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"Bernstein gets it all right. Conspirators emotionally compelling and intellectually exhilarating, splendidly re-creates a forgotten world."—Dan Cryer, Newsday
"Grandly old-fashioned...Bernstein maintains firm control of his plot, and painstakingly re-creates the historical landscape."—The New Yorker
Crossing into middle age, a successful writer is expected to enter his custodial phase, in which he services and maintains his accomplishments in an orderly fashion. Is that really what he was agreeing to now? The thought vexed Alexander too much for him to continue answering either of the letters lying open on his desk, so he got up from his chair by the window to stretch his legs, certain that at this hour he could walk down to the lake without meeting anyone.
Initially, Alexander had been flattered by his publisher's suggestion that this might be a good time to reissue all of his early works. He could easily visualize them displayed in a bookstore window, boxed together in one of those solemn-looking, uniform editions that middle-class Viennese households always seemed ready to buy, even when money was scarce. It was the closest such families could come to the rows of sumptuous, privately bound leather volumes, decorated with the family crest, that they were able to admire in the libraries of the nobility, now that former Imperial palaces like Schonbrunn had been opened to the public. Clearly, almost a decade as a republic had done nothing to diminish people's fascination with the Habsburgs. Quite the contrary: images of the Emperor Franz Josef and his bride were even more prevalent than during their lifetimes, used to peddle everything from boxes of chocolate to tickets for an outdoor concert. A citizen could be excused for believing that nothing of interest had occurred since the end of their reign. The traffic in imperial nostalgia was one of the country's few stable industries, surviving every economic crisis, and for the better-off purchasers with aspirations to advanced taste, one of Klimt's erotic sketches, a Josef Hoffmann rocking chair, or a piece of Wiener Werkstatte jewelry fed the same nostalgia for lost glamour as the formulaic picture postcards of the imperial family did in poorer homes. But so too, Alexander admitted ruefully to himself, did his own plays and stories.
In the first, hard days after the war, he had been terrified that no one would care for his writing anymore. The fear of being dismissed as obsolete had made him send out discreet feelers to the most important socialist journals, assuring them of his support and reminding the editors that he had always used his pen to satirize the absurdities of the old regime. All completely unnecessary, as it turned out. His work had never sold so well or received such glowing reviews, not even fourteen years ago, when the whole weight of the Interior Ministry was behind him and the newspapers secretly controlled by the government were crowning him one of the country's most promising young writers. If von Kirchmayr, Franz Josef's last Chief of Police, were still alive, he would be astonished, and probably unpleasantly so, to see just how well his former protégé was doing without his backing. Lately at least one of Alexander's plays was always in repertoire somewhere in the country, and a few months ago a clumsy stage farce like The Jew's Misfortune, cobbled together from old notebooks at breakneck speed during his first penniless months in the capital, had been successfully revived for extended runs in both Salzburg and Vienna. Now, if a suitable English translation could be commissioned, there was even talk of a London production.
by the standards of a Thurn und Taxis or a Rotenburg, Alexander could hardly consider himself rich, but he had done well enough so that very little remained of the anxious young provincial who had arrived in Vienna from Galicia, dreaming only of finding a publisher for his short sketches and being allowed to sit in the same room with the famous writers who frequented the Café Central. But within less than a year-as though his career were itself an episode from one of his own half-melancholy, half-cynical fables, in which, for reasons Alexander himself could never fathom, Viennese of all classes seemed to rediscover some forgotten part of their dream lives-he found himself almost as well known as any of the authors he used to admire from a distance. Soon the knowledge that his royalties were beginning to exceed theirs by a sizable margin created just as wide a gulf between Alexander and the writers who congregated in the literary coffeehouses as his lack of reputation and money had done when he first walked through the heavy wood and glass doors of the Café Central and found himself instantly relegated to the worst table in the room. As his means increased, Alexander became a kind of restless urban Gypsy, the Wandering Jew of a single city, as he described himself in one of his letters home to Asher Blumenthal, the only friend from his adolescence with whom he continued to keep in close touch. He moved from district to district, always insisting on a short-term lease, although the rent was inevitably higher that way, until more out of weariness than anything else, he settled on the second floor of an elegant house on the Bäckerstrasse, one of the cloistered Viennese neighborhoods famous for having housed some of the greatest composers of the nineteenth century and ever since, notoriously unwelcoming to living artists of any sort. When the earnings from his second successful opera libretto, Flowers for the Hanged Men, finally let him buy the vacation home that he had long coveted, situated on the most beautiful lake in the whole Salzkammergut, he intended to follow the same rhythm as all the other prosperous seasonal visitors and use it only during the summer months. But every autumn, when it came time to board up the house until next Easter, he found himself increasingly reluctant to return to the capital. Eventually Alexander simply decided to give in to his longing for solitude, and he now lived year round in the countryside outside Salzburg. The only time he returned to Vienna these days was when a new piece was in rehearsal at the Burgtheater, and he had to be on hand to supervise the production and be agreeable to all the important reviewers. Toadying to the rich, ruthless, and wellborn who controlled a writer's career under the Habsburgs had been replaced by toadying to the poor, ruthless, and ill-bred who controlled an author's career in the new parliamentary republic. With only the slightest adjustment of vocabulary and tone, Alexander found that the same phrases he had used successfully with aristocrats like Director von Bruck and Baron von Kirchmayr, now worked just as well with Herr Nebehaye from the liberal paper the New Free Press and even with the formidable Fraulein Ruth Zuckerman, the principal literary critic for the Austro-Marxist Voice of the Worker. The chief difference, as far as Alexander could tell, was in the quality of the coffee and pastries that were served at their meetings and in the bluntness with which the required quid pro quos were outlined to him.
