‘Manon’s World’ by James Reidel: An Excerpt

Manon Gropius (1916–1935) was the daughter of Alma Mahler, the widow of Gustav Mahler, and the architect Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, and the stepdaughter of the writer Franz Werfel. In Manon’s World, James Reidel explores the life and death of a child at the centre of a broken love triangle. The story takes a unique course, describing a peripheral figure but in a context where her significance and centrality in the lives of her famous parents and circles comes into relief. Reidel reveals a neglected and fascinating life in a world gone by—Vienna, Venice and Berlin of the interwar years.

Not just a narrative biography, Manon’s World is also a medical history of the polio that killed Manon and a personal cultural history of the aspirations projected on her—and seen as lost by such keen observers as Elias Canetti, who devoted two chapters of his Nobel Prize–winning memoirs to his encounters with Manon and her funeral. That event led Alban Berg to dedicate his signature Violin Concerto ‘to an angel’. Reidel reveals a more complex image of a young woman who desired to be an actress and artist in her own right despite being her mother’s intended protégé, an inspiration to her father who rarely saw her, and her stepfather Franz Werfel, who obsessively wrote her into his novels, beginning withThe Forty Days of Musa Daghand as a revenant in all the books that followed.

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An Excerpt

While still in exile in France in 1940, just weeks before he took his life after crossing into Spain, the philosopher Walter Benjamin finalized his famous essay on the concept of history in which he meditates on Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus (1920) as this “angel of history,” seemingly moving away, fixedly contemplating something, staring sidelong, wings spread.[1] This angel was both a comfort and warning to Benjamin, who could have added another specimen to this order of angels. I found her in Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935) and the composer, like the philosopher, surely contemplated his image, a photograph of a young girl who stares sidelong in the same direction as Klee’s new angel, another new angel suggesting both hope and horror for a new age.

Manon Gropius was born during the First World War and died four years before the Second. Most of her life was spent in the aura-shadow of her celebrated mother, the object of desire in fin-de-siècle Vienna, the so-called muse and widow of geniuses, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel. Manon haunts this aura and those caught in it, her mother, her father Walter Gropius, her stepfather Franz Werfel, and the next ring of stellar individuals and the ring after of them, who all circled Manon’s mother at some point in their lives. Manon disturbs those orbits like some unseen celestial body. She is also a peripheral figure (Randfigur) whose existence is dependent on others who, nevertheless, are influenced by her. This disturbance-influence is, in part, what this cultural history, microhistory, and biography is about.

I liken it to hauntology, Jacques Derrida’s curious neologism that, like Benjamin’s angel, is from that rich source of appropriated ideas—the Marxian way of looking at history. It confuses haunt- and ont-, where the idea of a person or thing exists more between being and nonbeing, between life and death, this tension between absence and presence, entity and nonentity. This “paradoxical state” influences conduct, behavior. Here the meaning of hauntology is extended to being the unknown child of well-known parents. And her spectral state exists during her life, her recovery from illness, and her death. And in thinking and writing about her during the interwar period into which her existence almost neatly fits, Manon seems a revenant, a ghost from birth in that way Anne Frank is.

While it might seem as though the comparison is farfetched and nuanced. In the end it bears out—victims of where Nietzsche’s philosophy strayed into being cheerful, being superhuman, and so on. And Manon is a kind of saint as well, an emblem child. She is that child the American writer Max Phillips imagines in his Alma-inspired novel, The Artist’s Wife (2003). “[F]or years I’d carried round a little reverie of her, as tiny and clear as a picture in a locket,” a fictional Alma meditates, and in a way not far removed from what she called her “idea” of Manon. “I’d seen Manon flying over endless rows of youths in uniform,” her character muses. “Their cheeks show like lead as they looked up. She held a sword before them, to drive them back or maybe to urge them forward, and she kicked slowly along the way a swimmer does, her legs bare, or maybe she was naked, but there was nothing unseemly about it, because she was beautiful and graceful as, I thought, Truth. That’s the way I always liked to think of her, beautiful and pure and above everybody—it gave me a better opinion of the world. And now her legs were hopeless dead stalks and she moved her arms like a crab.”[2]

Oliver Hilmes, in his biography of Alma, Witwe im Wahn (Widow in Delusion, 2004), also believes that Alma had this “fixed idea about the purpose, the mission of her dead daughter.”[3] And for Alma, Manon would be no one else’s idea—especially in regard to her father, Walter Gropius, for Alma virtually forbade Manon any real contact with her father. Indeed, for the time he actually saw Manon—end to end, it could be measured in weeks—Gropius could only imagine her existence from afar—another kind of liminality-hauntology. He is like that man in the Kindertotenlieder of Gustav Mahler, Alma’s first husband, who looks up, interrupted as he works, and thinks he sees his revenant daughter—but it is his wife putting out a candle.

Gropius, despite having to depend on desk photographs to see his daughter’s image (including the same portrait referenced by Berg) is also the father of a daughter who haunts him. The difference is that Manon lives and he must conduct his fatherhood long distance, through long and often searching letters—many unanswered and some intercepted and left unread by Manon—and the occasional telephone call. Although Manon barely lived into adulthood, her father did not wait to write her almost always as an adult free of her overly possessive mother, and the daughter was well informed of her father’s mission, his ideas, ideals, his work, and the Bauhaus.

Falling between the mother and father is Manon’s stepfather, Franz Werfel, who conducts a true, literary quest. Although Manon did not live to become the theatre actor she wanted to be, she became first a presence and then an actor, and a ghost in his novels even before her death. She is a model for characters in every one of Werfel’s books, beginning with Werfel’s novel of the Armenian genocide, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933). Werfel sees her as a doomed child, a saint, a bride, his ancient Egyptian lover, and even a Jewess—an affront to Alma who prized Manon as her “Aryan daughter” until polio ruined her child’s legs and beauty. This is the creature whom Elias Canetti witnessed in his memoirs, for which he won his Nobel Prize in literature in 1981. Two chapter of The Play of the Eyes as a young woman lost, surrounded and wasted by the wrong, horrible people despite her beauty, her otherworldliness as this part girl, part gazelle, this shape-shifter. And Manon, too, is the one often seen wrong by the grownups around, even a little bad and evil herself like her mother. The composer Ernst Krenek found her to be disturbing, a seemingly knowing child-spy who would haunt him for years because he knew, when her writing about her in his memoirs, that he might be quite mistaken to write ill of her.

[1] See Walter Benjamin, “These on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (Hannah Arendt ed. and Harry Zohn trans.) (New York: Schocken, 1968), pp. 253–64. Klee’s depiction of the angel was executed just before he received an invitation from Walter Gropius to teach at the Bauhaus. Benjamin purchased the work in 1921.

[2] Max Phillips, The Artist’s Wife (New York: Holt, 2001), p. 219.

[3] Oliver Hilmes, Witwe im Wahn: Das Leben der Alma Mahler-Werfel [Widow in Delusion: The Life of Alma Mahler-Werfel] (Berlin: Siedler, 2004), p. 274. Translations from the German are my own unless indicated. The English translation of the Hilmes’ biography, Malevolent Muse: The Life of Alma Mahler (Donald Arthur trans.) (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2015), appeared after this book was completed.