edith also knows that she is pregnant, but loses the baby in her fall. Edith’s last perceptions, which are spaced out more in the print form of the novel, adding poignancy to her last few moments: ‘I can hear switches being turned and the wheezing of an artificial breather as it starts to slow down, and that’s when I realise. You’re turning me off, aren’t you, Maurice? You’re turning me off. You’re killing me. To protect yourself and, more importantly, to protect your novel. My novel. Your novel.

I see you.

You’re reaching down and taking my

that thing   at the end of my arm …

I can’t see you any more      there’s no light

no sound

no more words.’

Nothing more needs to be said.

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The rest of the book is narrated by Maurice. He continues to build his career in New York, where he owns a literary magazine – ideal for appropriating story lines from short stories he rejects for publication. He has a son, through surrogacy – for some strange reason he always wanted children. But – a similar story – Daniel finds out too much – particularly the appropriated novel from Edith, whom Daniel wrongly thinks is his mother. Thirteen-year-old Daniel dies of an asthma attack when Maurice withholds his ventolin puffer.

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Maurice returns to London and becomes a drunk. A student takes an interest in him and the forever ambitious Maurice agrees to meet him on a regular basis in various pubs, understanding that this association will lead to a biography, since the student’s father is an editor at Random House. Playing on Maurice’s growing frailty, the student manages to expose everything. Maurice ends up in prison for life. As a rather satirical coda,  Maurice teaches creative writing while he is incarcerated. One student writes particularly well – a novel ‘that would give Henry James a run for his money’. But this student dies in a prison brawl. Maurice, of course, appropriates the work. It is published and ends up one of the best-selling books of that year.

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I loved the irresistible plot, the variety of writing and particularly the rather smug sense of humour as Boyne gently satirises the literary world of festival circuits, publishers and literary prizes.


The Mitford Sisters

Most people of my generation will have heard of the Mitford sisters who were a part, albeit a subversive part, of British aristocracy during our childhood and young to middle adulthood. But, which was the writer? Which was the communist? Which was the friend of Hitler? Nancy Mitford had written quite prolifically and was particularly known for her semi-autobiographical Love in a Cold Climate. I knew that one of them had associated with Hitler, and another with Sir Oswald Mosley — but I was often confused about who had done what. So, when I saw Laura Thompson’s The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters on a bargain table at Readings Bookshop, I snapped it up.



On the one hand, the book is quite easy to read, but on another, it hops between one sister and another, so I had to keep resorting to checking the family tree provided at the front of the book. As a Washington Post reviewer says, Thompson ‘leap-frogs’ from one sister to another.



David, Second Baron Redesdale and his wife Sydney — described as ‘minor British aristocrats’ had seven children: one son, Thomas, born in 1909, and the famous six girls. Nancy was born in 1904. She became wealthy from her writing (most of the girls seemed to find ways of squandering their inheritance) and lived in Paris, for much of the time at Versailles, near the Palais.

Pamela, born in 1907, is known as ‘the quiet one’. She was a fascist sympathiser. The next girl, born in 1910, was Diana, famous for having (ultimately) married Oswald Mosley of fascist fame. They were married (a second marriage for both) in Joseph Goebbel’s drawing room in 1936, and Hitler was one of the guests. They spent much of the war years in Holloway prison, and after that under house arrest.


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Diana with husband Sir Oswald Mosley, in later years

Unity, ironically christened Unity Valkyrie (given Hitler’s love of Wagner), is famous for having been a close friend of Hitler. Thompson’s description suggests that Hitler may have even shown a skerrick of kindness when she was ill. The day World War II was declared, Unity, who was in Germany, shot herself in the head — rather than killing herself, she ended up with brain injury that reduced her to infantile behaviour. She died of meningitis nine years later. She was shipped back to England and her devoted mother cared for her for the rest of Unity’s life.


