William Boyd

Diary - 31 March 2012

Text settings
CommentsShare

Vienna. I’m here on the first leg of a short three-city tour for my new novel — Eine Grosse Zeit in German. The weather is sensational, warm and sunny, and even though we’re still firmly in March and there isn’t a leaf on a tree, Vienna’s cafés have their tables out on the sidewalk wherever possible. I’m staying in the incomparable Hotel Sacher — which probably serves the best breakfast on the planet and they cook your scrambled eggs in front of you while you wait. After a couple of interviews I have something of a gap in my schedule and decide to walk to my next appointment with a TV programme which is being filmed in the Sigmund Freud Museum, formerly Freud’s apartment and consulting rooms at no. 19, Bergasse. I saunter along beside the wide boulevard of the Ring and pause at a kiosk by a tram stop opposite the Kunsthistorische Museum for a midday beer. As I stand there sipping my cold beer, feeling increasingly mellow, a van pulls up at the traffic lights. On the side is written ‘KAFKA: Sanitär und Heizungstechnic’. I suppose it’s just feasible that you might see a van in London with ‘SHAKESPEARE: Sanitary and Heating Engineer’ printed on the side, but in this city it does give you something of a jolt.

•••

The Freud museum is full of photographs of Freud. In most of them he is holding a small stubby cigar. Freud was an inveterate cigar-smoker, so much so that he developed a cancer in his mouth and had most of the roof of his mouth removed, obliging him to wear a crude and uncomfortable plastic orthotic palate for the rest of his life in order to be able to speak, eat and drink. It didn’t stop him smoking, however: he kept puffing away until he died. I find this fact perversely admirable about the man — very Viennese, somehow.

•••

Munich. Still blazing sunshine. I have a day off and go to see a production of Eugene Onegin at the opera house. It’s set in America in the late 1960s and is clearly inspired by the film Brokeback Mountain, emphasising the powerful homoerotic subtext that exists between Onegin and Lensky. It’s an astonishingly effective production — so much so I wonder if I’ll ever be able to see a conventional Onegin again: it’ll seem bland, somehow — so wrong. Afterwards, I go to the Schumann Bar on Odeonsplatz — one of the supreme bars of the world where, an unforeseen bonus, I’m served by the great man himself, Charles Schumann. Tall, lean, undeniably cool, he likes to work long hours in his bar serving food and drink. He recommends a Grünerweltiner with the seafood risotto. Herr Schumann is not to be argued with — and he’s right, of course.

•••

Cologne. The Internationales Literaturfest is Germany’s biggest. It’s perhaps a reflection of the country’s current rude economic health that we authors are ferried from airport to hotel to reading in a fleet of brand-new Audi 8 saloon cars equipped with TV screens and a ‘massage-facility’ that can be activated in the rear seats. We’re also paid €600 for our readings, in cash. I’m here on its penultimate day — day nine. Fellow English-language authors who’ve attended this year, I see from my programme, include Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Monica Ali, John Banville and Harry Belafonte.

•••

As even citizens of Cologne will readily admit, Cologne is an ugly city. Not surprisingly, as 90 per cent of it was destroyed by bombing in the war and it was largely rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s in the most unfortunate glass-and-concrete crass neo-brutalist style of the times. However, Cologne has a great spirit and its denizens love their culture — and their literary festival, which is usually sold out three months before it starts. My reading is in the Schauspiel theatre, which seats 900 people. There’s an expert moderator/translator — Bernard Robben — and a famous German actor, Jan-Gregor Kremp, to read extracts from the book. It’s all a little bit humbling. An emotion repeated the next morning as I stand in front of the vast awe-inspiring cathedral whose giant twin towers dominate the skyline. It was the highest structure in the world until 1884. The cathedral’s survival in the midst of the carpet-bombing that destroyed the city around it seems something of a miracle. It almost provokes a stirring of religious faith that such a thing could have come to pass. Almost — but not quite. Human folly was ultimately responsible for the destruction of old Cologne, I realise. And it was sheer luck, and nothing else, that spared the cathedral.

William Boyd’s new novel, Waiting for Sunrise, has just been published.