In early 1992, poet Anne M Carson plucked a battered old volume from a bin of books outside an op shop, read the introduction and could not stop. Stunned by what she read, she knew she had found a story that demanded retelling in contemporary guise. Finding a way to tell it has been her quest for the past 20 years.
Felix Kersten, Estonian-born, Finnish by adoption, trained as a masseur in the years following World War 1. Part of his training was under a Tibetan monk, Dr Ko, who believed Kersten was the person in the West he had been sent to find, and to whom he must pass on the secrets of his craft. During the 1920s and 30s, based in Berlin, Kersten built up a clientele among the rich and powerful of Europe, including royalty and leading business figures. He became quite wealthy, buying an estate in the German countryside – despite his misgivings about the behaviour of the Nazi regime – and enjoyed to the full the good life his wealth brought.
As Europe slid towards the cataclysm of World War 2, Kersten was summoned by the head of Hitler’s SS, Heinrich Himmler, who suffered from debilitating stomach cramps. Himmler’s cramps were sometimes so severe that they reduced him to unconsciousness. Kersten proved to be the only practitioner who could bring relief, and so he remained Himmler’s personal masseur throughout the war. Appalled and fearful at first of the situation he had been thrust into, Kersten discovered that Himmler’s gratitude led to a close relationship between them. Kersten came to see he could use the relationship for the good. Instead of accepting Nazi honours and payment for his services, Kersten persuaded Himmler to reward him with favours: the release of prisoners from Nazi prisons and concentration camps. In the final days of the war, his ultimate coup was to convince the reluctant Himmler to countermand Adolf Hitler’s order to blow up the concentration camps and their remaining inmates. After the war Kersten was initially accused of collaboration, but before his death in 1960, several European governments had granted him high awards, including France’s Légion d’Honneur.
Quite a tale, and one Carson strongly believed should be more widely known. But how was she to tell it? The Carson who stood outside the op shop 20 years ago had no idea where to start.
In 1996 she was a burned out social worker, retraining in massage. In search of a simpler and more wholesome life, she moved to a one-room mudbrick cottage – no electricity, no running water – in the St. Andrews’ bush, where she learned to look, to see what her surroundings, especially the natural world, were offering her. Slowly she became aware, too, of the sounds, smells and textures around her and, crucially for her future craft, she became attuned to their nuances. She started to put pen to paper, but was continually dismayed by the rubbish she produced. She met a teacher of creative writing at a local neighbourhood house and joined a writing group. She developed the persistence which takes the writer past the rubbish to the satisfying material which lies beyond. She was apprenticed to the painful processes of editing, shaping, throwing out, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. Felix Kersten remained a shadow on the edge of her consciousness.
At St Andrews, Carson kept a notebook for odd bits and pieces, words and phrases that catch the attention and stick. One day she jots down taking a sip from the pain cup and says it out loud, surprised by its cadence, its alliterations. It’s poetry, she tells herself. Poetry? She thought she had left poetry in high school. Returning to Melbourne, Carson is drawn inexorably deeper and deeper into this half-forgotten form of expression. Poetry captures the intensity of a moment, a glimpse, a fleeting experience. This is the point where Dr Felix Kersten taps her on the shoulder. Carson decides to tell his story in verse. Her quest lasts ten years.
First she explores narrative verse. Is poetry really suited to telling a story as big as Kersten’s? She takes a few incidents and builds a poem around each, thrilled to discover that poetry gives her a way to break off bite-sized pieces from a story that has long seemed too huge and overwhelming to handle. She writes about Kersten’s first fearful approach to Gestapo headquarters in response to Himmler’s summons; the grotesque violence of a massacre of Jews on the eastern front; and eventually, finds words to describe Kersten’s first appointment as Himmler’s masseur:
… beneath the bed is a nest of vipers –
venomous, virile. They breed so quickly there are hundreds
of hatchlings, scores of adults in a medusa mess. They writhe
and gripe, twine round the bed legs, slither up to me
with their fangs out tasting air. You think this is metaphor?
Carson becomes aware of a further significant advantage poetry offers in telling the story: the traditional devices – simile, metaphor, imagery, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance and others – assist the compression she must achieve, and reinforce the emotional impact of the incidents and human interactions she presents. The poems act as depth charges, one reader tells her. Further, Carson realises that the forms of the poems can be adapted, using poetic devices, to give different characters distinct voices, allowing them – even Himmler – to speak in the first person as their parts of the story are told.
The improbable drama and colour of Kersten’s life gradually emerge, like a photograph in its chemical bath. Along with the writing, Carson is constantly reading, chasing up all the details of the Kersten story she can find, one reference chanced upon leading to another, each fleshing out the picture of her central character. She wrestles, too, with the ethics of what she is doing. As a Gentile writing about events and people intimately connected with the Holocaust, how can she adequately respect those who have suffered through it? Does she have a right to deal with these matters, even in art? She consults the Melbourne Jewish Holocaust Museum, which gathers a group of Holocaust survivors to whom Carson can put her concerns. The survivors endorse her project. And what of Kersten? A flawed character who was a self-aggrandising philanderer, a glutton and someone who, on occasion, lied. In addition his therapy enabled Himmler to be work-ready; a work of multiple atrocities. It takes Carson two decades to fully grapple with these moral complexities.
