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A Scandal at the Villa Paradiso

All for Love

by Dan Jacobson
Metropolitan, 272 pp., $24.00

All the world loves a scandal. The affair of Princess Louise of Belgium and Géza Mattachich is forgotten today, but a hundred years ago newspapers and magazines were full of it. With good reason, since it had a great deal to offer their readers: adultery in high places, a royal elopement, a duel, forgery, wrongful incarceration, a daring escape, a whole string of related intrigues and mini-dramas.

Princess Louise was the eldest daughter of King Leopold II of the Belgians, the infamous plunderer of the Congo. She had a bleak upbringing—Leopold’s only son had died in childhood, and he couldn’t forgive his daughters for not being boys. But if Louise thought that marriage represented an escape, she was quickly disabused. The husband to whom her parents consigned her when she was seventeen, Philipp of Saxe-Coburg, was a German prince with palaces in Budapest, where the couple initially lived, and Vienna, where they subsequently settled. Fourteen years her senior, he was awkward and unappealing. (Her private nickname for him was der Dicke, the fat one.) Their wedding night, for which she was utterly unprepared, filled her with horror; after that she settled into twenty years of discontent. And then one day, while she was being driven in her coach through the Prater, the famous Viennese park, her eye was caught by a young cavalryman who was trying to impress her with his horsemanship. It was Géza Mattachich.

There was a wide social gulf between the two of them. Louise was an important figure in the Hapsburg court, not only on her own account, but also because her sister Stéphanie had married Crown Prince Rudolf, the heir to the imperial throne. (This was the same Rudolf who was to commit suicide with one of his mistresses in the hunting lodge at Mayerling.) By contrast, the Mattachich family were minor gentry from a remote corner of Croatia. Géza’s mother shared her dreary home with a drunken husband and a lover. Mattachich himself was an unremarkable second lieutenant, serving in an army in which his Croatian background counted against him, and he had limited prospects of advancement. But he was romantic. He became obsessed with the princess as he watched her take her daily ride; once their eyes had met, he felt sure his passion was reciprocated. He was also ambitious and determined. He contrived to make contact with Louise by seducing her maid and using the girl as a go-between. He followed her to an Adriatic resort, gate-crashed a party at which she was a guest, and spoke to her for the first time. Two nights later he climbed through her bedroom window—and his confidence proved justified.

Such was the first act of the drama on which Dan Jacobson has based his new novel, All for Love. Much of it sounds like the stuff of an opera or an operetta. The same is no less true of many subsequent episodes in the affair. But it all actually happened—in broad outline, at least—just as Jacobson describes.

Both Mattachich and Louise published memoirs (in 1904 and 1921 respectively; he wrote in German, she wrote in French). Naturally Jacobson makes use of these books, but with a generous dose of skepticism. Indeed, their omissions and idealizations form a significant part of his subject matter. His other major source is a biography of Louise by Gerd Holler, published in Vienna in 1992, while he draws on a wide range of lesser sources as well (including a Croatian Web site). All direct quotations are scrupulously footnoted, and footnotes, along with authorial comments, are also used to supply historical perspective.

A prospective reader may well wonder how far such a book can really amount to a novel, whether it wouldn’t be better classified as a somewhat unorthodox slice of biography. Jacobson himself, in the afterword in which he explains his procedures, stands firm on its status as a work of fiction. He has drawn inspiration from the facts, he tells us, but he has reshaped them, editing and rearranging events “in whatever ways seemed to me dramatically appropriate.” He has described scenes and settings with a fullness of detail which would only have been possible if he had been physically present. Above all, he has felt free to imagine what his characters were feeling and what was going on in their minds—to invent (within the limits of plausibility) what couldn’t be ascertained.

This last is a temptation to which actual biographers have often succumbed. One sees why—they are hungry for more depth than the documents can supply—but the results are seldom happy. We resent it, except in a few brilliant cases, when someone whose primary commitment is to establishing and sorting out the facts suddenly sets up as a mind-reader as well. In a sense Jacobson could be said to be taking advantage of the limitations of biography. He has a license to fabricate. His primary commitment is to the power and coherence of the story he has to tell.

