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Mar 2012 Journal

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‘Homecoming to a foreign country’ (review)

Return to Vienna is a short book, but a notable one. In January 1946 the Austrian writer Hilde Spiel returned to Vienna after an absence of ten years. This was no ordinary return: she went back in British army uniform as an accredited correspondent for the New Statesman. She recorded her thoughts and impressions in a journal which she later revised and expanded for publication: Rückkehr nach Wien was published in Germany in 1968.

Spiel returned to Vienna with memories of her own past, but was quickly forced to acknowledge that the city she remembered no longer existed. The present was another country where they did things differently. Vienna was now an occupied city, divided into four sectors in which the wartime allies each pursued their own political aspirations. The fabric of the city was damaged, often beyond repair, but the damage was more than structural - it was also social and psychological.

Spiel visits an impoverished aristocratic couple, living in one room of a ruined house, but her sympathy for them is tempered by the reflection that ‘this couple … have lived shoulder to shoulder with barbarity, except that their own barbarians were softly spoken, quite capable of discussing Goethe or Mozart in well bred tones.’

Re-entering the sanctuary of the Café Herrenhof, once the foremost literary café in Vienna, she is recognised by the head waiter, who, moved by his own self-pity, rewrites her own bitter experience of exile: ‘The Frau Doktor was right to leave. The air raids alone – three times they set the whole city ablaze.’

She also renews acquaintance with former friends, whose conversation reveals the deep compromises they have made to negotiate life under the Nazis. Visiting the journalist Stefan B., she learns the fate of mutual friends, who ‘were not willing or able to spend the war abroad.’ Stefan B., on the other hand, is a survivor: ‘Here is a man who had come to terms with the powers who took control of his country in 1938. An opponent of their ideology, he nevertheless edited a daily newspaper.’ Later she learns that, out of ‘prudence’ and ‘to protect friends’, Stefan B. had even joined the Nazi Party. It was Spiel’s first – but not last – experience of the gulf between those who had emigrated and those who had not – ‘a chasm […] that would never close again’ (The Dark and the Bright).

Not all is darkness. Spiel meets city councillor Viktor Matejka and takes part in one of his weekly ‘get-togethers’. Later, she meets the editors of a new arts magazine, whose efforts to renew a connection with the rest of Europe are ‘as touching as they are praiseworthy’.

Spiel’s ‘homecoming to a foreign country’ references a particular historical moment, but it also prompts the question she never escaped: where did she belong? Years later, Welche Welt ist meine Welt? (Which World Is My World?) became the title of her (second) volume of memoirs. When Spiel returned permanently to Vienna in 1963, her daughter remained in London. Last year (Spiel’s centenary year) Christine Shuttleworth prepared an English version of her mother’s journal: the reader senses it was a labour of love.

Richard Dove

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