Hero and villain: The Two Loves of Sophie Strom, by Sam Taylor, reviewed

Counterfactual thinking can be compelling. We imagine love affairs missed out on, tragedies averted. What if I hadn’t boarded that bus or woken from that sleep? Sam Taylor throws this thinking into a vital moment in a young boy’s life that has massive, world- historical resonance. Vienna, 1933. Nazi sympathisers burn down the flat of a Jewish family. Max Spiegelman, aged 13, escapes, but his parents burn to death. Or do they? In a parallel narrative, Max awakes from this dream into the very fire he’s just dreamed about, early enough to rescue his parents. Taylor alternates the stories of the Max whose parents survive and who remains on the

In defence of the EU

Eastern Europe is the graveyard of empires. Rome failed on the Danube, Napoleon on the Dnieper. The epic struggle between the empires of Austria, Russia and Turkey in the first world war ended with the destruction of all three and the fragmentation of eastern Europe, giving rise to the word ‘Balkanisation’. Driving through the Balkans today, I am continually reminded that history has no full stops. Every empire leaves its ghosts to haunt its successors. Vienna, like London, is an imperial city without an empire. The ethnic antagonisms of the Balkans, which provoked the first world war, survived to divide Yugoslavia in the second and then destroy it in the

The many lives of George Weidenfeld, legendary publisher and ladies’ man

‘You can go ahead,’ said the voice at the other end of the telephone. ‘The DPP has decided not to prosecute.’ It was the call that allowed the publication of Lolita, one of the greatest gambles of George Weidenfeld’s career. The moment George – it is impossible to think of him as anything other than George – had read this controversial book, available from the Olympia Press in Paris, known for its pornographic list, he had wanted to publish it himself; but as the law then stood, it would have been pulped immediately, owing to its story of a middle-aged professor who becomes obsessed with a 12-year-old girl and kidnaps

Love in the shadow of the Nazi threat

The 1930s saw Walter Benjamin write The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Marlene Dietrich rise to fame in The Blue Angel and Pablo Picasso paint ‘Guernica’. If history books mention these events, it’s usually as footnotes to the main European narrative of the pre-war decade. To shift the rise of Nazism, the Spanish Civil War, the Great Terror and other landmarks to the background, one could turn to the cultural history, or the micro-history. In his new book, the German art historian Florian Illies combines both genres to reconstruct the 1930s. Snippets from period documents, including private letters and diaries of notable figures of European and

What the Royal Society of Chemistry gets wrong about free speech

Why has the Royal Society of Chemistry published a 37 page opinion piece entitled ‘Academic free speech or right-wing grievance?’ in their new journal Digital Discovery? Digital Discovery publishes ‘theoretical and experimental research at the intersection of chemistry, materials science and biotechnology’ focusing on ‘the development and application of machine learning’. So it is a little surprising for them to publish a piece that ‘argues that those who wish to have an honest debate about the limits around freedom of speech need to engage that conversation in a manner that avoids resonance with the language of White (heterosexual, cisgender male) supremacy, lest their arguments provide intellectual cover to those who

Was this footballer killed for scoring against the Nazis?

Vienna, April 1938. To mark the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by the Third Reich, the German football team plays a match against the Austrian team, which will cease to exist when the match is over. The Austrians are much better, but can’t seem to score – aha, the match has been fixed by the Nazis. And then, in the 70th minute, Austria’s best player, Matthias Sindelar, can’t take the pretence any more and puts the ball in the German net. At the end of the match, to underline his feelings, he performs a victory dance in front of the Nazi dignitaries. This might sound like fiction but it really

How to make the most of Vienna’s Christmas markets

Oh, Vienna. Home to Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Freud, the Danube, waltzing and coffee house culture, to name but a few. Famous for its history and culture, the Austrian capital’s cobbled streets fizz with stories of ages past.  In my opinion, there is no better time to visit than in the winter – and the run-up to Christmas in particular. This city knows how to do Christmas. The streets are lit with a plethora of Christmas lights, some of which have acquired fame in their own right (I am told a friendly rivalry exists between the fans of the chandeliers on Graben – designed to create the impression of a gigantic

