Veliko Tarnovo / Велико Търново

The ancient seat of the Second Bulgarian Empire, this is a lovely place. Ivan and Peter Asen launched the successful rebellion for independence from the Byzantine Empire in 1185.

This is one of the four horsemen from the magnificent monument that honours them:

Veliko Tarnova remained the capital of an empire that expanded across the Balkans before it began constricting again. In 1393 the Ottomans burnt this capital city the ground, though 1396 is the date given for the completion of Ottoman conquest.

Not much is left of the fortress of Tsarevets (Царевец), but its reconstructed ruins drape the hill like a crown. The town itself stacks itself along the hillsides surmounted by its beautiful church. Hristo told us before dropping us off that there is no left or right here, only up or down.

We walked down the oldest street, Ulitsa General Gurko, renamed after the Russian General who led the Russian forces freeing Bulgaria from the Ottoman ‘yoke’ in 1878. We wandered this old impossibly picturesque street with an older couple, and before they left it the man turned back. He spoke little English, but showed us a poor black and white photocopy of this painting kept safe within a clear plastic sleeve:

Grand Prince Nikolay Nikolaevich Enters Tarnovo – painted by Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky in 1883, depicting the city’s liberation. In it General Gurko rides behind the Grand Prince at his left side.

He beamed a contagious happiness. He had found the precise view of this street depicted here, and after waving the picture at us with a final smile turned to follow his wife. I had not seen the painting previously, but I think this is it. Or close to it. It is perhaps not quite far enough down

I was reading The Rose of the Balkans, histories of Bulgaria being limited. I found the highlight to be the many letters included, like this one describing precisely this street only ten years later.

Nothing can exceed the beauty of the rocky ravine through which the northern road winds as it approaches Trnovo. Here and there the slopes are exquisitely green, dotted with forest trees and fragrant hawthorn; in other places tall perpendicular crags obtain the mastery, and frown down upon the traveler to the right and left, while at his feet the foaming waters of Yantra dash swiftly along, half hidden by the luxuriant foliage, as they carry the melted snows of he Balkans to the broad bosom of the Danube. A sudden turn of the road brings him to the entrance of the town, and it is not without a pang of disgust that he finds himself in a dirty, ill paved malodorous street, the closely built houses of which shut out all view of the lovely valley, through which the river winds as it almost encircles the ancient city of kings and priests. The town lies on a rocky peninsula, and it is necessary to descend to the banks of the river, or, if possible, to scale the dizzy heights of the opposite side, in order to appreciate the extreme beauty of its situation. The houses cluster on the precipice like sea birds on the ocean crag, the red-tile roofs rising one above the other in picturesque confusion, here and there relieved with trees and tiny vineyards, which seem literally to hang over the rapid torrent beneath…

— J. D. Bourchier. Through Bulgaria with Prince Ferdinand, Fortnightly Review, July 1888 (272 The Rose of the Balkans, Ivan Ilchev)

The times are better I think.

But this is still a style of building that…look at these eaves, these houses jostle each other in their lots, sprawl on top of each other down the hills.

But of course the city has grown far beyond these old cobbled streets, like all of the other places we have been here, it is ringed by wider more modern streets full of lovely National Revival style mixed with more modern buildings.

And the outer ring? Buildings like the city hall in a modernist, communist style, huge slabs of social housing. And our absurd hotel, the Interhotel, which represents such faded communist grandeur, and gave us incredible views from our balcony, but also a shower possessed by the devil and the most peculiar smell.

This is a beautiful place full of art and life spilling out across public spaces, lovely craft shops, a brilliant book store and of course, cats.

Buzludzha Monument Паметник на Бузлуджа

It is visible for miles, perched precipitous, high on its mountain above fields golden with sunflowers. It is an incredible absurd sciencefictional thing. A flying saucer tethered to a grounding skysoaring shard of concrete.

It sits on earth of great significance, impossible beauty. Site of the last battle of rebel Hadzhi Dimitâr against the Ottomans. He received a fatal wound here, and it was for many years known by his name.

Between 1877 and 1878 a number of battles were fought here for control of Shipka pass, Russian General Gourko facing down the Ottomans, you look down on the monument itself from here.

Then on 2nd of August, 1891 the 1st Bulgarian Socialist Congress was held here under cover of celebrations of the deeds of Hadzhi Dimitâr. There is a monument to Dimitâr Blagoev at the turn off for the monument.

Monument to Dimitâr Blagoev

Some Nazis were killed here as well in 1944, and three partisans lost their lives in the ambush (though Bulgaria’s government under Tsar Boris III officially supported the Nazis until 1944). This massive 1981 installation was designed by architect Georgi Stoilov, as Richard F. Morton writes:

He lists both the Roman Pantheon and the sci-fi films of the 1950s amongst his inspirations for Buzludzha.

It was meant to symbolise all of this history as a museum and meeting space, but after decades of varying types and degrees of Stalinist rule, the fact that it was built with not-always-so-voluntary labour and subscriptions…it is not a thing I can love wholeheartedly. After it was abandoned in 1989 looters (rumored to include government officials) stripped what they could like the copper from the ceilings, smashed the red star thinking the glass to be rubies, pulled down concrete letters to leave them scattered across the grass.

