Die Strudlhofstiege – the Strudlhof Steps

Die Strudlhofstiege – the Strudlhof Steps

This entry represents an intermezzo between my articles on the music of exile and the music of “Inner return”. I’ve changed my Facebook profile picture to that of an urban stairwell. After 15 years of living at the top of Vienna’s 9th District urban steps known as the die Strudlhofstiege, or the Strudlhof Steps, it seemed beholden of me to read Heimito von Doderer’s Austrian roman à clef with the same name: Die Strudlhof stiege oder Melzer und die Tiefe der Jahre – The Strudlhof Steps – or Melzer and the Depth of Years.

My apartment block in the Strudlhofgasse

As soon as I moved into my flat on the second floor of a Biedermeier house next to Palais Berchtold, I picked up Doderer’s meandering novel before giving up after 100 pages. Doderer is the master of run-on sentences and rambling sub-clauses. He’s virtually untranslatable. He’ll write a sentence such as “Miss X was previously married to so-n-so, which for our purposes is of no real importance and can be usefully ignored…” before going on without so much as a full-stop to tell us in detail about the previous life of Miss X and all of the things that are of no relevance to the immediate narrative. (Such as it is) The reader never knows when he or she finds themselves thrown into Doderer’s Viennese variation of Proust’s “Madeleine moment”. These occur unexpectedly and can easily go on for the length of an ordinary novella. It may be a relatively short excursion regarding the placement of electrical points for the tramway, or the position of a reading-light over a bearskin rug. Indeed, Melzer’s hunt for the bear in the wilds of Bosnia-Herzegovina is a novella all on its own. These excursions are maddening and I must have put the book down and restarted it a half-dozen times over the years. Even the opening sentence provides a rambling foretaste of where we’re headed. It’s become something of a liturgy within Austrian 20th century literature and is memorised and analysed by countless Doderer fanatics:

„Als Mary K.s Gatte noch lebte, Oskar hieß er, und sie selbst noch auf zwei sehr schönen Beinen ging (das rechte hat ihr, unweit ihrer Wohnung, am 21. September 1925 die Straßenbahn über dem Knie abgefahren), tauchte ein gewisser Doktor Negria auf, ein junger rumänischer Arzt, der hier zu Wien an der berühmten Fakultät sich fortbildete und im Allgemeinen Krankenhaus seine Jahre machte.“

To translate this sentence is to show how untranslatable Doderer is to readers used to concise, journalistic narratives.  It makes him virtually unavailable to English readers.  I’ll give it my best shot, but promise none of Doderer’s poetic whimsy.

“When Mary K.’s husband was still alive, Oscar was his name, and she still walked on two quite lovely legs (the right one having been severed at the knee when she was run-over by a tram not far from her flat on September 21st, 1925), a certain Doctor Negria surfaced, who as a young Romanian student studied at Vienna’s famous medical faculty and served his years at the General Hospital.”

Heimito von Doderer 1896 – 1966

The book appears to go downhill from there. Countless characters are introduced and disappear without warning. In fact, it would be wrong to assume the book was about Mary K. and Dr. Negria, both of whom vanish after the first hundred or so pages only to re-emerge many hundreds of pages later.  People are randomly referred to by first names, surnames, titles or nick-names. The narration is detached third person until suddenly intruding unexpectedly in the guise of first-person both singular and plural before vanishing again. 

It’s summer throughout the 800+ pages of Doderer’s “Strudlhofstiege”

There is no narrative plot. Its 900 pages are the plot. Doderer’s writing is the plot. A telling moment is when one character refers to someone as “starting a sentence, allowing you to go shopping and return before he’s finished it”. The protagonists are all people born between 1890 and 1900. The “action” takes place between 1911 and 1925. The First World War exists as a footnote with loss of empire as a context. Everyone comes from a class that appears to be unaffected by war or poverty. They still have summer houses in the nearby Alps, servants, tennis matches and swimming parties along the Danube. For those of us who live in Britain and watch the reality of loss of relevance sinking in to the people who once headed a vast Empire, it’s instructive to read about the same people who lost an Empire overnight from November 11th to 12th, 1918. The attitudes and gestures remain, but seem ridiculously pointless. And this ridiculousness is probably the book’s “plot”: the people and the place at a certain time in history. Doderer, who was born in 1896 is himself the character René von Stangeler. He’s the nerdy kid headed for an academic education who hangs out with his older sisters and their circle of friends. The Strudlhof Steps are themselves a rotating stage for an army of people, mentalities, opinions, time and place. After being challenged to read the book by a close friend I’ve known since sharing a desk in an Austrian primary school, I’m now more than halfway through but have to admit that it isn’t an easy read. (Note: I’ve now finished it – and it was a slog!) In fact, it’s more of an intoxicating read with the prose of Doderer being the central character, plot and subject. Like all intoxicating substances, it takes time before the effects set in.

the Strudlhofgasse

Yet living at the very top of the steps, I’m constantly asked the questions posed by Major Melzer below, and answered by René von Stangeler. The “scandal” they refer to is central to Doderer’s vague hint of a plot, so can’t be explained in advance. Yet the passage, a typical Doderer departure from narrative relevance, offers all of the answers regarding the historic aspects of the steps as well as hints and suggestions of how the ruling bourgeoisie were coming to terms with their complete loss of relevance. My translation is clumsy in its inability to create the conversational flow written by Doderer who uses dashes, continuity dots and other visual effects alien to English readers to suggest the interplay of two people talking together and often at the same time. Nevertheless, it offers a snapshot of the book and a description of the location of my flat. By the way: the “Consular Academy” referred to is today the American Embassy: Major Melzer and René von Stangeler have met unexpectedly on the Strudlhof Steps and fall into polite chit-chat…

Austrian soldiers 1912, Major Melzer’s men

“May I ask what it was you wanted to know?” he asked Melzer. “Yes” the Major responded breezily. “It’s regarding these steps on which we’re now standing”.

… “And where we stood fourteen years ago, at almost exactly this time” added Stangeler. “Down here, all of us together on that landing” Melzer responded. “After it was all over”, added René.

“I love these steps so very much – as well as their location” Melzer continued, “and I can’t understand how everyone simply uses them without even the merest regard for the magnificent construction on which they trod up and down every day. And it is a masterpiece, isn’t it?”

“It’s pure poetry … so it is” answered Stangeler. “Its secret is its form and very placement: its unveiled genius loci. This characteristic is the basis of all great structures, and it’s something that goes far deeper than mere foundations. It’s the same with the Bevilaqua Palace in Bologna or the Church “Maria am Gestade” in Vienna. In both instances, their location was saved and put to one side and the same applies to the Strudlhof Steps, even if they don’t represent an important point within our cultural history, at least, not for us today. It may be very different in the future.”

Melzer was already lost …

Maria am Gestade in Vienn

Turning to René he said, “Mr. von Stangeler, I actually wanted to ask if you could tell when these steps were built and by whom. I don’t know if you’ve ever bothered yourself with such things, but I supposed that as a historian and in the course of your studies relating to Vienna, it may just have come up.”

“yet,  — why?” thought Stangeler, but answered, “Yes, I can certainly let you have that information. The Strudlhof Steps were built in 1910 – a year before their delightful christening by the older Mr. Schmeller’s scandal – and built according to the design of Johann Theodor Jaeger, who at the time was in Vienna’s Municipal Planning and Building Department. Jaeger was what could justifiably be called a highly cultivated individual – and by the way, he was both an excellent painter and fine musician. These are some of the characteristics you can recognise in the Strudlhof Steps.”

“And do you know this architect Jaeger?” asked Melzer, and since Stangeler shook his head, he carried on with “then how can you know all of these things?”

“From my father” answered René. “I asked him. He knows all of these things in detail, and even knows Jaeger personally, who by the way was a frequent guest of my uncle, a professor at the Technical College and lived in the same block of flats as my parents.”

“I knew that” answered Melzer, while walking slowly, occasionally standing still on one of the upward tilting ramps. “But what was here before these steps were built?”

