Words: Bianca Healey
Images: Bianca Healey
I met Jonathan on the 8:20 train from Bondi Junction to Waterfall. He was wearing red socks inside brown suede brogues, woolen dress trousers and a three-button waistcoat. His tweed blazer hung as stiff as his posture as he read a thin paperback in the window seat of the top carriage. He seemed a little like a phantom from another time. I’m a terrible starer. Voyeurism is as natural a state for me as breathing or eating. I know it’s terrible. My boyfriend is constantly yanking at my arm to pull me back from a double take- for another glimpse of a girl wearing fantastic shoes or a gentleman in a beautiful suit, and I’ve been given a dirty sneer more than once when I’ve been caught in the act. Public transport, however, lends itself nicely to the stare- people tend to be caught up in their own meditative commute worlds. So this is how I decided that I had to speak with Jonathan- a little early morning commute voyeurism.
It’s so wonderful to see someone who has completely committed to a vintage look. I remember I always loved the ‘communist hipsters’ at uni in their almost ironic uniform of doc martens, finger gloves and camouflage army jackets. And I adored the inner west philosophy and film majors in their tweeds and suspenders- sipping black coffee next to their fixed gear bikes. I stole the tweed, but knew I could never commit fully. University cliques- delineated and defined by their uniforms have a democratic spirit far removed from the self consciousness of high school subcultures- where everything feels reactive- a violent and spirited rejection of the dominant look.
Jonathan made me smile first because I love boys in coloured socks. Then I noticed how nicely he had assembled his black trousers and dark tweed blazer with a pressed white shirt and slim, buttoned vest. He looked simultaneously like a European flaneur and a buyer at Florence’s Pitti Uomo fashion event. Of an earlier era, yet also totally classic in a very modern way. I asked for his Facebook details and we arranged over messenger to meet at the Double Bay library near his home the following weekend. The library proved a beautiful space to discuss the literature of Austria and Germany at the turn of the twentieth century. Jonathan is currently undertaking a PhD, following on from an undergraduate degree in fashion at UTS. His topic: the social and sartorial role of Viennese intellectuals at the fin de siècle. It’s full of quaint glass arches and pokey nooks, with the most breathtaking view of Red Leaf pool and the harbour. Here, on a crisp sunny Sunday, we discussed the evolution of a personal project, the overlapping boundaries of leisure reading and research reading and the curation of very unique reading list that encapsulates both.
B: What brought you to your PhD topic?
JK: My grandmother actually has a series of cook books featuring cuisines from different countries or regions of the world that I found when I was in high school. They’re more than just recipes, they’re kind of like the culinary history and cultural history of this place. And one of them was about the cooking of Vienna’s empire: Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, parts of Poland, Ukraine. I just found it really interesting, the whole history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But that kind of went away for a while.
And then last year during my fashion course- you have to do a collection for the final year, and it had to have some kind of theme. Whether that’s a specific subculture, or time in history, or person, or if it’s just a concept- like eco-fashion. Anyway, I was interested in looking at Vienna in the 20th Century- coffee houses, Opera, intellectuals who inhabited those spaces. We had to write a nine thousand word dissertation, and I enjoyed that so much. My actual concept was a bit more broad, but I enjoyed it so much that I decided to go on.
BH: What kind of books did you read when you were young? Did you read when you were younger?
JK: I did read a bit, not as much as I read now. I read things like Roald Dahl and nerdy English comic books. But then when I was a teenager, I don’t think I read too much. My reading list wasn’t very particular- it was pretty mixed and there wasn’t a particular genre that I was interested in. But I think towards the end of my teens, or towards the end of high school, I ended up reading a lot of World War ll literature. Contemporary literature about the war- fiction or history. And then that progressed over the years.
A lot of the research I’m doing now is central European history. I suppose it’s a fine line between pleasure reading and reading for my research.
BH: Is there any overlap?
JK: There is. I’ve started reading in the last two years- or at least I’ve bought the books and I haven’t gotten through all of them- English translations of Austrian writers from that time. Part of it is research because I’m analysing the literature of those times. I just finished Arthur Schnitzler’s The Road into the Open, which is a novel that he wrote in the ‘20s, set in Vienna about different figures, fictional figures- capturing the different types of people in the kind of middle class Viennese society.
BH: Was there anyone who influenced you as a young reader?
