Paul Wittgenstein and Thomas Bernhard’s Troubled Friendship. Book review by Jorge Pinto

Paul Wittgenstein and Thomas Bernhard’s Troubled Friendship.

Thomas Bernhard’s autobiographical novel, “The Nephew of Wittgenstein” describes with some detail the complicated and at the same time troubled relationship with Paul Wittgenstein, the nephew of the author of the famous Tractatus Logico-philosophicus, and one of the greatest philosophers of our time.

The first part of book relates the experience of both friends hospitalized in Austria at the same time but in separate pavilions part of a large hospital compound. Bernhard was treated for a severe pulmonary disease and Paul Wittgenstein suffering what the author described as a so-called mental disease.

In the book, Bernhard presents several examples of thedark picture of his friend Paul’s health, who since his childhood had a predisposition to a disease, which even if was never been precisely classified, afflict him all his life, until the day he died, adding, “At every end and turn they would use the term manic or depressive, and they were always wrong.

The author describes his relationship with Paul, using relevant moments, conversations and traits, including, Paul’s problems with his enormously rich family.

On a positive note, the book describes Paul’s passion for music, especially opera and the orchestral works of Mozart and Schumann. Bernhard list the most important opera houses that Paul visited during his trips to Milano, London, New York, Berlin, which according to his friend; None of them was any good compared with Vienna.

The author recalls how at one time Paul was considered by music lovers to be one of Vienna‘s most passionate operagoer, noting that Paul was feared on opening nights since If he was enthusiastic he carried the whole house with him by beginning to applaud a few seconds before the rest. If, on the other hand, he led them in whistling, the biggest and most expensive productions would be flops.

Bernhard was also a music lover. His grandfather took him regularly to concerts including those conducted by Herbert Von Karajan whom him admired as child, adding that he observed and studied the famous Conductor for decades, regarding him as the most important conductor of the century, along with Schuricht. On the other hand, his friend Paul had a fervent hatred of Karajan, whom he habitually described as a mere charlatan.

If music was an area that brought the two friends together, Bernhard highlights the fact that besides music, Paul’s other passions was Formula One motor racing. Coming from a very wealthy family, been himself a racing car driver, counting among his friends a number of world champions in this field. In his second half of his life he had to give up racing since he did no longer had money and his relatives kept him on a tight budget.

The book is full of anecdotes of the peculiar life of his friend, including the most bizarre and eccentric actions like splurging money in luxury restaurants and bars. In this context, Bernhard tells the story of Paul’s whims including a sudden wish to go to Paris taking a taxi in the center of Vienna, whereupon the driver, who knew him, actually drove him to Paris, where an aunt of Paul’s who lived there had to pay the fare.

To avoid depriving the reader the enjoyment of Bernhard’s rich prose telling the fascinating stories of his unconventional friend and his interactions with Paul’s brilliant mind, I avoid getting into other descriptions regarding Paul’s relationship with money, women, his brothers and the Wittgenstein family, which he had always made him felt threatened and shunned, except his sister, who was the only one he spoke with affection.

Since the book is written using the first person point of view narrative, it give the reader a unique perspective of Thomas Bernard’s enormous talent and antagonistic personality that produced so many enemies and detractors, which for some analysts was one of the impediments to get a well deserved Literature Nobel Prize.

Among the many controversies Bernhard was connecting his reiterated negative opinions of Austrian society and the explicit disdain for award ceremonies. With some humor he describes, what he considers those events to be nothing more intolerable in the world. In his own words; they do nothing to enhance one’s standing, as I had believed before I received my first prize, but actually lower it, in the most embarrassing fashion. Only the thought of the money enabled me to endure these ceremonies.

