JOSEPH WECHSBERG has written many successful books and for over 30 years has been one of the stars of The New Yorker staff of foreign correspondents. Now he has given us the story of his own childhood in the form of a series of brilliant, poignant and very funny snapshots.
He was born in 1907 to a liberal, upper-middle-class Jewish family in the provincial city of Mahrisch-Ostrau, not far from Vienna, during the halcyon years when that city was the most attractive capital in Europe. The decadent Hapsburg Empire was nearing its end, but in Ostrau the throne of the belove Franz Josef seemed as solid as the Vienna State Opera House, and the dynasty as certain to remain popular as it was that the music of Johann Strauss would continue to enchant the Viennese. Today people still listen to Strauss: he lifts the saddened heart, or, as Wechsberg puts it, "Better than Valium, better than Librium . . . . He has never been out of fashion."
But decent people like the Wechsberg family were soon to have their world crumble about them as completely and swiftly as did the 800-year-old monarchy, and the finest thing about this admirable book is the lack of self-pity with which Joseph Wechsberg describes the drama. The biography is a masterpiece of controlled emotion, illuminated with a wry humor which is peculiarly Central European.
In Ostrau Grandfather Wechsberg, the banker, was an important figure indeed, known as "our own Rothschild." He semed to the little boy a great dandy, a white-haired Beau Brummell, as he walked the pleasant streets, doffing his black derby to acquaintances as he passed them. Very much the patriarch, he installed three of his sons and their families in a five-story house in Bruckenstrasse, each in an apartment, and these sons were junior partners in the family bank on the ground floor. This house, the tallest one in town, was the center of small Joseph's existence; and from the moment he introduces us to the people who lived there we are enthralled by them.
Siegfried, the youngest brother, was Joseph's father. Tall, handsome, and very much in love with his tiny, vivacious wife, he is somehow a wistful figure, who long ago had tried to run away to sea and so escape the banker's life. However, Grandfather soon took care of any such foolish notions and in the prewar years Siegfried was a contented man, adored by his son who burst with pride when his father put on the elegant sky-blue uniform and shako of a reserve officer.
His father and mother are the central figures in Joseph's serene childhood, but the house in Bruckenstrasse is a crowded one. First there are the "women," for, besides Joseph's mother, there are aunts and cousins and faded ladies of gentility who come in and out, remoter connections. Then, offstage, there are the shadier ladies whose cosmopolitan ways ensnare the more susceptible uncles. The "women" met for coffee in one of the apartments in the late afternoon to shake their heads over the dangers that these intruders might bring to the family.
Among the uncles, Max was certainly the black sheep, but Joseph's mother dearly relished a bit of mundane gossip, and Max's annual visits from Vienna were great events. He was a fashionable gynecologist, and little Frau Wechsberg thought that this brother-in-law's only flaw was that, although he arrived from the capital in an intoxicating haze of Blue Danube perfume and expensive cigar smoke, having always just dined with Johann Strauss himself, he had never been introduced to the emperor. "But Uncle Max knew some archduchesses, 'professionally and personally,' [Wechsberg's] mother said, with some pique."
Although she was a very happy woman in every way, Frau Wechsberg remained a bit of a flirt, hungry for society, and her cravings were satisfied by trips to stay with fashionable Aunt Bertha in golden Vienna, from where she would return to regale her son with stories -- all the better for being so often retold -- about Aunt Bertha's salon, a perfect stable of celebrities. These outings were as regular as was everything in that peaceful, well-ordered childhood. Joseph's mornings began with the sweet chimes of a family clock that he was to cherish all his life, and the first event of the day to look forward to was the arrival of Herr Feiner, the family barber, who would come to shave Joseph's father.
"He had already been on the two floors below, shaving Uncle Eugen and Uncle Alfred . . . . my father put on a small white net which he fastened at -he back of the head. The white net kept his small mustache in place. Not long ago, after I had shaved in the morning, I absent-mindedly covered the spot above my upper lip with a piece of Kleenex, narrowly folded. All of a sudden I say my father wearing his mustache net as I looked at myself in the mirror."
The whole book is composed of Joseph Wechsbergs' glances at the mirror of his past, and the glass in which he looks is neither distorted by time nor marred by sentimentality. During a summer holiday in the mountains in 1914, the new of Sarajevo comes to the little family, and the quiet Siegfried puts on his uniform and goes off to join his regiment. Three months later he is killed in a senseless attack on the Russian front, and the story continues through the grim years for the widow and her son during World War I and afterwards, in defeated, inflation-ridden Austria.
Jolly Uncle Alfred had left Ostrau, now part of Czecholosavakia, to reestablish the family fortunes in Vienna. "Alfred was 'doing things' with their money in Veinna, although they didn't know exactly what." What they did know was that he had put the widow's small fortune into bonds that appeared to be mysteriously and disastrously unsuccessful. Uncle Eugen, the respected family oracle whose money was also managed by Alfred, decided that 17-year-old Joseph should accept an invitation to spend a week with the Alfreds, for rumors had drifted back that they lived in surprisingly great style, and the boy could spy out the land.
With his only blue suit in a suitcase, Joseph arrived at the station in Vienna to be met by a smartly uniformed chauffeur named Jacques, a character straight out of an operetta and one of the best in the book. Jacques takes the bewildered boy to the opulent house of the very very nouveau riche Uncle Alfred and Aunt Anna, and what happens during that hilarious week is too good to be spoiled for the reader by a reviewer.
Later the bubble of the Alfreds' fortune is pricked and we leave them for a delightful kaleidoscope of adventures: growing up in the schools, universities, and cafes of the new Czechoslovakia. Music is the background of the tale, and for Joseph his happiest moments were when he was able to buy a standing room ticket for the Vienna Opera House and run up the marble stairs to the fourth gallery, his heart beating.
We see these years through a series of flashbacks, as storm clouds gather for the second time on the European horizon. The tension is as understated as in the earlier part of the book, the humor as engaging. In 1938, on his way to America on a three-month lecutre trip, came the news of Munich, and the surrender of Sudeten Czechoslovakia to the Germans. "It was all over. I would have to start a new life. In America."