A Waltz to the Music of Time
A novelist friend laughingly told me about getting lost recently while reading a mystery—but not lost in the book. Lost outside of it. She found a reference to The Seven Year’s War and because she wasn’t sure what that conflict was (it pitted most of Europe’s major powers against each other from 1754-63), she left her book to Google it. Online, she jumped from one intriguing website to another, ranging further and further afield from The French and Indian War, to Frederick the Great, then Prussian history, on to Bismark a century later. Suddenly she realized she had completely forgotten her book. “I was ‘gone’ for an hour and a half!”
I’d had similar experiences, though none of them as dramatic, and we talked about how we often interrupted ourselves now while reading, not in ordinary ways—to get some coffee, let the dogs out, go to the john, even check e-mail—but in ways directly connected to the book. Something in it piqued our curiosity and we had to stop reading, or felt we had to. The days of sinking into a book in happy oblivion of the world around us had almost vanished. Those were days we had grown up with and enjoyed even into adulthood, but they seemed infrequent.
We weren’t sure whether this was due to aging, our busy lives wearing on us, or the fragmented consciousness supposedly bred by web browsing (or all of these), but one thing we agreed on: it was a rare book that keep us transfixed anymore. A rare book that raised questions we could save for later, whether at the end of a chapter or the end of an hour. A book that made us pause not because we had to look something up, but because we wanted to re-read a passage, to mull over a question, to savor an image, to copy something down, or even to call a friend or lover to share a part of it. In short, a book whose spell was so powerful that not even the lure of the Internet could pull us away.
I’ve been lucky enough to find two books like that lately, books that I’ve read slowly in a state of wonder—and even slight anxiety because I haven’t wanted them to end. Both are by Frederick Morton, a novelist born in Austria who garnered two Pulitzer nominations and a great deal of acclaim for his book about the Rothschilds. These two amazing books are both about Vienna near the end of the life of that strange hybrid, Austria-Hungary: A Nervous Splendor and Thunder at Twilight.
Decay, fantasy, nostalgia and the march (or perhaps waltz) of time are Morton’s grand themes across both these books, especially as they relate to Vienna, the glorious overblown baroque capital city of a vast, multi-ethnic empire that was so complex and contradictory it might have been put together by a committee rather than the forces of history and the haphazard Hapsburgs.
Morton lyrically calls Austria-Hungary an “improbable empire ranging from yodelers on the Swiss border to muezzins chanting from minarets by the Turkish frontier . . . a chimera ancient, iridescent, and almost plausible through its perennial re-invention.”
At its heart and helm was Vienna, a city with an abnormally high suicide rate and a pervading sense of longing and nostalgia that was as ubiquitous as the concerts, carnivals and cotillions. It was a city on display to itself and the world, haunted by the sands running through the hourglass, yet it thought of itself as timeless, vaunting the expression “Wien bleibt Wien” (Vienna remains Vienna). Overwhelming wistfulness expressed itself in dozens of popular songs that “sighed of a love not for a woman or a man but for Vienna; for that rainbow of a town fraying away exquisitely between vineyard and Danube; for streets in which the girls were beautiful because the house were old: for a world whose doom was its enchantment.”
Morton’s genius is multi-faceted and extends beyond his gift for rhapsodic but also strikingly precise prose. He weaves together protocol, pomposity and politics in Thunder at Twilight to show how Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, was desperate to keep his country out of war with fierce and surprisingly powerful Serbia. The Prince predicted exactly what would happen: the end of the Empire amid disaster.
Arrayed against him are ministers and generals who underestimate Serbia, and an emperor who has sat on the thrown for over six decades and quietly deplores his heir’s vehemence. There’s a profound personal element to Franz Ferdinand’s anger, too: his wife is not of royal blood and she is consistently, bizarrely slighted in every single imperial gathering, and often made to feel like a nonperson. She can’t appear with her husband, sit by him, walk alongside him—all because of official imperial protocol.
Those indignities extend even to the way her corpse and his were treated after their deaths. Franz Ferdinand seems almost driven to the point of frenzy by the court and governmental idiocies that nearly strangle him—which makes his assassination in Sarajevo 1914 doubly, triply tragic, though many at the center of power in Vienna barely seem to have been moved by it.