Among the vivid anecdotes of his unpleasant experiences receiving public prizes, was the ceremony at the Academy of Science to get the prestigious Grillparzer Literary Award commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the death of the famous Austrian writer. He describes the feeling when arriving at the prestigious institution that morning to be surprised to find that there was no one there to receive me. I waited in the entrance hall for a good quarter of an hour with my friends, but no one recognized me, let alone received me, even though my friends and I spent the whole time looking around. It isworthquoting part of the description of what follows once inside the auditorium which Bernhard tells with full of amusing details: The minister had taken her place in the first row in front of the dais. The Vienna Philharmonic was nervously tuning up, and the president of the Academy of Sciences, a man by the name of Hunger, was running excitedly to and fro on the dais, while only I and my friends knew what was holding up the ceremony.

Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) was born in the Netherlands but lived most of his life in Austria where most of his works take place. He is the author of dozens plays, novels and poetry books. Most of his work is dark, full with situations and characters experiencing pain probably as a sequel of being abandoned as child by his parents. He grew up with his grandparents which provided him with an artistic education, particularly his grandfather who was a writer. In an interview, Bernhardt recall his grandmother used to take me to the morgue when I was young. She’d pick me up and say, ‘Look, there’s another one.’ Once she told me that the corpses had a cord to a bell tied to them, so the undertaker would be alerted if they came to./2 This playful example, with a difficult childhood growing up in Nazi Germany and his only sister, spending years moving from one mental hospital to the next and constantly threatening to kill herself, explain the darkness in his writing, which often revolves around themes of death, despair, and hopelessness, including characters ready to commit suicide or actually taking their lives.

No doubt Bernhardt is one of the most important Austrian writers of the second half of the Twenty Century. Reading The Nephew of Wittgenstein open the door to know a remarkable writer and the nephew of one of the greatest philosophers of our time.

1.Excerpts From Thomas Bernhard Wittgenstein’s Nephew

Print version published by Vintage (October 13, 2009)

2. A Conversation. Thomas Bernhard, André Müller and Adam Siegel. Conjunctions, No. 55, Urban Arias (2010), pp. 329-362 (34 pages)

Para entender lo que esta pasando Mario vargas Llosa hace una buena selección de novelas Sobre dictadores y dictaduras

MAGNÍFICAS NOVELAS QUE ABORDAN EL TOTALITARISMOMis libros que, además de versar sobre dictadores y dictaduras, son excelentes novelas.(Nota de Librotea: la “novela del dictador” es un género que los autores latinoamericanos han cultivado con maestría y compromiso hacia los derechos fundamentales y hacia el lenguaje, aplicando un cambio de perspectiva narrativa con respecto a la tradición. Informaciones no contrastadas hablan incluso del “pacto” que varios de los escritores del “boom” suscribieron alguna vez, en el que se comprometieron a escribir una novela sobre las dictaduras de Latinoamérica. Las más importantes de aquellas se mencionan en esta estantería de Mario Vargas Llosa, exceptuando las que aportó el propio autor, como Conversación en La Catedral y La fiesta del Chivo)
— Read on

Para entender lo que esta pasando.

“The Left Handed Woman” by Peter Handke. On Women’s Freedom from the Bondage of Undesirable Marriage

Screenshot 2015-01-05 18.49.21The Left-Handed Woman is probably one of Peter Handke’s best known novellas, translated into more than a dozen of languages. Two years after being published in 1978, it was made into a film that Handke adapted and directed. The film was nominated for the “Golden Palm Award” at the Cannes Film Festival and has won several prestigious prizes.

Handke was born in Carinthia, Austria in 1942. In his early years he endured painful experiences from the horrors of Nazism and World War II. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, a poignant memoir was probably inspired by some ordeals from his childhood – a broken family with a drunken stepfather and a mother who committed suicide. His works tend to incorporate several aspects of the complex relationship between parents and children, a subject that is also present in The Left-Handed Woman. At the beginning of Handke’s co-written multi-award winning film Wings of Desire (co-authored with its director Wim Wenders), a homesick voice dealing with a child from Song of Childhood, his most famous poem, was used. Below I am quoting a few lines to offer you a taste of the nostalgic tone.

“When the child was a child
It walked with its arms swinging,
wanted the brook to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.”

