The Empress and the CakeLinda Stift
Madness lurks behind the pretty façade of everyday life.
An elderly lady offers a young woman a piece of cake. She accepts. The lady resembles the Austrian Empress Elisabeth and lives with her servant in an apartment full of bizarre souvenirs. More invitations follow. A seemingly harmless visit to the museum turns into a meticulously planned raid to steal a royal cocaine syringe. Without realising, the young woman has become the lady’s accomplice. Does she realise she is losing control?
Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
On the surface this is a clever thriller-cum-horror story of three women and their descent into addiction, crime and madness. And at times it’s very funny. But don’t be fooled. The book also offers an exploration of the way the mind creates its own realities and – quite often – deludes us into believing that we control what is actually controlling us. Uncanny, indeed.
Written by Linda Stift.
Translated from the Austrian German by Jamie Bulloch.
Fairy Tale Series
172pp, paperback with flaps, £12
Published September 2016
Linda Stift in an Austrian writer. She was born in 1969 and studied Philosophy and German Literature. She lives in Vienna. Her first novel, Kingpeng, was published in 2005. She has won numerous awards and was nominated for the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2009.
Jamie Bulloch is a historian and has worked as a professional translator from German since 2001. After studying Modern Languages, he obtained an MA in Central European History and followed up with a PhD in interwar Austrian history. His translations include books by Paulus Hochgatterer, Alissa Walser and Timur Vermes. He is the translator of five Peirene titles: Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius, Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, winner of the 2015 Schlegel-Tieck Prize for German Translation, The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift and The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch. He is also the author of A Short History of Tuscany and Karl Renner: Austria.
‘From the opening scene to the very last page the writer makes the uncanny uncannily present, as if the bourgeois of Vienna, contrary to everywhere else in Europe, have always been just a little bit strange.’ Neil Griffiths, Republic of Consciousness
‘It is once again a great credit to the enterprising Peirene Press, which has carved out quite a niche for itself in bringing us Weird Contemporary European Novels.’ Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian
‘Like the sumptuous cakes that appear throughout, this book is a thrilling treat to be devoured within a short space of time. A claustrophobic and gripping page-turner.’ The Contemporary Small Press
‘Such a wicked psychothriller can only come from Vienna.’ KulturSPIEGEL
‘I finished the story in a day but the pleasure lingers. You will feel no regrets indulging in this tale.’ neverimitate
She was inspecting the pink and green custard slices, the glazed tarts and fancy meringues piled high in the window of the patisserie. Her dress touched the floor, with only the toes of her shoes poking out. The dress was black and woollen, and around her shoulders sat a black lace mantilla, whose dipped hem was tucked between her armpits. Not exactly the most appropriate outfit for a warm day in early May. She had no intention, so it appeared, of buying anything; she simply seemed to enjoy gazing at the layers of light and dark chocolate, the white cream toppings and the colourful sugar decorations. Just as I was walking past – I was in a hurry that Friday evening; the supermarket was going to shut in half an hour – the woman turned around, looked me boldly in the eye and dropped her purse. She held her hand in front of her mouth as she giggled. I bent down and picked up the purse. Taking it back, she noticed the scars on my knuckles and raised her plucked eyebrows, which locked into sharp angles. Would you like to share a Gugelhupf? A whole one is too much for me, and they don’t sell them by the half here. She spoke in a very genteel way, which was at odds with the ill-mannered stare she had just given me. I said nothing in reply, but accompanied her into the shop.
Catching the eye of the girl behind the counter, who was sporting a pink, box-shaped hat fastened to her black bun with hairclips, she told her what she wanted. The shop assistant cut a marbled Gugelhupf into two halves and packaged these in boxes like the one on her head. Three euros each, please, ladies. I paid my share and took the box. I was now in possession of half a Gugelhupf I had no idea what I was going to do with; I’d hardly touched sweet things for years. I tried to say goodbye to the strange woman, annoyed by the pointless purchase I’d been coerced into, but she ignored my attempts to leave. You know, even half a Gugelhupf is too much in the end. My housekeeper and I can’t eat it all between us. I’ll never be the sort of person to buy by the slice, touch wood. There’s something dreadfully sad about that and, in any case, the slices are dried out because they cut them early in the morning. My apartment is just around the corner; please do me the honour of joining me for a cup of coffee and some cake. Only for a while, I shan’t keep you long. In retrospect I can’t say why I followed her, but I did. That was my Saturday ruined. I’d have to go shopping in a supermarket heaving with people. And I really didn’t have a clue what I was going to do with half a Gugelhupf after stuffing myself with cake at this woman’s place. Even contemplating what might happen with my share was giving me a headache. I was annoyed at having got myself into this situation and displeased that now I was obliged to visit a stranger’s apartment. The best thing would have been to leave the cake right there; maybe somebody would be happy to find it. But the thing would probably end up in the bin. I mean, who takes abandoned cakes home with them?
