Having little personal knowledge regarding the history of Austria, my first thought after finishing the book was “those poor, poor Austrians.” Their impending doom just oozed from the pages of A Nervous Splendor.
A Nervous Splendor follows the lives of Brahms, Bruckner, Freud, Wolf, Klimt, Herzl, Mahler and the royal Austrian family. The book features portraits of those mentioned and illustrations of significant locations. It also includes excerpts from written correspondence and diary entries. Covering just ten months of Austrian history, this segment of time gives the reader a pretty clear picture of what made Austria great, and by the end of the book, it’s obvious where the country is headed.
Frederic Morton cleverly juxtaposed the drama and splendor of the arts: theater, opera, and the opulent nightly costume balls of the carnival season to the rotting decay of the archaic, inaccessible, staunchly militant government. Even the Crown Prince Rudolf could not penetrate the hierarchy to communicate effectively with his father King Franz Joseph.
It was pathetic to read about the general public – either poor starving laborers, or the small population of successful working class people. They knew their station in society and unlike other more progressive nations during that time (Great Britain and the United States), no matter how much wealth individuals accumulated, there was no middle-class. To quote Morton (Pg. 68) “Austrian nobility was ancient, exclusive, rigorously pedigreed. It treated the mushrooming burgherdom (bourgeois) like a fungus.”
With a sense of unavoidable doom bordering on hysteria, the working man had to pin his hopes on Prince Rudolf – the common man’s Prince. He was a weak, unreliable, mentally unstable, drug addict and possibly an alcoholic… but nevertheless he was their savior. Upon Rudolf’s suicidal death, the famed music critic Eduard Hanslick spoke for the Austrian people, “I have lived through revolutions, the loss of lands, murderous devastations by flood and fire – nothing of all this is comparable to the horror of January 30th” (the day Prince Rudolf died). (Pg. 267)
Morton goes so far as to imply that Crown Prince Rudolf’s suicide may have influenced the course of history. Surely it cast a black cloud over the city of Vienna and it was an omen of bad things to come. But it is hard to imagine that even if Prince Rudolf would had lived, he could have made a substantial contribution to the empire. As the story closes, Austria is suffering from rising prices, increasing anti-semitism, diminishing control over outlying territories, and overall discontent. The final page of the book is April 20th, 1889 – the birth date of Adolf Hitler.
If you are a history buff already familiar with the historical events of Austria during 1888 – 1889, you may think the story is superfluous. But the fresh observation of Austrian society and the cultural norms in that time period combined with Morton’s personal compilation of events and how those events affected Austria’s populace is both original and thoroughly captivating.
Rated 4.5 Stars.
I use a rating scale of 1 to 5. Books rated 1, I seldom finish. Books rated 2, I usually finish but would never recommend to anyone. 5 is the highest rating.