Book Review: John Irving’s Setting Free the Bears

After a single year spent here, the best-selling author has never really forgotten the Vienna he knew in the 1960s

American novelist John Winslow Irving was the guest of the Viennese festival Eine Stadt Ein Buch in 2005 as the featured author for Setting Free the Bears | Photo: Eine Stadt Ein Buch

John Irving’s Vienna

It’s a different picture of Vienna: A sweaty prostitute in a bear suit, a man walking on his hands around the lobby of a third-class Pension, a motorcyclist keeping a diary about the guards at the Zoo or other crazy things. Unlikely images swirl around in The World According to John Irving, that draw him irresistibly, again and again, back to Vienna.

After a single year spent here as a young man, the best-selling author has never really left the Vienna he knew in the 1960s, the motionless and grey town of hidden  oddness and contradictions, of myth and imagination, and where he is still living through the lives of his characters.

A Guest for One Year

John Irving’s love affair with Vienna started when he was a 20-year-old American, born in Exeter, New Hampshire, with ambitions to be a wrestler. So in 1963 when his wrestling coach Ted Seabrooke told him he was not likely to make it in the ring, he decided to take a trip. He ended up in Vienna.

Irving was a perfectionist; he only wanted to do something he thought he could be the best at. So he got interested in someone’s suggestion to try to become a writer. He was admitted to the study-abroad program at Vienna’s Institute for European Studies.

“I went off to Europe feeling for the first time, like a writer,” he wrote later in his memoir, The Imaginary Girlfriend. At the IES he adored the lectures on Greek Moral Philosophy and Victorian Novel. But not the city. “I did not love – I do not love – Vienna,” he wrote. “And I doubt I’ll go back to Vienna again.”

The main reason was the language: He took 12 tutorial hours of German a week, but felt he made little progress. “To this day, I can speak the language only haltingly, and can barely understand German when I’m spoken to,” he wrote. “And reading German only serves to remind me of my dyslexia – all those verbs lurking at the end of the sentence, waiting to be reattached to the clauses they came from.”

Still, in his novels he often uses German expressions; he does not avoid German names, and makes his heroes struggle with German language – just remember Garp or all Berry family before their trip to Vienna with the dictionaries in their hands. It still bothers him that his German was too weak to read Günter Grass, and while studying in Vienna, he proceeded at less than a snail’s pace through Die Blechtrommel. But carrying around the German edition of The Tin Drum was a great way to meet girls, he confessed in his article Günter Grass: King of the Toy Merchants.

Another issue was anti-Semitism, which he encountered for the first time in Vienna. Short and dark and carrying last name of Irving – in his case a Scottish name – he not infrequently was taken for a Jew and several Viennese were confused.

“Skinheads with swastika earrings, while not unusual, were not commonplace; what were commonplace were the shy citizens who looked away from the skinheads, pretending not to have seen them.” It was a kind of “tolerance of intolerance, which allows the intolerance to persist,” he wrote in The Imaginary Girlfriend, closely connected to a kind of provincial nationalist spirit.

“Vienna is a small town; its notorious anti-Semitism is only part of a mean-spirited provincialism – an overall xenophobia, a suspicion (leading to hatred) of all outsiders. ‘Das geht bei uns nicht,’ the Austrians say – ‘That doesn’t go here.’ And to be called an “Ausländer” – a “foreigner” – is always derogatory. The famed Viennese Gemütlichkeit, a tourist attraction, is the false sweetness of basically unhöflicher people.”

Irving left for Vienna leaving behind a girlfriend who would become his first wife. Within a year, in the summer of ’64, they would marry– in Greece. They returned to Vienna briefly. But Shyla was already pregnant with their son Colin, and he wanted to be a father “in his own country.” Still, his second son Brendan was born in Vienna in 1969, where he was writing a screenplay of his first novel Setting Free the Bears, which after five drafts, was never made into film, still he had some unforgettable experiences, including watching not only 48 hours of newsreel footage of Hitler’s triumphant entry into the Austrian capital in 1938, and working in the library of Schloss Eichbüchl on the outskirts of Wiener Neustadt.

