The International Literary Quarterly

February 2009


Donald Adamson
Robert Appelbaum
Rosemary Ashton
Sujata Bhatt
Stephen Burt
Rita Dove
Elaine Feinstein
Sophie Judah
John Kinsella
Ron Padgett
Pascale Petit
David Plante
David Shields
Susan Stewart
John Thieme

Founding Editor: Peter Robertson
Art Editor: Calum Colvin
Consulting Editor: Marjorie Agosín
Consulting Editor: Richard Berengarten
Consulting Editor: Jill Dawson
Consulting Editor: Denise Duhamel
Consulting Editor: Marilyn Gaull
Consulting Editor: Beatriz Hausner
Consulting Editor: Mimi Khalvati
Consulting Editor: Suzanne Jill Levine
Consulting Editor: Margot Livesey
Associate Editor: Neil Langdon Inglis
Assistant Editor:
Jeff Barry
Assistant Editor: Ana de Biase
Assistant Editor: Sophie Lewis
Issue 6 Guest Artist: Anthony Whishaw

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Himmelstein by John Thieme  


We never met Himmelstein.  Yet in some ways he was more important to us during those Septembers in the late 1980s than any of our closest friends.  Perhaps he never existed at all.  But he was very real for us.  And that, after all, is what matters most.

It began in 1985.  We were touring – or to be more precise motoring around in a fairly aimless way – in Provence and late one afternoon began looking for somewhere to stay in Arles.  The city was disappointing.  Perhaps we were too tired to appreciate it, but it failed to minister to the expectations aroused by our Michelin guide.  Driving around the narrow streets in the afternoon rush hour, only to find a complet sign outside a hotel the Michelin seemed to think particularly well of, wasn’t what we’d had in mind.  We left the city’s traffic, its Roman remains and the prospect of a starry, starry night on the café terrace at the Place du Forum behind.

A few miles outside Arles we came across a “perfect” setting.  A hillside with cypresses and olive trees thrown into relief by the ochre-tiled roofs of the region.  In the distance the craggy rocks of Les Baux.  And in the foreground, as if to order, an idyllic retreat: a small hotel (which had escaped listing in the Michelin) with a discreet swimming-pool, surrounded by neo-classical columns and a shady garden.  A little village was nearby.  Despite everything, we may still go back and so its anonymity has to be preserved: I’ll simply mention the words “mill”, “Daudet” and “letters”.

We asked for a room at the hotel desk.  There were south-facing rooms and north-facing rooms, south-facing suites and north-facing suites, all at different rates.  And although there were several cars parked at the front – BMWs, Audis, Mercedes and an Alfa Romeo – there were vacancies in each category.  The receptionist, seemingly won over by the self-parody we had schooled ourselves to inject into our bad French (laugh at yourself first and the world just may laugh with you!), pressed four keys into our hands and insisted that we inspect all the “possibilités”.  The rates were reasonable and each of the “possibilités” was considerably better than anywhere we had stayed during our previous nights in France.  But from the moment we saw it, there was no doubt in either of our minds that Number 23, the south-facing suite at the end of the second floor with a balcony overlooking the hillside, the cypresses and the pool, was to be our home for the coming week.  To call it a “suite” was perhaps hyperbole, though there were two distinct levels: Number 23 had a small living area that gave access to the balcony and, up some open-backed stairs, there was a minute bedroom, which Anne immediately dubbed “the ashtray”.  The bed itself had failed to make up its mind whether it was single or double, but seemed suitably cosy for the space available.  All in all, everything was clearly “perfect”.  We went back to the receptionist, old friends by now, and declared our preference.  She smiled, a look of complicity, as if to say that she had known all along that we would make the right choice.

It was at this point that complications set in.  We asked for Number 23 for a week and, as we did so, a moustachioed man of a certain age appeared from the office behind her.  Unaware of his intrusion, the receptionist had begun to insert our name beside the figure “23” for each day of the coming week.  He looked over her shoulder, shook his head wearily at her naivety, scribbled something on a piece of paper and pushed it in front of her.  A single word, scrawled in large capitals: HIMMELSTEIN”.  She hesitated and, flustered, began to apologise … and apologise … and apologise.   She shouldn’t have given us the key to Number 23.  It was a “possibilité” for one night, but after that we would have to change and perhaps we would not want to move.  The moustachioed man, whom Anne would christen “Terry Thomas”, looked on in silence.