 As a multi-talented artist and one of the most recognized living German-language writers, Handke has produced dozens of books including poetry, novel, essay, memoir, translation and controversial theatre plays that he directed and acted. He was also quite active in films, writing many screenplays, particularly the adaptations of his own novels Absence and The Left-Handed Woman which he directed, as well as City of Angels directed by Bradley Siberling and Wings of Desire directed by Wim Wenders as mentioned earlier.

 Marianne, the main character in The Left-Handed Woman, is 30 years old and most of the time in the story she is only referred as “the Woman”. She is married to Bruno, who is constantly travelling as the “sales manager of the local branch of a porcelain concern well known throughout Europe”. They have one child, Stephan, a quiet and detached boy who is referred to sometimes in the novella as “the child”. They “lived in a terraced bungalow colony on the south slope of a low mountain range in western Germany, just above the fumes of a big city.

 Other relevant characters in the novella are Franziska, a close friend of the couple and the teacher of the child. Like the main character, some of the characters are also named by only a generic name to refer to their identity or profession. The Publisher is a former boss of the woman, who is “a heavyset but rather fidgety man of fifty” who dates younger women. The Father of the Woman, another character, brings into the story the Actor when he identifies him in the street and brazenly tells him that he was “not shameless enough for an actor. You want to be a personality, like the actors in those American movies, but you never risk yourself. As a result, you’re always posing.” Two additional characters with minor roles are the Chauffeur of the Publisher and the Salesgirl, a single mother with a baby.

 Handke uses a family as a microcosm to display the problems of many women in Europe, especially in Germany who suffer from dependency on domineering husbands. They live isolated in suburbs taking care of children that are often absent-minded or spoiled, and not quite close or loving.

 From the beginning of the novella one can easily spot Bruno as a selfish man that treats his wife as a docile object to fulfill his selfish needs. Handke manages to disclose this authoritarian nature when Marianne pick ups Bruno from the airport after he has been traveling for weeks. Bruno talks to her in a bossy tone and doesn’t seem to care for her opinions, “Let’s go to the hotel in town for a festive dinner. It’s too private here for my taste right now. Too—haunted. I would like you to wear your low-cut dress.” Without objecting to this command, Marianne asks him “What will you wear?” .… “Bruno: “I’ll go just as I am.” The same thing happens again at the end of the dinner, when Bruno tells her, “We’ll spend the night here. Stefan knows where we are. I left the telephone number on his bedside table.” The woman lowers her eyes while Bruno tells the waiter. “I need a room for the night,” he said. “You see, my wife and I want to sleep together right away.”

 In this sequence early in the story, Handke makes explicit the desire of Marianne’s to move away from an inconsiderate husband and to live alone with their son. Walking back home the morning after the night at the hotel, Marianne tells Bruno without warning: “I suddenly had an illumination…that you were going away, that you were leaving me. Yes, that’s it. Go away, Bruno. Leave me.”

From that moment, the story starts to focus on the Woman’s new life without a husband, including the struggle with loneliness and the need to adapt to a situation that she has created without regrets. The story unravels through descriptions of her daily routine, her relationship with the child and her encounters with the other characters.

 One day the Woman comes across her friend Franziska who asks her “Is there someone else?” She also shows concern for the well-being of her and the child’s, “What will the two of you live on? Have you thought of that?” But at the same time, Franziska is impressed by Marianne’s action and invites her to join her in a women’s group meeting. “They’ll all be so glad to have you. Right now they have a feeling that human thought is in pretty good shape but that life is elsewhere. We need someone who’s making a bit of a break with the normal way of life—in other words, who’s slightly nuts.”

One evening, the Publisher appears at Marianne’s door without previous notice to respond to her, as she has sent him a letter to let him know that she is now in a position to accept his offers to translate for him as in the past. He enters with “flowers in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other” and says, “I knew you were alone, Marianne.” With this scene, Handke seems to imply that the Publisher expects more than translation work and desires to have a “romantic” night with his new employee. Like many men, he thought divorced or separated women were in need of company, therefore, easy to seduce.

