From Vienna the Habsburgs had departed like a caravan in the night; henceforth, they would rule only their memories. The ex-Imperial couple, Charles and Zita, were exiles on the Algarve. Stately, stable Vienna, metropolis of ease and affluence and all the world’s glitter, majestic capital city girded around by the implicit security of five hundred years of Habsburg history, crossroads of the world and crucible of art and science and gemütlichkeit: suddenly, Vienna was nothing. Overnight, with the Emperor’s departure, the nation Vienna ruled ceased to be a sprawling polyglot empire and became a nonentity, an insignificant Alpine republic, a Switzerland with palaces, a domain of burgers and skiers. Vienna in 1920 was an attic, a repository of yesteryear’s fantasies, from which nine hundred thousand wartime refugees from the former Royal and Imperial hinterland departed to their new homelands of Czecho-Slovakia, Poland, and Yugo-Slavia and reduced the city’s population by a half-million. They thereby freed up living space, most of it substandard; but the new republican regime was having a painful birth, with the inflation rate reading like an ailing patient’s fever chart and riots breaking out with boring frequency. A dozen political parties were formed, dissolved, re-formed, banned; then the Social Democrats took over, and Vienna the Golden became Vienna the Red, city of welfare committees and workers’ communes and torchlight marches along the Ringstrasse. Bread soared to a hundred thousand new schillings a kilo and the lower middle-class dropped “middle” from its name and sank to the lowest of all classes, the disenfranchised bourgeoisie. Only the hochburgerlich, and some of the old artistocracy, managed to stay afloat. This included the Baron and Baroness Ottoheinz, thanks to their wood-pulp holdings and to the continued, indeed, increased, need of newsprint;the Palais Ottoheinz, however, by joint agreement between the Baron and the new City Council, was now home to the Municipal Welfare Association for the Indigent and Dispossessed.
Aunt Liesl wrote to Stefanie in Paris, lamenting the collapse of everything she revered.
“We are living in a two-bedroom flat on the Praterstrasse, with most of our belongings still in boxes. Oh, Steffi, I know I shouldn’t say this, but how I miss our old home! How I loved the old Palais! How I hate what they’ve done to it! Anarchists and Bolsheviks are running the city now, or they were this morning. After all, I am writing this at two o’clock in the afternoon, so perhaps the government has changed hands again! We haven’t been well. I have on-and-off colds, and after the revolution your uncle’s sinus problems grew dramatically worse, proving what I have always maintained, that they are psychological symptoms of a deep-rooted pessimism and nervousness in Ernst’s character, an inborn Jewishness, if you like. Mind you, there seems little reason to be optimistic these days. Poor Ernst hasn’t left his bed in weeks, except at night. Fortunately, we have a fine view of the big wheel and the Prater park for him to look at from his bed. This he does, all the dull day long, until it gets dark, then he puts on his clothes and goes to listen to the music at the Schwarze Katz Keller down the street, hobnobbing with all manner of dispossessed Romanians and Croats and what have you, and he comes home after midnight smelling of cheap cigarettes, perfume and whisky. But enough of him.
“As for Fritzl and his family—they have two boys now, did you know? Your second cousins, ja?—-they are riding out the upheavals in Munich. Of course, Lotte’s family money helps. To tell the truth, I worry that Fritzl may turn into a useless drone. He hasn’t held a steady job since the war. Of course, his injury makes it difficult, but I fear he uses it as an excuse all too often. Please check up on them for me, Steffi, if you ever have the opportunity. I know you are very busy in your new life, but it’s hard for me to leave your uncle in his present condition—and anyway I haven’t been feeling too wunderschön myself recently.
“Best regards to your husband. “I kiss you. “Liesl.”
