Photo: Austrian National Library by Alexander Annenkov from Moscow, Russia, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
If you are a lover of historical fiction set in Europe, you have probably heard of at least one of the foremost novels featuring Vienna. A literary traveller can enjoy stepping into the locations described in these novels as she explores this imperial city.
Popular Novels Featuring Austria
Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist (2017), for example, is a heartbreaking portrayal of a fictional friendship between a young man and the Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud. It was made into a successful film in 2018. If you want to relive the ambiance of Vienna of the 1930s, like in this book, the Albertinaplatz is the place to go. Part of the movie based on this book was actually filmed there.
Allison Pataki’s novel called Sisi: Empress on Her Own, is the recently released sequel to The Accidental Empress in the author’s ‘Sisi’ series. Widely read, with over 5,000 high ratings on Amazon, the book takes some artistic liberty as it delves deeply into the heart of the real, yet ill-fated, empress. Fans of the ‘Sisi’ novels should see the Hofburg Palace, seat of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial court, where there’s now a Sisi museum that features the Empress’s apartments and many artifacts relating to her life.
Jody Shields also wrote about the Vienna of Freud with her psychological mystery: The Fig Eater. In this novel, Shields looks into the life of one of Freud’s most famous patients and the partly imagined circumstances surrounding her death. The Klimt Collection at Vienna’s Belvedere will help the fans of The Fig Eater to catch the ethos of fin-de-siècle Vienna, and the Volksgarten park will remind readers of the place in the novel where Dora’s body was found. There’s a Sisi memorial there in the park, too!
Marie Benedict’s fascinating historical novel based on the life of Austrian-born actress Hedy Lamarr is called The Only Woman in the Room. With much suspense and drama, Benedict reimagines Lamarr’s early life and career in Austria, including her forced marriage to a powerful Nazi supporter. Lamarr’s subsequent flight out of Austria and successful career in Hollywood, and in the war effort, make for an engaging true story, told by an able author. Visit the historic Theatre an der Wien to find the stage where Hedy Lamarr’s career began, just as the Nazis were coming to power.
And lastly, Rachel McMillan’s The Mozart Code, which we are reading this month in our online book club, tells a beautiful love story between two Brits, working in different undercover operations, in the largely-Soviet-held Vienna following World War II.
For fans of The Mozart Code there are SO many sites in Vienna to visit! Follow the footsteps of Sophie and Simon as you visit Schloss Schönbrunn, the Belvedere Palace, the Heldenkmal der Roten Armee (Red Army Monument), the Minoritenkirche, the Staatsoper, Stephansdom Cathedral, and especially the Esterhazy Palace. Imagining these places in the Post-War years of Vienna may require a bit of imagination, since some of them, like the Staatsoper and Stephansdom, were partially destroyed during Allied bombings. They are described in the novel as being damaged, but they have since the war been restored to their former glory. Photographs of all of these buildings in the 1940s, whole or demolished, are easy to find online.
A Bit of Austrian History for Background
Austria is well-known as a country of great cultural and historical significance. Vienna (Wien) was a headquarters of the Hapsburg Empire for over 600 years (1279-1918), during which many rich and beautiful landmarks were built in this area. Over the centuries, the ruling Hapsburg family, which dominated many parts of Europe, was closely linked to the Roman Catholic church, with some of its rulers reigning as Holy Roman Emperor. This strong link between church and state brought many magnificent churches into being, much as they were in Rome. The Viennese churches such as Stephansdom and the Kapuzinerkirche still stand today as backdrop for modern European life, and fascinating novels!
Vienna was also a great base for intellectual life, beginning with the University of Vienna being created in 1365 by Rudolf I. At the time, nearby Prague was the more prominent imperial capital and a wealthier and more vibrant city, but Austria was up and coming. Later scholars and thinkers, especially during the Renaissance, influenced monarchs such as Charles V (1506) into embracing new ideas and making reforms which transformed the ideology, culture, and economy of Austria.
Through the centuries, the inhabitants of the Austrian land went through many economic, political, and religious changes, including a civil war in 1409. Vienna reached its height as capital of the Hapsburg Empire in the 16th century, with many annexed lands under its territory. The Reformation–that bloody struggle between Catholics and Protestants in Europe–affected Austria too, and in the early 1700s, the death of Charles VI without an heir triggered the War of Austrian Succession, and many years of turmoil.
In the time that followed, the world was changing in a big way. New ideas were circulating, trade was moving people and goods around, and modernisation was pressing. For such a high-profile centre of culture as Vienna was, these ideas had a big effect. Much of it is visible in the art and architectural achievements in this opulent city. Baroque and classical art and ideologies have given Vienna its unique image.
