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The Vienna Paradox: A Memoir Paperback – May, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Since emigrating from Vienna with her family in 1938 at the age of six-and-a-half, the former Gabriele Mintz has made a reputation for herself under the penname Marjorie Perloff. Her books (The Dance of the Intellect; The Futurist Moment, etc.) have established her as one of the major American critics of 20th century modernist and late-modernist writing. In this memoir, she traces her intellectual and social development, showing how they were shaped by her experience as a refugee from a hostile territory that she would not see again until 1955, after she was married but still before she launched her career. Though Perloff works in resonances from Viennas modernist artists throughout her book, most of it remains a straightforward telling of who her family was and is, and of how she navigated her way from the New York City schools to Oberlin College. Not a conventional coming-of-age memoir that processes things emotionally, Perloffs story of her youth hones in on the institutions, people and places that formed her logos, by chance and by choice. In that, it is entirely successful.
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"Rarely have I seen captured in narrative form, and so persuasively, the fascinations and repulsions of the great conflict between high- and low-brow culture, terms that have filled, perfunctorily, many a mouth, and that in The Vienna Paradox become once again flesh and bone and blood and breath."
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More detailed discussion: This book gives an interesting account from a different perspective, of the Anschluss and the subsequent years, following the story of an intellectual family who quickly left Vienna in 1938 for an uncertain future, eventually making their way to America. The author was a child when these events were occurring, thus much of the initial story is assembled from memories, family conversations, and letters.
What I liked best about this book is the questions it stirred for me as the reader. What would have happened had the family delayed their departure from Austria, even just a few days? One of the relatives stayed behind and later died in a concentration camp. Another distant relative was a Nazi officer with no knowledge of his Jewish ancestry; he too met his death, but apparently died affirming his conviction of national socialism. How did her grandfather reconcile his feelings about Mussolini? Did her parents or other family members ever return to Vienna for visits? As immigrants presumably speaking English with an accent, did they ever feel like they truly fit into American society? Or did living and working in a place such as New York City absorb the cultural differences?
What I didn’t like about the book: The writing style felt rather jumbled – a lot of bouncing around in the descriptions of people and issues. It was hard to keep straight which relative was being referred to or what the relationship was. Also, some of the same phrases and idioms are used repeatedly and in close sequence – that should have been caught by the editor. As the book progresses, the story reads more like a personal memoir rather than weaving the earlier life experiences into the fabric of the story. Perhaps that is to be expected, as the author’s memories as an adult are better captured than the distant memories of a young child. There is a lot of attention given to literature (the author’s field) and I lost a little bit of interest as the book progressed; I would have enjoyed more “family stories” or more in-depth discussion on issues such as reconciling the dual culture in which the author was raised; for example, did she ever consider marrying outside of her religion, or the nature of friendships with people from other faiths.
If you are interested in the political, cultural, and societal, events leading up to WWII; if you are interested in Jewish history, this book will add a fairly good level of understanding to your repertoire. Two other books I recommend are “Good Living Street” by Tim Bonyhady and “Between Dignity and Despair” by Marion Kaplan. These books are on two opposing ends of the spectrum; very different stories, and very interesting reads.
"Why are you giving me this book?" one of my more suspicious friends asked me. "What is there about this book that sets it apart from all the immigrant narratives, from all the nostalgic recounting of `old Vienna,' from all the other autobiographies that people turn to when they begin to realize that time is passing and whatever they don't set down will be forgotten?" The central distinction is this: Perloff doesn't just record her own experiences or those of her family and friends, she uses those experiences - the experiences of her extended family, experiences of other famous emigrants from Vienna, together with information about books, museums, websites, as well as restaurants, street guides and all kinds of other information - for other purposes than telling about her self. She's not seeking her own `roots,' but draws on those roots to examine some of the important and pressing questions that only a critic of the world with great experience, perspective and expertise can ask.
What Perloff is exploring with her delineation and examination of the civilization in which her family was nurtured and from which it was expelled is far more complex than just where she comes from, or even what really were the negative effects of the Holocaust. She is asking what are the functions, the potential and the limitations of civilization: what should we value in culture, what should we discard, what can we know, what can we improve, and what are the individual limitations. At one point Perloff quotes Wittgenstein
if we think of the world's future, we always mean where it will be if it keeps going as we see it going now and it doesn't occur to us that it is not going in a straight line but in a curve, constantly changing direction. (33)
The lessons from history are not imperatives for the future, and therefore every detail must be examined, and it is the role of the artist and the critic to perform this examination, and to edify . Therefore Perloff delineates the achievements, on all sides, of her family - their successful careers in Austria and elsewhere, their connections, their accomplishment throughout - but she also notes their failure to perceive and/or act within Austrian society to counter or prevent what was to come. Except for some foreign bank accounts that came in handy for the family after their escape in August of 1938, there seems to have been little understanding of the dangers inherent in the historical situation. If Grandfather Schuller was allowed into Italy because of a welcome from Mussolini to his former negotiator, it was not political foresight that made Schuller prepare an escape route for a Jew, but belief in Austria transcending personal considerations that saved him.
The technique of postmodern pastiche is everywhere, but it is not here an indication of the eradication of values. Perloff is an expert at weaving together associations, websites, museums, biography, memoir, gossip, lunch, poetry and making sense of them all. This pastiche is born from the sensibility of the multicultural, world-wise individual, comfortable everywhere in the universe. Perloff, in opposition to the refugee, the outsider, really believes in a society, but it is an ur society, which incorporates and transcends the differences. Her criticism of European disdain for American society, and American naiveté as to European society, is an attempt to bring the two together.
More than anything else, there is a love story in this autobiographical account -- it is a love story with America, that country that whatever its cultural limitations in comparison to the hoch kultur of Vienna, gave her and her family shelter and opportunity to thrive to such an extent that politics could be safely and comfortably ignored. Written after September 11, when the US is besieged not only by enemies without but also by the intelligentsia within, this book serves as a reminder of perspective. So that although it begins with the story of Arnold Schoenberg who despite his appreciation for the United States, never found in it a lasting and appreciative audience, it concludes with Adorno, who longed for the taste of European culture and returned there after the War.