edge of irony

Started reading Marjorie Perloff’s Edge of Irony (Modernism in the shadow of the Habsburg Empire). Very eye-opening. She herself grew up as a Jewish child in Interwar Vienna, in what were the ashes of the former empire, and then emigrated with her family; they found refuge in the United States. Writing recently on the city that finally regained its former splendor, she stresses in Viennese literary modernism the crucial role of being on the edge: although German was the language in which people as varied as Musil (born in Brno), Canetti (born in Bulgaria, but really formed in Vienna), Celan (born in Bukovina), Kraus, etc. wrote, they all were immersed in many languages, in the peculiarity of being Jewish in a cosmopolitan city at a time where anti-Semitism was growing.

In the Introduction, amid many names one would expect (Wittgenstein, Musil, Canetti, etc.), Perloff includes as an interesting case of study the truly painful to read Gregor von Rezzori who wrote his Memoirs of an Anti-Semite in 1979. The directness of his account of anti-Semitism in Vienna between the wars is both horrific and eye-opening. There seems to be a short story of “himself when young” living with his very anti-Semite grandmother in Vienna as a student, and falling in love with Minka, the Jewish young women in the apartment upstairs. What is scary is the description of the mind of a young anti-Semite with a Jewish girlfriend, and the juxtaposition of (on one hand) thinking “if… the Germans want to conquer Austria, so much the better. The German-speaking peoples would be united again, as they had been in the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne”… but at some point he goes with Minka to a beer cellar and “a huge, rather shabby-looking young man roared in our faces, ‘Juden Raus!’ … I felt frightfully sorry for Minka and all our friends, but it was not my fault that they happened to be Jews, and in the event that they got into serious trouble I could use my connections with the SS to help them out again”, so the narrator continues.

What is most chilling in the passage above is the kind of “normalization” of anti-Semitism, of fascism, and to realize it happens daily in the 21st century. Of course, against the backdrop of what we know happened later, the last sentence is brutal.


I saw Perloff’s book first in the bookstore at the Freud Museum in Vienna. It seemed like a perfect gift for my father, except he wasn’t reading by then. I kept the name and decided finally to order it a few weeks ago, to continue the sort of dialogue he was so fond of, the sort of dialogue he started years ago when I was still living at the home of my parents.

the back yard of Freud’s apartment, summer of 2018 (photo: avn)
summer of 1979, in Schönbrunn, Vienna (photo: jlv)

Donau / Duna / Danubio

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The flight from Paris to Vienna, looking on the left, had this wonder: for about an hour, the last hour, you see the Danube – appearing and disappearing, meandering and shooting straight, curving and arching, glowing and slowly slowly widening.

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Of course all of this was just the opening, and it is only the upper part, the narrow part, of the river. The real thing, the majestic Danube, would appear later in this trip, in Budapest.

But before getting there, I have my own personal story with the Danube. For some really odd reason, I had not seen it since 1981 – when we stopped with my parents at the source, at Donaueschingen. I had managed to go many times to Europe – but always further south, west, north or even east but further north – I had not seen this river for more than three decades! The re-encounter was fulled of memories, of emotion, for me.

The first memory of the Danube I have was at Passau – at the border between Germany and Austria. Not too far from Passau, there was this picture at a camping where the Austrian keeper made my father sign the book – it was the first time in his life he saw South Americans. He couldn’t quite even place South America, let alone faraway Kolumbien. Bitte bitte, unterschreiben das Gastbuch! Zum erstmal hab’ich hier Gäste aus Südamerika…


After landing the presence of the river in Vienna is somehow always there, very clearly but not very visible in the town itself. The center offers so many glories that you might be excused for not missing the river so much. Yet the richness of the culture there is inextricably linked to Vienna’s position on the river, at the opening of downstream Pannonia and the many lands, the amazing variety of peoples who just up to a century ago were converging on Vienna for many reasons. The river there is felt there, in the variety of food, of peoples – in the presence of Slavic (Serbian, Czech, Slovak), Hungarian and even North Italian influences. The physical presence of the Danube in Vienna is scarce and a bit narrow for all the glory, though.


And then, the Danube in Budapest:

I have to quote from Magris here:

Budapest è la più bella città del Danubio; una sapiente automessinscena, come Vienna, ma con una robusta sostanza e una vitalità sconosciute alla rivale austriaca. Budapest dà la sensazione fisica della capitale, con una signorilità e un’imponenza da città protagonista della storia, nonostante il lamento di Ady per la vita magiara «grigia, color della polvere». Certo, la Budapest moderna è una creazione recente, ben diversa della città ottocentesca che, come scriveva Mikszáth, negli anni Quaranta del secolo scorso beveva vermut serbo e parlava tedesco. La magnifiscenza metropolitana di Budapest, che si basa sulla solida realtà di una crescita politico-economica, presente anche il volto di un seducente illusionismo, che l’arte fotografica di György Klösz ha colto con magica lucidità. Se la Vienna moderna imita la Parigi del barone Haussmann, con i suoi grandi boulevards, Budapest imita a sua volta questa viennese urbanistica di riporto, è la mimesi di una mimesi; forse anche per questo assomiglia alla poesia nell’accezione platonica, il suo paesaggio suggerisce, più che l’arte, il senso dell’arte.

(My own free translation: Budapest is the most beautiful city on the Danube; a conscious self mise-en-scène, like Vienna, but with a robust substance and a vitality unknown to the Austrian rival. Budapest gives the physical feel of the capital, with a panache and an imponence of a city which was the central character of a story, in spite of Ady’s lament for Magyar life as “gray, powder-colored”. True, modern Budapest is a recent creation, very different from the 19th century city that, as Mikszáth wrote, in the Fourties of the past century drank Serbian vermouth and spoke German. The metropolitan magnificence of Budapest, based on the solid reality of a political and economic growth, also presents the face of a seducing illusionism, which the photographic art of György Klösz has captured with magical lucidity. If modern Vienna imitates the Paris of Baron Haussmann, with its great boulevards, Budapest in its turn imitates that Viennese repertoire urbanistic, it is the mimesis of a mimesis; perhaps this is exactly why it resembles poetry in the Platonic sense; its landscape suggests, more than art, the sense of art.)

In some sense I (mostly) missed all that: I spent the day (a wonderful day!) doing math and talking with Péter Kómjath in an amazing Jazz Bar, IF, in the center of the city. I did then very little tourism in the city, for I only had one day there – but I talked and talked with two locals – one a mathematician, a colleague whom I needed to consult for an issue in infinite combinatorics, the other another mathematician who now runs that incredible café and Jazz Bar.

However, the River, the Danube was there, and I did go see it in the final two hours of my one-day visit to Budapest. I essentially walked back and forth on one of the bridges in trying to capture a bit of the vibrancy of the city. Here is a video with notes: