Ernst Lothar was Austro-Hungarian writer, theatre director and producer; he left his homeland in 1938, and then, in exile, he wrote this book, which tangles the history and culture of his country with the story of one family.
It was published in 1943, and it was translated into English in 1944.
Towards the end of the 19th century Christopher Alt was a renowned piano-maker. He was a master of his craft; the best in Vienna, the best in Austria, and quite possibly the best in the world. When his life ended, he left behind a will containing an extraordinary clause. Because he was a strong believer in family, because he wanted his children, his grandchildren and the generations that followed to remain close, his will said that his descendants must live within the walls of the family home at number 10 Seilerstatte to claim any inheritance .
He had hoped to create a harmonious family unit that would live happily side by side and continue the work that he had started, but the reality was rather different. The family members were all very different. They had different occupations, different ideas about politics and society, and very different ideas about how they should live.
They all remained, living their different lives in their different appartments; and the mausoleum remained the same as the world outside changed.
In the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Alt, who his family had believed to be a confirmed bachelor, brought home a fiancée. He built a new storey on to the house so that he could offer a fitting home to his beloved bride. His family mistrusted her. They had heard rumours that Henrietta Stein was a courtesan, that she was entangled with Crown Prince Rudolf.
She was, and that would have consequences for her, for her husband, and for her children.
Those stories, and stories of other members of the Alt family, are tangled up with real history. Their lives are touched and changed by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the First Great War and its fallout, the rise of National Socialism and the annexation of Austria by Germany.
That is done very, very well; and the changing times were so very well caught. But the story of the family was always in the foreground and their characters and relationships were understood and presented every bit as well as the history.
There were small family dramas and there was high drama too. Adultery, a duel, a murder, a poisoning ….
It might sound over-dramatic, but it was utterly believable.
Franz and Henriette remained at the centre of the story, and their very different characters and the love and tensions in their marriage were particularly well drawn.
I found much to enjoy, much to admire, but I was disappointed in the book as a whole.
I felt that I was being held at a distance, that these were people that I had been told a great deal about, not people that I knew. That meant that I never really felt as involved as I would have liked to have been. Had this been a shorter book that might not have mattered, but this book had six hundred pages, and there were times when I turned the pages very quickly, because I just wanted to find out what happened and move on.
II suspect that the author might have been a little too close to the material – his afterword suggests that at least some of the characters were drawn from life – and certainly the book would have been better with a little more editing.
And maybe a little less drama and a little more thoughtfulness.
It isn’t that this is a bad book, and I’m not sorry that I took the time to read it; but I can’t help thinking that it might have been so much better.