e n d n o t e s 



And yet the world is different from what it seems to be

and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.

People therefore preserve silent integrity

thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.


The purpose of poetry is to remind us

how difficult it is to remain one person,

for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,

and invisible guests come in and out at will.


Czeslaw Milosz

from “Ars Poetica?”

tr. the author and Robert Hass


Four years ago I spent the new year in Vienna as the guest of an Argentine novelist whom I had known in New York. She lived now on Dorotheergasse, near the Hofburg, in one direction, and in the other, the Graben, the old shopping center of the city. On the second of January I had just come in from the Café Bräunerhof, around the corner, where I had drunk tea, let my boots dry, read The Guardian and the International Herald Tribune, regarded faces, reflected on literature, travel, death, life, slush in the streets, etc., paid the bill; and then had walked home, where I was hoping some of the cigarette smoke clinging to my hair and sweater would dissipate.

I had been comfortable in the café. The expressions of the Viennese were placid or brutal, their bodies large, heavy, nearly familiar; nearly like Americans’; but these faces held an ancient, civilized knowledge of good and evil. Americans don’t know this, I thought; we are not civilized in this sense; we are something else.

As I hung up my coat, though, I glanced at my face in the mirror and realized that, although I am usually taken to be European, I probably looked most nearly Viennese, or Germanic, like my mother’s forebears. The novelist said I looked perhaps Hungarian. I was addressed in German, not English, until I spoke. I felt as though I had begun to uncover something I had long known, but not been conscious of knowing.

The next day, January 3, I walked to the Stefansdom, the Cathedral of St. Stephen. This enthralling church, its architecture principally of the flamboyant gothic, was surely the ancient heart of the city beating still. Embedded in the wall near the sanctuary is a Turkish cannonball shot in 1683, during the Siege of Vienna. I looked at it curiously. How could I understand the terror and hatred Western Europe had once felt for the Muslim Turks? How could I comprehend how deeply those emotions were still felt and acted upon in the former lands of the old Empire?

Inside, the baroque interior was decorated – every surface covered! – with carvings of saints in prayer, alert sprites and small animals whisking about, all characters who might once have dwelt in the forests surrounding the city. From angle and niche peered lively stone or lindenwood faces, as if amused by and pitying what they saw in us who entered their domain. Here is what I saw: beggars at the church doors. They sat patiently on the cold ground with heads bent, eyes lowered. They impersonated penitents, or grieving angels. Their hands were held open in supplication. I wondered: do they pray for themselves who must beg, or for us who are too rich?

Around the perimeter of the cathedral were a number of chapels. The spirit of them was devout but somehow not heavy. Their lightness – legerity – was of a different order than I had noticed further west in Europe, less cynical, closer to the dark wild past of the Holy Roman Empire. Perhaps I thought this, too, because I observed so many women wrapped in superb fur coats. How practical fur was here, as fur had also been when I lived in Alaska; but these skins were not tribal furs in the Alaskan manner; they had been fashioned with the artful mix of civilization and savagery – city and forest being the roots of these frought words – that I felt living in this cold air. A new savagery had come with the triumph of capitalism, for, visibly, there was great wealth in this city. As for myself, I wore a stone-marten hat made for me long before in Alaska by the woman who had trapped the skins; for the first time, I didn’t feel out of place wearing it. I noticed that the fur liked the cold air very much.

That night we wanted to attend a concert in a tiny hall, the Sala Terrena, in the Deutschordens building. Before lunch I went to buy tickets. The building was the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights, the terrifying invaders of Orthodox lands from Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky; I could not help recalling the great Battle on the Ice, or the spectral monk madly playing the organ at the pre-dawn Mass before battle. To the Sala was attached the small Church of St. Elisabeth, and various apartments. In one of them Mozart had been lodged by his patron Colleredo, Archbishop of Salzburg, until Colleredo insulted Mozart by speaking to him as if to a servant, and Mozart resigned from his service, thus becoming the first modern composer to free-lance. He was, actually, physically insulted, being kicked from behind by Colleredo’s chamberlain. The Sala held perhaps sixty people seated on small gilt chairs, under a ceiling vaulted, whitewashed, and painted entirely with charming Baroque motifs. There were two ranks of seats, indistinguishable to my eye: the first two rows were first-class and cost about $10 more than the seats I bought, which were in the next four or five rows. The point was display, I supposed: if not of precedence by rank, then by money.

Later on I went to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. I got there by walking from the Café Bräunerhof where I ate lunch, around the corner to the Hofburg, the old imperial palace which also held the Spanische Reitshule, the imperial treasury, the Augustinerkirche (where, I suddenly remembered, I had gone to hear a Mozart Mass twenty-five years before, and then to see a performance at the Riding School), and the various museums. The splendor of the Hofburg affected me as grand, indeed imperial, and yet intimate, with nothing of la gloire. I did not think it marked by vanity, unless I could not distinguish it from my own, nor irony; it seemed, rather, practical, the working-place of bureaucrats and administrators. The Austro-Hungarian empire had contained so many nations, not overseas but within riding distance; its frontiers were hundreds, not thousands, of land-miles from the dual capitals, Vienna and Budapest. This had given it a different character than the other great colonial empires. I thought it more nearly resembled our own expansion, though so much smaller in scale. Because I had lived on the Alaskan frontier I found myself thinking again about frontiers, but as borders between nations, not our North American open spaces, as they were thought to be, empty and ripe for conquest.