It is true that All for Love doesn’t quite qualify as a “pure” novel. Nor is it meant to. The footnotes are a deliberate reminder of the uncertain boundaries between historical fact and historical fiction. The author-narrator frequently intrudes himself, delivering cynical asides (“Some hope!” “You bet he did”) and announcing changes of scene like a compère (“Let a fortnight pass,” “Right. Time for Maria to step forward,” “Now an interlude”). Yet these are no more than mildly distancing effects, in keeping with the sardonic humor which gives the book its predominant tone (though by no means its only one). Jacobson stops short of the realms of metafiction, and he doesn’t share the decadent taste which finds the act of storytelling more interesting than the story itself.

On the contrary, All for Love is notable for its straightforward narrative zest. It has some very old-fashioned virtues. It holds you and carries you forward. You are eager to know what happens next, and in those cases where you have already been told, or can easily guess, you are still eager to know exactly how it happened.

Louise and Mattachich returned from the Adriatic to Vienna as secret lovers. Not so very secret, it soon turned out. There was gossip. Louise made what was virtually a public avowal of the affair by appointing Mattachich the master of her private stable. The court was scandalized. The authorities set spies on the couple. Mattachich was expelled from Vienna, and Louise was summoned to an interview by the Emperor Franz Josef. As far as the court was concerned, the comedy was over. The Emperor advised her—in effect, ordered her—to go abroad until the scandal died down. But she remained in touch with Mattachich, and after a few weeks she was reunited with him in Paris.

At this point the pace of Jacobson’s narrative quickens. The couple shuttle around Europe, indulging themselves recklessly, spending wildly. They end up in a rented mansion in Nice, the Villa Paradiso. Mattachich has to make a brief return to Vienna: under pressure from the Emperor, the unwarrior-like Philipp has reluctantly agreed to challenge him to a duel. When the two men meet, the Croatian easily gets the better of the exchange, but soon afterward the prince takes his revenge, formally announcing that he is no longer responsible for his wife’s debts. The money runs out, the creditors grow pressing, appeals for help—including an attempt to approach Queen Victoria—prove fruitless. Louise becomes convinced that she is under a curse: “Je m’appelle Louise, et toutes les Louises sont malheureuses.”

Individual episodes in this odyssey are brilliantly brought to life. At first a comic note prevails. The duel is a small masterpiece of absurdity. There is a carnivalesque account of a ball at the Villa Paradiso—a last fling—which is ruined by the eruption of unpaid tradesmen. (Louise, decked in elaborate finery, maintains a regal presence amid the bedlam—magnificent in its way, though one can’t help being reminded just a little of Margaret Dumont surrounded by the Marx Brothers.) Then the atmosphere grows grimmer, as it emerges that Mattachich has forged Crown Princess Stéphanie’s signature on a pair of promissory notes. We are drawn into a labyrinth of courtiers, lawyers, moneylenders, and hangers-on, until finally a trap is sprung: Mattachich is seized, subjected to the travesty of a trial, and sentenced to six years in a military jail.

If the penalty Louise paid was less brutal, it was hardly less cruel. Having refused to return to her husband, she was confined in a series of private mental hospitals. Eventually no less an authority than Richard von Krafft-Ebing, of Psychopathia Sexualis fame, obliged Philipp and the Hapsburgs by declaring her insane. (He makes a brief cameo appearance in the book, beard bristling, voice “soft and husky.”) After her initial feelings of horror, she sank into a routine summed up by Jacobson as “Daydreams. Indolence. Bouts of frenzy.” She took up painting and studied plants and flowers. Her loyalty to Mattachich remained unshaken.

For all their troubles, Jacobson extends only a limited sympathy to the lovers. They aren’t a particularly attractive couple. Louise is hopelessly self-centered, Mattachich is a limited personality and, at one level, a man on the make. We aren’t allowed to forget that the price for their extravagance has mostly been paid for by other people—bilked creditors, servants cast aside without a thought. And Jacobson can take a tougher line than he might otherwise have done because he writes in the knowledge that incarceration isn’t their final fate.

