Irvin Yalom's novel, When Nietzsche Wept, first published by Basic Books in 1992 and subsequently translated into twenty-five languages, was chosen as this year's selection for Vienna's "One City One Book" program. As Irv's wife, I have gotten used to the acclaim he receives, not only from the psychiatric and psychological world (Irv is professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford University), but also from the public at large. Still, neither he nor I was prepared for the magnitude of this award--100,000 copies of his book distributed gratis and a week-long onslaught of publicity in Vienna.
To begin with, there was the bodyguard. Yes, a bodyguard/chauffeur, named Sebastian, who assisted with our every move. At first, a bodyguard seemed a bit much. Did he really have to usher us into the Leopold Museum and wait for us as we thrilled to the Klimts and Schieles? But soon Sebastian's value as a bodyguard became apparent: there were crowds of people pressing books and papers into Irv's hands for his autograph whenever he appeared at a public event. Sebastian was there to keep the crowds from crushing the author (or me). Can you imagine that kind of attention for an author in the United States?
You would have thought Irv was a pop star or a state visitor when he stood beside Mayor Häupl of Vienna, and Helmut Schneider of Echo Media, with television and newspaper cameras forming a light-flashing semi-circle in front of them. Behind the reporters were about a thousand people eager to receive the first free books. And behind Irv, Häupl, and Schneider were copies of the book in German, Und Nietzsche Weinte forming a twenty-foot tower.
At other events-one at the Freud Museum, another at the Central Heating Plant for the City of Vienna, another at a public high school where the students specialize in English--the rooms were always overflowing. The high school students asked probing questions in perfect English:
"What are your writing habits?"
"Do you believe in God?"
"Are you afraid of death?"
Irv answered honestly, even when it meant discussing his personal lack of faith.
A relatively intimate dinner (for thirty), at an excellent restaurant in Vienna called Novelli, allowed us to meet the novelist Robert Menasse, the philosophy professor Alfred Pfabigan, and other interesting Viennese invited to meet us. But the highlight of the week, at least for me, was the gala dinner at the baronial City Hall, attended by seven hundred people. As the chamber orchestra played Strauss and delicious Austrian food was laid upon our plates, various celebrities rose to the stage to heap praise upon When Nietzsche Wept and its author. I sat back in wonder.
My late mother, raised in Cracow during the reign of Emperor Franz Josef, thought of Vienna as the capital of the world. When she moved to Washington, D.C. as an adult, one of her best friends was Mrs. Steiner, a Viennese woman whose three boys were the idols of my childhood. And there I was in their fabled city, waltzing with Hans Steiner, another Stanford professor of psychiatry, who had traveled, conveniently, to his native Vienna with his wife at the time of this singular event. Irv is still asking himself bemusedly how he, the American-born son of Jewish Russian immigrants, had come to be the toast of Vienna.
Irvin Yalom's most recent book is Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death (Jossey Bass, 2008).
Marilyn Yalom's most recent book is The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History through our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds, (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) with photos by Marilyn and Irv's son, Reid Yalom.
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Causes Marilyn Yalom Supports
Planned Parenthood, Glide Foundation The Global Fund for Women, Amnesty International, Friends Outside