Historical Fiction

All Things That Deserve To Perish

By

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Synopsis

The year is 1896, and Elisabeth ('Lisi') von Schwabacher, the gifted daughter of a Jewish banker, returns home to Berlin from piano study in Vienna. Though her thoughts are far from matrimony, she is pursued by two noblemen impressed as much by her stunning wealth as by her prodigious intellect and musical talent.

Awakened to sudden improvements in the opportunities open to women, Lisi balks at her mother's expectation that she will contract a suitable bourgeois marriage, and settle down to a life as a wife and mother. In a bid to emancipate herself once and for all from that unwelcome fate, she resolves to have an affair with one of her aristocratic suitors -- an escapade that, given her rigid social milieu, has tragic consequences for both her and her family.

All Things That Deserve to Perish is a novel that penetrates the constrained condition of women in Wilhelmine Germany, as well as the particular social challenges faced by German Jews, who suffered invidious discrimination long before Hitler's seizure of power. It is also a compassionate rumination on the distractions of sexual love, and the often unbearable strains of a life devoted to art.

“THE FIRST THING I MUST DO TODAY—THE FIRST

thing I really must do,” Elisabeth von Schwabacher thought, as she

coaxed herself from a state of sleep to semiconsciousness, absently

tugging at the neck of her nightgown, “is to go over that place again

exactly as Maestro Leschetizky would have insisted. I’ll take it in

triplet rhythm rather than in duplets, and then in dotted rhythms,

and then all six notes together, stopping after each group of six,

then lifting my hands to root myself in the next group.”

“Or else,” she thought, opening her eyes just enough to see

the shape of her bedstead, “I’ll never properly get it. Because the

piece goes like the wind, and yet all those notes have to be present,

and just under the surface of the melody.”


These things were rather like waging war, Maestro Leschetizky

had always said. Not less worthy of meticulous preparation than

a military campaign. Every artist a soldier embarked on a sacred

quest—one doomed, of course, from the very onset; but if clever

and skillful and well prepared, one could delay for as long as

possible “the inevitable.” And what was the inevitable? Elisabeth

had once plucked up the courage to ask the Maestro, during her

piano lesson. “Falling on one’s sword!” he had answered. “We

are all just helpless sacrifices to the gods of the muse!” And then

he had guffawed. She could hear him now, hear the tone of his

bass and his hearty guffaw, which as often as not tended to settle

on an A-flat.


Elisabeth opened her eyes fully now, and looked around.

Then she closed them again because what she saw made her

ashamed. There were a host of books on her duvet. Some of them

were still opened and placed on their undersides. They looked

as if they had been abused in restless sleep. Papi had not failed

to mention these books when he had entered her room earlier

that morning. Nor had he failed to mention the filled ashtray

that peeked out from under the bed skirt. (“Lisi, mein Kind!” he

had exclaimed. “What an unappetizing sight!”) Typical of Papi,

there was no anger in his voice; and yet he made it clear that he

was annoyed. But instead of remonstrating, he kissed her and

laughed; and then he said that his daughter was surely fated to

go the way of all Bluestockings. And that one day she would

be a proper old maid with two pianos, three dachshunds, and a

library of very peculiar first editions.


“I might end up an old maid, and will certainly have three

or more pianos and a pack of dachshunds, Papi. But I promise

to be more liberal as regards the books I collect. I mean, why

collect only oddities, when one can collect everything?” Lisi

stretched out her arms to him. “But you love me, despite the

fact that you say my habits are disgusting. So won’t you let me

sleep just a little longer?”


And Papi had let her sleep in, which was good, because it was

cold today. The Schwabacher home was well heated, gemütlich

warm and fitted in all other ways too for the coming twentieth

century. But Lisi could still feel the cold coming from the window.

Yes, it was a chilling cold. She stretched out her hand to

catch the vicuna throw that had slipped to the foot of the bed.

She drew it to her, dragging and toppling several volumes with

it. The fur felt so luxuriously soft that she thought perhaps she

should have given up the duvet altogether last night, and simply

snuggled with the vicuna naked. But that would not have

mitigated the dampness, for like so many winter days in Berlin,

the dampness was penetrating. Why, she wondered, was there so

little to recommend the month of March? As well as so little to

recommend Berlin?


Well, never mind! That single long-lined passage, that series

of gestures in groups of six would keep her from dying of boredom

and loneliness today. What was Berlin in comparison to her

beloved Vienna? No Maestro Leschetizky to inspire her. No male

cousins to tease her out of a cross mood. No cousin Klara at home

to converse with late at night. And no Aunt Anna to offer her

home-baked afternoon sweets and coffee with fresh Schlag.

