The Three Tenors

So you thought the three tenors were Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Vienna 3Pavarotti? Not so – they’re sausages, a frankfurter, some other darker variety and a veal sausage and they’re available in the Café of the Vienna Staatsoper. In this pretty room you may if such is your pleasure order “Three Tenors” or a “Rigoletto” (which is a sausage salad). My photo of this disconcerting dish is very small, for minimal offence to my vegetarian readers. (I chose the spinach strudel, with lettuce.)

51wntwjpdalSince in Vienna the three tenors can be anything, I’ve chosen a third variation: books, During a recent trip I read or reread three novels set in Vienna (with thanks as ever to the wonderful TripFiction site which you can consult for reading matter to match any destination you can think of). They give five stars to the first I chose, but I’m afraid I’d remove at least two of those. A Woman of Note by Carol M. Cram (2015) starts in 1827 with an excellent idea for a heroine, Isabette, a fictitious young woman pianist and composer whose ability rivals Fanny Mendelssohn or Clara Schumann. But it sinks into cliché with too many descriptions of a singer friend’s pretty gloves and blue ribbons. The author neglects what could have been evocative descriptions of this most visual of cities. Instead she gives us endless expository dialogue to help shift the one dimensional characters around in the style of a Woman’s Own short story from the 1970s, and provides a (mercifully) brief sex scene worthy of the Bad Sex awards: “He moved his hand up her thigh, his breath becoming ragged and out of rhythm. Andante to allegretto. …he pushed his body and hers to allegro.” Hmmm. I wonder what variations Mozart’s fingertips might have conjured for that.

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The piano in the apartment where Franz Schubert died in 1828.

Plot digressions into lesbianism and sexual abuse are worthy rather than interesting, although I am sure music teachers and promoters did abuse their protegées and played their parts in keeping women’s career prospects unequal. An erudite bibliography suggests a lot of authorial research (sometimes plonked unharmoniously into the narrative) and genuine pleasure in the music of Schubert, Beethoven and Chopin. This was a missed opportunity to create a convincing story and explore a fascinating period of women’s and musical history in a unique setting. Looking at TripFiction’s list again it seems others have dealt with the same theme, so it does get exposure elsewhere.

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Vienna State Opera House, which opened in 1869. The architect committed suicide after Emperor Franz Josef referred to it in displeasure as “a railway station”. I hope it’s not too heartless to point out what a good plot that would make.

51jrqt32cqlI had better luck with Mortal Mischief (2004) by Frank Tallis. It’s a 19th century detective romp. To judge by the selections listed on TripFiction, Vienna’s baroque and 20th century architecture and dense cultural history encourage writers to indulge in a wild cocktail of music, classical and modern art, sculpture, historical events, psychoanalysis, medicine, education, imperialism, nationalism and the whole gamut of politics, cafes and brothels, coffee and cakes, Vienna 13clairvoyance and fairgrounds, bombastic urban settings and the wonderful Prater park. Tallis just about brings it off – I was a bit bogged down by the heavy velvet brocade of his opening storm scenes: “Liebermann looked up at the livid millstone sky. Ragged tatters of cloud blew above the pediment of The Imperial like the petticoats of a ravished angel. The air smelled strange – an odd, metallic smell.” But as he got into his stride the descriptions became more digestible and it was a pleasure to revisit the Belvedere Palace grounds, the Secession Building, the University and the Prater as his story hurtled through the city like a Viennese tram, picking up colourful characters at every chapter – a surgical instrument maker, Sigmund Freud, a locksmith, prostitutes, actresses and mediums, English governesses, police chiefs, magicians and kitchen maids.  If some of them are more caricature than real, well, that reflects Viennese grandeur, exaggeration and cuisine. The musical accompaniment tinkled comfortably alongside the narrative whenever detective Rheinhardt and his doctor friend Max Liebermann took a breather with a relaxing session of Schubert duets. I was pleased to find these new (to me) discoveries feature in other adventures, particularly as Leibermann and the governess left a romantic thread unfastened at the end.

