7-December 1855
Dear Hohenheim,

It seems that a vast period of time has passed.  Another vision ensues.  I see myself in youth, curled into the hard windowseat that looks down into the Hauptmarkt from my room, and occasionally the front door rattles  as a customer enters or leaves.  It is my birthday, and I am ten years old.  Held in my hands is the too-difficult text of Byron’s Manfred, not yet available to me in German, and so I labor over the English original.  Why must he be so metaphorical?  Can he not, for my sake, use less flowery words, so that I am not constantly jumping up to the dictionary?  As I study, a sound comes to my ears.  It is my mother, singing.  She must be brushing her hair, now.  I am drawn away from the puzzling beauty of Byron’s verse to the irresistible beauty of her voice.  She does this because she knows I am listening.

I wander down the main stair, toward the singing voice as it grows louder and more compelling to my ear, and as I do, I realize that something impossible is happening.   It is I, indeed, and I am yet ten, but the angelic voice of my mother is singing “Der Gärtner” which I did not compose until 1842! nor publish until 1851.  Then – the singer cannot be my mother, else she herself composed it in 1820 or before,  and I took it down later from memory.  But this cannot be, because I, here in the finalized Present, know that my mother never composed a tune nor invented any single piece of music, and she learned anew only what I wrote, and then only my student compositions; for my true work did not come until later.  So it cannot be.

By the time I reach the bottom of the staircase I behold the beautiful newness of the paint, the grand doors that lead into what is no longer my father’s shop but is now a concert hall!  Just as had been done to Ha’s library in the Future!  This is my house, indeed, and on what is now a stage, where once lay stacks of cartons of books and Zeitungen, there stands in slimmer guise, with wildly loose hair running free, my mother!  Practicing with a chamber quartett!  She never wore such a seductive coiffure in 1820, certainly!  This is my birthday indeed, for I see she is rehearsing this concert as a gift to me.  I enter the room, and milling about are others, dressed for the concert, listening to the rehearsal as they arrange flowers near the stage, and set the chairs in the hall.  It must be some hours beforehand.

I stand rapt, listening.  The casements are finished in beautifully polished blond wood, the walls shine with bright stucco, new-applied.  The Flügel on the stage shines with a rich sheen.  This Future is wealthy beyond the dreams of the greediest composer’s avarice! And this room, yet another shrine to chamber music.

Do you vouchsafe for me this vision as answer to the pages of bitter regret just past, Hohenheim?  For what could touch me more deeply, or move me more joyously than to see my mother once again, so radiant?  In voice, perfect, sweetly singing a piece I had composed specifically in her memory?

There is a joy in me difficult to contain, now, for I love her utterly.  She is the incarnate presence of the Angel, to me.  Despite her moods and petulances, she never said single word of harshness to me.  She loved me unrelentingly, constantly.  She told me once that she had prayed in song to God to send her an angelic child, to bring her inspiration to sing, and she knew when she was confined with me, that she had Song within her.  During that pregnancy she sang continually.

She, my Beloved, was my first Song, and I ill tolerated parting from her.  Oh joy, mixed with sorrow!  For here, again, she stands.  No more than five and twenty years old, and if possible, her voice more brilliantly colored.  And standing at the door, invisible in the Ghost Realm, I weep for the soul-stirring vision of her..

It is my birthday.

The moment chimes, the audience – a hundred, more! pack into the room, some with flowers in hand, with smiles, greybeard men, grey-haired women, youths, and here and there a serious-faced child – a violinist the one, another a pianist.  I can read it in their faces.  Students at the Konservatorium.

Since when has this dull town had a musical Konservatorium, I wonder?  Oh dear, it is named for me! I learn.  The house, the plaza, the school… how incredibly embarrassing.  To go from obscure neglect to a cult-like fame in death.  A man should never live to see himself become a figure of reverence.  It is not me, it was never me… erect monument instead to the faceless Angel of the Wellspring!

I have been writing for decades, starting out as a fan of the short mystery story a la Edgar Allen Poe, and while in college, became a stringer, a part-time newspaper journalist. In later years, however, I wrote and published lyric poetry almost exclusively, some in journals, and then a full length collection in 1991, reprinting it in 1998. In 1997, I wrote my first historical novel, with a subdued theme of alternate sexuality.. It was my first tottering steps toward writing about alternate sexuality in a historical context. It wasn’t until 2005 that I actually published a story with an overt homosexual theme, “The Erotic Etudes.” It was my sixth novel, but the first one I was ever truly satisfied with thematically. It is the companion story to a larger experimental novel, “The Death of a Mad Composer.”

