To know more about this project, and for image credits for the button, please read the Travel with books project page.
Vienna is my second take at this project, and it took me ages to get down and write this post. Oh well, I am nothing if not disorganized! I ended up reading 7 books based (at least partly) in Vienna, which I visited last summer. Disclaimer: I know Vienna better than the 10 days spent there last summer, seeing as I used to live there and visited regularly ever since. Yet this project actually opened my eyes on something, and I am glad it did!
My reading list:
- Daniel Silva, A Death in Vienna
- Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book *
- Louis James, Xenophobe’s Guide to Austrians
- Joseph Roth, Radetzky March
- Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark
- Martin Mucha, Papierkrieg
- Erik Fosnes Hansen, Psalm at Journey’s End *
Links are to my thoughts about each book, asterisks are books that are only partly set in Vienna. Papierkrieg is only available in German.
The books I read are very different from one another, but in none of them will you find the Imperial Vienna of palaces and music that most tourists are regularly shown. The only one vaguely hinting at that kind of world is Roth’s novel, which in fact is a strong critique of everything that society turned into.
It strikes me as odd, thinking about it now, that the two books by Austrian authors I read (Roth’s and Mucha’s) are the two that most mercilessly describe the bad faces and the dark corners of the Viennese society of their age. There is no hiding here, no way of embellishing things, no golden façade. You may well visit Princess Sissi’s palaces and listen to Mozart concerts, but that’s makes you the most cliché of tourists.
Now, the books I read by non-Austrian authors seem to be connected by something else: the presence in Vienna of Jews. In People of the Book it’s a given, but the Viennese section of Psalm at Journey’s End is also focused on a Jewish family, not to mention A Death in Vienna, which has the Jewish community and Austria’s Nazi past as the core of the story. (There may or may not be Jews in The Drawing of the Dark, but they do appear as side characters in Radetzky March.)
I had not realized it before, but there still is a strong Jewish community in Vienna — and a strong deployment of police in the synagogue area on Saturday mornings. There are still strong feelings, basically in the shape of trying to forget all about it / never mention anything. Austrian try hard to forget their role in the Shoah, the way you try not to think about a bad memory. Brooks captured it well in her book:
I noticed that when I walked with him near the Hofburg, he always went out of his way to avoid Heldenplatz, the Hero’s Square. It was only much later that I came across the famous picture of that square, taken in March 1938. In the photograph, it is packed with people, some of them clinging to the gigantic equestrian statues to get a better view, all of them cheering as Hitler announced the incorporation of his birth nation into the Third Reich.
Of course I’m not saying that Austrian don’t accept their responsibility, or that the subject is taboo, but rather that they try to ignore the elephant in the room. A friend of mine, who also used to live in Vienna, noticed that Viennese people never mention the monument to the Austrian victims of the Shoah, and if someone mentions it, they’ll say it’s ugly. The monument represents a library the books of which cannot be read, as a memorial to the huge amount of Jewish wisdom and learning that was lost in the Shoah. I agree it is ugly, but willingly so: it’s meant to be disturbing, as the memory of all that happened to the Jews is disturbing.
On the square, there is a sign explaining the monument, and it reads as follows (capitalization as is in the original):
The “Memorial to the Austrian Jewish Victims of the Shoah” reminds us of the 65,000 jews murdered during the Nazi regime. The outer sides of the reinforced concrete cube by british artist Rachel Whiteread (*1963) present themselves as library shelves. 41 names of places where Austrian jews were murdered are engraved around the bottom of the monument. The object is a symbol for the jewish culture of books, which not only offers a sphere of refuge, but also stands as a living sign for the surviving jewish mind.
I’d like to finish with another reading list, of more books about Vienna that I wish I may read sometime:
- In My Mother’s House by Margaret McMullan
- The Fig Eater by Jody Shields
- The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer
- An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
- The Chess Machine by Robert Löhr
- Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell
And a more cheerful image to leave you with: