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The Big Baroness and the Little Jew : MARRIED LIFE by David Vogel translated by Dalya Bilu (Grove Press: $18.95; 486 pp.; 0-8021-1129-7)

April 16, 1989|Brian Hall | Hall is the author of "Stealing From a Deep Place: Travels in Southeastern Europe" (Hill & Wang) and "The Dreamers" (Harper & Row), a novel set in contemporary Vienna. and

The poet and novelist David Vogel (1891-1944) lived and died a guilty man. For the inescapable crime of being what he was, he was imprisoned three times--first by the Austrians, during World War I, for having been born in Russian Poland (he was therefore a Russian enemy alien); then by the French, at the outbreak of World War II, for having lived in Vienna (he was therefore an Austrian enemy alien); finally by the Nazis, for his most heinous crime (he was a Jew). Vogel died in 1944, probably at Auschwitz.

Vogel's sole novel, "Married Life," was originally published in Hebrew in 1929; it is only now appearing for the first time in English. One infers, on the evidence of this single work, that Vogel learned early to expect no better from life than what he actually got, for "Married Life" is merciless in its depiction of a bleak world in which fate is both arbitrary and supremely malign.

That world is Vienna after World War I, which Vogel knew well from more than a decade's residence--a milieu of economic and social decay. Vogel's novel is peopled almost exclusively with victims and victimizers. Chief among the former is the protagonist, Rudolf Gurdweill, a poor Jewish writer who in the opening pages meets by (malign) chance his cruel complement, the almost-as-poor Baroness Thea von Takow, a tall, blond and fair fury with eyes of steely blue--emphatically not a Jew. Vogel is uninterested in maintaining suspense: Of Gurdweill's first sighting of the baroness, he writes, "Gurdweill could not take his eyes off her. He suddenly felt a vague unease, as if at the premonition of disaster."

When fate is inevitable, premonitions never miscarry. Recognizing this, on some level, Gurdweill embraces his scourge (only the first of many times in the novel that he will court disaster) and his and Thea's relationship progresses with convenient, if highly improbable, speed. At their second meeting, the baroness suddenly proposes marriage--nothing but the title of the book has prepared us for this--and when Gurdweill accepts, she takes him to a shabby hotel room where she attacks him "like a beast of prey," bites him with "a cruel, bloodthirsty expression on her face" and more or less rapes him. For his part, the diminutive Gurdweill nearly faints "with pain and desire at once."

And we're off and running. Vogel's chronicles of the eponymous life of this sadomasochistic couple keeps belying one's conviction that things could not possibly get worse. The baroness is unfaithful, and so open about it that Gurdweill's unwillingness to suspect her becomes ludicrous, irritating. Gurdweill desperately wants a son, and when Thea becomes pregnant she taunts him with assertions that the child is not his (it clearly isn't), yet he refuses to believe this also, and takes sole care of the child when it is born, leaving Thea free for more affairs.

Vogel seems at first to be intending an allegory--the publisher's blurb affirms as much--of the Viennese Jews' relationship with their city: Vienna nurtured an exuberant rise in anti-Semitism between the wars, to which many Jews turned a blind eye, unable to believe that European Jewry's most illustrious and assimilated community could be annihilated by barbarians as comic-book black as the Nazis.

The characters certainly seem allegorical, since they don't stand up well as believable people--none of Gurdweill's sketchy past explains his exhausting hypersensitivity, his chronic need for abasement; and Thea is simply a monster, without a shred of human feeling other than a rampant and unquenchable thirst for giving pain.

But curiously, after one or two nods in the direction of allegory--such as Gurdweill telling his friend Ulrich that Thea has "something of the old Viennese tradition" about her--Vogel fails to carry it through. Thea is actually not much of an anti-Semite: Her simplistic Nietzschean pronouncements about the rule of the strong (the pop-sociology of that period) are directed against her husband not because he is a Jew, but because he is weak, and her sadism is just too energetic, too generalized, to admit of racial restrictions.

Instead, curiously, whiffs of anti-Semitism emanate from the book itself: Vogel makes Gurdweill positively grotesque in his slavishness, repeatedly contrasting his "skinny, underdeveloped, almost hairless" body with the tall, erect and strong Thea who picks him up, throws him around, rocks him in her arms in her moments of ursine affection and calls him "Rabbit," a moniker which is unfair, as the old joke goes, only to the rabbit.

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