The Erotic Etudes

The Erotic Etudes

Since I’m not as yet ready to commit my other books to print, I put them on my website and am still mulling over them. My unpublished novels, most of them featuring bisexual male main characters, as well as an online PDF version of “Erotic Etudes” can be found on my website, http://www.zebratta.com. In the past three years, I turned my attention to a series of stories that developed originally from fan-fiction roots based upon Brokeback Mountain, which has now grown to eight novel-length stories plus five shorter tales, which I have named “The Greenlea Tales.” With a great deal of encouragement and help from Leslie Nicoll at Bristlecone Pine Press (bcpinepress.com), who has put “Erotic Etudes” into e-book form, I am re-editing my books and am contemplating putting the Greenlea Tales into e-book format. For the time being, however, I house them in my Livejournal: louisev.livejournal.com. I am semi-active in the Macaronis gay historical fiction group,  various romance and writing forums,  and Rotten Tomatoes film forum, http://www.rottentomatoes.com. And I am still trying to find an agent to market my oversized backlog of unpublished manuscripts.

I had been thinking about doing a historical novel based upon the life of Robert Schumann since 1990, when I discovered a translation of his letters in the public library in Seattle. I wrote several poems based upon what biographical material I could glean in those letters and other general biographies that were at that library, but beyond buying recordings of his piano and symphonic works and becoming a fan of his music, my hope of writing a book about this curious and tragic genius remained remote until I found a job working for the US Army as a contractor in the fall of 2001, became friends with a violinist in an orchestra in Darmstadt, who – like many career musicians, had a library of books about composers. It was here that my research began.

I was lucky, in that I had a day job that supported me more than adequately, allowed me weekends off as well as vacation time, and I was geographically situated near several spots where my research subject had lived – and most importantly, only 300 km from where he spent his final years, a private psychiatric hospital in Bonn which I found out – still stands.

I had already written three historical novels, and in each case, the actual places were too remote for me to venture to in person for a sense of place and for the kind of detail that would allow me to visualize my setting and character. The first book, which was about the Hunnic empire and Attila, took place in Asia Minor and what is now Hungary, and the only available sources I could find were some archeological studies, and the fragmentary work of the Roman senator Priscus, who had visited Attila in the early 5th century.

Due to a lack of research material, my planned trilogy languished, despite a plethora of maps from the time period, and assiduous study of the books I could get. Book study of an era and of a people were not quite enough for me to synthesize into a believable, coherent, and convincing historical novel.

I needed to be there. And in fact, still hanging on to my hope of finishing the Hun book, I set off in the late fall of 2001 thinking I would be able to draw enough from a day trip to Troyes, in eastern France, the site of Attila’s final battle, to renew my interest and give me enough sense of place to breathe life into my project again so I could finish it. I didn’t make it to Troyes – it was 4 hours away by car. But I did go to concerts, and I did go to Johannes Brahms’ house in Baden Baden, and to downtown Heidelberg, and in those historic towns, left intact by the ravages of WWII, I began to absorb the atmosphere and sense of place that would eventually get an historical novel off the ground – the book about Schumann.

 

Robert Schumann, 1839

Robert Schumann, 1839

Although it is not enough to simply go to a place that remains as it was a century before (or largely so), I have found that sense of place – its geography, its character, its smell, for want of a better word – is crucial for visualizing it in historic context, to make the people who lived then, breathe and move about enough for me to capture them. It provides specificity. One can read in a book that the baths of Baden Baden are situated in the woods, but to travel up the twists and turns of what was once a carriage road through the dense pines to a towering stone mansion mostly obscured on a high bluff, is to be able to picture it vividly and accurately. I took photos of the crumbling ruin of forts and castles that had been crumbling and in ruins when my protagonist saw them. Europe – the parts that survived the intense bombings, would be as he had seen them.

 

Heidelberger Schloss

Heidelberger Schloss

 

Heidelberg, where Schumann spent a year of university and first began to compose, was less than 15 miles from where I lived. I loved that city, and took hundreds of photos of the historic downtown, and the enormous ruin that hovered over it, Heidelberger Schloss. The views of the gardens of the Schloss are the most beautiful. One historical footnote is that by a curious coincidence of fate, both Hitler and the Allies had identified Heidelberg as a strategic goal for headquartering troops, so neither side bombed there – as a result, Heidelberg remained untouched by the war, while Mannheim to the northwest, was severely damaged, and is almost entirely rebuilt except for specific neighborhoods.