While she muttered away to herself I tried to guess the woman’s age. Her voice was very soft. You had to concentrate hard when listening to her. The skin on her face was brown and weather-beaten, like that of people who do a lot of hiking or sunbathing, and pronounced wrinkles were etched around her eyes and the corners of her mouth. Despite this she looked young, almost elastic, perhaps because of her upright posture, which emphasized her tall, slim figure. Her dark hair was plaited into an intricate coiffure. We turned into a narrow side street, only a few minutes away from my flat. She unlocked the front entrance to an old Viennese apartment block and we climbed the stairs to the third floor. I concealed my breathlessness as best I could. Ever since I’d been living on the ground floor I’d found going up stairs hard work. When we entered her apartment a dog with scraggly fur leaped up at the woman, standing on his back legs and hugging her with his front paws. He was an Irish wolfhound, almost as large as a Great Dane, with a rough, grey-brown coat and folded ears. His long, thin legs enhanced his scrawny appearance. He looked just like the picture that forms in my mind whenever the word dog is mentioned without reference to a particular breed. And yet this was an intensively bred variety of sighthound, more than 1,500 years old, which almost died out in the seventeenth century. It only survived by being crossed with other, similarly large dogs, stabilized, as it’s called in breeding terminology. I knew this from Charlotte, who read endless books about dog breeds, even though she didn’t have a dog herself. Mongrel, I thought as I looked at him.
The woman wrestled with the dog for quite a while, before calling Ida! with a hint of hysteria in her voice. She must have shouted this name thousands of times in the past. A thin, concealed door opened and a fat woman of around sixty shuffled out of a cubbyhole cluttered with furniture. The woman stood by the opening, with ruffled, clumsily tied-up hair. She’d clearly been asleep; she was blinking and her face was crumpled, showing the lined traces of a headrest. She wore the same black dress as the other woman, without the mantilla, but it didn’t particularly suit her. It was the wrong cut, the arms too long and too wide, while the material was tight beneath the armpits. Wouldn’t believe she’s four years younger, would you? What a lovely beauty she was, my little Ida, my kedves Idám, she said, glancing at me. And now? Just look at her! Oh well, none of us is getting any younger. She shook off the dog and gave Ida, who acknowledged these comments with a grimace behind her back, instructions to make coffee and set the table in the drawing room. The dog sniffed at me and tried to thrust his stubby muzzle between my legs, which I nervously pressed together. Realizing he wasn’t getting anywhere, he went to lie down in Ida’s room. If only you knew the lengths I go to in order to – touch wood – keep my figure! But it’s worth it; I can eat what I like without putting on much weight. Madame eat like a sparrow, Ida called out unsolicited from the kitchen.
For Reading Groups
Get your brain in gear with our reading group questions:
1. It cannot be denied that The Empress and the Cake is about addiction. How else may the book be interpreted?
2. Explore how the criminal plans hatched by the Empress develop throughout the book.
3. Under which genre would you distinguish this book? A thriller? A horror story? Or perhaps, a tragedy?
4. The book contains many humorous episodes. As readers, do we find Linda Stift’s use of comedy a release from the weight of the characters’ realities, or rather, acknowledge these diversions as a reflection of the characters’ illnesses?
5. Charlotte appears to be the protagonist’s only friend and yet we hardly see her. What is the purpose therefore of this relationship in the context of the novel?
6. The Empress and the Cake is a predominately female cast; other than the Baron, we do not encounter many male roles. Explore the dynamic between the women and the affects and consequences of their individual issues projected onto each other.
7. The story takes place in Sigmund Freud’s Vienna and the birthplace of psychoanalysis. To what extent does this book explore how the mind creates its own realities?
8. How would you justify The Empress and the Cake being attached to the theme of fairy tales?
9. Discuss how the structure of the book enhances the reading quality of The Empress and the Cake.
10. Ida’s passages portray the Empress in an adoringly cheeky light. How is this nurturing quality echoed in the relationship between the two characters?
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