When I set out to write The Crooked Maid, I had contracted the Balzacian bug: I wanted to write a world, not a book. All the same, the world must be assembled piece by piece. The train ride came to me early, as did the theme of patricide, both in conscious homage to Dostoevsky, whose books I love. Other, less conscious, Dostoevskianisms have crept in, further proof that books are dangerous things: you read them and they impose on you not just their words but a whole sensibility; not incidents but a mode of seeing reality.
Vyleta goes on to cite Dickens as another influence: “[his] daring in stacking incident upon incident (and coincidence upon coincidence); his ability to connect characters high and low through crime, family scandal, and the brittle threads of chance…”
(In offering those quotes, I hasten to add that Vyleta is not comparing himself or this novel to Balzac, Dostoevsky or Dickens. He is merely citing some well-known authors with well-known styles whom he feels had an impact on his writing. I do think knowing that in advance is helpful, not harmful, to the reader.)
The “world” that Vyleta is writing about is Vienna, 1948 — a confused, disrupted city that is trying to find not just its own post-war character but also a community in “moral transition”. While the abuses of the Nazi regime have ended, the code that will replace them is still a work in progress. Like Berlin, the four Allied powers each have their own sector — unlike Berlin, the central sector is jointly administered. Most of the novel’s action takes place here, a neighborhood run sometimes by four powers, sometimes by only one and all too often by none as the challenging circumstances of postwar daily life simply fall through the cracks.
Like Dostoevsky and Dickens, however, the author does not address that big picture directly — rather, he creates a sprawling cast of characters and an equally sprawling series of incidents which take place in that “work in progress” world. I’ll offer thumbnail sketches of the circumstances of four of those characters as the basis for this review.
In fact, there was nothing about his person or his clothes that have marked him as a boarding school boy — he might have been a clerk, or an apprentice undertaker — had not the satchel and cap that were stowed in the netting above his head proclaimed him as precisely that, the student or recent graduate of an institution that thought highly enough of itself to affect a crest with lions and a motto in Ciceronian Latin. He also owned a knapsack and what looked to be a lady’s hat box. At intervals he would stand up on his seat and pull a wrapped sandwich out of the former, then sit eating it with obvious relish. He was tidy and handsome and really quite short.
Robert thinks he is returning to his stepfather’s sickbed — in fact, the stepfather is already dead. A wealthy factory owner who collaborated with the Nazis to survive and prosper, he either fell or was pushed to his death from an upper storey window in the family’s luxurious villa. The authorities not only believe he was pushed, they have arrested Robert’s stepbrother Wolfgang and charged him with murder.
It was her back that was twisted: not hunched, but spun like a twist of hair around a finger. It was as though she’d been caught in a perpetual pirouette, one hip higher than the other, the right shoulder leading, an odd sideways prancing to her ever-shuffling feet. If she could but unscrew herself: throw her chest out, gain some range of movement in that stiff and leaning neck; tuck in the shoulder blade that stuck out like a broken flipper.
Given the novel’s title, the reader suspects from Eva’s first appearance that her back is not the only thing about her that is “twisted”. Vyleta takes some time revealing just what the other twists are so you will have to read the book to find out.
It wasn’t Anton.
Distraught, not daring to wake him, she slipped down next to him; sat on the floor, with her back leaning against the sofa, and measured herself out against his long and sprawling legs. The man was enormous, a full foot taller than herself. Something gave in her, physically gave, a sense of tension that had run from rib cage to the dimple at the base of her throat; snapped, recoiled onto itself, pushed out a hoarse, impatient grunt. Her husband could not have grown this much: there wasn’t a rack (not even in Russia!) that would account for the extra height. All at once she grew angry, jumped up, and started kicking him awake. She wore no shoes, bruised her toes upon his greatcoat’s buttons; put a heel into his face and pushed it over, startled him awake.
“What?” he asked, shook himself, tried to focus, eyes gone bleary with the booze.
“Who the hell are you?”
It will be a few hundred pages before that question is answered — suffice to say that along the way, Anna, Robert and Eva each find it convenient to give the very large stranger a particular identity.
Those sketches should offer some hints about the Dostoevskian elements that will come into play in the story — and yes there are lots of Dickens-like incidents and coincidences that Vyleta draws upon to fill out the body of his narrative.
A number of crimes, not just the death/murder of Robert’s father, occur along the way and most of them get resolved, if not solved. The author uses each one to develop the details of another piece of the puzzle that is the morality, code of behavior, new rule of law that Vienna 1948 is in the process of developing.
For this reader (who likes Dostoevsky but is not a Dickens fan), Vyleta succeeds in creating a sense of “world” that he says he aspired to when he sat down to write the novel. The Crooked World is a challenging read, but a rewarding one — as confusing as the narrative gets, the characters are fully developed and consistent. In the final analysis, the book is not about the incidents, events or even the people who populate it — it is a picture of the city and society to which each of them has come on a search. The Vienna of 1948 is every bit as much involved in a collective search for what it is to become as they are in their individual quests.
It should be noted that Vyleta’s last novel, The Quiet Twin, set in Vienna in 1939, features some of the characters who appear in this book. I have not read The Quiet Twin and did not find that to be a problem, although I am sure I would have found some additional elements in this book if I had. I do plan to pick it up and am sure that I will find elements of this novel useful when I do — from reviews that I have read, I get the impression that the two are “companion” works, rather than successive ones.