Tales from the Vienna Woods

Alma Mahler or the Art of Being Loved

by Françoise Giroux
Oxford University Press, 162 pp., $21.95

The Bride of the Wind: The Life and Times of Alma Mahler-Werfel

by Susanne Keegan
Viking, 346 pp., $25.00

Oskar Kokoschka Letters 1905-1976

selected by Olda Kokoschka, by Alfred Marnau
Thames and Hudson, 320 pp., $40.00

Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge: An Artist and His Muse

by Wolfgang G. Fischer
Overlook, 175 pp., $50.00

The Fin-de-Siècle Culture of Adolescence

by John Neubauer
Yale University Press, 288 pp., $30.00

Do we need yet more books about Vienna in the early twentieth century? Publishers clearly think we do, for we now have two new biographies of Alma Mahler (although a perfectly adequate one was published as recently as 1983) as well as a selection in English from the letters of Oskar Kokoschka (four volumes of which were published in German between 1984 and 1988), and an interesting study of the Viennese couturière Emilie Flöge and her relations with the painter Gustav Klimt, to say nothing of a book on the fin-de-siècle culture of adolescence in Vienna and elsewhere which the author himself describes as a “large but inhomogeneous corpus…spanning a variety of ideologies, discourses, and national cultures.”

The contrasts in Austrian society more marked perhaps than anywhere else in Europe and brought out so well in Carl Schorske’s classic Fin-de-Siècle Vienna—still the main source for nearly all the subsequent books—are striking and puzzling. Was Vienna the birthplace of modernism, with Freud, Wittgenstein, Schoenberg, and the rest, or the last bulwark of the Old Regime, with a formalized imperial court, an enormously elaborate bureaucracy, and rigid class divisions? Was Viennese society frivolous and pleasure-loving and basically conservative while waltzing its way to the abyss, or was it haunted by a sense of doom and doubt? Because it was all of these things, there are still many unanswered questions about their relation to each other. The World of Yesterday, the title of Stefan Zweig’s famous memoir, which is inevitably quoted by anyone writing about Vienna (often without much attempt to test the accuracy of its generalizations), also continues to fascinate us just because there are people still alive, though fewer and fewer of them, who can provide a direct link with that world. These perhaps are some of the reasons why the figure of Alma Mahler, who died in 1964 aged eighty-five, is apparently as irresistible to later generations as she was to some of her leading contemporaries.

Alma was the daughter of a prominent painter in the Viennese academic tradition, Emil Jakob Schindler, who came from the Viennese upper bourgeoisie. He died when Alma was thirteen years old, and she never really accepted her stepfather, Carl Moll, a painter whom she once described as a pendulum while her father had been a clock. Certainly as a young girl she seems to have been looking for a father figure and enjoyed flirtatious relations with older men while still believing, as she later wrote, in a virginal purity that needed to be preserved. Max Burckhard, the director of the Burgtheater, aged forty-two, sent her boxes of chocolates and took her out cycling; then, more seriously, the painter Gustav Klimt, seventeen years older than she was, fell in love with her and there was talk of an engagement. And then of course marriage to Gustav Mahler, nineteen years older, determined the course of her life, so that in spite of two subsequent marriages as well as several affairs …

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