All this and also the villain’s lair in Mechanic 2.

What it looks like today:

What it looked like once (this is borrowed from the best site by far about the monument, with an extensive history and many more photos, especially of the inside which you are no longer allowed to risk life and limb to see. Have a look!):

Beneath it sit this amazing sculpture of unity, two hands holding torches.

After arriving in Veliko Tarnovo, I looked at the book I was reading and there they were again.

We had to get a special tour out here as we didn’t have a car, but well worth it and we enjoyed it immensely.

Boyana Church (БОЯНСКАТА ЦЪРКВА) to Boyana Waterfall

We were almost a week in Sofia before heading towards Mount Vitosha for hiking…it had been so hot, and then stormy. We took the metro to Vitosha station then the 64 bus. Public transport here is a bit terrifying until you figure it out, this helped immensely unlike many another site, especially official ones.

It’s a short walk to Boyana Church, which was amazing. From the UNESCO site:

Located on the outskirts of Sofia, Boyana Church consists of three buildings. The eastern church was built in the 10th century, then enlarged at the beginning of the 13th century by Sebastocrator Kaloyan, who ordered a second two storey building to be erected next to it.

boyanachurch

A schematic drawing of the church from the church website:

The frescoes in this second church, painted in 1259, make it one of the most important collections of medieval paintings. The ensemble is completed by a third church, built at the beginning of the 19th century. This site is one of the most complete and perfectly preserved monuments of east European medieval art.

The frescoes are amazing. We were lucky enough to be the only ones there for a short time — having walked from the bus there was no press of people, no time limit. The caretaker gave us some beautiful stories behind the depictions. Photos are not allowed and are in short supply on the internet, my favourite there is not be found. A poet, whose eyes watch you wherever you are in the church. They are vivid and very beautiful, what photos do exist do not come anywhere close to capturing them. But I recognised the crowns of these immediately that we had seen the day before at the National Museum of History where they have been copied and sit on display. This is Tsar Constantine Asen Tikh and Tsaritsa Irina:

From there we walked up the hill to find the trail up to Boyana waterfall. We weren’t quite prepared for an hour and a 45 minutes or so of steep uphill climb with little break to get there, the guide book might have been a little more explicit. But the woods were beautiful, the falls lovely, and we did have some cheese and wine to work off.

Coming back down we encountered these amazing creatures — Dryocopus martius — their calls are quite eerie in an almost silent forest. Apparently if you can imitate them they will come find you. If only we had known, we chased them down switchbacks through the trees but they caught on to our game soon enough.

The mountain now, and some of its wonders:

boyanawaterfall

boyanachurch

The waterfall

We were up and back in around two and a half hours, then walked down the hill to Cinecitta Osteria Italiana, who let us in despite being a little more dishevelled than the other guests and having no reservation. A delicious meal. Glorious day.

Pynchon on the collective history of garbage

Been reading so much about the struggle for environmental justice and the political economies of garbage (Julie Sze’s Noxious New York), funny to find these passages here helping bring some of the contradictions a little more alive:

Under the high-arching openwork of the Bayonne Bridge. Oil, storage tanks, tanker traffic forever unsleeping. Addiction to oil gradually converging with the other national bad habit, inability to deal with refuse. Maxine has been smelling garbage for a while, and now it intensifies as they approach a lofty mountain range of waste. Neglected little creeks, strangely luminous canyon walls of garbage, smells of methane, death and decay, chemicals unpronounceable as the names of God, the heaps of landfill bigger than Maxine imagines they’d be, reaching close to 200 feet overhead according to Sid, higher than a typical residential building on the Yupper West Side.

Sid kills the running lights and the motor, and they settle in behind Island of Meadows, at the intersection of Fresh and Arthur Kills, toxicity central, the dark focus of Big Apple waste disposal, everything the city has rejected so it can keep on pretending to be itself, and here unexpectedly at the heart of it is this 100 acres of untouched marshland, directly underneath the North Atlantic flyway, sequestered by law from development and dumping, marsh birds sleeping in safety. Which, given the real-estate imperatives running this town, is really, if you want to know, fucking depressing, because how long can it last? How long can any of these innocent critters depend on finding safety around here? It’s exactly the sort of patch that makes a developer’s heart sing—typically, “This Land Is My Land, This Land Also Is My Land.”

Every Fairway bag full of potato peels, coffee grounds, uneaten Chinese food, used tissues and tampons and paper napkins and disposable diapers, fruit gone bad, yogurt past its sell-by date that Maxine has ever thrown away is up in there someplace, multiplied by everybody in the city she knows, multiplied by everybody she doesn’t know, since 1948, before she was even born, and what she thought was lost and out of her life has only entered a collective history, which is like being Jewish and finding out that death is not the end of everything–suddenly denied the comfort of absolute zero. (166-67)

Here this ‘looming and prophetic landfill, that perfect negative of the city in its seething foul incoherence)’ becomes a possible place to follow the links through into refuge.

