Let the first review of the year be of the first book read.
January the First is inseparable from the Strauss concert and an accompanying glass of bubbly because, if ever my name surfaces during the draw for (affordable) tickets to the real thing, I would definitely be drinking champagne in the Wiener Musikverein. In the meantime, while I fantasise, it was music, champagne and accompanying reading material all the way a couple of days ago ….
I knew that this selection of 17 short stories from Austria was in good hands (translator – Deborah Holmes, editor Helen Constantine) when I saw it bookended by my favourite Arthur Schnitzler. Which is not to say that there is any lack of quantity in the stories from other contributors. Established names from the past such as Joseph Roth, Adalbert Stifter, Ingeborg Bachmann and Veza Canetti are all present, alongside contemporary authors: Friedericke Mayröcker, Alexander Kluge, Dimitri Dinev, Christine Nöstlinger, Eva Menasse and Doron Rabinovici.
Of the 14 authors I had previously read 4, so this volume also served as an introduction to a wider range of Austrian writing.
There isn’t space here to summarise all every story, but I will quickly list my three favourites. I’m leaving Schnitzler out of this – he has an unfair advantage. In no particular order, apart from ladies first.
Oh my eyes – Ingeborg Bachmann
Partially sighted Miranda is forever forgetting (aka refusing) to wear her glasses. Her physical eyes may be failing but there’s nothing wrong with her intuition. Which does not bode well for her romance with Stasi.
This was my first encounter with Bachmann. It won’t be my last.
Spas Sleeps – Dimitri Dinev
Set in 2001, Spas is a refugee from Bulgaria wanting to make a life for himself in Vienna. He isn’t the first and, as events in 2016, are proving, he won’t be the last. He is seeking the Holy Grail of work, but, even in 2001, this is difficult, if not impossible, for unskilled labour. Fortunately for Spas, he teams up with a former school acquaintance. They weren’t friends then, but circumstances now are to render them inseparable. This is life on the periphery of city living; a hard and oftimes desperate experience.
The Prater – Adalbert Stifter
Perhaps the best matched story for the would-be tourist – Stifter’s stroll through the Prater on May Day is a reminder of the delights that await and a warning to avoid the overcrowded areas like the plague on a public holiday. And he was writing in 1841!
Holmes organises the anthology not chronologically but geographically starting from the outskirts coming into the centre before returning to the outskirts. This emphasises underlying themes – life on the periphery for example – but also demonstrates a city undergoing change through the ages. So Dimev’s story of C21st refugees sits very close to Stifter’s C19th walk through the Prater. We pass by famous landmarks, even at one point eating ice-cream with Lenin in the café Demel.
We don’t, however, eat chocolate cake in the Hotel Sacher, an experience I now have such a yearning to repeat. This might actually be doable in 2016, as I now discover it’s cheaper to fly from Edinburgh to Vienna than to travel by train to London ….