Thursday, May 1, 2014

Maria von Trapp, author

The real Maria von Trapp
My spare time reading for the past week or so has been, of all things, Baroness Maria von Trapp's autobiography, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Amazon was selling the Kindle edition for $1.99, and my parents and I watched The Sound of Music on TV a bunch of times when I was a kid, so why not, I thought. It might be interesting.

Interesting it has proved to be, and then some. Maria writes with verve, and she has a hell of a story to tell. It does not bear much resemblance to TSoM. The first part of the book has the same broad outline - a young would-be nun is sent to care for a baron's children, and ends up marrying him - but practically the only incident from the musical that appears in the book is the bit about assembling the children with a whistle.

Maria and Georg von Trapp were married, not on the eve of the Anschluss, but in 1927. On Maria's telling, she was more or less coerced into the union; the Reverend Mother informed her it was God's will that she get hitched, whether she wanted to or not. Here's how Maria reacts:
Minutes had passed and I was still kneeling, trying to understand. I knew this was final and no argument was possible. ... All my happiness was shattered and, and my heart, which had so longed to give itself entirely to God, felt rejected. Heavy waves of disappointment and bitterness swept over it. 
She returns to the von Trapp estate, where the captain is waiting.
"Well, and ..." was all he said.
Timidly I went over; and all of a sudden there came all the tears I hadn't found before.
"The-they s-s-said I have to m-m-marry you-u!"
Without a word he opened his arms wide. And what else could I do -- with a wrenching sob I buried my face on his shoulder...." 
Rather a far cry from "Climb Every Mountain," isn't it? She mentions her affection for Georg in the years after the marriage, but in their courtship, such as it was, the emotion is all on his side. She repeatedly says she loves the children, which makes the lacuna of feeling toward their father all the more conspicuous.

The movie ends with the family fleeing Austria, but the majority of the book takes place after that, as the von Trapps work to build a new life in America. I was struck by how touch-and-go it was for them, how for years they barely scraped by. They eked out a living by singing, but they were stiff, unnatural performers at first, and their concerts weren't that popular.

There's a funny scene when they meet American Indians for the first time:
[The Indians were] nice friendly people who looked at us as curiously as we at them. They had never seen Austrians in their national costume, either.
By "costume," Maria doesn't mean a stage get-up. The von Trapps made their own clothes in Austria, and they had no money to buy new outfits, so they just kept on wearing them. They were wool, and apparently pretty uncomfortable in American summers.

As befits someone who nearly became a nun, Maria is quite devout, and the book evokes an almost medieval sense of God as a presence suffusing and informing daily life. Her outlook is not even modern, let alone post-modern. Hers is a sturdy, peasant religion, and it informs a sturdy, peasant outlook; she writes dismissively at one point at one point of cosmopolitan mores and the abandonment of tradition.
The big cities have shed all these peculiarities in order to be admitted into the big-city corporation around the world. The national costumes they exchanged for street clothes worn the same in Paris, London, New York, or Shanghai on their respective Fifth Avenues; folk dances were replaced by international ballroom dances; and instead of folk customs -- the century-old voice of your own people informing you what your forefathers did at certain times and what you should imitate -- they have books now, the Emily Posts of the respective countries, giving minute instructions on what to wear if you want to be called 'smart," how to behave if you want to be "socially acceptable." 
I'm surprised at how much I like The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, and I think the surprise adds to my enjoyment. Who would have guessed that behind the great juggernaut of middlebrow entertainment that was The Sound of Music lay this idiosyncratic little gem.

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