Vienna by the book

November 24, 2010

Upon [m]’s instigation I have now read Monika Helfer’s latest novel, Bevor ich schlafen kann [Before I’ll be able to sleep]. In spite of everything [m] has had to say about this book, I had expected it to be rather gloomy and depressive – and was surprised at how funny it actually was. What struck me most, however, was the fact that the story is set in Vienna. Now, taken per se this wouldn’t be too remarkable, but halfway through the book I realized that of the novels I’ve recently read Helfer’s was the third in a row which was set in Vienna…

Cafe Eiles on Josefstädter Strasse, one of the locations in Monika Helfer's latest book

I don’t know, but there’s always something odd with fictional stories taking place in “my” city, with fictional characters walking along streets that for me are part of everyday life, passing by houses and monuments that are all so familiar to me, even visiting some of the same real-life cafes, bars and restaurants than me. For instance, in Helfer’s book, on page 145, there’s a scene where the protagonist is having lunch in an Italian restaurant next to the Piarist Church and orders “that pizza with a heap of rucola on it”. When reading this, I didn’t just go: “Hey, I know that place”, no, I even went: “Hey, I think I’ve had that pizza”!

Having read three “Viennese” novels in a row also made me think more generally about stories set in Vienna, and, you know, there’s lots and lots of them, mostly by Austrian writers: Just think of classics like Joseph Roth’s Die Kapuzinergruft [The Emperor’s Tomb] or Heimito von Doderer’s Die Strudlhofstiege [The Strudlhof Steps], more recent classics like Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Klavierspielerin [The Piano Teacher] or Arno Geiger’s Es geht uns gut [We are doing fine], or the irreverent detective stories of Stefan Slupetzky and Thomas Raab…

Vienna's Naschmarkt, unusually quiet on a rainy November morning

What I’ve come to realize is that many of those novels – especially the more recent ones – share some common traits in their choice of locations. Apparently, for most writers it seems de rigueur to have at least some part of the story take place in one of Vienna’s posh residential areas, like Hietzing or Döbling, where fin-de-siècle villas in prime hillside location, surrounded by parks and gardens, offer not only great views across the city but also peace and tranquillity. At the other end of the spectrum there’s the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s largest market, a bustling and noisy place, surrounded by all sorts of bars and coffeehouses with a certain attractiveness for outcasts and bums, artists and intellectuals, both real and wannabe. If you’re reading a novel set in Vienna you can be 110% sure that sooner or later one of the protagonists will end up either on the Naschmarkt itself or in one of those watering holes nearby, like the Cafe Savoy – a well known gay bar which also features in Helfer’s novel – or the Cafe Drechsler which makes a thinly veiled appearance in one of Slupetzky’s murder mysteries:

Cafe Drechsler, interior, recently remodeled by British designer Terence Conran

All of the above, however, might be applicable only to stories by Austrian writers. Among my recent reading there was also La casa sul lago della luna [The House on Moon Lake] by Italian authoress Francesca Duranti, and her take on Vienna is quite different. Her main character, a translator and philologist from Milan coming to Vienna for work-related reasons, spends most of his time in this city doing research in the Nationalbibliothek (Austria’s National Library) or visiting monuments like the Hofburg (Imperial Palace), Schönbrunn Palace or the Belvedere, yet another Baroque palace. And, while there is a more or less detailed description of the Belvedere’s gardens…

A quiet corner in the Belvedere Gardens

… in general Duranti’s account of the city doesn’t go into details too much. Unlike most Austrian writers she doesn’t make her protagonist hang out in “in” bars or wander around little-known side streets. Instead she just makes him visit some of the city’s most famous sights and monuments, especially the old stately-homes of the Habsburg dynasty. At first, I thought this sort of superficiality was simply due to the fact that, well, Duranti is not a local and probably doesn’t know Vienna that well herself. But then it dawned on me that her narration is a realistic depiction of what an average real-life Italian tourist would actually do and see in Vienna – and, consequently, it’s also what an average Italian reader would supposedly expect to hear about the city.

And, on a closer look, it becomes evident that Duranti’s description is far from being superficial. Some of her observations provide a deep insight into the way Vienna (still) works:

“Here, at the Belvedere, and (…) at Schönbrunn and in the courtyards of the Hofburg, (…) everything wasn’t simply preserved but rather kept ready, as if the legitimate owners could decide, from one moment to the next, to leave the Imperial Crypt in order to take their abodes into possession once again.”*

The Upper Belvedere, seen from the gardens

* I read the novel in its Italian original, in an edition published by BUR La Scala, Milan 2000, where the above quote is found on p. 67. The English translation is mine, but for all I know a “proper” English translation of the whole book is available as well.


