I chose the marvelous setting for my novel Little Book almost by accident. Although the story takes place in a number of other locations — the Sacramento Valley, Boston, London, San Francisco — the heart of the story takes place in Vienna, and in the year 1897. This marvelous setting came to me originally in 1974, when I was beginning a year of graduate study at Stanford University. A friend was reading Wittgenstein's Vienna by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, and told me about the richness of the intellectual and cultural life of that city at that time. I began reading that book myself and really quite frivolously began hatching the plot of a suspense story of finding oneself in turn-of-the-century Austria-Hungary and searching for the child Hitler, to kill him. I moved on to other books, and since my novel kept being rejected by publishers, I had time to read and research more and more, which I began doing with relish. It wasn't long before I realized that I had chosen an absolutely wonderful setting. I had been introduced to the writings of Carl Schorske, first a historical journal chapter given to me by a Stanford professor in 1974, then his magnificent magnum opus Fin-de-siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture in 1980. Next came The Eagles Die: Franz Joseph, Elisabeth, and Their Austria by George Marek, then A Nervous Splendor by Frederic Morton, and then later The Viennese: Splendor, Twilight, and Exile by Paul Hofmann. Over the course of the 30-plus years of this novel's life, I have collected a library of over 50 books, most of them either directly or indirectly about Vienna.
Of all that I've read, the Schorske book is the most profound and the one I have read over and over. Schorske's main theme is that the generation of industrialists who created the wealth of the city in the second half of the 19th century raised their children surrounded by art, music, and aesthetic. These children, especially the sons, grew up with finely tuned aesthetic sense but also a sense of rebellion. The result was a revolt against the existing highly structured classicism of their fathers and a huge cultural push toward an individual expression. This fierce individualism became first the famous Viennese Secession of the late 1890s and the all-encompassing 20th-century movement we now call "modernism." At the forefront of this modernist movement were giants like painter Gustav Klimt, musician Gustav Mahler, architect Otto Wagner, and of course, Sigmund Freud, the details of whose life I absorbed through Peter Gay's marvelous biography.
The coffee houses that proliferated in the city were indeed the gathering places and the centers of intellectual activity, and since the city was highly centralized, all the great characters knew each other. In many ways, in exploring my child-Hitler plot, I stumbled casually upon the setting and the period, but the more I read about it the more enthralled I became. The desire to travel there and participate in the rich culture drove me forward in my writing of my story, in spite of the years of rejection. It was Vienna that kept me going!
Of course, part of the magic of that city at that time is the knowledge that it was grandness on the brink of collapse. In 1914, when Austria-Hungary became the center of world war tensions, the Emperor and his empire were in full form. Just a few years later, after the devastation of a horrific war, the Emperor was dead and the empire was totally dissolved. Vienna, which had once controlled a huge portion of Europe, was reduced to a territory not much bigger than the city itself. But that is not the period of my story. In my story, we see Vienna and its coffee houses in full greatness. The arts, music, politics, architecture, and the new science of psychology were in full flower. I discovered in 1974 and carried for four decades the practical knowledge that Vienna 1897 was a magnificent setting for a novel.
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Selden Edwards began writing The Little Book as a young English teacher in 1974, and continued to layer and refine the manuscript until its completion in 2007. It is his first novel. He spent his career as headmaster at several independent schools across the country, and for over forty years has been secretary of his Princeton class, where he also played basketball.
Books mentioned in this post
Selden Edwards is the author of The Little Book