Authors: Andrew Riemer
There are a few bookshops here squeezed between supermarkets and clothing emporia along the expanse of this noisy, traffic-choked street. Most of them have that depressingly temporary look familiar from the streets of Australian cities and towns, where a bankrupt shop is often cleared then filled with long trestle tables groaning with remaindered cookbooks, blockbuster novels that didn't make the big league, sex manuals and histories of Chinese traders in the thirteenth century or of the coalfields of Wales. Because this is Vienna, these establishments are a little less chaotic, perhaps even more permanent looking; their wares are, nevertheless, similar to the sort of stuff you may purchase in such places in Sydney or Adelaide, London or Manchester.
Prominently displayed near the entranceâaccording, no doubt, to the dictates of a marketing scheme concocted on Madison Avenueâare the ranks of lurid pulp trade paperbacks. If you have nothing better to do, you may amuse yourself by trying to work out the English titles of these Sidney Sheldons, Stephen Kings, Colleen McCulloughs, and Danielle Steeles. Nearby may be found less bulky but no less colourful volumes, obviously parts of a series, the covers of which depict sentimental pictures of sweet-faced young women wearing glittering tiaras and handsome young men in the dashing uniform of the Imperial Hussars. The likes of these books will not be found outside Central Europe. They are Austria's answer to Mills and Boon: Kakanian romances, Habsburg follies, chronicling the lives and loves of those glorious creatures who waltzed their way into oblivion in the Great War.
The last Habsburgs provide ideal material for the daydreams
of cheap romance. Their stories form one of those complex epics, with twisted branches and sub-branches, so much loved by medieval compilers of tales of love and high adventure. The trunk, the mainstay, he who supports the great weight of all these stories of tragic and doomed love, is the old Franz Josef, the Emperor himself. Not much can be made of the sober and serious life of this monarch who preferred a camp bed to the downy pillows of his many palaces, castles and residences. His dalliance with a discreet and respectful lady suggests domestic rather than erotic desires. The frustrated life and tragic death of his Empress provide, however, material for a succession of stories, sufficient in themselves to form a family of epic tales.
It is pleasing to find that in one of these bookshopsâreflecting the tidiness of mind for which the Germanic people are renownedâthe ill-fated Empress has a corner reserved for her, decorously separating her from her equally hapless relatives. Most of the titles, or if not the titles then the blurbs, set in large, florid type, manage to mention her pet-name, Sissy, much more charming and interesting, of course, than the icily formal Elisabeth. The illustrations on the covers of these little booksâfew of them exceed 150 pagesâgive sufficient indication of what the reader may find inside. On one, Sissy, in full riding habit, is seated on a fiery charger. A snow-covered plain stretches to the horizon. A sled, pulled by four prancing steeds, is hurrying towards her, conveying a lonely figure clad in black. This, as anyone familiar with Visconti's film will know, is the meeting between Sissy and her cousin, Ludwig of Bavaria, the Wagner-obsessed madman (or visionary) for whom she is supposed to have entertained an undying and unrequited passion.
Another image depicts her in the arms of one of those monocled or moustachioed warriors who appear on the covers of several books displayed on these shelves under the harsh glare of fluorescent strips. Elsewhere she is seen seated among a group of adoring and respectful peasantsâprobably the Hungarians she is said to have loved so muchâwhile her gaze travels over their heads towards a small castle or hunting lodge in the background, the site, no doubt, of yet another hopeless amour.
She is depicted in imperial regalia at a splendid ball, or sitting by a window at twilight, a leather-bound volume open on her lap. And then there is the most evocative of these images: Sissy leaning decoratively on the railing of a steamer on a placid lake. Snow-capped mountains rise in the distance. A narrow headland is dominated by a mighty keep. Sissy, as always, gazes into the distance, dreamy, sensuous, a figure of mystery. Are we meant to see in that abstracted gaze a failure to recognise the crazed assassin who is, at that very moment, hurrying towards her?
