A Letter From Vienna

An English free lance now in his twenty-ninth year, MICHAEL SWAN travels where he pleases and writes about the places which invite his pen. He is the author of Ilex and Olive, a book descriptive of his peregrinations in France and Italy, and of a short biography of Henry James; and he has recently returned to England from Mexico, where he spent several months gathering source material for a new book.



IN a city one has never visited before, the revealing images arrive, fortuitously, with a strange lack of logic — perhaps because one’s preconceptions are rarely found to be true; the mind becomes sensitive to images which once seemed irrelevant, and sees in them an unaccountable significance. Why, I wonder, should I feel so attached to the scene from my hotel window? — the sight of children playing beneath the dead eyes of the baroque facade of the Liechtenstein Palace, with its somber stucco at the moment when it seems inevitable that it will crumble and fall. The children sing little songs reminiscent of Ringel, Ringel, Rosenkranz, but I cannot make out the tunes properly against the noise of the traffic on the Porzellangasse. As they play, the children’s balls land among the cabbages and tomato rows which have replaced the lawns; their mothers sit talking under the trees in front of a moss-covered statue. It is all just as it was on the evening of my first day in Vienna nearly three weeks ago — but now it has become no mean speck among the sensations which have come to compose Vienna during these few weeks, an image which I can twist and turn in my mind to make of it a symbol for so many purposes.

Two weeks ago I knew no other images than the four in a jeep or the taxi driver who answered my questions about life in Vienna today with the simple phrase, “Ah, immer lustig ist der Wiener — the Viennese is always happy.”What he said, I came to see, was true, but one soon realized that it was not enough to applaud the Viennese for a cheerful optimism, or to feel that their nature is to laugh and not care when the Russian Empire is twentyfive miles away and their country depends for its existence on the beneficence of America. One of the favorite songs here is from Millockers brilliant operetta, Der Bettelstudent; it is called Schramm drüber, which could be colloquially translated as “What does it matter, anyway— and the Viennese have a genius for asking this question. Centuries of invasion and occupation from the East, — the Turks who scaled the machieolated churches which defended the town — have taught them to discover a resignation which has the appearance of gaiety. The modern version of this was not difficult to discover, for a superficial freedom and cultural contact with Western Europe have returned, there is good food and beer and music, and the village wine gardens at Sievering or Grinzing are filled every night with Viennese drinking Heuriger wine, listening to zither music, and catching the last tram home, happy with balloons.

Yet, as the sensations grow and form their shape, one feels that it is not those things which are particular and contemporary that compose the underlying sadness; one comes to realize that it is in Vienna rather than in provincial Austria that the tragedy of the history of the country may be felt most potently. It would be untrue to say that the sadness began only when the Austrian Empire was destroyed in 1918, for this was the mere coup de grâce. Vienna under Erancis Joseph showed its feathers like a peacock before death; the murder and suicide at Mayerling and the murder of Francis Joseph’s brother, Maximilian, tell truer stories than the grandiose buildings on the Ring, while Schnitzler’s bitter melancholy and Grillparzer’s message that all endeavor is futile tell the truest. I like to imagine that the whole story of Austria is contained in the title of Grillparzer’s play König Ottokars Glück and Ende (King Ottokar’s Good Fortune and Death). The final death came and Vienna returned to normal, to being an outpost after two hundred years of unnatural centrality.

Two days ago I met a survivor from this past — an old man of eighty-five of whom I asked the way. I walked with him for some time and when he told me his age and that he had lived in Vienna all his life I was delighted, for here was somebody who would have seen the sleek broughams clatter out to Grinzing for their secret assignations, would have seen the imperial glories in the courtyard of the Hofburg. I asked him about the Vienna of his youth and he stopped in the crowded street, took my arm and said ecstatically, “Das Leben war wunderbar,wunderbar! — Life was marvelous!” and went on to say that the country was so rich and so happy until that devil Wilson cut her throat.

