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Monday, March 26, 2012

“A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888/1889”, by Frederic Morton


340 pages, Little, Brown and Company, ISBN-13: 978-0316585323

As I was still reading Morton's A Nervous Splendor, and wondering how best to describe the author's approach to history, the perfect metaphor came to mind. Some historical writers, mainly, it seems, those of public school textbooks, adhere religiously to objective, undeniable fact: dates, names, places, and the other minutiae that so often make their books better studies in tedium more than of history. Perhaps we can describe their works as "photographic history" – absolutely accurate in every aspect but devoid of imagination and interpretation. Morton, to continue the analogy, writes "artistic history," using an artist's brush rather than a camera. In his hands, history is interpreted on a canvas, and the reader sees all of the colors, swirls, and textures of the scene.

But, we may ask, is not the camera more trustworthy than the artist's interpretation of events? It may very well be, but then again the photographer chooses what objects to photograph, the angle from which each photograph is taken, and what highlights and shadows to include. Whenever one reads history, from whatever view the author has taken, he is reading the author's interpretation of that history and would do well to remember that what he is reading has been filtered through another mind first. A Nervous Splendor gives us Morton's view of the culture, society and political manipulations afoot in Europe, particularly in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the dying Hapsburg dynasty in the year 1888 and the first fateful months of 1889.

With the use of a wide range of source materials, including newspapers, periodicals, memoirs, and unpublished diaries, Frederic Morton presents an intriguing account of a short, yet important, period in Vienna's history. Morton chooses July 1888 through April 1889 as a watershed period because these years marked the time when "the western dream started to go wrong." Morton paints the Austrian Empire of the late 1880s as backward (many still used gas lanterns) and stagnant, still obsessed with protocol, tradition, and keeping up appearances. The Habsburgs still hung on to their monarchy and modern classes. The industrialists, for example, had little to no access to the court. Morton looks at the elite of society in a number of areas like science (Freud), music (Brahams, Strauss, Buckner), and theater (Herzl, Schnitzler). As another reviewer noted, it is a very "gossipy" history written with a novelists' flair. Through private diary entries, Morton is able to keep a running total of how many times Author Schnitzler (who inspired the Kubrik film Eyes Wide Shut) and his girlfriend "commit acts of love." The rise in prophylactic sales during carnival season is described as is the pursuit of the Crown Prince's affections by the girls of the fashion crowd.

What I found to be the most interesting is the chapters on the Crown Prince Rudolf: the liberal-minded heir to the Austrian throne. The progressive Crown Prince was stifled by the traditions of the court. He was forced to entertain guests he did not like (such as Kaiser Wilhelm II) and was only able to voice his ideas through unsigned articles in a newspaper. His choice of the Mayerling incident to solve his problems still seems odd for an intelligent, 30 year-old prince. His choice of taking Mary Vetsera with him seems more for convenience than for some love tragedy as she was willing to go along with his plan whereas his regular mistress laughed it off.

Morton's scholarship and care for detail are obvious throughout, but he goes far beyond most other historians in his ability to involve the reader and make him empathize with the long-dead people in his book. In his hands the events at Mayerling become understandable – though no less sad. One can only wonder how history might have changed if Rudolf had been a partner with his father, Emperor Franz Joseph, rather than a powerless figurehead.

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