Vienna 00, a collection by
Eugene Garber, Spuyten Duyvil, 2006.
Reviewed by Ricardo Nirenberg.
Vienna circa 1900 has a well-established reputation as a seminary of genius and the source of world-shaking ideas and grandiose feelings which were to be characteristic of the 20th century. Some of those ideas and feelings retain much of their force and prestige among us, others we now find silly or outrageous; all have this in common: they are sweepingly, giddily universal. Freud’s Eros and Thanatos and Otto Weininger’s Male- and Female-principles, for instance, pretended to be the key to all souls, not to just some. While the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivists were trying to reduce the whole world of facts, material and spiritual, to meaningful propositions in a certain formal language, artists were busy carrying even further Richard Wagner’s earlier idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total artwork where music, poetry, dance, the plastic arts, and perhaps odors too, would come together in a colossal expression so generally affecting that the respectable public would go mad. Faced with such imperial ambitions from an expiring empire, we, who in spite of all have somehow survived into the 21st century, tend to smile or to cringe, for it is only within certain highly specialized fields, such as the physics of elementary particles, that we still countenance, even if we don’t understand, a similar sweeping universality.
Eugene Garber’s ambition, in this book of fifteen short stories related to one another by common threads of theme and character, is to represent for us that grand state of affairs, in which task he splendidly succeeds—and that, remarkably enough, without using once the word “waltz.” A description or realistic recreation of the complexity that was Vienna is out of the question; so is the idea of imitating the great writers of the place and period, or even of borrowing some of their Middle-European irony or their inimitable, gemütlich sense of doom. Garber’s method, as far as I can gather, is to invite a confluence of diverse arts into his prose, somewhat reminiscent of the above-mentioned Gesamtkunstwerk. In “Loki and Death,” for example (published in Offcourse #13, 2002), the unusual arrangement of words on the page—“Schwanz”, notably, shaped like a tail—harks back to Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés”. But opera is what keeps coming into the mind as we read Vienna 00; opera and its synthesis of music, lyrics and theater craft. More specifically, it is, I feel, the Richard Strauss kind of opera, symbolist but ironic, verging on, but never falling in, the sentimental, with plenty of knowing winks and quotations, pleasingly self-referential, relying on some of those tricks now vulgarly ascribed to “post-modernism,” as if they were invented yesterday, even though for centuries they have belonged to the artist’s toolbox.
“Clara said that Matthias could not see absolutely could not see any more than they say an ant tracking the contours and climes of smells can see so he was like one of Klimt’s floating musettes swimming blindly in currents of music and so she was completely out of patience.” Thus the beginning of “Venice” (the fifth story in the book, which appeared in Offcourse #10, Summer of 2001). Perhaps the first thing that catches the eye here is the absence of punctuation, except for the final period; this, we realize upon reading it aloud, is so devised that we are carried along on the continuous, anapestic undulation of the paragraph. A musical wave, of course, but, so we are encouraged to imagine, a painterly one as well, a Klimtian wave. The operatic mixing of the arts pops up everywhere in Vienna 00, as is indeed historically appropriate to the concept signified by the title. I open the book quite at random: from the second story, “The Doppelgänger” (page 26), another paragraph devoid of punctuation: Viktor is lying naked on a table, and then, “Franz nibbling his beard like a nervous oboist deploys measuring tape here there everywhere a hundred serpents to Viktor’s Laocoon…” One is like an oboist, the other, like Laocoon: the Gesamtkunstwerk and its infinite ramifications, plus the Symbolists’ cabbala of correspondences, are Garber’s key to the world of Vienna, ca. 1900.
The final story of the book takes up a classic Jamesian theme, the confrontation of the “naïve” American and the “sophisticated” European. A cowboy is taken to Vienna by blasé artists and writers, who hope that by assiduous note-taking they will be able to borrow the cowboy’s naïve eyes as it were, and by those means refresh their native, tired image of the city. Their hope, one might say, is to regain innocence, or going back to Eden. The cowboy’s transcribed impressions of the city’s sites and monuments and Lipizzaner horses will have you in stitches. In the end, a woman, “the Sibyl,” initiates the savage into the mystery of Europe. The strong, wise, psychopompal woman is a ubiquitous character in Garber’s stories; as for the mystery of Europe, it is, of course, die Unterwelt, that is, Hell. The sophisticated Viennese do not regain innocence and Eden in the end; instead, the savage American accedes to Hell. Thus the cowboy gains a soul, and that happens—ironies of history—shortly before Vienna (and most of Europe) is about to lose her own. Which brings to mind a saying, mercifully quite forgotten, by Walter Rathenau, the Jewish foreign minister of the Weimar Republic assassinated by proto-Nazi thugs in 1922: “Americans don’t have a soul (Rathenau said) because they haven’t suffered enough to have one.”
What the hell the poor cowboy is going to do saddled with a soul back in America, is brought up and briefly discussed at the end of the story; and that is the end of this book, distinctly American in tone and grain, yet one, nevertheless, with a soul, definitely. A rare combination these days.
The original art by Lynn Hassan, five images on my count, tends strongly to the Surrealistic—I mean that it aims at the combinatorics of dreams, at the Underworld of the Mind, hence it harmonizes well with the spirit of the stories. The same accomplished artist, you may recall, illustrated Garber’s previous book, “Beasts in their Wisdom” (reviewed in Offcourse # 19, Winter 2004).
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