Read The Habsburg Cafe Online

Authors: Andrew Riemer

Tags: #Biography/Autobiography

The Habsburg Cafe (7 page)

BOOK: The Habsburg Cafe
3.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

In these entertainments the impossible idealism of this world—an idealism that probably no-one took seriously by 1914—was given a spurious validity. Their titles reveal all. The Hungarian Emmerich Kalman, composer of a series of phenomenally successful Viennese operettas, seems to have had a particular gift for finding subjects and titles to promote that dream. One of his operettas, still in the repertoire of companies all over the world is usually known in English as
The Gypsy Princess
. The German title,
Die Csardasfürstin
, yoking together the
, the most popular of Hungarian dances, with an exalted rank of the Austro-Hungarian nobility, is particularly eloquent, speaking of those pious fantasies that these trivial entertainments embody.

Here at least the fond hope of the Habsburgs, that they could somehow forge a harmonious supranational community out of people who had in certain instances been enemies for a thousand years or more, received a tiny fragment of confirmation. Operetta became an astonishingly popular form of entertainment in almost every one of the Habsburg lands. In the theatre, provisionally and briefly, a Hungarian or a Ruthenian could agree with the implicit assumption that under the benevolent dispensation of the Father-Emperor (who could make barons out of gypsies) this was the best of all possible worlds. Outside the theatre, though, the fiction was much harder to maintain. As I stand in front of the Volksoper, waiting for the traffic lights to change, I begin to wonder whether operettas are still being performed in Zagreb and Sarajevo, cities where the old hatreds of this world have been given once more a new lease of life.


A tram rattling through the grey streets of the real Vienna, away from the theme park, the kitsch, the sentimental fantasies, takes you to the edge of the Wienerwald, the Vienna Woods, site of another set of nostalgic dreams. The woods begin at Grinzing, nowadays no more than a suburb of the metropolis, its houses displaying plaques commemorating those famous citizens of Vienna who lived along these twisting lanes. A hundred years ago Grinzing was a village surrounded by the vineyards that supplied the vine-covered taverns which purvey the local vintage throughout the late summer and the long autumn of this part of the world. In the gaps between the villas of the rich and the famous you may glimpse vine-covered hills, heavy with yet-to-be-harvested grapes.

The taverns come to life late in the day. Throughout the balmy nights of late summer, and under the chilly skies of autumn, the people of Vienna drink, eat, sing and dance, surrounded by carefully contrived rusticity. The good life, pursued so assiduously amidst the imperial grandeur of the inner city, here takes on another colouration, a fantasy of the simple rural life, its joys and its wine, idylls of well-being and companionship—in other words, wine, women and song, and tales from the Vienna Woods. The celebration of new wine and rustic simplicity is a profoundly characteristic Viennese pursuit. No other metropolis has striven so hard as this city to evolve a fantasy of rural life amidst the marble and granite of imperial pomp. Vienna constantly conjures up images of the countryside, even in the heart of the inner city. At one corner of the great irregularly shaped space around the cathedral, an ancient piece of wood preserved behind shatter-proof glass displays hundreds of embedded rusty nails, which had been driven into the living tree by shepherds and countryfolk to commemorate their visit to the imperial city.

Nowhere else is this sentimental amalgam of city and countryside more poignant than at Grinzing. Here town and wooded hill meet in an ordered, carefully landscaped union.
Nothing here seems real: the meticulously preserved village atmosphere, the crooked lanes, the charming taverns are as contrived and decorative as the vine-clad slopes towards which most streets and lanes seem to be leading. Here is another stage set, a cunningly crafted trompe l'oeil designed to bemuse and beguile, and to remind you of the potential that exists here for a joyous marriage of country and city. In other cities the countryside intrudes, sometimes with disturbing and disconcerting effect, nowhere more so than was the case in Canberra before the lake was filled, when sheep grazed peacefully but incongruously on patches of dry grassland between buildings of monumental pretentiousness. Here, in Grinzing, it is otherwise. The little town is prettified, the fields and woods are manicured—perfumed, you are inclined to think, as were the cows in the toy-dairy of the Austrian princess who became, to her misfortune, Queen of France.