Quarters had been tight in Vienna, where she had even shared

a bed with Klara. But she had gotten so many wonderful things

to eat. And now she must hold hunger at bay! Well, perhaps that

was why Papi had allowed her to sleep so long. It was … let’s see

… The clock read seven thirty. She knew that Papi felt bad for

her that she was hungry, and that she would be kept hungry for

several more weeks—that is, until the dressmaker could be confidently

called in. Because as Mami so wittily put it, “I’m not saying

I would mind having two of my very dear daughter. But I’m not

dressing her in double her rightful size!”


It was a shame, Lisi thought, that she had turned out such a

great disappointment to Mami. She was not pretty. She lacked

many of the essential social graces—the patience, elegance, and

easy conversation that came so naturally to her mother. And she

certainly was not slender.


Lisi loved her mother and had often resolved to make her

happy by cutting down on potato, refusing cake, and cultivating

the kind of small talk that amused so many women. And yet, she

could never sustain these resolutions for very long. Because the only

things that Lisi ever really followed through on were the things that

engaged her. And those things—the very things that kept her up

into the wee hours of the morning with books and piano scores and

cigarettes—were unrelated to good looks and pleasantries.

Mami had said that she would soon get her own lady’s maid.

It was time, Mami had declared, and she wouldn’t have it any

other way. After all, Lisi was nearly twenty-one, and the daughter

of a prominent banker—a höhere Tochter of marriageable age. And

that, Lisi thought, as she lurched into a sitting position, was a

painful status to have.


Well, never mind, Lisi thought. Let Mami bind and braid and

feather her. Let a lady’s maid dress her to the nines—tack her up

like a prized mare! If she could fight through Beethoven and Liszt

and prevail, she could certainly brave a ballroom in a tight gown.

But in the meantime, the day was to begin as every wearying

day in Berlin, with the de rigueur family breakfast, where she

would be offered a broth tea, a boiled egg, and ten almonds; and

where she must watch Papi swipe his Brotchen with a knife he

had dipped very deeply into a pot of butter, while Mami picked

delicately at a small fillet of sturgeon.


“LOTTE FRIEDLAENDER WILL BE MARRIED. I T ’ S I N

the paper today … A lieutenant in the First Cuirassiers, Freiherr

von Campo.”


Susannah von Schwabacher carefully folded and set down the

newspaper page she had been reading. She stroked the tuft of jet

black hair that rested on her brow, and gracefully tilted her head

in that charming way she had of inviting others to speak. Then

she placed a small piece of sturgeon on her toast, and opened

her lovely mouth to receive it. “Have you met him, Maggi?” she

asked, after swallowing.


Magnus von Schwabacher glanced at her from behind his

newspaper. “It seems that Otto Friedlaender is more of a fool than

I thought. What a sad old song, Zsuzsan!”


“We don’t know that, Maggi.”


“The marriage won’t last a year. But Freiherr von Campo will

manage to retain the dowry.”


“You’re very cynical, Papi. Perhaps they are in love,” Lisi said.

She had finished her broth and egg, and was slowly consuming

her almonds, fingering each individually before concentratedly

nibbling away at it.


Magnus put his newspaper down, removed his reading glasses,

and squeezed the bridge of his bony, large nose. “Perhaps she is,

Lisichen, if she is as naïve as I suspect. But where he is concerned,

all I can say is, fat chance!”


“Why, Papi?”


“Have you seen Lotte Friedlaender, Lisi?”


“I have, and I think she isn’t so horrible to look at. And remember

that there is always more to a woman than physiognomy.”


“Lieutenant von Campo would no doubt agree with you on

that point, and will have perceived that the girl has a very rich

father.”

Magnus picked up the paper again, only to set it down once

more when Lisi, out of a long silence, suddenly protested, “But

they will marry, Papi, and so there must be some physiological

attraction …”


“They won’t have children, I can guarantee you,” he said, his

slender fingers closing around a soft brioche. “It’s always the same

story. These noblemen who marry Jewesses want only their money,

and not their children.”


“That’s nonsense, Maggi,” Susannah put in. “Just consider

Prince Wittenbach, whose mother is a Jewess.”


Magnus put down his knife, and looked sternly at his wife.

“I don’t believe that for a minute, and neither should you. That

cannot be true.”


“But everyone says it.”


“I will believe it when Wittenbach says it. There isn’t a more

devoutly Catholic family in all of Germany … And besides, my

dear Susannah, why is it we always have to play this game of

‘Who’s a Jew?’”


“It’s an amusing game. Everyone plays it, and I like it a lot,

Maggi.” Susannah smiled a temperamental smile. “And I also wish

to say that I don’t like to hear you discouraging our Lisi!”


“About what, for God’s sake?”


“About men, specifically about noblemen, whom you seem

convinced are nothing but fortune hunters and anti-semites.”


“Why do you use that word, Zsuzsan? I detest that new word.

It’s politically charged, and frankly sounds almost respectable!”


“Anti-Jewish, then.”


