Posts Tagged ‘Graham Greene’

I loved that t-shirt. Little Nemo fallen out of bed, covers rumpled about him, hair a dandelion fuzz, and rubbing at his sleepy eyes. I wore it until it was more holes than fabric.

But maybe I shouldn’t have worn it that day.

Mid-July, hot and humid and stinking of horse dung, the city was virtually empty of Wieners, all off to the coast of Yugoslavia for their summer hols. I was keeping cool in my Little Nemo t-shirt, faded Levis and favorite pair of sandals brought back from Greece.

I was on my way to collect my check from the language school where I eked out a living. En route, I passed the offices of X Verlag on a fashionable lane in Vienna’s Inner City. I had passed that building hundreds of times before, but this was the first I actually read the polished brass plaque by the door.

It was one of those sudden inspirations and I was young and naïve enough to believe being direct was the best policy. I had been at work for the last year on a book about fin-de-siecle Vienna (fin de 19th century, that is). A loving re-creation of Vienna on the brink of the First World War when the city–led by a pantheon of artists, thinkers, musicians and writers, largely Jewish–helped form the modern sensibility.

Vienna 1900 was one of those turning points in cultural history and I was trying to make it my turf. Klimt, Mahler, Schoenberg, Wittgenstein, Freud, Kokoschka, Schiele, Schnitzler and a gazillion others were all turning Vienna into a renaissance workshop of the modern world–of course quarrelsome Karl Kraus had it otherwise, dubbing fin-de-siecle Vienna a laboratory for world destruction.

This was long before Vienna 1900 had become a cottage industry in publishing and I was having no luck with American publishers. I even paired my story with Hitler’s six years in the Austrian capital as a young man to make it more salable. A Janus-faced city, then, genius the flip side of evil. But shite, still no bites.

So, back to sudden inspiration. Why not sell it in German first? I thought that hot and sticky day passing X Verlag. Why not just go pitch the damn thing to the editor?

Ah, sweet youth, so often, as Wilde so wisely said, wasted on the young.

I made it past the portier, but just barely. She took one look at me and figured I was a Gauner looking for a handout. I calmly explained I was on my way to the offices of X Verlag on the third floor, and then added in my best in English, “They are expecting me.”

That did the trick. Crazy Americans, she probably figured, they dress like hobos even though they are swimming in money.

The middle-aged lady at reception was a bit more difficult. A mole sat on her cheek with one hair sprouted out of its center and curled like a fern emerging. Impossible to take your eyes off it once spotted and in those days I was training my eye for just such peculiarities, such identifying markers for possible future characters.

“It is a beauty mole,” she said in impeccable German to my furtive glances mole-ward.

“And very beautiful it is,” I added in much less impeccable German learned mostly on the streets of Vienna. I spoke with the sing-songy twang called Wienerisch, unmistakable in a crowd of German speakers.

“Are you mocking me?”

I really did not know how to answer that one. I hadn’t been. In fact I was trying my best to be obsequious, a crawler, but with little success.

I decided to put my faux manners aside and simply blurted out my purpose and quite surprisingly, this seemed to please the receptionist. Frankness was, I imagine, something she did not often meet with in her job.

“And so you would like to speak with Frau Doktor A, just like that?” She air-snapped her fingers.

“I was hoping to. Unless she’s on vacation.”

“No appointment? No references?”

I shook my head and smiled my hapless smile.

“Just come in and talk with the managing editor on a whim.”

I shrugged. “Actually, it’s more than a whim.”

But she waved off my response, already reaching with her other hand for the phone. She was beginning to enjoy this. “I’ll see if she has a moment.”

Yes, Frau Doktor A did have a moment, but only just.

I was ushered into an office that was almost a duplicate of the Freud study, sans couch. Massive cherry wood desk, turkish carpets on the parquet, ceilings high enough to play basketball in, a green tile ceramic stove in one corner, the walls covered with framed black and white photographs of all the house’s authors. Men mostly, with that uniform, serious Central European frown on their faces, hair combed back off domed foreheads. So much forehead and so many of them.

These were the sort of folks X Verlag published, not some brash young Ami off the streets in jeans, t-shirts, and sandals.

Frau Doktor A eyed my attire first; this was Vienna in the 1970s, not Berkeley. Authors did not wear t-shirts with comic book characters stenciled on them, even historic ones such as Little Nemo. Nor did they wear sandals without socks. Black or blue, preferably. Perhaps gray might pass. White? Never. And no socks…Gottes wille!

She, on the other hand, despite the warmth and humidity, was dressed in a well-tailored gray matching jacket and skirt with cream-colored silk blouse underneath. Pearls roped her neck. She looked like she had last sweated in 1955.

Introductions were made–note the passive voice. I honestly do not recall how such introductions proceeded, but I presently found myself perched on a Biedermeier chair of questionable stability.

She listened to my pitch, and when I finished, she nodded, thanked me for coming, and sat smiling at me.

I had not heard “no,” so I continued to sit. Finally, the standard clock on the far wall tocking the wasted moments all the while, she stood and gestured toward the door.

