For about a week this summer I was happily immersed in Ernst Lothar’s 1944 family saga, The Vienna Melody (tr. from the German by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood, 2015), a novel set in the midst of the political and economic upheavals that roiled Europe in the years preceding and following World War I. The novel opens in the late 1880s with Franz Alt who manages the family’s century old piano factory in Vienna and his only brother Otto Eberhard, the imperial government’s highest ranking attorney. The brothers are nationalists who consider it their sacred duty to ensure that Austria continues to be a beacon of cultural and philosophical enlightenment:
. . . the Austrian idea is the recognition of the fact that the only nationality which man may unrelentingly defend is humanity . . . first made manifest in music. In that form it had conquered the world.
The Alts’ love of country is matched only by their high regard for the family name, and this obsession with maintaining the family’s dignity and respectability engenders an insularity, one that is reinforced by a provision contained in their patriarch’s will that requires all members of the extended family to live together at “Number 10,” the large building in the city center bequeathed to them.
Franz marries Henriette Stein, an attractive and impulsive woman who is unwelcomed by the other residents of Number 10 because she is Jewish, emotional, and considered by them to be spoilt by her doting, widowed father. In the years that follow Franz keeps busy running the family business and maintaining his prominent role in Viennese social and political circles while Hetti raises their four children at Number 10, constantly under the critical eyes of the Alt aunts, uncles and cousins.
The Vienna Melody contains many of the dramatic elements that you would expect to find in a family saga — affairs, rebellious children, money-grubbing suitors, destructive vanity, and ambition. What makes The Vienna Melody special is Lothar’s creation of Number 10 as a microcosm of imperial Austria itself — both ultimately undone by an inflexible adherence to tradition and willful blindness to the momentous changes happening all around them. Perhaps most emblematic of this recalcitrant attitude is Franz’s brother, Otto Eberhard. After a protest for higher wages at the piano factory, Otto Eberhard lectures Franz and Hetti’s eldest son, Hans:
“Nature creates degrees. An oak is higher than a bush. The lion is bigger than a worm. Messrs. Adler and comrades [the protesting workers] — who since yesterday arrogate to themselves the right to rule in Austria — are, to put it in exaggeratedly polite terms, inferior to His Majesty the Emperor.”
“What makes you think the Emperor knows better…?”
Whereupon a deathly silence fell. Otto Eberhard, who was in the process of lighting a Virginia, had to lay the long, thin black cigar aside for a moment, his hand trembled so. “That exceeds all comprehension!
Years later when Otto Eberhard accompanies the Cardinal after a funeral, a group of rioting workers remains standing rather than kneeling before the Cardinal, and Otto Eberhard screams at them, “A people which has forgotten how to kneel is doomed!”
In lesser hands Otto Eberhard may have been a caricature but Lothar portrays him with sympathy and nuance — an old-fashioned gentleman whose proud dignity and unrelenting standards are his armor against everything that is outside of his control:
I know what you’ve thought of me. The same as nearly all of you think. That a person like me makes life difficult for you. But life is based on respect, and whoever lacks it, as you all do, or does not demand it, as I do, is not free, as you believe, but the least free of all. He is dominated by judgments which are ungrounded or false. Lack of respect makes for lack of freedom.
Not all of the Alts are immune to change. For the first twenty years of her marriage Hetti is incapable of reciprocating Franz’s love, turned off by the fact that he “always hated anything extravagant . . . and possessed so infinitely little imagination.” This disregard is nearly matched by her indifference toward her two middle children to whom she feels no maternal tenderness, shipping them off to boarding school without a pang of sadness. In contrast Hetti has an almost obsessive love for Hans, a favoritism that does not go unnoticed and results in grave consequences for the residents of Number 10, only after which is Hetti able to realize that, “[n]eglect is poison.”
Hans marries a professional actress who, in the role of Joan of Arc, delivers the line, “I will deliver you from fear,” and this has a special significance for Hans because his wife tells him that “fear was his failing and that he must rid himself of it.” When Hilter annexes Austria and German troops march through the streets of Vienna, an angry Jewish mob throws rocks at Number 10, destroying the stone-carved coat of arms hanging over the main entrance — a portent that like the rest of Europe, Number 10 has been changed and the Alts’ fears, realized.
(I am reluctant to mention it but the innumerable typos in the “final” text of this novel distract from the reading experience. I have shared this with the publisher and hope that a complete edit and new print run will be possible.)