His view of his country’s history is typical of the mass of “little men" who have always composed the largest social formation in the country. It is for his sons and grandsons that films like Wien Tanzt, about Johann Strauss, or Maria Teresia, are made and nineteenth-century high-life operettas are produced; if is his sons, too, who are a little shocked by the cynicism of La Ronde and who never read Schnitzler precisely because he revealed the worm behind the lovely face; who, again, snort and hurry their wives past the erotic Surrealism of Rudolf Hausner at an exhibition at the excellent Art Club. And it is for them that the Americans, with great understanding, have given money for the rebuilding of such comfort ing signs of past gra ndeur as the Opera on the Ring (and none for the building ol new houses). For the petty bourgeois — or Spiessbürger as he is called here has always felt the rightness of grand buildings, conscious of his position as a spectator of such expressions of Austrian courtly culture as Fischer von Erlach’s great Josefs Plntz or the Upper Belvedere of Lukas von Hildebrandt.

The charming old man who told me how wonderful life had been fifty years ago has his opposite in his own class, the malcontents who revenged themselves on the nobility in 1919 by destroying them; today there are no titles in Austria, bill in the Café Mozart each evening you may hear the waiters delighting in the opportunity to say “Herr Craf” or “Fräulein Baronin” to an owner of a jewelry business or a secretary from the Foreign Office. But to return to the malcontent; at his most unpleasant he look the form of Adolf Hitler. Hitler transferred to the larger world of Germany the longing of some elements of his class for political and cultural power.

His tastes were those of the Austrian Spiessbürgerthe horror of decadence in painting, the desire to appear sexually irreproachable, and the admiration for the grandiose. Hitler’s mania for imperial conquest had its psychological roots in the social formation and dissolution ol the Austrian Fmpire perhaps more than in the defeat of Germany in 1918.


VIENNA, more than most towns, may only be apprehended by a free play of mind, a refusal to see it in terms of Russian occupation, of Austria paying Russia for her own oil, or the frequent disappearances of policemen or functionaries who have met the disapproval of the commissars at the Hotel Imperial. These, indeed, must have their part in the contradictions and complications of Vienna. Its complication has always been the source of its fascination; in the narrow, twisting streets of the Old Town — a complication of its own — live so many people whose blood is a mélange of three or four Middle European strains, a mélange which sometimes rises to the heights in the creation of a Maria Jeritza or a Hedy Lamarr. Like an eastern Paris, Vienna has attracted and assimilated the precious minds of Eastern Europe — Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, Freud, Reinhardt, Kafka — and even the not so precious minds; for in 1911 Mussolini was a Viennese street sweeper, Hitler had a post at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and Stalin was writing his first book in the National Library.

Still further complication is added, since Vienna rejects and assimilates at the same time, conservatively banning Grillparzer’s plays and allowing him only posthumous glory, permitting Mozart to die a pauper, and rejecting Freud; it is only this year that the intellectuals have begun to read Kafka. Today Vienna knows that the three physical acts of rejection, of 1918, 1934, and 1938, were a form of intellectual suicide. The Jews, who formed the nearest approach to an Austrian intellectual middle class, have virtually ceased to exist in Vienna; few of the exiles have returned, and those who have are different men, seeming to accept the traditional isolation of the Viennese intellectual as a still center from which to speak to the whole of Europe. “The real things come from silence,” the Catholic writer, Friedrich Heer, said to me, and it is in the vigorous silence of Vienna that an artist like Fritz Votruba now works.

Votruba was born in Vienna of Hungarian parents, and lived in exile in Switzerland from 1938 to 1945, when he returned to Vienna and began work on his monument to the victims of National Socialism. He despises the conserv ative Viennese attitude toward art, uses Vienna as a workshop where he is undistracted by the noise of culture which makes Paris intolerable for him; yet it is for Paris and the other capitals of Europe that he works — and in the catalogue to his Paris exhibit ion of 1948 Jean Cassou wrote: ”Il est actuellement une des grandes figures de la sculpture européenne.” His is typical of the Viennese artist’s attitude toward the political situation here; he is quite untroubled by it and feels that the Russians will go, one day. Although he insists that he has no interest in politics his political remarks are shrewd. For instance, he told me that the Russians have a mentality which can happily wait twenty years for action, while the British and Americans have a need for decisive action, and it is here that the greatest danger lies.

