Something Good #41: A Lost Children's Story from Vienna
I’ll be off shooting a feature film through early November. Until then, I’ll be alternating guest-written posts with some dives into the SG archives. The following first appeared on June 2.
The story takes place in Vienna. The year isn’t entirely clear, but the sense is that we are in the waning years of the “nervous splendour” of the Austro-Hungarian empire—in that uneasy twilight period between the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and the assassination of his cousin, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
I must have been around six or seven when I got the book as a gift from friends of my parents. I don’t remember the title, let alone the name of the author or the illustrator (were they one and the same?) It was a slim, cloth-bound volume, burgundy in colour with an embossed cover illustration of a tray on which rests a coffee, a chocolate square and glass of water—an order still known as a kleine schwarze in Viennese cafés. (Thankfully, there was no dust jacket.)
The book takes place entirely in one of those legendary cafés, some of which are still around—Café Central, Café Museum, Café Sacher (from which the delicious sachertorte derives). Cafés were more than just meeting places or refuelling spots in the Vienna of that era. As Clive James puts it in his book Cultural Amnesia:
For generations of writers, artists, musicians, journalists and mind-workers of every type, the Vienna café was a way of life. There were many cafés, although in each generation there tended to be only a precious few that were regarded as centres of the action for the creative elite. The habitués might have had homes to go to when they wanted to sleep, but otherwise where they lived was in the café. For some of them the café was an actual address.
This is all to provide just a bit of background on the milieu of what is, after all, a children’s book. It is sparsely written—one or two descriptive sentences on each page—with finely detailed, black and white illustrations that are still vivid to me years later. (I wish I could find an example online.)
The story goes like this, though, as best as I can remember it: there is a boy. He is an orphan, of uncertain parentage. One day he’s discovered, hungry and penniless, on the front step of one of these grand cafés. A kindly employee takes him in and puts him to work as a sort of all-purpose busboy, gopher, etc.
Along the way, he, and we, make the acquaintance of the café’s regulars, who seem to spend their entire days there, drinking creamy coffees and kleine schwarzes, reading newspapers, writing manifestoes, etc.
We see them all through his young eyes. The novelist, surrounded by piles of crumpled paper. The cigar-puffing businessman, always meeting prospective partners and making deals. The poet, who spends her days scribbling in her notebook and muttering to herself, sometimes shrieking with joy when she’s received a burst of inspiration. A group of friendly, but rivalrous painters, obsessed with their own successes and bitterly jealous of each others’ accomplishments. Two feuding columnists, once best friends, who haven’t spoken for years but whose feuilletons are laced with subtle digs at each other.
More. A police detective who treats his booth as his office. A cavalry officer with a prominent Teutonic duelling scar, who sits alone in front of a chess game every day, occasionally receiving moves from his unseen opponent in the twice-daily post. A glamourous, unapproachable courtesan, who, it is implied, is the Emperor’s mistress—although coyly, as this is after all a children’s book.
And, of course, the staff, most who have been there for decades: the impeccably dressed, greying waiters, the cooks—to a one, all radicals—the cleaners, the grumbling manager. The boy soon finds favour with all of them, even the prickly manager. He has a home.
One day the comfortable rhythms of the café are interrupted by a snowstorm. We see the snow falling through the windows; it is a particularly beautiful scene illustrated with gorgeous line work. Everyone stops to admire it, and then resumes their work, writing, or socializing. But as the day wears on, the snow never stops falling. Soon it reaches the height of the windows. The waiters attempt to open the doors, but they’re stuck. They are all well and truly snowed-in.
As the café is already virtually a home to its denizens, they adapt to their predicament with relative ease and settle in to wait out the storm.
But the snow keeps coming. Days and weeks pass with no sign of rescue.
The tick-tock precision of Viennese life proves too strong to resist, though, and the self-contained bubble of the café soon re-forms into a microcosm of the society outside, with everyone performing their appointed roles. The newspaper editor begins a broadsheet, printed by hand on serviettes and delivered every morning by the orphan boy. Political parties form and fall apart in the wake of divisive elections. The painters put on an exhibition. (There is even a salon des refusés in the scullery.)
There are dramatic rivalries and (suggested) affairs. The poet disappears into the kitchen with the Emperor’s mistress.
Emissaries arrive bearing news from other cafés, but as soon as they leave the tunnels collapse and nobody can figure out how to dig them again.
Duels are fought. The detective solves the murder of a dishwasher, and the culprit is hanged from a chandelier. (I may be remembering this incorrectly, it sounds pretty dark for a children’s book, but I do vividly recall the image of the courtesan shielding the orphan boy’s eyes from the terrible sight.)
Eventually the outside world, immaculately recreated in miniature, is almost forgotten. The snow keeps falling.
This might just be my retrospective reading, but 1914, and everything catastrophic that followed, seems close. Thinking of it now, I want the café to never be dug out, to live in its own little cosseted loop forever, past the first World War, the intervening years, and 1938, which definitively ended its world. Perhaps it did.
The last illustration shows the café from the outside for the first time. You can barely see the sign and the tops of the windows for all the snow. I am pretty sure that if you look closely, you can see the orphan boy’s eyes peering juuuuust above the top of the snow, as if he is standing on a table.
I can not, for the life of me, remember the name of the book or its author. I don’t even know when it was written, though my instinct says the ‘70s sometime? I lost track of it some time in my teenage years, and then came across it two more times.
Once was in New York’s late, lamented, Gotham Bookmart, an incredible warren of books and history buried among the Uncut Gems 47th Street diamond district. (Above the door hung a sign that read, “Wise Men Fish Here.”) This was a different edition, paperback, with a title I didn’t recognize, but the same story and drawings.
Writing this now, I do wonder if the book was translated from German? The second time I found it was a German edition, bearing an enigmatic, one-word title—something like Glömberg, although Google gives me nothing for that. This was in a bookstore, a converted theatre, in Buenos Aires.
Once, in a hotel room in Guangzhou, I turned on the TV and caught what I could swear was the last 30 seconds of an animated adaptation of the story.
Both times I saw the book I considered buying it, and both times I talked myself out of it. I regret that now. If you have a copy, please let me know.
“The striking aphorism requires a stricken aphorist.” – Alfred Polgar
The book in question is entirely fictional, but if you find any trace of it, please let me know.
I highly recommend Moms Under the Influence, a new newsletter about the fascinating world of “momfluencers,” from writer Kathryn Jezer-Morton, who once discussed a defunct local strip club with me here.
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