December in Vienna: On Music, Memory and the Basilisk

My emotional landscape has always been also a geographical one. When in a strange place I simply want to wander, to be surprised. I think my wandering is about a sense of being, for a while, un-findable; of a tiny edge of risk and possibility.

This year I went to Vienna twice. In February I went by train with my brother and sister; the first journey with just us together since we were children. We had picnicked in our tiny sleeper as the Rhine, its waters obsidian, its banks all fairy lights, rushed past us with castles lit like opera sets on their crags.

Just before Christmas I returned to spend longer there.

Viennese Christmas Tree
Exquisite restraint on the Viennese Christmas Tree

As with all places that I visit, I soon find my fantasy narrow street (the one where poor Schumann lived, and where, in 1212, they found the basilisk, which could kill with a look, biding its time in a well beneath an ordinary house), my fantasy apartment building, local coffee shop, small restaurant, second hand book shop and so on.

The Basilisk of Vienna
The celebrated basilisk of Schönlaterngasse

Soon this is extended to the relationships I shall have with figures who cross my path: the man with the coat as well-cut as his manners, the woman writing in a café, the friendly couple in the music shop. I wonder how I would look in a dirndl and forest green wool jacket. Soon I am convinced of my own fluency of language: I get a bit carried away and buy poetry and novels in German and reject the ubiquitous Herald Tribune to seize Austrian newspapers in old coffee shops. As a result I discover a lot about provincial football teams and can reflect that well-fed local politicians and their scandals differ little from nation to nation.

I do understand German - I lived in Berlin for a few years - but I no longer understand or speak it nearly as well as I think I do. I tend to embark on conversations without the means to sustain them; much to my chagrin I cannot be clever, or witty or, particularly, subtle, and end up signalling some kind of impairment or a worrying degree of compliance. I go to Hawelka, a famously dark brown, scruffy coffee house. A guidebook promises it is the ‘haunt of Bohemians and their dogs’. It is disappointingly dog-free and Bohemians tend not to be easily identifiable. But I feel at home, gazing out on an alley through curtains that have been cut instead of hemmed and appear to have been fraying since the war, and surrounded by layers of ancient posters through which door knobs have torn their way out of the old paper.


Café Hawelka

It seems polite to reply in the affirmative to some request about my coffee order: ‘Ein Grosser Brauner’. Simple; the whipped cream is part of my cultural immersion and surely offset by the restraint of the espresso underneath. But the waiter’s question turns out to be regarding my possible desire for Buchteln – indeed five buchteln - freshly baked yeasty pastries, dusted with icing sugar and with a heart of home made jam; the speciality of the house.

As with all travel, the unforgettable bit is the moment that catches you unawares and grips your heart. Last week I saw The Magic Flute at the State Opera House. This was an opera I first heard in East Berlin when I was twenty and to go there through checkpoints bristling with dogs, guns, bored, cold soldiers, concrete, anti tank girders, mines and mutual suspicion, through unlit streets and thirty year-old war damage, was a journey in itself. It was during the Cold War and, appropriately, fine and bitter snow blew about the fragments of violence and distrust. Perhaps the joyful absurdity of The Magic Flute sat well in this context.

This time the opera was marvellous, of course, Viennese society glittering at this pre Christmas performance and a terrific young conductor.

No negotiating east-west paranoia now and walking back, briskly past the cathedral at 10.30pm, there was faint light coming from inside. The door opened and there was the Gothic nave transformed into a place of soft and shifting shadows of colour from a lantern in the main door, the golden sunburst at highest point of the altar glittering in candle light, the side aisles in darkness and from the distant choir, one of the choruses of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio being rehearsed for Christmas Eve.

Vienna Stefansdom
Stephansdom, Vienna

I stood for a while, invisible, lit a candle for my mother and my nephew, heard the conductor stop and start his musicians, as conductors must have done a thousand times, as they aimed for perfection on the day, and, finally, left.

Even expected reactions can surprise with their intensity. Another evening I ate Bratwurst with sweet mustard and dark rye bread at the stalls of the Christkindlmarkt and then walked to Judenplatz to stand for a while at the Jewish memorial. It’s the fourth time I have been there and I am more impressed and more moved by Rachel Whiteread’s creation each time I see it. There it stands, dignified, forlorn, shocking, in a square that might otherwise be the prototype for an advent calendar. The concrete memorial carries resonances of a tomb, a temple, a library, a bunker; a sealed and secret darkness. The books reversed on its external shelves, have titles as unknown as the potential of the 65,000 Austrian lives lost in the holocaust and the enduring cost of the extinction of much of Vienna’s early 20th century intellectual and cultural life.

Rachel Whiteread Holocaust Memorial
Whiteread’s Holocaust memorial in Judenplatz

The brilliance of this memorial, I think, is that it allows viewers to see it through their own lives, understandings, sorrows and fears. In its deliberate inscrutability it hints but it does not dictate.

On my cold night a single rose, its petals frozen, lay on the icy plinth which bears the name of every concentration camp in which Austrians died.

“Upon thy eye-balls murtherous tyranny
Sits in grim majesty, to fright the world.
Look not upon me, for thine eyes are wounding.
Yet do not go away; come, basilisk,
And kill the innocent gazer with thy sight,”

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