pirmadienis, birželio 7

J.Irving's Affair with Vienna

Have you ever smelled the scent of warm apfelstrudel, heard the tapping of fiaker or maybe felt the tender vibration of walls of the Staatsoper while reading any of American best-selling author John Irving’s novel? No? Probably you weren’t careful enough to notice that such his characters as Fred Trumper from The Water Method Man, Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla from A Son of the Circus, Jack Burns from Until I find you, Siggy and Graff from Setting Free the Bears, John Berry together with his family from The Hotel New Hampshire or even Garp from The World According to Garp were remarkable guests of Vienna. Once J.Irving himself was the temporary resident of Austrian capital, he was part of Vienna, consequently the town became part of him and his books.

A Guest for One Year

J.Irving’s affair with Vienna started when he hasn’t been the world known author, but 20 years old Exeter, New Hampshire, born American with high wrestling ambitions. In 1963 he appeared in Vienna when Ted Seabrooke, his first wrestling coach, had told to him, that he was not and most likely would not be the best wrestler. As future novelist wished to do only the things he thought he could be the best at, he got interested in someone’s suggestion to try to become a writer.

“It was Ted’s idea that I should get out of New Hampshire; that I shouldn’t be living at home and hanging out in the wrestling room of my old school – that if I were going to give up wrestling, I should give up more than that. I should get away – far away. Pittsburgh, of course, had been “away”, but not far enough”, remembers J.Irving in The Imaginary Girlfriend (1995), his short memoir.

Vienna was far enough. J.Irving applied to a study-abroad program and Viennese Institute for European Studies admitted him. “I went off to Europe feeling for the first time, like a writer”, later admits J.Irving.

Regardless the fact he adored the lectures on Greek Moral Philosophy and Victorian Novel in the University, J.Irving in his memoir does not hide: “I did not love – I do not love - Vienna, and I doubt I’ll go back to Vienna again”. The writer gives a few reasons for that.

German language: “I took 12 tutorial hours of German a week, but to this day I can speak the language only haltingly; I can barely understand German, when I’m spoken to, and reading German only serves to remind me of my dyslexia – all those verbs lurking at the end of the sentence, waiting to be reattached to the clauses they came from” (The Imaginary Girlfriend).

Still, in his novels he often uses German expressions, does not avoid German names, and makes his heroes struggle with German language, just remember Garp or all Berry family before their trip to Vienna with the dictionaries in their hands.

By the way, J.Irving still keeps in his memory the fact his German was too weak to read Guenter Grass, and while studying in Vienna he proceeded at less than a snail’s pace through Die Blechtrommel. But carrying around the German edition of The Tin Drum was a great way to meet girls, acknowledges J.Irving in his article “Guenter Grass: King of the Toy Merchants”.

Anti-Semitism. J.Irving remembers, that during Viennese period, he knew nothing about anti-Semites, but he learned. He describes himself being short and dark and carrying last name as Irving, which was a Scots name, but common enough as a Jewish first name so that several Viennese anti-Semites were confused. “Skinheads with swastika earrings, while not unusual, were not commonplace; what were commonplace were the shy citizens who looked away from the skinheads, pretending not to have seen them”. In The Imaginary Girlfriend writer calls it “tolerance of intolerance, which allows the intolerance to persist”.

Nationalism. “Vienna is a small town; it’s notorious anti-Semitism in only part of a mean-spirited provincialism – an overall xenophobia, a suspicion (leading to hatred) of all outsiders. “Das geht bei uns nich”, the Austrians say – “That doesn’t go with us”. “Auslander” – a “foreigner” – is always a derogatory word. Viennese Gemutlichkeit, is a tourist attraction, is the false sweetness of basically unhoflich people.” (The Imaginary Girlfriend)

Nostalgia. In Vienna “I was missing, among the other things, both wrestling and a girlfriend who would become my first wife. I had met Shyla Leary in Cambridge in the summer of ’63, just before I left for Vienna – I was taking a crash course in German at Harvard summer school. It seems idiotic, but I think it’s fairly common that we meet people of importance to us just before we are going away somewhere. Within a year, in the summer of ’64, I would marry her – in Greece”. (The Imaginary Girlfriend)

Besides, J.Irving with his young wife has returned to Vienna after Greece, but not for long. Shyla was already pregnant with Irving’s son Colin. As J.Irving puts it, he wanted to be a father, but only in his own country. Still, his second son Brendan was born in Vienna in 1969, where J.Irving was writing a screenplay of his first novel Setting Free the Bears (unfortunately, after five drafts, it was never made into film; in My Movie Business J.Irving tells that while working on that script he had not only watched about 48 hours of newsreel footage of Hitler’s triumphant arrival in the Austrian capital in 1938 in the war archives in Vienna, but also had worked in the library of Schloss Eichbuechl on the outskirts of Wiener Neustadt).

One more time author came to Austrian capital to promote the German translation of A Prayer for Owen Meany, but from this visit remembers only troubles with the local media caused by his honest opinion about Vienna.

Nevertheless it’s quite strange that world known author keeps so many stones under his bosom talking (writing) about Vienna, and almost none of the compliments. The appearance of his first successful novel Setting Free the Bears which was written right after J.Irving’s coming back from Vienna and published by Random House in 1969, clearly illustrates the fact that Vienna has indeed helped him to become a writer and immeasurably inspired him. Otherwise, why he continues exploiting Vienna not only as general setting of his novels but also as an equal and highly intriguing character?