The trouble with Austria’s vaccine passport plan

Are vaccine passports being used in other countries in an attempt to cut Covid infections – or to try and boost vaccine take up by curtailing the social lives of those who refuse? The latest change in policy in Austria would appear to confirm that for them, it’s the latter. From today, access to restaurants, bars and any event with more than 25 guests will be limited to people who can prove they have been fully vaccinated, that they have previously recovered from Covid or that they have had one jab and a negative PCR test. In four weeks’ time, only the double-jabbed and those who can show they have

Waiting for Gödel is over: the reclusive genius emerges from the shadows

The 20th-century Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel did his level best to live in the world as his philosophical hero Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz imagined it: a place of pre-established harmony, whose patterns are accessible to reason. It’s an optimistic world, and a theological one: a universe presided over by a God who does not play dice. It’s most decidedly not a 20th-century world, but ‘in any case’, as Gödel himself once commented, ‘there is no reason to trust blindly in the spirit of the time’. His fellow mathematician Paul Erdös was appalled: ‘You became a mathematician so that people should study you,’ he complained, ‘not that you should study Leibnitz.’ But

There’s no better sonic hangover cure: New Year’s Day Concert reviewed

The best moment in the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual New Year’s Day Concert comes after the end of the advertised programme. The conductor gives a tiny gesture, the violins start a shimmer of tremolando, and a ripple of applause spreads through the hall. At this point, if you’re watching with first-timers, they’ll look at you, surprised. Why have they stopped? And you smile, because you know what the conductor knows, what the orchestra knows and what even the audience in the Musikverein — those bejewelled Eurostiffs in their £1,000 seats — knows. We’re about to hear The Blue Danube, and music doesn’t get any better than that. Well, that’s how it

The forgotten female composer fêted by Mozart and Haydn

A few years ago, I was sitting in the London Library researching a book about blind people across the ages. As a semi-blind person myself, I sighed at the lack of women, other than the endlessly chipper Helen Keller, who never had a bad day. Ever. My sister, however, drew my attention to a two-line wiki entry for the 18th-century composer, singer and professor — and darling of the Viennese musical court — Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759–1824). Ten years passed, and after many hours of research in libraries and chats with music scholars, we now find ourselves — to our utter amazement — co-writing a chamber opera about her

An elegy for Vienna

Vienna Somebody once described Vienna as a top opera performed by understudies. The remark was unquestionably witty, but utterly false when it was made. It is perfectly true today, however. During the 650-year rule of the Habsburgs, Vienna reigned supreme, an opera sung by its greatest stars. It is the present-day Vienna, which has lost its empire, its imperial family and its power, that is sung by the understudies. I’ve just spent three days there, in Harry Lime time. Okay, close your eyes and imagine the Grand Canal with just a few gondolas and no behemoth floating horrors, the Bridge of Sighs without the crowds of visiting Chinese beneath it,

The rude, ripe tastelessness of John Eliot Gardiner’s Berlioz is the perfect antidote to Haitink’s Instagram Bruckner

Conducting is one of those professions — being monarch is perhaps another — where the less you do, the more everyone loves you. Orchestral players, for example, tend not to complain about being let off early from rehearsals. I prefer my maestros to have their head under the bonnet: loosening, tightening, fixing, replacing. Much of the classical music world, however, fetishises the idea of ‘letting the music speak for itself’. As if ‘the music’ were an objective thing. As if the score were a rendering that could be printed out in 3D, rather than a map to be deciphered and interpreted. This goes some way, I think, to explain the

The Rite stuff

It was Stravinsky himself who suggested that, in order to preserve its difficulty, the opening bassoon solo of The Rite of Spring should be raised by a semitone every decade. And it was a performance by Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2005 that convinced me that he wasn’t entirely joking. The audience nattered away over the opening bars; the unlucky bassoonist wobbled and cracked. Clearly, this orchestra was not remotely prepared for what was about to hit it. Rhythms splintered like shrapnel and misplaced entries spattered across every silence. As they hurtled into the final Sacrificial Dance, you could almost hear the prayers of musicians audibly struggling simply to hang on.

