I’m Back From Vienna


If you go on a trip and want to come back and share photos, you’d be well advised to check you’ve got the right camera card with you. Well, I hadn’t and so the only photo I can share from my recent trip to Vienna is this photo taken with my iPad. Vienna by night from my hotel room. The domes you see in the background belong to the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts.

I was on a course, so I didn’t have as much time to explore as I would have wished but I still saw an amazing amount of great art.


There was a Munch exhibition at the Albertina.

Kubin und Feininger

Also at the Albertina, I saw an exhibition dedicated to Alfred Kubin and Lionel Feininger.



At the Winterpalais, I saw this Rembrandt, Tizian and Bellotto exhibition and, of course, the beautiful reception rooms of Prinz Eugen.

Dürer Kleine Eule

The Albertina has a nice collection of Dürer’s watercolours. I really like the little owl.


The Leopoldmuseum owns one of the biggest Schiele collections. I’ve always admired his work but never saw so many of his paintings.


I never appreciated Klimt because I’m not fond of his most famous painting “The Kiss”. The collection at the Leopoldmuseum showed another side of the painter, which I found beautiful and inspiring.

I could write a lot more about the trip but I’ll leave it at that. I truly enjoyed it and was glad to see that most of Vienna hasn’t changed much. There have been some unfortunate renovations in the centre, which make it cleaner, and, in my opinion, a bit sterile, but most of the city still has a shabby elegance, I find appealing. And the people are so warm and welcoming and have such a great sense of humour. If you get a chance, visit Vienna. It has such a lot to offer. I have a feeling, I’ll return soon. Also because I didn’t have enough time to go to the theater. That was unfortunate because they showed many interesting plays.

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I discovered a new to me Austrian crime author. I have no idea how good he is, but since he’s been translated into English, I thought the one or the other of you might be interested to pick him up for German Literature Month. His name is Bernhard Aichner and the book is called Woman of the Dead  – Totenfrau. It’s the first in a trilogy. Book two is already out in German. Here’s some praise taken from the blurb:

One of the Financial Times‘s top summer books for 2015

One of the Telegraph‘s Best Crime Fiction Books for 2015

‘An ironclad guarantee of sleepless nights’ INDEPENDENT

‘One of the most arresting thrillers I’ve read for years’ LISA GARDNER

‘Fast, edgy and gripping…full of quirks, with a conflicted heroine as killer at its heart. Do not miss it.’ GEOFFREY WANSELL, DAILY MAIL

‘Aichner has a talent for keeping readers hooked – this is a gripping read and the character of Blum lives long in the mind’ TELEGRAPH

‘An inventive, forceful, engrossing revenge thriller’ MARCEL BERLINS, TIMES

‘Blum is a great character and when Aichner’s ghost-train plot ends in the only place it can – a crematorium – you feel like cheering’ GUARDIAN


Small Break


I’m off to Vienna for a course and won’t be back before Tuesday 20. I wanted to write a couple of reviews before leaving but since I had the flu, I ran out of time. I just thought I let you know that I’m not ill anymore, just travelling.

I guess I could see this as a warm up for German Literature Month. I certainly hope I’ll get the chance to visit a book shop or two.

Should you wonder – the photo shows the Strudlhofstiege.

I hope you’re all doing fine. See you again in ten days.

Vicki Baum: Grand Hôtel – Menschen im Hotel (1929)

Vicki Baum was an Austrian novelist most famous for her Berlin novel Grand Hôtel aka Menschen im Hotel published in 1929. Although this book made her one of the early bestselling novelists and is still widely read in German it seems a bit difficult to find English copies. But since her far lesser known book Life and Death in Bali has just been reissued I hope that her other books, especially Grand Hôtel, will be republished as well. In any case, it is possible to find used copies. Part of the long-lasting success of the novel comes from the fact that it was made into a movie starring Greta Garbo Grand Hôtel (1932) and later into a German movie Menschen im Hotel (1959) starring Michèle Morgan and Heinz Rühmann. Vicki Baum wrote far over 50 novels, 10 of which have been made into movies.

