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.

Zurich, Salzburg and Vienna; Hustvedt, Cather, Bulgakov

This month’s reading has again been reduced by pressures of work, but also by travel. With Mrs TD I went to Vienna for a few days, stopping off en route (all by train – a great way to travel and see the snow-covered mountains close up) at Zurich and Salzburg for a few days each. Good to see memorials in these places to the artists who’d lived there: James Joyce in Zurich; in the same city The Cabaret Voltaire, where the founders of Dadaism used to meet, was empty and boarded up, unfortunately.

Salzburg was also where Stefan Zweig lived for some years; his villa sits high on a hill overlooking the city, and there’s a bronze bust of him nearby. I’ve posted here on two of his novels, both of which I enjoyed: The Post Office Girl and Beware of Pity. Mozart is of course associated with Salzburg, his birthplace, and Vienna, where he lived and worked.

There we managed only a few of the many museums and galleries – Klimt and the other artists of the early 20C were our prime targets, but we also made a point of going to the Sigmund Freud museum. This is where he and his family lived, and where he developed his theories of psychoanalysis on the basis of the clients he saw and treated (is that the right word?) there.

Now for the month’s reading:

Siri Hustvedt, What I Loved Sceptre, 2016; 20031

I nearly abandoned this during the first third, but then it picked up and I finished it. I can’t say I really liked it, though. A New York art critic (whose wife is a literary critic) and an avant garde artist (whose wife is a poet – you see the basis of my resistance to this novel) become friends. There are too many high-octane discussions involving art theory, literary theory, philosophy, and long descriptions of the artist’s work, and these tend to clog the narrative. Even when the plot picks up as their respective sons grow up and problems arise, I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm for the proceedings.

Willa Cather, My Ántonia VMC no.22, 1990; 19181

I got on with this one far better – at least, for its first third. Here we get the fascinating story of a young man’s journey west from Virginia to the vast empty plains of Nebraska, to live with his paternal grandparents after the death of his parents. On the journey he meets the Shimerda family, which includes Ántonia (the stress is on the first syllable). They’re from what Cather calls Bohemia, and only Ántonia speaks much English.

She and her family become the narrator Jim’s pioneer farming neighbours, and a firm friendship grows up between them. There are some great anecdotes along the way: Jim kills a huge snake, two Russian neighbours are said to have been involved in a gruesome sleigh journey beset by wolves…

The final two thirds dragged more. The central characters become adults and go their different ways. The lure of the town introduces tensions in the friendships of the various young women and men, and some of them struggle to maintain equilibrium. You’d expect the plot to involve a romance between the two central characters, but Cather avoids doing this. I’m not sure she pulls off what she does try to do with them. It’s a good read, though.

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Fatal Eggs Alma Classics, 2020; 19251. Translated by Roger Cockrell.

A satire on early Soviet Russian ineptitude and bureaucracy that taps into the sort of dystopian sci-fi of an author Bulgakov admired: HG Wells. The plot bears some resemblance to The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and The Food of the Gods (1904). As in these two novels, the plot involves demonstrating the disasters that can ensue when scientists play god and dabble with the ways of nature. In that respect it also owes a debt to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. For my various posts on this seminal gothic novel there’s a link HERE.

Professor Persikov is an eminent zoologist who accidentally discovers a light ray that stimulates and accelerates fertility in the creatures on which he’s experimenting. When agents of the state hear about the remarkable results, they want to exploit the possibilities of his discovery by using his techniques to increase productivity of animals bred for food. Being inept and bureaucratic, they make blunders, and all sorts of mayhem follows.

The satire is fairly heavy-handed, but the narrative rattles along at a pleasing pace, and there’s some wry dark humour (and some gruesome retribution from the animal world – as in Frankenstein).  The novella is just over a hundred pages long, so can be enjoyed easily in a couple of sittings.

I’ve posted on several of the titles in this Alma Classics set of Bulgakov’s fiction:

The Master and Margarita

 The White Guard

 A Young Doctor’s Notebook

Another satire on unethical scientists, A Dog’s Heart

 

 

Not so magic mountain: Sebastian Faulks, Snow Country

Sebastian Faulks, Snow Country. Vintage, 2022. First published 2021

I went last month to Cyprus with Mrs TD for my brother’s wedding (he lives there: wanted sunshine after years of dreich Aberdeen). I read Sebastian Faulks’s new novel, Snow Country, on the journey there. I’d probably have given up on it after a hundred pages if I’d started it at home.

I read somewhere that this is part of the author’s ongoing project to write fiction that deals with matters concerning the treatment of people with mental health problems. Unfortunately this plays only a peripheral part in what is in fact a historical romance.