We hesitated.  We were tired and the thought of changing rooms the next day was far from appealing, but the attractions of Number 23 – its tastefully furnished “lounge”, as Anne would come to call it, the bed nestling between imitation-oak beams and the balcony overlooking the pool and the cypresses – won out.  We took it for the night.  Carrying our cases up to Number 23, we hissed “Himmelsteins” at one another and, on arrival, climbed up to the bed and collapsed in a fit of giggles.  And in that innocent era, just before we all became p.c. , we descended into stereotyping.

“Beaten by the Germans again,” said Anne, “even though we won the war.” 

“We could always barricade ourselves in and refuse to surrender when they arrive,” I contributed.

“Always assuming Himmelstein is a ‘they’ and not a ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘it’.”

“Some kind of force?”

“Yes, a sinister subversive organization.”

“Or even a code word?”

“Yes, a secret weapon to be used contre les anglais without their even knowing it exists,” she embellished. 

We hissed a few more “Himmelsteins” at one another, took showers and, tacitly agreeing to suspend the subject until the next day, went into the village for dinner. 

The next morning we switched rooms early and went off to Avignon for a day that left us concluding that the popes did more for civilization when they invented Chateauneuf than when they built that palace in which they lived for seventy – or was it three hundred and fifty? – years and which we managed to get round in nine minutes.  To be honest, Anne claims it was eight and three-quarters, but my biological stopwatch was sure it was more like nine and a half and after years of retrospective analysis we’ve agreed to differ. 

We didn’t see Himmelstein at the hotel that evening, nor on any of the succeeding days.  From beside the pool we shot glances at the balcony of Number 23, but it was always deserted.  So we remained ignorant of Himmelstein’s identity, even at moments heretically doubting “his” existence and wondering if, God and all his mercenary angels forbid, we might be the victims of a ruse perpetrated by  Terry Thomas.  It became necessary to invent our own Himmelstein.

That year and subsequently several possible Himmelsteins stayed in the hotel.  There were two portly middle-aged Germans who dominated the restaurant every evening,  less because of anything they did than because of their sheer bulk and the vast quantities of food and drink that vanished from their table.  There were two spry, amphibious Himmelsteins, who spent most of their mornings jumping in and out of the swimming-pool, towelling one another fondly and then disappearing for the rest of the day.  There was a bespectacled solitary Himmelstein, who read Mann, Hesse and American science fiction fanzines in the shade of the hotel cypresses, never as far as we could see conversing with anyone.  The main possibility of Himmelstein being a crowd came in the form of coachloads of boisterous, elderly German package tourists, who would stay a single night in the hotel.  Weary from their daytime travelling, they habitually insisted on sharing secrets with us over drinks in the bar after dinner.  Most of their confidences consisted of expressing their wish to be “good comrades” with the English.  They seldom mentioned the war, but to us these conversations were like an inverted rerun of that agonising episode of Fawlty Towers.  The problems of their generation, not ours.  We would splutter our way to bed, careering up the stairs and along the corridors, imagining ourselves as employees of the Ministry of Silly Walks.  There was only one possible woman Himmelstein.  She travelled alone, cowered the hotel staff into total submission to all her needs, which included “business services”, though we never discovered exactly what these amounted to.  There were also various possible German-Swiss Himmelsteins, identifiable by the CH number-plates on their cars.  But each of them was too clean and polite and, to our untutored eyes, insufficiently obsessive to be a Himmelstein.  We could only imagine Himmelstein as a male individualist and gradually surrendered those of our fantasies that had tried to make “him” plural, female or Swiss.

Before long we came to reject all the putative Himmelsteins we saw in the flesh in favour of a fiction of our own invention.  “Our” Himmelstein was a cultured man, given to not-infrequent bouts of wild eccentricity and occasional ferocity.  He travelled with his wife and, if they had children, they were now adult and left behind in Bavaria, Baden Baden or Bremen.  Frau Himmelstein was a redoubtable woman, capable of reducing the haughtiest French waiter to jelly and answerable to no one in the world except her husband.  Himmelstein himself, though totally unexceptional in appearance – slightly built, sagging and rosaceous in the face – was, quite simply, a nonpareil: an unfulfilled genius, but a genius all the same.  A man with unerring taste and a capacity for extracting the best from all possible situations.  We decided that he had first come to the hotel about a decade ago, since when he had managed to secure the occupancy of Number 23 for every second week in September by the sheer force of his will.  We speculated that he had paid to keep the hotel out of the Michelin and in a show of loyalty discarded our own copy, throwing it out of the car window on a 1986 drive to Uzès.  Our admiration for “him” was unbounded.

