Monday, July 14, 2014

The Vienna of Wittgenstein's Nephew

Frankfurt, July 14, 2014

"He would be sitting in the Sacher at ten in the morning in a white suit, in the Bräunerhof at half-past eleven in a gray stripped suit, in the Ambassador at half-past one in a black suit, and at half-past three in the afternoon he would be back at the Sacher, wearing a fawn suit."

Thomas Bernhard, "Wittgenstein's Nephew" (1982)

It seems hardly possible that anybody could follow the daily routine that Bernhard describes in such an exquisitely compact sentence. His eccentric character not only has to complete an elaborate cafe circuit in about six hours, but also go back home after each stop and change clothes. And all of it with the parsimony of Viennese tradition. But Vienna is perhaps the only city in world with that kind of dense urbanity. Particularly in the old center, its "Innere Stadt".

A few pages earlier in the novel, we learn that Paul Wittgenstein's apartment is "... in the Stallburggasse, diagonally opposite the Spanish Riding School" (Stallburg means "the stable of the palace".) From there it's only a few blocks to the Sacher hotel, most likely walking to the Neue Markt--the open space where Vienna's grain and flour market stood since the middle ages--and then either turn right immediately, or walk an extra short block to approach the Sacher from the main Kärtner Strasse. In either case, less than a ten-minute stroll.

Next is the Bräunerhof, right there on Stallburgasse. It is a wonderful place, but less formal than most Viennese traditional cafes--actually, Thomas Bernhard's favorite--and the change of attire registers this difference in character. Given the time, Paul may have stayed at the Bräunerhof for its delicious appfelstruddel, coming out of the oven around noon. Back to the apartment for another suit and a short walk to the Ambassador at the Neue Markt.

Then one last suit to end the afternoon back at the Sacher. All within 500 meters! Add another 200 meters in the opposite direction and you reach Knize, the most exclusive tailoring house, on the Graben (yes, that is the shop designed by Adolf Loos,) where Bernhard tells us that Paul's suits come from. Of course.

(Photo credit: Thomas Bernhard at the Cafe Bräunerhof, 1988, by Sepp Dreissinger.)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Afternoon View from the Train

Hangzhou, March 15, 2014

Afternoon View from the Train

We're cutting through the Chinese countryside at 300 km/h. The 15:05 train to Hangzhou left Beijing a couple hours ago. First were the plains to the south, now are some scattered hills and mountains. The sun is still shinning on the windows to the right, while the pale disc of the full moon already hangs on the gray-blue sky of the left-side windows. Here and there bunches of buildings rise in the middle of nowhere, 20 or 30 or more stories high, many of them under construction, as if the crane operators had gone completely insane.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Urban Bestiary (8)

Hangzhou, March 2, 2014

West Lake is Hangzhou's defining urban element, both physically and culturally. A major city in southeast China, Hangzhou extends between the eastern edge of the lake and the Qiantang River. Otherwise, the West Lake is surrounded by hills to the north, west and south. The lake originated as a shallow bay on the left back of the river, whose mouth was progressively blocked by alluvial sediments.

At least that is the geological explanation. But there are beautiful stories about about the mythical origins of West Lake. In the legend, the lake starts as shinning pebble in the sky. The Jade Dragon and the Golden Phoenix meet on a fairy island where the phoenix finds the pebble. They carve it, one with his claw, the other with her beak, grounding and polishing it until the pebble turns into a magic pearl. As they grow attached to each other and to the pearl, the dragon and the phoenix decide to live on the island forever. One day, the Queen Mother of the West sees the glow of the pearl and orders one of her guards to steal it. The dragon and the phoenix chase after the queen, and in the struggle, the pearl falls off to the earth.  As it touches the ground, it turns into the clear water of the lake to the west of Hangzhou. Unable to separate from the pearl, the Jade Dragon and the Golden Phoenix come down to the earth and turn themselves into hills, standing guard to their dazzling pearl.

(By the way, have you ever looked at the one-yuan bill? Yes, the front has Mao's ever-present portrait, but the back shows a delightful view of Hangzhou's West Lake.)