She was a princess, daughter of perhaps the most hated king in Europe. He was just a lowly hussar. Their love affair in turn-of-the-century Vienna was to scandalize a continent. The story of Princess Louise of Belgium and Geza Mattachich, stepson of a minor Croatian count, began with no more than an exchanged glance in a park. Yet the princess and her soldier, divided by wealth and status, pursued their devotion to one another through scandal, ruin, madness and imprisonment. Dan Jacobson's brilliant imagining of this forgotten episode of the Hapsburg court brings to life one of the century's great love stories.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Dan Jacobson has written extensively for the Guardian, the TLS, the London Review of Books, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. His novels, short stories, critical works and autobiographical essays have won him several major literary prizes, including the John Llewellyn Rhys Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, the H.H.Wingate Award and the J.R.Ackerley Prize for Autobiography. He lives and works in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
She was a princess, Louise by name, the daughter of a king who was one of the richest and most hated men in Europe.
Her lover, Géza Mattachich, a second lieutenant in the Thirteenth Regiment of Uhlans, was the stepson of a backwoods Croatian count, who had lived for many years in a ménage à trois with Géza's mother and father.
And then there was Maria Stöger, the keeper of a canteen inside the prison in which Mattachich was confined for several years.
Both the princess and the young uhlan (who improperly assumed his stepfather's title) wrote books about their lives.* In these they describe their chaste, honorable, self-sacrificing love for each other and the exorbitant price they were made to pay for it. Not everything they write is to be trusted. In neither book, for example, is Maria Stöger's part in the story acknowledged, nor is any reference made to Mattachich's illegitimate son, whom she managed to conceive and produce during his imprisonment.†
Also involved in the story were Prince Philipp of Saxe-Coburg, Princess Louise's husband, known to her and to some of his friends as Fatso (der Dicke); the prince's lawyer, Dr. Adolf Bachrach, described by a socialist deputy in the Austrian parliament as "a little Jew with feudal pretensions" (ein kleiner Jude mit feudalen Allüren); and the king-emperor of Austria-Hungary, Franz Josef, last but one of the Habsburg monarchs, of whom Louise wrote that "he could have been taken for a headwaiter, had it not been for his uniforms and retinue."* Professor Richard von Krafft-Ebing, the heavily bearded author of Psychopathia Sexualis, a book which before his death and after it gave guilty pleasure to schoolboys in many parts of the world, contributed to the proceedings too.
So did a half-trained black stallion whose plunging and kicking led to the first encounter between Géza Mattachich and Princess Louise. This was on a late spring morning in 1895, in the Prater Gardens in Vienna. She looked on from her coach while he struggled to control the beast. A glance passed between them. Years afterward Mattachich wrote, "I felt as if I had experienced an electric shock. Something had happened to me, but I did not know what it was."† How could he possibly have known "what it was"? That exchange of glances changed his life. Ahead of them both lay assignations, adultery, flight, the squandering of a fortune (not his; not hers either, as things worked out), a duel, imprisonment, bankruptcy, morphine, madness (or alleged madness). Mattachich chose to write as if the consequences of their meeting had been fated from that first moment. Yet he had to work hard, though blindly too, in order to bring those consequences about.
Later the princess took up the running--and the writing. Later still it was the turn of the humbly born Stöger, who made sure that she too played a significant role in some of what followed but who left no book behind her.
Each of them--the princess, the hussar, and the canteen worker--was thrilled by the apparent remoteness of the others' circumstances from his or her own. The improbability of their association was one of the closest bonds between them.
People are what they do. They are what they say. They are what they want. They are what they remember and what they have forgotten; the motives they reveal and the motives they try to hide. They are their bodies, their voices, the movements of their eyes and hands. Beneath these and other such manifestations of selfhood, it is impossible to go. The "reasons" why people are as they are will always remain hidden, not only from outsiders but from themselves too.
