Nicholas T. Parsons’ Literary Vienna

Nicholas T. Parsons reads his new cultural guide to Vienna

Nicholas T. Parsons reading at Shakespeare & Company Bookellers | Photo: Shakespeare & Co.

Nicholas T. Parsons

Nicholas T. Parsons reading at Shakespeare & Company Bookellers | Photo: Shakespeare & Co.

It wasn’t quite freezing in the oldest neighborhood of this ancient city as I stepped inside Shakespeare & Company Booksellers, tucked into a back street behind the medieval Ruprechts Church near Schwedenplatz.

Arriving at the venerable bookstore without a second to spare, I gave the heavy door a good pull – it clattered loudly against the jam, and the assembled literati turned and glared. I shrugged; it would have opened with a gentle tug. Oops.

Some thirty people were packed into the tiny shop at Sterngasse 6, to hear author Nicholas T. Parsons read from his latest book: Vienna – A Cultural and Literary History.

A somewhat older (I was one of a handful under 30) and largely professional crowd, they were perched on wooden folding chairs sitting on their neatly folded coats for comfort, surrounded on every side by floor-to-ceiling shelves of well-chosen books in English. A browsers paradise…

Every seat was filled, so I squeezed in at the back, as a relaxed man sitting behind a small reading-table began to speak to them from a short platform. “We’re just waiting for my Tonmeister,” he exclaimed looking towards the back of the shop.

Parsons is an engaging Briton of 62 years, who has lived in Vienna part-time since 1984. He has also written a number of popular guidebooks under the pseudonym Louis James – one of his most popular, Xenophobe’s Guide to the Austrians.

Engaging and self-effacing, Parsons laughs easily, and finds humor on every side.

“To invite me again shows a tolerance bordering on masochism!” he quipped, referring to his reading about a year ago of his scholarly effort Worth The Detour: A History of the Guidebook, which took seven years to write.

Vienna – A Cultural and Literary History is a simple tour-guide-style book about the Viennese and the more bizarre aspects of their publicized history.  Full of style and self-mockery, Parsons described the book as a spiritual topography of the Vienna through the ages.

“I chose to write about things usually deemed not marketable by other guide books,” Parsons explained cheerfully as he introduced the excerpts.

After every couple of sentences, the audience broke out into applause, as the author so eloquently presented his vision of this remarkable old city perpetually arguing with itself.

Reading from the beginning of the book, Parsons talked about City Hall and when in 1990 the socialist Mayor of Vienna Helmut Zilk ordered a German flag to be hoisted up on the day of German reunification.  This immediately provoked a Viennese row, claiming that the last time a German flag had been hoisted there it was with a Swastika, and once again all Vienna was in debate.

“… and who are these Viennese?” Parsons read, “Much ink has been spilled – chiefly by people born or brought up in Vienna – in attempts to answer these questions.”

He also took on the city’s perennial obsession with Death, and explained in vivid detail how an Imperial Decree in 1797 ordered all coffins at the Währinger Friedhof (or cemetery) to have a cord laid in attached to a bell, to dispel the fears of being buried alive. But the Viennese are nothing if not tactful, he explained to gales of laughter, and in the case of a suicide, no cord would be put in the coffin assuming the person was no longer interested.

Parsons' Vienna Guide“This order was updated for coffins at the Central Cemetery in 1974,” he went on, “whereby the alarm mechanism was also modernized with an electrical device that recorded any promising sign of movement in the coffins.” The older lady next to me squirmed uncomfortably and her companion made a disapproving face.

As he read about the Viennese, his fascination was contagious, and he was clearly very pleased to have delighted this room full of fellow Vienna-enthusiasts. And respond they did, with full attention and several groans of approval. He also brought along a few of his own translations of Viennese songs and got people singing along as he played old recordings.

When somebody in the audience asked how he pulled this off, Parsons gave a big smile:

“Follow 25 years of Karl Kraus and then try to be a tiny bit as good.”

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