Gardens at Heidelberger Schloss

Gardens at Heidelberger Schloss

 

Besides touring the places my character lived, studied, and performed, I attended concerts, read books in German and English about the people and their times, got biographies of Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Mendelssohn that were published in the country that I would never have seen in the United States, which included photographs, daguerreotypes, facsimiles of manuscripts… and the motherlode of all primary sources: diaries. Fortunately for me, my subject, while he suffered from the scandal of being a suicide in the 19th century, was largely rehabilitated as a “great German composer” by the time Germany reunited and reconstruction began. The hospital in Bonn where he died, badly damaged during the bombing of Bonn, was reconstructed, as was the cemetery and his memorial, and made into a music library, not only of Schumann’s music and biography, but of all German music. I wasn’t able to take books out, but I was able to read their private collection at the library, and take notes. They also published and sold books that were only available in Germany, and here I found the detail I needed to be able to fashion a story. Despite the destruction of many personal letters between Schumann and his closest friend, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, there was enough remaining in his diaries and letters to reveal, however subtly, the details of a poetic and musical soul who fell in love easily with both men and women. The nearly-inscrutable, elaborate left-hand script. Where he took his walks, and what he thought about. His nightmares. His confinement and the visitors he had there. Perhaps ironically, the Staatsbibliotek holds regular chamber concerts in the library where Schumann spent his last days, wasting away from a depressive illness which had stolen his ability to compose music. Preserved in glass there, the final piece of music, entitled only “Theme”, a mere 9 bars of melody, left unfinished and marred by an inkblot.

 

Staatsbibliotek Bonn, formerly a private psychiatric hospital

Staatsbibliotek Bonn, formerly a private psychiatric hospital

I was about two-thirds of the way through the first draft of my novel when I took a two-week trip to the former East Germany, to see Leipzig and Zwickau, Schumann’s childhood home, now also a museum and concert venue. The entire city has undergone reconstruction, and by the time I got there in June of 2003 for their annual concert festival (in Schumann’s honor), the 7 million euro renovation of his home was complete.

 

Geburtshaus Schumann (birthplace), Zwickau

Geburtshaus Schumann (birthplace), Zwickau

 

There, I found a wealth of new material, including published reviews he had made of other composers such as Chopin (whom he adored from afar), Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who was both an intimate friend and benefactor, the originals of all of his extant portraits, and his own piano. I jotted down quotes, took photos of his visiting card. I listened to lectures by professors whose careers are devoted to discovering how and why the troublesome Third Symphony was edited as it was, whose only concern was what he produced – not what he was. I was looking for the man behind the composer. Seeing what he saw and understanding, with my developing fluency in the language, how he expressed himself. I finally had the level of specificity to write with confidence not only about the person, but about Zwickau, Bonn, and Heidelberg – I knew as much as I could know about what it was to experience life as he did, because the German federal government had pieced it all back together for me, put it in glass cases, published monographs and presented lectures, concerts and put on festivals to celebrate the culture that thrived before the Nazi era.

 

Kornmarkt, Zwickau

Kornmarkt, Zwickau

In fact, all of downtown Zwickau was renovated and refurbished – the entire cobblestoned Kornmarkt, the central mercantile square, had been rehabilitated and restored to as original condition as possible, with the occasional “new” shop or restaurant peeking out of a historic facade. In this picture of the Kornmarkt, which is taken from the point of view of Schumann’s house, you can see a Burger King beside the original facade.

I absorbed all that I could of the places I could reach, I read all the biographical material I could buy or borrow, but by far the best resource for me – and this applies equally to biographical figures as invented ones – is diaries. How long it took to travel by carriage from Zwickau to Heidelberg (2 weeks.) How frequently a devoted son writes his mother (daily.) How much it costs for a private room in a sanitarium (50 thalers a month.) The philosophy I emerged from this research amounts to this: it is not so much that people change throughout history, it is the specifics of how they live that change. The detail of everyday life in that specific time and place, and how that influences their outlooks. And, for those of us who write historical stories of nontraditional sexuality – how they expressed it, how they hid it, their view of themselves in a society that at best, silently ignored what was universally viewed as a disgusting perversion. There were precious few crumbs to sift through. One biographer theorized that whatever evidence of homosexuality was left behind in diary or letters that was not destroyed by Schumann’s wife or Mendelssohn’s executors, was systematically destroyed by Hitler’s government when he was elevated as an official cultural hero of the Third Reich. But they missed enough for me reconstruct (and to fill in where there were no facts to draw upon) a life lived at least half in shadow.

 

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