The New York Times
"Beautifully written, intricate and entrancing."Jaroslaw Anders, Los Angeles Times Book Review
Galicia, Austria-Hungary, 1913. In the castle of a frontier town, on the border between Europe and the East, the corrupt Count-Governor Wiladowski watches helplessly while a wave of assassinations sweeps the empire, and his province. When a member of his/i>
"Beautifully written, intricate and entrancing."Jaroslaw Anders, Los Angeles Times Book Review
Galicia, Austria-Hungary, 1913. In the castle of a frontier town, on the border between Europe and the East, the corrupt Count-Governor Wiladowski watches helplessly while a wave of assassinations sweeps the empire, and his province. When a member of his own family is murdered, the count gives broad police powers to his spymaster, Jakob Tausk: a brilliant young Jew whose ruthless war on terror extends into every corner of the province and beyond, enlisting union organizers, financiers, aristocrats and their servants, and a young novelist and playwright, newly arrived in the Vienna of Franz Josef and Freud, hungry for literary success.
The New York Times
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By Michael André Bernstein
Farrar, Straus, and GirouxCopyright © 2004 Michael Andre Bernstein
All rights reserved.
That year the snow seemed to have begun much earlier than usual. By December, at any rate, normal life in the town was grinding to a complete halt. Fuel was running low, and wood and coal were becoming impossibly expensive, especially for the poorer workers, whose ranks had kept increasing during the past five years until it looked as though soon no one would be left to tend the surrounding farms. Even when the factories stopped taking on new laborers and began to let go those they had recently hired, it was as though all these new arrivals were too stunned by their misery to remember the way back to their villages. One often came across whole families huddling for shelter by the walls of the quays alongside the river, and every day the papers reported another body found dead there of exposure. Throughout the town the water pipes were repeatedly frozen solid, and even among the more prosperous, elaborate schemes were worked out in case it became impossible to take a hot bath or do the household washing. Almost everyone who worked in one of the offices in the business district ate in the nearby restaurants as often as possible. Although they were expensive compared with cooking at home, there was usually a well-stoked fire in one corner, and the crowded tables encouraged a constantly reanimated sociability, no matter how isolating the weather outside. But everyone's nerves were growing frayed, and several long-standing friendships and love affairs revealed themselves as dangerously ragged and at risk of collapsing from the weight of the winter.
It must have been two weeks or so before the Christmas holidays, when Asher Blumenthal, twenty-eight years old and still only a junior accountant at the Sobieski Import-Export Company, left his office early one afternoon, hoping to be able to catch a tram and avoid the long walk home. But once again most of the wagons were frozen on the tracks, and the idea of trudging on foot all the way across the Nepomuk Bridge to his somber flat in the Josef Quarter was too demoralizing. He had wanted to avoid going to the Mendelssohn Club for a few days, but the chance to warm himself free of charge beside the massive old tile oven in the center of the reading room, of seeing the familiar green lamp shades running the length of the rear walls behind the comfortably worn leather chairs, and the certainty of hearing at least a few familiar voices proved irresistible. Asher usually left the club overstimulated, drained and excited at the same time, angry at the fluency of the talkers and even more annoyed at himself for not having the will to interrupt them and show everybody how ridiculous he thought their pronouncements were. The richer their families, the more passionately the club's younger members made a point of insisting on their readiness to leap at any change that would bring about a completely new kind of existence. At one time or another nearly every one of them stood up at the after-dinner meetings and testified to longing for some great, all-transforming crisis, a moment of truth, whether for good or evil, that would smash through the suffocating trivia of their daily routines like a whirlwind. The phrasing would change from time to time, but it always resonated with some equally sonorous and thoroughly conventional flourish.
Asher himself was skeptical about the innumerable programs drawn up for the common betterment. Pretending to know what would help others when his own life felt so thwarted struck him as absurd. But occasionally being present for those exhausting all-night sessions, with their furious exchange of pamphlets with similar clubs in Odessa and Warsaw and their increasingly grandiose plans for redeeming the Jewish people, made even Asher feel somehow significant. For a few hours he tried to make himself ignore the obvious fact that he was listening to a dozen contradictory hopes, all incoherently jumbled together and all of them, really, no more than confused versions of a single complaint: "None of us has ever felt fully alive in our homes or our country. What are we really risking by walking away from something as desolate as the lives our parents and teachers have already planned out for us? We all know how spiritually deadening their values are and how far their expectations are from touching our core. If we first have the courage to change ourselves, we will see how quickly the world will be changed along with us!" Then the cigarettes and pipes would be lit up again, another furious round of debates would start, someone would call out for drinks or for a vote on the latest motion, and before everyone went home for the night, a collection would be taken up to subscribe to another new journal or help send a delegation to a similar meeting in some other town. While people were finishing their last cigarettes, there was the inevitable, protracted struggle over who would have the final word, until the whole affair dissipated, without a clear victor, into a series of irritable farewells. But just underneath all that excitement and breathlessness there was really a calming stupor, as though one had learned to doze quite pleasantly inside while shouting out objections at everyone else. In spite of the deafening volume at which most conversation was conducted, such evenings somehow also felt reassuringly tranquil.
