Idyllic Exile

In the meantime we are still here, but I shan’t commit myself as to whether that is a good or a bad thing. Recently we were in Amsterdam, on the terrace of the Hotel Américain. I was talking about Gemütlichkeit. This was by no means restricted to the German emigrant milieu. We made Dutch friends; my closest friendships were with the literary philosopher and essayist Menno ter Braak, a passionate, pure spirit and a highly original imagination; with the writer Jef Last, who had just published one of his best books, Zuiderzee, and with whom I shared a friendly admiration for André Gide; and with the painters Karin and Ernst van Leyden, a hard-working artist couple who were remarkably well-educated cosmopolitans with good taste and a broad intellectual interest. Moreover, they were friendly and hospitable people whose idyllically situated country house was an excellent place to rest and work.
René Crevel came to visit from Paris, perhaps accompanied by our mutual friend Thea ‘Mopsa’ Sternheim, or alone, or accompanied by an elegant South American lady with whom he was associating at the time. He swore, complained, made jokes, got drunk, read extracts from his new work, was mild-mannered, intolerant, helpful, and sometimes cruel. And he could be cruel — to himself and to others. The flame that burned in his wide-open eyes with their explosive gaze showed no trace of compromise or compassion.
Visitors came from London, too. My oldest English friend, Brian Howard, appeared with his familiar temperament and obligatory coterie, and the young novelist Christopher Isherwood, a stylist and psychologist of extraordinary qualities, settled for a time in Amsterdam. I already knew him from Berlin. There was always something going on in Berlin and consequently we had no time for each other, but in the more peaceful atmosphere of Amsterdam there was no shortage of time for becoming better acquainted with someone if it seemed worth the trouble. In Christopher’s case it was certainly worth the trouble, and the genuine friendship that developed has become more and more valuable to me over the years. Christopher’s presence attracted other English visitors to Amsterdam. Stephen Spender came; warm, dynamic, extrovert, always full of high-minded ideas and projects, a typical militant dreamer and activist poet, aggressive yet a dreamer, a young poet with unshakeable principles, an Ariel who had read Karl Marx. W.H. Auden, my new brother-in-law Wystan, visited too. He was still in his activist-revolutionary period. Already his élan seemed less naive than the rhetorical sentimentality or the pedantic dogmatism of most radical left-wing bards. With Auden, everything is more complex, has more substance, and is quieter, more mysterious, more intelligent. Someone who is so complex will never become completely absorbed by a school of thought or a conviction. He leads his comrades along a certain path and commits them to a certain dogma, while he himself continues to have ironic reservations. It was curious watching W.H. among his friends and disciples. What a complex young master he was, with a character open to many interpretations! I recall with great fondness the day which we – Landshoff, Isherwood, myself and a few friends — spent in Zandvoort aan Zee with E.M. Forster. The writer of A Passage to India, a novel generally acknowledged as a ‘classic’ in the English-speaking world, indeed belongs to a somewhat older generation, but he enjoys extraordinary popularity among the intellectual avant garde, the next generation represented at the time by Auden, Spender and Isherwood. Of all the literary figures I have come to know more or less intimately over the years (and God knows there have been enough of them — more than enough!), Forster is one of the most charming, precisely because he appears to be wholly unaware of his charm and the effect of his personality. He is good-humoured, harbours no pretensions, and is sublimely tactful as a person and as a writer. Everything about him is, to use an untranslatable English expression, characterised by ‘understatement’, there are no piercing tones, no arrogant or coquettish gestures. In his company one can be cheerful and enjoy oneself.
On that summer’s day in Zandvoort – it could have been in 1935 – we were cheerful and we did enjoy ourselves. We swam, then raced along the beach, and then we lay and lazed in the sun and told each other silly stories, at which we laughed for far too long. It was a real holiday. We did not think about Hitler. We forgot that there were concentration camps; that there would probably be a war and that, all things considered, the situation in the world was nothing to laugh about.

From The Turning Point (Der Wendepunkt, 1976)
By Klaus Mann
Translated by Yvette Mead

First published in The Low Countries, 2001