The saga branches out to embroider variations on the lives of other members of this unhappy family: Franz Ferdinand, who enraged the Emperor by marrying the woman he loved, only to be gunned down in Sarajevo; Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico; cousins, nieces, nephews, relatives near or distant, people who once lived or those merely invented by the romancers' fancy have all entered into the neverending romance, the allure of which, judging by the number of books displayed in these harshly lit shops, can never pall for the citizens of Vienna. Anything, everything seems grist to the mill. Here Franz Ferdinand slumps in that open car in Sarajevo; there the Emperor of Mexico faces a firing squad of sombreroed anarchists. Elsewhere, young women are embraced by hussars, cavalry officers, a Cossack in one instance, beside moonlit lakes and dark forests, or against a panorama of Salzburg, Vienna or Innsbruck. The doomed family dances across the covers of these cheap, poorly printed and probably poorly written romances designed to cater for the fantasies of those who are obliged to live out their lives in poky flats overlooking gloomy courtyards or crepuscular light wells. None of this lucrative industry would be capable of surviving, however, had not one member of the imperial family taken his beloved to a small hunting lodge at a place called Mayerling to die in a suicide pact that has nourished countless romantic fantasies.
The story of Archduke Rudolf and Baroness Marie Vetsera is well known. The bored heir to the Habsburg throne, between bouts of drinking and whoring, the usual pursuits of unemployed
royalty in the old Europe, met and fell in love with the barely seventeen-year-old Baroness Vetsera. Their meetings were brief and clandestine. According to Claudio Magris they were confined to the time it took to perform one of Wagner's operas, which the Baroness's mother always attended whenever they were performed at the Imperial Opera. That would have given the lovers at best five or six hoursâthough if Marie's mother's taste did not extend beyond the earlier and less demanding of the Master's works, their time would have been even shorter. Despite their precautions, the affairâas was inevitableâcame to the attention of the court. What threats, ultimatums, cajolements or bribes were offered is not precisely known. Nor are the details of the events at the hunting lodge on the night of 29 January 1889 quite clear. What is known, however, is that the next morning, the young Baroness's body was discovered in her bed, while nearby in a pool of blood lay the body of the Archduke.
These events make up a sordid tale: an impressionable girl, a dissolute prince of the blood, intrigues, spying and treachery. It has been transformed nevertheless into a romantic myth: Marie and Rudolf, at least for Austrians, have joined HÃ©loÃ¯se and AbÃ©lard, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde as martyrs of tragically doomed true love. And so their story reappears, prettified, disinfected and sentimentalised, on the covers of these cheap little romances in the bookshops of Mariahilferstrasse. Marie is always depicted as the epitome of angelic sweetness, fragility and dedication to love. Rudolf, who inherited the squat, almost peasant-like physique of the male members of his family, is pictured (of course) in dashingly Byronic guises. As always, the ugly, the brutal and the dissolute are transformed into the noble, the sentimental and the heroic by the strong drug of nostalgia.
The pulp industry that fills these bookshops is no different from the merchants of escapist romances elsewhere in the world. The difference lies in the curious though very strong sense of location that colours these books ranked neatly on their imperial shelves. This is your history, they seem to be saying
to the dumpy ladies who are standing in front of these shelves pondering their choice. Perhaps the Viennese have been persuaded that their history, their glorious past, is not the familiar story of brutality, chicanery and hypocrisy that seems to be the fate of all people and all rÃ©gimes. History has been converted for them into romance. Nostalgia has transformed a brutal past into a seductive dream. Everything is dedicated to feeling, sensation and sentiment. Mayerling happened only a little over a hundred years ago. You may easily visit the place and shed a sentimental tear over Marie and Rudolf. The Habsburgs are goneâthough perhaps one day they may come backâbut the 'Burg is still there. Romance and passion may be found beneath the surface of a dull worldâyou only have to search for it, these little books seem to be saying.
An intangible yet obviously strong bond appears to bind this world to its fantasy past. The citizens of the theme park appear to have accepted these illusions as reality. Sentiment, nostalgia and the allure of the relatively recent past, even where it led to suffering, defeat and death, define for these people the essence of being Austrian. To the east the former Soviet Empire is disintegrating just as their own Empireâone that had ruled over most of those territories and peopleâdisintegrated when the Elisabeths, Rudolfs, and Ferdinands were felled by their own hands or by the assassins' bullets. But why concern yourself with the horror and brutality in what is still called (in this year of the palindrome) Yugoslavia? Why should you be be distressed by the fate of the orphans of Romania? The real life is here, in the eternally fascinating story of Sissy on her horse, Marie in the arms of her Rudolf, and Maximilian, eyes clear with courage and defiance, standing before the firing squad.
