‘If anthropology is obsessed with anything,’ Clifford Geertz says, ‘it is with how much difference difference makes.’ The same could be said of the novel. And novelists’ curiosity, like anthropologists’, aims not to solve or explain the puzzle of lives lived, but to seize and transcribe it. In his new book, All for Love, Dan Jacobson captures a story from late 19th-century European history with an anthropologist’s eye for detail. Through his foolish, unself-knowing lovers and the extraordinary, half-absurd drama of their affair, we seem to see the shapes and forms of living and imagining in prewar Europe: caste-ridden, smothered in protocol, carelessly rapacious, in thrall to high-flown romanticism.
One spring morning in 1895, in the Prater Gardens in Vienna, Princess Louise – daughter of King Leopold of Belgium, wife of Prince Philipp of Saxe-Coburg – exchanged glances with a handsome young uhlan struggling to control the black stallion he rode. Géza Mattachich, the ‘stepson of a backwoods Croatian count’, belonged in terms of the rigid Viennese hierarchies in the darkness of contemptible unimportance. Princess Louise shouldn’t have been able even to see someone like Mattachich; but her attention was drawn first to the sudden movement of the rearing horse and then – a reflex equally outside any learned code – to the beauty of the young man, his splendid physicality and his mastery over the strong beast. Mattachich shouldn’t have looked at the princess: how dared he? But he not only looked, he rode the horse up and down past her, spurring it to make it rear again. He saw that she saw this, and didn’t mind it; in the weeks that followed he began to lie in wait in the Prater, on street corners, or at the opera; he made no secret of his staring. She spent a few weeks in the country; when she came back, he ‘knew at once from her expression that he was not the only one who had been afraid that her absence . . . may have brought these silent encounters of theirs to an end’. He sent her a letter through her maid, declaring his love, even though they had not yet spoken a word to one another. He was unexpectedly – blissfully – promoted to lieutenant, sure it was Louise’s doing. That winter she went to stay with her sister in the new resort of Abbazia on the Adriatic, and Mattachich followed her. Finally, in that relative informality away from the court, they met face to face, spoke, declared themselves, became lovers.
So far, so Ruritanian. There’s a way of telling this story as a poignant romance, authentic passion transcending the falsity of class convention – the way the protagonists themselves told it. It all ‘really happened’, to a historical Princess Louise and a historical Mattachich. They became lovers; they fled the court; they were hounded by the implacable Habsburg authorities, who caught and punished them; he was imprisoned, she was confined to an asylum. Jacobson has used as sources books written in later life by the two protagonists, as well as ‘absorbing documents – letters, reports and similar items’ in various places, especially in a recent German biography of Louise. He sets out briefly in an Author’s Note how he arrived at the narrative mode he needed, not through inhabiting the lovers’ own words (impossible, because of their ‘eagerness to see themselves . . . in a heroic, even mythical light’), or by camouflaging his outsider status, losing himself in the re-creation of the moment; but rather by assembling all the available information and all the different versions of events, and adding his own analytic commentary (‘by any standards . . . she was generously provided for’; ‘at no point do they come close to confessing how erratically they behaved’). The tone of uninfatuated but absorbed interest might be borrowed from a psychological case study; to underscore this effect there are frequent footnotes, sometimes referencing his sources, sometimes commenting on the historical context or adding irresistible extra detail. When, for example, Franz Ferdinand in the main text dismisses Abbazia as ‘a Jew aquarium’ full of ‘Slavs and irredentists’, the footnote adds that ‘less than twenty years later, this same Franz Ferdinand . . . was to be assassinated by Gavril Princip – who as it happened was both a Slav and an irredentist.’