 The Actor also appears at Marianne’s door another day approaching her in a more subtle way with romantic “poetic” words, expressing his desire to have a relationship with her: “There are some galaxies so distant that their light is weaker than the mere background glow of the night sky. I would like to be somewhere else with you now.” Insistent on her decision to be alone and probably assuming that these sweet words at the end will turn out to be empty and worthless, the Woman answers, “Please don’t put me in any of your plans.”

With these two events involving Marianne’s intending lovers, Handke seems to show a certain disdain for men that try to grasp weaker women to fulfill their selfish needs either of sex or of ego. Handke further challenges all stereotypes involving this context in his modern attempt on the classic figure Don Juan: His Own Version (published in English in 2011). Handke’s Don Juan travels through different countries and gets in bed with many women, yet he is not a simple seducer. “His power over women is of a different order, and he does not revel in it; on the contrary, it makes him shy. His look … reveals to them the “outrage” of their solitude and sets free their desire, which he then feels duty-bound to fulfil”.

 However, in The Left-Handed Woman, male characters are different from Handke’s “Don Juan”. Marianne is not necessarily a feminist nor does she dislike men, but prefers to keep them at a distance. Clearly she chooses solitude rather than having another authoritarian boyfriend like her husband or a fling with an idealist romantic man who might flicker and fade. Marianne, “..looked into her eyes and said, ‘You haven’t given yourself away. And no one will ever humiliate you again.””

 The title The Left-handed Woman is taken from a song to which Marianne listens alone “over and over again”. The lyrics make reference to a woman like Marianne, who sits “with others in a Laudromat,”; comes “out of with others from the metro exit” or “from an office building”. The tune continues as if mirroring Marianne’s isolated daily life: “She sat with others on the edge of a playground, But once I saw her through a window Playing chess all alone”. The song ends telling the left-handed woman: “I want to see you in a foreign continent, For there at last I shall see you alone among others, And among a thousand others you will see me, And at last we shall go to meet each other.”



 1). iBook: Peter Handke. “Left Handed Women.” iBooks.

Originally published in German under the title Die linkshändige Frau, ©1976 by Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main”. English translation “Published simultaneously in the USA and Canada in 1997 by McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., Toronto”

 2.) Joel Agee. Man of Constant Sorrow, New York Times, February 12, 2010. Link:

3) Peter Handke. Don Juan: His Own Version, Translated by Krishna Winston, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011.

Joseph Conrad and the Darkness of Heart. Part II, “Under the Western Eyes”

Screenshot 2014-04-04 11.15.02Under the Western Eyes, first published in 1911, is the other remarkable novel written by Conrad dealing with the dark human aspects linked to extreme ideologies. Unfortunately this destructive power continues to be very much alive today.

In The Secret Agent, Conrad describes the “dark heart” of a bureaucrat in great detail. The First Secretary at the French Embassy in London is ready to destroy a landmark building and, if necessary, to kill innocent people in order to force the British to adopt repressive measures against their political dissidents.

In Under the Western Eyes, Conrad chooses a terrorist as another example of the “dark heart”. Haldin, the main character of this extraordinary novel, is a young Russian student who proudly identifies himself as a “destructor”, after killing the hated repressive official Mr. P— and possibly bystanders by throwing a bomb.

Following the successful terrorist act, Haldin hides in the home of Razumov, a lonely student whose acquaintance he made in university. He immediately feels that his future is threatened by Haldin’s ominous presence in his quarters. Haldin says “It was I who removed P— this morning.” trying to make his situation clear, and goes on in a challenging tone: ”Men like me are necessary to make room for self-contained, thinking men like you”, demeaning his colleague, who now becomes an unintentional accomplice. “All I want you to do is to help me to vanish”. With these words Haldin starts to set the stage for a series of events which radically changed Razumov’s life as revealed in his diary “…I, who love my country—who have nothing but that to love and put my faith in—am I to have my future, perhaps my usefulness, ruined by this sanguinary fanatic?”