Stefanie wept at the thought of dying Austria, her own little ex-empire: poor Vienna, sad Linz, dear Salzburg. Fortunately, she was in Paris, and Paris was Paris, although even the City of Light, as the capital of the bled-white nation that had given and lost the most during the war, was less than paradise in the immediate post-war years. The city was as stately, bold, begrimed and audacious as ever, of course, and its skies and gardens were fragrant with the obstinate rebirth of spring, but everywhere also were living reminders of the hell from which humanity had just emerged. The destitute mutilé de guerre was a common sight on the métro, in the cafés, on the bridges, accosting passersby with a single accusing eye, or brandishing a rusted stump, or madly reciting the grievances of a ruined life. At the train stations these wretches monopolized the porters’ jobs and would spring from nowhere, prosthetics clattering, to open a taxi door, or carry a suitcase. Stefanie regarded them with more horror than compassion, an emotional ratio she tried to reverse, and she reminded herself that other men, the generals and politicians, had been responsible for an entire generation’s blight.
“Mother of God help them all,” she murmured; and with these words, sacred to her, her mind felt soothed, yet she longed for more, she needed self-abnegation, prayer, penance. Her conscience was her demon, ever spurring her on. For a while she volunteered weekends at a Red Cross soup kitchen in Belleville, a depressed district of northeast Paris composed mostly of African migrants and the indigenous working class, but she felt no deeper compassion stirring at the sight of these human castoffs of great Paris. On the contrary, she, Austrian grande bourgeoise that she was, found herself battling revulsion at the sight of human beings with no apparent pride, dignity or cleanliness, reduced to what amounted to scavenging, and she soon acquired a reputation among the far saintlier women with whom she worked as “The Snotty Boche.” Anyway, her command of the French language, good in Vienna, was inadequate here, and her accent lent itself to behind-the-back ridicule. After three months of these weekends, she resigned.
“The quality of my mercy is very strained,” she said to Arthur. “I’m just not much good with people, am I?”
“As if that were a crime,” replied her husband, his eyes fixed on the short score, on several staves, of The Mystic, Act Two.
Food rationing was coming to an end. Certain everyday goods, such as coal and firewood, were still scarce, although following the reconquest of the eastern provinces supplies were slowly beginning available again. In any event, that summer was especially mild and verdant, and in the warm waning evening light Stefanie found a hint of the peace she had always wanted. The Lebel flat was on the top (fourth) floor of a Second Empire building on the east side of the Rue Soufflot, a quiet sidestreet on the Montagne Ste. Geneviève near the Luxembourg Gardens. Students from the nearby Sorbonne crowded the streets, and from their tiny balcony M. et Mme. Lebel could see the Panthéon to their right; to the left, in the evenings, above the trees of the Luxembourg Gardens, soared the illuminated copper crown of the Eiffel Tower, with— in the mid-1920s, during the tower’s unfortunate hiatus as an advertising billboard for Citroën cars—the vertical “CI” of the electric “CITROEN” sign visible, twinkling above the trees. Stefanie gazed at the tower as she took her ease on the little balcony, smoking, drinking coffee, reading, and adding comments, piecemeal, to her journal. Starting in the autumn, she was also correcting the exams and term papers of students at the Académie Werfel, a German cultural institute sponsored by the Universities of Vienna and Munich, “a small enclave of Germanophilia in a wilderness of Boche haters,” averred Arthur, who was a part-time music instructor there. Indeed, the Académie Werfel was a very small enclave, amounting to no more than fifteen in the lower forms and an even dozen in the higher, mostly Alsatians, Swiss, and Catholic Rhinelanders exiled since before the war. Still, the job paid a small stipend, and it filled the dull days, but like most jobs it failed to get the real job done: It gave nothing to the heart and cheated the soul. Stefanie chafed. Others, notably Arthur’s uncle Samuel, the ex-actor (whose most memorable role had been the angry chef Joseph in Anouilh’s Les Moustiques) and member of parliament—and gallant of the old school—had urged her to limit her ambitions to housewifery and dalliance, but that was a notion she instinctively despised, and rejected out of hand with a gesture of contempt.
