Spanning the tumultuous years 1934 to 1948, John Lawton’s A Lily of the Field is a brilliant historical thriller from a master of the form. The book follows two characters—Méret Voytek, a talented young cellist living in Vienna at the novel’s start, and Dr. Karel Szabo, a Hungarian physicist interned in a camp on the Isle of Man.
In his seventh Inspector Troy novel, Lawton moves seamlessly from Vienna and Auschwitz to the deserts of New Mexico and the rubble-strewn streets of postwar London, following the fascinating parallels of the physicist Szabo and musician Voytek as fate takes each far from home and across the untraditional battlefields of a destructive war to an unexpected intersection at the novel’s close. The result, A Lily of the Field, is Lawton’s best book yet, a historically accurate and remarkably written novel that explores the diaspora of two Europeans from the rise of Hitler to the post-atomic age.
“Lawton’s thrillers provide a vivid, moving and wonderfully absorbing way to experience life in London and on the Continent before, during and after World War II.” —The Washington Post
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Vienna: February 9, 1934
The war began as a whisper — a creeping sussurus that she came to hear in every corner of her childhood — by the time it finally banged on the door and rattled the windows it had come to seem like nature itself. It had always been there, whispered, hinted, spoken, bawled. It was the inevitable, it was the way things were — like winter or spring.
There was a whisper of war. Even at ten years old Méret could hear it. Her father had come home from the theatre a year ago, slapped the paper down on the dining table, and in his rant against "this buffoon Hitler" had forgotten to kiss her. He always kissed her when he came home from work. The first thing he did, even before he kissed his wife. It coincided with Méret's getting home from school. Her father was the Herr Direktor of the Artemis Theatre. He would take a couple of hours off midafternoon, before the box office opened for the evening performance, take tea with his wife and daughter in his apartment, return to the theatre and not be home again until hours after Méret had been put to bed.
"How can they let themselves be so deceived? How can Germans be so stupid? It couldn't happen here. If he'd stayed in Austria we'd have seen through him. Imagine it — a corporal from Linz hijacking an entire country? It couldn't happen here!"
Now he brought her the consequences of the Nazis seizing power. One year on, and some of those collared in the first roundups, in the wake of the burning of the Reichstag, were being set free. Mostly they were left-wing, intellectual, or both, and the Nazis either regarded a spell in Oranienburg as intellectual rehabilitation or they expected them to leave. Many did leave. Vienna, where most of Austria's quarter of a million Jews lived, was swelling with an influx of German Jews, German leftwingers, and German intellectuals.
"Darling girl, if I mention the name Viktor Rosen do you know of whom I speak?"
Of course she did. Viktor Rosen might not be the most famous pianist in the German speaking world, but he was close to it.
"He is living in Vienna now. In Berggasse. Close to Professor Freud. He called in at the theatre today. I had the opportunity of a chat with him. He is taking on pupils."
Imre paused to watch his daughter's reaction.
She set down her teacup and with the gravitas that only a preadolescent can muster when talking to an exasperating adult, replied, "Papa, Herr Rosen is a pianist."
"The cello is his second instrument. Just as the piano is yours."
Now she could see what he was saying. She concealed her joy — it came naturally to her.
"And," said her father, "he has agreed to take you on for both instruments."
She wished she could hug him, she wished she could sing her joy. Her father scooped her up and saved her from expressions of love and gratitude that would have been clumsy and embarrassing. He hugged her and spun her around and set her back on the carpet in the middle of the room a little dizzy from the ride. He smiled his pleasure; her mother, gently tearful, wept hers. Méret would repay his joy. Of course she would. She would play for him. Music said it all. She'd never had much need of words. Music was her code.CHAPTER 2
Vienna: February 11, 1934
Punctuality was her vice. She was early for everything. She had begged her father not to usher her in to her first meeting with Rosen. Instead he had seen her to the door in Berggasse and reluctantly left her to it. She had reassured him — Vienna was home, she had lived here all her life, and Herr Rosen lived but three streets away. What could befall her standing in the street?
Imre had checked his pocket watch, noted that, as ever, she had got him where they needed to be with time in hand, kissed her on her half-turned cheek, walked to the corner, turned for one last look, and left.
Méret sat on a bench, her three-quarter-size cello by Bausch of Leipzig next to her, immaculate in its battered black case, wrapped up in winter black herself — black coat, black hat, black gloves — against the February cold. She was slightly smaller than the cello.
An old man emerged from Number 19, white beard against a black collar, the glowing tip of a cigar, plumes of pungent smoke wafting over her as he passed her way. A slight wincing, a contraction of the skin around one eye, as though his jaw ached or some such.
"Good morning, young lady."
Méret all but whispered her response. Professor Freud scared her. She had met him many times. At the Artemis Theatre where her father worked, at her home, where Sigmund and Martha Freud were numbered among her father's guests — and she knew he had treated her cousin Elsa — "difficult cousin Elsa," as her mother referred to her — but treated for what she did not know, no more than she knew what it was that might be difficult about Elsa. Professor Freud was some kind of doctor. The scary kind.
One minute before her wristwatch told her she was due, she pulled on the bell. The woodland child tapping at the door of the gingerbread house. A maid, skinny and pinch-faced, white upon black, told her to come in. The woman hardly looked at her, as though children were beneath notice. Up a wide staircase, dusty and hollow sounding, to the apartment on the first floor. Into a huge room looking out onto the Berggasse through floor-to-ceiling windows that seemed impossibly high.
"Herr Professor will be with you shortly."
And with that the door closed behind her and she found herself alone in the room.
It was a room much like the parlour in her grandmother's apartment. Dark-panelled walls that simply cried out for Empire furniture — for weight and substance and toe-stubbing ugliness, for curtains that cascaded in thick folds like water held in some perpetual slow motion. Once, this room had been like her grandmother's, she could tell — marks on the boards where some heavy piece had stood for years, horizontal lines of dust along the walls where pictures had hung as long — full of the overstuffed, grandiose furniture of the last century. This room had been stripped. Acres of empty shelving, a chandelier missing half its bulbs. Now the only objects were two small armchairs, sat upon the bare, carpetless boards like perching sparrows, dwarfed by the emptiness surrounding, facing each other — and two musical instruments. A full-size concert grand piano bearing the words "Bechstein, Berlin" on its upturned lid — and a cello, propped on a stand.
She was peering into the cello through the f-holes, curious as to the maker, when she heard footsteps upon the boards behind her.
"It is a Goffriler, from the eighteenth century. Far, far older than my piano."
Méret straightened up to her full four feet ten, and found herself looking at a tall, elegant, well-dressed man of indeterminate age — older than her father, perhaps, but then how old was her father? Younger than her grandfather, greying hair, lots of fine lines about the eyes, and nicotine on the fingers of his right hand — the hand he now held out, and down, to her.
"Good afternoon, young lady. Viktor Rosen at your service. Musician."
She shook the hand.
"Méret Voytek. Schoolgirl ... and musician."
This brought a smile to his face. Teeth also stained with nicotine.
"You were curious about the cello?"
"I'm sorry. Mama tells me I should not be nosy."
"Curiosity is not nosiness, my dear. Take a peek. Do you know Latin?" She nodded.
"There is a large, if fading, label. And while the light is too dim for my old eyes I doubt it will be for yours."
She bent again, peered into an f-hole. It was like looking into a treasure chest. A flaking paper of history ... a pirate's map.
She hadn't heard of this man. She would have known the name of Stradivari, and perhaps one or two others. Perhaps all the best cello makers were once Italian, just as the English had once made the best pianos. Her cello was German.
"May I see?"