Now it is a park. NY, however, still needs places to send its garbage.

Pynchon, Thomas (2013) Bleeding Edge. New York: Penguin Press.

Colin ward is Talking Houses

This is a great, quite a short introduction to some of Colin Ward’s thinking about housing. Written from an anarchist viewpoint, it shows just how fruitful this critique can be of a lumbering, one-size-fits-all and paternalistic state building programme (not that I wouldn’t trade that for anything we’ve had since). It also opens up new ways of thinking, planning, building housing better the next time around I think, and of how we might transform what we have left. These are just a handful of insights.

Above all I appreciate his central point, reiterated over and over again (and these are, mind you, a series of talks given in different places over different points of time, so a very accessible way into his thinking, but a little repetitive as well) that the key to it all is dweller control not ownership. You don’t need to own a place to make it home, but we (almost) all have that desire for a safe and secure place that we can make our own. Ward writes:

The application of anarchist ideas to the basic need of human shelter is dweller control and it is evident to me that people draw their inspiration from what other people actually succeed in doing. Not the affluent, who take dweller control for granted because they have freedom of choice, but ordinary fellow citizens facing every kind of difficulty because the system doesn’t cater for their aspirations. (7)

He did so much, like John Turner, to help show just what it was other people were doing.

He describes 3 revolutions in housing expectations bringing us into the present:

  1. Revolution in tenure: Before the first world war the norm, for both rich and poor alike, was renting in the private market. (7)
  2. Revolution in services and housing densities: Domestic service or some level of help common quite far down the social scale, replaced by mechanisation. Density extremely high in city centres. ‘Both demographic changes and decentralisation have had a liberating effect‘ (8)
  3. Revolution in the nature of households: A century of housing for nuclear households, now a minority

He also notes, ‘the landlord-tenant relationship has never, through all of history, been a happy one.‘ (9)

That made me laugh out loud.

The Do It Yourself New Town (1975)

The philosopher Martin Buber begins his essay Society and the State with an observation from the sociologist Robert MacIver that “to identify the social with the political is to be guilty of the grossest of all confusion, which completely bars any understanding of either society or the state”. The political principle, for Buber, is characterised by power, authority, hierarchy, dominion. He sees the social principle wherever men link themselves in an association based on a common or a common interest. (18)

I like that distinction. It’s maybe too long since I read Buber. Ward goes on to describe the long running connection between anarchism and planning, particularly Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Geddes. Geddes, it turns out, knew Kropotkin, Paul and Élisée Reclus. And of course they lived in times of ferment, Ward arguing that part of Howard’s success with the idea of the Garden City was that it came out at the same time as Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops, Blatchford’s Merrie England, and H.G. Wells’ Anticipation. (31)

His view of the Tudor-Walters Report in 1918 in how it moved away from dweller control toward paternal state ownership — rather a different that received wisdom which focuses on its virtues of architecture and attention to the health of the inhabitants such as that of Burnett in his History of Housing. Ward argues instead that it:

froze out all other forms of social housing in favour of direct municipal provision. Today, with public housing in collapse, we are suddenly discovering the virtues of cooperative housing — a notion dear to the heart of Howard and Unwin which has been neglected for sixty years, even though if you go to a country like Denmark where a third of housing is in the hands of tenemant co-operatives they say to the English visitor, “We owe it all to your Rochdale Pioneers.” (22)

Dismantling Whitehall

Always a welcome title, it might be enough on its own. But no. Even at this period, Ward is calling attention to this key dynamic which has only accelerated over time:

Every change in the allocation of funds from the central treasury to local authorities, in the bewildering changes of nomenclature since the 1950s has reduced their ability to decide for themselves. General Grants, Block Grants or Rate Support Grants have each been heralded by sales talk about more local discretion, but in fact each, while apparently giving greater freedom to local authorities, has been used to reduce their freedom of manoeuvre and their ability to select their priorities (49).

It has also, of course, reduced funding time and time again.

Until We Build Again

Again, for Ward the real point is that we needed space for many different kinds of housing — for various forms of cooperatives, self-builds and sweat equity. That we could have had a much different kind of city, with an entirely different relationship between residents and their built environment.