“Just some fallow land, as one might have said in the past” answered Stangeler. “There wasn’t another set of older steps here before. It was just a bit of the ridge that went from the so-called ‘Schottenpoint’ to an old suburb called ‘Am Thury’. It was a small slope. Little boys probably played cowboys and Indians. As regards the master craftsman, or ‘architect’ Jaeger, as you call him, I can tell you a good deal more, details of which, my father told me. Above all, he wasn’t actually an architect, but a civil engineer and originally, an assistant to the Bridge-Construction Chair at the Technical College. After that, he moved on as civil engineer with the street building unit of the Municipal Planning Department. Originally Jaeger attended a humanist high school, but subsequently changed to a vocational college. These are two aspects that need to be taken into consideration when comparing the Strudlhof Steps to any other work of pure engineering. What you see here is something conceived within the deepest depths of its creator before being rejected. What could a mere engineer know about genius loci?! He would simply purge it with his own issues rather than reveal it, as Jaeger did, composing an ode in four verses by building these steps. Only a humanist could manage something like that. This work shows more of a deep inner life than just a run-of-the-mill engineering biography. It is here one sees the yearning of a noble soul transformed into stone, about which, by the way, as my father always liked to emphasise, Jaeger must have understood a great deal. He knew how it should be constructed, since his concept remained completely that of the master stone-mason, all measured according to the cut of the material. He either had a profound knowledge of stonemasonry or it was at least some sort of second nature – rather like the lyricists of antiquity knowing exactly the most complicated measure and quantity of syllables when writing dramatic poetry. It’s one of those things where in all of ancient literature, you barely find a single error of construction. Thus Jaeger was able to move effortlessly in his construction with the materials he had to hand. The result speaks for itself. These are the steps in the grove of genius loci: only secondarily do they serve the public.”

original architectual dreawing of the Strudlhof Steps

“And why are they called the Strudlhof Steps?”  Melzer asked abruptly. They had come to a halt and were leaning on one of the railings. “It’s named after a painter” answered René. “Peter Strudel – or Strudl. In former times, spelling wasn’t such a bureaucratic, police notifiable crime. I know of an Austrian baron from the 15th century named Gamuret Fronauer who spelled his named differently with every signature. It’s only recently that keeping to a single spelling is considered a sign of cultivated intelligence. This head-master superstition seems to be all that remains of our language these days. Strudl founded the Academy of Fine Arts in 1705 along the same lines as the French Academy; it was a commission from first the Emperor Joseph the First and followed by Emperor Leopold the First. Strudl didn’t live to see its opening. Just above here, where today the former Consular Academy stood was the old Schottenpoint which is where Strudl – subsequently ennobled to Baron Strudl – built his atelier and villa. That, along with his grounds came to be known as the ‘Strudlhof’: hence the names of the urban steps and the lane that leads to them. Are you familiar with St. Rochus Church in Vienna’s Landstrasse?”

Peter Strudl’s painting at Vienna’s St. Rochus Church

“Of course” answered Melzer, perhaps slightly befuddled by the sudden deluge of place-names. At the same time, he felt rather uncomfortable at the distracted tone in which all of this information was being offered, as if none of these facts really mattered very much, or perhaps, weren’t even believed by the person relating them.

“The large painting over the high altar is by Peter Strudl: St Sebastian and St. Rochus looking down on Vienna. And by the way, you can find Peter Strudl’s work in more official locations – at various ‘neurological points’, you might say. When today’s Austrian Finance Minister sits solving problems in his office in the Yellow Hall of Prince Eugene’s Himmelpfortgasse Palace, it’s under the whimsical ceiling painted by Baron Strudl representing the Abduction of Orithya, daughter of King Erechtheus of Attica by Boreas the Wind God”.

View of Liechtenstein Palace from the top of the Strudlhof Steps

After a lengthy pause spent looking across at the stately Liechtenstein Palace below and the city’s skyline beyond, Stangeler remarked, “Moreover, we arrive now, so to speak, to the present and to these most ungratifying times in Austria’s history.” Melzer was bewildered by the information that more than a few of the houses along the Strudlhof Steps happened to belong to the Austrian minister who might justifiably be blamed for the outbreak of war in 1914.

Count Berchtold’s Villa “Palais Strudlhof”

“When coming up the steps on your left, you see Palais Berchtold”, said Stangeler, “while right across from it, the smaller, ochre coloured house of my dreams also belongs to him.”

“Would you want to live there?” asked Melzer, now quite animated.

The “Ochre coloured house” across from Palais Berchtold

“Yes of course” answered Stangeler. “You have everything placed altogether here: the deepest of the city’s depths and at the same time, freedom from the city altogether. It’s the break between the green of the surroundings with the view into the distant city. It’s not the place itself that appeals to me, but nature, while at the same time, I’m driven mad with fear during winter, spring, summer and autumn by the lane’s meandering alley-ways. But what does Count Berchtold get out of it? He doesn’t really understand anything; otherwise he’d be living here and not in Bohemia. He never had any appreciation or understanding of the things he had entrusted to him.”