Professor Rosen was gesturing towards her cello case, palm open, not touching without permission. Méret shrugged her coat off onto the back of a chair and took the cello from its case. It was beautiful, not scarred or marked in any way and next to the Goffriler it looked cheap and modern.
Rosen peered at the instrument much as she had peered at his.
"Bausch? Am I right?"
She nodded, somewhat surprised.
"I started on a Bausch," he said. "Shall we hear the little fellow sing?"
She had chosen the piece herself. Four minutes from the first movement of Kodály's Cello Sonata op. 8, written almost twenty years ago, in the depth of the war.
She played it faithfully but not well, she thought. She lacked feeling, but then the piece itself lacked feeling. Or the feeling was one she could not relate to — perhaps the music was of its time, of war and misery, things of which she knew nothing.
Herr Rosen could hear this.
He said. "You don't like the piece, do you? Why pick a piece you don't like?"
What she did and didn't like was contingent upon what she knew. Her father took her to concerts, she had heard many Mozart piano concertos, all of Schubert's string quartets, and most of Mahler's symphonies — she adored the adagio from the unfinished Tenth and his orchestration of Death and the Maiden. Papa had once taken her to a Schoenberg concert but it had not spoken to her. Papa admitted that it had been years before it spoke to him, or to anyone he knew, and that at the premiere of Schoenberg's first Chamber Symphony — contrapuntal chaos as one critic dubbed it — he had watched Mahler stand alone amid the boos and hisses, clapping until the hall emptied.
"My grandfather bought me the score," she said.
"Your Hungarian grandfather? Herr Voytek?"
"So, simple patriotism, perhaps? A Hungarian grandfather buys you the score of Hungary's leading composer?"
Méret had nothing to say to this. Was patriotism simple? She had no idea. There were so many countries in her family history about which to feel remotely patriotic.
"Laudable," said Rosen, "but patriotism is never enough."
"And ..." she hesitated, not wishing to invoke another response she would not understand.
"And there is so little written for solo cello. So much is with piano accompaniment. Papa plays the piano, but Papa is hardly ever at home in the evenings."
"Quite so ... the theatre."
"Yes. The theatre."
"Then we must find ... no, I must arrange music for you. I shall be as fast and as cavalier as Liszt was with Bach. Now tell me, who do you really like?"
In truth she did not dislike Kodály. His Háry János spoke to her as a fairy tale might. The music made her want to laugh and dance, although she did little of either.
"Schubert," she said, and meant it. "And Mozart and Scarlatti and Bach and Fauré and Debussy and —"
"Stop, stop," said Rosen. But he was smiling as he said it.
"And what of Johann Strauss? Is he not synonymous with Vienna? Is he not part and parcel with Klimt and Schnitzler?"
She'd never heard of Klimt or Schnitzler. She thought synonymous might mean "the same as" and took her chance.
"That would simply be patriotic," she said. "Besides, one can have too much of a good thing."
Rosen was laughing now, happily hoist with his own petard. He rose from his chair, touched her gently on the shoulder, took a cigarette case from his jacket pocket, tapped it against the silver case, lit up, and stood, still smiling, almost giggling through the first puffs of smoke, looking out of the window onto the Berggasse.
When he returned, stubbing out the cigarette with a muttered "filthy habit," he said, "How right you are, young lady. One cannot waltz through life. The waltz is ... a pleasant diversion ... let us save it for a celebration. Now, is there anything you would like to ask me?"
"Yes," she said. "I am to tell Papa when I get home whether or not I am your pupil."
"Child, could you not read my face, the pleasure I took in your playing of a miserable work? Indeed, you are my pupil. I have never heard anyone of your age play so well."
If she understood what he had said about the waltz aright, he had given her her cue.
"Papa says we live in interesting times."
Rosen looked a little baffled, but nodded and agreed.
"But Papa doesn't mean interesting, he means bad."
Rosen thought for a moment.
"And your question is?"
