Two degrees of separation
An old audio reel that writer Shula Klinger found in a suitcase of her late father’s mementoes features a revealing interview with Viennese author Edith de Born. (photo by Shula Klinger)
When my father died in 2014, I was given an old suitcase containing his mementoes. There were photos, much of his early writing and an audio reel in a box. All it said on the box was, “Interview with Edith de Born.” I had never seen this tape before and had no idea who de Born was. I also didn’t know why my father would have had the reel because, to the best of my knowledge, he had never worked in radio.
A quick Google search told me that de Born was a novelist, born in Vienna when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During the Second World War, she and her banker husband both worked for the Resistance. An obituary of another writer on theguardian.com mentions her as a “now-forgotten Austro-Hungarian novelist,” a gauntlet of a phrase if ever I read one. The next website I visited was a bookseller with secondhand copies of de Born’s books. The Price of Three Cézannes and The House in Vienna arrived a few weeks later.
Like de Born, my father’s family lived in Vienna in the early 20th century, in the final days of the Habsburg Empire. But what was behind my father’s desire to interview her? I took the reel to a digital studio and had the material transferred to a CD, hoping to find some answers.
The first time I listened to it, I thought I was listening to my father’s voice but couldn’t be sure. The recording was clean, without any extraneous noises, but still, technology distorts the human voice and it didn’t really sound like my dad. This man’s English was excellent and he spoke quickly, but his vowel sounds weren’t quite right, weren’t quite what I remember. His phrases lacked the colloquial idioms you’d hear in a native speaker.
A few minutes in, I was sure this was indeed my father. The recording was made not long after he had moved to England. His first language was (I think) Yiddish, followed by Arabic and Hebrew, English and French. Was my memory playing tricks or was this simply evidence of what my friends had observed in the 1970s – that my dad “had an accent”?
I listened carefully to the rest of the interview. Mostly my father asks de Born about her writing habits, literary preferences and the authors she has met. He wants to know if she keeps notes in a little book, whether her characters are based on people she knows. She answers no, no, no again and again. He seems to be looking for tips on how to be a novelist. He gets nothing.
The conversation is stilted but my father doesn’t seem dissatisfied with the author’s brief answers. Are these the questions of a novice reporter, just learning the tricks of his trade? Or is he working to a personal agenda, trying to glean something useful for himself?
I get a partial answer when de Born speaks of the authors she has met. Evelyn Waugh, she says. And Vladimir Nabokov, whose writing she describes as “divine.” Knowing that Nabokov emigrated to the United States, my father asks, “Did he have an accent?” An odd thing to focus on, one might think, when you’re discussing a world-renowned novelist.
But there’s my answer. I may have grown up oblivious to my father’s accent, but he certainly wasn’t. Like all immigrants, he was aware that it marked him out as different. In a country where one’s identity is defined by the class system, this put him outside regular society. It told others that he was different, and he was just as conscious that, to fit in and be accepted into middle class, professional life in England, one had to be more than educated, more than capable – one had to sound English, to sound as though you belonged. With tanned skin, curly hair and – as he well knew – an abrasive manner, he did his best to tone down the chutzpah and mimic the mannerisms and diction of those around him. But not before he met de Born.
I managed to date the recording to 1960 or 1961 by looking at the publication date of the book de Born is writing when she meets my father. At that time, my father had not seen most of his family for years. Was the conversation a way for him to maintain a connection to his own heritage? Or was he simply looking for professional guidance? De Born could have been the perfect mentor – if only she had agreed. It is clear, however, from her guarded answers that she is not looking to nurture an emerging new talent.
There is, however, a short conversation about her memories of Austria. For the most part, she refuses to discuss her past, but she does talk briefly about her father, a Viennese nobleman. When the emperor Franz Josef died in 1916, her father walked in the funeral procession through the streets of Vienna. She describes her fondness for her father, and speaks warmly of his influence on her life.
Fascinated to learn that there were only two degrees of separation between me and a person who had attended an emperor’s funeral, I decided to look up some of the events she described. I soon found the Pathé News archive. Turns out they have thousands of files online. Here, I found a silent movie of the 1916 procession.
Twenty-six seconds in, I was startled to see something that didn’t fit. In the midst of all the smartly dressed adult aristocrats, prancing black horses and royal footmen, there is a tall, dignified looking man. This man is holding the hand of a little girl. She must be 4 or 5 and she’s holding a teddy bear in her other hand. They turn in front of the camera for a second before they are obscured by the heads of royal guards. She reappears fleetingly, later on, and then she’s gone. Could this be de Born, the woman whose voice I hear in conversation with my father when he was still a young Israeli immigrant?
De Born’s work is not in vogue now but this is – I believe – a tremendous shame. An astute observer of human nature, her dialogue is incisive and the inner lives of her characters richly explored. The world of Viennese aristocrats is opulent but restricted, the women stifled by their positions in society. Even as the characters cling to old traditions, singing of a Habsburg emperor whose fate will be tied to Austria’s for all eternity, de Born’s narrator feels that her world is an anachronism: “No waxwork exhibition could possibly reproduce the atmosphere of a vanished epoch so uncannily as did those creatures who continued to move with old-fashioned grace in their own meaningless world,” she writes.
Soon after, she describes a very different scene, being “in the midst of people who spoke my language, but with whom I could not feel in harmony. ‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer …’ chanted, yelled, screamed hysterically.” Little by little, de Born introduces ever more troubling elements, gradually building on a sense of a looming catastrophe – for Austrian nobility, for Europe at large and for Jews in particular. It may be set in polite society, but The House in Vienna is an exquisitely tense and emotional read. It is no wonder my father chose de Born as his interviewee. I have not found her described as a Jewish author, but – to me at least – her photograph on the dust jacket tells me everything I need to know.
As a daughter listening to her father’s voice after his death, the reel of tape is a gift and, like the work of his interviewee, it is a little eerie. It feels like eavesdropping. I don’t know if my father meant me to have it – or even find it – but I loved hearing his chuckle as he talked about something that he cared about, so deeply, as the young man I didn’t know. It’s a great way to remember him and his accent – full of life and Israeli/European inflections – hints at how he must have felt as a newcomer in England, all those years ago.
And, of course, it’s not a particularly smooth interview. At one point, the author laughs, somewhat revealingly, “Now we’re getting somewhere!” in her own gently accented English. Up to that point, my father’s questions have mostly been dead-ends. This question, however, was different, and the pace of the conversation quickens, the tone is light, almost cheeky. Hearing him make a genuine connection with another human being – something I rarely saw myself – was pure gold. It’s an infinitesimally small hunk of gold, but when you lose a complex and extremely guarded parent that you tried throughout your life – and failed – to connect with in this way, it can feel like winning the lottery.
Shula Klinger is an author, illustrator and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at niftyscissors.com.