A true tale of love and madness in Belle Epoque Vienna serves as the basis for this Booker nominee.
Princess Louise was the daughter of Leopold II—King of Belgium and the genocidal owner and self-styled emperor of the Congo Free State—and the wife of Philipp, Prince of Saxe-Coburg. Géza Mattachich was a Croatian of dubious pedigree and a minor officer in the Austrian army. The very public affair between this unlikely pair scandalized Viennese society and delighted fin-de-siècle leftists. Jacobson (The God-Fearer, 1993, etc.) begins his story in 1895, when Louise and Mattachich both fall prey to love—or, at the very least, intense fascination—at first sight, following the pair from the earliest moments of their liaison and into ignominy, exile and insanity. It’s the sort of story that would seem preposterous if it weren’t fact-based, and Louise and Mattachich are characters so outsized that they would lack all credibility as pure invention. Despite their very different backgrounds, the lovers actually have a great deal in common. Both are greedy, venal, paranoid and spectacularly self-centered. Their obsessive romance is, in fact, a sort of narcissism: What they seem to adore most in each other is the self reflected back. Shared psychopathology is, of course, no guarantee of domestic bliss, and Louise’s social position, combined with the duo’s utter lack of discretion, pretty much precludes any happily-ever-after ending. Instead of a fairy-tale romance, then, this is an elegant, astute and smartly entertaining depiction of an emotional train wreck. Jacobson makes excellent use of historical research. His narrative is buttressed with informative and opinionated footnotes, and he includes telling excerpts from the memoirs of Louise and Mattachich. Histrionic and fabulously self-serving quotes from the principals are balanced by the narrator’s incisive, occasionally ironic and coolly engaging tone.
An eccentric, engaging mix of melodrama and erudition.