Having been bested by Himmelstein for possession of Number 23 for what we quickly came to agree was the most desirable week of the year in 1985, we resolved to compete with him in future years.  In 1986, we faxed the hotel in April, trying to book Number 23 for the second week in September.  It was already taken.  We went the following week.  In 1987 we wrote in March.  Number 23 was again unavailable.  We booked another room for the same week.  As we left that year, we tried to make our booking for the second week of September 1988 there and then.  Anne thought she heard the (new) receptionist whisper “Himmelstein”, but we could never be sure of this.  In any event Number 23 was once again unavailable and we booked for the following week.  The pattern seemed set in stone.

Following Himmelstein in 1986 revealed a new aspect of his character: his violent temper.  We took a freshly made cigarette-hole in a curtain and a cracked tile on the balcony of Number 23 as evidence that his creative drive had, for once, been frustrated by Frau Himmelstein.  Perhaps their spat had begun when she had refused to go to the select gourmet restaurant in Les Baux (the “tucked-away” one that had escaped the prying eyes of the Michelin inspectors) or when, on the evening before their departure, she had suggested that next year they should try a farmhouse outside Lucca for their September escape.  Whatever the cause, we both agreed that Himmelstein must have been sorely provoked to have acted as he did.

In 1987, we were, we assumed, at the hotel at the same time.  By this point Himmelstein had become everything we were not.  The flamboyant genius who imbibed vast quantities of the local Mas de Gourgonnier, while writing brilliant, unfinished chapters of his never-to-be-published novels; the demented architect who returned every year to this Provençal landscape as “one of the last habitable spots on earth”; the travel-book writer who had devoted his life to ensuring that reports of places like the hotel and the “tucked-away” restaurant never found their way into print; the dedicated wind-watcher who pooh-poohed the power of Le Mistral and came to Provence each September in the hope of experiencing one of the rarer vintages of the Marin. 

Gradually he educated us.  He was our necessary fiction, because we were suburban, ordinary.  During those Septembers in Provence we also had our “adventures”, but they were of a quite different kind from Himmelstein’s.  There was the afternoon when I grew a moustache in three hours from sitting in the hot sun; Anne’s sprained ankle by the swimming pool; my exciting twenty-four hours running between bedroom and bathroom after eating cassoulet d’agneau with “enough baked beans to blow me to Perpignan” and the night we were marooned in Nîmes after the car’s fan belt broke.  Less dramatic, but an equally important part of our personal folklore, was the occasion, when opening a perrier by the cashier in the cafeteria attached to the Arles supermarket, Anne managed to flick its cap into the pristine crème caramel of a woman at a nearby table.  With considerable aplomb and a multiplicity of swiftly muttered “pardons” and “je suis désolés”, Anne ceremoniously removed the bottle-top, but not without leaving a fingerprint that stunned the luckless stony-faced woman whose dessert had been penetrated into silence.  All these incidents furnished us with stories to tell and retell, but, embroider them as we would, they could never hold a candle to Himmelstein’s escapades. 

We imagined Himmelstein terrorizing three Texan tourists, who had stumbled upon the hotel by chance, into leaving the same day; Himmelstein up at the crack of dawn to declaim poetry at Daudet’s mill; and a Pan-like naked Himmelstein chasing a fearful maid, who had dared to put her head around the door of Number 23, while he was taking a shower, along the second-floor corridor.  Each of the hotel’s rooms boasted a “Ne pas déranger” sign which, reversed, read “Veuillez faire la chambre”, “Please make up my room” and “Bitte das Zimmer in Ordung bringen”.  Himmelstein was, we were sure, personally responsible for the German translation.  Most memorable of all was the occasion when he stormed out of the “tucked-away” restaurant at lunch, because his filet was overcooked, and with a fully supportive Frau Himmelstein in tow drove to Genoa for dinner.  They didn’t get back until after the small hours and caused a furore, trying to get Terry Thomas to open up the hotel gates, which were always locked at midnight.

In 1988 we once again followed Himmelstein in Number 23.  And, insofar as his exploits could ever admit of a climax, it was reached that year.  The suite was free from the third Sunday in September and we had set out from England several days before, dawdling down the autoroute and making several stopovers along the way, while anticipating the joys of Number 23 and the rekindling of our narrative.  We spent the Saturday night in Orange and, after a brief stroll around the old Roman town on the Sunday morning, drove on to the hotel.  We arrived around noon.  The (new) receptionist – first encountered the previous year – remembered us and was welcoming and keen to practise her improving English.  She had to check with the maid to make sure the suite was “how do you say – cleansed?”  She phoned upstairs.  It was.  She gave us the key and we went up to the second floor, chuckling contentedly and reviving the hissed “Himmelsteins” of our first arrival three years before.

“I wonder if he’ll have left any clues behind this year,” said Anne.

“If not, I’m sure you’ll be able to manufacture some.”

