What would we do without the Austro-Hungarian Empire to reflect on?
I think of what then seemed, in an age of travel on horseback, its great expanse; of the good abbé, Ferenc Liszt, travelling from town to village to play his piano transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies to people to whom tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum’ ti tum would otherwise have always remained an unsavoured musical delight; to heroes of stories by Stefan Zweig racing by horse to Vienna to intrigue, marry or die; to Joseph Haydn on the Esterhazy estate, far from anywhere that a man of culture might find congenial, composing his opera The Farewell:
The Farewell, where in the last and most affecting scene the three sisters – all, daringly, cast as contraltos – sing, ‘To Vienna, to Vienna’.
I think of poor old Gustav Klimt ladling gold onto his clumsy paintings, little realising that in a hundred years’ time they would appeal precisely to the new rich of our age, who like all their appurtenances (or what they regard as their appurtenances) – jeans, pictures, food, women – covered with gold. I think of his talented friend Egon Schiele. I think of Dr Freud thinking the unthinkable and, worse, telling it to his couch-bound and corseted patients.
Given my experiences over the last week or so I also think of the bottoms of the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These were racially and culturally diverse but as we now know remarkably similar. In the Twenty-First Century we commonly refer to certain bottoms, by way of shorthand, as being of the Austro-Hungarian type. But this similarity became known only towards the very end of the period of the Empire, possibly because of the earlier difficulty of access, in turn due to excessive corseting. Until, partly thanks to Dr. Freud, the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire became relatively uncorseted, the clinical similarity of their bottoms was a fact known only to a small number of Viennese libertines.
It is difficult to believe this nowadays.
I have never been able to verify the following story, although I was told it in Vienna. It is that the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef, when an old man, noticed a young girl working in his kitchen garden. She was bending over, just as my neighbour had. His majesty became inflamed by lust, and, used to having his imperial way, forced himself on the young gardener, who in due course gave birth to the future Frau Schönberg, the wife of the composer. I compared – to his disadvantage – the emperor’s goatish behaviour with my own, which had been cool and scholarly, as Amy and I approached my neighbour’s house intending to tackle the sensitive subject of her bottom, that of Egon Schiele’s model, and their uncanny similarity.
The initial stages of our discussion were made easier since Ijaz had sent her a link to the story on this blog. He sifts my posts with regard to which are most suitable for my various neighbours. Then he puts small notes bearing the appropriate links through their letter boxes. The comments on Anthony Powell he regards as suitable for all, but others he thinks are too smutty for women, for instance. The Jesus and the Rabbit series, on the restricted area of the blog, is embargoed for all. Given that my neighbour featured personally, he sent her the link, so that when we called she already knew what our visit was about. This was a relief.
My neighbour is called Maria, a name that is common throughout Europe, indeed throughout the World. She comes, she said, from Romania. This was discouraging, since Romania was never I believe in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There is, however, an intriguing connection as regards language. Because her English is weak we sought a way of conversing. She told us that in her family, for reasons now forgotten, they talked German when outsiders were not around. So we spoke in German and I summarised occasionally for Amy in Mandarin or English: the former if I wished to speak to her privately. As with many people who adopt a foreign language for family speech, Maria’s German was formal and old-fashioned. But at some point I asked her if she was aware of something or other.
“Ichh waaas nit,” she replied.
I smiled to myself. ‘That’s not conventional German, which would probably have been ‘Ich weiss nicht‘. That’s pure Viennese,’ I thought to myself.
Cunningly, I did not say so.
“The time of reckoning is arrived,” said Amy. “Time for our comparison.”
Maria allowed herself to be led away into an adjoining room. I thought again how accommodating she was being about the whole business, which must have struck her as at best bizarre and at worst intrusive. I found the image on my iPad of the Schiele work and Amy took it with her. Thirty seconds passed.
There was a commotion as of something being knocked over. Amy rushed back into the room. I had never seen her so flustered. She was white.
Maria shuffled through the door, also flustered. Her trousers were around her ankles and she held my iPad in front of her to preserve her modesty.
“Ng?” she said.
“Zwillinge,” I said. “Amy says that you could be twins.”
We all sat down, Maria adjusting her clothing first.
“Well,” I said. “We do have something. My gut feeling was right.”
“We have an adventure,” Amy said.
“Will I be famous?” Maria said.
“It’s a lot to take in,” I said, “all at once. Do you have any green tea? It always settles the emotions.”
“Only PG,” said Maria. “I’m sorry.”
“I have,” said Amy. “Emergency supply. About my person at all times.”
And from her jacket she produced an envelope full of the leaves. I found a teapot, cleansed it and brewed up. We were all silent and thoughtful.
“What next?” said Maria. “Will I be famous?”