When you ask for a list of books set in Vienna, Graham Green’s The Third Man will likely be the first one people suggest. Granted, Green’s screenplay, and subsequent film, remain essential to cinema history, The Third Man doesn’t officially qualify as a novel (it’s officially considered a novella.) But, don’t despair, there’s a lengthy list of novels that tap into the bewitching allure of this city by dropping their characters onto our cobblestoned streets.
Djuna Barnes’ seminal novel Nightwood opens with a tour around the Prater and touches on questions that, despite its 1936 publication date, are still exceptionally relevant — especially to any expatriate. Although the characters end up spending most of the pages in Modernist Paris, the city of Vienna stamps the novel from the start and remains as an unspoken backdrop to the the struggles of Guido who is deeply invested (but not at all) in ancestry and heritage. If you want a title that is going to push the liminal boundaries of gender, sexuality and class, Nightwood is for you.
Most of the titles that Joseph Roth set in Vienna have been translated into English and are well worth reading — this author was not only prolific, but deeply capable. The Emperor’s Tomb is a particularly evocative creation that uses the personal narrative of the main character to explore the large implications of post-World War I Europe.
City of Ghosts, the debut novel by Shawn Kobb, is set in modern day Vienna and follows the mystery of an American university student who finds himself providing a false murder alibi for a fellow student. If you’re an armchair detective, you’ll want to get your hands on City of Ghosts.
The Devil’s Lieutenant by Maria Fagyas is a page-turner of a mystery that is made up of equal parts scandal and romance. Although this book wouldn’t satisfy the urges of readers dedicated to high-brow “Literature” it’s worth it for the fast-paced read.
Turned into a critically acclaimed filmed, The Piano Teacher, by the Austrian Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, explores the life of a teacher from the Vienna Conservatory. The story line leads the reader through the complexities of a turbulent mother-daughter relationship, Turkish peep-shows and sadomasochism. Set in contemporary Vienna, this book grabs a reader’s full attention with its unflinching dedication to realism.
Like The Third Man, Shakepeare’s play Measure for Measure fails to qualify as a novel, but is worth an honourable mention for its imagined depiction of the city (everyone is fairly certain that The Bard never quite made it to Vienna to do much primary research).
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