Grand Hôtel is set in a luxurious hotel in Berlin between the wars. It’s walls shelter a microcosm of German society. The novel draws a panorama of the society and the times, reading it is fascinating and gives a good impression and feel for the time and the people. Vicki Baum includes a wide range of characters, the porter who waits for his wife to give birth to the first child, the aristocratic head porter Rohna, the many drivers and maids as well as some very interesting guests. Including the employees of the hotel gives the book a bit of an upstairs-downstairs feel and permits insight into the lives of the “simple people” who earn just enough not to starve.

The main characters are the guests. Dr. Otternschlag is the first to be introduced and he will also be the one closing this novel as he is almost part of the establishment. He stays here year in and year out, sits in the lobby and does nothing much. Badly wounded in Flanders, half of his face is just a scarred mass with a glass eye, he has lost interest in life. Wherever he goes his little black suitcase travels with him. The suitcase is packed for his final trip. It contains a large amount of morphine vials which he intends to inject should he be finally too disgusted by life. For the time being, he endures living but eases it with a regular nightly shot.

The Russian ballet dancer Grusinskaja is another important character. She is an aging beauty who is less and less successful. Her dancing lacks spirit and the public punishes her by leaving the theater almost before the final curtain. Once the lover of a Russian aristocrat, she is now still admired for her looks but not many fall in love with her. She reminded me of Gloria Swanson in the movie Sunset Boulevard or Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

The astonishingly handsome Baron von Gaigern is one of the most joyful characters. He is easy-going, always happy, a womanizer and a con artist. Nobody knows that all he has left is his title and that he is without any financial means. He too was in Flanders but apart from a tiny scar on his chin he seems unharmed.

The industrialist Preysing has come to the hotel for an important meeting. If the business men he will meet, will not sign the contract, he is done.

And there is the terminally ill accountant Kringelein, one of the many employees of Preysing.  Kringelein hasn’t done much else than save money all his life. He has never treated himself to anything and now, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, he has left his wife in some little provincial town and travelled to Berlin to spend all his savings and to finally live.

Flämmchen (little Flame) is Preysing’s temporary secretary. She is very young, as good-looking as Baron von Gaigern, good-natured but without much luck. Because she can’t find work, she started to model and sells her company to business men.

During the course of three days these people meet and interact. Some fall in love, some help each other, one kills one of them and at the end it’s not entirely clear who is a winner and who is a loser.

The character portraits are the strength of this novel. And the variety of themes. I was amazed about the range. It isn’t only about aging, the loss of success and fraud, but it also shows the aftermath of WWI. The war has left its mark on the people, their faces and their souls and changed the society forever. These people are very frivolous and venal. The meaning of life for them equals having a good time. If you want to have a good time you need money. And so another of the central themes is money. There is a whole chapter in which Preysing and his consultant discuss how they want to raise the value of the stocks of Preysing’s factory. What they do to achieve it, sounds so modern.

It’s interesting that the characters can be divided into two diametrically opposed groups. One group embraces life fully and greedily while the other one is weary and suicidally tired of it.

When you read a novel like Grand Hôtel that isn’t only set in the 20s but has been written at the time, you see the whole difference of a historical novel and one that depicts it’s time. Vicki Baum has an insider’s knowledge that is hard to achieve through research. I would really recommend this novel to anyone interested in the era, to those, like me, who love novels set in hotels and to all those who like a character driven story.

I would be very interested to know if anyone has read this one or any of her other novels. The way she described the society of the 20s is a very anthropological one. I’m not surprised, after reading it, that Life and Death in Bali was suggested reading at university in a course on Balinese culture. Our professor said the book was so well written that it was as good as non-fiction in its detailedness and exact observation.

The review is part of German Literature Month – Week III Switzerland and Austria

Peter Handke: Wunschloses Unglück aka A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972)

Peter Handke’s mother was an invisible woman. Throughout her life—which spanned the Nazi era, the war, and the postwar consumer economy—she struggled to maintain appearances, only to arrive at a terrible recognition: “I’m not human any more.” Not long after, she killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.

Peter Handke’s Wunschloses Unglück or A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is the bleak account of a German woman’s life. It is the story of Handke’s mother, her struggle, her despair, her suicide.

