Wednesday, January 19, 2011


I picked up Oliver Hilmes' biography of Alma Mahler-Werfel "Witwe im Wahn" (roughly translated "Delusional Widow") because after reading "The Rest is Noise", I wanted to read a Mahler biography. Those were all checked out, but why not start with his wife.

Alma Mahler-Werfel was an exceptional woman. A strong and domineering personality, she sought all her life for the one man that would make her happy. She always chose men she thought would accomplish great things and she was right, but it seems that they never were good enough for her. The book follows her life through her many affairs and marriages (to Gustav Mahler, Walther Gropius and Franz Werfel) and we get a (sometimes very) intimate glimpse and her life through letters and diaries.

Alma Mahler-Werfel has written her autobiography and published her diaries, but those are sources that need to be taken with more than a grain of salt. Hilmer used her uncensored diaries and letters as a source for this biography, as well as letters found in the estate of Alma's friends and lovers. His book is the first that extensively discusses Alma's antisemitism, earlier biographies left out much of it and it was purged altogether from the German edition of her autobiography (after bad reactions to the English editions). She did surround herself with Jews for much of her life, but that didn't stop her from considering them inferior and she always thought that part of her role was to improve them.

If you pick any Austrian or German artists or writer who was her contemporary, the chances are very good that she has met him (or her). Many fell in love with her, others were much less taken with her. But it seems that she made an impression with everyone who met her. At times the book reads like a lesson in how not to achieve a happy life, Alma had a tendency to begin affairs or even marry when she already knew that it couldn't end well or when she had already fallen out of love. She saw herself in the role of the muse who influences the men she is involved with and if her partner wasn't very headstrong, her influence was heavy indeed.

Oskar Kokoschka for example was obsessed with her. The affair didn't last very long and both were unhappy in it, but Alma is featured in many of his works (Bride of the Wind for example) and they never really lost contact.

I read through the book in only two days and her life is definitely worth reading about, although the more I read, the less I liked her.
Always one for turning juicy stuff into hilarious songs, Tom Lehrer wrote one about her

Unfortunately, there is no English translation of the book at the time I'm writing this. Hilmer has also written an excellent biography of Cosima Wagner, I wrote a review here and this one is available in English.

4th book of the Library Challenge


  1. Starting with the people around him is not such a bad idea, in that it gives you a better ability to verify and evaluate the content of the eventual central biography. If you were to read a Mahler autobiography, rather than a biography, the process of reading around would then become even more valuable.

    I've recently developed an interest in biographies, possibly for the increasing ability to understand and empathise that comes with age. That said, I'm more unwilling to read autobiographies for a similarly increasing awareness of the potential subjectivity! I imagine now I'd only do it casually, because the book was to hand, or as part of that kind of wider process of getting every side, and I fear time is too lacking for that. Very sadly.

    Lists like yesterday's don't help in conserving time either! Thanks again for the contribution - I'm still stunned, by the response in general too. At least the compilation is stimulating. Since I last added to it I've pondered the definition of 'dimension' and sketched a diagram on the scope of fiction. It's a lot of fun to have such knowledgeable and intelligent people to interact with, especially on subjects like these.

  2. I've read only a handful of autobiographies, but I love biographies. I learn so much more from them than from any textbook...maybe because I have such a good memory for gossip. It's also easier to place events and people in time if you know who knew who and biographies are a great source for that.

    The Mann family is still my favourite subject for biographies, even though I actually don't like Thomas Mann all that much as a writer. Alma can definitely give them a run for their money, though.