There was a phrase used about Gandhi by Vinoba Bhave. He said, ‘Gandhiji used up all the moral oxygen in India and the British Raj suffocated”. In the same way we might say that the direct provision of housing for rent by local councils used up all the inventive capacity of councils, and the alternatives never got a chance, they were suffocated. Now is the time to nurture the alternatives… (59)

Again the point that people step into responsibility for space if it is offered and they have the resource (though of course, the continual inventiveness around securing resource are legend). These trajectories of investment and decline are made visible street by street:

Most of us are familiar with the paradox that the life or death of buildings was decided by a line drawn on a map on the centreline of a road. One one side houses were demolished as unfit for human habitation, and were eventually replaced by flats that declined from the moment they were occupied. On the other, identical houses were sold off on the private market and improved by their purchases, making use of improvement grants and DIY. There was no magic about their success. It depended on access to resources and upon the opportunity to use one’s own resourcefulness , which is the concomitant of the dweller being in control. (60-61)

He gives a few examples of where alternatives were supported to flourish: some of the policies in Glasgow, supporting co-ops and urban homesteading in Easterhouse, The Lewisham Self Build Association, co-operative development agencies in Liverpool…

Direct Action for Working-Class Housing

I still haven’t read Gorz, he has been on my list for years. Precisely because of quote like this:

Classical socialist doctrine finds it difficult to come to terms with political and social pluralism, understood not simply as a plurality of parties and trade unions but as the co-existence of various ways of working, producing and living, various and distinct cultural areas and levels of social existence…Yet this kind of pluralism precisely conforms to the lived experience and aspirations of the post-industrial proletariat, as well as the major part of the traditional working class. (68)

This dynamic is as visible in housing as anywhere else, where of course the impulses were utopian but they were also imposed top down. For Ward, in evaluating the work of local authorities post-war who believed only large-scale solutions, the results were tragic:

When they ran out of bomb sites they made themselves a second blitz. Colin Jones has shown how the self-confident rush to destroy the past in Glasgow and Liverpool has resulted in a new housing loss and Graham Lomas demonstrated in 1975 how in London more fit houses had been destroyed than had been built since the war. (73)

Anarchy or Order? The Planner’s Dilemma (1985)

Ward writes

… our present misgivings and dilemmas about the role of planning in society are not the product of the energy crisis, nor of the collapse of the job market, nor of the present government’s ideology. They go back to fundamental differences in the world view of those whose version of the origins and functions of planning is that it is a popular movement associated with non-professionals like Ebenezer Howard, Patrick Geddes and F. J. Osborn and the whole garden cities movement that evolved with the TCPA, and those who see it as an extension of the sanitary reforms of the last century and governmental intervention in the housing market, with a hierarchy of professional expertise in local and central government administering the very comprehensive legislation for controlling land use that has accumulated since 1947.

I think this is a key tension in planning (though still struggle a bit with Howard as a proponent of bottom-up popular housing, I don’t know enough about Geddes or Osborn to feel much either way about them). But I do think this has all too often been true — a quote from Bruce Alsop:

It is astonishing with what savagery planners and architects are trying to obliterate working-class cultural and social patterns. Is it because many of them are first generation middle-class technosnobs? (85 – from (Towards a Humane Architecture, 1974)

Part of me responds to these great utopian visions of past planners and some of the brutalist building here in the UK, but I am more at ease with this suspicion in the long run:

If we have to polarise our attitudes between order and disorder, I fear order most, because I know that the order that will be imposed is the order of the secure and privileged. Socialist planners like Sharp thought that they were restraining the disorder of get-rich-quick capitalist entrepreneurs, when in fact they were trampling on the invisible order of those who just want a chance, as J. B. Priestley put it, to “get on with their own lives”. (92)

An Anarchist Approach to Urban Planning

Another great quote — one of the things I have loved about reading these is finding other people to look up and read. Like Giancarlo De Carlo:

The first main attitude is based on two principle arguments. Firstly that authority cannot be a liberating agent — perfectly true; secondly, that man [and of course today he would say man and woman] can do nothing until he is free — a mistaken view. Man cannot be liberated, he must liberate himself, and any progress towards that liberation can only be the conscious expression of his own will. The investigation of the full extent of the region, city and home, is such an activity. To find out the nature of problems and to prepare their solutions is a concrete example of direct action, taking away the powers of authority and giving them back to men [and women].

The attitude of hostility that really means “waiting for the revolution to do it”, does not take into account the fact that the social revolution will be accomplished by clear heads, not by sick and stunted people unable to think of the future because of the problems of the present. It forgets that the revolution begins in the elimination of these evils so as to create the necessary conditions of a free society. (124)

I also love, and had never before heard of, the ‘rungs’ of Arnstein’s ‘Ladder of Participation’. Climbing up from the bottom, these are:

Citizen Control
Delegated Power
Partnership
Placation
Consultation
Informing
Therapy
Manipulation

The top 5 are all too familiar, the top one what we always struggled to achieve. Ward writes:

I have always found Arnstein’s Ladder a very useful measuring-rod which enables us to get behind the barrage of propaganda and decide whether any particular exercise in “public participation” is merely manipulation or therapy, or often deception (which found no place on Arnstein’s ladder — but should have done). (126)

He is also clear about his critique of council housing from this perspective, and aware of where else the critique was coming from:

Because there is a political no-person’s-land which Mrs Thatcher and her advisers are colonising from the Right, and which you and I are colonising from the Left. Don’t be disconcerted about this. The wilderness is a good place to be, just because it’s a location for initiative, experiment, wild hopes and lost causes. (137)

