Given that The Man I Became was narrated by a gorilla, I am astonished to announce that I found Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch) the strangest of Peirene Press’ titles last year. It begins when its unwitting narrator encounters an elderly lady who requests that they share a Gugelhupf (a cake popular in Austria): “A whole one is too much for me and they don’t sell them by the half here.” This is followed by a further invitation to accompany the woman to her apartment and share the half she has bought. (“My house keeper and I can’t eat it all between us”). Two important aspects of the novel have already been introduced: the narrator’s willingness to be swayed by her host (Frau Hohenembs) and an obsession with food.
Our narrator suffers from bulimia: once she has eaten a second slice of the cake she feels there is little point in stopping there, “the third I helped myself to without invitation because it was irrelevant now.”
“I was abandoned by the day. A faint trance descended onto me like a silk cloth. I went into the bathroom and regurgitated the whole lot.”
Already the narrative has been peppered with references to food and weight, however. “If only you knew the lengths I go to…to keep my figure!” Frau Hehenembs comments, while in the background her maid, Ida, is specifically introduced as “fat”. Meanwhile, a second narrative introduces us to Empress Elisabeth of Austria who was famously fanatical about her figure:
“Her waist measured no more than fifty centimetres; a man could have put his hand right round it. This was no surprise as she barely ate a thing.”
Frau Hohenembs relationship with Ida is a shabby reflection of the Empress and her maid, who is the narrator of the second narrative. Hohenembs herself is more than a little obsessed with Elisabeth (suggesting perhaps some connection to the maid, though as the Empress lived in the second half of the nineteenth century it seems unlikely she could be the maid, unless the novel is even stranger than I think). Not only does she have several pictures of the young Elisabeth in her home, but our narrator soon finds herself embroiled in a theft a duck press from a museum (used to squeeze the juice from carcasses which could then be drunk in lieu of eating, a method of ‘dieting’ used by Elisabeth). Later, further items are purloined as Hohenembs claims ownership through her unspoken relationship to the Empress.
Amid all the eccentricity, the novel is a distressing picture of bulimia. We learn in detail the lengths to which the narrator will go to to remain unnaturally thin:
“Often I’d leap up in the middle of reading the newspaper or watching an advertisement for diet products, stand on the scales and prove to myself that I hadn’t shifted a gram either way since the previous weigh-in fifteen minutes earlier.”
Closeted claustrophobically with the obsessions of these two women, there is little sense that men are to be blamed. Only Ida attracts a sexual partner in the course of the novel, and the narrator’s repeated reference to ‘Charlotte’ suggests a previous relationship. In any case, Stift seems more intent on dissecting how it feels than analysing its cause (though in one reading of the novel, Frau Hohenembs and Ida are simply extensions of the narrator’s psyche).
Just like Frau Hohenmebs, The Empress and the Cake may give the initial impression of charming quirkiness, but it is, in fact, grotesque, a reminder that, as Freud discovered, the horrors of this world can lie within the genteel drawing rooms of Vienna.