JK: The influence I had was probably later in my life- my mid-teens to late-teens. My grandmother, the one who had those cook books I mentioned before, she had a lot of history books about European history and World War ll. For example, one of the figures that I’m looking at for my PhD is the Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, who was actually immensely popular back then, but who has, in the non German-speaking world, been lost. Until last year when Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel came out, which was actually based on him. I’ve noticed in bookstores, you see a lot more of his writing because of Wes Anderson I guess.
When I was sixteen I was looking through my grandmother’s books and she had a collection of translations of Zweig’s books, a collection of his short stories. I was quite interested in them. I didn’t actually read them until a couple of years later, and now he’s one of the figures I’m looking at for my PhD.
BH: Your grandmother was an immigrant to Australia?
JK: Yes, both my grandparents are, actually. They both came here in the late forties after the war from Europe. Actually they came from France. I like to tell people, in terms of trying to justify my interest in German culture- my grandmother came from a German-speaking and German-influenced family. They lived in a part of France- Alsace- that was previously a part of Germany and had a very strong Germanic influence.
BH: I went to Alsace a few years ago, actually. There’s a forest there that borders with Germany, and you can accidentally take a wrong turn and end up on the other side of the border.
JK: Is there? I wasn’t that adventurous.
BH: Are there any books that you have read that have made you think differently about reading or writing? Was there a seminal book for you that took you in a new direction?
JK: In terms of taking me in a new direction in my career, or writing style… I bought this book two years ago when I was in Europe- I had heard about it previously, and I wanted to find an English copy. I bought the German copy when I was in Linz in Austria; it’s called The Decline of the West in Anecdotes by Friedrich Torberg or “Tante Jolesc.” So I bought a German copy and although I can read German, I’m not quite good enough that I can read without having to open up the dictionary to find words.
The interesting thing about this German copy is that the author grew up in Prague and the Prague dialect of German, the sentences are structured and phrased a little bit differently- it’s not like reading a standard German book. I didn’t really realize it until I interviewed a Viennese man for my PhD and we were talking about the book and he brought it to my attention. It’s quite interesting. Anyway I bought the English copy as well. It’s anecdotes about the Viennese Jewish culturally assimilated milleiu in the 1920s and each anecdote is separate. They all do fit together in a book and it does all flow, but the stories are all separate and I quite like that. When I do write for fun, I have taken on that practice of writing in little anecdotes.
BH: He's using the anecdotes to form a cultural commentary about the time?
JK: Yes. And it’s more than just his life. He takes figures that he knew, or that his friends knew, and little snippets of stories and things like that. I didn’t remember why I bought it- this was before my final year of my fashion course, before I was even thinking about the fact that I had to write a dissertation that year. I don’t even remember how I heard about the book or heard about him, I must have read about him in someone else’s book. He’s a writer who’s often cited by other writers who write about that time.
BH: It’s always interesting, whether you’re reading for pleasure, or studying, when these seeds are planted and you don’t even realise it. You fall into finding someone and you can’t imagine a time when you didn’t know who they were.
So I wanted to ask you about your reading habits. I’m sure you don’t have quite as much time to read now as you used to. Do you read every day? Do you go out of your way to search for certain reading material?
JK: I still read every day for pleasure. I treat my PhD like a job, in that I’ve started going to uni at eight and I leave at four, rather than nine to five because I miss the traffic that way. And after that when I go home- and because it’s early days and I still have the luxury of doing this, I don’t do anything for my PhD, I just read for pleasure.
BH: That’s a good practice.
JK: My reading habits… it kind of varies. Fiction and non-fiction. I’m reading this memoir by George Clare, who was a Viennese-born writer who fled to London. So this is a memoir about his life in Vienna, but also his family history. It’s research, but I’m also reading it for pleasure. I guess that’s a good example of my reading habits- it’s for both.
At the moment, I’m mostly reading books about European history. Recently I’ve just started reading Philip Mansel’s Levant. I like reading historical works about different cultures. I suppose it just gives you a view about how people lived in those times. You can read a book about current times in the cities of the Ottoman Empire- Alexandria and Beirut, but they’re completely different now to what they were during the Ottoman days. It’s the same reading about Vienna. They’re completely different societies. Completely different worlds to match up.
With Vienna, I was reading the other day for my research, the author mentioned that it wasn’t actually until the ‘60s or even later that the Western world, that Western scholars actually started acknowledging Vienna as one of the major centres of modernism in the early twentieth century. Previously they would have just noted Paris and London. Vienna made a huge impact, it was a hub of culture and politics. But it lost a lot because of World War ll. And within that, the Jewish community of Vienna, who were largely secular and mostly disconnected from their traditional religious practices- they had a huge impact on the culture of Vienna and it seems- a lot of scholars say- that with the destruction of that community, after the war that Vienna was a completely different city. It was missing a huge element that had made it a centre of culture, the arts, music.
