David Vogel came to Vienna in 1912, perhaps by train, and I came to David Vogel in 2016, most definitely by bicycle. I was loitering in one of Vienna’s bookstores, gazing longingly at the memoirs of Stefan Zweig, and calculating how many euros I had left and how many books I could buy and still have enough cash left for the train ride to the airport.
Next to Zweig’s book was Vogel’s “Eine Wiener Romanze,” A Viennese Romance. The title sounded cheesy, and the photo, alas, caused me to judge the book by its cover. I bought Zweig’s book, hopped on the rental bike, and hurried back to the hotel.
A year later I was back on a rented bike, back in Vienna, back in the bookstore, and back in front of “A Viennese Romance.” This time money was no object; I had an extra twenty euros burning a fiery hole in my pocket. This time the title no longer sounded cheesy and the photo had become enticing, and I pulled the book off the shelf to read about it.
It didn’t escape me that “Vogel” means bird, and after only a few paragraphs it was clear that this bird could sing.
Although Vogel’s book had been written in the 1930’s, the manuscript had only been discovered in 2012 and published in 2015. The fact that it was a posthumous “find” made me like it even more, John Kennedy Toole-like, and I bought it. Then, I hurriedly pedaled over to a coffee shop and greedily began to read.
Vogel was an outsider, a wanderer, a dreamer, a daringly bold thinker, and a revolutionary writer all wrapped up in shabby formal clothing and hidden beneath a broad-brimmed black hat. He failed during his lifetime as a writer, but his time in Vienna was a dream. Drenched in poverty and introversion, he loitered at the Viennese coffeehouses, dodged starvation with subsistence jobs, lived a Bohemian existence not too far from Bohemia, and did so in the decidedly non-Bohemian, frugal, inward looking, spiritual, quiet life of a mostly ignored poet.
Vogel’s book, “A Viennese Romance,” is a cascading series of powerful pulses coming from the hilarious and observant and wry mind of the protagonist, who, like Vogel, is driven by lust, love, maddening desire, and the grinding conflicts that erupt like geysers as a result of a three-way love affair, which is the book’s central plot. It is one of those books that makes you laugh out loud even as it saturates you with the imagery and beauty and bustle of Vienna before the First World War, the epicenter of culture and thought and science and art and the place that bound those things together to make them flourish, the Viennese coffeehouse.
If there is something more brilliant and fine than reading a great novel about old Vienna in an old Viennese coffeehouse, I haven’t experienced it, to say nothing of the unspeakable pleasure of having gotten there by bicycle.
Despite his enduring gifts to world literature, Vogel himself had a life that was somewhat less expansive, something more truncated. He left Vienna for Paris in the 20’s and like an entire generation of scientists, artists, writers, and geniuses, was later murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
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