Lady Agna

February 4, 2011

Here’s something I’ve been wanting to post for quite a while now: It’s about this book I read a few months ago, Frau Agna [Lady Agna] by Heinz Tovote (1864-1946), published way back in 1901…

Based in Berlin, Tovote was one of Germany’s most popular writers around 1900, and a benign view would be to consider him an emulator of the great Theodor Fontane (1819-1898). Like Fontane’s, Tovote’s works, too, deal with modern life and contemporary Prussian society, but while Fontane’s novels are marked by an unvarnished sense of realism and social criticism, Tovote’s take a turn for the superficial and melodramatic and are spruced up with a considerable dose of blatant sensuality and eroticism. A less benign view, therefore, sees Tovote as a writer of “Dienstmädchenliteratur” [“Servant girls’ literature”], i.e. over-dramatic, over-romantic stories aimed at a lower-class female audience. Bearing titles like Heimliche Liebe [Secret Love], Heißes Blut [Hot Blood] or Im Liebesrausch [Love’s Intoxication], Tovote’s novels may indeed be described as tele-novelas before the invention of the TV or as soap-operas from a time when soap was still advertised like this:

Advertisement for Hobbyhorse Lily-Milk Soap, from: Bibliothek der Unterhaltung und des Wissens 1909

Frau Agna, undoubtedly, falls into that category: The plot evolves around Agna, an upper-class Berlin housewife married to big Mr. Bourgeois who’s immensely rich but also immensely dull. It’s therefore easy to imagine what happens when Dashing Young Army Officer appears on the scene… Unfortunately, though, he’s not only incredibly exciting but, alas, also incredibly destitute. So after, er, lighting up Agna’s life for a while, he dumps her in favour of Rich American Heiress whom he hopes to marry. When that plan doesn’t work out, however, Dashing Young Officer is left in a bit of a tight spot what with him being up to his neck in debts – surely you must have guessed that he’s a gambler, too. Anyway, to save his neck he resorts to blackmailing Agna, making her buy back, one by one, the blazing love letters she once sent him. Soon enough, though, even Agna’s own financial resources are all used up, but Dashing Young Officer still has a whole bunch of potentially compromising letters and he still has a lot of debts to pay back. So there’s only one possible way for Agna to save herself from public disgrace: She has to disclose the whole affair to her husband and ask him for money – and, of course, for forgiveness. But how will he react?

Find out more after a short commercial break:

Advertisement for Saponia Cleaning and Scrubbing Agent, from: Bibliothek der Unterhaltung und des Wissens 1909

Ok, I’ll make it quick: In the end, Mr. Bourgeoise forgives Agna, even taking same of the blame upon himself for having been such a horrible bore all the time, and they all live happily ever after – even Dashing Young Officer manages to pull a Mr. Wickham and rather than being punished gets away with the money he extorted from them. One question, of course, remains to be answered: Why on earth would I read a book like this?

Well, I started reading it simply because it was there. “There”, in this case, meaning on a bookshelf in my parents’ house. Apparently, it once belonged to the woman my family remembers as Aunt Tini (that’s short for Klementine), a long deceased aunt of my grandma. She passed away before I was even born, and I only know her from the stories my mum and my own aunt occasionally tell about her. But, naturally, my mum and my aunt themselves only knew her when she was of a rather advanced age, so in their stories she always appears as this sturdy elderly woman, and it seems utterly weird that she should ever have read something as insinuating as Frau Agna.

Aunt Tini's signature on the first page of "Frau Agna"

So I started reading the book because it was there and I just can’t resist to pick up old books and take a peek inside. The reason why I carried on reading it was, I confess, that I was totally intrigued by the book’s very first paragraph. It reads:

“Sighing, Lady Agna put the blanket with the large Secessionist flowers that she’d been working on down on the little Japanese table and leaned back into the silken Liberty style cushions of the low chaise longue.”

And, for those of you who read German, here’s the original:

This first paragraph is a perfect example of what cineasts call Mise-en-scène. As Wikipedia puts it:

“Overall, mise-en-scène is used when the director wishes to give an impression of the characters or situation without vocally articulating it through the framework of spoken dialogue (…). The common example is that of a cluttered, disorganized apartment being used to reflect the disorganization in a character’s life in general, or a spartanly decorated apartment to convey a character with an empty soul.”

In Frau Agna there are two different aspects to this narrative technique: First, there’s the needlework. The author introduces Agna to his readers as she is embroidering a blanket. As is well known, back in Tovote’s days it was expected of any respectable woman to keep herself busy with some sort of needlework in the hours of idleness rather than to actually idle away her time. Indeed, doing needlework was the very epitome of female decency and domesticity – and, cynics would add, domestication. Agna, however, is introduced just as she’s laying aside her embroidery and leaning back to relax, and therefore an observant reader would know right from the beginning that this woman is in for trouble.

Second – and this I find even more fascinating – there’s a whole list of art-nouveau artefacts surrounding Agna in that first paragraph. To begin with, there’s the Secessionist flowers that Agna’s embroidering. From ca. 1890 onwards, all over Europe progressive “art-nouveau” artists had separated from the more conservative art academies and formed their own independent groups and movements. In many cities (e.g. Munich, Berlin) these groups labelled themselves Secession, and once the artists of the Vienna Secession, formed in 1897, had become household names (think Gustav Klimt) art-nouveau itself was frequently labelled as Secessionist Style. At the same time, of course, art-nouveau was also referred to as Liberty Style. This designation derives from Liberty & Co., a famous London department store which specialised in art-nouveau style products such as furniture, home-textiles, dishes and basically any kind of ornaments and objets d’art.* And right enough we find Liberty style cushions on Agna’s chaise longue. And, finally, there’s Agna’s Japanese table. This, too, might well have been bought at Liberty & Co. who were also doing good business with objects from the Far East, especially Japan – after all, many art-nouveau painters and crafters themselves were very fond of and heavily influenced by Japanese art.

So in that first paragraph of Tovote’s novel Agna really is surrounded by a veritable display of objects related to the style and taste of art-nouveau. Now, today we’re used to thinking of art-nouveau as graceful and beautiful, especially here in Vienna where every year millions of tourist come to see the works of Gustav Klimt and Otto Wagner. But, as has been mentioned on this blog before, we mustn’t forget that around 1900 society mostly wrinkled its nose at this new avantgardistic style and found it not only distasteful but also immoral. Which brings us right back to Frau Agna: For the reader, Agna’s taste in home textiles and interior decoration, too, immediately marks her out as a morally ambiguous character, a high fashion woman who’s liable to cheat on her husband as soon as a dashing young officer enters her world. For the art historian, this is a poignant reminder of just how daring and scandalous art-nouveau was when it was still, literally, new art.

* As some of you probably know, that department store still exists in London’s Regent Street / Great Marlborough Street and, perhaps more conveniently, online.

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.