Do not be misled by its title, this is no cheap novel about one happy family’s place of residence.
Early into the introduction, the reader understands that Good Living Street is the translation of the German name Wohllebengasse, the Viennese street that is central to Tim Bonyhady’s story: one that is also his family’s, as he clearly states in the subtitle “The Fortunes of My Viennese family”. A tale that is not all about good living, even though these folks’ early background was one of the wealthiest in the world.
When you open the book, the first thing you see, next to the contents page, is a family tree.
And then you think with awe: this is going to be one of those complicated stories that need a good deal of genealogical skill to follow.
Next, the narrator comes in with his Australian childhood recollections, which include the description of all the works of art and furniture that his grandmother Gretl and great-aunt Kathe were able to move out of Austria.*
He proceeds by describing the quests he himself undertook in order to write this book.
Now, you think, with even more awe: it is going to be another personal account of WW2, and you’ve read enough of those!
But the minute you get past the introduction, you are hooked by a powerful, sincere, and yet razor sharp narrative. The book is not a novel, but the true events Tim Bonyhady relates are as breathtaking as if they were fictive!
And now you think, as you will, all along: this is the kind of book one has to read to understand what made Vienna the most important Jewish city in Europe, when at the same time thousands of Jews converted –becoming Protestants (which we knew) but also Catholics (which came as more of a surprise)–, in order to fit in, and gain access to all the avenues that would otherwise have been closed for them.
Tim Bonyhady leads us patiently, adroitly, through the maze of his Viennese family, highlighting the beauty of their surroundings, the wealth of their everyday life, the fabulous cultural life they led and supported, the incredible strength of their desire to conform – until all hell broke loose around them.
1. The author’s mother Annelore
poses in front of a Hoffmann vitrine,
dressed to attend a ball, just before WW2 broke out.
2. The author's great-grandmother,
painted by Gustav Klimt, in 1903-1904
Photos: Pantheon Books, Yorck
Photos borrowed from this website.
To do so, and in addition to his meticulous personal research, the author used his mother’s and his grandmother’s diaries.
In those days young girls were encouraged to record every minute detail of their lives. These two women were no exception, and their writings are a precious insight into their own destinies, but also into the society they belonged to.
Reading someone else’s private diary could have proved embarrassing, but the way Tim Bonyhady shares them is both caring and delicate. By doing so publicly, he also seems to have come to terms with personal issues regarding his own Jewish heritage. The way he ends the book by dedicating it to his brother is very touching, as is the tribute to the strong women of his family, and to his mother Anne in particular.
Without ever showing complacency, Tim Bonyhady has managed to recreate a by-gone world in which wealthy amateurs supported talented artists and creators, such as Gustav Klimt, Gustav Mahler, or Josef Hoffmann. He gradually makes us grasp the dilemma that his family faced as the Nazis took over. But he also succeeds in evoking another country that we, Europeans, are as little familiar with as were his mother, grand-mother and aunt when they were allowed to emigrate there, saving their lives by the skin of their teeth: Australia, a country which, willy-nilly, they came to call home.
It was hard on them, but these resilient women were able to build a new life for themselves in a safe haven.
Of course, this book brings to mind another one: The Hare with Amber Eyes, and a recent film, Woman in Gold.
However, it does not make us, readers, feel we are getting too much of a good thing. On the contrary, while allowing us to grasp the complexities of the human mind, it also adds to our knowledge of history, and to our understanding of the way societies live and die.
At a time when Europe is once again under the threat of yielding to the jingoistic songs of populist sirens, it is useful to be reminded of how so many families found themselves trapped, whatever their previous efforts to conform. Besides being a precious testimony, this book is a welcome warning in renewed times of trouble.
Who knows, Australia might once again appeal to some of us, and not just because of its kangaroos and surfing spots!
Top picture:Published in the UK by Allen & Unwin, £16.99, 464 pages.
Below : Published in the US by
*Those were said to be part of “the best private collection of art and design to escape Nazi Austria”.