The cumulative effect of the footnotes is more playful Borgesian mystification than academic scholarship; and the narrative isn’t quite an anthropologist’s assembly of evidence. A novelist is licensed to do what an anthropologist or a historian can’t; in the Author’s Note Jacobson owns up with relish to the liberties he has taken: ‘I have invented all conversations and descriptions of scenes or settings . . . motives, manners, intentions and states of mind . . . the events drawn on have been condensed, extended, omitted and reordered.’ This complex narrative positioning, using all the freedoms of invention inside a frame of formal inquiry, liberates Jacobson. His autobiographical writing in Time and Time Again (1985) and Heshel’s Kingdom (1998) owes its poised subtlety to overt authorial scruple, mediating and interrogating everything found and imagined. In All For Love he has transposed something like the same approach to a story at the opposite pole of experience. Louise and Mattachich – rich, greedy, stupid, self-absorbed and casually anti-semitic as they turn out to be – are an inspired counterpoint to Jacobson’s own history: his grandfather, a rabbi in Lithuania; his parents, immigrants to South Africa in the 1920s; his upbringing in past-its-best Kimberley; his shy arrival in the 1950s in an intimidating grey London.
The lovers themselves are imagined with full engagement, in which criticism of their unthinking participation in every kind of social iniquity – Louise thinks her father treats her tyrannously but it doesn’t occur to her to question his monstrous expropriations in the Congo – is only one component. Jacobson’s princess, forty, ‘big-bosomed, with plenty of hair, neck and chin’, with her irregular painful periods and her psoriasis, has ‘what feels like a stone of disappointment and resentment’ lodged inside her; ‘at moments of anxiety or anger she presses on that place with both beringed fists, as if to push deeper into herself this indigestible thing she is condemned to carry about with her.’ She has a habit of ‘secret, creative performances’, walking up and down, gesturing, whispering, scowling, talking over and over to herself, scratching her rash, tugging at her hair. She sees herself as the misunderstood victim of a cruel system. Only Mattachich has appreciated her true self. She borrows from a fashionable language of revolt in order to justify her flouting of conventions, but is indifferent to the difficulties of the trail of creditors she and her lover leave behind them in their wanderings round Europe. The dressmakers, jewellers, servants, Jews don’t count. It isn’t a pretty portrait, it’s not even exactly sympathetic; but it feels true, and moves us to recognition.
Mattachich’s horror of his ignominious origins in a Croatian nowhere is expressed in a recurring image: as a boy, suffering from a sense of ‘something that was both shameless and shameful’ in his family arrangements (his mother and father co-habited with his mother’s lover), he transposed his shame onto the Croatian landscape: ‘so much useless space given over to random, bristling trees, each one at an un-neighbourly distance from the next, with boulder-broken slopes leading up to or down to more of the same’. ‘Like a little madman, he had put a coin under a loose flat grey stone lying near the wooden gate to the backyard of the house’: back from boarding-school three months later, he found the same coin under the same stone. ‘What a bizarre and degraded sense of vindication he had felt at the sight of it. You see what the place was like! You see how nothing changed!’ Jacobson makes Mattachich’s desire to transcend the mediocrity of his background the mainspring of his character and the source of his audacity in pursuing the love affair. He is haunted by the fear of spending ‘the rest of his life knowing he was exactly what he deserved to be, a failure who had been too timid to make a grab at the most implausible prize anyone of his rank had ever dreamed of winning’.
Out of his fear of himself he has constructed an opposite ideal of behaviour – courageous, headstrong, stylish, impeccably gallant towards his mistress – deriving its outlines from the code of honour and model of manhood learned in his regiment. As an account of a whole psychology the ideal is seriously incomplete; the novel comically contrasts Mattachich’s own description of his haughty stoicism during his imprisonment, when he claims to be concerned only for Louise, with the reality of his endless hypochondriac complaints and paranoid, rambling appeals for justice, attested to by prison records. It’s more extraordinary, though – and touching – how thoroughly and with what conviction Mattachich succeeds in living out the role he’s assigned himself. There are some fine passages when, having returned to Croatia to wait there for Louise, he seems able at last to grasp the beauty of the place, and his belonging to it, because he feels made worthy by the life he’s dared himself to live.
