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The cities of my soul

Michael Henderson says that reading in public places is one of the joys of a well-lived life, and cities are the best places to do it

30 December 2009

12:00 AM

30 December 2009

12:00 AM

Anatole France described his literary criticism as ‘the adventures of my soul among masterpieces’. We cannot all be critics, in the sense that France was, but he surely spoke for everybody, reviewer or not, who takes reading seriously. Books do furnish a room, and the best books decorate a life.

Although reading is an interior activity, as a book speaks directly to one person, one of the greatest joys in a well-lived life is reading in agreeable public places. The beach, where so many people do their annual reading, is not an agreeable place. The noise, heat and general irritation do not provide the reflection that one needs for serious reading, which is why most beach-loafers do not read seriously. In which case, why read at all?

No, it is the city that offers the best opportunity to read well. Any human settlement with a healthy civic life, awash with theatres, first-class restaurants, art galleries and concert halls, provides the ideal frame for this picture, though it is not necessarily true that the greater the city the better those opportunities are. New York’s qualities require no amplification, but while it is a superb city to buy books, it is not the best place to read them, being too intense. Amsterdam, another great city, is too claustrophobic. London, with its wonderful parks, offers more room to breathe.

We tend to recall the details of books that touch us, because they create an unrepeatable world, down to where, when and how we read them. Yet, although I have fond memories of reading Allan Massie’s The Ragged Lion in Pune, and Ivan Klima’s Love and Garbage in Colombo, it would be stretching a point to say that the Indian sub-continent makes an ideal accompaniment for the European novel. South Africa fares no better. Caleb Carr’s The Alienist helped pass a grim week in East London, but I have no wish to return there.


So which is the best spot for this civilised pastime? As most European cities pass the civic amenity test, it becomes a matter of taste and temperament. My favourites would be Berlin, particularly in the garden of the Literaturhaus in Fasanenstrasse; Munich, with its Residenz Gardens behind the Town Hall; and Vienna. I would go further, and say there could not possibly be a finer city for wallowing in books than Vienna.

First, it has a small city centre, easily mastered by foot. The inner city, within the Ringstrasse, is quiet, and that glorious institution, the coffee-house, means that one can stop on every street and, for the price of a cup, watch the day take shape. Second, there is a literary atmosphere, as Vienna is one of those cities, like Prague, that has a special spirit. Third, it has an abundance of art collections in pleasant places which (unlike London’s) are not overrun. Taken together, these conditions mean that each day there is made for the reader. It also has some well-stocked shops, which sell books, American mainly, that you don’t always come across in England.

In my imagination, therefore, a city I love is associated with some of my most intense reading experiences, which in turn has deepened that affection. The Stadtpark will never simply be the home of that famous statue to the ‘Waltz King’, Johann Strauss the Younger, but the place where I read Atonement over three beautiful days one September, and shivered one December while finishing John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra.

American writers have accompanied me through many hours in the coffee-houses. Over breakfast at the Tirolerhof I launched into The Disenchanted, Budd Schulberg’s study of the dying Scott Fitzgerald. At the Griensteidl it was Light Years, James Salter’s elegant dissection of marital rupture, which for some reason evokes a mental image of the Schottenkirche, one of Vienna’s finest churches. I finished Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis over a late breakfast at the Ministerium, and brought William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness to a close over cakes at the Mozart. The Eiles means William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf; the Schwarzenberg, Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. Richard Yates and Philip Roth have graced all those cafés, and a few more besides.

Then there are those art galleries. I may have read more books in Vienna’s crowning glory, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, than any building in the world. It happens to be the large painting-house I put above all others (the Frick Collection in New York being my favourite ‘small’ house), so to sit on a bench in one of those stupendous rooms and read, while taking in a great painting, is such a supreme pleasure that the experience becomes interchangeable. Bernard Malamud’s Dubin’s Lives? Caravaggio’s ‘Rosencrantz Madonna’. ‘The Feast of the Bean-King’, by Jacob Jordaens? Maupassant’s Bel Ami. ‘Had we but world enough and time…’

Music and Silence, by Rose Tremain, recalls, fittingly, a rehearsal of Brahms and Schumann at the Konzerthaus. John Cheever’s dark comedy Bullet Park means a tram ride to Schubert’s grave in the Zentralfriedhof. The Blue Afternoon, by William Boyd, enhanced a week devoted to the quartets of Beethoven and Shostakovich. Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys, pressed upon me by Simon Heffer as ‘the greatest English novel of the last century, mark my words’, complemented the anticipation and afterglow of Gotterdammerung at the Staatsoper. The Earl of Chelmsford, a keen Wagnerian, would like that.

For the Viennese classics of Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig, I settled for the comforts of my home from home, the Mailbergerhof, in the heart of the city. Nobody doubts that The Radetzky March is one of the supreme books of the 20th century, and those lucky few who know Beware of Pity will need no persuading of its greatness. What a beautiful novel it is! Though if there is one book that every visitor to Vienna should read, for instruction as well as pleasure, it is Zweig’s memoir, The World of Yesterday.

Magnificent as it is, Vienna cannot solve every literary problem. Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, widely acclaimed as a modernist masterpiece to rank alongside Proust and Joyce, was an immense disappointment (immense being the word at 1,130 pages), and my attempts to come to terms with William Faulkner foundered on the rocks of The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner, me no Faulkner. He and the ‘treacly’ Saul Bellow (Alan Bennett’s phrase) are the most overrated of modern novelists.

You can’t win ’em all. But, as I have found, in Vienna you win a fair few. I look forward to many more visits, and many more adventures among masterpieces.

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