“The complete works of Proust torn to shreds.”

“Intermingled with recipes for vichyssoise and gazpacho.”

“Why gazpacho?”

“Why not?”

“OK,” she said, “In that case there will also be pages from A Gourmet’s Guide to the Peloponnese stuffed under that vonky table-leg to stop it from vobbling.”

“Pity about the ‘cleansing’.  There would have been more to see, if they hadn’t done it.”

We reached the end of the corridor and turned the hefty key, a relic from a comfortable, more leisurely hotel era, in the lock of Number 23.  The sight that met our eyes stopped our giggles in an instant.  Our fiction had come alive.

A scene of devastation confronted us.  The room had not been “cleansed”.  Strewn across the floor were – not Proust nor the Gourmet’s Guide – but pages from an ancient Baedeker.  Hung across the candelabra-shaped wall-light to the right of the balcony doors was the broken half of a toilet seat; the other half had been unceremoniously dumped in the downstairs shower. Scrawled, in lurid cherry lipstick, across the mirror in the minute bedroom was the single word “LIEBESTOD,” a sign as mysterious as “HIMMELSTEIN” had been to us on the day when we first arrived at the hotel.

“I think he’s gone too far this time,” I ventured.

Anne was mute.  Our comic story had been appropriated by a narrator, who was recasting it as tragedy – or at the very least melodrama.  The fund of clues that lay before us was ideal fodder for detective fiction, but the grief and violence of this all-too-real scene, had destroyed our fantasy, and with it the idyll of our stays in the hotel, in an instant.

We phoned down to the desk and explained in our best Franglais, which was fast running out of steam, that “des choses” were “cassées” and that the room hadn’t been “cleansed” after all.  Terry Thomas, who had been a shadowy figure to us since his intervention at the desk on the day when we first tried to claim Number 23, came rushing up.  He apologised profusely, pulling a disgusted face and saying that this would be the last visit of what I heard as that “allemand”.  Anne would later insist that he had said “gourmand”, an issue over which we subsequently had several heated debates, before, as was our wont, agreeing to disagree.  In any case, Terry Thomas’s arrival on the scene, a bookend that complemented the moment of our first arrival three years before, provided a kind of finality.  He offered us another room, but our loyalty to Number 23 won out.  Sitting among the olive trees in the garden beside the pool, we waited for the suite to be “cleansed”, occasionally glancing up at the balcony, on which two maids, delegated to banish all signs of Himmelstein’s ravages, made occasional appearances.  Then, realizing that it would take a long time to clean these particular Augean stables, we decided to go to have lunch at Saint Rémy de Provence, where van Gogh had spent his final tormented year after that mysterious, demented night in Arles, when he lopped off his ear.  We had skirted around the town on several of our outings, but had never ventured inside the road that circled it.  Van Gogh had never figured on our cultural agenda at all.  Yet suddenly, amid the plane trees, olives and cypresses that had shaped his final vision, it was as if he had been at the centre of our story all along, a crucial component of Himmelstein.

“Lucky we didn’t find a Himmelstein ear on the floor.”  I tried to reignite the story, but Anne wasn’t to be drawn.  “Do you think that perhaps it was an argument with Frau Himmelstein.  Do you think she wrote that word?  It must have been her lipstick.”

After several minutes of silence, Anne said, “I don’t think I want to stay very long.  In fact, I don’t think I want to stay at all.”  She nibbled at her salade niçoise and then, looking me full in the face, added, “It’s over, isn’t it?  Don’t you think?”

Back in Number 23, a veneer of normality had been restored.  Tell-tale coffee stains on the wall were a reminder of the scene of four hours before, but otherwise it, like Himmelstein, was rapidly receding into history.  The next day Anne said she really wanted to move on.  Quite apart from the missing toilet seat (soon to be replaced, we were assured), a few bent coat hangers and a broken light bulb, the suite, on closer inspection, had become gloomy and the public rooms downstairs smelt stale and musty.  Provence seemed very old that year, exuding an aura of decay.  In the village, as we left, a lorry had shed its load of apples across the main road and two policemen were vigorously directing traffic around back alleys barely wide enough to take our ageing Triumph Herald.

We drove to Italy, to Assisi and there, amid the “mystic” light of the Umbrian hills, found a new pastoral retreat.It was on our second night there that Anne smiled at me across her heaped but rapidly diminishing pile of strangozzi and, with her index finger on her lips, confided her secret to me. She had discovered that the New York Mafia and the clergy attached to the Basilica of St. Francis were engaged in a deadly struggle for control of the souvenir outlets on the street that snaked its way up from the burial place of the man who loved animals.