Two thirds of the way through the book a new character appears, someone who restores hope to a hopeless situation. Maria Stöger was a young, unhappily married, working-class woman living in Vienna who had become obsessed with the Mattachich case. She moved to the town where he was being held, got a job in the canteen of the military prison, and, against all the odds, succeeded in having a number of surreptitious meetings with him. Within a few months he had made her pregnant. She lost her job, and devoted herself instead to campaigning for his release. Journalists and politicians were fired by her appeals, and although Mattachich still had half his sentence to serve, the Austrian government decided it would be prudent to let him go.

It was an astonishing achievement on Maria’s part, and there was more to come. Once Mattachich had regained his own freedom, he set about planning to rescue Louise from her medical captors. Maria worked alongside him (though neither he nor Louise mention the fact in their memoirs). Her role in preparing and executing their scheme, which succeeded, was almost as great as his.

The escape itself is consummately described by Jacobson. It has both its farcical touches and its melodramatic excitements. The three assistants in the enterprise—all of them recruited by Maria—add a suitable flourish by nicknaming themselves the Three Musketeers. We are temporarily in the world of an adventure story. While the rescue operation is in progress, our one concern is that it should come off, and we are delighted when it does.

There is no blue-sky happy ending, however. Once they are together again, the lovers are soon back at their old tricks, running up bills they can’t pay. They install themselves in a big hotel in Paris, accompanied by Maria (who has been given the grandiose title “Head of Household”) and a maid. Eventually they are forced to move on to a series of progressively smaller and dingier establishments, in many different cities. World War I overtakes them while they are revisiting Austria. The story straggles to a close.

And why should we want to immerse ourselves in it today? The short answer, perhaps the only one needed, is because it has caught Jacobson’s imagination and set in play his novelistic skills. All for Love is alive, in a way that countless books on more momentous subjects are not. The writing in it is marked by precision and pungent detail. Settings are swiftly and economically conjured up. Characters who might easily have been stock types—the astute legal adviser, the ferocious prison commandant—are given the breath of individual identity.

The book also displays a keen sense of place and period. Who could fail to be struck, for instance, by the musty draperies in Philipp’s palace, “tied by cords thick enough to keep a yacht moored,” or by the paintings “encased in tormented, gilded, ton-weight frames”? Jacobson moves easily among the fashions and furnishings of the Franz Josef era; he savors its rituals and catches its tone. (There is one jarring note, though. It’s a mistake, given the date and the European setting, to render der Dicke as “Fatso.” “Fatty” would have been better.)

Much of the period aura is a question of trimmings and small touches. The picturesque aspects of the past seem to me a legitimate part of any historical novel’s appeal. They are certainly part of it here. But serious historical fiction naturally looks beyond the colorful surface, and Jacobson’s Austro-Hungarian Empire is a solid, thoroughly real place, where most people are busy going about their daily affairs.

It is also a society riven by politics, and we are shown the repercussions of the Princess Louise affair in the Austrian parliament. For Socialists, the treatment of Louise and Mattachich was a telling example of imperial injustice. For Slavs, Mattachich came to be seen as a martyred fellow Slav. And meanwhile Jacobson himself offers a mordant view of the hidebound, stratified, militaristic Hapsburg regime (though we aren’t allowed the luxury of simple condemnation: a footnote reminds us that far worse regimes were waiting in the wings).

Then, looming behind Louise, there is the monstrous Leopold. It was during the early years of his daughter’s romance that reports of the atrocities committed in his personal fiefdom, the Congo Free State, began to spread around the world. He became associated with executions, beatings, amputated hands. By 1909 he was dead, but his name lived on as one of the great bogeymen of his time:

Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost,
Burning in hell for his hand-maimed host.

For Louise, however, he was primarily the father who had treated her with contempt and refused to come to her aid. After his death she and her sister Stéphanie launched a lawsuit against his estate. But there is no sign that she ever lost any sleep over the foremost source of his fortune. As Jacobson points out, neither she nor Mattachich mentions the revelations about the Congo in their memoirs. And while Mattachich simply keeps silent, Louise does something creepier. Making plain her grievances against Leopold, she is still anxious to present herself as a dutiful daughter. She draws a contrast between his private failings (of which she and her sisters were the principal victims) and his greatness as a public man. She praises his “genius” in developing his vast African enterprise.

