Loveless lives in heartless cities

By David Herman, May 2, 2014
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Viennese Romance, by David Vogel, Scribe, £14.99; Married Life, by David Vogel, Scribe, £16.99; Two Novellas, by David Vogel, Scribe, £8.99

David Vogel was born in the Russian Pale, a member of that extraordinary generation of Russian-Jewish writers, born in the 1890s, which included Isaac Babel and Boris Pasternak. In 1912, he moved to Vienna, where he taught Hebrew to make ends meet.

Vogel was unable to settle or lay down roots anywhere. He moved to Paris, briefly emigrated to Palestine, spent time in Poland and Berlin, and returned to Paris. After the German invasion, he escaped to south-east France, buried his manuscripts in a garden, was later caught by the Germans and deported to Auschwitz, where he was killed in 1944.

Three years ago, Lilach Netanel, a young Israeli researcher, discovered an unknown work by Vogel in the Gnazim archive in Tel Aviv. This was Viennese Romance. It is still not entirely clear how this manuscript found its way from a garden in Vichy France to an archive in Tel Aviv more than 60 years later. What is undeniable is that, thanks to a number of Israeli scholars, Vogel has emerged as one of the key Hebrew modernist writers of the 20th century. He is now regarded as an influential figure in the development of a new Hebrew literary stance: secular, fascinated by modernity, not interested in traditional Jewish life and certainly not interested in Palestine or the world of the Pale that Vogel left behind.

Vogel is hard to categorise. He was the quintessential outsider. In his life and work, according to one Israeli scholar, “Vogel always belonged to the wrong camp. In Vienna, he’s arrested as a Russian subject; in France, he’s arrested as an Austrian subject and, after being released, he is arrested as a Jew.” He lived mainly in Vienna and Paris but, unlike such contemporaries as Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, he wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish.

The main characters of Viennese Romance, however, are hard to define as Jews. The novel’s central character is Michael Rost, an 18-year-old from the provinces who wants to make his fortune in Vienna. Unlike the typical romantic young hero of the 19th-century novel, Rost is cold and deeply unsympathetic, even cruel. He is described as “chilly” and “dismissive”.

Soon after arriving in Vienna, he meets an enigmatic millionaire and benefactor, Peter Dean. Later, Rost finds himself in a ménage a trois with his landlady and her 16-year-old daughter, Erna, though this is a love triangle with little love.

Vogel’s other novel, Married Life, the latest in the series enterprisingly published by Scribe, is also about a loveless relationship, in this case between a Viennese Jew, Rudolf Gurdweill, and a poor aristocrat, Baroness Thea von Takow.

He is small, anxious, unassertive; she is vicious, dominating, blonde and Wagnerian. From the start, their relationship is violent and it is she who attacks him almost constantly, verbally and physically, driving Gurdweill to despair and misery. Some have read this terrible relationship as an allegory of the situation of Jews in interwar Vienna: they love Vienna and cannot leave it despite the hatred and violence they encounter.

Although loveless relationships seem to be at the heart of Vogel’s novels, what really seems to engage his interest is the modern city. In both novels, Vogel brings to life the poor, bohemian world of rented rooms, prostitutes and cheap cafes. Many of the minor characters are lonely, down on their luck and short of money. All of this is described in the cool, detached prose of a writer fascinated by graphic sex, violence and ugliness.

We find the same tone in Vogel’s Two Novellas — In the Sanatorium and Facing the Sea — one set in a central European sanatorium, the second in a French guest-house by the Mediterranean. Both are about groups of people brought together: invalids seeking a cure and young holidaymakers.

There is much talk about romance and sexual attraction, but no romantic climax. There is little plot, few engaging characters and both novellas are a slow burn, occasionally brought to life by some terrific turns of phrase.

“People aren’t happy here,” says Gina, one of the holidaymakers. Nothing better sums up Vogel’s world. It is one without illusions or sentimentality.

Writing in Hebrew, he captured something new and dark about modern life. He was a clearly talented writer who, tragically, was never allowed to fully find his voice.

David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 10:30am, May 2 2014