‘Lost Letters from Vienna’ by Sue Course

course_lost_letters

2019, 250 p.

When I finished this book, it seemed to me that it spoke much about legacy.

First, there’s the legacy of family heirlooms, letters and stories that filter through from one generation to the next.  Sometimes they are dispersed amongst many members of the family, or more often, deposited with the family member who cares about them most (often much to their own children’s chagrin when faced with the problem of what to do with them). Some families are richer in such legacy than others, and that is certainly the case with Sue Course’s family. If you’ve seen the furniture from the Viennese apartment of Jakob and Melanie Langer and the Gallia furniture in at the National Gallery of Victoria, then you’ve seen the physical legacy of this large, wealthy Viennese family that, as part of the diaspora during the Nazi era, ended up dispersed across the globe.  Then there are letters, and these lie at the heart of this book, written between these separated families over the years and eventually relegated to the top of a cupboard in a modest Melbourne suburban home where they sat undisturbed for 31 years.

When her favourite aunt died in 2000 , the now-retired Sue Course assuaged her grief by cleaning and clearing.

So there I was, getting into the cupboards, pulling out old bags, books, hats and clothes, my husband Laurie’s briefcase, missing since 1962, and there was the cookbook I was looking for in 1965. Squashed in behind all this were hundreds of letters and war accounts, some handwrittten and some typewritten, and all written in German.  The cardboard box collapsed as I removed it from the cupboard, the letters dropping like shot birds falling from the sky.  I began leafing through the skin-thin airmail papers. My German was rusty; I could read it but not scan it. However, what I could determine was that the letter I was holding was written by my mother, Hertha Langer, in 1938, and that others were from her parents, Arthur and Sofie Kary, from that year forward. I was completely overwhelmed. (p.2)

On both her maternal and paternal side, Sue’s family were wealthy industrialists, owning multinational corporations. On her mother’s side there were the Bohm family, who owned one of the biggest hat manufacturing companies in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the Kary family who were the biggest manufacturers of silk textiles in Europe. On her father’s side, the Gallia family were influential in the gas lighting business and keenly involved in the Secession art movement in Vienna. There were writers, musicians; her great-aunt is preserved in a Klimt portrait. Four generations of Sue’s family lived on the Ringstrasse, in a palatial building divided into large apartments for members of the family.  Her parents were secular Jews, and Sue herself was baptised in an Anglican Church in Vienna, just as described in Elon Amos’ The Pity of It All. But in March 1938, when the Nazis invaded Austria to unite it with Germany in the Anschluss, all this changed.

Sue, who was at that time four years old, and her family escaped early, in September 1938, bound for Australia. Others went to America; others again to England and France. Others stayed, resisting the inexorable stripping away of the privilege they had enjoyed. Theirs is not a story of cattle trucks and concentration camps (although one uncle did end up in Thereseienstadt). Through contacts and planning, the family was able to deposit money in branches of their enterprises in other countries, so that when they finally admitted defeat, and submitted to the wealth-stripping of the Nazi government, there was sufficient money placed elsewhere that they could start again in a much more straitened, safe but hostile environment.

The stories of different groupings in this tightly-woven family network are told in fairly short chapters, arranged thematically whilst moving forward chronologically.  Several members of the family might be dealt with in the same chapter which I found at first a little disconcerting, until I realized that I was listening to someone tell family stories, which often jump between generations and family branches.  The family tree at the start of the book was a welcome addition, and I found myself consulting it frequently. Of course, because she knew it best, she spends quite a bit of time on her Melbourne family, which was probably most distant from the rest of the extended family and most removed from European culture. It’s a perceptive, and faintly damning account of suburban life in the 1950s and 60s, in a society that was wary and hostile towards ‘foreigners’, from the perspective of a family that had known -and no doubt expected to continue to enjoy – a much more privileged and comfortable lifestyle and significance.  As Sue becomes a nurse, marries an English academic, has children and becomes a 1950s housewife, the book becomes a picture of suburban life and changing roles, especially amongst women. She is surprisingly candid in some places, more diplomatic in others. The shift to the 1970s and 80s is a change of direction in the book, and one that moves away from the letters and the family diaspora into the realm of memoir. That brings its own problem of how to finish a memoir- something which could perhaps have been avoided if she finished her book with the arrival of the NGV furniture in Melbourne.

But there’s a second aspect of legacy in this book, too. Sue Course does speak about her work with the Darebin Parklands, but probably only a resident of Alphington/Ivanhoe would know just how significant this work is.  For all of my childhood, the stench from the Alphington tip permeated the suburb, drifting in through train windows, and lying heavy over the Darebin Creek. Through Sue’s work, and that of other Darebin residents, that blighted place is unrecognizable today with trees, billabongs and grasses.

 

There’s a subtle irony that Sue’s own legacy will be bushland, while her extended family’s legacy has been beautifully worked woodwork. Both legacies have moved into the public realm, in different ways.

Sue is not an academic; she was a nurse. Her telling of the story of her family is told through relationships, with an increasingly suburban, Melbourne-based perspective as the book moves on. Cultural historian and  environmental lawyer Tim Bonyhady, who is Sue Course’s cousin, also wrote about their shared family heritage  in his book Good Living Street. I haven’t read his book (and I want to, once I’ve let this one settle for a while), but I should imagine that they are quite different books.  For a family whose sense of place in Vienna and its bourgeois society was ripped away from them, their granddaughter is very much interwoven into a less constrained, less affluent and less illustrious community in suburban Melbourne. Using the family letters, she paints a rich picture of a Vienna world that is lost, but she also paints a domestic picture of a family re-establishing itself in a newer world, very close to my home.

Sourced from: A friend

My rating: 7

aww2020

I have included this as part of  the Australian Women Writers Challenge

 

 

2 responses to “‘Lost Letters from Vienna’ by Sue Course

  1. I like the sound of this, and I’ve ordered it:)

  2. residentjudge

    I hope that you enjoy it. The descriptions of her married life are of course familiar to me because she is a local. It’s a simply told story, just like someone might express it if you were sitting down talking with them. But I found myself thinking quite a bit about its unusual take on diaspora and acceptance of lives that turned out to be quite different from what people expected. It seemed particularly aposite in this strange time now.

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