Book Review: The Vienna Paradox, by Marjorie Perloff

An graceful memoir of a Viennese world lost that continues to define the identity and world view of its emigree intellecuals

TVR Books | Susan Doering | June 2010

Bittersweet Sachertorte

Marjorie Perloff’s memoir traces her life from a well-to-do childhood in Vienna at the heart of an assimilated, intellectual Jewish family, via their flight in 1938 to the United States, to her absorption into American society and culture, and ends with her more than respectable career as Professor of Comparative Literature and eminent literary critic.

The narrative begins with a chapter entitled "Seductive Vienna," which perfectly captures the eponymous paradox of the title, and in which Perloff relates how she discovers the Vienna of her childhood pristinely recreated in New York in a whiter-than-white simulacrum under the name of Café Sabarsky, housed in the Neue Galerie, the museum of Austrian art founded and funded by the cosmetics baron Ronald Lauder.

Unlike in the coffeehouses of between the wars, it is not the (almost exclusively male) regulars who populate the elegant interior, but tourists, art aficionados and Ladies Who Lunch. It is a looking-glass image of a Viennese coffee house; it is a film set, an alienation.

Alienation is, of course, what the paradox is all about, and Perloff effectively uses symbols such as the Viennese madeleine, the Sachertorte, which she remembers as so sweet from her childhood, throughout the book to probe the manifestations and symbols of culture and explore the shifts in perspective and values that define one’s life when one changes (or is forced to change) from one culture to another.

All this is done against a background of what would seem to be immovable cultural monoliths; Goethe, Wittgenstein, Adorno, Thomas Mann, Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard, Mozart, Beethoven and Schönberg, are called upon to bear witness and to explain the inexplicable.

And so the book takes on the characteristics of a conversation between such voices as Goethe’s Mignon and Perloff’s relations, particularly her parents.

This is more than a literary device, because it melds together the forces that created her as a person and a professional. In this, the book resembles Stefan Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterday.

But it differs in that Zweig never got over his sickness of nostalgia turned sour, never recovered from exile, never fully found another home. Perloff, on the other hand, who, of course, was much younger than Zweig, manages both to put down new roots and to bridge the gap of nostalgia with critical distance.

This is not an account of Holocaust horrors or even of immigrant suffering. The years of the Anschluss are related with a distance befitting a narrator who was six and a half in 1938 when her family finally left Vienna by train for Zurich, thus escaping the increasing animosity and ostracisation.

Their arrival in New York is marked above all by the indignity of having to travel by subway in the heat of a New York July, because, as the author now realizes, there was obviously not enough money for two taxis.

"But from the point of view of a seven-year-old, our country apartment [in Riverdale] was perfect. For it had a garden with swings and a sandbox that I can still see – the ultimate novelty for a city child from the Hörlgasse. Walter [her brother] and I were more than satisfied and made sand cakes that prefigured the real ones Mother would soon be baking." And once again it is a baked confection that symbolizes home.

This is an easy-to-read memoir that sweeps elegantly and often amusingly from historical and political events to family anecdotes, from literature to love affairs, from religious (or at least group) traditions to philosophical insights. It is the author’s (successful) attempt to come to terms with a Vienna that was her physical childhood home and also a kind of alma mater from which she obtained parts of her identity, derived from what she herself labels "Kultur" and at the same time a place fraught with dark depths both real and virtual.

The political fragmentations and opportunist shiftings are only one vein of this story. The rise and rise again of extreme right-wing parties is an obvious paradox in this oh-so-favored land, where the specter of anti-Semitism floats seen/unseen, and several times Perloff uses a quotation from Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz to underscore the message.

She now returns to Vienna less than before, she is more conscious of the paradoxes, and the last Sachertorte she ate was not in Vienna, but in the café at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, where it tasted so sweet…


The Vienna Paradox

By Marjorie Perloff

New Directions Publishing Corporation, May 2004

Available at Shakespeare & Company

1., Sterngasse 2

(01) 535 5503

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  • All articles from this issue

    the vienna review June 2010