Vienna According to Garp

Of all of John Irving’s novels, only that is 5 – The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Widow for One Year, The Fourth Hand and his newest Last Night in Twisted River – out of his 12 works of fiction do not lead to Vienna. The city is one of his most frequent settings, connected with such themes as prostitution, wrestling, bears, deadly accidents, absent parents, film making, writers or non-traditional sexual encounters, with older men, homosexuality, incest, etc. It may be that Vienna provides Irving with a way to write about his own coming of age – it was the setting where he first saw himself and America from the outside, and thus is the city where he learned to write about himself. It was in Vienna that he found his voice.

For instance, Garp in The World According to Garp makes the same decision as the young Irving – following the advice of the teacher and his mother Jenny Fields, he travels to Vienna to become a writer. (Irving and Garp even live in the same place – Schwindgasse 15/2, as well as Bogus’ friend Merrill Overturf in The Water-Method Man). Why Vienna? Because “you can find real Europe in Vienna,” Garp says. “It is artistic and contemplative, with real sadness and majesty.”

But later on Irving famous character is more merciless – Vienna, says Garp, is museum of dead town; there is no more Klimt or Schiele. Vienna is tired and full of sadness, it is like a decorated corpse in the open coffin.

It’s interesting that both Garp and Irving even share Viennese prostitutes: Garp finds a friend among them, and Irving improves his German communicating with one of them.

“I used to study in the evenings in a bar where the prostitutes waited for their customers out of the cold. Our landlady turned off the heat at night, and the coffeehouses frequented by students were too noisy for studying; besides, the Viennese students were too proper to be seen in a bar used by prostitutes – except for the one or two well-to-do students who would appear at the bar in order to select a prostitute,” the author says in his memoir. “As for the prostitutes, they recognized from the beginning that I could not afford their more intimate company.”

By the way, prostitutes from Krugerstraße in the 1st District are central characters in The Hotel New Hampshire. “Don’t worry about the prostitutes. They’re legal here. It’s just business,” – writes Freud in a letter from Gasthaus Freud in The Hotel New Hampshire.  Both  Irving and Garp left Vienna as established writers.

Setting Free the Myths

“There won’t be any gangs! There will be music! And pastry! And the people do a lot of bowing, and they dress differently”, cries Frank Berry, son of the hotelier, preparing to leave for Vienna (The Hotel New Hampshire). Such outburst of enthusiasm considering Vienna is very rare in John Irving’s work. He seems more interested in darker sides of Austrian capital, in setting free its myths.

For instance, the Staatsoper of which the Viennese are most proud, Irving turns into target of prostitutes and radical communists in their plan to blow the building up during the season opening performance.

“There is a lot of blood and Schlagobers in opera,” – he explains in The Hotel New Hampshire, disgusted at the continuing worship of opera, coffeehouses and the past. Although he leads the Berry family members through various coffeehouses (Mozart, Hawelka, Mowatt, etc.), he can bring himself to take pleasure in it: “A city of fewer than one and a half million people, Vienna still has more than three hundred coffee-houses! We stared out of our cabs at the streets, expecting them to be strained with coffee. There was the diesel rankness of Europe, but no coffee.”

In Irving’s first novel Setting Free the Bears, Graff persuades Siggy: “We shouldn’t leave Vienna without seeing how spring has struck the zoo.” And then the plan appears – to release all the animals from the Hietzinger Zoo.

Nevertheless Irving heroes’ ways go through the Rathaus Park, the Volksgarten, Parliament, Heldenplatz, Mariahilferstraße, the Naschmarkt, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Schoenbrunn Palace and other magnificient Viennese sights, avoiding the polite tone of tourist guides. For instance, in the shadow of the Sacher Hotel he locates the pension with a whole floor for prostitutes or even bear on bicycle (The Pension Grillparzer; The Hotel New Hampshire)!

Still, in Trying to Save Piggy Sneed Irving writes as if to apologize: “My memory is subject to doubt. To any writer with a good imagination, all memoirs are false,” he says. “A fiction writer’s memory is an especially imperfect provider of detail; we can always imagine a better detail than the one we can remember.” John Irving’s Vienna isn’t real, but imaginary.

He starts writing a novel from its last sentence and from there works back to the beginning, he explains. Thus it is more an exception than a rule when he writes about this city; his affair with Vienna a story still in mid-telling.

To be continued…


Setting Free the Bears
By John Irving
Ballantine Books, May 30, 1990

Available at Shakespeare & Company s
1., Sterngasse 2
(01) 535 5503

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