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Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze at the Secession Building, from their information leaflet.

Mortal Mischief features the Reisenrad Ferris Wheel, and so of course does my third choice, Graham Greene’s The Third Man, the novel treatment of the screenplay Greene wrote for Carol Reed’s famous 1949 film noir. The Vienna of The Third Man is not the confident 1900s cultural capital of Tallis, and lacked the exuberant fairground where we spent our last morning. Instead it’s a bombed out city divided into four zones where petty and serious crime thrive in an atmosphere of curfew and desperation. “The Prater lay smashed and desolate and full of weeds, only the Great Wheel revolving slowly over the foundations of merry-go-rounds like abandoned millstones, the rusting iron of smashed tanks which nobody had cleared away.

Actually there’s surprisingly little verbal description of Vienna as a setting in the book of The Third Man, which Greene himself said in his Preface “was never written to be read, but only to be seen. It was dedicated to Reed, “in admiration and affection and in memory of so many early morning Vienna hours at Maxim’s, the Casanova, the Oriental.” My forceful image of ruined buildings and unlit streets through which Harry Lime dodges his pursuers must come from the film. But in both, the labyrinthine sewers, scrubby landscapes, muddled policing and befuddled hero serve as a metaphor for fallen glory, profiteering and corruption. We saw very little of that in the bustling, affluent, well behaved city we visited, so Vienna has created a successful veneer since those days. Or maybe business dealings there now really are cleaner than in London. It wouldn’t be difficult.

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Warning: if you read this edition, the introduction contains spoilers for both plots!

Greene and Reed found more than one kind of suspense in Harry Lime’s confrontation with Rollo Martin (Hollie Martin in the film) in the topmost gondola – an idea to which Tallis pays homage when Liebermann also takes the ride with the man he suspects of murder. In Mortal Mischief the innocent characters also return to its thrills whenever they can – as Freud explains, it replicates the experience of flying. It’s a sad reflection on over stimulated 21st century travellers that we became rather bored when dangling at the top of the Ferris Wheel. Health and safety means there’s no danger of a villainous shove through an open door or of smashing the glazing, and the views are stunning. But the ponderous wheel turns slowly and waits a long time in each position – unlike the pacy plots of all three books above, though not dissimilar to the way my companion reported the Three Tenor Sausages sitting in his stomach. No Sachertorte for him that afternoon!

 

(Information for coffee drinking, cake eating bookworms: The cafes we visited were the Prückel, the Tirolerhof, the Mozart and the Oper, all equally memorable. The Tirolerhof in particular is a quiet reader’s dream, all customers engrossed in books or the newspapers supplied by the establishment, no music, and voices that rarely rise above a whisper. You could write a novel here before the waiter bothered you with the bill.)

 

© Jessica Norrie 2017

 

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8 thoughts on “The Three Tenors

  1. Aw, thank you for the mention. You know, when I first went to Vienna – maybe 6 years ago – I looked for books set in the city, and the only one I could find (which I had already read) was The Fig Eater. It was at that point that I began to have the dawn of an idea…. 🙂 I now know there are literally gazillions of books set in Vienna! Sounds like you had a very interesting time. That Sachertorte……

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    1. Thank you… mind you not a drop of cream has passed my lips since I returned – but not I’m reading a biography of Schubert. But there’s a lot of fiction set there, when you start to look.

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  2. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    Jessica Norrie has been off on an adventure to Vienna and despite being full of Sacher Torte (see the size of the piece of cake at the end) she managed to put together a literary feast for us all. Whilst you and I might research the hotels, restaurants, historical sites and best Sacher Torte… Jessica embarked on a quest to find three books that were set in Vienna and she has laid their various pros and cons out for us. If you have never been to the city you will enjoy both the descriptions and the photographs and as readers, the book descriptions too. #recommended

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