Can you give wings to the peacock and feathers to the ostrich? Does the hawk fly by your wisdom?*
Imagine, then, that first exchange of glances between the princess and the hussar. A fine May morning in the Prater: sun, trees, shadows, grass; carefully nurtured gardens and extended avenues in every direction; human voices rising and falling; a brass band shaking the air in the distance; carriage wheels grinding on gravel roadways and hoofbeats falling dully on churned-up sand; the sharp smell of horse dung mingling with the deeper, darker aroma of horse sweat--a smell heady to horse lovers and rancid to others. Imagine, in the midst of this leisured throng, a pair of brown eyes meeting a pair of blue eyes and the passage of an "electric shock" between them . . .
No. Go back twenty years. Imagine a very different garden on the outskirts of another city, Brussels this time, and at a different season. From a distance this one looks less like a garden than a palace or small city of glass. There are buildings like basilicas and cathedrals, their domed or pitched roofs scattered among others no bigger than suburban villas and small cottages. Their walls are of glass and so are their roofs; all are sustained by squared-off or concentric iron frames. Between the buildings are driveways and pathways, open squares, flights of stone steps, rows of upreared stone lions grasping heraldic shields to their breasts. Fountains send spray hissing into the air and the water falls back into star-shaped or shell-shaped urns and stone basins, from which terra-cotta demi-monsters peer out.
Within the buildings a heavy, steamy, breathing growth. Palms of all heights and dimensions. Trees festooned with creepers or swathed in what looks like decaying fur. Multileaved ferns much taller than a man and many feet in circumference. Blooms of every color flaunting their dark cavities and shameless pistils. Leaves of all shapes, some drooping of their own weight, others as light as feathers. A hundred shades of green mixed with improbable hues of silver, custard, purple, scarlet. Textures ranging from silken to something like crocodile skin; from gossamer to cartilage and muscle. Above all this and seemingly intertwined with it hang cast-iron gantries and spiral staircases that look as if they too have taken root and sprouted, emulating the growth around them. Black hot-water pipes of cannonlike bore, ticking irregularly, run around the walls at floor level.
Each house is a miniature jungle, an imitation Congo: the re-creation by the dreadful Leopold II of the Belgians of that huge tract of Africa he is already scheming to own outright. Any hour now scores of gardeners, painters, and builders will be arriving to continue their toil on this make-believe kingdom of glass and jungle. But for the moment all is a blur. It is early morning. Winter too. The coming dawn is a dilution of night's shadow, nothing more. Alone in one of the buildings sits Leopold's daughter, the Princess Louise. She is young, not yet a woman, though her figure is full. She wears a silver wrap tied with a cord around her waist. Her hair is covered by a white lace shawl, and on her feet are slippers lined with white fur. She is Leopold's oldest child, but he has never cared for her. She is not a boy; she will never replace the king-to-be, the only son whom he cherished and lost (pneumonia) a decade before. For this loss he finds it impossible to forgive her. (Her two younger sisters are abominated for the same reason.) She is merely a female whom he has at last succeeded in bargaining away in marriage to a wealthy, undistinguished kinsman.
Imagine now that a shudder of silver shows the child-woman to have moved. She has opened her wrap. She looks down at the nightdress beneath it. The dark stain on it is not large, but it is enough to keep her occupied. She stares at it, holding it away from her body for a few minutes. Her head does not move. Her face is expressionless. As she was to write years later:
I am surely not the first woman who has lived in the clouds during her engagement, only to be suddenly thrown to earth on her marriage night. . . . I am not the first victim of an excessive pudeur, based perhaps on the hope that a husband's delicacy, together with the guidance of nature, would make up for her ignorance of what awaits her in the marriage bed.
However that might be, at the end of the reception at the palace of Laeken, and while all Brussels was dancing in the specially illuminated streets and buildings, I fell from heaven onto a bed of thorns, a heap of boulders. Psyche, who was more guilty than I, was better treated.
