Excerpt from "Jericho oder Das feine Gesicht des Himmels"
By Michael Braun
Copyright S. Fischer Verlag, March 1997
Translation by Duncan Hanson
The next morning Friederike, whom her friends called Ida, returned. Six days late, she drove up in her glaring red Alfa Romeo, all her worldly goods stashed in a steamer trunk on the roof rack. She executed a victory lap in St. Clement's great circular driveway, waving her purple velvet hat at the pedestrians and bicyclists as well as, it seemed, the world in general. Then she turned into a side street and came to a screeching halt before Saint Hilda's College at the other side of Magdalen Bridge.
Ida's artistic life - she herself said airtistic life - was sunk in disorder. In fact her life was absolute chaos. Her parents, both of whose family names had included a von before the First (that is to say, the Great) War had wiped such linguistic accoutrements away, found her escapade-filled lifestyle a bit too lavish, despite the fact that her father was a successful banker in Vienna. Further there were these wearying complications with men. There had been two engagements but no wedding. And her airtistry, which found its expression in pictures of every kind as well as in elaborate steel structures and the hours of hammering, pounding and bending it took to make them, was expensive not only monetarily but also in time, so that she had very few reflective moments to devote to studying Immanuel Kant, which was the major subject Ida had actually chosen for herself at Oxford.
She was a beauty. Long elegant legs, which had never yet jogged. Genteel, manicured hands, which had never been immersed in dishwater. A distinctive, concave, Italian Renaissance nose, whose size and shape no one, male or female, had been able to smile at, without reproach. It was a pleasure to be in public with her. The heads of the well built oarsmen with the angular cheekbones turned toward her as soon as she entered the lecture hall in Examination Schools, and even the women looked attentively, partly out of jealousy, partly in order to learn something from her. At worst one could detect a certain casualness about her, particularly after she would attempt to paint with oil colors, when the paints would leave ineradicable streaks of every hue and shade of the rainbow in her dark brown hair. But her casualness was that of a young woman from a good family, who regarded it as a bit superfluous to try to impress people with external appearances. Doubtless it helped that financial considerations played no role in her life. She wasn't concerned about money. She had it. She was fearless. And her booming voice filled any room easily.
Two years before, we had both started at Oxford in the study of philosophy, politics, and economics. We had actually gotten to know each other in a literature reading group during the first term in which British students recited in German Schiller's Death of Wallenstein, although without any particular flair. Ida was a student at St. Hilda's College. The female members of St. Hilda's, no men were allowed, enjoyed such an outstanding reputation that they were named the Hilda-bees. There was also a persistent rumor, which Ida vehemently and with a loud voice would deny, that only the very beautiful and the very dumb could manage to get admitted at St. Hilda's.
In any case, Ida devoted her student life to her airtistry, which was, after all, her vocation. She was fond of knocking on the door to my attic room, elegantly dressed to the latest style from Vogue or Harper's Bazaar. "Be-hen, it's me-he, Ih-da!" she would announce and set a large tray full of baked beans, bacon strips and sliced toast on the desk. We would then have our breakfast together, me in bed, she with paint in her hair in the broken down leather upholstered seat at the desk. Then we would drink coffee and smoke the first cigarettes of the day to music. Ida loved music, particularly Carmina Burana. Sooner or later our conversation would turn to the higher or true airtistry, to Ida's steel constructions and to the labor that went into them, to her doubts about the transience of life and her belief in art for art's sake. In short, we were wonderful examples of Oxford fin-de-siecle decadence. So we thought at least.