Ernst Lothar, The Vienna Melody

Ernst Lothar, The Vienna Melody. Europa Editions, 2015; 19631

We went to Vienna via Zurich and Salzburg last month. When we returned it seemed a good time to turn to this hefty family saga (just under 600 pages). As its title indicates, it’s set in the capital of Austria (previously the Austro-Hungarian empire) 1880-late 1930s. It immediately had me gripped.

More particularly, its setting is largely the imposing three-storey house (later extended to four storeys) on the corner of Annagasse and 10 Seilerstätte (a real address: see a picture on Google maps), home to the Alt family (their name is not too subtly symbolic), whose modest fortune was made from their piano manufacturing business. Mozart played one of their earlier instruments, proudly displayed (but too dilapidated to be playable any more) in one of their rooms.

At the heart of the narrative is the troubled marriage of the present (in 1880) proprietor of the factory, Franz, aged 36, and his new wife Henriette, daughter of a Jewish professor. He’s so besotted that he overlooks her lack of love for him, and her pining for the handsome son of the Emperor, with whom she’d had an affair. She felt hurt and rejected when her royal lover took up with other women, and married one of them.

Early in the novel he summons her to make an extraordinary request. Her refusal precipitates a dramatic turn of events that haunts her for the rest of her life. Meanwhile, she has to learn to try to fit in to the hostile atmosphere in the house she has to adapt to after her marriage to Franz. The rest of the extended Alt family who live there view her with a mix of hostility and anti-Semitic suspicion.

Over time, the focus shifts to Henriette and Franz’s children, and in particular their sensitive son Hans. Mentally and emotionally scarred by his experience in WWI, on his return from the trenches he marries an academically brilliant fellow student, also Jewish, who becomes a prominent actress. The novel’s slowly accreting but always engrossing narrative and rich characterisation become increasingly nerve-shredding as the Nazi party rises to power. The Jewish characters face a deadly and brutally violent faction that horrifyingly takes a grip even on the outwardly respectable bourgeoisie like the Alt family.

The outsider’s image of Vienna as a stately, civilised centre of art, music, culture and socio-political stability is irrevocably shattered. Through our investment in this large cast of characters, portrayed with great subtlety and skill, we feel with increasing trepidation the decline of an empire into savagery, turmoil and intolerance. There’s a ray of hope in the figure of Hans.

Just one aspect of this edition annoyed me: the numerous typos. These appear on almost every page, at times even obscuring meaning.

Ernst Lothar was born in Brünn, Austria-Hungary (now Brno, Czech Republic) in 1890. He was a writer, theatre director and producer. He died in 1974.

Julian Barnes, Elizabeth Finch

Julian Barnes, Elizabeth Finch. Vintage, 2023 (20221)

I didn’t get on with this, Julian Barnes’ latest novel, at all well. Mrs TD tried it first, and gave up after about 40 pages; I persevered, thinking it might get better. It didn’t.

Elizabeth Finch, the rather smug narrator tells us (I can’t even remember his name), is an electrifying, inspirational lecturer, but I have no idea what her academic speciality is. We’re given long, tedious examples of her supposedly brilliant, off-piste, epigrammatic discourse on ancient (religious) history, and in particular that of Julian the Apostate.

For some reason this narrator and his fellow students are in their thirties. Their motives for studying this nebulous ‘subject’ – whatever it is – are unclear. When our adoring narrator feels the need to commemorate his teacher, we’re given in full his essay on Julian, the opponent of Christian theology. I suppose this section of the novel is about 20 pages long, but it seemed longer.

Then the novel meanders to an inconclusive ending. Was he in love with Elizabeth Finch? It seems that way, but I couldn’t summon enough interest to speculate on the nature of this love. Did she have a secret lover? This is a question that intrigues only our narrator; this reader couldn’t have cared less.

I’ve posted about two of Julian Barnes’ recent novels. The Only Story : the not very gripping story of a young man’s passion for an older woman.

The Noise of Time : a more successful account of the composer Shostakovich and his travails as an artist under Soviet dictatorship.

I enjoyed the early novels of Julian Barnes, but the quality of his fiction hasn’t reached the same standard again, in my view. It’s good that he’s always trying something different with each new novel, but that’s about the most I can say on a more positive note.

New York noir: Paul Auster, Invisible

Paul Auster, Invisible (Faber, 2009) I must have bought this hardback edition when it came out in the UK at a time when I was still enthusiastic about Auster’s fiction. Since then, I’ve had disappointing experiences with his work (so much so that I haven’t posted about them here – except for one, noted below). This, however, is one of his better efforts – despite some over-fussy tricksiness that has become rather a cliché in his narrative approach.

The first part, for example, is a first-person narrative in the voice of the protagonist, Adam Walker, a second-year undergrad at Columbia, NYC, and an aspiring poet. It’s 1967, and he meets at a party a fascinating but sinister Franco-German professor of politics called Rudolf Born (that’s another of PA’s not-so-subtle mannerisms: the suggestive names), and his lovely partner, Margot. This being Auster, Adam is angelically handsome (like his sister), Born is terrifyingly clever (and worryingly bigoted and a tad aggressive and sarcastic), while beautiful Margot is a bit of a cipher in the role of sort-of femme fatale.

Born makes Adam an unlikely offer of literary work. The young man, who has reservations about Born’s motives, is naïve and ambitious enough to accept. He has the inevitable and over-signposted affair with Margot (who’s ten years older than him, so even more of a young man’s fantasy figure), and then things go decidedly pear-shaped. Adam’s sense of morality is severely tested.

The second part, as our narrator intrusively points out, is in the second person – a device that doesn’t really work here. Adam has gone to Paris, and the plot with Born and Margot becomes even more noirish. The third part, set thirty years later, has a different (third-person) narrator. Here most of the loose ends of the unlikely plot are tied up. The final part is focused on one of the Parisian characters Adam had met, who has now also become entangled in Born’s schemes.

Invisible is almost a success. It’s quite an exciting (if highly implausible and over-crafted) plot, and there are some genuine, quite shocking surprises and revelations. This managed to hold my attention sufficiently not to give up. I found the foregrounded artifice off-putting. It all became a bit too ‘See how cleverly I deploy the post-modern tropes, while keeping a complex story on course?’

Interesting, then, and entertaining, but not great. And Adam Walker, as his name is perhaps meant to suggest, is just too pedestrian and plodding. Like the demonic Born and most of the women characters, he’s two-dimensional.

Invisible is nevertheless more rewarding than the only other Auster novel I’ve posted on here at TDays: Mr Vertigo.