“I HAVE KILLED” — Part 1 of 2

by Frederic Morton

My love for history being well-documented, no surprise that this would have caught my attention. By chance at that, but that’s why working at a library is good for the soul in many ways — working at a wide-ranging university library the best. But this one didn’t come in as a random return, it was actually part of someone’s cockeyed attempt at a donation. We get these at the library from time to time, somebody flings in a whole bunch of books in a heap in our drop box, they turn out to be somebody’s personal items that are being cleared out, and for the most part they either get routed through for donation or added to our book sale pile so we can raise some extra scratch on the side for our employee organization. There are worse fates.

But the cover caught my attention — late Victorian/European finery somewhere, splendor indeed, the subtitle ‘Vienna 1888/1889’ promised more than some tedious novel of the time and so it proved. Morton I don’t know much about, aside from the fact that he’s American, did his research, and had family roots in Vienna. But he tells a good tale — written in the late seventies and published in 1979, it has a certain, not breeziness, but sense of style and location that makes for a good popular history, placed somewhere between biography, social study, art and music report and novel. An illustrative difference might be between the Massie approach to Russia — involved, detailed, striking and strong but almost self-consciously so — and here, where it’s not so much statements and conclusions to be drawn as outlines and impressions sketched (literally so in that nearly every chapter has some pen-and-ink artwork from someone — apparently one Georg Eisler, from his book Wienerstadt — of moments of life and times in Vienna of that age, horse races, promenades, street scenes, and so forth).

It mostly but not entirely steers clear of projecting. Its hero — about whom more shortly — is Rudolf, the Crown Prince of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and in the portrait of him our sympathies (‘our’ = late 20th century Western existence) are meant to be excited. Liberal (as it stood then), intelligent (clear enough), talented (a writer who vented his criticism of the Empire through anonymous text in a leading newspaper), more than once Morton expresses a dream that had he lived he might have helped prevent WWI — an assumption seductive but by no means obvious (and then again, Franz Josef, the decades-ruling Emperor, did not himself pass on until the middle of the war itself. Elsewhere some of the figures are talked about in terms of their eminent futures in order to place them for a reader — Klimt, Mahler, Freud, Schnitzler, Herzl, Wittgenstein (the latter barely born).

But the book does its level best to live in the moment, and to build and swirl to the point of its highest drama — Rudolf’s harrowing double-suicide pact with his lover Mary Vetsera. The impression sketched by Morton is of a case where ‘everything changes,’ a moment on par with a Pearl Harbor or a 9/11. To our eyes it might seem a ridiculous comparison, but perhaps we cannot but see it as little more than a frustrating waste. The book argues that’s precisely what Rudolf felt with his life and situation, yet intriguingly — and perhaps understandably — never exactly pins down what drove him to the extreme he did. Instead it’s yet more impressions, confusions, reactions, a portrayal of moments, domestic, private, public, famous, obscure, as is the whole book.

It ends with the birth of Hitler, in obscure provinciality. The tracking of the roots of a modern anti-Semitism is part of the book’s tale, so it’s as logical enough a conclusion as could be suggested. But how apropros in our modern Net continuum — where invoking a comparison to Hitler and fascism is seen to be the end of an argument, no matter what it is about — that it should end on so simple and absolute a conclusion. It’s a projection too — the world did not stop and shudder at Hitler’s birth. But like a good novel should, A Nervous Splendor knows, quite simply, when to bow out.

(The second part of this post will appear on Blog 7.)