As the years of writing pass, taxing personal circumstances, including the death of her husband, rock Carson. Still, the Kersten poems grow. She finds a new life partner, Julian Bailey. For forty years Bailey has been pursuing his own artistic obsessions, including striving for mastery of Rachmaninov’s Ten Preludes, Opus 23. Bailey, whose Bachelor of Music at University of Melbourne included Honours in performance, is mesmerised by the latent tale in the Preludes, a hero’s struggle through dark depths of suffering and conflict into light.
Listening to Bailey playing the music, Anne searches for poetic ideas to match the epic quality and emotional shading of Rachmaninov’s works. When she discusses this with a friend, the reply amazes her: What are you talking about? You have the theme already: Kersten!
Carson realises that her friend is onto something. She and Bailey pore over the more than two hundred poems she has written about her flawed hero, and listen to the music with a fresh intention. Bailey finds that his reading of the poems influences his approach to the music; Carson feels that the music can transmute the horror in which Kersten lived and laboured. In the music the rare bright sparks of goodness shine forth from that terrible darkness. Challenges arise when Julian insists the Preludes must be played in the order in which the composer has arranged them. He says it would be unseemly to play the elegaic Prelude 10 without the trouble and strife of those which precede it.
The first workshopping of their collaborative performance, with Carson reading and Bailey at the keyboard, meets with the warm approval of poets and musicians in the audience. One of the listeners, with a background in stage production, suggests the performance should be made more dramatic. Carson and Bailey reconsider. They find a person who can combine the poetry, music and drama that the story of Massaging Himmler deserves: Jerzy (George) Kozlovsky an opera singer, who once sang with Bailey in the Victoria State Opera. George feels for the music, and applies subtle awareness of stage craft to dramatise the reading, while still respecting the fact that it is essentially a poetry reading.
The premiere at Queen’s College, Melbourne University, is a triumph. The poems the couple have selected, though not presented in an order paralleling the chronology of Kersten’s life, reveal the complexity of that life in its totality: the cosmopolitan bon vivant repelled by Nazism, yet conscientiously serving one of its monsters; the man yearning after rural peace and tranquillity, yet eager for the status which association with the centre of power confers; the co-opted servant of the Third Reich, all too aware of his vulnerable position, yet quietly working to subvert his masters. The poems are a striking rendition of Kersten’s world: from the pinched monochromes of a / suffering city in 1920s Berlin, to the survivors of the 1939–45 catastrophe who rebuild [their] lives brick by slow brick.
We savour Kersten’s lunch with Mussolini when the gourmand doctor is close to swooning:
The fineness of the meat almost finishes me.
I could drown in the delicious delicacy of the jus –
butter, wine, the filetto juice caramelised, with
perhaps a touch of stock. Semifreddo for dessert –
Finding Himmler’s voice is a particular challenge, and Carson’s first fearful footstep into that domain describes Himmler’s agony when his stomach cramps attack:
Pain … drives
me to the pain room, bolts the
door. Pain takes off gloves,
unsheathes a sharpened claw.
When pain has finished, shame
takes its place with whip and
The Preludes nestle round the poems: No. 4, with Kersten reflecting warmly upon his friendship with the absent Dr Ko; No. 7, sharp and angular, as Himmler confesses his pain and shame, then going on to supervise a massacre; No. 6 softly caressing as Kersten describes his attachment to his beloved rural estate and, among the gathering storm clouds of 1938, sensing the good times coming to an end. As the wretched survivors of the European catastrophe make their ways back from hell to an unknowable future, we hear the elegiac lyricism of No. 10, a piece reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’s ‘The Lark Ascending’, completed under not dissimilar circumstances.
Throughout, Bailey addresses Rachmaninov’s music with the consideration that comes from forty years’ study: by turns downcast, hopeful, wistful, regretful, fearful, angry, reflective – the playing always nuanced, always passionate. Performer Kozlovsky’s stage presence adds exactly the ingredients needed by the mix of words and music. He colours the characters with an arm raised here, a tilt of the head there, the lordly stretch of a landed gentleman in the armchair he occupies most of the time. His voice fills the hall, and when he introduces Kersten’s teacher Dr Ko with a sacred Buddhist chant in his deep bass, it is as if the sound comes direct from the great prayer horn of a Tibetan monastery.
The performance has powerful emotional impact. An enigmatic yet influential man has come to life in the performance of the poems and Preludes. His life, set in grievous times, is another rendition of the perennial struggle of light and dark. But as Carson says, it is also a cautionary tale with uncanny contemporary resonances. Once again the world has grown less tolerant, more dangerous. This collaboration has surely left the writer, the reader and the pianist with a great sense of achievement.
Carson and Bailey’s project has continued to evolve. Adapting the concert for regional performance, they have created a powerful audio-visual presentation to accompany their live reading of the poems. Images of Bailey playing the Preludes are interspersed with those of Kersten, his family and estate, and iconic stills and videos of that horrible era.
The revised version of Massaging Himmler was first performed in November, 2016. It was performed to acclaim several times in regional and rural Victoria during 2017, and will be next presented at the Limmud Oz Festival in Melbourne in June. Further performances are scheduled throughout 2018.
A Note on the Review
This review, in its earlier sections, draws upon an interview the author had with Anne M Carson in July, 2016, when 'Massaging Himmler' was still in preparation.
Bob Morrow grew up in Sydney, and settled in Melbourne after ten years wandering the world. His poems frequently explore matters of family, belonging and a sense of place. Long a keen body surfer, at 71 he finds the big waves on Bass Strait beaches are becoming increasingly intimidating, and he is spending more and more time cycling the trails of Melbourne and regional Victoria on his 80-year-old bicycle.