At the time of Mozart, in the 1700s, Empress Maria Theresa was in power. She and others of the ruling family implemented some types of modernisation, but only really did so when they were advantageous to the dynasty. Mozart, one of the world’s greatest composers, was working in Vienna at that time. Some of his operas such as Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro were commissioned by, and dedicated to the royal family. But even with his musical genius he wasn’t always appreciated!
Photo of Door, Austrian National Library: Bahnfrend, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
After a flurry of revolutions in 1848, accelerated by Industrial Revolution, modern Ideas, and the Austro-Prussian War, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was formed in 1867. During this time, the Hapsburg dynasty operated as a constitutional monarchy with great power over central Europe. It covered modern-day Austria and Hungary, the Czech Republic (Bohemia & Moravia), the upper part of Romania and part of Ukraine, Slovenia, Serbia (Dalmatia), Croatia, and part of Poland (Galicia).
Emperor Franz Joseph I, whose famed wife was Empress Elizabeth ‘Sisi’ (the ‘Accidental Empress’ mentioned earlier), ruled for most of this time (1848-1916). Franz Joseph’s assumed heir, Archduke Ferdinand was the man assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914, bringing on World War (WWI) and the Empire’s demise.
After that time, Austria became a Republic (First Republic), interrupted temporarily by dictatorship during the Anschluss unification period with Germany (1938-1945). Following the Second World War, Austria was occupied from 1945-1955 by the four victors. Soviet, American, British and French troops were stationed there, with Austria divided into four zones. Vienna was also had four sectors, and an ‘interallied zone’ known as the 1st district. Austria again became a republic (Second Republic) and has remained such, even through its entrance into the European Union in 1995.
Writers of Austria
Many of the most beloved Austrian writers produced their works in the modern period, during and after the two World Wars. So many ideas, challenges, and changes occurred in this time, combined with free movement of ideas, to enable the works of Austrian writers to reach a world audience. Here are a few prominent Austrian authors whose works you may enjoy:
Hermann Broch (1886-1951) was a much-loved Viennese author of Jewish descent, who wrote The Sleepwalkers and The Death of Virgil. He studied mathematics, philosophy and psychology at the University of Vienna, after which he wrote The Sleepwalkers. Having converted to Catholicism, and becoming interested in Socialist thought, he became a man on the run during the Nazis’ rise to power. With the help of his friends James Joyce and Thornton Wilder, among others, he was able to emigrate to England and later to America. He also lived at the home of Albert Einstein for a time. In the US he wrote The Death of Virgil, as well as numerous essays on psychology, democracy, human rights, and human dignity.
Hermann Broch 1909: See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Viennese psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Viktor Frankl have become internationally recognized for their research, but also for their writings. Viktor Frankl’s wildly successful memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, about his experiences as a psychologist-turned-prisoner in a Nazi work camp, and his subsequently developed therapy, has intrigued readers everywhere who are interested in better understanding the human spirit. You can visit the Viktor Frankl Museum in Vienna to learn more about the life, writings, and work of this amazing thinker.
Viktor Frankl: by Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons
Maria Trapp, the heroine on which the internationally acclaimed musical “The Sound of Music” is based, also wrote a memoir around the same time, called The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Though not expressly literary in its approach, the memoir tells the beautiful story of courage, love, and perseverance at a time of great hardship. Worth a read.
Stefan Zweig Center: Wald1siedel, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was a popular Austrian novelist, journalist, playwright, and biographer. During the 1920’s and 30’s his books were some of the most widely read and translated in the world. He wrote biographies of Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, as well as Mary Stuart, and Marie Antoinette. He also wrote several novels: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1922), Amok (1922), Fear (1925), Confusion of Feelings (1927), Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman (1927), the psychological novel Ungeduld des Herzens (Beware of Pity, 1939), and The Royal Game (1941). You can visit his home, a museum in Salzburg: The Stefan Zweig Center.
And last but not least is Franz Kafka (1883-1924) who, though born in Prague, was German-speaking and worked and died in Vienna. He is often considered a writer of Vienna. A major literary figure whose works combine the realistic and the fantastic, he generally touched on themes relating to anxiety, isolation, absurdity, and extreme socio-bureaucratic authority. His works have influenced many other writers in the 20th and 21st centuries. His most famous work is “Metamorphosis,” a short story in which a man wakes up to discover he’s been transformed into a large insect and struggles to adjust to this dilemma. He lived a psychologically tormented life and died in a sanitorium in Vienna. You can visit it and a museum erected to his honor called the Franz Kafka Memorial in Klosterneuburg, near Vienna.
Photo: Franz Kafka by Atelier Schlosser & Wenisch – Otto Schlosser (1880-1942) & Max Wenisch (1876–?), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
For a more in-depth bibliography of titles relating to Austrian history, life, and culture, please visit: http://www.tourmycountry.com/austria/literature.htm