Books: Cultural Amnesia — Karl Tschuppik |
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Karl Tschuppik (1876–1937) was an historian whose major books were famous in post–World War I Vienna, along with his personal charm and a particularly sardonic version of Jewish coffee-house wit. His biographies of Franz Joseph and Maria Theresa attracted attention beyond the country (Franz Joseph I: The Downfall of an Empire appeared in America in 1930) and there was also a biography of Ludendorff that examined the role of German militarism in leading the Austro-Hungarian Empire to its collapse. Along with his prestige as a scholar, however, Tschuppik exemplified the dubious gifts of his friend Peter Altenberg at living from hand to mouth. A Café Herrenhof habitué by daylight, Tschuppik managed, like the journalist Anton Kuh, to secure a night-time billet in the luxurious Hotel Bristol, but whereas Kuh paid little, Tschuppik paid almost nothing. The manager regarded it as an honour to have him on the premises. In partial recompense, Tschuppik would conduct long philosophical dialogues with the doorman. Erika and Klaus Mann, who mentioned Tschuppik (too briefly, alas) in their indispensable memoir of the emigration Escape to Life, said that they loved to visit him when they were in the city. As a man of the left, Tschuppik assumed that the erosion of democracy in Austria after 1932 could only be the prelude to Nazism, and warned that his country would soon “again wade through rivers of blood.” He was lucky enough to die a year before the Anschluß: lucky because, like Kuh, he had been an early analyst of Hitler’s oratorical style, and the Nazis had a long memory for that branch of literary criticism. His admirer Joseph Roth said, “Our friend Tschuppik chose the right time to die... . When he did, it was clear to me that everything was lost.”

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It is written with love and criticism.

LARGELY FORGOTTEN NOW, like its author, Karl Tschuppik’s book about the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is beautiful even to look at. I read it in the library of Častolovice, the Sternberg castle in Bohemia, and there I had to leave it, because the books still belong to the state. It would have been a discourtesy to my hostess if I had asked to borrow it. The request would have put her in the position of allowing a national treasure to leave the country. Besides, the lovely setting of the old library was where the book belonged. Bound in brushed yellow linen, clearly printed on good paper, it was a product of Avalun Verlag, one of the publishing houses that once flourished in Hellerau bei Dresden. In my own library, some of my most cherished books were printed in Dresden at that same time: the twenties were a great period for fine printing of popular books. Wolfgang Jess Verlag turned out a full set of thin-paper volumes devoted to the nineteenth century scholar of the Renaissance Ferdinand Gregorovius—a set that I managed to reassemble after breathless discoveries in second-hand bookshops all over the world. At Častolovice the Tschuppik book stopped my breath in the same way. It brought back Dresden as if the bombs had imploded and gone back into the sky. It was the reintegration of two successive lost eras: the post–World War I efflorescence of German-speaking pre-Nazi culture, and, before that, the old Austro-Hungarian Empire whose last glories it examined mit Liebe und Kritik—with love and criticism.

Though Tschuppik was a committed democrat and no pushover for the erstwhile social order, his love for the old k.u.k society saturates the book. It reminds you less of Schnitzler, who guessed that the phosphorescence meant decay, than of Joseph Roth, whose nostalgia was incurable. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was, after all, not quite an empire like the others. It had conquered no foreign territories. It integrated several Central European countries without subjugating their populations. Ethnic minorities had reason to be grateful for its rule. Many of their intellectuals had the good sense to be grateful at the time, and Tschuppik, looking back on what had been a modus vivendi if not a grand harmony, was well justified in expressing a passion deeper than mere affection. But his criticism is equally all-pervasive. Tschuppik doesn’t gloss over how different things would have had to be for the outcome to be otherwise. To begin with, there would have had to have been no great war. A war was bound to bring the empire down, yet Franz Joseph’s deluded army of adminstrators walked straight into it. Their one excuse is that they walked in their sleep. Graf Stefan Titza was the only hero in the cabinet. He alone warned against what a war would do. When the day was upon them, however, even he came round. Va banque: the brave cry of the already bankrupt.

