Eva Menasse

Eva Menasse: Vienna

My mother’s family were devoted to Vienna. They lived in a small town just inside the Hungarian border and could reach Vienna in a hour or so on the efficient railway service that was one of the most enduring legacies of the Habsburg Empire. My mother had no memories of Vienna in its heyday, but her mother and aunt remembered how they were often taken there by their parents in the early years of the twentieth century, before the disaster of 1914, to enjoy the delights of the imperial capital. My grandmother remembered particularly the heart-stopping ride she once had on the Riesenrad, the great Ferris wheel in the Prater. My great-aunt, the more artistic of the two, had vivid memories of a ballet performance she saw from the uppermost gallery of the great Opera House. Both recalled the hours the family spent strolling along the elegant streets of the First District, enchanted by the luxurious shop-windows and the exquisitely dressed ladies and gentleman taking the summer or spirng air. They hiked in the Vienna Woods and admired the cathedral’s soaring steeple and the vast expanse of Hofburg.

These were the things they remembered – images familiar a century later from tourist-brochures. in Vienna nothing seems to have changed; the Viennese are past-masters at self-publicity. Yet when my mother’s family visited the city, particularly in the grim years between the two wars, they came up against another Vienna, the Vienna where several of their relatives led hard lives in poky flats far from the glamour of the City of Dreams. These were middle-class people, shopkeepers and tailors; commercial travellers and elementary schoolteachers, hairdressers and boot-makers. Almost incidentally, they were Jews, though none of them observed the rites of Judaism and some had converted or entered into marriages with Catholics. They thought of themselves as Austrians, as Viennese above all, and, despite their relatively humble status, they were highly conscious of their station in the world and the ceremonies and rituals it demanded. In my provincial family’s eyes they represented the height of elegance and metropolitan sophistication.

Those people, and most of their world, disappeared after Hitler’s triumphant entry into Vienna in March 1938. They come to life again in this sparkling first novel. Eva Menasse was born in Vienna in 1970 and now lives in Berlin. Vienna tells the story of four generations: the narrator’s grandparents and parents, her brothers and sisters and some of their children. They belonged to the same sector of society as my mother’s Viennese relatives, though at a somewhat higher social and economic level than those long-dead members of my own family. The narrator’s grandfather was a wholesaler of wines and spirits, a con-man and a charmer, an occasional gaolbird too, an enthusiastic football fan and an expert bridge-player. Her grandmother was a Catholic from Moravia who spoke such precise High German that everyone imagined that she came from the Reich itself. At the beginning of Menasse’s novel, the narrator’s father, the second of two brothers, is born on top of his mother’s fur coat – she stayed too long at the café playing bridge and ogling the handsome head waiter. The remainder of this wonderful book charts the fortunes of an ever-increasing family as they struggle to survive the horror of Nazism and, later on, as they try to deal with the ambiguities and paradoxes of their Austrian-Jewish background.

Menasse is a wonderfully gifted writer, very well served by this lively and idiomatic English version. In essence, Vienna is a collection of anecdotes swaying back and forth between past and present. But such is Menasse’s skill that the structure of her novel is all-but-seamless: it seems the most natural thing in the world to tell that family history in this manner. The characters are vivid and memorable, none more so perhaps than Aunt Gustl, the narrator’s great-aunt, a convert to Catholicism who had managed to trap a dim-witted but impeccably Aryan husband, “Dolly”, into her all-embracing grip. Her attempt to save her equally dim-witted son Nandl, Vienna’s least accomplished forger of cheques, at a time when she claims to be on her death-bed, is one of the many moments of high comedy in this remarkable book. Gustl tries (unsuccessfully as it turns out) to bully an influential public servant into quashing the prosecution against Nandl by giving him an expensive box of chocolates. Of course expected to succeed, for, as the narrator remarks, “in Vienna, more than anywhere else, corruption is quite often the result of extreme embarrassment.” Her failure sends her scurrying back to her bed.

Many other memorable characters move effortlessly over the surface of this accomplished novel. There are football stars and blackmarketeers, Nazi sympathisers and communists, eternally squabbling members of a tennis club and a large, noisy family which, for all its peculiarity, is bursting with life and vigour. Menasse’s narrative embraces worlds far removed from Vienna: wartime England and a tuberculosis sanatorium in Canada and also the jungles of Burma where two British soldiers are killed by tins of pineapple dropped from a supply plane. Vienna is one of the funniest books to have come my way for many years. Yet, despite its lightness, grace and irony, the book often came close to bringing tears to my eyes. Here is a superb commemoration of a lost world, a world that lives on in the family legends I have inherited and cherished, as Menasse seems to have cherished hers. The disappearance of these vain, often strutting people, so conscious of their dignity, so quick to take offence at the least slight or breach of decorum, so confirmed in their frequently pig-headed attitudes was a calamity from which Vienna has never recovered.

These days, the great monuments of the city are as resplendent as ever – you only have to watch an episode or two of Inspector Rex to realise that. The cafés are still there, oozing comfy charm. A few elegant people can still be seen strolling along the Graben and the Kärtnerstrasse. Portly matrons, one or two still in hats, continue to consume vast quantities of chocolate, meringue and whipped cream in Demel’s and Lehmann’s and also in the somewhat more downmarket Aida, where someone had the nerve to buy a cake to give to Aunt Gustl. Yet, for me at least (and perhaps for Menasse too) Vienna is a ghost-city, which lives most vividly in books like this – and also of course in Thomas Bernhard’s far more vicious though equally heart-breaking tirades, lightly disguised as novels.

The Book

Menasse, Eva:Vienna / transl. by Anthea Bell. - London :
Weidenfeld&Nicolosn, 2006. 298 S. ISBN 0-297-85109-8
Original title: Vienna (German)

Andrew Riemer taught at Sydney University for many years and is the chief book reviewer of The Sydney Morning Herald. His books include Inside Outside and Sandstone Gothic

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