Wystan and Chester: A Personal Memoir of W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman
Thekla Clark describes herself as “a giddy young woman… no intellectual,” and “aggressively heterosexual,” not the ideal qualifications for the subject, one would have thought, but quite wrongly. Her portraits of both Auden and Kallman are truer, and, in a seemingly offhand manner, as penetrating as any of those by their other memoirist friends. Adding to her non-aptitudes, Mrs. Clark claims to be unmusical, yet she perfectly catches the nuances and intonations of Wystan’s and Chester’s voices, simply, as their friends would have to attest, by quoting them believably.
The first third of the narrative takes place in Ischia in the early 1950s, the remainder in Kirchstetten between 1959 and Auden’s death in 1973. After the author’s marriage to John Clark, her house in Florence provided Wystan and Chester respite from lower Austria as well as, more often than not, from each other. The Italian years were comparatively idyllic for the two poets, and a time of “suspended innocence” for the twenty-four-year-old woman from Oklahoma. The Austrian period began auspiciously: Wystan was happy at last to have his own home, and Vienna, only a short drive away, was one of the world’s great opera centers. But separations were frequent and Wystan grew increasingly lonely during the months that he stayed in New York. Soon Chester met and became infatuated with Yannis Boras, a twenty-one-year-old Greek who would become his lover for the next five years, until Yannis’s untimely death in an automobile accident. Mrs. Clark suggests, plausibly, that the failure of the opera Elegy for Young Lovers, whose libretto was largely Chester’s work, precipitated his eventual move to Athens, and hence away from hostile reviewers in London and New York. Chester, looking for another Yannis, was seldom thereafter without a young Greek companion.
Mrs. Clark publishes excerpts from a handful of Wystan’s letters to her, one of them containing the first version of his poem “For Friends Only,” and many more of them from Chester, who emerges for the first time in her book as a person with dimensions of his own apart from his partnership with Auden. Chester’s early communications from Kirchstetten are upbeat and divertingly campy. The later ones from there, and more so those from Athens, expose a disturbed state of mind, even, when he began to refer to Boras as a saint, and himself as his “voice on earth,” a psychotic one. Once when Mrs. Clark was delinquent in writing to Chester, this always remiss correspondent told her “…one begins to brood that one has left an offesa behind…. I’m just an amateur paranoid, but I have my little twitches.” One of his communications from Athens ends: “And so I’m incoherent…. I’ll bore you further when I see you.” He “knew he was being criticized,” Mrs. Clark remarks, “judged both for himself and for what some considered his effect on Wystan.” Many thought that Chester, “as the lesser talent, should sacrifice himself to the greater,” and should feel content “to be the power behind the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.