Monday, December 7, 2009

(No.67) Freud, Buddy Holly & 1897 Vienna

Selden Edwards, after graduating from Princeton University, was studying at Stanford in California in the early 1970s when he read Wittgenstein's Vienna by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin. As a result he gradually became fascinated by the Austrian city of Vienna as it was during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He arbitrarily chose 1897 as a year on which to focus. He then wrote ca 1974 the first rough version of what became his novel The Little Book (although it is not a 'little' novel).

Edwards became a teacher but continued to work on his novel off and on until it was published more than 30 years later in 2007. It is his first novel and not only did it surmount the usual obstacles in the way of publication of first novels it made the New York Times fiction list of bestsellers and is now out in trade paperback format (Plume, 2009).

One of my interests is turn-of-the century Vienna, the cultural and political centre of the Hapsburg Monarchy's Austro-Hungarian Empire, the disappearance of which was one of the outcomes of World War I and the agreements made at Versailles.

My interest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was piqued years ago when I researched a curious but little known episode involving an heir to the Hapsburg throne, Archduke Maximilian, who was sponsored by French Emperor Napoleon III and Mexican monarchists to become an emperor. He sat on the Mexican throne briefly as it turned out (1864-67) during what is called the Second Mexican Empire. This European involvement in Mexico was attempted while the U.S. govt was absorbed by its own civil war in the 1860s and unable to to take effective action to prevent it at the time.

As a footnote -- one of the great engagements in the history of the French Foreign Legion and celebrated by Legionnaires to this day ( the Legion was the backbone of the military force supporting this European intervention) was fought in Mexico. But that is another story.

It is difficult to exaggerate the cultural vitality of Vienna during the period ca 1897, even as most of those involved remained largely immune to feelings of pending doom. In Vienna at this time one might encounter, among many luminaries: Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis; Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the 20th centruy's greatest philosopher; the composer/conductor Gustav Mahler; the artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele and other painters belonging to the Vienna 'secessionist' school; the Empress Elizabeth (known as SiSi); and even -- living not far from Vienna -- Adolph Hitler age 10.

It is this milieu which is at the heart of The Little Book, a novel which involves time travel by three generations of a Boston family back to 1897 Vienna.

The plot is multi-layered. Key plot points and reader enjoyment of this novel will be easily spoiled by any reviewer who is uncaring. It is sufficient to say here that members of the three generations of the Boston family, the Burdens, range beyond Vienna and encounter the likes of Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and Buddy Holly.

The plot of The Little Book involves war, mystery, romance and the murder of both fictional and historical characters. Several of the novel's reviewers have predicted that The Little Book will become a classic. While Selden Edwards seems to me unlikely to wander the foothills of immortality in the company of, say, Charles Dickens or Marcel Proust, his first belated novel may indeed stand the test of time by attracting future generations of readers.

There is more than enough remaining today of fin-de-siecle Vienna to make the city, and what has been inherited from the Hapsburgs and preserved, a wonderful place to visit. Selden Edwards' The Little Book evokes, in an absorbing novel combining adventure with ideas, why Vienna was and still is a fascinating place.


A footnote: several very enjoyable mystery novels by the English psychologist Frank Tallis are also set in Vienna during this pre-W.W.I era [see my review in column No. 54 at].

Alastair Rickard