“Why, then, perhaps Madame Stefanie could join literary discussion groups and get her poems published,” said Samuel, cigarette held at arm’s length, eyelids drooping in (she thought) infinite condescension.
“Madame Stefanie has no poems,” said Stefanie, “and no time for so-called literary discussion groups. I remember such gatherings in Vienna, Monsieur. They consist almost invariably of bookish spinsters with cats, dying for human, preferably male, contact at any cost. I’m not ready for membership in that club yet, thank you very much.”
“I should say not,” said Uncle Samuel, exploring her with the intrusive eyes of the boulevardier he was.
“Ah yes, mon oncle,” said Arthur, when Stefanie made a comment. “Well, if you turned the clock back twenty years, half of the middle-class men in Paris would be just like him. He’s a living dinosaur of the Belle Epoque, Steffi. But he started out as a kosher baker in Strasbourg. Don’t take him seriously.”
But Uncle Samuel, like Uncle Ernst, turned out to be quite serious in his guise of Jew in masquerade. He confessed (putting on an exaggerated Yiddisher accent) after three digestifs one evening on the balcony that he had been born in Strasbourg as Shmuel Schoen, for which “Samuel Lebel” was a fairly accurate French translation. Yes, he said, before he turned to acting he had been a baker once, as had his father, an immigrant from Poland, before him; indeed he, Samuel, still made the finest rouleaux d’Alsace in Paris, when he put his mind to it. His candor made Stefanie think better of him, briefly, but she still distrusted him. She had nothing of the instinctive flirt in her; it was an art she had to learn. In his actor’s obtuseness Samuel never noticed. Women were made to respond to him alone. Heavily mustached, tan of visage, and leonine of mane, he avowedly modeled himself on the great Clemenceau. Sometimes, like the Tiger, he spoke with true wit and feeling, but inwardly he saw the world as a charnelhouse. He treated others with a disdain that at times bordered on cruelty. Once he confessed to Stefanie that, at a dinner party given by the eminent and well-connected Madame Poulenc and attended by Pascal Gide the Royalist agitator, Samuel had slipped a valuable silver spoon into Gide’s coat pocket in the vestibule and had then whispered in his hostess’s ear, pointing to Gide, “kleptomaniac, I’m afraid.”
“How dreadful of you!” said Stefanie when Samuel told her of the incident. “Was he arrested?”
“I neither know nor care. At least he was never seen at Madame Poulenc’s salons again.”
Yet this lightness and flippancy of manner was his way of warding off despair. Like most men of his generation, and all actors, he flirted as easily as he drew breath, at first putting Stefanie off; but discreet flirtation, she discovered, could be exciting, leading the reluctant traveler to the outskirts of Sex, the forbidden metropolis. Ironically—and, in a way, thanks to Uncle Samuel—Stefanie was becoming more aware, in her early thirties, of the dominion of sex. With Arthur, at first (her first), lovemaking had been unremitting and doubly exciting because of a) love and b) inexperience, spiced up by the paramount need, then, for concealment, but in due course, as happens, the elegiac became routine, the routine found itself taken for granted, and Eros quietly left through the back door. Companionship came to call, then it, too, drifted away: Arthur with his back turned, bent over his opera, uttering monosyllabic replies to the questions she, on the sofa, might ask, with a haunting in her brain...not that they couldn’t still became flushed and breathless in each other’s arms, but they were married, after all, and he was working eight to ten hours a day, and she was caught between the real world and that other world of the Holy Mother and Sister Bernadette, no less real to her but unmentionable to others. Fortunately, as a palliative, there was the great city around her, a living encyclopedia of the human condition, Rabelais and Balzac and Hugo in stone, in which not only sex but avarice and love and gluttony and humor all flourished on a grand scale, as in the world at large; a spectacle to be enjoyed, if one had sufficient entrée to the places where the drama might be observed. Uncle Samuel had such entrée, and he grudgingly shared his contacts with his nephew and niece (mostly the latter); but it was not until a dress rehearsal of The Mystic attracted the attention of the exiled Russian pianist and composer Ivan Youzbine that Arthur and Stefanie started moving in more elevated social circles. The great pianist (he had been a student of Rimsky-Korsakov’s) wrote a short review of the nascent opera for the emigré newspaper Novaya Iskra that was duly translated for Le Journal de Paris:
“M. Lebel shows great promise. The Mystic develops small motifs, but these are motifs of significance, from which lyrical melody grows, and both motifs and melody conceal subtleties in orchestration and structure and only yield to the greater amplitude of lines and forms. Unfortunately, the story is too silly for words, all about a woman who has visions of the devil and the holy mother and other nonsense, and how she is driven to kill the evil Lord Montacute, who is torturing the local peasants or something or other and how in the end she finds peace by joining an order of nuns and becoming a saint, or some such rubbish. To make matters worse, it takes place in the France of the Enlightenment era, when educated people were sufficiently sensible not, for the most part, to believe in such fantasies. Perhaps M. Lebel needs a new lyricist.Were it not for the music, I would have covered my ears and run screaming out of the concert hall; but the music saved the day.”