Looking back now I would argue we can say this hope that such a wilderness could be inhabited without being colonised entirely by neoliberalism facilitating real estate as a key economic driver was a lost cause. Looking back now, and in comparing the UK to the States, you could argue that for all its faults, the vast numbers of council houses meant a depressed property market, created conditions in its margins for wild hopes, initiative and experiment no longer possible in many cities across the globe under accelerating financialisation. Not good enough, but better than where we are now. Because I am all for those hopes and experiments, and I do wish resources had been forthcoming to support them in broad, mutually sustaining ways. Even just a bunch of plain old co-ops. I am still a bit mournful reading this:

I don’t think that anyone here will now claim that the role of local authorities is that of a direct provider. We have been through that syndrome for several lifetimes, and it has taken the present government to break the connection, using thoroughly dishonest slogans about “setting the people free” (138)

Depressing, but this importance of dweller control to the dwellers themselves seems to resonate so strongly — what if we had had that impulse from the beginning, where would Right to Buy have been? Would the steady government centralisation of funding and control if not of responsibility have been the same on such a foundation? Could a central government austerity have stripped council after council, community after community of almost everything and given it away to its cronies? Ward could write even then:

Britain is the most unitary, which is to say, centralised, state in Europe, with a few exceptions like Romania or Albania. All political factions are to blame for this. The Left, intoxicated by the idea of conquering state power, rejoiced in being able to override reactionary local authorities. The Right, in spite of a tradition dating back to Edmund Burke, which exalted the local over the central, is equally intoxicated by its current success in finding one way after another of ensuring that local government can be brought to heel by innumerable small administrative measures intended to destroy those Labour Party which it has expanded into an Enemy to be eliminated.

I find this very sinister indeed… (139)

And here we are.

Ward, Colin (1990) Talking Houses. London: Freedom Press.

Christy Brown — Dublin Streetscape in snow

THE HOUSES stood like squat, disgruntled cocker spaniels along the snow-mantled streets, wearing thick woolen snow-white shawls puckered by the black-ribbed line of gutters running along the sides of the rooftops, the serrated slates showing thinly in thawing patches. Where the main traffic ran a long mushy path of dirty-brown slush had been churned up; kids were already making slides down the road, using for toboggans frames of prams long outgrown by the babies who had used them, the lids off ashbins and sheets of tin uprooted from backyard railings. At first the snow had fallen in heavy, slanting veils, obscuring everything between ground and sky, mounting thickly on pavements and the golden-privet hedges of the little square front gardens, blocking the front paths until the men had to come out with jackets buttoned up to the neck and heavy Russian boots to shovel a passage through the encrusted snow for their womenfolk to get to and from the shops; then slowly it had thinned out and rare bits of sky broke the uniform dullness of the wintry scene, and a weak sun appeared, as timid and weak as a convalescent after a long time in bed.

From the window of the back-bedroom backyard spread out like a checkerboard, cut up into black-circled squares heaped with snow; mongrels prowled for food, moving like dark asterisks on the frozen earth, noses to the ground, snarling and snapping viciously at each other, bony with hunger; the cats walked with a more dignified gait, sliding gently under hedges and bushes, whiskers quivering like antennae, lean backs arched sinuously over bins and buckets of waste pigfeed, crouching under trees, almost hidden, merging with the shadows, ecstatic and intent with watchfulness… (64)

Brown, Christie (1970) Down All the Days. London: Pan Books.

Christy Brown on the dublin fame of andy devine

‘I’LL BREAK your bloody gob O’Shea, if you don’t quit shoving …’ ‘Ah, g’wan and stuff your granny!’

The long beehive, serpentine rows of lumber-suited, short-trousered, butt-smoking boys wound sinuously up the narrow sideyard of the picture house from the derelict launderette to the steel-bolted side entrance, a surging elbow-digging throng of barracking boys whistling, cat-calling, jostling, sly-pinching the hemmed-in behinds of boys immediately in front of them, flailing with gritty fist the would-be queue jumpers, lashing out at the unprotected shins of the offenders with toe-peeping boots, belting the bobbing, jerking napes of those fortunate youngsters ahead in the queue with hard rolled-up balls of paper catapulted from pieces of elastic held between the teeth. Big boys swapped lewd jokes and spoke with feigned masculine scorn about Betty Grable and her famous legs; small boys floated about like flotsam in this unfriendly sea of elders, clasping their threepenny bits grimly in their sweaty palms, whimpering in distress as they were pushed and shoved, some having queued for so long that, helpless to stop themselves, the urine ran down their bare cold legs into their mucky runners; mongrel dogs of a uniform dirty yellowish hue ran up and down yapping and yipping madly, snapping gleefully at shins and ankles at the hoarse encouragement of their owners; a churning torrent of brown boots, white mud-spattered sandals and just bare feet moving relentlessly towards the as yet unopened entrance with just one intent — to behold the corpulent Andy Devine push crooks and badmen about with a mighty thrust of his almighty belly.

The little peacock of a man in uniform on duty at the door stood smugly rocking on his springy heels, hands clasped behind back, a latter-day Emperor Jones…(42)

This…I wish I had read this before seeing the Andy Devine room in the Kingman museum just down the road from the Beale St Hotel where Andy Devine grew up. I adored this.