Not that Jacobson himself devotes much space to Leopold. The few glimpses of him which he gives are so arresting that you wish he had, but his main interests in All for Love lie elsewhere. Similarly, you can imagine another kind of novel about Louise which lingered over aspects of her life that Jacobson mentions only in passing—her experience at the end of World War I, for instance, when she was stranded in Hungary and taken prisoner by the short-lived Communist regime of Béla Kun. But that is not the novel that Jacobson wanted to write. Everything in All for Love centers on the mutual infatuation of the two leading characters.

The title proclaims as much, and the story makes good the title’s promise. Louise and Mattachich live for each other. They resist threats, bribes, misfortune, persecution—everything that conspires to force them apart. And yet it doesn’t take long to realize that the title shouldn’t be taken at face value. The lovers are also impressively selfish and self-deluded. The circumstances under which they pursue their dreams are often shabby (not always their fault, it is true) and corrupt. They indulge in endless playacting. For the reader, at least, any glamour that they have soon wears off.

Along with its irony, the title has a literary resonance. There is another All for Love—the verse-drama by John Dryden. Like Jacobson’s novel, it deals with the passionate entanglement of a soldier and a royal personage: it is a smoothed-down Restoration version of Antony and Cleopatra. It is also generally reckoned to be Dryden’s best play.

One of those who praised it was Dr. Johnson. At any rate, he gave it high marks for its use of language and its handling of character. But he felt that it had one fault which outweighed those virtues:

By admitting the romantick omnipotence of Love, the author has recommended as laudable and worthy of imitation that conduct which, through all ages, the good have censured as vicious, and the bad despised as foolish.

You don’t have to know anything about the earlier work to appreciate the new All for Love. But if you do, it reinforces your feeling that Jacobson has something more than the follies of Louise and Mattachich in his sights. His indirect target is the whole tradition that exalts “the romantick omnipotence of Love.” The book insinuates that a grand passion will always be built on illusions.

It’s a point of view. It could even be called common wisdom. (“Falling in love with love is falling for make-believe.”) But it is hardly the whole story. It might be, if the claims of Eros were no stronger than they are in Dryden’s play. Whatever its merits, the original All for Love is a relatively muted and artificial affair. But behind it lies Antony and Cleopatra itself—and while some of the perspectives on his two lovers which Shakespeare offers in that play are negative or critical, no one could deny that it is a work which attains its full greatness in a blaze of erotic power.

All of which is a far cry from poor prosaic Louise and Mattachich. Still, if the new All for Love has a limitation, it is that Jacobson tends to report on his characters’ passions rather than entering into them. Some novelists would have gone further. When Mattachich first catches Louise’s attention while he is riding in the Prater, for instance, he has to struggle to control his half-trained black stallion. Imagine what D.H. Lawrence would have made of such a scene—something much more intense than what we get here. But then Lawrence, when you translate him back into everyday reality, often seems overblown. Jacobson’s account of the stallion incident is lively but sober. Everyday reality is his natural territory.

The one character in the book who fully engages his sympathies, Maria Stöger, is the most down to earth. He admires her for her courage, her devotion, and her common sense. But she is by no means the coeur simple that this may suggest. Like the couple—so far above her in social rank—with whom she becomes entwined, she has been seeking out a romantic destiny. Her campaign to get to know Mattachich is as extraordinary and foolhardy as his campaign to get to know Louise. Nor does she simply leave her husband; she leaves him in as dramatic a fashion as Louise leaves Philipp. You can see why she tells the princess, when they eventually meet, that the three of them—she and Louise and Mattachich—are the same kind of people. We are “too stuffed with dreams,” she says, “too greedy.” She also admits that she has been infatuated with Mattachich, and Louise asks her whether she still is:

Infatuated?” After a silence: “No.”
“But you’re still loyal?”
“So are you. It’s a curse. To be loyal to your own imaginings! What could be more stupid?”

Another silence, broken eventually by Louise. “But just try to imagine yourself without them! It can’t be done.” No one who was wholly intent on satire would have written such a scene. And it isn’t only Maria whose musings touch us. There is a slight mellowing in our view of Louise and Mattachich as the story progresses. They acquire a certain pathos.

We can’t help being stirred, just a little, by their loyalty to each other. But Jacobson doesn’t allow us to go too far in this direction. Their egoism is unfailing, and the book remains correspondingly tough-minded—and entertaining—to the last.

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