Mattachich comes off rather better in the novel than Louise. But the study of both is alert to their formation inside versions of gender which allow him to be courageously active but consign her to hysterical emotionalism. Jacobson picks his way with subtlety around Louise’s account of her wedding night in her memoirs; married to Prince Philipp (‘Fatso’) at 17, she was of course a virgin, and her husband almost as inevitably a roué. The genuine pathos of sexually ignorant girls being exchanged in a marriage market appears here alongside an ironic awareness of the way Louise exploits that pathos to affirm a certain sexual identity and sexual appeal. ‘I found refuge among the camellias,’ she wrote in her memoir, ‘and to their pallor, sweetness and purity I spoke of my despair and the suffering I had been through. Their comforting sweetness and silence, like the chill light of the winter dawn, gave back to me something of the innocence in which I had lived and which I had now for ever lost.’ (This written when she is in her forties, living with her lover, and after a number of well-attested affairs at court.) In the novel Fatso even gets to give his own account of her deflowering: ‘He’d done his best not to frighten or disgust her . . . everyone who’s ever done it knows that getting in there for the first time is always an awkward business.’ The sexual content of All for Love is approached with a relaxed realism that contrasts with the swoonings of the lovers’ own language; and yet the realism makes the treatment of the consummation between Mattachich and his princess respectful, and not absurd: ‘Done. Done in a welter of disbelief, pride, strangled breath, tangled bedclothes, the strangeness of the other’s body.’
On every page Jacobson creates the solidity of life lived – flesh, rooms, clothes, scenery, furniture, weather, words spoken – and these substantial things act as a counterweight to the ephemeral avowed motivations and explanations. The writing holds at a sceptical distance not only what the lovers believe their story is, but also what Habsburg officialdom believes; or the proletarian Maria Stöger, who cuts out newspaper accounts of the celebrity romance and pastes them in her scrapbook; or the sexologist Krafft-Ebing, who is called in to diagnose Louise’s problems so that Philipp can keep her shut away: she ‘suffers from psychological weakness and a striking diminution of the higher mental faculties (logic, willpower, ethical standards)’. Each of these constructions is inadequate to the overwhelming whole. And yet the story is also a tribute to the power of the characters’ invention of themselves, and the power of belief to force shape onto the resisting chaos of reality. Because of the way Louise and Mattachich and others imagine themselves, their story happens. Maria Stöger, with no more connection to either of the lovers than her own fantasy, makes her way to Möllersdorf where Mattachich is held prisoner, finds work in the canteen there, declares her devotion to him, conceives his child, campaigns successfully for his release, then plots with him to abduct Louise from the institution where she is being held.
After Heshel’s Kingdom and The God-Fearer (1992) – a counter-factual history, in which something like Judaism is the one true faith and the ‘Christer’ are a persecuted minority – there seems at first sight something magnificently frivolous about Jacobson’s choice of a subject in All for Love. There’s nothing to redeem or make morally meaningful these lovers’ story – it’s not Anna Karenina. But whether Jacobson is describing his family’s displacement from Jewish Lithuania, remembering arriving in London from South Africa, creating a history that never happened, or reconstructing Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, his curiosity comes out of the same destabilising double awareness: he moves inside cultural forms, imagining them with intensity, but never belongs to them. The exile’s detached attachment is his novelistic method; and it’s a method that is fundamental to any efforts to imagine otherness, or to see ourselves clearly. In The God-Fearer, Kobus the Bookbinder is startled into speculation by sheer difference, when he moves from the village to the big town:
Exoticism, it seemed, was always in the eye of the beholder . . . Or was it ordinariness that really lay in the beholder’s eye? If he had been born elsewhere, or at another time, or under some other order, he would have believed those circumstances commonplace, whatever they were; and the life he now led would have had all the allure of difference . . . Inversions of any kind, it seemed, were always thinkable by us, at least, even if never truly available to us.