Michael's Reviews > A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888/1889

A Nervous Splendor by Frederic Morton
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's review
Jul 29, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: popular-history
Recommended to Michael by: Hans Carter
Recommended for: History buffs, European Historians, Austrians
Read in August, 2006 , read count: 2

This is an example of popular history at just about its best. Morton takes just a few months in 1888 to 1889 as his subject matter and examines those months in intimate detail, using various well-known names as his focal points, and telling a story as compelling as any novel. There is also a great deal of subjectivity and "historical license" (not to say outright fiction) mixed into the narrative, to make it more readable and exciting. Nonetheless, Morton avoids distorting the facts, and he makes use of a wide range of (mostly published) primary sources, such as diaries, letters, and periodicals.

The central event of this narrative is the murder/suicide of the Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, Rudolf, and his teenaged mistress. This isn't really a spoiler (although it is the end of the book), since the book's blurb tells you that's how the story goes, as does Morton at several points in the narrative. It is seen as a kind of turning-point in Viennese history, an event, perhaps comparable to the Kennedy assassination in the 20th century, which affected everyone in the country and changed the political climate forever. Rudolf had been the progressive, the cosmopolitan, the populist, who might have led the old Empire into the new century with some hope of avoiding crisis and collapse. That, at least was the public perception. Privately, his father prevented him having any real political influence or even important duties to perform. He had to write editorials for a progressive newspaper under a false name and make elaborate arrangements for their delivery in secret.

While that is the central event, and Rudolf and the royal family (and their various concubines) are central characters, they are far from the entirety of this book. Much of it simply paints the picture of Viennese society during the period, through the eyes of notables like Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler, Theodore Herzl, Anton Brueckner and Gustav Klimt, to name a few. Dozens of famous names appear in the short index, and many of them are revealed both in their public and private personas as we read.

I was given this book by a friend as I prepared to depart for graduate studies in German history, and I read most of it on the plane. I returned to it again, after I had been to Vienna once, because of the fascinating ways it came to life for me again when I was there. I recall commenting to an Austrian friend that, "for me, Vienna is still in the 19th Century." Interestingly, she said that, "this is true for many Viennese as well." Vienna is a kind of Disneyland of old Europe, and yet it is also a real city, living and thriving in the 21st century. Some of that contradiction is explored by Morton's book, perhaps only poetically, but nevertheless effectively.
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