Vienna According to Garp

Almighty Wikipedia, producing data on J.Irving’s recurring themes, counts that only in his novels The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Widow for One Year, The Fourth Hand and his newest Last Night in Twisted River (that is 5 out of 12 his fiction books) ways of heroes do not lead to Vienna. In the writer’s books Vienna stands as one of the most frequent topic together with such themes as prostitutes, wrestling, bears, deadly accident, absent parent, film making, writer or sexual variation (older man, homosexuality, incest, etc.). Could it be that involving Vienna in his novels serves J.Irving as a cause to write about his years in the town, to write about himself?

For instance, Garp in The World According to Garp does the same as J.Irving in youth – following the advice of the teacher together with his mother Jenny Fields travels to Vienna to become a writer. (Both Irving and Garp even live in the same place – Schwindgasse 15/2, as well as Bogus’ friend Merrill Overturf in The Water-Method Man). Why Vienna? Because “you can find real Europe in Vienna, it is artistic and contemplative, with real sadness and majesty” (The World According to Garp).

But later on the character of almost the most famous J.Irving’s novel is more merciless – Vienna, according to Garp, is museum of dead town, there is no more Klimt or Schiele. Vienna is tired and full of sadness, it is like a decorated corpse in the open coffin. Maybe the whole Europe is like that, considers Garp.

It’s interesting that both Garp and Irving even share Viennese prostitutes: Garp finds a friend among them, and Irving improves his German communicating with one of them. “I used to study in the evenings in a bar where the prostitutes waited for their customers out of the cold. Our landlady turned off the heat at night, and the coffeehouses frequented by students were too noisy for studying; besides, the Viennese students were too proper to be seen in a bar used by prostitutes – except for the one or two well-to-do students who would appear at the bar in order to select a prostitute. As for the prostitutes, they recognized from the beginning that I could not afford their more intimate company”, the author stays frank in his memoir.

By the way, 1st district prostitutes from Krugerstrasse are almost the main characters in The Hotel New Hampshire. “Don’t worry about the prostitutes. They’re legal here. It’s just business”, - in his letter writes Freud from Gasthaus Freud in The Hotel New Hampshire.

And one more common thing between J.Irving and Garp – both of them left Vienna being writers.

These examples show that J.Irving never really left Vienna – he’s still living in it under his characters’ name.

Setting Free the Myths

“There won’t be any gangs! There will be music! And pastry! And the people do a lot of bowing, and they dress differently”, cries Frank Berry, son of the hotelier, preparing to leave for Vienna (The Hotel New Hampshire). Such outburst of enthusiasm considering Vienna is very rare in J.Irving’s literature. He’s obviously much more interested in a shady part of Austrian capital, in setting free its myths.

For instance, Staatsoper which Viennese are almost the most proud of, J.Irving making no scruples turns into target of prostitutes and radical communists in their plan to blow the building up during the season opening performance. “There is a lot of blood and Schlagobers in opera”, - explains he by the name of his character in The Hotel New Hampshire.

In the same novel the writer generalizes that opera, coffeehouses and the past are the things Viennese worship to the disgusting. Although he leads the Berry family members through various coffeehouses (Mozart, Hawelka, Mowatt, etc.), J.Irving strikes again: “A city of fewer than one and a half million people, Vienna still has more than three hundred coffee-houses! We stared out of our cabs at the streets, expecting them to be strained with coffee. There was the diesel rankness of Europe, but no coffee” (The Hotel New Hampshire).

It seems that the author soaks his pen in a rebel ink before writing a word about Vienna. According to him, opera deserves to be blown up, Austrians adorable skiing – wipe off the face of the earth, Tiergarten – for setting the animals free.

Fred Trumper while learning to ski, shouts: “Please, Merrill, I want to walk”, “Boggle, you’d make holes for the other skiers…”, “I’d like to make one big hole for all other skiers, Merrill. (The Water-Method Man).

Another J.Irving’s hero in the first writer’s novel Setting Free the Bears Graff persuades Siggy: “We shouldn’t leave Vienna without seeing how spring has struck the zoo”. And then the plan appears – to release all the animals from the Hietzinger Zoo.

Nevertheless J.Irving heroes’ ways go through Rathaus park, Volksgarten, Parliament building, Plaza of Heroes, Mariahilferstrasse, Naschmarkt, Kunshistorische Museum, Schoenbrunn Palace and other magnificient Viennese sightseeing places, the author strictly avoids polite tone of tourist guides. For instance, in the shadow of posh hotel Sacher he finds (creates?) the pension with the whole floor for prostitutes or even bear on bicycle (The Pension Grillparzer; The Hotel New Hampshire)!

Still, in Trying to Save Piggy Sneed J.Irving writes as if apologizing: “My memory is subject to doubt. To any writer with a good imagination all memoirs are false. A fiction writer’s memory is an especially imperfect provider of detail; we can always imagine a better detail than the one we can remember”. That means we shouldn’t call J.Irving’s Vienna real, but imaginary.

And as the author claims he starts writing a novel from its last sentence and from there works back to the beginning, it is more an exception than a rule when he writes about Vienna. His affair with Vienna hasn’t got an end yet, so let us use our right to say: to be continued…

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