Oh, Vienna, you double-faced city!

If you’ve ever come across Thomas Bernhard, you’ll know that he’s often called ‘the grumpy old man of Austrian literature’. He seemed to revile so much of Austrian society, history, smugness and hypocrisy, especially that of Vienna (which seemed to him the culmination of all things Austrian), that he even asked in his will that none of his works should be published (or his plays performed) there after his death. But he was far from the only Austrian writer who had a love-hate relationship with Austria – and with Vienna in particular. Nobel Prize winners Elfriede Jelinek and Peter Handke often launched into bitter invectives against the city, as did Karl Kraus. Even those who mourn the faded splendours of the city (and the death of a particular way of life) have very ambivalent feelings towards it: Elias Canetti, Joseph Roth, Schnitzler, Zweig. In fact, you can read a whole article about it in the Paris Review.

At a recent reunion with my international friends who all grew up in Vienna together, we realised that we all love the city, its beautiful architecture, the hills surrounding it, its rich cultural heritage, and above all its food (‘Mehlspeisen’ is the Austrian name for desserts, literally ‘floury meals’ and I’ve yet to meet someone who does not yearn for those extremely filling childhood joys). What do we remember less fondly? The rules and regulations, the ‘alles verboten’ draconian mentality, and the Viennese themselves. While I hesitate to put all Viennese in the same pot (some of my very good friends are Viennese), it’s undeniable that there is a schizophrenic element to the Viennese personality. Their renowned Gemütlichkeit (warmth, friendliness, geniality) and politeness makes you feel initially much more welcome than you might do in the northern reaches of Germany, but then you realise that hypocrisy, pretentiousness and a deep-rooted suspicion of strangers (which seems bizarre in a diverse former empire) are equally engrained. Give me a rude, straight-talking but honest Berliner or Hamburger any time, you might be tempted to say.

And yet, reading Thomas Bernhard‘s hilarious send-up of the Viennese artistic circles in Woodcutters (in the translation of David McLintock), I couldn’t help but fall in love again with that particular Wiener Schmäh – the black humour, often charming, frequently vicious – that is so characteristic of the city. The novel has the subtitle ‘eine Erregung’, which is usually used to describe sexual arousal, but could be translated in this context as an irritation or agitated rant. And this is exactly what it is. Our narrator is back in Vienna after a long period away. He runs into the Auersbergers, an artistic couple he used to be friends with three decades ago, and allows himself to be invited to a dinner party, which keeps getting postponed because the guest of honour, an actor at the Burgtheater, is late. While everyone is waiting and getting increasingly hungry, the narrator spends most of the rest of the book and the party seated in a wing-backed chair (the repetition of this phrase alone makes for a great comic effect), moaning and complaining about the people there and wondering why he ever accepted the invitation into a house and milieu that he thoroughly despises. He has been unnerved by the funeral of a formerly close friend who committed suicide (another staple in Bernhard’s fiction) and he really lets rip about his hosts and their guests.

… to think what these people have made of themselves in these thirty years!… All these people have contrived to turn conditions and circumstances that were once happy into something utterly depressing, I thought, sitting in the wing chair; they’ve managed to make everyting depressing, to transform all the happiness they once had into utter depression, just as I have…. All these people had come to Vienna in the fifties… hoping they would go far, as they say, but the farthest they actually went in Vienna was to become tolerably successful provincial artists, and the question is whether they would have gone any farther in any other so-called big city…

Of course, there is plenty to satirise in the vacuity and pretentiousness of the Viennese literary, musical and theatrical circles. Vienna is in many ways not a big city, not one of the world capitals. It is a city that was once the capital of an empire, but has now become a pretty piece of scenery and a backwater. None of its inhabitants accept that, of course. Culturally, at least (they tell themselves), they are still the belly-button of Europe. A new theatre director or conductor is headline news in Vienna, and everyone has an opinion about it. Apparently, the characters Bernhard mocks are so thinly veiled that they would have been perfectly recognisable at the time to any Austrian reader. The publishers feared libel suits and it was indeed soon banned.