In the Kunsthistorisches Museum I spent several hours in the galleries of the German, Dutch, and Northern European painters; I wanted to see the Breughels. Instead, I stumbled upon a painting that nearly left me weak and was the astonishment of the afternoon.

This was Rogier van der Weyden’s Crucifixion triptych. I had seen it reproduced but never could have imagined its depth of feeling, its pity. I felt, that day, that I had never seen painted such wrenching emotion as must have been felt by the Virgin, St. John, the Marys, Joseph of Arimathea. Veronica holding the veil with the face of Christ stared with a look of such deep sadness, yet clarity and lack of delusion, that her eyes went through me like knives. Each of these persons was emotionally true: the Virgin in her grief an old woman clinging to the cross: the terrible, unremediable grief of a mother losing her son; the discreet gaze of one of the Marys, turned away from the awful sight of both mother and son, allowing them privacy, but with heavy heart; the weeping of the other Mary; the elder’s knowing sadness of Joseph of Arimathea; the youthful shock and curiosity (and tenderness toward the Virgin) of St. John; the lovely maidenliness and pure grief of Veronica. And Christ on the cross, dead. This was the human side of the crucifixion: a little family and group of friends suffering beyond belief at the torture and death of their son, kinsman, friend, at the hands (as one knew) of an imperial power.

Recovering somewhat, I continued through the galleries. I gazed at “Hunters in Winter” by Pieter Breughel the Elder, about which Randall Jarrell had written a poem. I looked at the Durers, and at the Holbein portraits of English people – it seemed to me I had seen those very faces in London. I heard an English woman say of Cranach’s portrait of Judith with the severed head of Holofernes: “Not his best. He doesn’t convince us. He’s done better.” The Rembrandt portraits were lovely: three of himself, one of his wife, Saskia, one of his son Titus reading, one of a husband and an accompanying one of his wife: the two aging people looking sideways at each other with amusement, long-enjoyed pleasure, real liking.

When I left, about 5:30, it was dark and snowing gently. I stood at the top of the steps to enjoy the panorama of the Hofburg, and beyond, the fairy-like illumination of the Rathhaus with its graceful spires.

At midnight we returned from the concert at the Deutschordenhaus, given by a young cellist and a guitar player. On their program was the Schubert sonata, which, with Rostropovich performing, I had listened to on tape often during the last week of the old year. The cellist, a Bulgarian “just beginning his international career,” didn’t play the piece well; he hadn’t thought it through and wasn’t agile enough. Nonetheless, the duo received much applause. It is good to encourage the young; but he needed a master teacher and more focus, I thought. Ah, but the tiny room was the oldest concert hall in Vienna, dating from the 13th century.

About the cellist: he looked very much like F., the Indian man I had lived with in Alaska. My friend the novelist noticed it too, although she didn’t know about my old lover: she noticed the Tatar or Mongol cast of the Bulgarian’s face. Perhaps he had the same ‘heart’ as F., and a similar lack of discipline.

January 6, Three Kings Day, was a holiday, but because it was the first Saturday of the month the stores were open. Commercial laws were restrictive. Stores closed at 6 p.m. on weekdays and noon on most Saturdays. I wanted to go out and have coffee. At 11 o’clock, I went to Mass at the Augustinerkirche. The women were splendid in their furs.



On January 7 I met my double, my Other. She was as if a relative from the old world. I stared; she looked away, then back, intently, recognizing what I knew. We looked alike, but as cousins might: she had pantherine eyes, gray-green to my green, and a narrower nose, and was slenderer and taller than I. Her hair, rinsed with a subtle henna, was otherwise nearly as dark as mine; we both had fine skin and high cheekbones, though hers were more nearly Mongol. Each of us was surprised, then pleased, thrilled, and finally, (I at least) disquieted. Her name was Hanne B. She was a translator of Spanish poetry and a professional guide to the monuments of the city. The Argentine novelist had arranged the meeting. Hanne offered to take us through the Habsburg crypts.

We met at the Kapuzinerkirche, the church of the Capuchins, mendicant friars whose austerity of life and design had led the Emperor Matthias and Empress Anne in the 16th century to choose it for the family’s burial-place. Hanne spoke to the priest at the guichet with precise deference, as this was not a regular tour-day. She told him she had just got back from Berlin, where she had seen the Hohenzollern crypts. She had found them completely different than the Habsburgs’: imperial, Protestant, martial, arrogant.

