Given that two jaunts that have taken me to Vienna this year, Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake seemed an obvious choice. It’s also translated by Jamie Bulloch whose name I’ve come to associate with excellent fiction. Part of Peirene’s Fairy Tale series, Stift’s novella comes beautifully packaged in delicate pink and cream but beware: as we all know from the Brothers Grimm, fairy tales are often far from sweet and this one’s no exception.
Our unnamed narrator finds herself accosted by a black-clad woman, not unlike the Empress Elisabeth, perusing the delights of a Viennese patisserie window. A gugelhupf is far too much for her, would the young lady like to share one? Our narrator reluctantly agrees, then Frau Hohenembs, as she introduces herself, explains that even half is too much, insisting that her new acquaintance comes back to her apartment for coffee and cake. Once there, our narrator meets Ida, plump and dressed in what looks a little like a doctor’s coat. Sadly for her, this incident triggers a binging episode, fifteen years after she thought she’d rid herself of her eating disorder. A few days later, hearing rustling outside her door, she opens it to finds Ida encamped in her hallway – Frau Hohenembs is insisting on her presence. As she becomes entangled in Frau Hohenembs’ increasingly baroque schemes, horrified as her persecutor filches bits and pieces from the city’s museums including the royal cocaine syringe, she loses her battle with food, caught up in grim cycle of binging and purging.
Stift’s novella is a thought-provoking tale of madness, delusion and addiction, an exploration of the way in which the mind is able to construct elaborate and convincing scenarios for itself. Her writing is vivid, often graphically harrowing but there’s a rich vein of dark humour running through it. The coked-up dog and chorusing parrots add a particularly striking dash of lunatic comedy to the proceedings. Not a toothsome tale then but certainly an original and disturbing one which will stay with me for quite some time.
It’s a both a joy and a worry when a second novel appears on the horizon following one quite so spectacularly good as Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. Will it measure up or be a disappointment? What I hadn’t considered was that The Tobacconist would exceed my expectations. Very much darker than the A Whole Life which celebrated a simple life well lived, The Tobacconist is set in Vienna, opening in 1937 in the months before Germany annexed Austria.
For the son of a fisherman, Franz is a rather spoilt seventeen-year-old, his hands too soft for the hard labour of the salt mines where most young men work. The hefty cheque his mother gets every month from her wealthy lover has kept them both comfortable until the lover is struck on the head by a bolt of lightning while swimming in the local lake. Calling in a favour, Franz’s mother sets him up with a job at a Viennese tobacconist and packs him off on the train. When Franz arrives, Otto tells him that the most important part of his job is to read the newspapers. Soon, Franz knows the regulars’ names and idiosyncrasies, cramming his head with the esoteric knowledge of a tobacconists’ accoutrements and anticipating his customers’ desires. When a frail man appears asking for Virginias, Otto tells Franz that this is Professor Sigmund Freud. Even a boy from the Austrian backwoods has heard of Freud and soon, registering a yawning chasm in his life, Franz decides to approach him for advice, first on how to get a girl, then on how to keep her. Initially a little impatient, Freud begins to look forward to Franz’s visits and his stories of the Bohemian girl who dances at a hole-in-the-wall club compèred by a Hitler impersonator. Played out against a backdrop of political disenchantment, rife anti-Semitism and the arrival of the Gestapo which soon has the city in its grip, Seethaler’s novel follows Franz from his country bumpkin arrival into a manhood marked by bravery.
Franz begins this novel as a simple soul, a little over-indulged but with an eager questing mind, who ‘never really understood the business with the Jews’. As his character develops, Seethaler shows us Vienna through eyes which become increasingly appalled by what they see. Often plain and clipped, the writing is studded with vivid images: Vienna ‘seethed like the vegetable stew on Mother’s stove’; Otto intends to run his shop ‘until the good Lord rolls down my shutters’. Seethaler pokes some pleasing fun at the pretensions of Viennese society and there are some particularly amusing passages about Freud who at one point, no longer able to tolerate the laments of a vast Viennese matron, tells her ‘with his most piercing stare “stop eating cakes!”‘. Such simple, sometimes slapstick comedy, throws the dreadful events unfolding throughout the city into stark relief. It’s a triumph, one of the best books I’ve read this year. Seethaler has written two other novels, apparently. Let’s hope that Charlotte Collins who translated both A Whole Life and The Tobacconist so expertly, is busy working on one of them right now.
