I’ve been drawing together some notes on Eastern Europe (
Brigitte Hamman, Hitler’s Vienna. It’s a trip to go to the Vienna StaatsOper and to remember Hitler in attendance there (standing room) back when he was a rootless young nobody.
Jaroslav Hašek. The Good Soldier Švejk. Not a novel, really, but more a succession of sketches, like a Sunday funny paper, with the same character getting into predictably comical scrapes. Two interesting things about this book: one, it’s that rare novel that really tries to tell you something about “just people,” rather than sensitive, artistic types. The other is how popular it appears to remain among the Czechs. How many countries make a national hero out of a simpleton? I sometimes think that the Czech republic, tucked away in the remnants of the old Austrian Empire, on the edge of the old German Empire, can claim the appellation sometimes attributed to North Carolina—a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit.
Franz Kafka, The Castle. I remember reading somewhere—Walker Percy?—that Kafka’s first readers (listeners?) in
Heda Margolius Kovaly, Under a Cruel Star. I’ve written about this before as one of the great holocaust survival memoirs. It’s also important for getting a sense of the past that Czechs still bear.
Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March. For my money, Roth is the go-to guy for the look and feel of the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s amazing how fully realized a world he builds into this not-very-long novel, and how much it sticks with you.
Karl Tschuppik, The Reign of Emperor Francis Joseph, 1848-1916. Okay, another obscure entry. Tschuppik is hardly state-of-the-art history, but he gives you the feel of the old empire from the standpoint of someone who remembers it with wry nostalgia.
Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity. Others might suggest his non-fiction account, The World of Yesterday¸ which has its merits, but I think this novel does a better job of conveying the tang of the years leading up to World War I.