From Grinzing you must take a bus to the hills known collectively as the Vienna Woods, an ascent both literal and symbolic into a higher level of sentiment and nostalgia. There images of conviviality are replaced by the sweet allure of fresh air, sunshine, the scent of pines and the exhilaration of physical exercise. Meticulously marked and signposted tracks indicate paths that beckon through this tamed wilderness. Here you always know where you are going; each track ends at a convenient
where food, drink and good cheer await the weary traveller. The terrors of the dark forest, where Hansel and Gretel might encounter the perils of the Gingerbread House, where bloodthirsty dragons or malevolent magicians often lurk, have been tamed and civilised. Danger and menace have been converted into playfulness. You may imagine that you are wandering through a dark wood where all sorts of dangers are to hand—but it is all pretence, like so much else in this city and forest, an elaborate illusion to provide carefully controlled thrills.

On this sun-drenched autumn afternoon the paths are crowded with people. Several are dressed in the required paraphernalia of such outings: in this world every activity has
its appropriate costume. Lederhosen and dirndls, worn in the inner city only by purveyors of fast food, seem almost obligatory here. These strollers are playing out a domesticated, nostalgic version of a great institution of the Germanic world—the walking tour, that ritualised enactment of the great
which took generations of young Germans on energetic, hilarious rambles over the Fatherland in commemoration of the wanderings of their ancestors through the menacing forests of Gaul. There they experienced that sense of community, the absorption of the individual into the tribe, which reveals the darkest corner of the German soul—beyond individuality, pity and compassion, driven only by the instincts of the herd and the mass.

On Kahlenberg, the sunny summit of these woody hills, all is peace and contentment. The couples strolling arm in arm do not seem to be driven by the demons of the blood. Yet beneath the amiable holiday mood, an urban pastorale with alpenstocks embellished with plaques commemorating walks achieved and mountain peaks conquered, sinister possibilities glimmer. This world is capable of masking ugliness and brutality, converting them into nostalgia and sentiment. Mayerling is not very far from here. At that site of the sordid attempt to cover up the deaths of Rudolf and Marie, a shameful exercise was conducted which came to implicate many members of the Kakanian aristocracy. The indecency with which Marie's body was secretly bundled out of the lodge, denying her family access to it or permission to bury it decently, was the sorriest manifestation of the edifice of hypocrisy and evasion that was erected over that pathetic death tryst.

This world is very practised in such hypocrisy. It is only too willing to insist that black is white, that things are other than they seem. It is able, therefore, to convert the ugly, the shabby and the brutal into beauty and nobility. These days waves of visitors come to worship at the tomb of romantically frustrated love at Mayerling, and to marvel at the shrine into which that unhappy place was converted in a supremely hypocritical act of legerdemain.

And so it is with the couples and groups walking in the autumn sunshine. The art of pretence, near neighbour of hypocrisy, has become extraordinarily refined. It is, no doubt, wonderful to pretend that you are wandering in the wild woods where spooks and monsters might be lurking—but, of course, you are merely strolling along the well-made tracks of yet another theme park, a carefully contrived illusion of unbounded nature situated at the terminus of a suburban bus route. In a similar way Austria—and indeed much of the world it once controlled with imperial pride and arrogance—insists that brutality and hatred do not exist here, can never have existed in such a blessed place. The great Austrian hypocrisy that burns across the pages of Schnitzler and Zweig and of Musil and Thomas Bernhard, which made Wittgenstein hate his native land with corrosive passion, manifests itself as clearly here, in this sanitised wilderness, as it does in the poisonous duplicity of Viennese, Austrian, indeed Central European social and political life. The smile that kills and the strangling embrace are fundamental attributes of this world. Cruelty and coldheartedness are masked with the smiling face of civility.

For all that, these woods, this city and this society are alluring, presenting images that soothe, entice and constantly whisper that this is assuredly life at its very best. For me, in my inappropriately antipodean clothes, among these dedicated walkers and vacationers, that sense is particularly poignant. This is a world and an existence into which I could so easily melt, and become absorbed by its charm. Except that I know that that charm is no less treacherous now than it was on an autumn afternoon in 1937, a time I cannot remember—a time before memory—yet a time which has entered into the fabric of my life, adding, in a small way, to the network of influences that has determined what I have become.