"Papa says the Germans locked you up. Is that true?"
"Yes," said Rosen. "Not for long, but they imprisoned me near Berlin, in a camp called Oranienburg."
"Was it ... awful?"
"Yes. It was awful, but it could have been worse. The Nazis weren't trying to kill us, they were trying to scare us."
"Why what? Why were they trying to scare us or why did they lock us up?"
She had meant both and said so softly, wondering if she had not already overstepped the mark. But Rosen sighed and stretched and seemed far more sad than annoyed.
"They locked up many artists and intellectuals. We were all people who did not share their politics or who had no politics at all — although I find that hard to believe whenever I hear it uttered, and in the long run 'I have no politics' is a cardboard shield that won't stop a single bullet — and the hope was that we would be frightened into conforming or leaving. As you can see, I chose the latter."
"Why Vienna? Why not London or Paris?"
"It's easier to say why not Vienna than why Vienna? Music flows through the city deeper than the Danube. The opera houses thrill to Wagner every evening, and every afternoon the cafés relax to a thé dansant. Haydn, Schubert, and Mozart all lived and worked here ... Beethoven even played piano in a café on Himmelpfortgasse ... to this day Franz Lehár sits at his piano and composes fripperies with a songbird perched upon his shoulder and, who knows, perhaps whispering the melody in his ear? What do you suppose the bird is? A linnet? A nightingale?"
One hand seemed to pluck the linnet from his shoulder, to cup and hold it at his ear — then the palm opened and released the invisible bird to the air.
He was playing with her. She realized that. Grown-ups who had little knowledge of children, grown-ups without children of their own, often played more than her parents, and hence overplayed. The mixture of playful gestures and complex words did not win her. She had no idea what a frippery was and Lehár was just a name to her.
"And if music were not enough," he went on, strung out on the washing line of his own words, "it is a city of ideas, of Freud and Herzl and Wittgenstein. Did you know the Emperor Marcus Aurelius died here?"
Of all those names the only one she knew was Professor Freud's.
"No," she replied, "I did not. But I know Professor Freud. He lives in the next apartment block."
"Ah, ... I have not yet had the honour."
"I could introduce you."
Rosen smiled at the precocity of this, and her brain found time to catch up with her tongue.
"I mean ... Papa could."
"Of course. Papa."
"Papa says ..."
She felt the sentence dribble away to nothing.
"Papa says that you left everything behind when you fled Germany."
Rosen gazed around the room, his right hand sweeping in an encompassing gesture, encouraging her to look where he looked.
"Well, not everything. The cello came with me, the piano followed a day later. And while these bookcases look to me as though they have stood here empty since Franz Josef was a boy, my books will arrive from Berlin any day now to fill them. And behind my cartloads of books, there will be German Jews by the thousand, some lucky enough to take it all with them, some who will most certainly, as you put it, leave everything behind."
"Papa says it could not happen here. But he says it in the same tone of voice with which he says 'let Papa kiss it better.'"
She could tell Professor Rosen was weighing up what he might say next. He was holding in the balance her urgent questions and her tender age.
"Your father is a kind and clever man. Without him I might be stranded at the border, or searching fruitlessly for an apartment. But ..."
He let the word hang, just as though he had his foot upon the sustain pedal. A prolonged "but" dying away in the vast emptiness of the room, only to be caught at its faintest.
"But ... you hear the music in your father's voice aright. He cannot kiss it better. This is beyond repair. It could happen here. It will happen here."
"Will you tell me? Will you tell when you think 'it' will happen here?"
"If I have foresight enough to know, I will tell anyone who will listen, but first of all I shall tell you. I will leave before it happens here. And if I leave, you will be the first to know."
"And should I leave? Should Mama and Papa leave?"
"It's not for me to say. It is for your father to decide. And, of course, you're not Jewish."
"Does that make a difference?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Lily of the Field"
Copyright © 2010 John Lawton.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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