In the crypts the earliest sarcophagi, made of iron, resembled covered bathtubs and were crowded into lanes in a space that was a bit like an attic or storage room. Hanne was professional and a little impatient when I interrupted with question or comment, for we had only an hour or so, and she had a great deal to tell us.

Let me tell of what I saw on that tour, for its spirit colors this narrative. The history of war, art, displacement, aggrandizement adorned the tombs, and yet they conveyed the obligation of service. Hanne spoke with depth and passion about that ancient dynasty, the Bemburg-Habsburg, with whom she felt, clearly, a profound connection. Somehow – because she was my double? – I felt her passion stirring in myself. The modesty, the humility, even of the baroque and rococo sarcophagi, moved me. It was not my passion, no: a delicate, surprising, not quite welcome, empathy with hers. Yet she was correct, in the European sense: self-contained, courteous. There was an air about her of convent-school decorum; and she was chic. Hers was a Catholic modesty. We do not see it often, here, and may not know what it means when we do see it. But I recognized it, and wondered. I was immensely curious about her. We would have only a little time together; even so, I found myself waiting patiently, as though I knew I would learn more about her. It would be like going back into dreams.

I dreamt about her in half-waking dreams. She had lived in Latin America in the early ‘70s; this I knew, or suspected. She had had a lover, the man of her life, but left him and returned to Europe; was I told this or did I imagine it? She had written dark, beautiful poems – did I dream of them? – but then had stopped writing, and now worked only as a translator and guide.

We saw each other again, several times, for coffee at the Café Central or the Café Tyroler or a meal at a stube. She would never speak of the poems, although, gradually, I understood that she knew that I knew about them. Did I wish to see them? Had I hoped for new work, for the chance to reintroduce her in English? Yes; then, no. How can I say this: the poems no longer mattered? It is not true, exactly; but something else became more important.

During the tour of the Habsburg crypts she told us a curious legend. When an emperor or empress died, the heart was placed in a casket and removed to the Augustinerkirche, while the remaining viscera were buried in the crypt of the Stefansdom. The body then was dressed in robes and laid in a coffin covered with flowers; the coffin was displayed in the Assumption Chapel in the Hofburg, where the public came to pay its respects.

The state funeral was conducted at the Stefansdom. At the door the coffin was met by the Father Superior, who asked: “Who art thou? Who asks to be admitted here?” Came the reply, in the voice of the High Chamberlain: “I am His Majesty the Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary.” “I know him not. Who asks to be admitted here?” “I am the Emperor Franz-Joseph, Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, King of Jerusalem, Prince of Transylvania, Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow, Duke of Lorraine.” “I know him not. Who asks to be admitted here?” The High Chamberlain knelt and said humbly: “I am Franz-Joseph, a poor sinner, and I implore the Mercy of Our Lord God.” “Then thou mayst enter.”

Though the story may have been one such as Joseph Roth might have written, Hanne narrated it with simple credence. She wished to believe. I think she felt pity for the poor sinner; pity and another emotion, whose depth and meaning I could not then gauge.

She was not the same age as I, perhaps ten years younger, yet nothing about her seemed particularly young or old, but separate.

In the Stefensdom, about 6 p.m., the cathedral was half-lit, like a glade in a great forest. Again, I felt the rustle of savagery underneath civilization. Hanne said the Habsburgs had looked death in the eye; it was part of life.

After I left Vienna, we corresponded for a while. I had supposed more or less correctly about her life; she confirmed my guesses with pleased surprise. There had been poems once, but none for some time. The same was true for me. She felt herself responsible for several people who were not well, and her letters grew sadder, briefer, less frequent. Since then, much has happened; I’ve aged; surely we no longer resemble each other. From the Argentine novelist I’ve heard she is happy and successful in her work.

In the memory of my imagination, she is one of four women meeting for coffee on a cold afternoon. They are walking into the Café Schwartzenburg. One is Karin, an American married to a French interpreter, who has lived in Vienna for two decades and is a writer and arts organizer. She is blonde, with with strong teeth and a clear, smiling Dutch face under a velvet bonnet. The next is Vicky, the Argentine novelist, with golden curls and kohl-rimmed eyes; she is swathed in black like a woman in purdah and wears a small black pillbox with a black shawl pulled over it against the wind. Hanne resembles a young woman of the Wiener Werkstatte with her geometric haircut (like mine) and a beret pulled on as a cloche: dark, mysterious, aggressive and nun-like at the same time. Finally, there is me; but I cannot see myself so easily now. We might in our variety have looked like women of the old Empire; we are part of the new multicultural turbocapitalist world.



See also:

Folly, Love, St. Augustine,” Archipelago, Vol. 3, No. 3

On Memory,” Vol. 3, No. 2

Passion,” Vol. 3, No. 1

A Flea,” Vol. 2, No. 4

On Love,” Vol. 2, No. 3

Fantastic Design, with Nooses,” Vol. 2, No. 1

Kundera’s Music Teacher,” Vol. 1, No. 4


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