Bear with me – this is likely to turn into a long post. After last year’s successful jaunt in the Baltic states H and I decided that this year we’d take to the central European railways. We started in Berlin where, after two winter trips visiting a multitude of museums, we hoped to explore the city’s many green spaces. Beautiful weather on our first day saw us heading off to the Grunewald woods, a short S-Bahn ride away from central Berlin, along with lots of Berliners out enjoying the last days of summer, not to mention their dogs who may have popped into Pets’ Deli for a lip-smacking plate of fresh meat on their way for a swim. We spent the next few days walking our socks off – setting the tone for the rest of the holiday – admiring Berlin’s elegant architecture and parks with a trip out to Potsdam, a sweet little town half an hour away, where we had a nosy around the Russian colony with its gingerbread houses and large orchards. On one of our evening walks we stumbled upon Dussmann‘s a fabulous bookshop: three packed floors including a very respectably stocked English section.
Dresden was our next stop, full of florid architecture some of it rebuilt after the war when much of the city was fire bombed, including the Lutheran Frauenkirche which we visited along with umpteen other tourists. It would have been stunning without being told of its reconstruction but knowing that most of it had been painstakingly put back together using the rubble of its bombed ruins made it quite breathtaking. The beginnings of a heat wave curtailed our plans a little but we managed to fit in a lunch at the resplendently tiled and curlicued Pfunds Molkerai plus a look around the hipster Kunsthofpassage, its walls adorned with mosaics and murals.
The Molkerai would fit nicely into Karlovy Vary, a hilly Czech spa town packed with extravagant architecture including some lovely art nouveau buildings, where we spent the weekend: Bath with knobs on as H put it or as le Corbusier, perhaps a little more elegantly, dubbed it ‘a rally of cakes’. A favourite with Russians, it was stuffed with blingy shops but we loved it.
Onto Prague where it was beautiful but blisteringly hot. It wasn’t my first visit but a sprained ankle on the Charles Bridge put the kybosh on that particular holiday. This visit was much more successful. We spent most of our time wandering around admiring Prague’s many stunning buildings. Look up is the thing to do – even some of the grimmest shop fronts are graced with fabulously ornamented facades on their upper floors
We’d booked two nights in Brno the Czech Republic’s second city, hoping to visit the Villa Tugendhat, Mies van de Rohe‘s modernist masterpiece which inspired Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room. I’d been trying to reserve places for us on a guided tour for four months with no luck. Undeterred we set off anyway and were rewarded with a delightfully laid back day, very welcome after the seething masses of Prague. The villa is gorgeous, a work of genius. All white walls and glass it seems to float above the ground. Although we weren’t able to go inside we were allowed to wander around the garden pressing our noses to the window to see the equally lovely interior. The villa was the draw for us but there are a multitude of other things to see in Brno, so many that we regretted having booked only two nights. Definitely a place to revisit on another expedition.
Our arrival in Slovakia’s Bratislava for our last few days coincided with the EU summit rubbing salt in our Brexit wounds. It’s a sweet little town but truth be told we’d both tired of it within a day or so. A boat trip out to Danubiana, the city’s beautiful modern art showcase with its sculpture garden stuffed full of goodies, cheered us up no end. As part of their Miró exhibition they’d hit on the idea of mocking up his studio, which we’d visited in Palma last year, displaying several of his paintings as if he’d just completed them. It’s a great exhibition – vibrant tactile tapestries, sculpture and paintings all demonstrating the supreme talent of the man.
Given Bratislava’s limited charms and a late flight home from Vienna we decided to catch a morning train and spend our last afternoon there, despite a slightly disappointing visit earlier in the year. Lunch, a bit of culture at the Albertina then a plate of kaisershmarrn rounded off the holiday nicely. It was a wonderful trip, made easy by the spiffy transport links in the countries through which we traveled and their excellent websites. All credit and thanks due to H who painstakingly put it together.