Hobnobbing with Hitler before WWII


Unity, shipped back to England from Germany after shooting herself in the head

The second youngest girl was Jessica (‘Decca’), born in 1917.  A fervent ‘left-winger’, she gave her share of inheritance to the Communist party and lived in America, marrying an active communist, Robert Treuhaft.

The youngest, Deborah, was born in 1920 and entered the upper echelons of British aristocracy through marriage, becoming the Duchess of Devonshire. She also rubbed shoulders with American ‘royalty’ as a close friend of John F.Kennedy and his sister.


Deborah’s marriage: she became Duchess of Devonshire


In later years, the Duchess of Devonshire with royalty

Laura Thompson presents these lives — showing the many family feuds: the ‘push and pull’. I kept thinking that however radical their behaviour seemed to be it was always cushioned by that substantial British aristocratic background (Nancy coined the terms U and non-U: whether some word or behaviour was upper class or not). As one reviewer says, ‘there is no letting them off the Hitler hook’. At least I now have a somewhat clearer idea of who did what.


Mitford graves







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On 12th March, just a few weeks after devastating bushfires had destroyed much of the south-east coast of Australia, the chamber music group Syzygy Ensemble performed a concert entitled: Terra Subitis 1: Dare to Hope. By this stage, we knew of the existence of the highly infectious COVID-19, but we were still ignorant of the profound impact it would have on our lives. This is likely to be the last concert I  attend for many months.

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Syzygy, an ensemble of flute, clarinet, ‘cello, piano and violin, specialises in playing new music and on this occasion the ‘oldest’ piece had been composed in 1995. The usual group of Laila Engle, Robin Henry, Campbell Banks and Leigh Harrold was joined by violinist Zoë Black.

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Zoë Black

The concert opened with the Australian premiere of Greg Caffrey’s for peace comes dropping slow;  calming and fluid, the title from Yeats’ poem, Isle of Innisfree: ‘And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow’ — tranquility recalled when the poet was in a bustling city.

Then a contrast. John Psatlas is a New Zealand composer with a Greek cultural heritage. His three Island Songs were full of the energy of Greek dancing, the Eb clarinet providing a shrill intensity.

Sublimity followed. Caerwen Martin’s ‘Spacious and Expressive’ The Beauty of Now was originally written for violin and piano, but in 2019 she revised it for flute and piano and Laila’s mellow playing — even in the high ranges of the piccolo — took us to an ethereal place.

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Laila Engle

The final item was composed at the very end of the 20th century by Canadian composer Chan Ka Nin: Our Finest Hour. The piece celebrates the joy of creation, scientific discoveries, and then in the last movement there is a tape of Churchill from his speech made in 1940, where he was determined that England should persist in the war with Germany: Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”  ‘This was their finest hour’ was deftly inserted into the music by Laila — the piece is scored for violin, ‘cello, piano and clarinet — no flute.

Whilst reflecting on the current turmoil of our world, we were left with the reminder of humankind’s achievements —  a strand of hope that we can clutch over the ensuing months as the world locks down.

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Adelaide Writers’ Week: another engrossing day

Elwood Writers

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My day started sitting beneath Lombardy poplars, myrtles and holly oaks in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, to hear a session entitled ‘Trees for Life’. The trees in the garden are symbolic, as I learned from Wikipedia:

The design of the garden is a simple rectangle with a low decorative brick wall. At the centre of the garden is Cohn’s sculpture of a female figure, raised on a plinth. This is surrounded by green lawns, and four garden beds with ornamental trees and shrubs at the edges. Cornish’s choice of plants was influenced by their symbolic meanings, selecting five Populus nigra “Italica” (Lombardy poplars) to represent the five women of the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Trust; Quercus ilex (holly oak) and Myrtus communis (myrtle) for protection and love; Lonicera (honeysuckle) for love, generosity and devotion; and Syringa vulgaris (lilac) to symbolise memory, protection, youth and tenderness.