The day had hardly broken when I took the chance of a moment's solitude in the bedroom to put on my slippers, and with a cloak pulled over my nightgown I ran to the orangery, looking to hide my shame there. I found refuge among the camellias, and to their pallor, sweetness, and purity I spoke of my despair and the suffering I had been through. Their comforting sweetness and silence, like the chill light of the winter dawn, gave back to me something of the innocence in which I had lived and which I had now forever lost.*
That was her version of her wedding night, anyway. By the time Louise wrote her account she had had decades in which to perfect it; she had rehearsed it for the benefit of a variety of listeners. Among them were Mattachich, lovers who had preceded him, her ladies-in-waiting, and many of the doctors and psychiatrists who examined her both inside and outside the various institutions in which she had been confined. Not to speak of guards and maids. And herself too, of course, for she had a habit--an indulgence that was also a compulsion--of speaking to herself, passionately and at length.
Naturally her husband, the prince, Fatso, told a different tale. He never wrote down his version of events, but he talked about that nuptial night almost as indiscreetly as his spouse. He was a gregarious man; he had a naturally trusting disposition; he felt ill-used. He had rank, money, and a cosseting mama; he lived with her, his brother, and various other members of his family in the Saxe-Coburg palace in Vienna: a huge, bleak, high-ceilinged place, abounding in oversized rooms, faded wallpapers, dusty cornices, musty drapes tied by cords thick enough to keep a yacht moored, oil paintings encased in tormented, gilded, ton-weight frames where more dust accumulated. Paintings of long-dead Saxe-Coburgs they were, chiefly, and of stags with ravening dogs at their necks, to whom kindly death would never come.* Yes, he had all these advantages, and servants in livery, a stable of horses, several carriages, many preposterous uniforms, and sets of day clothes and evening dress. Also an extensive collection of pornographic statuettes in china and bronze, acquired on his travels to the Far East.
Yet nobody took him seriously. Not even his servants. How could they, when he barely seemed to take himself seriously? Oh, he suffered all right; he felt pain; he was conscious of his insufficiencies; embarrassed, even humiliated by his inelegant figure, his high-pitched voice, and myopic eyes. And the grander the cloaks he was obliged to wear, the more hung about they were with orders, stars, sashes, and tassels, the larger the hats of fur or astrakhan, brass, leather, or velvet he donned for important occasions, so the more doubtful he felt about the figure he cut. Especially in comparison with his best friend, his favorite drinking, whoring, and hunting companion, Franz Josef's only son, the doomed Crown Prince Rudolf. The imperial beard he had cultivated, Philipp knew, had not given his circular face the triangular severity he wished it to have; his rimless oval pince-nez and their dangling black ribbon he regarded as another humiliation but was too shortsighted to do without; his gait was a waddle. In short, he was one of those people who suffer and yet are absurd too--and know it--and who for that reason seem to turn their grievances into absurdity and their absurdity into yet another grievance.
Is it done deliberately? How is it done? Why is it done? It is a mystery. Imagine him, then, fixing you or some other interlocutor with his steady injured stare, his pince-nez trembling slightly, while he again tells the story of that wedding night, when his and Louise's marital misfortunes began. Imagine him insisting with his solemn face close to yours, in a high, almost treble voice at odds with his girth, that everything up to a certain point had really gone off all right, according to plan. They'd been declared husband and wife at a solemn mass in the palace and driven in an open carriage across Brussels, with thousands of people looking on. Then they had gone on to the palace at Laeken, on the city's outskirts, where there had been any amount of feasting and drinking to get through.
He and Louise hardly exchanged a word through it all, but so what? They'd never had much to say to each other even when they'd been courting. Or what passed for courtship between them. Each knew the other to be a suitable match, and so did their respective sets of parents. Given that they were cousins about six times over, Saxe-Coburgs both, it could hardly be otherwise. His branch of the family was not poor; hers, as a result of Leopold's depredations of the Congo and its peoples, was on its way to becoming rich beyond calculation. (Yet Leopold never ceased calculating, plotting, driving harder those beneath him, demanding more from every possible source of income.) So who could have raised objections on either side? Not even the long-faced lawyers who had drawn up the papers could manage that.
Still, he knew there would be . . . problems. He wasn't a fool. He wasn't a bully. Or a beginner. He'd had his first real taste of women at the age of thirteen, fourteen, something like that; before then--well, he couldn't even remember at what age he'd started fooling about with nanni...
"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.
Book Description Penguin Books, 2006. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0141017422