“M. Youzbine’s wine soon turns to vinegar,” remarked Arthur.
“The man’s a maniac,” said Stefanie. “Of course, he is Russian.”
Although there were undeniably maniacal elements in Youzbine’s makeup (but that was all right, because not only was he Russian but he was truly a pianist of Lisztian passion and a composer to rival Rachmaninoff) the acquaintanceship flourished. Youzbine took Arthur under his wing and soon Stefanie saw less of her husband in private than before and far more of his distant profile at high-society functions in vast sitting rooms and chilly salons and Gauloise-redolent nightclubs where Russian exiles and actors and errant artists drank and struck tragicomic poses and pawed one another and her (once exciting Arthur’s ire, to the extent of a well-aimed and accurately-delivered punch in the nose); it was noisy, raucous, depraved and exciting, and it demanded immediate concentration, gliding over life’s depths, it celebrated only the present, the transient, the moment. Stefanie, erstwhile theology student, found herself surrounded by hedonists, many of them young Americans, mostly actors and writers (genuine or self-styled), exiles in France for the drinking and the high life and the low cost of it all. For them the beautiful Austrian woman with the blonde hair and distant gaze was an oracle, an idol, an exotic, a living souvenir of Mayerling, pure Twentieth-Century Fox.
“Did you ever meet Franz Josef, Madame Lebel?” inquired one night, in his cups, one of the Americans, a handsome Hollywoodian.
“Once,” she said. “On the occasion of my uncle’s ennoblement. I curtsied higher than he inclined his head, but not by much. Then he got my name wrong.”
“Oh, that’s quite magical, my dear Madame Lebel,” said the young Hollywoodian, marveling in a desultory way at having met a still-young survivor of another, already near-mythical, era. “Do tell me more about decadent old Vienna. The balls. The affairs.”
“I went to some balls, of course. The Apprentices’, the Butchers’. But I missed the decadence. I was a student. I studied.”
“How serious of you. How middle class.” The young actor nodded abstractedly, but his gaze welled with interest and concern. Stefanie was charmed by his attention and his illustrative mannerisms, very much those of an actor, and truth to tell she might have succumbed had she (innocent that she was!) not noticed his glistening gaze settling with greater interest on an adjacent young man of known proclivities. She felt a slight shock, followed by the slow burn of humiliation and the chimes of celestial irony: Sin, even in thy heart, and see how thou art punished! Stefanie took her desires home to her marriage bed, to which Arthur, whose name was now a byword in the salons, was more or less a stranger; but during one of his rare overnight visits he and Stefanie embraced as man and wife, and nine months later, in the spring of ‘23, Ignace (for Arthur’s long-dead father, né Ignaz) was born, giving greater joy to Stefanie than anything else in her life ever had, with the possible exception of the apparition of the Holy Mother, her own mother, and Arthur himself.