I finally got it, and went to the door, but grew confused when suddenly there were two, not one. In the event, I chose the wrong one and ended up in Frau Doktor A’s private washroom.

“The other door, Herr Jones,” she said without bothering to cover up her amusement.

I got out of there, but not without thanking the receptionist on the way out. I was humiliated, not defeated.

This event inspired instead of discouraged my efforts at finding a home for my Hitler in Vienna. I next wrote a long query letter, in German, to the biggest dog on the publishing block in Germany. Two weeks later, I had a contract in hand. Hitler was, in those days and in Germany, hot. Especially if there was mention of the Austrian roots of the dictator.

The Germans were rather dismayed several months later to receive my doorstopper of a manuscript all in English. They had assumed that as the query letter was in German, so was my manuscript. This would take some extra work; they set me up to work with the editor of one of their imprints in Vienna: X Verlag.

My heart was not filled with acrimony; I was not looking for payback. But it was semi-sweet, nonetheless,

Frau Doktor A was a bit more polite when I went to see her next. She was still skeptical about what this Ami could contribute to the history of her city, but I was now under contract. It was not a working relationship made in heaven, but it worked.

I brought the receptionist a pot of Erika, heather, to cheer up her desk. She was my friend in perpetuity.

The book came out and surprisingly earned glowing reviews in the German-language press. I think my favorite was from the Badisches Tagblatt: “An American had to come along to enrich the dimensions of Hitler literature with such a vigorous work…. A remarkable book.”

Okay, so you are asking, how come this is called “The Fourth Man”? I’m getting to that. My sweetest revenge of all with Frau Doktor A came when she felt forced to invite me to the publication party of another author. The famous German actor Paul Hörbiger finally decided to publish his memoirs and he was in Vienna to enjoy acclaim. Americans would know him from his cameo role as the portier in the Graham Greene movie, The Third Man. He was the one to see the third man at the accident that supposedly took Harry Lime’s life. Remember him now? But that was mere fluff in a career that spanned decades, 250 films (!) and made him a celebrity. Though born in Budapest, he grew up in Vienna, and was a Wiener through and through.

I came to the offices this time rather dandily attired in suede jacket–Armani before he was ARMANI– gray wide wale cords, MacDonald tartan shirt and black knit tie. The receptionist had plucked her mole hair for the occasion. She bustled about the room with the aplomb of a Munich beer hall waitress, her silver-plated tray of sekt-filled stemware held aloft like a sacrificial offering, making sure I was well supplied.

When introduced to me, Hörbiger took an immediate interest in my book. We sat ensconced in a corner most of the night talking of Vienna 1900 and the early days of Hitler. Twice Frau Doktor A asked if she couldn’t get us something. The second time, Hörbiger, a gentleman of the old school, told her not to bother us again.

When I left that night, Frau Doktor A gave me two cheek kisses; I had arrived.

Hörbiger (to the left)  in fact was the gift that kept on giving for me in Vienna thereafter. He sent me an autographed copy of his memoir, Ich hab für euch gespielt,(I Played for You), and when I went to pick it up at the post office, the officials there of course noted the return address on the package. I was thereafter referred to as “Herr Doktor Jones” by all post office staff, the fourth man.

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A "Flakturm" or flack tower--symbol of post-war Vienna

I am reprising this post I wrote for BookPage blog earlier this year upon publication of the second novel in my Viennese Mystery series, Requiem in Vienna. It explains, in part, how I came to use Vienna as a setting for much of my fiction. Vienna of the 1960s and 1970s was a schizophrenic city: living in both the post-war and Cold War era.

It took me two, maybe three weeks to figure it out.

At first I thought it might be a shopkeeper I did occasional business with. That would explain why he looked so familiar. The butcher on Langegasse or the wine merchant in the Altstadt. He had the same general features: slight build, medium height, light brown hair and eyes, gray overcoat. Nothing stood out. A figure that blends into the background.

I would catch sight of him across the Josefstaedterstrasse on my way to the language institute where I taught; see his reflection in a store window on Graben and he would quickly turn away; pass by him leaving the Stadtbahn station, his back to me, his head buried in a day-old issue of the Kurier. Once I actually came upon him talking with my building portier, a guilty look on both their faces.

This was the Vienna of several decades ago. It was still the Cold War. Foreigners living in Vienna fit into a risk

Graham Greene made the giant Ferris wheel another symbol of post-war Vienna

category for the state police, anxious to protect Austria’s neutrality. It did not help that a childhood friend, also living in Vienna at the time, had become involved in a nationalist cause in Yugoslavia.

Still, until I discovered that I had my very own watcher, I had been living in another make-believe Vienna of schlagobers and Mozart. I had believed the tourist propaganda of the city of dreams and waltz.

My watcher stayed with me for over half a year, until I moved on for a time to Greece. Returning to Vienna the next fall, I no longer saw him or sensed his presence. But it was a wake up for me. I began to look at the underside of Vienna after the watcher; seeing the city as not only beautiful, but also treacherous. It is a vision that has remained with me, informing all of my writing about Vienna.

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