The author starts with his own motivation to write this book, the attempt to make sense to put into words what is hardly comprehensible and to escape a feeling of being utterly numb. What did surprise me at first is his choice to call the account novella. Not memoir. After a few pages I realized that he wanted to make this an exemplary account. His mother’s life stands for numerous invisible women’s lives. When I finally got that, I felt like standing in a corner of a room and just scream. It’s such an outrageous account. It’s outrageous and infuriating and sad because it’s such a common story. Numerous women born in small towns (or even cities) between the wars lead lives like this. No one took them seriously, no one thought they should have a proper education. They were oppressed, and crushed, ridiculed and held small. All they were offered was the proverbial Kinder, Küche, Kirche (Children. Kitchen, Church).

Handke has by now become one of the most controversial German authors, but at the time of the publication of Wunschloses Unglück he was still the German literary Wunderkind, so too speak.

Handke’s mother is born in Kärnten, a region in Austria, in the early 1920s. She belongs to the Slovenian speaking minority. Despite a joyless childhood and hardly any education – she is only a girl – , her curiosity and interest in many things make her leave home and enjoy life for a while. She is only a young woman, almost a girl still, when she gets pregnant from a married man. He is the love of her life and she will never love anyone else after this. Afraid of the shame and what would become of her and the child she gets married as fast as she can to someone else. They live in Berlin and stay there until after the war when poverty and the difficult situation in the bombed city drive them back to the village in Austria from which she came.

What follows is indeed exemplary and that is why it’s so sad. Her husband starts drinking and hits her. She gets pregnant at least another five or six times, three of the children she aborts herself. The society in which she lives consists of uncultured peasants. She looses all interest in life and starts to develop all sorts of ailments. In the end she has a chronic headache that is so severe that she can hardly think, barely see and speak. She goes to a doctor who diagnoses a nervous breakdown, gives her pills. She does get a little bit better. She starts to visit girlfriends, reads extensively. She reads the books Handke gives her and with the help of those books, she speaks about herself for the first time.  She tries to have some fun but her marriage is so love- and joyless, she can hardly stand it. Her husband has tuberculosis and is gone often, when he is back, they sit and stare silently at opposite walls. She says she wants to die by she is afraid of death. She starts speaking about how to kill herself and finally writes long letters of goodbye to everybody. She buys a red umbrella, goes to the hairdresser, has her nails done, lies on her bed and swallows all the tablets she has.

When Handke hears of her suicide his first reaction is one of pride. He is proud of her. After a while he starts to feel horrible. He starts to write about her but that doesn’t help. He wakes regularly in terror and dread.

Handke could have chosen numerous ways to tell this story, more personal ones. Throughout the narration he hardly ever uses perosnal pronouns like “I” or “she” but always “one did this, one did that”. The alienation is as complete as possible.

Handke is famous for his style, unwieldy at times but sparkling here and there with metaphors and sentences that you don’t find often. If you want to get to know him, it isn’t a bad thing to start with a short text like this one.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams has been published by Pushkin Press and by the The New York Review Book Classics. It’s extremely depressing but a very important text. It describes in details the life of many a woman in Catholic petite bourgeoisie in dreary post- war Germany and Austria. It speaks of the misogyny and sexism that pervaded the society. The poverty, the struggles, the joylessness. Manic saving, mistrust of anything that looked like frivolity and be it only reading a book. It’s an oppressing account but worth reading.

Handke didn’t only write depressing books. He has, amongst a lot of other books, written the script of one of the most beuatiful movies, Wim Wender’s Himmel über Berlin aka Wings of Desire.

Joseph Roth: Hotel Savoy (1924)

Hotel Savoy

Written in 1924, Hotel Savoy is a dark, witty parable of Europe on the verge of fascism and war.

I read Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March years ago in school and had sworn at the time that I will re-read it and read as much as I can of this incredible author. A while back I stumbled upon a really nice discovery in a local bookshop, a little slipcase containing seven of Joseph Roth’s novels. It consists of Hotel Savoy (Hotel Savoy) (1924) Hiob (Job) (1930) Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March) (1932) Beichte eines Mörders (Confession of a Murderer) (1936) Das falsche Gewicht (Weights and Measures) (1937) Die Kapuzinergruft (The Emperor’s Tomb) (1938) and Die Geschichte von der 1002. Nacht (The String of Pearls) (1939).

Roth is one of three Austrian authors (the other two being Robert Musil and Heimito von Doderer) who wrote about the end of the Danube Monarchy. The end of an era, the changing of the times, is often central in his books.

I decided to read Roth’s books chronologically and started with Hotel Savoy.

What an absolutely wonderful novel this is. Beautifully written, astonishingly varied in style, themes and characters. How can you capture so much in under 120 pages? The style is very different from Radetzkymarsch but not less enchanting. His sentences are very special, often composed of a list of nouns which might have been a challenge for a translator.

I am happy, once more, to shed an old live, like I did so often these past years. I see the soldier, the murderer, the man who was almost murdered, the resurrected man, the captive, the wanderer.

Or this powerful sentence:

I enjoy the floating feeling, calculate how many wearisome steps I would have had to climb if I wasn’t sitting in this luxurious lift, and I throw down bitterness, poverty, homelessness, migration, hunger,  the past of the beggar, throw them deep into the shaft, from where they cannot reach me, the hovering one, ever again.

Hotel Savoy is a “Heimkehrer Roman”, the story of the former soldier Gabriel Dan who after WWI and several years of having been a prisoner of war in a Siberian camp returns to Poland. He is a descendant of Russian Jews and one of his uncles lives in the city in which he stops. He wants to travel westwards to Paris or any of the other big Western cities. As far away as he can get from Russia and a painful past full of deprivations, it seems.

He moves into a room on one of the upper floors of the grand and glamorous looking Hotel Savoy. As pompous as it may seem from the outside, the interior is rundown.

The first three lower floors are reserved to rich people, bankers, aristocrats, factory owners and patrons. The upper floors belong to the poor who cannot pay their rent. After a few weeks their suitcases and luggage is confiscated and they are left completely destitute.

What a colorful group of people they are in those upper floors. Dancers and clowns and people who return from the war or people who have lost everything in one foolhardy transaction. They are eccentrics and lunatics and more than one of them is terminally ill. There is singing and dancing and cheerfulness and a lot of dying going on.

Gabriel hopes to be able to extract some money of his rich uncle, Phöbus Böhlaug, but to no avail. His uncle’s avarice is frightening.

There is nothing else to do for Gabriel than stand at the train station daily and hoping for work. Every other week the train station is flooded by prisoners returning from the camps. One day he meets one of his old comrades the peasant Zwonimir.

What a character, this Zwonimir. Full of life, exuberant, funny and droll. He makes friends easily has a funny sense of humour and detects everything phony in the rich and pompous people around him.

They work hard and enjoy themselves in the evening, drinking copiously, going to cabarets and the vaudeville, walking through the city, exploring the quarters where only Jews live.

I always enjoy novels set in hotels. They are full of interesting characters from the most diverse social backgrounds. In this inter-war period hotels were often the only place where people could stay. It took those who returned from the war an awfully long time to get back to their homes and they had to stay somewhere on the way. Others had lost their houses or just fled the countryside.

It is a fascinating microcosm this Hotel Savoy. The very poor and the very rich rub shoulders.

One of the central episodes is the arrival of Henry Bloomfield an incredibly rich banker who left Europe for America but returns once a year to his hometown. No one really knows why he chooses to come back to this little town when he could stay in Berlin.

While he resides at the Savoy, people cue up to talk to him and present their business ideas hoping he might finance them. Gabriel is lucky and is chosen by Bloomfield as temporary assistant. He will listen to all the stories and sort the valuable ideas out.

This novel has really everything. It is funny, sad, picturesque, touching and bitter-sweet and the ending is perfection. Roth describes people, the hotel and the little town with great detail. And every second sentence bears an explosive in the form of a word that shatters any illusion of an idyllic life. Roth served in WWI and never for once allows us to forget that the horror of one war and subsequent imprisonment have only just been left behind  while the next one is announcing itself already.

I was reminded of other novels set in hotels, pensions or clubs like Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, Vicki Baum’s Menschen im Hotel (Grand Hôtel), Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Assouline’s Lutetia, Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull and Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.

I am sure there are many more. Do you know any others?

I translated the quotes from the original German. Any mistakes are entirely my own.