[roadside cardigan]

November 21, 2010

On July 17 we posted our very first entry on this blog. Incidentally, on that same day I started knitting a cardigan for our friends’ [a] & [i]’s baby which was due in August. Last Tuesday, 123 days and 38 blog posts later, I finally finished it:

Even the non-knitters among you will have gathered that this is a rather long time for knitting one lousy tiny baby cardi. To give you an idea of just how slow it actually is, here’s a list of things our dear friend Nadia – ittybitty on Ravelry – has knit in those same 123 days: 5 cardigans, 2 sweaters, 2 cowls, 1 hat, 1 pair of socks, 1 pair of fingerless gloves, 3 children’s cardigans, 9 baby cardigans, and 2 baby blankets. That makes a total of 26 (in words: twenty-six) items. And did you notice the nine baby cardigans?!

So, what took me so long? Well, prepare for an epic tale in the vein of, say, Moby Dick – or Don Quixote

As you’ll probably know by now, I’m still relatively new to the fine art of knitting, and in July I had just successfully finished my first attempt at lace knitting. So after what had seemed like an endless series of yo, k2tog, ssk, 2yo etc etc, I decided my next project was going to be more easy and relaxing. I was going to do a plain baby cardigan in simple garter stitch. But then ambition got the better of me and suggested that pure garter stitch would be too simple and, erm, beginner-y. So I figured I’d need to add some sort of extra difficulty to the project, a task to overcome in a prowly way: I was going to add stripes!

After the cast-on, things went well for the first couple of weeks or so… By then I had finished approximately one third of the cardigan’s body. However, by then I was getting bored by knitting garter stitch and annoyed by knitting stripes. Also, other, more urgent things – like writing a conference paper – came up, so one evening I put my knitting aside, and when I next picked it up again two or three weeks had gone by. At that point, our friends’ baby had been born, and even though I’d had the good sense to cast on in a 3-6 months size, I began to feel a certain pressure to finish the garment as quickly as possible. Soon enough, though, another problem appeared on the horizon…

I was knitting the cardi with leftover yarn from [m]’s stash, and an initial calculation had convinced me there was going to be enough yarn for my purposes. Unfortunately, I never have been too good at math: Pretty soon it became apparent that my calculations had been wrong. Mind you, there was plenty of red, a sufficient amount of blue, but the purple, alas, the purple was inexorably coming to an end. So I had to order more yarn. Which took two weeks to arrive from Denmark. In the meantime, the baby had been growing and so had the pressure to finish the damn thing. I hope you excuse the cursing, but at that point of the story my feelings towards the cardigan had taken a turn for the hostile. The garment had become the White Whale to my Captain Ahab, it had taken on the guise of an enemy deliberately trying to make me fail, and finishing it seemed like an enormous task I was never ever going to complete.

There was, of course, only one mature and rational way to deal with that situation: Avoid looking at the thing and pretend it’s not there! This actually worked well for quite a while. Then, all of a sudden, it was nearly November, and the baby was nearly three months old. And remember, we’re talking about a cardigan in a 3-6 months size

Ok, the rest of the story is less than spectacular. I finally sat down and knit. And knit. And knit. And knit. And knit. And knit. And knit. And knit. And knit. And knit. And knit. And knit. And knit. And knit. And knit. And knit. And knit. And knit. Did a bin-off. Sewed on some buttons from Aunt Fanny’s button box.* And now, here it is, the [roadside cardigan].

The name, by the way, is derived from the fact that the red I used for the cardigan is a colourway called Poppy. Where I come from, in late spring and early summer, there will always be loads and loads of poppies growing by the roadsides, creating vast red bands interspersed with the blue and purple of cornflowers. This photo may give you an idea of what I’m talking about, though, admittedly, it wasn’t taken at a proper roadside but along a garden path in my parents’ backyard:

Note the out-of-focus cornflowers in the background...

Somehow that’s the kind of image which came to my mind when knitting the poppy-purple-blue cardigan, so that’s how the project got its name. And to underline the meadow-y aspect, I even used some green yarn for sewing on the buttons:

Pattern: [roadside cardigan] by: me [read the full story here]
Yarn: Holst Garn Supersoft 100% uld [colours: Poppy, Aubergine, and Sapphire]
Needles: 3mm
[More project details on Ravelry]

* I mentioned Aunt Fanny and her button box a while ago in one of my project notes on Ravelry, but I’m not going to go into detail about her here. She might be a worthwhile subject for a future blog post, though…