Except for the faint glow of his own stubby cigar and the slightly hazy light from his study window overhead, everything on this side of the lake looked as though it had vanished into the waves of blue-black darkness that seemed to flow down at dusk from the circle of the surrounding mountains to the waterline. There were still a few lights visible on the other side, in Sankt Wolfgang, where the hotels and summer boardinghouses were located, but seen at such a distance, they only intensified the stillness through which Alexander was glad to walk undisturbed until he had regained his composure. The offer to put out an interim Collected Works made him feel as if he were being asked to help design his own cenotaph, all the more so since his publisher wanted him to compose a series of prefaces to his texts specially for this edition. The idea of such a retrospective self-appraisal appalled Alexander. Unlike most of the writers he knew, he had very little interest in talking about himself and still less about what the journalists called his sources of inspiration. No doubt that was why, though he was never entirely able to shake a certain discomfort dealing with actors and directors, he had ended up writing so much for the theater, where he could represent his characters' words and passions without the need for any intrusive meddling in his own voice.
But the prospective tedium of composing a handful of new forewords to his prewar works was not really the source of Alexander's agitation. If that were all, refusing the suggestion would be simple enough. He was making too much money for the Europa Publishing House for them to press him too hard, and besides, they could always hire some academic from the university, who would be glad of a few extra schillings to write the critical introductions in Alexander's place. A preface by some distinguished Herr Professor X or other might actually be preferable as a stimulus to sales, giving the edition the ponderous armature of an authentic classic. No, what had driven him out of his warm study into the chilliness of the August night, where he was already smoking more than his doctor allowed him, was an obscure sense that Broderson's proposition was somehow linked to the small newspaper picture that had been haunting him ever since his visit to Berlin six months ago. He had spent an inordinate amount of time since then trying alternately to verify the identity of the man in the photo and to put the whole question out of his mind, without succeeding in either.
He had traveled to Germany at the invitation of the Berliner Funkstunde, a radio program paying well-known authors princely sums to read from their works. He could never hope to earn as much in Austria for a few sessions in front of a microphone, and the opportunity of intimacy without actual personal contact offered by the new medium was irresistible. The broadcasts had gone even better than he and his employers at the station had hoped. Somewhat to Alexander's astonishment, the vogue for his urbanely risqué vignettes about life in the old Habsburg Empire had spread to Germany as well, perhaps because people there found little to look back on with affectionate nostalgia in their own deposed dynasty. Clearly some lost causes were more marketable than others. For whatever reason, the audience had been so enthusiastic that Alexander received an open invitation to return for more readings.
The next morning, feeling thoroughly pleased with the trip and only a little piqued that none of the other passengers seemed to recognize him as the famous foreign author whose books were on sale everywhere in the city, Alexander stood at a kiosk in the train station, buying half a dozen newspapers to browse through on the ride back to Salzburg. The managing director of the radio station had boasted that there were now over two thousand different periodicals available, and it seemed that at least a third of them were folded up in large bundles near the ticket counter to tempt travelers of every taste. He had planned to buy mainly literary journals and some of the specialized radio reviews to see if any of them might be a suitable outlet for his new work. But just as he was getting ready to pay, he caught sight of a thin, cheaply printed tabloid titled Exiled Voices and on an impulse added it to his pile. He did so mostly because it contained a new article by Alicia Chudo, a White Russian émigrée, whose accounts of her experiences in the months between the fall of the czar and the Bolshevik seizure of power he had enjoyed reading a while ago. Instead of the gloomy self-pity that seemed to characterize so many of these reminiscences, Chudo had impressed him with her wit and a wickedly disabused lucidity that saw the absurdity in her own camp as much as the evil in her enemies. That probably explained why she had been banished from the more prestigious White newspapers and forced to place her pieces in obscure journals like this unattractive quarterly of which Alexander had never heard.