The book is magical in evoking lost times, lost delights and lost causes. Morton never lets us forget the fact that while Vienna was a sophisticated metropolis, it was close to woods and mountains and they exerted a hypnotic, healing effect on Vienna's citizens of all ranks. Speaking about springtime, Morton writes “Even the most bilious townsman couldn’t help knowing that the Vienna Woods undulated only a few streetcar stops away. And here the lilacs exhaled their sweetness, the baby leaf waved its miracle green, and the zither called from the vintner's garden. Together they seduced politics into pleasure. . . . Vienna experienced spring as yet another urban fancy, opulent and stylish, moving through its dream of history.”
It also at times feels like a Tom Stoppard play, for while Franz Ferdinand and the inevitable assassination loom always ahead, he’s not the only larger-than-life figure in the book whose path we follow in and out of Vienna. A handful of famous and infamous figures crisscross the theatrical stage that was Vienna and sometimes they even meet: Stalin, Trotsky, Lenin, Freud, Hitler. Vienna has a profound impact on all of them, for good or ill.
The felicities of style, observation and insight keep multiplying as you read the book and they reach their apogee in the tragic tumble into war after Fran Ferdinand's assassination. As many books as I’ve read about World War I, I’ve never read about its onset as a failure of stage management on an epic scale. But then everything in Vienna seemed to have been predicated on surfaces and style above all. After the elaborate festivities on All Souls Day when people visited and decorated family graves, newspapers rated the achievements for nuance versus vulgarity. Under the rule of Franz Ferdinand, Morton notes, “animation had petrified into décor. Decor—not dynamics.”
Freud’s war with Jung is a central thread in the book, and Morton amusingly sees Freud as having unconsciously modeled himself on the Emperor—at least in terms of his “subjects”—the other members of the Psycho-analytic Society.
Freud has a bigger role to play in Morton’s book A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888/1889, which braids together the themes above but with less of a sense of the boom about to fall. Though even here we see the Austrian Empire on the skids. Despite the undertow oft tradition and depression that casts its web of suicide, its central figures like Klimt, Herzel, Arthir Schnitzler, Mahler are all fighting their way to significance and the battle here is between youth and the way things have always been done. Its primary victim is Crown Prince Rudolf, a charming, dynamic, forward-thinking man who might have been a reformer had he lived to succeed his father. Unfortunately, he suffered the fate Ralph Touchett laments about to Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady: “You wanted to look at life for yourself—but you were not allowed; you were punished for your wish. You were ground in the very mill of the conventional!”
There’s nothing conventional about Morton’s story-telling in these books, and everything extraordinary. Over-used reviewers' labels like “lyrical” and “brilliant” barely do justice to his accomplishments, because these aren’t just books to savor once. They are rich enough, dazzling enough to demand a second visit, if not more.
Books by Frederick Morton mentioned in this column:
A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889, (Penguin, 1990)
Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914, (Da Capo Press, 2001)
Lev Raphael grew up in New York but got over it and has lived half his life in Michigan where he found his partner of twenty-four years, and a certain small fame. He escaped academia in 1988 to write full-time and has never looked back. The author of nineteen books in many genres, and hundreds of reviews, stories and articles, he’s seen his work discussed in journals, books, conference papers, and assigned in college and university classrooms. Which means he’s become homework. Who knew? Lev’s books have been translated into close to a dozen languages, some of which he can’t identify, and he’s done hundreds of readings and talks across the U.S. and Canada, and in France, England, Scotland, Austria, Germany and Israel. His memoir My Germany was published in April 2009 by the University of Wisconsin Press. You can learn more about Lev and his work on his website. Lev has reviewed for the Washington Post, Boston Review, NPR, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Jerusalem Report and the Detroit Free Press where he had a mystery column for almost a decade. He also hosted his own public radio book show where he interviewed Salman Rushdie, Erica Jong, and Julian Barnes among many other authors. Whatever the genre, he's always looked for books with a memorable voice and a compelling story to tell. Contact Lev.