Empty Theatre: A Novel or, The Lives of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Empress Sisi of Austria (Queen of Hungary), Cousins, in Their Pursuit of Connection and Beauty...
Jac Jemc. MCD, $28 (448p) ISBN 978-0-374-27792-5
In this lively work, Jemc (False Bingo) composes a twin portrait of two very different 19th-century monarchs. Austria’s Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) is comparatively more engaged than her younger cousin King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Sisi regularly pushes her husband, Franz, on policy matters while suffocating under the confines of Habsburg palace life. She has an ambiguous relationship to motherhood, suffers from syphilis as a result of Franz’s dalliances, and engages in a long flirtation with Hungarian nationalist Count Andrassy. As for Ludwig, he doesn’t even pretend to occupy himself with governing, feeling it his only duty “to sustain his subjects with beauty and majesty.” He longs to escape into his own dreamworld, embracing the epic works of Richard Wagner with an almost religious devotion and constructing a series of increasingly fantastical and ruinously expensive castles. Jemc largely succeeds in humanizing this eccentric and possibly insane figure. Her episodic style gives the novel a brisk, impressionistic air but sacrifices some of the immersive qualities of historical fiction and necessitates the occasional dry summary: “With Austria’s defeat to Napoleon III in the Second Italian War of Independence, the nation hits a low point.” Nonetheless, Jemc seldom lacks for brio in portraying these inscrutable figures weighed down by their crowns and visions. The originality on offer is well worth the price of admission. Agent: Claudia Ballard, WME. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 11/02/2022