The fractured structure doesn’t help with the dragging pace. Part one is set in Vienna in 1914. Anton is not a psychologist, however, but an aspiring journalist. He falls in love with Delphine, a French governess to a wealthy family’s children. When war breaks out she disappears, leaving him bereft and heartbroken.

Then it’s 1927 and a new set of characters abruptly appears. Part three jumps ahead to 1933, to a mountain-top asylum (hence the novel’s title) for (finally) those people with mental health problems. These various storylines and some of the characters come together. But they do so very slowly, and the asylum setting is pretty inconsequential. The inmates/patients appear only in the background; it’s the proprietors and staff Faulks is interested in. The unsubtle echoes of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain serve little purpose, and come to nothing.

We get a lot of the history of the asylum and the people who founded it; too much, in fact. Faulks’s research is intrusively apparent. The central love stories eventually resolve themselves in ways that could have been deeply moving and satisfying, but somehow they just don’t quite come to life as one would have hoped – it all feels too forced. I felt the author was more interested in the setting and its back story than in these rather insipid characters he’s placed there.

I much preferred the only other Faulks novel I’ve posted on: Paris Echo (link HERE).

England has been sweltering in a heatwave – like most of Europe – this past week. Here in Cornwall it’s usually much cooler, and sea breezes have kept the temperature down. As I write this it’s started raining (with thunder) and it’s more like a normal July summer – but central England is forecast to hit over forty degrees. Hotter than Cyprus!

 

 

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: a hidden inheritance. Vintage books paperback, 2011. First published 2010

I posted recently on the secret Cornish garden of some neighbour friends and their handsome Siamese cats. One of these friends lent me a copy of this book. I finished it with some powerful mixed feelings.

Edmund de Waal expresses some conflicting feelings about the book himself just a few pages from the end; he tells an acquaintance that he’s writing a book about…and stumbles to a halt:

I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or is still a book about small Japanese things.

De Waal Hare Amber Eyes coverIt’s all of those things – uncategorizable. Ostensibly it is about the provenance of his collection of over 200 netsuke – the small ivory or wooden objects crafted by Japanese artists well over a century ago. Originally intended as ornamental but useful toggles to hang from cords attached to traditional dress, they became sought after objets d’art in late 19C Europe, during the Japonisme craze, when they first entered the collection of one of de Waal’s Ephrussi ancestors in Paris.

From there they migrated as a wedding present to another family member in Vienna. They subsequently travelled via Japan to England and were inherited by de Waal.

But this is not just a cute social history of Europe in 200 objects. It’s a profile of a wealthy, important Proustian family told not from the viewpoint of an academic historian, but by a person deeply connected emotionally and genetically to the subject – his own family.

His Jewish ancestors made their fortune originally in Odessa, importers and exporters of Russian grain. From there they expanded into banking, with branches in several major European capitals. But as a Jewish family based largely in Vienna, they were dangerously vulnerable to the vicious ‘final solution’ of the Nazis, culminating in the holocaust.

Another involuntary diaspora of the Ephrussi family ensued.

Hare netsuke

Hare netsuke from the collection, in the public domain via Wikimedia Images, attribution: Lostrobots / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

De Waal gives a highly personal, deeply moving account of this only too well-known tragic and shameful period of history. These are people he’s enabled us to get to know, with their love affairs and foibles, their poignant attempts to fit in to an Austrian society which only superficially accepts them, but ultimately despises them. They are outsiders, resented, and the Anschluss gives their bigoted, hypocritical Christian neighbours the opportunity to release all the pent-up animosity and envy that they’d harboured for decades.

I found the book a deeply moving and sometimes upsetting experience, but I admit to some misgivings in my response. It’s probably a kind of inverted snobbery to find the long descriptions of the sumptuous opulence of the Ephrussi palaces, packed with mismatched and priceless artworks, furniture and other stuff, and the fraternising with royalty, aristocracy and famous artists and writers, just a little too Downton Abbey at times.

This is not a noble response, I know, and this doesn’t diminish the horror I felt at the inevitable brutality of the persecutions, humiliations and terror the family underwent at the hands of the most despicable people Europe has known.

It’s gratifying to read about the last major Ephrussi that de Waal tells us about in detail: his much-loved great-uncle Iggy, living with increasing happiness with his Japanese companion, and finally restoring the netsuke to a home that appreciates them. As Edmund de Waal did himself when he inherited them.

He spends much of the last third of the book profiling his brilliant grandmother, Elisabeth. She was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Vienna, gained a doctorate and became a lawyer. In the twenties she married a Dutchman named Hendrik de Waal, and settled into domesticity in England in the thirties. She was a poet, corresponded with Rilke, and wrote five novels; one of these, a semi-autobiographical family history set in Vienna in the 1950s, and referred to frequently in The Hare, was published in 2013 as The Exiles Return, and is now available as a Persephone Books paperback.