Vienna by Eva Menasse, trans Anthea Bell

All aboard for a moving, rambling, and totally hilarious Viennese whirl
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The Independent Culture

For a writer born in Vienna in 1970, this rambling, hilarious, moving debut novel is a remarkable achievement. Eva Menasse could hardly have first-hand experience of the epochal events she describes: one family's experiences in the Austrian capital from the 1930s to the present. Yet her acumen for diverting (if discursive) Jewish storytelling seems to have arrived fully formed.

The shades of other authors do hover behind Vienna: Proust, certainly, with the wry observation of the foibles of a family and a society, and (in the interstices) the broad-canvas depiction of an era. But perhaps a more pertinent echo for English readers would be Anthony Powell's narrator, Nick Jenkins, in that writer's sequence of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time.

The young Jewish girl who enthrals us here with the history of her vulnerable father, gambling grandfather and imperious grandmother, could not be more different from Powell's Oxbridge Englishman, but there is the same refusal to tell us anything significant about the character through whose eyes we observe the sprawling human comedy. What counts are the larger-than-life characters who commandeer the narrative.

Essentially, the structure of the book consists of a series of shaggy-dog stories about the outrageous behaviour of the narrator's family, notably a father who becomes a famous footballer in the 1950s. The anecdotes are memorable: her grandmother's single-minded dedication to playing cards means that she refuses to leave a game even when giving birth to her son. Then there's Gustl, who marries the non-Jewish Königsberger, much given to malapropisms that quickly pass into family legend. But perhaps the most beguiling character is the father: charming, resourceful and slow to find his footballing destiny.

One of Vienna's most accomplished sections involves his time in England during the war, when he is billeted on his foster parents. Here, he comes to realise that being both German and Jewish in wartime Britain is problematic, as the locals seem unable to spot the distinction. Back in Vienna, we are again treated to inventive, sometimes inconsequential tableaux - conventional plotting is eschewed by Menasse.

There are those who will not respond to the very elements that make this book so unusual, including the non-linear, plot-free construction, but for readers willing to be held in thrall by the narrator, the rewards are many and various.

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