Vienna is an art mill, the biggest art mill in the world, in which the arts and artists are ground down and pulverized year in, year out; whatever the art or whatever the artists, the Viennese art mill grinds them all to powder… and the curious thing is that all these people jump into this art mill entirely of their own volition…

But Bernhard does not just mock the guests. The narrator himself is also on the carving block. The way he paces up the Graben and down the Kärntner Strasse, then up the Kärntner Strasse and down the Graben again (two famous pedestrian streets right in the centre of Vienna), only to be accosted by old friends he supposedly wants to avoid, is very typical of the small-town mentality of promenading up and down the main road (what the Italians call the passeggiata). This habit is still alive and well in Vienna and you are likely to meet anyone who is anyone there in the centre sooner or later (plus a whole load of tourists nowadays). The grumpy passive-aggressive muttering in the corner is also typical of the Viennese personality. The actor, who at first seems to be a self-satisfied twit, then expresses a flight of fancy which captures the narrator’s imagination and pity. He says how much happier he would have been with the simple, lonely lifestyle of a woodcutter, and this yearning, although still dripping in Bernhardian irony, tugs a little at our heartstrings.

The final pages of the novel remind me so much of Cavafy’s poem about The City, the one you are doomed to always carry around with you, a burden and an ideal.

I ran away from the Auersberger nightmare and toward the Inner City, and as I ran I reflected that the city through which I was running, dreadful though I had always felt it to be and still felt it to be, was still the best city there was, that Vienna, which I found detestable and had always found detestable, was suddenly once again the best city in the world, my own city, my beloved Vienna, and that these people, whom I had always hated and still hated and would go on hating, were still the best people in the world: I hated them, yet found them somehow touching – I hated Vienna, yet found it somehow touching – I cursed these people, yet could not help loving them – I hated Vienna yet could not help loving it… This is my city and always will be my city…

It’s a very tongue-in-cheek novel, in which you must question nearly everything that the narrator tells you, yet there is also a lot of truth in what he says. While you may not find it quite as hilarious as someone who loves/hates the Viennese, it is a bright and short introduction to Bernhard’s work, far more accessible than some of his other works.

Typical Viennese architecture

By pure chance, a few evenings ago I attended a seminar organised by the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies which confirmed the almost schizophrenic nature of Viennese society, especially in the 1930s. Entitled ‘A School turns Brown: A Micro-Historical Analysis of the Grammar School G3 in Vienna and the Expulsion of its Jewish Pupils in April 1938’, the historian Dorothea McEwan (who herself had been a pupil of that school in the 1950s and absolutely loved its humanist tradition and ethic) showed how it took only 6 weeks after the Anschluss for the ‘purification’ of the school. The curriculum was ‘cleansed’, Jewish pupils were expelled and teachers who were not loyal to the Nazis were suddenly moved elsewhere. Six weeks. It is frightening how easy it is to descend into blind obedience to the siren call of law and order and authoritarianism. And Austria has never been immune to that siren call…

Honesty, Likability and Book Reviews

Before I had my internet outage last week, I read a remarkably honest article about reviewing books when you have vested interests (are part of the publishing industry or are an author yourself). Sadly, I cannot remember the author nor find the article to link it here, but it left quite an impression. I started wondering just how honest my own reviews are, what my own hidden motivations are. I am about to write something that is deeply uncomfortable to think about, something which may not endear me to all those involved in publishing. But here goes…

Books, from wired.com

My primary purpose, when I started reviewing books on my blog, was to give an unvarnished opinion of what I had liked and disliked about a certain book, while recognising that it’s a matter of personal taste, that my taste is not infallible (far from it!), but I felt that I owed potential future readers full honesty.

Are you Kafka? No? Not sure about 5* then...
Are you Kafka? No? Not sure about 5* then…

I didn’t realise that star ratings are perceived very differently on Amazon and Goodreads than they are in my mind. To me, 5 stars is only for the truly exceptional (just to give you an idea: my favourite authors of all time, like Kafka, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, have got some 5 stars, but not for all of their books). Four stars is very high praise indeed, while three stars is a good, solid read, but it doesn’t really stand out in any way. Two is ploddingly average but readable, while 1 means I did finish it but rather regret the time wasted. And no stars at all means I cannot even begin to discuss the many, many things which I disliked about the book.

