Thursday, May 20, 2004

Picked up David St. John's The Face and Marjorie Perloff's new memoir, The Vienna Paradox, at the Co-op this morning. I'm already halfway through Marjorie's book and it's a delight: as much cultural criticism as autobiography, a careful reconstruction of the culture and intellectual life of the Vienna of her childhood, before her family fled the Nazis in 1938.

The "paradox" is, in part, that of assimilated Austrian Jews who claimed Viennese high culture as their own ("German by the grace of Goethe," as one chapter heading puts it) even as that culture turned against them; Marjorie cites the example of her own grandfather, a high official in the Austrian government who remained after the Anschluss, believing he would be protected and expecting to secure his pension, finally able to escape to Italy only because of his diplomatic acquaintance with Mussolini.

But above all, distinguished blurbs from John Ashbery and Guy Davenport report themselves at the mercy of the plucky little girl in pigtails who smiles out from the book's cover, who could already write at age seven of her flight from Vienna in her American school notebook:

On the train, we went to sleep right away. But my cousins, as is typical of them, complained they didn't sleep all night. In Innsbruck, we had to get out and go to the police station where they unpacked all our luggage and my poor Mommy had to repack everything. There was such a mob and we had to wait so long that Mommy said she would unpack a book and I sat down on our hatbox and read. When we finished, we went to the station restaurant where we had ham rolls that tasted very good. And as I was sitting in this restaurant, I didn't yet have any idea that later in America I would write a book. Well, I hadn't experienced much yet but, just wait, there will be much more!

Haven't cracked open the David St. John book yet; I've only read a few scattered pieces of his in the Boston Review, which I enjoyed. Was also tempted by Fanny Howe's Tis of Thee--perhaps another day.

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