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Category Archive for 'Austria'

Following the crushing defeat of the Italian army in 1917 by the Germans during World War I, the Villa belonging to the Spada family in Refrontolo, just north of Venice, is requisitioned by the German army and stripped of all its valuables. Crude victorious soldiers, drunk on their power, delight in tormenting the owners, tearing up cupboards and smashing the contents and even riding horses inside the Villa until they are stopped by officers in charge. The safety of young females is constantly at risk if they are caught out alone. As one character says, “War and loot are the only faithful married couple.” Living at the Villa which the family has occupied for generations, are the speaker, Paolo, age seventeen, an orphan who has lost his parents and other immediate family in the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in 1914; his grandfather Guglielmo Spada; grandmother Nancy; unmarried aunt, Donna Maria, who acts as the house manager; Teresa, the imaginative cook; and Loretta, her daughter, in her early twenties. Living in a house nearby are the red-haired Giulia Candiani, who has returned to her place of birth because of an indiscretion, a twenty-five-year-old who has bewitched Paolo; and her tenant, Grandma Spada’s “third paramour,” Pagnini, who occupies a basement room there. Author Andrea Molesini, who has lived in this area of northern Italy for much of his life, has absorbed every aspect of its history and is uniquely qualified to describe the effects of the German, and later, the Austro-Hungarian occupation on the lives of the inhabitants, not just of the Villa but of the surrounding area, during the final months of World War I.

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This unusual novel features a cast of characters whose lives change constantly in response to the circumstances of their lives. Even death is not permanent. If the unnamed main character makes a bad choice and dies, usually through no fault of her own, author Jenny Erpenbeck simply changes one or more of the conditions which brought about the character’s death and its terrible consequences to the family and retells her story. In fact, the unnamed main character here has five “deaths” in the novel’s five “books,” and other characters experience similar changes of fortune as the author examines the very nature of time, mortality, fate, coincidence, and the effects of a death or other terrible event on the people connected to that character. There is no heavenly hand, no higher deity, no fate with predictable goals or rewards controlling the outcomes here, only the hand of the author, with her long view and broad themes. Erpenbeck aims high, creating an unnamed main character from early twentieth-century Galicia (now incorporated as parts of Poland and Ukraine) who endures two world wars and their aftereffects, the growth of communism, the division of Germany and later the fall of the Berlin Wall, and other major events of European history over the course of a century. The main character’s death-defying personal traumas match those wrought by political changes, and as she endures, or dies and is given a second chance, she also becomes an “Everywoman” for the century. The main character’s intimate life story, portrayed within the context of major historical events in various locations in Eastern Europe, makes the small details of a person’s life feel real at the same time that major political and sociological ideas are sweeping the continent. Her setting becomes the world of Europe in miniature, a microcosm of the continent over the course of a century.

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Otto Steiner, an Austrian whose diary from July, 1939, to August, 1940, forms the basis of this novel, is not worried here about any imminent danger because of his Jewish descent. Few people even know of his Jewish background because he has never practiced any religion, and he is not really concerned much with politics. He is a “pariah,” however,” because he is dying of tuberculosis and is confined to a sanatorium, not allowed to mix with the general population. As author Raphael Jerusalmy develops Steiner’s story, he incorporates many details of Steiner’s daily life in the sanatorium, along with the variety of people who live and work there, all drawn together because of a terrible illness and not for political or religious reasons. Jerusalmy uses Steiner’s personal isolation and his pre-occupation with his terminal illness to provide a new slant on events in Austria, 1939 – 1940. By limiting Steiner’s “world” to the sanatorium, his illness, and his dedication to music, the author avoids repeating details (and clichés) so common to “Holocaust novels.” When Steiner is visited by his friend Hans, who, like Steiner, is a writer about music and a critic, he learns that Hans has been preparing the program for the next Festspiele, set to occur in Salzburg in late July, 1940. The audience will be primarily Nazi officials and military. The entire music program, usually heavily Mozart (an Austrian), has been changed into a propaganda tool by the German occupiers, and he wants Steiner to help him by writing the program notes. Steiner is galvanized by this news and finally realizes that “Mozart must be saved.”

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Setting his latest novel in Vienna in 1948, nine years after the setting for his previous novel, The Quiet Twin, author Dan Vyleta continues the story of the city and some of its characters in the aftermath of the Holocaust’s atrocities, though this novel stands alone and is not really a sequel. Here Vyleta uses characters some readers already know in order to show how they have changed in the nine years that have elapsed since The Quiet Twin, while, at the same time, introducing these characters in new contexts and illustrating their changed lives, which makes them fresh and intriguing to new readers of Vyleta’s work. The Crooked Maid, set in 1948, shows how they have been changed by war’s horrors, by imprisonment (in some cases), by living as refugees in other countries, and by the cumulative trauma of a city which has been in the grips of unimaginable evil and now finds itself uncertain of its values and its future. As the dramatic action begins to unfold, the novel may appear, at first, to be a simple murder mystery within an historical setting, similar, perhaps to those written by many popular, best-selling authors, but Dan Vyleta transcends genre, his writing more similar to that of Dostoevsky than to pop fiction. The many mysteries and even murders that take place during this mesmerizing and fully-developed novel grow out of the moral vacuum in Vienna after the war, the macabre details of these crimes so deeply rooted in the city’s psyche that they feel almost “normal” in the context of the times. Outstanding!

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Considering the esoteric subject matter, the hypnotic charm of this biography comes as a complete surprise. Though I had expected the book to be good, I had no idea how quickly and how thoroughly it would engage and ultimately captivate my interest. Through this sensitive author/artist, the reader shares the quest for information about five generations of his family history, delights in the discovery of his family’s art collecting prowess, and thrills at his ability to convey the charms of a collection of 264 netsukes from the early 1800s. Despite the sadness that accompanies the Anschluss in Vienna and leads to the loss of the family’s entire financial resources, the novel is far from melancholic. Ultimately, he connects with the reader, who cannot help but feel privileged to have been a part of this author’s journey of discovery.

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