Brown, Christie (1970) Down All the Days. London: Pan Books.

Howth

So lovely and that place where Yeats once lived in a lovely white cottage overlooking the water and where once upon a time Molly said yes I do yes I will yes or something rather close to that, but no one knows just where…thank god, or they’d commodify that too. It was full of birds and wildflowers and stick men blithely walking off of cliffs and long moments of silence and being alone in the wind and the rain. But also much of the time tourists and Dublin youth dressed like it was 1984.

Joseph Roth: The Collapse of empire

I was reading Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March (1932). A great novel but also another view into this thing called Habsburg Empire. Or the death of it.

Roth writes a world of certainties. Even when fate picked a man up in Tolstoyan grasp to place him in just the right place to save the life of Franz Joseph I at the battle of Solferino (in a war I know nothing of I must confess), it simply lifted him out of the peasant rut and set him on a parallel track under the title and new routines of a Baron. A clean break. A new track. Yet uncomplainingly he continued on to be what his position demanded of him. His relationship with his old peasant father was one of distances greater than miles, silences punctuated by a ritual handful of sentences written in letters.

His son the District Captain is born to and lives on this new track, a life of settled privilege. Just as many silences, preferred by his own son. The Baron is self-contained, unchanging, moving through days of comfortable rituals. I love these descriptions so detailed you can see and smell the glowing gold of their soup.

So lunch was starting. Whenever the music paused, a soft clattering of dishes could be heard from the dining room. It lay three large rooms away from the balcony, at the exact midpoint of the second floor. During the meal, the music resounded, far but clear. Unfortunately, the band did not play every day. It was good and useful; it entwined the solemn ceremony of the luncheon, mild and conciliatory, allowing none of the terse, harsh, embarrassing conversations that the father so often loved to start. One could remain silent, listening and enjoying. The plates had narrow, fading, blue-and-gold stripes. Carl Joseph loved them. He often recalled them throughout the year. They and “The Radetzky March” and the wall portrait of his deceased mother (whom the boy no longer remembered) and the heavy silver ladle and the fish tureen and the scalloped fruit knives and the tiny demitasses and the wee frail spoons as thin as thin silver coins: all these things together meant summer, freedom, home.

A warm golden shimmer hovered in the plates; it was the soup, noodle soup: transparent, with thin, tender, entwined, golden-yellow noodles. Herr von Trotta und Sipolje ate very swiftly, sometimes fiercely. He virtually destroyed one course after another with a noiseless, aristocratic, and rapid malice; he was wiping them out. Fraulein Hirschwitz took small portions at the table, but after a meal she re-ate the entire sequence of food in her room. Carl Joseph fearfully and hastily swallowed hot spoonfuls and huge mouthfuls. In this way, they all finished in tandem. No word was spoken when Herr von Trotta und Sipolje held his tongue. After the soup the Tafelspitz was served, boiled fillet of beef with all the trimmings, the old man’s Sunday entrée for countless years. The delighted contemplation he devoted to this dish took more time than half the meal. The district captain’s eyes caressed first the delicate bacon that silhouetted the colossal chunk of meat, then each small individual plate on which the vegetables were bedded: the glowing violet beets, the lush-green earnest spinach, the bright cheery lettuce, the acrid white of the horseradish, the perfect oval of new potatoes swimming in melting butter and recalling delicate baubles. The baron had a bizarre relationship with food. He ate the most important morsels with his eyes, so to speak; his sense of beauty consumed above all the essence of the food—its soul, as it were; the vapid remainders that then reached mouth and palate were boring and had to be wolfed down without delay. The beauteous appearance of the victuals gave the old man as much pleasure as their simplicity. For he set store by good solid fare, a tribute he paid to both his taste and his conviction; the latter, you see, he called Spartan. With felicitous skill, he thus combined the sating of his desire with the demands of duty. He was a Spartan. But he was also an Austrian.

One of the best descriptions of lunch I have ever read.

I also love this description of language merged with face merged with empire. Only one generation from peasant mind you, even that peasant did save Franz Joseph.

He spoke the nasal Austrian German of higher officials and lesser nobles. It vaguely recalled distant guitars twanging in the night and also the last dainty vibrations of fading bells; it was a soft but also precise language, tender and spiteful at once. It suited the speaker’s thin, bony face, his curved, narrow nose, in which the sonorous, somewhat rueful consonants seemed to be lying. His nose and mouth, when the district captain spoke, were more like wind instruments than facial features. … from the lips, nothing moved in his face. The dark whiskers that Herr von Trotta wore as part of his uniform, as insignia demonstrating his fealty to Franz Joseph I, as proof of his dynastic conviction—these whiskers likewise remained immobile when Herr von Trotta and Sipolje spoke. He sat upright at the table, as if clutching reins in his hard hands. When sitting he appeared to be standing, and when rising he always surprised others with his full ramrod height. He always wore dark blue, summer and winter, Sundays and weekdays: a dark-blue jacket with gray striped trousers that lay snug on his long legs and were tautened by straps over the smooth boots. Between the second and third course, he would usually get up in order to “stretch my legs.” But it seemed more as if he wanted to show the rest of the household how to rise, stand, and walk without relinquishing immobility.