Then I discovered that many of my friends (in real life, on blogs or twitter) were authors and pressing their books upon me for review. I don’t want to hurt them, I know how much work goes into writing, finishing, editing a book. Belatedly, I also discovered that anything below a 5 star tends to provoke an author’s ire, however cleverly I argue my case (and point out both pros and cons). Admittedly, authors who’ve been in the business for a while and have had some success tend to be more … well, relaxed and professional about it. Many of them are still speaking to me after I gave them 3 or 4 star reviews on Crime Fiction Lover, and I think some publishers are resigned to the fact that I very, very seldom give out a 5 star. Which makes that rare bird all the more precious (to my mind). After all, if everything is a 5 star, how on earth can we ever decide what to read next?

However, I have been known to write to publishers or authors (particularly debut authors or self-published ones, who I feel need more support and understanding) and say: ‘I cannot give your book a good review. Would you like the honest feedback or would you rather I didn’t review it at all?’ Most of the time, invisibility is preferable to notoriety.

stars

I also have another problem with the swathe of 5 star reviews: they become a fashion statement, a self-fulfilling prophecy, a buzz – whatever we choose to call it. Once the first few reviewers have declared it a ‘wonderful work of fiction’ or ‘the next Big Thing’ (with Girl or Wife or Daughter or Husband or Man or Twins in the title), all the others can jump on the bandwagon and echo those sentiments. It’s called herd instinct or crowd control. If one influential person whose opinion I generally trust has declared this to be a work of genius, there must be something about it… And if I didn’t like it, then there must be something wrong with me, surely? Of course, this is exactly what publishers and publicists are hoping for, but where does our duty as a reviewer ultimately lie?

Book launches.
Book launches.

Each reviewer will have to decide this for him or herself. It is hard to give up the love-fest of ARCs and invitations to book launches and retweets or mentions by publishers, so it’s understandable that we don’t want to anger the publishers with less enthusiastic reviews. Oh, the embarrassment of meeting an author whom you slated at the next literary festival and having them hint that they’ve read your blog! Besides, I am truly grateful for the opportunity to read so many new and exciting books (for free), even if not all of them make me jump with joy. I couldn’t afford to read all of them otherwise…

Things get even more complicated if we aspire to be authors ourselves. Will we alienate agents, editors and fellow authors if we give them a bad review? Will they take revenge on our own humble offering in the future? And, anyway, who are we to criticise those who are more experienced, more talented, better connected than us? They clearly know something we don’t.

Of course there are reviewers who can get genuinely enthused by most of the books they read. I am not accusing anyone of hypocrisy. But I have discovered something very much like diplomacy in certain situations in my own reviews: ‘a page-turner’ may be my code word for ‘doesn’t require much thinking on my part’, ‘a profusion of characters which might confuse readers’ is another way of saying ‘stock stereotypes and far too many of them’. I’m not entirely proud of that, but it was my choice. I’ve opted for politeness over brutal candour when things are negative, but you can also rest assured that every word of praise is absolutely well-earned and honest.

From classicrarebooks.co.uk
From classicrarebooks.co.uk

As for who gets the completely raw and unfiltered review nowadays? Well, I’ve noticed the classics or dead authors are coming in for their fair share of bashing! Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust… they’re all fair game. It is also far easier to be honest about books in translation (because the author is less likely to read that review?). Finally, it is far easier to express your opinions about books which are not in your favourite genre, Caveats work a treat: ‘I don’t usually read science fiction, but…’ or ‘I don’t have much experience with YA, but…’

So what can you expect from me? Where do my responsibilities lie? With readers like myself, who have perhaps spent too much money and time to acquire the latest bestseller and are very sorely disappointed by it. With authors, who should know I will never get my fangs out for the sake of being different, courting controversy, getting more blog hits or seeking revenge. In fact, I don’t do fangs. I try to be fair, to remind everyone that I am just one solitary voice of opinion and bring my own biases to the table. But when I say ‘outstanding’, when I urge everyone to read a book, you can be sure I mean it from the bottom of my heart.

From red24management.com
From red24management.com

 

The Politician

Star of the show, he lingers

at journey’s end.

His universe begun.

How the meter stumbles dully when he quits the stage,

all echoing blindness, all gallant fun.

 

He winks, oh so lewdly,

smiles fit to crack the veneer of his politeness.

He addresses with caresses,

unwanted pats on the back.

Spurning the crowds he professes to love,

he tweets out responses,

burning up trust.

I’ll be heading over to read many other poets at the charmingly creative and devastatingly diverse meeting of poetic minds called dVerse Poets Open Link Night. Hope to see you there!