2018 Travel: Books Set in Austria

I have been incredibly lucky with my travelling so far this year, and was able to revisit beautiful Austria whilst based in Munich.  I hadn’t been to Salzburg before, but am absolutely in love with the city.  To honour lovely Austria, here are seven of my favourite books set in the country.

1. Let Me Go by Helga Schneider (2001) 1522423
The extraordinary memoir, praised across Europe, of a daughter’s final encounter with her mother, a former SS guard at Auschwitz.  In 1941, in Berlin, Helga Schneider’s mother abandoned her, her younger brother, and her father. Thirty years later– when she saw her mother again for the first time– Schneider discovered the shocking reason: Her mother had joined the Nazi SS and had become a guard in concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbrück, where she was in charge of a “correction” unit and responsible for untold acts of torture.  Nearly three more decades would pass before their second and final reunion, an emotional encounter at a Vienna nursing home, where her mother, then eighty-seven and unrepentant about her past, was ailing. Let Me Go is an extraordinary account of that meeting. Their conversation– which Schneider recounts in spellbinding detail– triggers childhood memories, and she weaves these into her account, powerfully evoking the misery of Nazi and postwar Berlin. Yet it is her internal struggle– a daughter’s sense of obligation colliding with the inescapable horror of what her mother has done– that will stay with readers long after the book has ended.
2. Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi (2001)
‘In Persepolis, heralded by the Los Angeles Times as ‘one of the freshest and most original memoirs of our day,’ Marjane Satrapi dazzled us with her heartrending memoir-in-comic-strips about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Here is the continuation of her fascinating story. In 1984, Marjane flees fundamentalism and the war with Iraq to begin a new life in Vienna. Once there, she faces the trials of adolescence far from her friends and family, and while she soon carves out a place for herself among a group of fellow outsiders, she continues to struggle for a sense of belonging.  Finding that she misses her home more than she can stand, Marjane returns to Iran after graduation. Her difficult homecoming forces her to confront the changes both she and her country have undergone in her absence and her shame at what she perceives as her failure in Austria. Marjane allows her past to weigh heavily on her until she finds some like-minded friends, falls in love, and begins studying art at a university. However, the repression and state-sanctioned chauvinism eventually lead her to question whether she can have a future in Iran.  As funny and poignant as its predecessor, Persepolis 2 is another clear-eyed and searing condemnation of the human cost of fundamentalism.’

175696223. The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal (2013 in English)
The Exiles Return is set in Occupied Vienna in 1954-5. It describes five people who grew up there before the war and have come back to see if they can re-establish the life they have lost.  The novel begins with Professor Kuno Adler, who is Jewish and fled Vienna after the Anschluss (the events of March 1938 when Hitler’s troops marched into Austria). He is returning from New York to try and take up his old life as a research scientist. We realise through his confrontation with officialdom and with the changed fabric of the city (the lime trees are there no longer, it is hard to know who behaved well during the war and who was a Nazi sympathiser) that a refugee who goes back has a very difficult time.  Next we are introduced to a wealthy Greek named Kanakis. Before the war his family had lived in great style with a coach and horses and many servants, and now the 40 year-old Kanakis has come back to try and buy an eighteenth-century hotel particulier, a little palais, in which to live a life of eighteenth-century pleasure. He meets Prince Lorenzo Grein-Lauterbach (who owes more than a little to Tadzio in Death in Venice). Bimbo, as he is known – and the nickname is an accurate one – is a 24 year-old who, because his aristocratic, anti- Nazi parents were murdered by the Germans, was spirited away to the country during the war years and afterwards. He is penniless yet retains an overweening sense of entitlement. Kanakis and he develop a homosexual relationship (a brave thing to write about in the 1950s) and he is kept by his older lover. But he has a sister, Princess Nina, who works in a laboratory, the same one to which Adler returns. She lives modestly in the attic of her family’s former palais, is a devout Catholic, loyal to her brother and the memory of her parents, intelligent and hard-working, but, as she perceives it, is stocky and unattractive. Lastly, there is 18 year-old Marie-Theres, whose parents went to America just before the war; they, and her siblings, have become completely American, but Resi (as she is known, possibly with a deliberate echo of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew) has never fitted in and is déplacée. So she goes back to her Austrian aunt and uncle to see if she can make a life in the home country (from her parents point of view to see if she can be married off) yet here too she is an innocent abroad, unable, to put down roots. Her tragedy is at the core of this moving and evocative book, which explores a very complex and interesting question: if an exile returns, how should he or she behave morally? Some have moral fastidiousness (Adler, Nina), some are ruthlessly on the make (Kanakis, Bimbo), some have no moral code because they have never been educated to acquire one (Resi).
4. Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)
When Vanessa March arrived in Vienna she knew all about the white Lipizzan stallions at the Spanish Riding School. But she never expected to get involved with them or, indeed, with suspected murder.
5. Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1872) 17738894
When a mysterious carriage crashes outside their castle home in Styria, Austria, Laura and her father agree to take in its injured passenger, a young woman named Carmilla. Delighted to have some company of her own age, Laura is instantly drawn to Carmilla. But as their friendship grows, Carmilla’s countenance changes and she becomes increasingly secretive and volatile. As Carmilla’s moods shift and change, Laura starts to become ill, experiencing fiendish nightmares, her health deteriorating night after night. It is not until she and her father, increasingly concerned for Laura’s well-being, set out on a trip to discover more about the mysterious Carmilla that the terrifying truth reveals itself.
6. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (1929)
Rainer Rilke is considered one of the most significant poets in the German language. The letters in this book were written by Rilke to Franz Kappus, a 19-year-old student at the Military Academy of Vienna. Discouraged by the prospect of military life, Kappus began to send his poetry to the 27-year-old Rilke, seeking both literary criticism and career advice. After Rilke’s death, Kappus assembled and published the letters.  Although the first letter from Kappus asked for critiques of his poetry, Rilke gave him very little during their correspondence. He also discouraged Kappus from reading criticism, advising him to trust his inner judgment. Instead, the majority of the letters address personal issues that Kappus revealed to Rilke; their span is tremendous, ranging from atheism, loneliness, sexuality, and career choices.
61319957. The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig (1982)
The post-office girl is Christine, who looks after her ailing mother and toils in a provincial Austrian post office in the years just after the Great War. One afternoon, as she is dozing among the official forms and stamps, a telegraph arrives addressed to her. It is from her rich aunt, who lives in America.