Immobility and silence. It seems to be all they have. That and barracks and symbols. They make Slavic highways move around them.

THE BARRACKS LAY in the northern part of town. It closed off the broad well-kept highway, which started a new life behind the red brick construction, where it led far into the blue countryside. The barracks looked as if it had been thrust into the Slavic province by the Imperial and Royal Army as an emblem of the Hapsburg might. The ancient highway itself, which had become so broad and roomy after centuries of migrating Slavic generations, was blocked by the barracks. The highway had to yield. It looped around the barracks. If on a clear day you stood at the extreme northern edge of town at the end of the highway, where the houses grew smaller and smaller, finally becoming peasant huts, you could spy, in the distance, the broad, arched, black-and-yellow entrance to the barracks, a gate brandished like a mighty Hapsburg shield against the town: a threat, a protection, and both at once. The regiment was stationed in Moravia. But its troops were not Czechs, as might be expected; they were Ukrainians and Rumanians.

So this is part, somehow, of what is holding this Habsburg empire together. These immobilities framed within wild frontiers. A strange, stilted, graceful and hierarchical isolation. Human beings moving like wind-up dolls through an endless procession of similar days. I have trouble imagining such a world, I wonder how visible it was even from where Joseph Roth was writing. Because of course, he was writing from a time when everything had changed. So much you could look back with some longing on this embalmed order of loved and loyal servants, distant poverty and sunday afternoons that in some ways is covered in the same shimmer of gold as Herr von Trotta and Sipolje’s soup.

BACK THEN, BEFORE the Great War, when the incidents reported on these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died. If a life was snuffed out from the host of the living, another life did not instantly replace it and make people forget the deceased. Instead, a gap remained where he had been, and both the near and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they saw this gap. If a fire devoured a house in a row of houses in a street, the charred site remained empty for a long time. For the bricklayers worked slowly and leisurely, and when the closest neighbors as well as casual passersby looked at the empty lot, they remembered the shape and the walls of the vanished house. That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.

This perhaps, more than anything, explains nostalgia. What better way to revolt against mass murder and the speed of your own time.

Yet the empire could not hold. Carl Joseph, the grandson of the hero of Solferino cannot sit a horse much less live up to his name. He has unhappy affairs. He dreams of the peasants of Sipolje. He banishes himself to alcoholism along the borders, amongst those who know they are all already finished. The empire is crumbling, he is in himself proof. He finds his way to disgrace, and his father the District Captain moves all the mountains of bureaucracy to reach Franz Joseph and save their name. Yet the victory feels dreamlike, the ruin of the man, like the empire, remains stark in the face of it.

The district captain shifted closer to the table and asked, “And why—if you’ll forgive me—would it be just as superfluous serving the Fatherland as making gold?”

“Because the Fatherland no longer exists.”

“I don’t understand!” said Herr von Trotta.

“I assumed you wouldn’t understand,” said Chojnicki. “We are all no longer alive!”

It was very still. The final glint of twilight had long since vanished. Through the narrow gaps of the green blinds they could have seen a few stars in the sky. The broad and blaring chant of the frogs had been replaced by the quiet metallic chant of the nightly field crickets. From time to time they heard the harsh cry of the cuckoo. The district captain, put in an unfamiliar, almost enchanted state by the alcohol, the bizarre surroundings, and the count’s unusual words, stole a glance at his son, merely to see a close and familiar person. But Carl Joseph too seemed neither close nor familiar to him. Perhaps Chojnicki was correct and they all really no longer existed: not the Fatherland nor the district captain nor his son! Straining greatly, Herr von Trotta managed to ask, “I don’t understand. How can you say the monarchy no longer exists?”

“Naturally!” replied Chojnicki. “In literal terms, it still exists. We still have an army”—the count pointed at the lieutenant—”and officials”—the count pointed at the district captain—”but the monarchy is disintegrating while still alive; it is doomed! An old man, with one foot in the grave, endangered whenever his nose runs, keeps the old throne through the sheer miracle that he can still sit on it. How much longer, how much longer? This era no longer wants us! This era wants to create independent nation-states! People no longer believe in God. The new religion is nationalism. Nations no longer go to church. They go to national associations. Monarchy, our monarchy, is founded on piety, on the faith that God chose the Hapsburgs to rule over so and so many Christian nations. Our Kaiser is a secular brother of the Pope, he is His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty; no other is as apostolic, no other majesty in Europe is as dependent on the grace of God and on the faith of the nations in the grace of God. The German Kaiser still rules even when God abandons him; perhaps by the grace of the nation. The Emperor of Austria-Hungary must not be abandoned by God. But God has abandoned him!”

This book is beguilingly beautiful. I can do no justice to it.