On the same weekend, in the same library, I worked through the two imposing volumes of Metternich’s Denkwürdigkeiten (Things Worth Thinking About), published in Munich in 1921, more than sixty years after the master diplomat’s death. Once again the modern typeface had the scrupulous clarity that marked the era. (It was not until 1933 that the fussy old black-letter typefaces returned, as part of the general cultural throwback by which the Nazis presumed to give the very look of thought an air of the Gothic: and even then they returned only to Germany. The Austrians kept their modern typefaces until the last day.) Metternich’s prose is as neat as the type in which it is set. If Henry Kissinger, who has always seemed to like the idea of being styled our modern Metternich, could express himself like his role model he would be better equipped to defend his actions. For any liberal democrat, Metternich’s own actions still need plenty of defending, but there was nothing wrong with his prose style. Metternich tied his powers of decision to his clarity of language. Here is a passage I translated into my notebook:

I have always thought that the most important business for a statesman is the care with which he keeps a strict eye on the difference between things which he builds within himself and things imposed on him by the spirit of party during the course of time, and to keep them just as strictly separated. The most fruitful means for carrying out this business lies in the care to fix words to the things they are called on to signify, and hold them fast (vol. 2, p. 466).

But that doesn’t get the vigour of his rhythm. He was an old man, but his prose was a stripling. Wittgenstein recommended the poetry of Mörike, in which, he said, the word does not exceed the thing. Metternich had reached the same conclusion long before. Some of his other conclusions, however, were not just conservative, they were reactionary, and therefore inadequate to facts he already knew. Try this:

If the name of God, and the powers instituted by His divine decisions, are dragged into the mud, then the Revolution is already prepared. In the castles of the King, in the salons and boudoirs of certain cities, the Revolution had already happened while the mass of the people were still getting ready for it (vol. 2, p. 71).

He switches from the present tense to the past because he is switching from the general case to the particular instance: the French Revolution. The particular instance is the part that he brings alive, with a touch for rhythm that any translation is bound to miss: “... war die Revolution schon vorbei, während sie bei der Masse des Volkes erst vorbereitet würde.” It is always dangerous to praise sonic effects in a language not one’s own: they might be cruder than one thinks. But surely vorbei and vorbereitet are deliberately linked in order to help the second part of the sentence launch itself from the first. A clear idea is expressed with verve. But the idea was wrong, or at least not exhaustively right. England’s George III and his government, for example, were godly institutions; they were dragged in the mud with great thoroughness, not least by the pitiless caricatures of Gillray; and there was no revolution. (To make certain that there wouldn’t be, in the next reign potential subversives were sent to Botany Bay, on the assumption that they and their progeny would never be heard from again.) Further back, the palace of Louis XIV was haunted by irreverent wit that felt no need to whisper: everyone knew that Louis abandoned a successful campaign in the Low Countries because Madame de Maintenon had burst into tears, and nobody forbore to say so. There was no revolution: not then. The revolution had indeed to be prepared, but it was prepared among the people, or anyway outside the palace. Lafayette was turned from duty by what he met in the streets, not by what he had heard in the corridors of Versailles or the Tuileries. Metternich had good cause to fear revolution: he had spent his life dealing with its consequences. But irreverent remarks had not been the cause of it, and he must have known that to be true. He just didn’t like wit. There is a marvellous passage in which he tips his hand. To quote it is to quote a quotation, because he put the thought together from his reading.

Talleyrand rightly says: “L’esprit sert à tout et ne mène à rien.” For Madame de Staël, her fame was a kind of power. The longer I live, the more I treat that power with mistrust (vol. 2, p. 166).

For the French, l’esprit is a wide-ranging term, but wit is at the core of it. Talleyrand is probably saying that verbal brilliance can be applied to anything but leads to nothing. It was the right proposition for Metternich to agree with: the man of concrete decisions had heard too much talk. But his contempt for Madame de Staël is a giveaway. She had an insight into power, having seen the frailties of the men who wielded it. On the day that Napoleon sent her into exile across Lake Geneva, she told her journal the lasting truth about her persecutor. She said that Napoleon possessed such an all-embracing talent that there was nothing he could not do, except understand the behaviour of a man of honour. Today she would have said woman of honour, but the most famous of all the first feminists—the first Germaine—was restricted by her inherited language. She was not, however, restricted in her thoughts, and Metternich was mistrustful of exactly that. She incarnated the only permanent revolution that counts: that of the critical intellect. Even today, her example can lead men of order to huff and puff. Vladimir Nabokov, in his long, detailed and half-crazed commentary on Eugene Onegin, dismissed her with a wave of his fastidious patrician hand. He forgot to say that Pushkin himself thought the world of her. But Pushkin was tuned to the feminine. He could see the strutting hypocrisy on the bastions of the state.