Life ‘n’ Arts Podcast: History and Ism’s with David Pryce-Jones

In this week’s Spectator USA Life ’n’ Arts podcast, I’m casting the pod with David Pryce-Jones. Novelist, correspondent, historian, editor at National Review and, most recently, author of the autobiography and family history Fault Lines, Pryce-Jones has the longest association with the Spectator of any Life ’n’ Arts podcaster yet. In 1963, Pryce-Jones began his literary journey to the status of national treasure on both sides of the Pond by becoming books’ editor of our London mothership. ‘My past seems unbelievable. I can’t explain it to myself, let alone anyone else,’ Pryce-Jones says. Now into his ninth decade, he is a living history of modern letters, and a key witness

All together now | 18 October 2018

‘About suffering’, W.H. Auden memorably argued in his poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, the old masters ‘were never wrong’. Great and terrible events — martyrdoms and nativities — took place amid everyday life, while other people were eating, opening a window or ‘just walking dully along’. As an example, Auden took ‘The Fall of Icarus’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. As it happens, Auden himself was wrong there, because the work he cited is no long thought to be by the painter after all. This picture is not, therefore, included in the exhibition Bruegel at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. However, the fact that Icarus has now been consigned to the

Charming old fox

Talleyrand was 76 when he took up the post of French ambassador in London in 1830. Linda Kelly deals only with the last phase of Talleyrand’s long and tumultuous career, but this short book brings him marvellously to life. He was not an impressive figure. Little over 5’3” in height, he walked with a limp —one leg was in an iron brace. ‘Always dress slowly when you are in a hurry,’ was one of his maxims, and each morning during his lengthy toilette his valet coiffed his long, straggly white locks with curling tongs. One wag described him as ‘a big packet of flannel enveloped in a blue coat and

Carry on Don

One of these days I will probably see a production of Don Giovanni set in a research station in the Antarctic. English Touring Opera, ambitious and valiant, haven’t gone that far yet. But Lloyd Wood’s new staging, part of an ETO threesome now hopping round the country, still makes the eyebrows shoot up. This time the Don and his girl bevy are scuttling round the Viennese sewers, circa 1900. Well, that’s what the programme booklet tells us; though if it hadn’t been for Elvira’s Wiener Werkstätte dress, the hint of a Klimt mosaic and a tiddly horn gramophone, you might just accept Anna Fleischle’s grim designs as a fair solution

Spot the ball

The purest form of radio is probably sports commentating, creating pictures in the mind purely through language so that by some magic the listener believes that they were there, too, when Geoff Hurst scored that final goal, Shergar ran out the field at Epsom, Mo Farah sped ahead on Super Saturday. As Mike Costello said last Thursday on Radio Five Live’s celebration of 90 years since the first outside broadcast from a rugby match on 15 January 1927, ‘We’re all blind when we listen now, just as we were back in the 1930s.’ The technology has changed radically but radio still relies on the skill of an inspired individual to

Brahms’s benders

‘Brahms and Liszt’ is a lovely bit of rhyming slang, but it doesn’t have the ring of authenticity. Can you really imagine cockney barrow boys whistling tunes from the Tragic Overture and the Transcendental Études? Also, the Oxford English Dictionary reckons it only dates back to the 1930s. It always made me snigger, though, because it conjured up an implausible vision of pompous beardy Johannes and the social-climbing Abbé rolling around legless. Not so implausible, it turns out. The other day I was reading a review of a new life of Liszt by Oliver Hilmes that reveals ‘hair-raising episodes of drunkenness’ in his later years. For some reason these were