A Nervous Splendor

by Frederic Morton

Review by Cathleen Myers

A Nervous Splendor is a study of a single year - 1888-1889 - in the fairy tale city of Vienna. During this year Johann Strauss Jr. wrote his Emperor Waltz; Sigmund Freud, having quit his lucrative job as assistant physician to a Nerve Specialist for the Very Rich, used the term "subconscious" for the first time in print; there was a renaissance of Viennese music, art, literature, and architecture; and Vienna became the Suicide Capital of the world. It was the year Crown Prince Rudolph, handsome and popular heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, shot his 17 year-old mistress Mary Vetsera and then himself at his hunting lodge Mayerling. It was also the year Clara Hitler gave birth to Adolph. For many Austrians, it was the year the Western Dream died.

In its loving attention to detail - the Austrian-American Morton is clearly in love with Vienna and its past - this is a very romantic book and reads like a romance novel, which makes its horrifying climax all the more tragic. The book is also one of the most painless ways to understand both the Fall of the Hapsburgs and the causes of World War I. And Morton gives one of the most balanced accounts of the Mayerling tragedy and the events leading up to it. There are no villains here (with the possible exception of the obnoxious boor Kaiser Wilhelm) and no way-out conspiracy theory is endorsed to explain why a gifted young prince like Rudolf - the hope of European liberals - should have taken his own life and why a popular and ambitious teenager like Mary Vetsera would have agreed to a suicide pact with him. Dismissing the various "murder plot" theories as well as the "tragic romance" theories (Rudolph did, after all, spend the night before his suicide in another mistress’ bed!), Morton gives his own, far more plausible explanation for both the famous double suicide and the scores of other seemingly inexplicable suicides during the course of that remarkable year.

What makes grimly fascinating reading for our cynical X-Files generation are the chapters dealing with the frantic attempts of Emperor Franz Josef’s conservative government to cover up the scandal - only to be thwarted by four unexpected enemies: the telephone, the telegraph, the liberal press and the Viennese ancestors of Scully and Mulder.

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