"Argumentative Jews! I am sick of their interminable discussions" is what Asher usually muttered to himself on his way home, much too late and with nothing to show for the hours spent in such company. "Well," he concluded as he set out down the Mariahilferstrasse toward the Mendelssohn Club, "tonight it's better to be an argumentative Jew than a frozen one." In this part of the town all the streetlamps were still functioning, and although there was too much snow for the work crews sent from the prison to keep the sidewalks clear, at least the government made sure the convicts salted the pavement here several times a day. Even though he feared it made him look like a peasant, Asher now always wore an enormous, old-fashioned winter cloak of heavy boiled wool with horn buttons that he had found in a pawnshop in the Josef Quarter. It was much warmer than anything else he could afford, and as he trudged along, his whole body bent forward against the evening wind, he enjoyed the taste of the slightly damp wool collar that he would catch himself reaching down to suck into his mouth. Asher detested the name of the club, chosen by the founding committee about twenty-five years ago in honor of the no doubt eminent but to him completely unendurable Moses Mendelssohn. Asher's father, the community's well-known autodidact, freethinker, and bankrupt Eliezer Blumenthal, had admired Mendelssohn tremendously and used to read out to his children, as his version of an enlightened Sabbath text, page after page of Mendelssohn's boring platitudes about fundamental human goodness and the universal ethical significance of Judaism. "As if any of us children cared about such big words when all we wanted was to be allowed to go outside and play with the other kids," Asher used to complain to his school friend Alexander Garber a few years later, when they were teenagers and walked home together after classes. What Asher found especially amusing is that to almost everyone in town, including probably a large percentage of its Jews, the name Mendelssohn evoked only the philosopher's grandson, the celebrated composer and conductor and, most delicious of all, notorious apostate to Christianity. Whenever he said he was going to the club after dinner, Asher's colleagues from work assumed there was a rehearsal in progress and asked him when he would be putting on a public concert. "Actually," Asher used to tell his prying landlady, "I wish someone would try to organize a musical evening using the club membership. What a splendidly horrific racket that would create."
But both Blumenthals, Eliezer and Asher, found it impossible not to admire the elegance of the club's high-columned entrance, and when Asher was still a boy, they would take a walk together across town just for the joy of standing in front of it, filled with wonder that so fine a place was at the disposal of Jews like them. At such moments Eliezer would sigh contentedly and tell his son how fortunate they were to be subjects of an Emperor like Franz Josef. The whole building was expressly designed to look impressive, erected near the town center by the Allianz Insurance Company before the mania for making everything resemble a reform school or military barracks had become a sign of advanced taste. When the insurance company needed to expand to a still-larger building during one of the intense, but usually short-lived, bursts of optimistic energy to which all of the Empire's different strata seemed subject in an irregular cycle of alternating enthusiasm and apathy, the original headquarters was taken over on a long-term lease, guaranteed by some of the wealthier Jews, and converted to a private club. Since none of the other social clubs admitted Jews, the lack of a fitting place of their own had long been a source of vexation among the community leaders, and the unexpected availability of one of the most attractive edifices in the whole province was interpreted as further proof of the special favor with which their existence was being watched over by the highest powers. In the last few years, though, what had once been fairly predictable cycles of expansiveness and contraction had become increasingly erratic, and everyone had lost track of when another good phase was due. That winter moods previously existing in strict alternation seemed to converge: Total, bone-aching weariness merged into the certainty that something wonderful would break through the exhaustion if only one didn't give in to despair. The most contradictory emotions coexisted and expressed themselves in a jittery, nervous hum, audible like a second, subterranean motif beneath otherwise monotone, predictable conversations.
