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The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift

The third in Peirene Press’s fairy tale series, The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift is my final choice for August: #WITMonth, women in translation month. I’ve been enjoying picking up lots of ideas for reading women in translation. This is another intriguing novella from Europe, this time from Austria.

278 cover of Empress

The Story

It begins with cakes, and the empress.

She was inspecting the pink and green custard slices, the glazed tarts and fancy meringues piled high in the window of the patisserie. Her dress touched the floor, with only the toes of her shoes poking out. The dress was black and woollen, and around her shoulders sat a black lace mantilla, whose dipped hem was tucked between her armpits. (13)

The anonymous narrator is inveigled by this older woman, Frau Hauenembs, into sharing a cake in her flat in Vienna. The narrator has a continuous battle with food and has not had cake for years, but she is also easily led. Frau Hauenembs’s flat is full of late Austro-Hungarian stuff, and looked after by Ida, an overweight but dedicated servant/housekeeper. Something strange is going on. Soon the narrator is ensnared by this odd couple and participates in a plot to steal a rabbit press (see later), then to replace the head of the assassin Lucheni, and then to steal a cocaine syringe that once belonged to the Empress Elisabeth. Gradually the narrator becomes more and more embroiled in Frau Hauenembs’s schemes and way of life, moving in with her, injecting her with cocaine, winning the Sissi lookalike competition, and even wearing housecoats as Frau Hauenembs requests. In the final paragraph it is clear that another victim is going to go through the same process.

The Empress

Photograph of Empress Elisabeth by Ludwig Angerer 1862 via WikiCommons

Photograph of Empress Elisabeth by Ludwig Angerer 1862 via WikiCommons

Frau Hauenembs is and isn’t the Empress Elisabeth. This is a fairy tale. In addition to the objects that are nefariously acquired, she adopts many of the behaviours of the original empress: she is tall, has a 16 inch waist, eats very little, keeps very slim, rarely sits down, has a dog and appropriately an imperious style with Ida and the narrator.

In Frau Hauenembs’s flat the narrator notices : … several pictures of the young Empress Elisabeth, including a small copy of the famous painting in which Elisabeth is dressed only in a nightie, her long hair tied in a thick knot in front of her chest. (18)

278 empress-elisabeth-of-austria-by-franz-xaver-winterhalter-1864

The story of the Empress Elisabeth is probably more familiar to Austrian readers. She was brought up in Bavaria, and married the Emperor Franz Josef at sixteen. He had been engaged to her sister. Despite her rather unconventional activities and the dominating behaviour of her mother-in-law, the couple appear to have been happy together until she was assassinated in 1898 by Luigi Lucheni in Switzerland. Known to her intimates as Sisi, (Sissi was the film name for her – see below) her childhood pet name, she frequently travelled on her own, was very active, went on long hikes, was fascinated by circus people, and passionate about Hungary. She was devastated by the suicide of her son Rudolf, at Mayerling.

278 Sissi

If any of this sounds familiar, it may be that you have seen one of the three films in the Sissi series, starring Romy Schneider, made in the 1950s.

The Cake

Food, and Viennese patisserie in particular appear, throughout the novel. The narrator is seduced with them, Ida is greedy for them, and Frau Hauenembs cannot resist buying them. The prize at the Sissi look-alike competition is the winner’s weight in praline. The trio frequently have lavish picnics, carried by Ida, picked at by Frau Hauenembs, futilely resisted by the narrator.

Frau Hauenembs’s protracted beauty rituals mimic the Empress’s. The duck press is for squeezing out juices from the dead bird, to prepare a health drink. Control of eating, body weight and shape are frequent themes of this novella; how much they matter, how much they are under the control of the eater, what they look like in clothes, what they weigh …

The book also offers an exploration of the way the mind creates its own realities and – quite often – deludes us into believing that we control what is actually controlling us. [From the publisher, Meike Ziervogel]

The original German title of the novel is Stierhunger, which translates as bulimia nervosa. The prose is appropriately physical in response to all this bodily fixation. The descriptions of the means by which the narrator attempts to hide her bulimia are especially vivid.

It may be a fairy tale, but the realities of the lives of Elisabeth and her servant, of Frau Hauenembs, Ida and the narrator are far from romantic. No saccharine here, but there is lots of toxic sugar.

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift, published in 2007 as Stierhunger, and by Peirene Press in 2016. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. 184 pp

Related posts

Books in Translation on this blog looks at the small number of translations, especially by women published in this country.

Tales from the Vienna Streets on this blog in July 2013.

The Beauty Rituals of C19th Empress Elisabeth of Austria on Mimimatthew’s blog. Mind-blowing!

 

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Judenplatz, Vienna

It is a Catholic city on a Sunday morning, but Vienna was quiet and without church bells. The Judenplatz (Jewish Square) was calm. The metal ring of the horses pulling the tourist carriages could be heard from the surrounding streets. The churches were emptying, and families were returning home after mass, bundled into coats and scarves against the spring cold. As they greeted their neighbours or stopped to talk their voices rebounded from the genteel walls of the buildings, five storeys high, painted in white or palest cream and with tall, elegant windows.

In the centre of the square is a statue of Lessing, an Enlightenment figure, hated by the Nazis who destroyed the original. The replacement was made after the war and at certain angles the head appears to be out of proportion and awkward. Mozart lived for a while in a house on the corner. There is a plaque commemorating this on its wall.

Near Mozart’s house is a second plaque, brass with Latin lettering, celebrating the cleansing of the city of its Jewish population in 1421. Above it is a little vignette, an angel witnesses a cleansing. The story goes that the Jews were burned at the stake and to save others from such a death the Rabbi himself killed many of his congregation.

cleansing

A heavily built young man came into the square while we pondered the celebration of this barbarity. He was in his early 20s and a little overweight.  He wore a t-shirt, faded gingham shorts and moccasins. He took off his shoes and placed a small pile of short candles and a rose bud on the floor. He lit the candles and lay beside them on the concrete. After about ten minutes he replaced his moccasins and loped off over the cobbles and disappeared, leaving the candles to burn.

candle

They guttered in a pool of wax in front of the library door. This is Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial for the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed by the Nazis in the Second World War. Around the base of the monument are listed in alphabetical order the names of the 45 places where the Austrian Jews were murdered, from Auschwitz to Zamosc. It is a library, but you cannot enter. There are no handles on the doors. It is made of concrete, resembles a bunker. The external walls of the library are made from books, cast in concrete, their spines facing inwards. They are closed books. We can never read their stories.

concrete bks

We stand and contemplate this grey structure, such a contrast to the other public memorials and statues in this city, most of which are decorated with gold. In the fashionable Graben shopping street (think Bond Street), for example, stands the Pestsaule, which celebrates the departure of the plague from Vienna in 1692. Even this writhing column is topped with golden tangled figures. The Holocaust Memorial was unveiled in October 2000. It is monumental yet understated, absorbed into its surroundings yet unmissable, calming yet shocking, moving yet without human figures.

holocaust mem

I think these contradictions arise because of the books. The idea of a concrete book is one from which we recoil and then return. The library represents what could have been, what should not have been and what, having been imagined and realised, must be chronicled and not forgotten; and from which we must learn. And the Jews are the people of the book.

Later that we day, after we had witnessed Don Giovanni taken down to hell at the Opera House, we passed through Judenplatz again. Evening was turning to night and easing the contradictions of the memorials in the square. The exquisite beauty of Mozart’s music could coexist with the horrors of the Fifteenth and Twentieth centuries.  It was possible to fancy a hubbub of conversation, laughter and words among the library stacks and the unwritten books.

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