BH: I had no idea about that. I’m really fascinated now.
So what’s your favoured form?
JK: A combination of fiction and non-fiction. Sometimes I feel guilty about reading fiction. Only that, I feel that I could be learning so many other things about the world.
I used to only read one book at a time, maybe a fiction novel and then a non-fiction book, but now it’s kind of mixed, because I don’t really have as much time, I’m reading a lot more non- fiction. And the fiction I’m reading is generally stuff that’s related to the topic.
BH: You’ve got to be more discerning as well. It’s got to be worth your time. What do you look for in a book?
JK: I generally prefer historical fiction, as opposed to contemporary fiction, books that are dealing with a specific time and how that affects the characters. I don’t read a lot that is based in the now, dealing with regular day-to-day issues. It bores me a bit. That’s not to say that I’m completely against the idea, but usually the fiction I read is set in the past. Big events. Different historical periods.
It sounds very snobby of me to say that anything written in the present day isn’t interesting. But I suppose that’s just how I read.
BH: Have you ever read a book on a kindle?
JK: I have. When I studied in Toronto, during my bachelor- before I left my cousins gave me a tablet reader for my birthday. Not a Kindle, it’s called a Kobo, it’s the same kind of thing though. Usually though, I’ll only read fiction on that. Generally the non-fiction I read I want to have as a reference, so I can put little notes in it, especially if it’s something that ‘m going to be using for my studies. And then even then, in terms of fiction, if it’s a book I really want, I won’t buy it on a tablet. Tablet is more for airport fiction.
BH: So you would never buy on a kindle anything that you thought was valuable, or that you thought you might want to return to again?
JK: That’s exactly it. I know that people who love tablet readers have argued with me that ‘yes you can go back to certain pages!’ But it’s not the same. I don’t like it as much. You can tag pages, but it’s not really the same.
Although it is great when travelling, rather than carrying a stack of books around with you. I do see the appeal of the tablet for some things.
With books, I suppose inside they all look the same, but there’s one book that I always go back to, Michael Chabon has this book- The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It’s an alternate history of a Yiddish community set up in Alaska- actually based on historical fact. I don’t know if you know, there was lobbying to set up a temporary Jewish space for Jews who were being persecuted by the Nazis. And they said lets give them this place in Alaska. There was one particular senator who was vehemently against it, and the whole thing was quashed. And the novel is based on the premise that this senator gets killed in a car accident and the motion goes through and this temporary homeland is set up in Alaska. And the novel is set sixty years after this. There’s no Israel and there wasn’t a 1948 war. Whereas it was supposed to return to an American region, it’s actually an autonomous Jewish state. And because the President is an evangelical Christian who wants Jesus to return to Earth, in order for that to happen, all the Jews have to return to the land of Israel. And that’s the whole thing- he wants to cancel this state. It’s kind of like Israel, but not. It’s kind of like if you gathered up all the Jewish centres of Eastern Europe and America. But anyway, the reason I’m telling you this is that this book had a beautiful cover and it didn’t have a dust jacket, but the jacket had a extra part that you could use as a bookmark, and the edges of the pages were all jagged. It was nice. You can’t have any kind of tactile experience with an e-reader.
That was a long way to go to answer your question!
BH: Have you ever read a difficult book just to say that you had read it?
JK: I’d say yes. I have forced myself, or tried to read books that I haven’t succeeded yet. For example, Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame. I just couldn’t get through the first few pages that were all about cathedral architecture- they were just so boring for me. And I know that my friends who have read it say, ‘it’s an amazing book, you have to persevere.’ One day I’ll return to it, Same with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. It’s on my bookshelf with a bookmark two thirds of the way through it. And it’s not always book that are classics.
I don’t think that there’s any books that I’ve forced myself to read because they are ‘classics.’ I’m quite stubborn like that. And sometimes I think that about certain books, just because it’s a classic, it doesn’t mean that I’ll like it.
Jonathan’s Reading List: the Austro-Hungarian Empire
1. Arthur Schnitzler, The Road into the Open (1908)
2. Stefan Zweig
An excellent interview with Wes Anderson about Stefan Zweig
4. George Clare, Last Waltz in Vienna (1980)
5. Philip Mansel (2010), Levant (2010)
6. Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)