The Volksoper is a dull-looking building near a clattering and clanging tramway viaduct. It is, as its name suggests, a theatre for the masses. In the past its repertoire was devoted almost
exclusively to that peculiar genre, Viennese operetta, which was (and remains) a vehicle for conveying the most outrageous fantasies of Kakania. To the accompaniment of catchy tunes and rousing choruses, these absurdly escapist musical plays celebrate a fantasy in which no-one dies in a hunting lodge or falls victim to the anarchist's bullet, but lives happily ever after.
Viennese operetta reached its apogee in the years between the gunshot at Mayerling and that of Sarajevoâthough examples of this essentially imperial entertainment for the masses continued to be composed beyond the years of the Great War, into the 1920s, and indeed almost until the grim days of Vienna's fiery death in 1945. Their plotsâif they may be graced with such a termâalmost always end with the triumph of love. Whatever the complications, misunderstandings, or obstacles that keep the lovers apart for an hour or two, all is well by the time the rousing finale is reached. With much swirling, clinking of glasses, rushing around the stage and with as high a note as the singers of these confections are capable of reaching, a typical Viennese operetta ends with marriage, happiness and celebration.
It would be difficult to see any connection between these trivial and escapist fancies and the world of experience. Operettas may be set in Paris or Peking, Vienna or St Petersburg, but their true location is always a never-never-land where any occasion will do for singing and dancing. Many of them reflect, nevertheless, the fantasies of Kakanian amity and benevolence, and seem to subscribe to the fiction that this troubled world was, when all is said and done, one big happy family, an idea assiduously promoted by its rulers even at a time when that fiction could no longer be sustained anywhere but in the theatre. There at least the pretence could be continued.
Until the approaching war made travel between Budapest and the provinces difficult if not impossible, my parents spent each Easter with my mother's family in Sopron, a picturesque border
town some fifty or sixty kilometres to the east of Vienna. Sopron remained an essentially Austrian town even after the partition of that part of the world at Versailles caused it to becomeâto the dismay of many of its inhabitantsâthe westernmost city in the newly independent state of Hungary. During our last visit, my parents took me to the little municipal theatre to a performance of
The Gypsy Baron
I remember almost nothing about that performance. My sole memory is of a scene in a forest clearingâcrudely painted flats and backclothâwith a group of gypsies seated around an obviously fake campfire. In their midst stood a black-haired figure, with a large gold earring in one ear, a short jacket with elaborate frogging slung casually over his shoulders. He sang a lusty songâwith many refrains I rememberâin which the chorus of gypsies participated enthusiastically.
The Gypsy Baron
was first performed in Vienna in 1885. It seems obvious that by that time the Habsburg propaganda about the essential unity and harmony of the Empire had appealed to the promoters of popular entertainment, who could see solid profits flowing from its promulgation.
The Gypsy Baron
, like many subsequent examples of the genre, seeks to transcend the national, ethnic or tribal rivalries that have always tormented this world. Hungary was the most troublesome territory of the Empire, not necessarily because the Hungarians were more fervently patriotic and more gallant than their neighboursâthough they liked to think that they wereâbut because they were the most numerous. Gypsies, according to Viennese mythology or prejudice, were a particularly Hungarian phenomenonâanother cause of dissatisfaction to Hungarians who were convinced, of course, that gypsies belong properly to that more easterly part of the continent which we now call Romania. Barons were, on the other hand, one of the high (though not too exalted) ranks of the Kakanian nobility. A gypsy baron, a contradiction in terms according to many Austrians, represents a reconciliation of the two most important and influential territories of this Empire. If a gypsy may become a baron, even if only on the
operetta stage, Austrians and Hungarians, Bohemians and Slovaks, Serbs and Croats may also live peacefully under the aegis of the double-headed eagle.