There is something perverse and voyeuristic about visiting the private homes of famous people. Yet, as time goes by, I find the grand fame of public figures less interesting than their personal doings. I once visited the house where Kafka died, near Vienna. The barrenness of that sanatorium was so like the bareness and modesty of his existence, as opposed to Kafka's phantasmagoric, paranoiacally complex writing.
Next to Kafka's humble bed was a small door where one would have to bend one's head to enter: on a white sheet of paper, attached with clear tape, was written: "Kafka WC." Not being British, I had no idea what those mysterious letters meant.
The former sanatorium had once belonged to a nice Viennese lady. She died very old and kept almost nothing that the great writer had abandoned in his mortal illness. He was never famous during his lifetime, quite the contrary.
From his sickbed, however, he wrote beautiful letters: a goodbye to life and to his numerous girlfriends, women he had never managed to marry, being too poor and sick. He died of tuberculosis at 39. "Every limb hurts like life," he wrote. Whenever I read his books that iron bed springs to mind, as well as the tiny door with the mystifying inscription, "WC."
One could write a Kafka parody trying to puzzle that out: I did.
The poet Gabriele D'Annunzio is now 150 years old. At his looming mansion above the Lake of Garda, things took an opposite, perverse turn for me. The "Vittoriale degli Italiani" could not be more grandiose and showy, a huge estate where the agitated poet and strutting military adventurer spent the last seventeen years, arranging his superhuman life-as-artwork as a museum for posterity.
Every book out of the 33,000 books he collected, bought or abducted had some obsessively proper place. His creative labors somehow required four studios:
1) “A workshop of words”, with two desks and two cherished photos, one of his dear mom and another of Eleonora Duse (once a world-famous actress and his most important muse).
2) The correspondence studio where he fired off numerous daily letters on beautiful engraved stationery with fancy Latin-motto letterheads.
3) The leprosy room of sick touched by God’s hand, where D'Annunzio confronted death with statues of saints in a narrow, coffin-like bed with two skinned leopards and a host of tiles, etchings and emblems broadly hinting at venereal disease;
4) Finally, a tiny studio crammed with bric-a-brac, with even tinier cluttered desk, close by a secret closet more crammed with narcotics than a pharmacy.
He died at his desk on the last day of carnival March 1, 1938. His bald head dropped to the desktop with cerebral hemorrhage, there in the shuttered gloom where the half-blind visionary (he lost an eye in the Great War) was still tirelessly scribbling in huge, shaky handwriting. Hiding from the sunny, airy sprawl of his own vast monument, he had come to hate and fear noise and sunlight, and lived like a bat in a hush of thick pillows and drawn curtains.
The huge mansion had been expropriated from a German (they were the enemies, so that seemed fine to him), and he'd done what he could to keep the German's possessions, especially the books and the fine piano which once belonged to Franz Liszt.
Except for the rooms of his women, the "Vestals of Vittoriale," most every wall and surface was littered with idols, artworks, vases, coins, medals, jars, papers, paintings, pictures, statuary... Scarcely a thing with a practical purpose. "The superfluous is what I breathe," he used to say. He had created a place where nobody dared contradict him.
Highly respected and highly feared, Gabrielle D'Annunzio also had a fatal display room in that castle, where his body was exposed for days on end with a post-mortum masque of 1938, while fascist politicians, friends and lovers all came to say their last goodbye.
Next to the desk were he fell dead is a windowsill. It looms high over a garden and a hard cement sidewalk, and D’Annunzio fell from it once. He called this incident the "flight of the archangel."
Somehow three women had found their way into the maestro's tiny studio, and they all had some good motive to heave him out.
One was his last lover, a jealous pianist from Venice who had been his mainstay in his warlord days. The other was his sister, harassed with decadent rumors of incest. The last was the humble but crazily devoted mistress, nurse, cook and housekeeper who spent her every waking hour obeying his sexual and literary whims. The fourth suspect would be D'Annunzio, who claimed he attempted suicide several times.
After that flight however he passed his last days in the company of a youthful German madchen who may have been a Nazi agent. With D'Annunzio safely in the tomb she took up a typing job with von Ribbentrop's state department.
D'Annunzio's many obsessions are all on public display: death-masks, daggers, revolvers, women, flowers, snakes, Latin mottos, idols, saints, naval ships, military airplanes, drugs…
The glorious park of the “Vittoriale degli italiani” features a battleship somehow embedded in the hillside, a couple of torpedo-boats are handy , while a military airplane hangs from the roof of his theater.
The mausoleum atop of the hill features D'Annunzio himself as Pharaoh on a pillar, while ten of his most aggressive lieutenants surround him in an honor guard of aerial sarcophagi. The cost of such things was never allowed to intrude on D’Annunzio's princely attention.
His followers were never hirelings. His women and children, wives and concubines were the mesmerized slaves to his eloquence, power mania and love enchantments. Almost all women he wanted stood no chance against him: he possessed all sorts of women, a thousand he boasted, unknown, nameless, married, famous, with children, countesses and prostitutes, even lesbians had a go.... Those who touched him become his muses, his tender obsessions, the characters in his novels, the divas in his plays. None of them kept him, but in a way he never abandoned them. He never divorced the wife, who is buried on the grounds, another striking feature in a vast collection.
Franz Kafka, the sick Jewish clerk who lived and died in misery, was also a famous womanizer, the creator of numerous love letters to his bright and beautiful girlfriends. Kafka and D’Annunzio both breathed their last breath in a troubled Europe months away from the holocaust of empires in the second world war. They both lived on the bad side of the battle-line; Kafka with Hitler from Austria, and D’Annunzio with Mussolini from Italy.
So near and yet so far, those two writers whose private spaces provoked my perverse curiosity. D'Annunzio too had a small, cramped, mysterious door in his mansion, one had to bend to enter. But it led to his favorite studio, not to the toilet.
With a twist of fate, the life-work of fascist D'Annunzio might have easily murdered Kafka the Jew. The doors of us humble mortals lead to different hells.
Photos: Bruce Sterling