Wotruba’s latest period is interesting because, although he is “ European ”-minded, he has caught the prevailing interest in Vienna in movements which have died, or are dying, in the rest of Europe. For twenty years he was a classicist, sculptor, obviously inspired by the “workmanlike" possibilities of Michelangelo’s Slaves. (”Ich bin ein Arbeiter — I am a worker,”he is fond of saying.) In 1946 he carved his “Female Cathedral" in this manner, and then suddenly turned to a form of Cubism as seen through the eyes of Aztec sculpture. He, like the great Cubists, is fascinated by the infinite relationships of the human form, and he is attempting, as he puts it, to tell “the story of the human figure.” His ”Cathédrale Humaine “ (1949) is a sophisticatedly primitive study of the planes of the human body, typical of his recent work. I could not help feeling that he was at the beginning of a new trail, and one only comprehends his vision when one sees his series of figure drawings — drawings of a wonderful intensity and attraction.

The abstract painters in Vienna don’t appear to be of great interest. They tend to think of Cubism as no more than a matter of angles, and seem unaware that h was an attempt 1o probe the mysteries of a fourth dimension. But the Surrealist painter Rudolf Hausner is an excellent example of the creative conservatism of Viennese art.

Hausner was too young at the time of the Anschluss to have been conscious of Surrealism, and after 1938 all artists in Vienna were cut off from the movements of Western Europe. He fought in the war and at one time was isolated for a month with two companions in a room of a house. He would stare at the pattern of the woodwork on the wall and find that he was turning it into fantastic designs, as he had turned shadows and objects into terrifying visions when a child. It was from this, and this alone, he assures me, that he arrived at his version of Surrealism; and it was not until 1945, when a friend of his who had spent the war in Switzerland showed him some Dali reproductions, that he had any idea such work existed. I could myself, at first, find very little difference between Hausner’s work and the orthodox Surrealism of the thirties, apart from a technical proficiency which is, if anything, greater than Dali’s; but after talking to Hausner I realized that he sees his present work as no more than a necessary phase, a means to an admirable end — a contribution to what he calls “the rebuilding of the house,”the reunification of the isms. It was not surprising to learn that the two painters he most admires are Leonardo and Piero della Francesca.

Unlike the rest of the Viennese intelligentsia, the artists form a community with a Bohemianism which one associates with Paris of the twenties. They buy each other’s works, since there are few others to buy them, and their waves work in sugar factories or shops in order to keep them — an accepted convention here. The other evening I went to a typical party in the garden of a studio near the Prater. Chinese lanterns were hung from tree to tree. Over an open charcoal stove two vast pieces of veal were turning on a spit, while potatoes roasted over a grill and melanzana quietly sizzled in a pan. Pretty girls with long black hair and bangs came constantly to fill one’s glass with Heuriger, and we talked and ate the delicious meat with our fingers, gradually got drunk until the wine was finished; whereupon somebody appeared with an accordion and a hat and we dropped our money in for replenishments. The radio played jazz from Rot-WeissRot and angry shouts came from a flat across the road, answered by an Italian sculptor, Wander Bertoni, with a stream of Italian invective. At midnight we went into the studio, drank more, and danced. It was a simple, pleasant evening the way the Viennese take the pleasure they find so necessary.

There is some relationship between the position of the artist here and that of the composer. One would expect that the painters and sculptors would be struggling for a style, but it seems tragic that Vienna, the greatest center of European music from Gluck to Schönberg, should have, on the one side, so many worthless composers hopelessly producing bad pastiche of Richard Strauss and, on the other, young composers of great talent, groping in the dark. After the war Schönberg’s two pupils, Hanns Jelinek and Hans Erich Apostel, returned to the Academy as teachers and introduced atonalism to their students for the first time.