On that Sunday, during what was, as it turned out, my parents' last visit to Vienna before our return to the blackened shell of the city in the freezing November of 1946, we joined the throngs of people flocking to Grinzing and Kahlenberg to
catch the last bit of sun, the last whiff of fresh country air before winter closed in. My parents probably realised that the winter which was about to enfold them was to be far longer and more severe than the natural winter of God's creation, and that it was, moreover, to be an infernal winter which would come to a fiery end. So it was here, at Kahlenberg, according to a mythology lovingly cherished through the dark years of the war, that they bought the last banana that I, an eighteen-month-old toddler in a stroller, was to enjoy, until nine years later, in 1946, on our journey to America and to that forced landing in the snows of Hartford, we saw bananas again, at a little airport in the Azores, where our plane made an unscheduled landing to ride out the storms raging over the North Atlantic.


In her stuffy, overfurnished flat in Budapest my father's mother kept a china cabinet filled with small silver trinkets. There were windmills and rustic cabins, farmyard animals, goose girls and goatherds, haycarts and wagons, barrows and buckets. The silver was chased and embellished, shining brightly where the polishing cloth came into contact with the metal, darkly shadowed in folds, creases and recesses. Here was a miniature world of Central Europe's nostalgia for the simple life, transformed into costly objects for display in bourgeois households. This sentimental evocation of idylls in lush forests or beside bubbling streams was rendered into kitsch in the same way that, half a century after the time when I used to play with those knick-knacks, the kitsch of modern Vienna, its Mozartballs and dirndls, transforms the commonplace into a sanitised urban fantasy. Good taste, costly materials, picturesque romanticism form a continuing strand of illusion throughout the culture of the countries that had fallen under the sway of the Habsburgs. The rulers of that cumbersome Empire employed romantic, nostalgic illusionism in marble
and granite in the cities they built along the banks of the Danube, and throughout the institutions they founded and fostered. The descendants of people who had once lived under their rule persist in pursuing those romantic dreams in the grim realities of the end of the twentieth century.

One object among my grandmother's collection of trinkets did not fit in with the genteel nostalgia and subdued romanticism those silversmiths sought to convey for their middle-class patrons. This was rather larger than the other pieces, and was also relatively crudely made, more impressive for the amount of precious metal it contained than for its craftsmanship. It represented the
, the gigantic Ferris wheel in the Prater, Vienna's amusement park, which was to achieve fame in
The Third Man
, when it became the site for Orson Wells's famous quip about the Swiss and cuckoo clocks.

The presence of that rather vulgar object among my grandmother's household gods tells the tale of the accretion of mythologies in the culture of the Kakanian bourgeoisie, a world that disappeared, along with my grandmother and millions of others, in the conflagration of the Second World War. She was a typical product of the Habsburg world. She was born at a time when Vienna was still the centre of the Empire, the node or navel of a cumbersome political edifice which was already falling apart at the time of her birth, and was to disintegrate entirely in 1918. For her, as much as for my mother's family who lived on the edge of Hungary, in a province which was, until the end of the Great War, a part of Austria, Vienna occupied a place in private and public mythologies similar to that of London in the imagination of early Australia.

By nationality, my father's family were Hungarians, they had lived for many years in or around the place that became Budapest through the yoking together of a Habsburg fortress-town on one bank of the Danube and a nondescript village on the other. Before that, members of my family had lived in various provinces of the Empire, or in one of the German states. They did not, indeed they could not, identify with any of the
nationalist movements based on what we would now call ethnicity, for their background and their attitudes were, within the narrow confines of that Danubian world, entirely cosmopolitan. Inevitably they were obliged to have at least a working knowledge of German, not merely for reasons of livelihood but perhaps more significantly, because the family almost always included members whose first language was incomprehensible to several of their relations. Within the network of social and family ties in that world, it was not unusual for a young man in Budapest to marry a distant cousin in Prague, or (as was the case with my father) a young woman whose family was basically German-speaking—even though by my mother's generation all had received a bilingual education. Just as German provided the lingua franca in this world, so Vienna came to represent a sort of super-capital for people living in the cities, towns and villages of the Danube basin. It was where you went for holidays, especially your honeymoon, it was where you took your children to show them the marvels of civilisation—
civilisation—or to purchase bananas, and it was the place where you relaxed the strict standards of good taste that governed your essentially provincial life, to buy questionable objects like the silver
that occupied pride of place in my grandmother's china cabinet.

BOOK: The Habsburg Cafe
3.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Gamblers Don't Win by W. T. Ballard
Hot Button by Kylie Logan
Twice the Love by Berengaria Brown
El sueño más dulce by Doris Lessing
Illusion of Luck by Robert Burton Robinson
Shipwreck by Maureen Jennings
The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley