The Vanilla Milk Incident

Johannes Speyer was not what you’d call a violent man. Violent language – possibly even violent ideas – were very much a part of his criticism, especially in later life, but beyond the page, well, I have met soft toys with a meaner streak. For all his call to action; his appeal to readers across the world to get up off their backsides and fight the good fight, Speyer himself led a quiet life. Which is not to say that he was a hypocrite; he was simply slow-off-his-feet and hampered, throughout life, by a series of crippling injuries. Had he not had chronically flat feet and a back that would make loners on the roof of Notre Dame chuckle carelessly, who knows – he might have read a few more novels on mountain tops.

Of course, even the calmest souls bubble over into casual violence occasionally. Remember the contretemps with the vociferous magpie? Who could forget it? Speyer in a temper was a dangerous beast. It was lucky that it happened so rarely – and that when it happened, the circumstances were usually so bizarre that the whole thing could be covered by laughs.

Throwing milk in the face of a ten year old isn’t, on reflection, all that funny. But one must appreciate the fact that this was, all things considered, a somewhat ‘difficult’ child – and that the best of us, put in the same situation, might have thought a glass of milk the safe option. Indeed, I’ve heard it said that the same child, on different occasions (and by different people) had the following things chucked in her general direction: a fire extinguisher, a shoe, a large cactus, a hot apple pie and a small-scale model of a cathedral in southern France. So a glass of milk represents restraint: real restraint.

But what was Speyer doing with this child in the first place? That will all become clear when I explain that she was the daughter of Maria von Küppelberg, the infamous German hostess, whose Thursday ‘at homes’ were the heart of the Viennese literary scene in the early 1970s. You’d be hard pressed to find an Austrian writer who wouldn’t have chopped off a limb or two in order to get through von Küppelberg’s front door. Even Speyer, it seems – not usually a social butterfly – was drawn in by her mysterious powers.

Her daughter, however, he was less impressed with – for the very good reason that he had high expectations of her. Too high, one might say – but then Speyer had ridiculously high expectations of all children. As you will no doubt know, his texts are liberally sprinkled with phrases such as ‘seeing with a child’s eye’ or ‘this supreme child-like vision’. The idea of the child-like eye was one with which he was obsessed. Too bad he never met a child who had such an eye. All the children he ever came across saw with somewhat cynical eyes, sorely lacking the profound naivety he praised them for.

Matilda von Küppelberg was one such child. He thought, poor chap, that she of all people would appreciate his forward-thinking theories. Her pure child’s mind would see to the heart of his vision and understand its eternal truths. Her young imagination would be fired up by his thoughts. She would understand, oh yes: she would understand.

Unfortunately not. ‘You are a silly man,’ was all the young girl had to say on the matter. Active Reading was not for her. A glass of vanilla milk in the face, consequently, was.

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