For two or three years it seemed possible that the “Vienna School” of atonalism might be continued. Paul Kont, who is now thirty-one, was the most brilliant of the young composers who found themselves excited by the dodeca tonal system, but when I went to hear him play his music he refused to play anything written in this style. It seemed to him to lead nowhere, and although he has profound respect for Schonberg he has completely rejected him. He played his music for me in his flat in a crumbling house which stands alone in an acre of bomb damage. First, the Two Sonatas of 1949, a work of great rhythmic vitality with an attractive melodic line, but which failed to be more than interesting. Then he played his set of European Dances, written last year; they arose out of a study of the national dance forms of Europe and, in the traditionally assimilative Viennese manner, his aim was to produce a dance form which could be truly European — not , I hasten to add, bv coupling a phrase from an Austrian Ländler with a phrase from a Spanish coranto, but by an intellectual study of the psychological and technical relationships between the various dances. It is an immensely attractive work, certainly a little influenced by Bartók. Finally, Kont played his most recent composition, a work of pure, abstract musical thought, Variations on the Basic Elements of Music, which I found brilliant and absorbing, a highly serious work of a professional musician.

“Professionalism” is the true word for Austrian music, and when I talked with Kont about English music he spoke of it in the same terms as another young German-Austrian composer, Gottfried von Einim (who has just finished an opera based on Kafka’s Trial) and the Berlin composer Boris Blacher; English music, for them all, was unprofessional. “You may have some first-rate composers in England in ten or twenty years,” Blacher had said, “but now they’re all so unprofessional. But we play all your second-rate composers here — why don’t you play some of ours?” Kont was more serious. Britten, for him, was a composer of too great facility, with the simplicity of a simple mind rather than the simplified complexity of Stravinsky or of Carl Orff. “ It is easier for him,” he went on, “than it is for us, because he has little more to do than to take up where Purcell left off” — and there, I thought, was perhaps the key to the Viennese composers’ attitude toward British music. There they are in the main stream of European music, conscious that it is dying, struggling for rejuvenescence through a mass of complexity, while Britten, unfettered by a heavy tradition, sings but as the linnet sings and sings because he must. The pure simplicity of Britten is something which the Viennese rejects because it can never be his.


I HAVE mentioned no writers yet. The difficulties of the serious writer here are greater than in any other European country — I mean the physical difficulties, for there is no censorship or limitation of free speech even in the Russian Zone. With a population of seven millions the potential audience for serious work is minute, and German and Swiss bookshops buy very few Austrian books, with the result that good novels may circulate in manuscript in Vienna and never find a publisher. The worst thing of all is that the writer must give more time to journalism than he would in Paris or London; and since the press is designed for the Spiessbürger society, he is forced to lower his standards.

One man who has refused to compromise is Friedrich Heer, the brilliant young editor of the Catholic political and literary weekly, Die Furche. Heer has written a two-volume study of religious and political trends in Europe during the twelfth century, Aufgang Europas, which has placed him among the leading contemporary historians, but he has also written a novel, Der achte Tag (The Eighth Day), which is an Austrian 1984. It was published under the name of Hermann Gode because, in Austria, a scholar loses face if he writes anything so frivolous as a novel.

Der achte Tag is about a family of decrepit Austrian nobility in the year 2050 who spend their days drinking wine, playing cards, and talking in their crumbling castle on the Croatian coast. They are hopeless and quite unproductive; barbarian hordes from the East make war against, their country, occupy it, and set fire to the castle. But when the fire has died down the family is found amid the ruins still drinking wine, playing cards, and talking. It is interesting to see how differently Heer sees the future from Orwell. Orwell’s humanism took the form of a certainty that humanism was about to die, Herr’s that nothing can kill it.

Heer seems to be the most articulate of the very potent Catholic elements in the country. Austria, of course, is officially a Catholic country and any religious revival would be a stricter faith towards Mother Church. The religious revival came to Gormany and Austria after the war, giving hope to the starving, comfort to the wretched. With the return of prosperity to Germany the revival subsided there, but it is a sign of Austria’s difficulties that the revival still continues here. Last Sunday afternoon I went to the lovely little Gothic church of Maria in Gestade; and in every side chapel, there was a figure praying with the ecstatic expression of a Zurbarán. They were old people, certainly, but the young are showing their faith in the weeklies and monthlies — in, for instance, the excellent literary journal Wort und Wahrheit.

