The house lies on a quiet street between Schwedenplatz and Stephansdom. A servant answers the door and bids me enter as if this might have been another time, a Vienna before the wars, had he not been African and wearing an apron. He rings a tarnished bell at the bottom of the stairs to announce my arrival.
He is the sole remnant of Albert’s domestic staff, he tells me, as we trudge up the main staircase. “And so I must cook, clean, wait on guests, do the shopping, as if I’m his wife. I tell you, do I look like his wife? All so he can stay seated on his big fat bottom pretending he is Otto Wagner, father of the city. I tell you, the man hasn’t been commissioned to design a building in 15 years. Bankrupt within two months, says his accountant. Oh my days! And then what will happen to me? Nobody in Vienna wants a man-servant these days.”
Creased ancestors glare disapproval from the walls of each flight upwards, grim-faced and gold-framed, until I stop before one that looks familiar. It’s the famous Gerstl double-portrait of Arnold and Mathilde: they sit bathed in shards of green and blue that seem to gravitate towards the centre of the canvas, pulling their subjects with them. Next to it is a blank space in the shape of a painting, a shade lighter than the rest of the paintwork.
“Yes, yes,” says the servant. “The artist took Mathilde with him one day when Albert didn’t pay him for something.”
Albert receives me in a study on the top floor, which he’s pacing in, with a notebook and pen.
“Ah, Georg. How marvellous to see you. Sorry you had to mount all those steps but Michael -” he nods at the servant “- insisted on shutting up most of the house to save on cleaning. I’m like the madwoman in the attic up here.”
Finger jabbing out each word, Michael responds: “When you have enough money to pay a man a decent wage, I’ll think about cleaning the rest of the house. You ungrateful -”
“Very good, Michael. That’ll be all.”
Albert gestures for me to take a seat in one of the two chairs before the bureau and sits down opposite.
“I’m not disturbing your note-taking? New idea for a building?”
Albert throws the notepad at me and smiles. “Nothing of the sort, dear fellow.”
The open page of the pad is entitled ‘Sellables’. What follows in Albert’s inscrutable script is a list of furniture with figures next to each item. “Bankruptcy looming. I’m trying to work out what I should demand for all this stuff before the bailiffs get at it.”
I return the pad. “Is it any sweeter second time round?”
He points to a looping scratch on the surface of the desk. “I pawned this desk the last time. When I regained solvency, they sold it back to me at twice the price with this scratch. Next time I have to buy it it’ll probably be missing a leg. God knows what that’ll cost me.”
“So why buy it again? Get a new desk.”
A sigh. “I wish I could, Georg, but it’s an heirloom. Everything in this house is an heirloom. Michael even, has become a sort of heirloom. And I’m obliged to protect them as best I can.”
“Which isn’t all that well, judging by this scratch. Michael will probably come back to you in a wheelchair.”
Albert reaches across the desk and rings the bell. “I’ll keep him busy until then, in any case. But you’re right. It’s ghastly to be bankrupted twice because of imprudence. I’m beginning to wonder whether man is doomed to repeat the same mistakes for all eternity.”
“Well, you are. I’m not sure you can speak for the rest of mankind.”
“History, Georg, is two men throwing stones at one another’s eyes until both are blind and still neither has learned to duck.”