The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

12 June 2005

Turned with the century

Now here's a scenario just waiting for a story to be told:

In 1880, Vienna was home to a confident bourgeoisie devoted to order, mannered charm and the grandiloquent facades on the Ringstrasse. But turn-of-the-century Vienna was swiftly becoming something quite different, a test of wills began emerging between well-behaved traditionalism and liberated modernism. The capital's population increased more than four-fold during the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph, from less than half a million in the 1850s to over two million by 1910. While technical and scientific advances followed one another in bewildering succession, the Habsburg empire clung to ideals of stability and the preservation of existing order — the cultivation of the status quo.

If official Viennese society remained rigid and unchanging, its urban subculture of coffeehouse-and-cabaret cosmopolites united poets, writers and artists aspiring to break through the complacency of intellectual life. Such was the gap between actuality and what was presented as sham that Vienna is often described as the city in which psycho-analysis needed to be invented. The discoveries of science and medicine, to say nothing of the triumphs of the human intellect and the human spirit, were largely met with indifference by the stolid burghers of Vienna. The city at large was quite oblivious to the fact it was one of the intellectual centers of the world.

In short, exactly the sort of place you'd find Peter Keller, young, ambitious lawyer, with a good job, a fiancée from one of the better families, and utterly devoted to that "well-behaved traditionalism" — until one day he wanders into a coffeehouse and gets the first hint that what he really wants is something entirely different:

[W]hat was Schmäh, the Viennese custom of insincere politeness, if not dishonesty? Peter was aware that it was a social lubricant, a means whereby unpleasant truths could be avoided, even disregarded; or else a way to concel the harshness that was so unacceptable in Viennese society. But was that avoidance even necessary? Most change, he knew, arose from inner conflict; by avoiding conflict, what people really did was affirm their acceptance of the status quo.

And so it was that Peter Weller decided that he did not accept the status quo, and resolved to go his own way, a way which, he found out quickly enough, would require him to give up everything he knew and start off in directions not only unfamiliar but perhaps even unheard of.

This is Vienna Days by Kim du Toit, a novel which examines the unraveling of one man against the backdrop of the unraveling of the old order in Vienna, the artistic movement known as Secessionism. It's not an unfamiliar story — we've all seen people seduced by the Quest before — but it's a story that unfolds at exactly the right speed and asks all the right questions, some of which are even answered. Du Toit's writing style is spare and precise: scarcely a word is wasted. It's appropriate, I think, for the story of a man who spent the first part of his life learning to think linearly, and the rest of it trying to find some reason not to.

Du Toit says he's selling about one copy of Vienna Days every day. I hope this piece stimulates at least a week's worth.

Posted at 2:33 PM to Almost Yogurt