Henry James’ Midnight Song (Austria)

book covercourtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

by Carol de Chellis Hill

Oh boy, is this book FUN. Get to know historical and literary characters (and they are Characters) like Henry James, who loves women but refuses to date them. Like Edith Wharton, the opinionated speed-demon and lady author. Like Inspector Maurice, who seduces women so easily that it makes him weary. Like the libido-nous Countess whose American cousins are scandalized by her behavior. Like Zionist Theodor Herzl and his Viennese newspaper. Like the very Jewish Siggi Freud and his menage a trois with his wife and his wife’s sister. Like Freud’s intended successor the not-at-all Jewish Carl Jung.

Freud is treating James for a neurosis involving a cat. Wharton is having an affair, as is the Countess, but with different men. The Inspector is trying to solve a possible murder, but Freud is obstructing justice. Herzl is offending other Jews with his separate but equal ideas. The young Americans are writing a novel. Carl Jung is seducing a female psychiatrist. Emma Eckstein is having nosebleeds–possibly from hysteria, but possibly from having an unfortunate length of gauze left in her nose after an incredibly incompetent operation by Freud’s bosom buddy Dr. FleiB. (I am using the letter B here as a stand-in for the German character meaning a double S.) Dr. FleiB is such an idiot that I wondered if he were related to Mike Fleiss, creator of the TV series The Bachelor. Just kidding! I love the Bachelor. But I would totally have sued that doctor. I know, it’s so American of me. And this is a very European book.

Take My Advice: Persevere!

a cafe in ViennaI wasn’t sure about this novel at first. It took me about 70 pages to really fall in love with it, so I urge you to go on a second or even third date with this novel. It is SO worth it. It isn’t that the short scenes are hard to read–not at all. The writing is clear and concise–very clean. The more I read about each character, the more eager I became to see what they were doing and thinking and saying.

I just didn’t like that in the beginning, you can’t really tell what’s real and what isn’t–the black horses and the fog and whether there is a murder or not, and who is hysterical and who isn’t. But as the book went on, it just didn’t matter because I was so into the characters.

Klimdt painting woman in goldIf you enjoy literature and history, this book will knock your socks off. It’s so unique. I liked that there were short footnotes explaining obscure references, like the one about the Dreyfus Trial, and then I enjoyed Googling to learn more.

Vienna is kind of a character in the story–the characters have strong opinions about the city. The Inspector was born there but hates it. He lives in Paris and has a bit of a nervous breakdown when his superiors ask him to return to solve these murders.

The Countess loves it; Freud has made it his home and I suspect in part because Vienna is a Jewish cultural center and has a Talmudic rabbi school established by Emperor Franz  Josef. The Emperor is protective of “his Jews” which makes it a real shame when later on, the Nazis erase all of the tolerance present in this time period. There is some foreshadowing in the book that will make you shiver!

The Spanish riding school at the Hofburg palace...Lippizaner stallions
The Spanish riding school at the Hofburg palace…Lippizaner stallions

As with most cities, there are suggestions that the sophisticated city folk are lazy hedonites who are morally bankrupt or corrupt or just too decadent.

Indeed, Vienna, with its cathedral crypts and sachertorte and sidewalk cafes and performances of T.S. Eliot is not the Austria I knew as a Bavarian exchange student. Not for these characters the rustic ski lodges of Schladming nor the ancient apple orchards of Graz or the small pink churches and cross-country ski fields of Peiting or the mountainous splendor and small-city feel of Salzburg. Not for them the homemade EidelweiB schnapps from a grandfather’s still.

castle in ViennaNo, these are rich people, famous people, doing what the rich and famous do. Swanning about in beautiful clothes, getting into ridiculous arguments about abstract theories at dinner parties, sleeping around and in general behaving badly. And what fun it is. They drive too fast, they speak too loudly, they behave in petty and prejudiced and gratuitous ways.

At one point Leopold, the Countess’s much-scorned husband, says that Africans are savages–they wear no clothes, they live in huts, and they speak barbaric languages. He is completely unaware of his own bias! He knows the Countess sleeps around, and not with him, but he doesn’t confront her for fear she will leave him, and then he would lose his possession of a beautiful woman. Her beauty as an object he owns brings him pleasure. UGH

map of Austria circa 1815I had to wonder if Carol the author had written herself into the story, because the young American Cecily has an outburst at Henry James and Edith Wharton, saying that unless they put her into fiction she will not live forever, but will disappear. She criticizes James’s writing, saying he should have been better to Lily Bart, that his readers and his characters deserve more. My sentiments exactly! She also asks which of the two authors’ works will still be widely read in 100 years. She obviously favors James, but I think it might be The Age of Innocence by Wharton. HMMM. I did read Portrait of a Lady in school but I didn’t like it.

Two Not Very Beautiful People Who Wrote Beautifully

Henry James
Henry James
Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton










It’s ironic that Cecily doesn’t like Wharton, feeling her to be in competition for the attention of James, which is all a moot point as James is quite clearly gay. Well, maybe it wasn’t so clear during the fin de siècle. But it sure is now. Cecily’s Aunt Ida doesn’t really like Wharton either, being a bluestocking feminist, because Wharton doesn’t stand up for women, even being a female author. Still Wharton is a likeable character with a lot of drive (pardon the pun).

Rating: Rush right out and buy this book. Then spend three days reading it and another three Googling. Five therapists’ couches!



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