Jew or Viennese or Both?

Eva Menasse: Vienna ISBN 978-3-442-73253-1 (translated into English under the same title) ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Vienna from the beginning of the 20th century through two World Wars until today – what a marvelous setting! The story of a Jewish family – how promising! Those were my thoughts when I read about Eva Menasse’s novel “Vienna”. The Austrian writer apparently draws on autobiographical material, and narrating the fate of a Vienna based Jewish family throughout the 20th century could have been the occasion to draw a critical portrait of Vienna’s society, its latent anti-Semitism and xenophobism, to explore the moral choices a Jewish family faced under the regime of Adolf Hitler and during the confusing time immediately after World War II.

All these issues come up, focused through the lens of the narrator searching for his own identity in this family, in this town, in this country. But the novel lacks a coherent structure. It follows a historical timeline, but the beginning already is confusing. Too many characters are introduced at the same time, you never quite now what time the narrator is referring to at a specific moment. Later the story is at times repetitive, the episodes seem unrelated to each other and my reading pleasure was regularly thwarted by these experiences. Furthermore the story lacks active elements that propel it forward, there is no tension, no culmination point the story is leading to.

The family members have both Christian and Jewish roots and their quest for identity is the central element of the novel. This however gets blurred by 1001 anectodes, funny at times, but distracting from the main issue. The question of “who is the better Jew” and whether one can belong to the Viennese society as a Jew or only as a Christian remains unanswered.

On the positive side I freely admit that the main characters and the difficult family relationships and interactions are masterfully sketched, wonderful miniatures peppered with intense Jewish humour that made me laugh more than once. A book pleasant enough, but Thomas Mann has set a very high standard with “The Buddenbrocks” in the field of German family sagas, and compared to this masterwork, “Vienna” remains unsatisfying.

While I read the novel I explored the works of the composer Max Bruch and his Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor captures some of the sadness I felt when I imagined the characters of the novel in their struggle for their identity:

Natural elegance – of rocks and music