Metternich, who dismantled and reassembled kingdoms according to his personal judgement, called the state a divine expression: about as far as hypocrisy can go. Yet nobody now could surface from Metternich’s book of reflections without a sense of loss. Those were the days; when men who could do things like that could write like this. You could see why such books were printed to be cherished in the years after World War I. Their publishers and editors were putting a world back together, in the hope that the new world would be something like it. Their publishers and editors thought that love and criticism would be enough. But the storm came. Not many of the books slept through it. They were strewn to the winds along with their owners, or were burned in the libraries their owners left behind. The library at Častolovice was lucky: the vandals passed it by. The family defied the Nazis but its castles were spared. When the Communists took everything, the family scattered to the outside world. Častolovice was turned into a factory for repairing refrigerators. Thought to be useful, the roofs were repaired too, after a fashion: so the acid rain of the red East did not get in, and nothing attacked the books except the dust of bad cement.

After the Velvet Revolution—which was less a revolution than a restoration of the old republic—one of the many commendable impulses of Václav Havel’s civic order was to restore faith with the cultural heritage. Dispersed all over the world, some of the historic families were invited back to rebuild their castles, tend their estates, and thus, by offering employment, regenerate the villages which had grown up around their lands in the past. On a Machiavellian view, it was a neat way of getting the aristocrats to put their hard currency into the economy, if they had any. Some didn’t: the patriarch of the Kinski family is back in his castle, but it will remain a ruin, because he spent the lost years not abroad but in the mines, paying the long price for never having fled. The plan has been only a partial success. It costs more than money to put a culture back together: it takes dedication and patience, because the old craft skills have all disappeared. Častolovice is one of the few success stories. The castle and the lands thrive, employing people for miles around. It was early spring when I was reading Metternich. The deer in the fields had dropped their horns, the imported emus were sitting on their eggs, and the castle was getting ready for the tourist season.

On a fine day in summer, it is not unknown for more than a thousand people to turn up. Most of the visitors are from the Czech Republic. They come to see what life was like a hundred years ago, under the old emperor: the era in which the future republicans grew up, nourishing their democratic dreams with the rich traditions that lay around them. The books I had been reading dated from the time of Masaryk and Beneš, whose own books were produced to the same standard. While a guest of honour at the Olomouc Festival of Documentary Film in 2001, I searched the second-hand bookshops and found a two-volume set of Masaryk’s writings dated 1925, and matched it with a two-volume set of Beneš dated 1927. Each set carried the word Revoluce in its title, but of course it was not a revolution at all. Revolutions trample the past. The republic of Masaryk and Beneš grew out of the past organically, bringing the established cultural wealth along with it. You can see it in the look of their books: the proportion of the printing, the lustre of the linen bindings. When I got the four volumes back to London, I laid them out on my library coffee table and drank their appearance in. I opened them and caressed the thick, good paper that will never grow brittle. I did everything but read them. I can’t read Czech: not yet, anyway. I am told that once you master the alphabet it is not as hard as Russian. It is certainly easier than Polish to pronounce. The prose of Beneš is famously unreadable but I would like to be able to judge that for myself, and Masaryk was such a man as few countries are given for a spiritual father: I would like to relish what he wrote in the way he wrote it. If I had the knack of Timothy Garton-Ash, I would be reading it by now. Those of us with more pedestrian powers of assimilation have to find the time, and at my age I am feeling a bit short of time altogether. But the books will go into my shelves anyway, where one day, if my library stays together, someone like me might come along and take them down—I hope without having to brush them free of cement dust, or whatever residue might characterize the next barbaric age.