“Well the vast majority are hardly friendly to Jews, my dear.

And you know it.”


“But many are open minded. And I would like my daughter

to believe that she can and will be appreciated by a gentleman

from a very good family.”


“A Jewish gentleman, I hope you mean….”


“A gentleman, Maggi, who pleases her, of whatever religious

persuasion he may be! But … oh, dear! It’s nearly eight thirty,

and I have an appointment at ten, and I should go straight down

to Frau Briess about Thursday supper! Maggi, did you order the

burgundy?”


“It will be delivered this afternoon.”


“Thank you, dear!” Susannah got up from her chair at the

breakfast table, her silk dressing gown swishing as she glided to

her husband’s side and kissed him lightly on the cheek.


“Have a good day, mein Lieber! And you, Lisi, my love,” and here she

cupped her hand and took the girl’s chin in it, “will take everything

your father says about young noblemen and their marriages

with a very large grain of salt.”


“Lisi, Liebchen,” Magnus winked at his daughter. “I think

Mami has just allowed you one large grain of salt in addition to

your broth and egg and almonds!”


“If she has, Papi, I must refuse on the basis of it being at least

one grain too few to make a difference.”


“Well,” said Madame von Schwabacher, “it seems you two

rascals are determined to gang up on me. So I will go about my

business.”


“But Papi,” continued Lisi, as her mother exited the breakfast

room. “You act as if there are no pretty Jewesses at all. As if Mami

weren’t pretty. And what about all those Jewish actresses and artists,

with their strings of gentile lovers!”


Magnus folded his paper, staring straight ahead in deliberation.

“It’s true there seem to be plenty of gentile lovers for famous

Jewish women. But they are just that—lovers, not husbands, and

certainly not fathers.” Then he looked at Lisi and smiled. “When

you have some experience of life, Lisi, you will understand these

subtle social phenomena.”


“It strikes me, Papi, that every time my elders point up so-called

subtleties in social behavior that seem to elude the young,

they are actually referring to preconceptions about society that are

probably not verifiable—statistically, I mean."


“And therefore, you are labeling them false, out of hand.”


“No, I didn’t say that. I said only that they are probably unverifiable,

and until they are verified, I don’t think we should take

the liberty of promoting them as facts.”


Lisi took up the last of her almonds. “But you know what,

Papi? I was also thinking the other night that the physical characteristics

of my husband would be very important to me. Cousin

Klara is marrying a man who possesses ears I couldn’t live a day

with.”


“Bernhard Levin is said to be quite brilliant. Perhaps Klara

doesn’t care about his ears.”


“Nor apparently about the fact that they may well be passed

on to her children.”


Magnus chuckled. “There is no accounting for taste in matters

of love. But when a good man comes to tell you that he wants

you to be the mother of his children, I hope that the shape of his

ears won’t matter.”


“Unfortunately it will, Papi. And so I warn you never to bring

me a suitor with large, protruding ears.”


“I have no intention of bringing you any suitors. I will let the

suitors bring themselves. Now, what do you say you meet me in

the Behrenstrasse at noon, and I take you to Hiller’s for lunch,

and fill you up. Would you like that?”

“What would I tell Mami?”


“That you have an appointment with me, and that it is just

between us.”


“I think I shouldn’t. Though I would love to …”


“You are a good girl! I shouldn’t have tempted you.”


“I am glad you did. It gives me confidence that you like me

just as well plump as slender. And that you value my company.”


“It’s the best company. I missed it sorely when you were in

Vienna. And I will be sorry to miss it in the next two days.”


“Why? Where are you going?”


“Baron von Ehrlingen is taking me to West Pomerania to

have a look at an estate.”


“For purchase? Are we to have an estate? I can’t imagine us in

the country!”


“For a loan. I only hope the weather holds, and that I am not

trapped up there in those godforsaken marshes.”


“Well, how rude of Baron von Ehrlingen to force you from

your family into the wilds of Pomerania. Papi, in case you don’t

know it, I don’t much like Baron von Ehrlingen. And I even think

he abuses you.”


“Abuses me? Nonsense!” Magnus laughed. “I am not a man

who can be abused, and you must never worry about me! But

what about you? I worry you don’t have enough to keep you occupied

now that you’re home.”


“Prince Wittenbach is to come tomorrow at two o’clock to

play through some Beethoven violin sonatas. And there is a lot to

practice—the Brahms quintet to work on, and that Mendelssohn

piece, ‘Restlessness.’ I don’t want you worrying about me, Papi. As

long as I am at the piano, I am happy.”


About the author

Dana Mack is an historian, writer, and musician living in Connecticut. She is the author of The Assault on Parenthood (Simon & Schuster) and The Book of Marriage (Eerdmanns). Her articles on music, education, family issues, culture and history have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. view profile

Published on October 25, 2020

90000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Historical Fiction