Have you read any of these?  Which, if any, have you added to your list?

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Reading the World: ‘The Empress and the Cake’ by Linda Stift ****

I am at that stage in my reading life where I purchase Peirene books without even reading their blurbs, almost certain as I am that I will enjoy them, and find them striking and thought-provoking.  I have only been disappointed with one of their titles to date, and they firmly remain one of my favourite publishing houses.  When I spotted a deal on the Kindle store for Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake then, I jumped at the chance of buying it, and read it the very next day.  Given its title too, it seems fitting that I am scheduling this post on my birthday!

The Empress and the Cake has been translated from its original German by Jamie Bulloch, and is set in Vienna.  Its Austrian author has won many awards for her writing.  The novella is part of Peirene’s Fairy Tale: End of Innocence series.  Of it, Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, writes: ‘On the surface this is a clever thriller-cum-horror story of three women and their descent into addiction, crime and madness.  And at times it’s very funny.  But don’t be fooled.  The book also offers an exploration of the way the mind creates its own realities and – quite often – deludes us into believing that we control what is actually controlling us.’ 9781908670304

The Empress and the Cake is split into two distinct parts, and opens with our narrator standing in a cake shop, where she sees a woman acting rather strangely: ‘She had no intention, so it appeared, of buying anything; she simply seemed to enjoy gazing at the layers of light and dark chocolate, the white cream toppings and the colourful sugar decorations’.  This woman, who later introduces herself as Frau Hohenembs, asks the narrator to share a splendidly named Gugelhupf with her.  Without explanation, the narrator then follows Frau Hohenembs to her apartment, under the pretence of eating cake and drinking coffee: ‘And I really didn’t have a clue what I was going to do with half a Gugelhupf after stuffing myself with cake at this woman’s place.  Even contemplating what might happen with my share was giving me a headache.’

A distinct contrast to Frau Hohenembs is her housekeeper, Ida: Frau Hohenembs ‘definitely fell into the category of thin, if not emaciated.  [Overweight] Ida rapidly ate four pieces of cake, one after the other…’.  We find, rather soon, that our narrator suffered with bulimia when she was younger, and the gluttony of eating of the cake – something which she would ordinarily avoid – brings on a relapse: ‘The grotesque face of my abnormality, which had lain dormant within me, resurfaced.  It was the first time in fifteen years.  I had always known that there was no safety net.  But I hadn’t suspected that it would arrive so unspectacularly, that it would not be preceded by a disaster such as heartbreak or dismissal or a death.’

The present-day story is interspersed with extracts from a fairytale-like text, which allows the reader to muse somewhat upon whose story it is, and who is doing the telling of it.  These sections render the whole peculiar, yet beguiling; there is almost a compulsion to keep reading.  Stift has cleverly, in such a restricted space as a novella, presented an almost impossible plot to correctly guess at.  The Empress and the Cake is rather unsettling, particularly toward the end, but if you like quirky and unusual books, it is one which is well worth picking up.

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The Tiniest Book Haul

I have another book haul to write about (!), but thankfully it consists of only two books.  I went to Vienna for a long weekend for my family, and thought that I would purchase something long to read on my Kindle whilst I was travelling.  I settled for Gerald Clarke‘s biography of Truman Capote, which was the basis for the ‘Capote’ film which I watched during the summer, and really enjoyed.  As ever, I bought the book, but ended up reading different things whilst on the plane.  I’m still very excited about beginning it though!

