From Mayerling to Sarajevo

From Mayerling to SarajevoLast Wednesday, I was glad to have the opportunity to see Max Ophüls’s 1940 film De Mayerling à Sarajevo (aka Mayerling to Sarajevo or just Sarajevo). It’s been making the rounds for its 75th anniversary, and it had short run at the AFI Theater in Silver Spring.
I was eager to see it for two reasons. First because for the past few weeks I’ve been working closely with Vejas Liulevicius, a professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and the author of War Land on the Eastern Front and The German Myth of the East. He’s done several lecture series for The Great Courses, including one on the Great War. I learned so much from him about the role of Slav nationalism in Eastern Europe during the buildup to the First World War, and it was an utterly fascinating and unforgettable experience working with him.
My second reason for being interested in Ophüls’s film is that the novel I plan to write after the one I’m currently researching will be set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1913. Like Robert Musil in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, part of the idea will be to use the reader’s awareness of the impending war, and the fact that it will bring an end to the 600-year-old empire, as a source of irony.

Ultimately, Princip accomplished his goal: the dissolution of the empire…

Ophüls puts the same idea to dramatic effect in his film. In the guise of a typical romance, he tells the story of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek. They meet, they fall in love, and (spoiler alert) they’re assassinated in the streets of Sarajevo, an event which gives rise to the Great War. Though he is Franz Josef’s nephew and heir, Franz Ferdinand’s ideas about a United States of Austria have made him an enemy of his uncle and his ministers. The emperor sends Franz running about the empire with the army, which it turn makes the heir a target for nationalist factions such as the Serbian separatist movement, the Black Hand. Gavrilo Princip is briefly seen preparing for his history-making moment, and again taking his fatal shots, but otherwise the film concentrates on the love between the archduke and his wife.
The overarching irony–from the moment we meet Franz and then Sophie we know they are dead–is extremely moving. Every moment of romantic expression between them is oppressively heavy with the recognition that they’re doomed. And as the plot advances, the machinations of the characters and the minor choices of Sophie–most painfully her insistence on accompanying her husband in the car after they’ve already been attacked with a bomb–conspire to intensify our dread.
It’s really a wonderful movie, and surprisingly modern in its acting style. The casual and very believable interactions between husband and wife build tremendously sympathy for them. Ophüls conveys a lot about his characters in quick strokes, as when the two new lovers ride together in a cab and Sophie insists Franz return to Vienna despite both of them longing to stay in each other’s arms.
The only disjunctive moment, in fact, is the ending, where the film swings abruptly into an advertisement for the war effort in France. Of course, given that the film came out in 1940 and that Ophüls was a German Jew who fled his homeland after the Reichstag fire, the prowar rhetoric is certainly called for and we can all get on board with the anti-Nazi message. But it does take us rather suddenly out of an otherwise intimate story in a way that is a little jarring.

A Slice of Crimes …


Last week, I submitted an application to attend the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference at St. Francis College in September. They requested a 250-500 word writing sample, and so I sent in this brief excerpt from my novel The Crimes of Paris:

Forgetting myself for a moment, I reach across the table and briefly caress Elena’s bare arm. I pull back with a start. She does not open her eyes, she just keeps smiling. And I have a sensation like we’re slowly slipping toward each other.  In that moment, I think to myself that perhaps Elena’s solution to my problem of meeting someone here is not so silly after all.

We finish our wine, and I offer to walk her back to the métro at Saint-Paul. As we make our way west along the rue Saint-Antoine, she slips her arm beneath mine with a friendly smile. I squeeze her elbow in the crook of my arm, and suddenly we have a spring in our step despite our tired feet.

— I’m sorry the day has to end so soon, she says as we reach the entrance to the station.

— Me, too. But we’ll see each other again next week, I hope.

— Yes. Definitely, yes.

And then the bises …

I don’t need to have an affair with Elena, I tell myself. All I really need are the good-bye bises at the end of our afternoons together, that whiff of her vanilla-jasmine perfume and the briefest touch of her soft warm brown skin, and the feeling of holding her hands in mine and lingering in the moment. It’s an act of love-making in miniature, the way we say farewell – whether Elena knows this or not. My senses are so heightened to it that it seems to draw out for a full minute, and I savor every second of her. And today – maybe it’s the wine – it feels even more intense, like when you’re close-dancing for the first time as a boy, getting that first noseful of a girl’s perfume. As I move to kiss Elena’s other cheek, I very nearly lift her chin and kiss her lips instead.

But I don’t. And she waves back at me as she descends the stairs, and I watch her leave, happy to have spent the day with her and sad to see her go.

I wander all the way home wondering about Elena.

I was pleased to hear today that I was accepted to the conference, so I’m looking forward to heading up to Brooklyn this fall!

A Pleasant Surprise from a Great Poet

Several weeks ago, I came across an ad for a new novel by the poet X. J. Kennedy called A Hoarse Half-Human Cheer. Just beneath it was a promotion: readers were invited to send Mr. Kennedy an e-mail for a chance to win a free copy.

I’ve taught several English classes using The Bedford Reader and The Bedford Guide for College Writers, which are among the scores of anthologies and writing guides written and/or edited by Mr. Kennedy. But the real reason for my interest was that since my freshman year of college I’ve admired his poems “Nude Descending a Staircase” and “Nothing in Heaven Functions as It Ought.”

I wrote a brief e-mail, noting that I was surely too late to win a copy of his book and instead taking the opportunity to thank him for writing one of my favorite poems and to wish him well on his newest book. After sending the message, I realized that his “new” novel came out last July. I wasn’t too surprised when I didn’t hear back.

Cut to this afternoon at work … The fifth floor receptionist e-mailed to let me know I’d received a package. I went up to get it, and what an unexpected surprise!




And inside?