And the books? Not much reading was done with so much hopping on and off trains plus researching the next destination but two stand out. My favourite was Wilton Barnhardt’s Lookaway, Lookaway, a very funny novel which lampoons the pretensions of the old families of the American South – loudly proclaimed Civil War connections, class, old v. new money – ending on a suitably histrionic note. Totally inappropriate for where we were but very enjoyable. Much more relevant was Emanuel Litvinoff’s The Lost Europeans. Originally published in 1958, Litvinoff’s first novel explores the legacy of the Second World War through the story of Martin Stone, visiting Berlin for the first time since he fled the Nazis with his parents aged nine. It’s an interesting period piece, enlightening and atmospheric for me having spent the first few days of the holiday in the city but cringe-makingly heavy-handed in its writing.
Back to real life for us both now, and back to books for the blog next week.
Readers of a certain age may remember Midge Ure moodily singing ‘Vienna’ on Top of the Pops way back when. So embedded in our consciousness did it become for H and me that whenever one says ‘it means nothing to me’ the other pipes up ‘Oh, Vienna’. We both managed to keep it under control on our hols but H failed miserably with the other inevitable earworm, zithering away under his breath just loud enough for me to catch it now and again. I spotted The Third Man playing at one of the many cinemas we walked past as I’m pretty sure it always is somewhere in the city.
Vienna seemed like an extension of last summer’s Baltic jaunt in a way, inhabiting as it does that area nineteenth century Germans called Mitteleuropa. After what felt like months of rain in the UK we were looking forward to a bit of chilly, snowy weather which is just what we got on the first day when we strode out along the Ringstrasse for breakfast. Much of our four days were spent on this horseshoe of streets stuffed full of imposing architecture. Vienna is very much the grand imperial city, looking back on its past glories rather than forwards. We were both struck by how conservative it felt, very different from Berlin. It’s also a city famous for its café culture – politicos and intellectuals pontificating about the world. Truth be told, we were more interested in cake than pontificating although we did do a bit of that. Whenever you walk into a Viennese café the first thing you see is an array of distractingly delectable cakes, impossible to resist and pointless to try. Our favourite was Cafe Central, a temple of delight with its lovely arched ceiling and enough history to have its own Wikipedia entry.
When not eating cake, looking up at art nouveau embellishments or the ubiquitous Hapsburg double-headed eagles and trying to avoid earworms we were visiting museums the best of which for me was Secession named after the movement, co-founded by Gustav Klimt, which designed it. The Vienna Secession was akin to Britain’s Arts and Crafts Movement, turning its back firmly on the art establishment and its obsession with the past. It’s a lovely building, crowned by a globe of golden laurels and gorgeously decorated on the outside. Unsurprisingly it was greeted with horror by the Viennese bourgeoisie when it was first built. Now it houses Klimt’s beautiful frieze, inspired by Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. MAK, Vienna’s equivalent to the V&A, was my other favourite with its delicately painted arched ceilings, somewhat marred by the giant inflatable figures squatting in the entrance hall as part of an installation. Great café, though! Our last day was bright and sunny so we headed for Palmenhaus – a bit like having your lunch in one of Kew’s glasshouses – and very fine it was, too. Our final stop was the Central for hot chocolate and cake, surely the only way to finish a Viennese holiday.
Appropriately enough, my favourite holiday book turned out to be by a Viennese native, Daniel Kehlmann’s Me andKaminski translated by the late great Carol Brown Janeway. It’s a smart, very funny novel which lampoons both the worlds of art and journalism with its story of Sebastian Zöllner, an arrogant, vain whippersnapper of an art critic hoping to make his name by writing the biography of Manuel Kaminksi, once the protégé of Matisse, now ageing and blind. Kehlmann takes us on a road trip in search of Kaminski’s lost love in which Zöllner manipulates, cons and lies to all and sundry only to be outdone at his own game. Excellent!
Back to real life now with all its attendant chores. Missing those breaks for kaffee und kuchen, particularly the kuchen.