A typical non-Catholic writer is Hans Weigel, whose name is mentioned everywhere, and who, by outspoken bitterness, has won for himself something of the position which Karl Kraus had at the beginning of the century. He is Jewish and spent the war in Switzerland, where he was treated badly and eased the time by planning, with his friends, the wonderful future of Viennese literature; they would start a new journal, bring to Vienna the new ideas of Western democracy, be the guardians of cultural excellence. Soon after his return Weigel found that his dreams were impossible, that he himself had changed. As early as 1947 he wrote a play called Barabbas, which is about a businessman who reviews his life on his fiftieth birthday and realizes that he has tailed in everything. Weigel has written a nov el and another play, both of which failed, but his reputation rests on his explosive cultural feuilletons. He is forty and has around him a circle of young men and women who have chosen him as their Literaturführer. They meet in cafes and discuss everything far into the night. This group, under Weigel’s editorship, has just published an anthology, Stimmen der Gegenwart (Voices of the Present), whose general tone is nihilistic, hopeless, and sexually agitated. Perhaps this is the voice of the Viennese future — if it is, the Catholic intelligentsia is doing what it can to combat this peripheral existentialism. I cannot mention the sexual agitation without quoting two of the advertisements from a magazine called Faust which is not unrelated to these particular Stimmen der Gegenwart: “Intelligent young man seeks pretty girl-friend with car”; a student advertises for a partner in “harmonious hours” who should mark her envelope “Küssen ist keine Sünde — kissing is no sin.”

It is three days since I began this letter, and again I am looking from my window across to the children playing in the gardens of the Liechtenstein Palace. A few minutes ago a third stratum to this image came and went. I heard the distant sound of, it seemed, a Russian choir and, leaning out of the window, saw a hundred marching Russian soldiers happily singing together. They passed the palace and my hotel, and now I can just hear them as they approach the Ring. How extraordinary they are. A few days ago we took a tram ride into the Russian Zone because we had been told that it was fascinating to watch the Russian soldiers at their task of nonfraternization. They came in with expressionless faces, and when they felt their bodies touching those of Austrians, they moved to end the contact.

So it had been when I had entered the Russian Zone at Semmering. I watched the young frontier guards board the train and examine the passports like automata. Without looking at me a guardtook my passport, saw it was British, and walked off with it. I waited ten minutes and he didn’t return; then the train began to move and I jumped to the window, only to be tapped on the shoulder by the ticket collector, who had come to return me my passport. It was a mild reprisal for the frontier troubles at Saalfelden — about which, incidentally, a Communist paper has published a damaging little pamphlet called The Battle of Saalfelden. Yet, last week, I found the Russian character at its kindest.

I had, quite illegally, gone some sixty miles into the Russian Zone to see the fabulous monastery of Melk and, missing the last train, tried to stop a car. For an hour and a halt cars and lorries refused to stop, and then, finally, a petrol lorry stopped and out jumped two Russian soldiers. Just a little frightened I pretended I was Austrian and got into the cabin between them, and passed the most tantalizing two hours of my life, unable to make one word of contact. Incidentally, the lorry was filled with Shell petrol drums, though Shell has been forbidden to operate in the Zone.

And now this cheerful, charming singing! I hope before I leave I shall hear it again. The maid came into my room a moment ago and I asked her if it often happens. “Yes,” she said, “sometimes — after all they, too, sing for the joy of living, für die Freude des Lebens.“ And I thought of Der achte Tag and the family drinking wine among the ruins of their castle. Yes, in Vienna, surrounded by all Europe’s potentialities for horror, each made more potent by being closely met by such beauty—in Vienna, touched always by hidden sadness, here one feels an irrational confidence in the eighth day.