I did not buy any books in Vienna, as a lot of the bookshops were largely German-language, and the majority of English books were either run-of-the-mill thrillers or chick lit.

I also received a review book of Stephen Fry‘s More Fool Me: A Memoir last week, so you can expect a review of that some time soon.

Have you read either of these books?  What did you think of them?  Which books have you purchased recently?


Two Persephones

The Far Cry by Emma Smith ****

‘The Far Cry’ by Emma Smith

The endpapers of Emma Smith’s The Far Cry are gorgeous – my favourites yet, I think.  I knew next to nothing about this novel, and wasn’t sure what to expect from it.  The Far Cry has a broad and sweeping plot, in which a young girl named Teresa Digby goes to India with her father, in order to escape the impending arrival of her overbearing mother from America.  They go to stay with Teresa’s elder half-sister Ruth, and her husband, Edwin Tracy.  Teresa is a complex construction, emotionally realistic and believable in everything she says and does.  Ruth is formidable and mysterious, and Edwin is the kindest of the characters by far.

Smith has crafted her writing beautifully, and her turns of phrase are lovely.  She writes descriptions with such clarity, and her ardent appreciation for nature is clear from the very start.  The sense of place is so well described that it almost feels claustrophobic at times, particularly with regard to the Indian vistas.  It presses in upon its characters, and the things which befall them along the way.  I was swept away in the story, and found it very difficult to put A Far Cry down.  It was a marvellous companion for an enormous Channel Tunnel delay which I was stuck in, and I would absolutely adore to read more of Smith’s work.

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The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal ****

The endpapers of ‘The Exiles Return’

This is the 102nd book on the Persephone list.  As with The Far Cry, I did not know much about this novel before I began to read it, apart from the fact that it was set in Austria.  The Exiles Return was written in the late 1950s, and was not published in de Waal’s lifetime.  The preface to the Persephone edition is written by the Viennese author’s grandson, Edmund de Waal.  He states that his grandmother ‘wanted… to create novels of ideas’, and his introduction is truly fascinating.

The novel takes place over a relatively short period, beginning in 1954 and ending the following year, just after Austria recovered her independence following Hitler’s Anschluss.  Whilst there are several characters who are introduced and focused upon in detail, the two protagonists of the piece are Professor Kuno Adler, ‘the academic whose need to return to Vienna is at the heart of the book’, and a ‘beautiful girl’ named Marie-Theres, the American-raised daughter of an Austrian princess, who comes to be known as Resi.  Adler is barely on speaking terms with his wife, and has returned from New York alone, leaving his daughters in her care.  Resi is sent to stay with her uncle and aunt, a Count and Countess, because it is believed that a change of scenery will be ‘good’ for her.

The characters whom de Waal focuses upon come from different walks of life – a prince who has lost most of his family to the Gestapo, a rich Greek man, and the children of the Count and Countess, for example.  Pre- and post-war differences within Vienna are set out well, as are the ways in which the place impacts upon those who live within it.  Lots of history has been bound alongside the story, and the novel consequently has such depths; it becomes richer as each new character or scene is introduced.  The whole is rendered almost luscious in this respect.  The Exiles Return is a fabulous addition to the Persephone list, and I can only hope that the rest of de Waal’s books are – or will soon be, at any rate – readily available in English.

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‘Gretel and the Dark’ by Eliza Granville **

‘Gretel and the Dark’ by Eliza Granville

In Gretel and the Dark, two stories run parallel with one another.  The first begins in Vienna in 1899, where a ‘celebrated psychoanalyst’ named Joseph Breuer is ‘about to encounter his strangest case yet.  Found by the lunatic asylum, thin, head shaved, she claims to have no name, no feelings – to be, in fact, not even human’.  The second story takes place years later.  Protagonist Krysta’s father works in the infirmary, so she is forced to play alone, ‘lost in the stories of Hansel and Gretel [and] The Pied Piper of Hamelin‘.

The prologue begins in an interesting manner, which one thinks is about to build a haunting story.  Its beginning line intrigues, as well as building up a sense of rather stifling foreboding: ‘It is many years before the Pied Piper comes back for the other children’.  Just that one sentence and the prologue which hinges upon it is enough to send chills down the spine.  The way in which Granville makes even nature seem sinister within the prologue works marvellously – ‘Cabbages swell like lines of green heads’, for example.   Sounds fabulous, doesn’t it?  I was expecting, particularly after reading the prologue, to find an atmospheric and creepy novel.  Why, then, does the rest of the novel not follow suit?

The prologue, as I have said, is deftly crafted, but I felt that the writing from the first chapter onwards detracted from its more enigmatic qualities, making it seem like part of a different book entirely.  If the novel had continued in the same way, I would imagine that the novel would be spellbinding.  Granville has used a first person perspective in the prologue and then switches to the third person when the novel proper begins.  It became lacklustre quite quickly, and whilst I loved the sound of the book, it did not at all live up to my expectations.  I did not like it enough to read it to its end.

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