The sky was very close; a good familiar shell made of a familiar blue glass, it lay within reach, over the earth. Earthly hands had pinned the stars into the nearby sky like tiny flags into a map. At times the entire blue night whirled around the district captain, rocking softly and then standing still. The frogs croaked in the unending swamps. The air smelled of rain and grass. The horses were ghostly white in front of the black carriage, and over them loomed the coachman in a black overcoat. The horses whinnied, and as soft as cat paws their hoofs scratched the damp, sandy ground.

Yes indeed, the district captain had been cheerful and exuberant when he had ridden into an adventuresome region and to his dear son. Now he was returning home, alone, from a lonesome son and from this borderland, where the collapse of the world could already be seen as clearly as one sees a thunderstorm on the edge of a city, whose streets lie still unaware and blissful under a blue sky. The doorman’s cheery bell was already ringing. The locomotive was already whistling. The wet steam of the train was already banging against the restaurant windows in fine gray beads. The meal was already over, and they all stood up. The whole battalion escorted Herr von Trotta to the platform. Herr von Trotta wanted to say something special, but nothing suitable occurred to him. He glanced tenderly at his son. But then he instantly feared that someone would notice that glance, and he lowered his eyes. He shook Major Zoglauer’s hand. He thanked Chojnicki. He tipped his dignified gray silk hat, which he always wore when traveling. He held the hat in his left hand and threw his right arm around Carl Joseph’s back. He kissed his son on both cheeks. And always he wanted to say, Don’t cause me any grief, I love you, my son! All he said was, “Stay well!”

These are the deeper silences, the things that once could not be said.

This conversation sums it up perhaps, from the District Captain’s only friend, who can see further. Who knows old ways are done and the future being built though he doesn’t understand it.

“Things were different back then,” Skowronnek replied. “Now not even the Kaiser bears responsibility for his monarchy. Why, it even looks as if God Himself no longer wishes to bear responsibility for the world. It was easier in those days! Everything was so secure. Every stone lay in its place. The streets of life were well-paved. Secure roofs rested on the walls of the houses. But today, Herr District Captain, the stones on the street lie askew and confused and in dangerous heaps, and the roofs have holes, and the rain falls into the houses, and everyone has to know on his own which street he is taking and what kind of house he is moving into. When your late father said you would become a public official rather than a farmer, he was right. You have become a model official. But when you told your son he had to be a soldier, you were wrong. He is not a model soldier.”

“Yes, yes!” confirmed Herr von Trotta.

“And that’s why we should let everyone do as he wishes, each on his own path. When my children refuse to obey me, all I do is try not to lose my dignity. That is all one can do. I sometimes look at them when they’re asleep. Their faces then look very alien to me, almost unrecognizable, and I see that they are strangers, from a time that is yet to come and that I will not live to see.

Everything was changing, communication and old order broken down, generations split asunder to become strangers. This theme of love alongside utter incomprehension between old and new runs throughout.

Jelacich, a Slovene, hit the ceiling. He hated the Hungarians as much as he despised the Serbs. He loved the monarchy. He was a patriot. And there he stood, love of Fatherland in his helplessly outspread hands, like a flag you have to plant somewhere but can’t find a roof for…But he loved his sons…He shut his eyes when he saw them reading suspicious newspapers, and he closed his ears when he heard them making suspicious remarks. He was intelligent and he knew that he stood powerless between his forebears and his offspring, who were destined to become the ancestors of a brand-new race. They had his features, his hair color, and his eyes, but their hearts beat to a new rhythm, their heads gave birth to strange thoughts, their throats sang new and strange songs that he had never heard. And though he was only forty, the rittmaster felt like an old man, and his sons seemed liked incomprehensible great-grandchildren.

The war comes, and the old is washed away, though this scene of its coming seems quintessentially traditional:

Peasants in short odorous sheepskins, Jews in fluttering black-and-green gaberdines, Swabian farmers from the German colonies wearing green loden coats, Polish burghers, merchants, craftsmen, and government officials surrounded the customs officer’s booth. On each of the four bare walls a huge poster was pasted, each in a different tongue and starting with the Kaiser’s salutation: TO MY PEOPLES! Those who were literate read the text aloud. Their voices mingled with the booming chant of the bells. Some onlookers went from wall to wall, reading the text in each language. Whenever one bell died out, another instantly started booming. Throngs poured from the little town, surging into the broad street that led to the railroad station. Trotta walked toward them into town.

It is the end. Mass slaughter. The end of empires and the birth of new nations. nothing will be the same. The only possible, improbable way to life becomes an existential refusal of what one should be for what one is. This muted demand for personal integrity that Carl Joseph seems to find at the end. That alongside the bubbling up of ethnic identities, nationalisms, dreams of freedom. This is a novel of why things had to change, yet still such a novel of loss in a tangle of emotions almost entirely unspoken.

A timely thing to read, as we face another kind of collapse. Yet I feel perhaps this one will be reversed. Our always-accelerating lives slowed down if we survive at all, but likely lacking in grace. And Strauss.

A good thing to read in Vienna, where Roth lived some time. For a while in this building below.

Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.

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