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The session on Trees for…

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Dimanche: a brilliant depiction of climate chaos

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Dimanche has been described as a ‘family show’, but it is far more than that. I went away from the wordless performance of mime, puppetry, film and sound asking myself — why is this so much more powerful than seeing a movie? Maybe it is the lack of words. We are weary of clichés about climate change.

Dimanche was presented at the Adelaide Festival by two Belgian companies: Compagnie Chaliwaté and Cie Focus. One of the members said: ‘We want to speak about the denial in which we find ourselves, the mismatch between the extreme urgent need to act and our difficulty to assimilate this urgency’. They do this superbly well, juxtaposing scientists documenting the last living species on earth and a family trying to carry on with their usual life on a Sunday (Dimanche) against the odds of  extreme heat (the table legs melt), cyclonic winds and flooding tsunami.

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Some brilliant puppetry: an almost life-size polar bear is separated from its cub when melting ice cracks.  An exotic bird seeking food for its chick is killed in the devastating winds (its remains are blown into the family’s home and they intend to feast on it). Apart from these poignant depictions of loss, a memorable piece of acting is when the three scientists are driving in polar regions in their van — simply done with a steering wheel, hand-operated windscreen-wipers (the actors take it in turns) all bouncing up and down in unison to suggest the rough terrain over which they’re driving.

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There are underwater scenes too, with fish puppets. Articles we recognise from the family’s house are at the bottom of the ocean — a woman in a kayak (rowing in time with the sound of the water) ‘fishes’ up some items. But she too will be taken by the tsunami.

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elderly mother puppet, whose feet are cooled in ice


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I think it was the lack of words that made this so powerful.


Adelaide Writers’ Week 2020

Elwood Writers

Elwood Writers, has attended Adelaide Writers’ Week for many years — I’ve lost count how many — maybe for the last six or seven years. This year is the 60th anniversary of the Adelaide Festival, and Adelaide Writers’ Week, which has been a significant part of the Festival since its inception in 1960.

There are many attractive things about this week of listening to authors talk about their work — one of the main being that the main events are free. We sit on the banks of the Torrens River, in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, in the summer sunshine, appropriately shaded by blue canvas, with a choice of parallel events on East Stage and West Stage.

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John Boyne had come from Ireland. He has written eleven books for adults (there was discussion about the unnecessary labelling of books as ‘for young people’, ‘for adults’). His most famous book is

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An extraordinary Mozart Requiem

A requiem is a mass for the dead, for repose of the soul. Mozart’s Requiem in D minor was written at the very end of his life, in fact, he did not live to finish it.  One version was completed by his pupil, Franz Xavier Süssmayr.  This extended version was used, along with additions to what is described in the program as a ‘musical montage’ performed at the 2020 Adelaide Festival by the Adelaide Festival Chorus, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, dancers from Australian Dance Theatre and soloists Siobhan Stagg, Sara Mingardo, Martin Mitterrutzner, David Greco and boy treble, Luca Shin — there was also a baby, just a few months old — I hope he/ she received actors’ equity rates! The production was directed by Romeo Castellucci and conducted by Rory Macdonald.

What can a Requiem mean for us in 2020? What kind of repose might we seek, as we face a world that is being destroyed by our own negligence, with governments more interested in narrow self interest than confronting the reality of climate change, with the likelihood that a virus will wreak havoc in populations across the globe?

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This production of Mozart’s Requiem was certainly oriented towards a 21st century world. I was sitting too far back to see some of the detail that occurred on stage. Indeed, I’m not sure that anyone in the audience would have been able to see, for example, that the person who is going to bed while introductory Gregorian plainchant is sung, is watching TV news headlines about the recent devastating bushfires. Expecting something to do with the crucifixion, I thought that the figure was some kind of modern-day Christ and that the bed from which he/ she ultimately disappeared represented a version of a crucifix. No — I was reading too much into an elderly woman getting into bed and dying.