From here the story unfolds a full range of unexpected developments, showing Conrad’s unique talent as a storyteller with details of the ominous symptoms of the time in pre-revolution Russia. In the story, Conrad uses quotes from a journal that Razumov keeps after his encounter with the terrorist to demonstrate his internal conflicts, family background and the painful awakening path that connects him with extremists and revolutionaries as well as with rich powerful individuals in both Russia and the West.

The plot uses Razumov’s internal tribulations stated in his diary and the interesting conversations taking place in Geneva about the brewing Russian revolution and the incapability of the western world to comprehend it. As this emigre in Geneva explains to her English professor, “You think it is a class conflict, or a conflict of interests, as social contests are with you in Europe. But it is not that at all. It is something quite different”. The professor, who seems to be Conrad’s own mouthpiece, replies to his Russian interlocutor “A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first.” The professor goes further in his negative views on revolutions: “The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement—but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims: the victims of disgust, of disenchantment—often of remorse.” Clearly here Conrad anticipates with great lucidity the future of the Soviet Revolution five years later. Actually his comments are still valid taking a look at the negative results of the Orange revolution in Ukraine and the Spring revolutions in the Middle East.

Among other characters living in Geneva, Under the Western Eyes also includes an influential Russian writer who advocates radical feminists ideas, and Madame de S—, a rich lady with an aristocratic family background, famous for hosting “soirees” in her chateau with Russians and political conspirators. The character of Madame de S seems to have been inspired by Mme de Staël, the 19th century French political writer, who also lived near Geneva in a chateau and was famous for her “salon” style gatherings, attended by refugees and political thinkers in the Napoleonic era

This year is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the World War I in which millions lost their lives. That war was triggered by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, three years after Under the Western Eyes was published.

There are remarkable resemblances between the fictional events of this novella and the actual occurrences which bring about historic implications. In Conrad’s novel, Mr. P—, Haldin’s target, survives during the terrorist attack while driven in a two-horse uncovered sleigh with a coachman who gets killed instead whereas in real life Archduke Franz Ferdinand was riding in an open-topped car when a terrorist threw two grenades that missed the royal member but wounded the officers badly in the car behind. In both cases, the assassination plot is completed by a second terrorist: in the novel, Haldin throws a bomb that kills the standstill target whereas in history, after the first failed attempt, Princip, the assassin, fired two shots to an almost motionless car killing the Archduke in Sarajevo and resulting in World War I.

These similarities that could be considered premonitions were again repeated 90 years later with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, 1963. Moreover, terrorist acts that target buildings as in The Secret Agent (mentioned in Part I of this article) turned into tragic reality on September 11, 2001 with the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, igniting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Reading Under the Western Eyes and The Secret Agent certainly helps readers to better understand what Joseph Conrad meant by “Heart of Darkness” the title of one of his best well-known novels.

Excerpt From Joseph Conrad’s Under the Western Eyes, 1911.

Joseph Conrad and the Darkness of Heart. Part I. “The Secret Agent”.

Screenshot 2014-03-25 11.19.00Joseph Conrad is considered one of the most important writers in the 20th century. He was Born in 1857 in Berdichev, a region of Poland which today belongs to Ukraine. He became a British national at the age of 29, using English as his writing language.

Conrad is a prolific author who wrote dozens of short stories, novels, and travel journals. He excelled at the subject of adventures, including colonial undertakings in Africa. He is less known for his prophetical novels on the political intrigues and conflicts in Europe which reveal his profound knowledge and insight of these complicated issues.

Some situations portrayed in his political novels Under the Western Eyes and The Secret Agent could still be easily identified in the present time. Even if these extraordinary novels are fictional, both contain rich descriptions of certain terrorist plots or activities of the “agent provocateurs” and spies paid by foreign governments.

The main purpose of hiring these kind of agents is to warn their recruiting governments about the potentially dangerous activities of the radical groups. Governments that pay for this kind of “dark agents” also attempt to spread their influences in other countries.

