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In My Mother's House
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In My Mother's House

by Margaret McMullan
 

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In My Mother's House is a beautiful, haunting, and expertly told novel about a daughter's obsession to understand her mother's commitment to silence about their family's experiences during WWII Vienna. The story of Elizabeth and her mother Jenny is remarkable for its fullness of details: the pieces of family silver the grandmother mails to Jenny, piece

Overview

In My Mother's House is a beautiful, haunting, and expertly told novel about a daughter's obsession to understand her mother's commitment to silence about their family's experiences during WWII Vienna. The story of Elizabeth and her mother Jenny is remarkable for its fullness of details: the pieces of family silver the grandmother mails to Jenny, piece by piece, over the years; Jenny's vivid memories of her uncle's viola d'amore lessons; the smell of the wood floors in the family's Vienna home. It's an emotional story of what is inherited from one generation to the next.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Graceful...The global catastrophe of the Nazi era we know about. It is the individual, private pain it caused that is skillfully given voice here by Margaret McMullan.” —The Boston Globe

“The two narrative threads blend into one harmonious story, proving that while we can leave a country, we can't escape our history.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Exquisite. I salute Margaret McMullan's elegantly crafted prose, her beautiful restraint, her emotional honesty, and her storytelling power.” —Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body

“McMullan's voice shines like old silver, polished rich and clear. It's a story of vision and blindness, speech and silence, and the healing that comes from time--it's a book about love.” —Beth Lordan, author of And Both Shall Row

Kirkus Reviews
Leisurely family saga from second-novelist McMullan (When Warhol Was Still Alive, 1994), who dawdles her way through the history of a clan of Austrian refugees. People who survive great tragedies rarely like to talk about them afterward. Here, the case in point is the de Bazsi family, aristocratic Viennese converts to Catholicism (from Judaism) who emigrated just before WWII to England and later to the US. Most of their story is told by Jenny, who was a schoolgirl during the war, in response to the repeated queries by her daughter Elizabeth, who grew up in Mississippi and Illinois. Jenny is a classic Austrian of the old school: devoutly Catholic, educated and cultured, she grew up revering the Hapsburg monarchy and like her parents held Protestant Germans somewhat in disdain. Her father, a factory owner and history professor at the university, was openly anti-fascist, but the family was able to leave in 1938 because the Nazis mistakenly believed that they had high contacts in the Vatican. Elizabeth, like many first-generation Americans, is fascinated by her family’s past and wants to dwell on the aspects of it that her parents were happy to leave behind—particularly their original religion, which to her mother’s sorrow she has begun to practice with her Jewish boyfriend. The trinkets and heirlooms of their life in the Old World, especially the memoirs of Elizabeth’s grandfather and the family silver, become the organizing metaphors of the story, which is narrated in alternate chapters by Jenny and Elizabeth. As in all family sagas, there is a generation gap here: Elizabeth presses for details of the war years and later partly because she understands the era quite differently than hermother does. But, of course, she wasn’t there. They make a kind of peace in the end. Rambling and badly organized: an interesting tale that simply spreads itself too thin.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312318253
Publisher:
Picador
Publication date:
10/01/2004
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
363,112
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.61(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue

Have you ever heard anyone play a viola d'amore? If you play it right-if you can play it the way Uncle Rudi sometimes could-you can feel the sounds echo in the back of your throat. I don't think I ever really told you about my uncle Rudi. He could make extraordinary music. You play the row of strings on top just as you would a violin, but the second row of strings underneath catches and resonates the sounds. The strings underneath are called sympathetic strings and they are tuned in unison with the playing strings. The viola d'amore used to be in great demand in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but now hardly anybody has ever heard of it. It makes a sweet, tender sound, and at night, that sound feels as old as loss. I have heard this little wooden thing fill up a whole hall. It is a beautiful instrument, even in disrepair, and I am glad you have given it to me while I can still see.

Before you, before your father, I had another life. Sometimes I feel as though I were another person altogether. You are right. You have a right to know about the viola d'amore, about my other world, because now I know that what had to do with me does have something to do with you.

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius wants you to go through all the memories that helped shape you. His questions are a lot like yours-he pesters you about your past. I have told you there wasn't much to the life I left behind in Vienna. Still, you pressed me. You wanted the stories. You wanted my memories. I often thought that if I told you everything, I would somehow lose it all over again, and these scraps of memories are really all I have left of a place that is now gone. They are my inheritance and they are my own.

You know by now that I am going blind, and as my eyesight diminishes, I find my memory disappearing as well. I have heard it said that you need only close your eyes in order to remember, but I have always found it far more helpful to see. When I look at you, I can recall the yellow house where we once lived much more readily than if I shut my eyes and tried. That yellow house is a vision and a memory I do not look forward to losing.

My story of loss may be no good to hear about. I know a woman with a better story than mine. She stayed and hid people from the Nazis in her apartment. She saved lives. You would 0probably prefer her as a mother. Me? What have I ever accomplished? I can't say that I witnessed anything important, and I can't say that I forgive. You don't start by finding God in the ugly unless you're Anne Frank. I did not lose everything and everybody all at once, but bit by bit and one by one, as though I were being conditioned to live alone.

I am the only one left. It is freeing in a way. And if someone ever asks you what your mother's maiden name is, leave out the Engel. They all say the same thing anyway: "Engel. Isn't that Jewish?"

I want to be careful here. You are not Jewish. I am not Jewish, and, in his heart, your grandfather was not Jewish. To me, this is not denial. This is fact. You will see. You be the judge.

Your great-great-grandfather Joseph wrote his memoirs. I know because I saw them once on my father's desk in Vienna, and periodically, my father would tell me what was in them-how Joseph had gotten wealthy in less than forty years; taken his gardener from Pécs, Hungary, to Vienna, Austria; and camped out in the empty shell of the Hofzeile, claiming it for his own, which was at the time the Hungarian way of obtaining property. Joseph wrote it all down in Hungarian, beginning with his birth. He ended his story with the granting of our family's nobility in 1886, followed by the words: "I love life, don't fear death."

My father wrote the story of his life in German. But it wasn't really his life in that book. He told little about who he was or who we were. He wrote lists-how often he spoke with Sigmund Freud, how many times he met with Ezra Pound. I write my memories in English. We each claim a different language.

In Vienna, they called me Genevieve. You should hear the way they say it there-as though my name were a song. Here, in the United States, I am Jenny. This is not the story of my life. This is the story of my soul. This is who I came to be-your mother-the last of the Engel de Bazsis.

Copyright 2003 by Margaret McMullan

Meet the Author

Margaret McMullan is an English professor at the University of Evansville, Indiana, and the author of a previous novel, When Warhol Was Still Alive.

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