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.


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