The Secret Agent, written in 1907, is the story of Mr. Verloc, an agent employed by the French Government to report about the activities and plans of socialists, anarchists and other underground political figures living in London. These type of personalities would gather late in the evening in Mr. Verloc’s small shop which, on the surface, sells “obscure newspapers, badly printed, with titles like ‘The Torch’,‘The Gong’—rousing titles” with windows displaying “photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls”. Mr. Verloc was also one of the Vice-Presidents of an organization named “The Future of the Proletariat”

Despite all these links, Mr. Verloc enjoys a comfortable bourgeois double life with his family until he receives a “peremptory letter” summoning him to the French Embassy in the daytime, an unprecedented and unpleasant situation that can damage his image with his comrades.

He is received with some contempt by a new First Secretary, who says “I have here some of your reports” mocking Verloc’s accounts as useless and expensive. “In the time of Baron Stott-Wartenheim (the previous French Ambassador) we had a lot of soft-headed people running this Embassy.” And he continues, “What is required at present is not writing.. now we want facts…”

To convey what he means by “facts” and what Mr. Verloc is required to do to continue getting paid, the French diplomat explains that his government considers it “dangerous” that England has an absurd “sentimental regard for individual liberty position” opposing to tougher measures to combat political dissidents, soon to be discussed in an international meeting on security issues. “What we want is to administer a tonic to the Conference in Milan,” he says, “..its deliberations upon international action for the suppression of political crime don’t seem to get anywhere. England lags.“, the bureaucrat claims.

The First Secretary carries on his monologue outlining his plan to “induce” England to accept new repressive policies. He orders Mr. Verloc to organise a series of terrorist acts to be “executed here in this country; not only planned here”. That will shock and scare the middle class, turning them in favour of measures to make them feel secure. These acts, he says “…must be sufficiently startling—effective. Let them be directed against buildings…the fetish of the hour that all the bourgeoisie recognise…”.

Almost as an anticipated ominous warning, 94 years after this novel was published, the U.S. suffered a series of well-planned terrorist attacks in 2001, mainly targeted at buildings, killing more that 3,000 people and destroying the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, one of the most famous Manhatan landmarks.

In this classical novel, Joseph Conrad demonstrates his deep understanding of the radical minds of his time behind convulsive political intrigues that created tensions and serious conflicts, ending with the First World War.

It is clear that Conrad was aware of the destructive nature of radical ideologies that tended to justify violence and terrorism, disregarding innocent human lives for the sake of an abstract cause. In The Secret Agent and Under the Western Eyes he explores the so-called “Heart of Darkness”, a metaphor of dark spirit, as used in the book title of one of his most famous novels.

These two works, written more than 100 years ago, are not the only classic novels that deal with these current complex political and social topics. Dostoyevsky, some 30 years before Conrad, wrote The Possessed, a.k.a. Devils or Demons, which also tackles  terrorism, a topic that regrettably continues to be very much alive today.


Excerpts From: Conrad, Joseph. “The Secret Agent.” iBooks.

Letters as an Art Form and a Source of History Part I: Thomas Mann-Herman Hesse

FrontCoverBooks with collections of letters written by prominent artists, writers, thinkers, politicians, psychotherapists etc. are rich sources of knowledge which help us to understand different aspects of human nature such as love and friendship and others.

This literary genre allows readers to explore various facets of the personality and temperament of especially those who disguised they true nature or were distorted in their biographies which are sometimes full of lies and self flatteries.

Most of the published letters contain personal exchanges between people that dedicated time and passion to correspond with their lovers, families, friends and so forth. Such material reveals the personality, mood, taste, and personal challenges of the letter-writers. It also gives us the opportunity to get to know the atmosphere of their times and in some cases what was happening when the letters were written, including the spirit of their times, i.e. Zeitgeist.

In general, published correspondences were kept and organized by the writers and/or the addressees, and after their death, these writings passed on to their families or friends, which sometimes resulted in their ending up in museums or foundations or private collections. These institutions or individuals that are in possession of the collections  sometimes license the rights to publish books with selections made by experts or authors’ close relatives, who sometimes provide the context of the letters.

