Saturday, June 26, 2004


By Marjorie Perloff

New Directions, $15.95, 283 pages


Full disclosure, first. Marjorie Perloff is a friend. Like her, I came to the United States as a refugee from Hitler (she from Vienna, I from Frankfurt). We were both wide-eyed little girls from totally assimilated Jewish families, and I see myself in this memoir — the same problems, the same rewards that mark all immigrants, the underlying anxiety, the uncertainty we learned to cover with brashness and pretended self-confidence.

She gets it all exactly right, striking perfect pitch in recounting the minor details of the journey to America and her childhood here: the enthusiastic description by the six-year-old of the ham sandwiches she ate on the voyage (juxtaposed against her mother’s account of the journey’s real dangers, as told in a letter to an aunt in England); the young girl’s embarrassment when her grandmother insisted on speaking to her in German in public places; her parents’ “ref” (for refugee) parties.

Perhaps most of all, there is our mutual connection to the old world despite a fierce allegiance to our new country.

First and foremost, however, “The Vienna Paradox” is a fascinating and lively account of the cultural, political and intellectual time in which Margie Perloff lived: in the Vienna she was too young to remember firsthand but which comes alive in detailed family memoirs and letters, and then in the United States, where she would become a distinguished professor of English and a literary critic.

It’s what a memoir should be, told with wit and insight into a life well lived.

The paradox of Vienna — “On the one hand, [there is] the great imperial city, with its opulent, gorgeous, erotic painting and design; on the other is Hitler’s Vienna … whose housing was so substandard that young men arriving to seek their fortunes in the capital often ended up, as Hitler did, in bedbug-ridden shelters that were breeding grounds for violence and potential upheaval.”

Marjorie Perloff, nee Gabriele Mintz (after Gabriele von Buelow, “the daughter of the great Prussian nineteenth-century language philosopher and humanist Wilhelm von Humboldt”), was born into the Jewish upper bourgeoisie of that imperial city. Her world, like mine, was one of strong intellectual and artistic traditions with Goethe as the literary hero and “Kant [as] philosophical patron saint”; of intelligent, educated parents; of musical gatherings and elegant parties; of celebrations of Christmas and Easter, rather than Hanukkah and Passover.

A day after the Anschluss, on March 12, 1938, when Hitler marched unopposed to cheers into an Austria bedecked with flags of the Third Reich, six-year-old Gabriele, her older brother Walter, her parents and a few other close relatives left Vienna for Rome, home of Gabriele’s aunt Susi, who had married an Italian.

Her maternal grandfather, Richard Schueller, a dedicated civil servant, diplomat and former foreign secretary under Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, followed in July, walking across the Alps into Italy where a telegram from Benito Mussolini greeted him, announcing “L’amico Schueller e benvenuto” (our friend Schueller is welcome).

Once in America, the Mintz family settled in a small house in Riverdale, N.Y., far removed from the grand apartment in Vienna. Mother Ilse, bereft of a staff of servants, did the cooking and housework; she soon went back to school to earn a doctorate in economics and became a teacher. Father Maximilian, an illustrious lawyer in Vienna, studied accounting at Columbia, graduated with honors and eventually rose to a top position in a Wall Street firm.

The world, for little Walter and Gabriele, would be theirs for the taking.

They wanted to be as American as possible, as soon as possible. Gabriele quickly decided to change her name to something more American. She chose “Marjorie” because the most popular girl in her class at Fieldston School in Riverdale was a Margie.

Her parents didn’t object, so when she became an American citizen in 1944, Gabriele became Marjorie. And why not? This was America, after all.

The summer after she graduated from Columbia in 1953, Marjorie married Joseph Perloff, a handsome, Paul Newman look-alike medical resident from New Orleans, and landed a job writing movie subtitles. The young couple moved to London and two years later returned to America, settling in Washington. They soon became parents of two daughters. Joe began his career as a cardiologist and Marjorie enrolled at Catholic University as a full-time graduate student in English.

She began teaching in 1964 and published, not perished, writing on problems of “genre and convention and issues of literary history that blurred boundaries.” But she wanted to become “a different kind of Modernist … of the larger, early 20th century world called the Avant-Garde.”

And “different” she has always been. As she moves through the story of her successful academic career in “The Vienna Paradox,” Mrs. Perloff concentrates on a view of academics, art and literature, rather than on the details of her own life. She writes of the Austrian refugee composer, Arnold Schoenberg, whose manuscripts would eventually return from California to a building in Vienna where there is a family connection; of Schoenberg’s iconoclastic pupil John Cage, and the relationship between the two musicians which “provides us with a nice paradigm for the complex and contradictory ways that Viennese and American artistic culture have interacted in the 20th century.”

While she recognizes the brilliance of the philosophers of the Frankfurt school, such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, she notes with a certain disdain that “they had, after all, never become acclimated to an America they had found, especially in its Hollywood incarnation, wholly inimical to a meaningful cultural and literary way of life.”

She is equally tough on her family, making no excuses for her maternal great-uncle, Robert Schueller, who joined the Nazi Party, or her cousin Herbert Schueller, who considered the ultimate compliment to be that he did not “look Jewish.”

What makes “The Vienna Paradox” an enjoyable read is Marjorie Perloff’s enthusiasm, her refusal to take herself seriously, her wit and good humor and a wide-ranging knowledge of art, literature, politics and human nature.

When she returned to Vienna for the first time with her husband, there was no feeling of nostalgia — after all, she had been a very little girl when she left. “Nostalgia,” she writes, “the longing for a past that has never quite existed, with its concomitant feelings of loss and displacement, is … the inevitable by-product of exile.”

Only when she and Joe visit the Neue Galerie in New York, where the Vienna of the Secession is recreated, with the beautiful designs, the glorious Klimts and the delicious sachertorten, are Proustian memories ignited. It was this artificially created Vienna of kaffe, kuchen — and pea soup — that revived the echo in her soul.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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