Friday, 13 December 2013

Book Review: The Christmas Carp by Vicki Baum
The number of Austrian writers from the first half of the twentieth century whose works have been translated into English is small. Few of them are still remembered today and even less of them wrote Christmas stories. The latter fact actually isn’t really a surprise since many of them were Jewish. Despite all I managed to dig out a Christmas story by a rather famous Austrian writer of the interwar period who resided in Germany after 1914 and in the USA as from the early 1930s. The Christmas Carp by Vicki Baum is a product of World War II and it is one of her early fiction written in English instead of her native German. I decided to review it although the original English edition has been out of print already for ages. 

Hedwig “Vicki” Baum was born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, in January 1888. Already at an early age she began writing and after her mother’s death from cancer she published her first novel Frühe Schatten  in 1914. Despite all she first opted for a musical career and became a harpist of repute in Germany. Her second novel Once in Vienna (Der Eingang zur Bühne) came out in 1920 and started off her career as a full-time writer. During the 1920s she became one of the most popular authors of mainstream melodramatic novels in the German-speaking world. It was only in 1929 that the prolific writer had her international break-through with Grand Hotel (Menschen im Hotel). After a promotion tour around the USA she settled down in California with her family in 1932 and continued to write first in German and from 1941 on in English. The most notable among her later works are Love and Death in Bali (Liebe und Tod auf Bali: 1937; also translated as A Tale of Bali), Shanghai ’37 (Hotel Shanghai: 1939; also translated as Nanking Road), The Christmas Carp. A Story (1941), Berlin Hotel (1943), Weeping Wood (1943), and The Mustard Seed (1953). Vicki Baum died in Hollywood, California, USA, in August 1960. Her autobiography It Was All Quite Different (Es war alles ganz anders: 1962; also translated as I Know What I’m Worth) was published posthumously. 

The scene of The Christmas Carp is the home of the Lanner family in the Austrian capital Vienna. The story begins on a Nikolaus Day, that is to say on a 6 December in the 1920s, when Friedel and the twins Annie and Hans are still small enough to believe in all the magic stories connected to the season which they are being told by adults. But Nikolaus Day marks the true beginning of Christmastime for the whole family because the visit from Saint Nikolaus and his diabolic companion Knecht Ruprecht unfailingly coincides with the arrival of the widowed aunt Mali from the country who joins the Lanners to help with Christmas preparations and to celebrate with the family. Every year they have the idyllic Christmas of a well-to-do Catholic household with a beautifully decorated Christmas tree, a table laden with presents, heaps of savoury Christmas biscuits and for dinner a carefully chosen Christmas carp from the Jewish fishmonger whose carps are the best and most beautiful in all Vienna. But time doesn’t stand still. The children grow up, Austria is annexed to Hitler’s Third Reich and at last the country is at war. Friedel is a pilot, Annie is engaged to Paul, a lieutenant stationed in France, and Hans works in an ammunition factory instead of continuing his pharmacy studies. With the war comes penury, but old aunt Mali still travels from her relatively safe country home to Vienna and is determined to prepare a wonderful Christmas dinner for the family. After all, she has the Lanners’ cookery-book in which she put down her recipes for unheard of delicacies made of the most unlikely ingredients during the years of World War I. She even managed to trace out the Jewish fishmonger to have a carp for Christmas dinner as usual, but there’s a hitch to it. It’s only 6 December and she had to take the fish to Vienna alive. The only solution is to put the ugly little carp into the bath tub and to care for it until Christmas. 

In my German edition The Christmas Carp is a short story of scant fifteen pages, so it may be even shorter in English. Vicki Baum made it her task to make a non-Austrian audience, especially American readers, acquainted with typically Austrian Christmas traditions. However, they are only the peaceful and merry background for a plot showing the consequences of a cruel and destructive war on the level of a family and their impact on everyday life including dear habits. The carp serves as a symbol for the millions of innocent victims of the war as reveals the final passage. Vicki Baum’s style and language are simple, clear and rather matter-of-fact although – especially in the second half – the author also doesn’t spare with irony. The story is serious and thoughtful as well as funny and entertaining. For me the beginning was a bit slow because it contains several explanations regarding Austrian traditions which I know rather well of course. A non-Austrian reader may feel differently about it. The characters of the story, above all aunt Mali who is expressly described as quite an original, are well depicted and feel like real people. 

I enjoyed reading The Christmas Carp by Vicki Baum. It’s a pity that the short story is out of print (like almost all this Austrian author's works) and only few will get a chance to read it. It’s not just a story about a family Christmas, but it’s also a testimony of a time when war raged in Europe and people had to improvise to make possible a decent Christmas dinner in the middle of senseless slaughtering and destruction.


  1. I've read her Grand Hotel and really liked it.
    The Christmases described here seem a lot like my own, but well, I come from a part of the country where we celebrate St Nicolas, contrary to most of France.
    Thanks for sharing. I wish it weren't out of print.

    1. Yes, I think Christmas traditions are rather similar in many parts of continental Europe with certain exceptions like St Nicolas or the Swedish St Lucia or the Spanish Reyes Magos or the Italian Befana...

      It's indeed a pity that much of Vicki Baum's work is out of print today. Even in German only the most famous like Grand Hotel or Hotel Shanghai are still available. The Christmas Carp is a nice story and the last reprint in German was in the 1990s.

      Thanks for your comment, Emma,... and Meilleurs Voeux !

  2. I idly picked up a 1943 English translation of Baum's second novel, "Once in Venice," suspecting from the title and the owner of the shelf where I found it that it must be treacle. Within the first page I was disabused. Baum has got to be the best writer that I'd never heard of before I opened her book. She has been dismissed for being popular, but that's hardly a black mark. "A first-rate second-rate writer" said one academic. But what I see is an author on a par with Eliot, Woolf, Greene and even Mann -- but a lot easier on the reading glasses than the last-named. I'm making a re-appraisal of Baum a personal mission.

    1. I don't know enough of Baum's books to be able to judge the quality of her writing in general, but she may well have suffered the fate of being underestimated for being a female in addition to a popular writer. Helene Böhlau, Margarete Böhme, Gabriele Reuter and Clara Viebig were very popular at the time, too, and today they are all quite forgotten. Nazi reign for 12 or 7 years respectively in Germany and Austria certainly had an impact as well - after all women were supposed to be wives and mothers primarily. Luckily, those times are over although you can still see the aftermaths in the publishing business with male writers getting so much more attention.


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