Letters also serve as an important source of information for biographers who can quote the writers directly expressing their own voices and intimate feelings that are always relevant for the readers to understand a writer’s character. For example, the controversial Russian author Lou Andreas-Salome used letters to support the biographies on the life and works of  Frederick Nietzsche and passionate poet Rainer Maria Rilke respectively, both were romantically linked to her in their lifetime.

There are also many examples of fictional letters that are regularly used in novels as part of a plot, including Ian McEwan’s recent novel “Sweet Tooth” in which letters form an  essential part of the story. Fictional letters are also used in The Flash and Outbreak of a Fiery Mind by Dale M. Moyer Ph.D. who published the imaginary correspondences that “Martha Bernays wrote to her fiancé, Sigmund Freud during the four years of their engagement.” Irving Yalom in his novel When Nietzsche Wept used letters from this famous philosopher to build up a fictional story based on real life events.

We find multiple examples of films in which letters play a central role in the story. A good example is The Go Between (1970) by Joseph Losey where in the summer of 1900, a 13-year-old boy helped to carried letters between two secret lovers. The film is based on a novel by L.P. Hartley with the same tile.

Likewise, the form of letters is used in plays such as Vita and Virginia by Eileen Atkins, which is heavily based on the intelligent and passionated letters between the two British writers Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf who exchanged letters for some 20 years until Woolf’s suicide in 1941. Actresses Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins payed the two writers when the play was premiered in New York in 1994.

I would like to mention a few collections of letters, mainly from some letter-writers who lived between the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, a turbulent era with two devastating World Wars but at the same time full of creativity and romanticism.

I will provide some of the historic contexts and literary backgrounds, starting with the correspondences between Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse, the two renowned literature Nobel Prize winners, including texts that showed their fears during the rise of Nazism in Germany and the arrival of Hitler’s arrival to power.

(To be continued)


Bibliography Part I & II:

1. Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Introduction by Pete Hamill. The Hesse-Mann letters,1910-1955. Jorge Pinto Books, 2006.

2. Rainer Maria Rilke, Lou Andreas-Salome, Edward Snow (Translator) “Rilke and Andreas-Salome; a love story in letters” W.W. Norton, 1988

3. Rainer Maria Rilke Letters to a Young Poet. Dover Publications, 2012.

4. Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1988.

5. Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1990.

6. Vincent van Gogh, The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker, Thames & Hudson, London, 2009.

7. Mary Soames, Winston Churchill, Clementine Churchill. The Personal Letters of the Churchills.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.

8. Sigmund Freud. Letters of Sigmund Freud. Edited by Ernest L. Freud. Dover, 1992

9. Malcolm Jones. The Good Word. Newsweek, January 17, 2009. Link:

Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe and the Power of Destructive Love

Screenshot 2014-03-03 00.51.43Adolphe is a sorrowful classic novella by Benjamin Constant, first published in London and Paris in 1816. The  book has captivated numerous scholars and romantic readers  who are lucky to discover it. In 2002 french director Benoît Jacquot adapted Adolphe into a film starring the celebrated actress Isabelle Adjani.

 Benjamin Constant was born in Lausanne Switzerland and is best known for his books on politics. He was an active liberal political figure at the end of the French Revolution as a member of the Directory in 1799 and then of the “Tribunal”, but was forced to resign by Napoleon Bonaparte for his radical ideas on democratic rules as well as usurpation of power which form the core of his writings.

 Some believes that Adolphe is an autobiographical novella since Constant happened to be a seducer as well in his real life. Like Adolphe, he also pursued older women or neglected wives who tend to be vulnerable emotional-wise, making them easy preys of skilful lovers.

