Thursday, January 21, 2016

Book Review: The Vienna Melody (1944) by Ernst Lothar

Now this is what I call a national literary epic. In this case the country is Austria, and like any NLE worth its salt, the action of the novel takes place over several generations and is bound up with key historical moments in the country's past. The setting is Vienna and the central characters are members of the Alt dynasty, a haute bourgeoisie family who have lived in an imposing home in one of Vienna's better districts since the late 1700s. The Alts made their fortune as piano makers to the stars, as it were; Mozart performed The Magic Flute on an Alt piano. The Alt home at 10 Seillerstatte is really a small apartment building that holds several branches of the family, all of whom are well-connected and respected in Viennese society.

The story begins in 1888 with Franz Alt, heir to the Alt piano company, marrying Henriette Stein, the daughter of a university professor and an opera singer. The other Alts are mildly scandalized by this union. Henriette is half-Jewish and, what might be worse, Franz wants to add a fourth floor to the Alt house to accommodate his new bride. Henriette is not in love with Franz, she's simply marrying because that's what's expected of her. She's actually having an affair (platonic, so far) with Prince Rudolf, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On her wedding day Rudolf kills himself and his mistress at Mayerling, the country retreat of the Habsburgs. This symbolic event marks the beginning of the decline and fall of both the Alt family and Austria over the next fifty years.

Henriette's first child is Hans, born in 1890, and it's Hans and his mother who become the main characters in the novel. Henriette is a rebel against the stunted, circumscribed emotional lives of Vienna's upper classes. Her tragedy is that her rebellion finds expression in an adulterous affair that ends in a fatal duel, and, what might be worse, a love for her four children that isn't shared out equally. The children she loves most are Hans and her last child, Martha Monica, the latter being the result of her illicit affair. Hans is also a rebel, although, like his mother, a rather ineffectual one. He doesn't want to join the family firm but can't really find a place for himself in the defeated and ruined Austria that emerges after World War One.  Both characters sense and want change, but, like their country, they're trapped in the amber of tradition, social respectability and obedience to authority.

Lothar is a wonderful writer, and it seems odd this book isn't more famous. He's able to switch effortlessly from micro to macro views of Vienna and Austria, the characters are brilliantly realized, the plot is inventive and unpredictable, the era's political changes are smoothly described, and he even manages to incorporate actual characters from history such as Hitler and Freud without any awkwardness. He also created two exceptionally fascinating female characters in Henriette and Selma, Hans' wife; in fact, the pair of them are probably the most interesting and complex characters in the novel. It's also a nice touch that the Alts are in the piano business, since, in symbolic terms, music represents the heart of Austrian culture. The Vienna Melody would also be a great companion piece to The Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklos Banffy (my review), an epic about the Austro-Hungarian Empire set in the decade before World War One.

A word of warning: I read the Europa Editions (picture above) translation of The Vienna Melody, and it was absolutely stuffed with typos. A world record, in fact. Misspelled words, transpositions, words repeated, errant capitalization, it had a little bit of everything. This was either the product of a corrupted Word file or a proofreader suffering a nervous breakdown. It was quite distracting, so if you can find it from another publisher, go for it.

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