Some of the dance sequences reminded me of pagan sacrifice (the Rite of Spring flashed through my mind) — the movements did fit to Mozart’s music, and to their great credit, the chorus sang superbly while performing folk dance-type movements and sometimes lying prostrate.

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The idea of a 21st century requiem was captured best for me by  the projection onto the back wall, throughout much of the production, of an ‘Atlas of Great Extinctions’.  We were reminded of so many things that no longer exist: the names of flora, animal species, human species, languages, buildings, artworks, religions and finally suggestions of human abilities and traits that may become extinct: thought, tears, wonder, love… Thus we were encouraged to reflect not only on our individual lives but humanity’s destiny and the future of our planet.

Near the end of the production there is suggestion of destruction — my interpretation was destruction of our world — everything that was pristine and white is blackened. Many of the performers disrobe on a darkened stage. There are piles of dirt. A burnt out car. When the performers are off stage, the floor is tilted, so that the dirt and debris slides forwards.

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At the very end is another Gregorian chant, In Paradise, traditionally sung at the end of a Catholic funeral. And this is where there is hope, symbolised in the tiny baby left alone for a few minutes on stage. (Space Odyssey 2001 flashed through my mind.)

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Elements of this enormous production were memorable and moving but, for me, I would have been happy to have listened to the beauty of the music (which was superbly performed throughout). Sometimes, I think the activities on stage detracted from music which by itself has a universal message. Even for those of us who do not subscribe to traditional religious belief, Mozart’s music alone can offer at least some hours of repose.

Helen Garner: Yellow Notebook


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When I first read that Helen Garner had published her diaries kept from 1978 to 1987, I selfishly thought, oh — if only I’d kept a journal — what a way to publish your autobiography! I do wish that I had kept diaries, as Helen Garner has done, but I doubt they would be as readable as Garner’s. And this is not an autobiography.

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After burning her early journals, Helen Garner decided to start writing in a journal again – around 1978 – and did so in a yellow notebook –  hence the title. When I picked up the published book, I expected to find that the journal had been edited – maybe there would be themes – after all, Garner has been known to say that her first novel, Monkey Grip was just an edited version of her diaries of that time.

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Clearly, the extracts have been selected, but they are presented as a serendipitous collection of musings, quotes, descriptions… Her endeavours to keep friends, lovers, husbands anonymous sometimes make the reading heavy going. As a writer, I found it fascinating to have glimpses of Garner’s daily routine, of how she quite often had to drive herself to write. I was surprised that this writer who, even back in 1978, was ‘successful’, has a  lurking lack of confidence. She is cut to the quick when there are harsh reviews of her work and elevated to blissful delight when the reviews are good.

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Garner has been a hero of mine ever since I read Monkey Grip back in 1978.  In both her fiction and non fiction (and I have heard her discuss that there is not a lot of sense in these distinctions) Garner confronts the reader with the reality of our existence — be it in a rooming house imprisoned by drug addiction or in a courthouse confronted by human frailty. So too in these diaries there were moments when I was entranced by her attention to detail or her encapsulation of a feeling by use of metaphor. We do have to wade through some of Garner’s everyday notes. This is not intended to be a polished novel or essay, but, as Peter Craven has written in The Saturday Paper, ‘worlds of incident and feeling are clipped into a shape of entrancing implication’.

A few of these descriptions are:

‘doors open in my head like those in a cuckoo clock’ [page 7], on preparing food ‘the brutality of its preparation’ [page 19], ‘her permed brown hair quivering’ [page 30], ‘the music ran, bounced and thickened’ [page 42], ‘500-watt blue eyes’ [page 82], ‘she paraded in, chin high, teeth blazing’ [page 118], ‘a grille clanged down between him and the world’ [page 233], ‘the jaws of my purse straining wide’ [page 245], ‘the monolith of his marriage’ [page 253]

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