Constant had a 15-year long romantic relation with Germaine de Staël, with whom he became very close politically and emotionally. She was forced to exile from Napoleon’s Paris and settled in Château de Coppet near Geneva where she organised famous gatherings of “Salon” style, attended by refugees and political thinkers to talk about  international events. Before Adophe was published, Mme de Staël had written two novels which can be seen as “inversed mirror” of Constant’s novella since the victim is not a tormented married woman who becomes madly in love with a younger and selfish lover as in Adolph, but a married man that falls in love with a woman who makes him suffer as she does with other men. Like Constant, Mme de Staël also used the main characters’ names as the titles of novels – Corinne (1802) and Delphine (1807).

There has been three editions of Adolphe, in 1816, 1824 and 1828 respectively. Each of the second and third came with a preface explaining why the work was reprinted. The  novella exists in the form of a diary of a young man which is sent by the inn keeper in a box to a publisher who is stranded by a snow storm and comes across a stranger who happens to be the writer and who has vanished. The content of the mysterious box is described by the publisher as “a quantity of very old letters either unaddressed or on which the addresses and as signatures were illegible, a woman’s portrait and a notebook containing the anecdote or story you are about to read.” The fictional publisher remembers that stranger as “..very silent and looked sad. He showed no impatience. Now and again, as he was the only man in the place to whom I could talk” and “when the roads were reopened and we could have set off, the stranger fell seriously ill”.

 Adolphe, the narrator of the novella recalls that at the age of twenty two his father, a government official, sent him “on a tour of the most interesting European countries” where he leads “a very dissipated life”. He looks back to the moment when he falls in love with Ellénore, a married woman who is ten years older than him. Initially she turns down this younger suitor who uses his charms to win over her love. She eventually gives up her stable and privileged status and abandons her husband for a short, passionate and then, in the end, painful love affair.

In the beginning Adolphe finds profound pleasure with his seducing adventure and describes how “younger men.. were delighted with the skill with which I had supplanted the Count“, i.e. Ellénore’s husband, and “congratulated me on my conquest and undertook to imitate me.”

However, Ellénore feels the opposite as she “soon realised that opinion was turning against her”. Women friends including family members, “broke off the connexion with the greatest possible ostentation”.  Men, on the other hand, “came …because she was still a attractive and her recent frailty had given them aspirations they made no effort to disguise.

The happy beginning of the affair soon brings disgrace and social isolation. Adolphe’s father who cares about his son’s future career decides to break the relationship. At the same time Adolphe is getting bored and trying to end an affair which becomes a heavy emotional as well as social burden. The book focuses on the feelings and state of mind of a desperate lover, that is Ellénore, who suffers to see her beloved becoming distant  which almost reaches a point of cruelty.

Adolph is aware that Ellénore has sacrificed everything for him, now that she is socially cut-off and continues to be attached and deeply in love with him. He also perceives that a separation will bring utter despair and pain to her which might lead to a suicide.

There are many stories about enduring love which is made possible only when each of the couple is “lover” and “beloved” at the same time. Somehow it is not the case with Adolphe, which deals with unhealthy relationships pursued by immature egocentric seducers who target fragile persons, which always have tragic endings since the seducers, once achieve their conquests, stop being a pursuing “lover” but, for vanity’s sake, allow themselves to be “loved” and thus cause enormous pain.

 There are many other novels which follow the same pattern, such as Senso, written by Camillo Boito and adapted into film by Luccino Visconti in 1954. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carlson MaCullers brilliantly portrays this type of relationship. When she describes a love relationship, she distinguishes the “lover” and the “beloved”. Clearly  “the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time… The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else—but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit.” – this is how the prototype of the character Adolphe could be depicted by the author of the Ballad.

 Benjamin Constant In this brief novella explores with considerable knowledge the social context in the post French Revolution Europe and shows a profound understanding of individual feelings and the psychological state of mind of those who confuse love with infatuation.


1. Excerpts From: Benjamin Constant. “Adolphe.”. Pinguin Books, 1964 iBooks.

 2. Excerpts From: Carson McCullers The Ballad of the Sad.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Cafe. 2005.

3. Benjamin Constant. The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation, 1814.