Since the streets were almost empty, and the falling snowflakes made it impossible to see more than a few footsteps ahead, there was nothing to distract Asher on his walk, and he found himself unable to stop his mind trotting like a well-trained Lipizzaner horse through the familiar routine of its obsessions. Mostly, when he didn't worry about his duties at the office, especially the interminable paperwork involved in importing bars of cheap soap through Trieste from Cosini and Sons, he thought how he was unlikely ever to find a regular mistress, let alone a wife, or to learn Hebrew, or even to get his landlady to starch his shirts properly so that he needn't fret about showing up at work in the morning looking unkempt and slovenly. Although he occasionally succeeded in going out with one of the women from the club for an afternoon coffee, the few whom he had dared approach didn't encourage him to keep after them, and he linked their rebuff to the state of his collar and his ignorance of Hebrew. He was sure that if only he could dress properly, he could make an impression with his elegance; conversely, if he knew Hebrew, he could show his scorn of trivialities like fashionable clothes and turn the conversation to stirring issues like the cultivation of wine in the Galilee and the possibility of obtaining a charter from the Turkish authorities for more Jewish settlements. Lacking both, he tended to linger around the edges of discussions, hoping that someone would notice what he took to be an ironic gaze and the suggestion of a superior smile. If neither of these approaches seemed to be working, he found himself switching to the wish that maybe one of the more sensible women would decide that his mediocre but steady salary and guaranteed pension were, in the long run, more attractive than the wild dreams and empty wallets of the club's big talkers.
In fact Asher had worked at learning Hebrew off and on for several years without much success. Years later, when Alexander asked him to look back on that period, he tried to explain how frustrating the whole experience had been. "I could put up with the bizarre idea of reading and writing from right to left," he wrote, "and even with the strangely shaped letters, but a language that was printed without vowels so that until you already knew a word you couldn't possibly decipher it on the page, or even look it up in a dictionary, just seemed perverse to me. Even today, here in Haifa, it still does. But back then the very unfamiliarity of the language attracted me as much as it stopped me from making much progress. It's not that I thought of it as a Holy Tongue or the language of Creation or anything remotely similar. I have always had a healthy contempt for mystical claptrap of any kind — ours as much as the goyim's. That's probably the one useful legacy my father passed on to his children. But maybe for no better reason than because they were so obviously archaic, the individual letters seemed charged with mystery. More than anything else, I think it was the abstract idea of Hebrew, not the actual language, that intrigued me. After the club arranged for classes to be offered three nights a week, I would find myself occasionally enrolling for a while, then losing interest, and so always having to begin again several months later not much further advanced than where I had begun the very first time. When I wanted to ask for a cup of coffee with sugar, I realized I no longer knew, or perhaps had never learned, the word for 'cup,' 'saucer,' 'pour,' and 'spoon' and so was left saying something like 'Take that and do that and bring me that and I'll drink it.' In any case, that was also a time when some loudmouth could be heard on every street corner of the Empire screaming out the merits of his particular racial dialect. I often thought my interest in Hebrew was only contributing to an already unhealthy tribalism and was ready to forgive my laziness accordingly. The newspapers reported that agitators had begun stirring up people to refuse to speak German altogether. Everyone was now supposed to communicate only in whatever outlandish tongue he imagined his ancestors had babbled before they'd started enjoying the privileges of Austrian civilization. How would they ever conceive of something as indispensable as life insurance and pensions, or the plot of a sophisticated comedy like yours, in dialects that never needed to express ideas more complicated than sheep farming or distilling grain alcohol? Listening to some of these polemics, I couldn't help contrasting the neat and regular German that we all had learned since birth, so useful for everything from business letters and engineering patents to Schiller's poems and debates in Parliament, with the impossible combination of consonants in the various Slavic languages one was forced to put up with more and more, not only on the streets but even in respectable business concerns like Sobieski's. I wasn't convinced that one should make an exception for Hebrew, which I'd scarcely ever heard spoken. The only real instances were a few half-understood phrases mumbled during prayers on the infrequent occasions, usually High Holidays, when my father decided to supplement our dosage of Mendelssohn's ethical writings with a visit to the synagogue. To these, I could now add the experience of a half dozen slogans, pronounced with what I thought was annoyingly excessive self-congratulation, by some Zionist speakers who had come to address the club about the moral virtues of swamp drainage and orange farming in Eretz Yisrael. Neither kind of encounter did much to further my zeal as a Hebraist. I do remember that for a while I debated if it might not be strategically advantageous to become an impassioned advocate of Jewish self-determination. Women seemed to find that sort of man very attractive, and I thought that if I could sound sufficiently fiery about an ideal, maybe some of that enthusiasm would transfer directly to me. After all, the arid wasteland of my sex life could have done with reclaiming just as much as the deserts of Palestine, and indisputably, it was a lot closer at hand. Besides, a reputation as a man of deep principles who also happened to have mastered the most advanced accounting techniques might have encouraged one of the businessmen in the club to offer me a better job than the wretched position I had with Sobieski, where I worked for insultingly low wages and with no chance for a meaningful promotion."
Excerpted from Conspirators by Michael André Bernstein. Copyright © 2004 Michael Andre Bernstein. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Michael André Bernstein is a frequent contributor to The Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and The New Republic. He is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley.
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