He didn't turn to her piece until well into the late afternoon, when something about the delicate curvature of the timbered farmhouses, the small balconies decorated with tulips in full spring bloom, and the familiar pale yellow walls of the local stations past which their express train rushed without stopping made him realize that they were approaching the Austrian border. The new article was quite different in tone from Chudo's earlier work and dealt entirely with a dreadful episode from just before her permanent expulsion from Russia, when she had been arrested and questioned by the Cheka as a suspected counterrevolutionary agent. Unlike some of her friends, she hadn't been physically tortured, but for days on end she had been interrogated by changing teams of inquisitors without ever being permitted to sleep more than an hour or two at a time, until the exhaustion, together with anxiety over the fate of her husband and teenage daughter, made her try to kill herself in her cell. As a piece of writing, Alexander found Chudo's description powerful enough, but there were so many similar stories coming out these days that halfway through, he found himself beginning to skim the rest of the piece. So he almost missed the small, out-of-focus photograph in the lower-right-hand corner with the startling caption "Group photo including the writer's principal interrogator." Unaccountably, as soon as his eyes fell on the picture, Alexander felt himself start to sweat with nervousness. He almost tore the flimsy paper in half trying to find where she switched from chronicling her prison experience to identifying the man in the image. After he had calmed down enough to look more systematically, he saw the text right away, set off by a thin black border and given a column of its own on the same page as the three-line biographies that served as the journal's "Notes on This Issue's Contributors": "This photo of the Soviet trade delegation visiting here last month was obtained by our own photographer, whose camera was nearly smashed out of his hands by local KPD thugs when they saw what he was doing. The man standing with his head partly turned away, directly behind the chief commercial representative, Georg Sldarz, is listed in the official protocol as Avrakham Shubin and described only as a specialist in foreign trade. But several trustworthy people in the émigré community have come forward in support of Alicia Chudo's accusation, and we now believe that he is one of the most ruthless leaders of the Soviet OGPU, possibly even Felix Dzerzhinsky's right-hand man."
Excerpted from CONSPIRATORS by Michael André Bernstein Copyright © 2004 by Michael André Bernstein. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted July 14, 2009
I am past the 200 page mark as I key this review in. Fascinating book. I picked it up at Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore in Salt Lake City, as a used book (mint condition) in the Mystery section.
I have yet to figure out why it was shelved in the Mystery section, one of the reasons I purchased it, the other being that it's an account of life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then Austria after World War I, both of which I find interesting in and of themselves.
I am fascinated by and in deep sympathy with Moritz Rotenburg, the character that seems most appealing to me. His parts of the story line are worth a quote or two a page.
I also suspect Brugger to be the Devil himself. Always knows the right thing to say to people to take them aback. Or perhaps he's the Messiah. Only time will tell.
I hate the almost one page per paragraph layout of the text. I makes it a chore to read at times and I have to be extra mindful of where I am on the page. I suppose it keeps the book from having even more pages.
If you're interested in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a lighter yet equally worthy format, I recommend the John Biggins series...
Starting with "Tomorrow the World: In Which Cadet Otto Prohaska Carries the Habsburg Empire's Civilizing Mission to the Entirely Unreceptive Peoples of Africa and Oceania"
Biggins has no illusions about the Austro-Hungarians, but he is more comedic about it.
As well as Frank Tallis's series...
"Vienna Blood", "A Death in Vienna", and "Fatal Lies"
Posted May 17, 2004
Reading Conspirators is a completely engrossing experience. It moves beautifully in and out of the characters' heads; the narrative achieves potent juxtapositions and parallels as it flies across rooms and across town, touching down in disparate consciousnesses. It's amazing how fully the author inhabits each of these minds, even when he¿s in them just for a moment. I completely understood even Maria-Luise. The metaphors in particular were stunning--and stunningly accurate! From the underpainting example in Goya from the first section of the book on, absolute precision. I always paused whenever a 'we' appeared because it was at these moments that the author proceeded to make a profoundly astute observation on the way we all conduct our relationships. He put into words frustrations and hopes that I wasn't sure anyone else shared--and it's that level of recognition on the part of the reader that I think makes books important. And finally, what character portraits--I loved Asher (I laughed out loud during his fevered scene, though I laughed harder at the armor in the end) and even sympathized with Hans in the lovely coda.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 28, 2004
This novel transcends the ordinary and is utterly absorbing. The characters are wonderful and diverse and Bernstein treats them all with respect -- even the ones that are ridiculous or dangerous receive a careful and generous portrayal. The theme of terrorism and religious zealotry could hardly be more timely -- though part of the greatness of this novel is how it shows the radical impulses of another era without making the characters who longed for some expression of rebellion seem completely alien or ridiculous. The effects of having outgrown such impulses is one of the most fascinating feelings this novel repeatedly explores. Bernstein is masterful in his depiction of people's inner psyches, and the interplay between people's private lives and the workings of history is superbly handled. Wiladowski and Rotenburg (the older one) and Tausk are tour-de-force creations recalling Dostoyevsky and Machiavelli, and Brugger, the rabbi who thinks he might be the messiah, is bizarre and poignant and simply unparallelled. Bravo -- an amazing book. Highly recommended.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 26, 2008
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