Thursday, January 3, 2013

Austria, what a naïve place you are!

That cheerful thought is courtesy of Peter Altenberg, the archetypal Viennese coffeehouse Bohemian, who spent his life wandering from café to café and writing Baudelaire-inspired prose poems or articles of short fiction or whatever they are.  As collected in the 2005 Archipelago book Telegrams of the Soul, his importance seems more historical than literary, but that is a thought I hope to sketch out some other time.  For the title line in context, see p. 120.

A greater writer, a greater figure, is the Diogenes of Vienna, Karl Kraus, who moved from journalism to founding his own paper Die Fackel (“The Torch”) in 1899 to writing every word of its contents for twenty-five years:

I no longer have collaborators.  I used to be envious of them.  They repel those readers whom I want to lose myself.

Kraus is highly quotable.  This one is from In These Great Times: A Karl Kraus Reader (Carcanet, 1984, p. 5).  It is amusing to joke that this or that old timey writer, Montaigne or Dr. Johnson or what have you, would now be a blogger.  Not a joke with Kraus.

Along with his articles, jokes, vitriol, parodies, shivs, and bile, Kraus also sometimes presented one-man performances of Shakespeare plays which must have been a sight.  Somewhere along the way he wrote an enormous play-like object titled The Last Days of Mankind, published 1918-19, of which a fraction has been translated.  Perhaps if we all read it someone will translate the whole thing!  I will do my part.

What other Austrian books might I try to read?

I am in the middle – no, closer to the front – of a long, tedious, magnificent Adalbert Stifter novel, Der Nachsommer (“Indian Summer”, 1856).  I have written plenty about Stifter before and recommend him strongly to patient readers, but anyone who introduces himself to Stifter with this novel is insane, no offense.   His subsequent novel, Witiko (1867), is reputed to be even more boring, which if true is an achievement.

Another mid-century writer who should have no existence in English is the comedic playwright Johann Nestroy, but one of his Viennese dialect comedies was adapted by Thornton Wilder and eventually turned into the 1964 musical Hello, Dolly!  That exclamation point is in the title of the show, but I also lay claim to it – what, really?  More appealing to me is that the same play was adapted by Tom Stoppard as On the Razzle (1981).

The young Salzburg poet Georg Trakl I read in November.  I should revisit him.  The other major poet of the period is Rainer Maria Rilke whom I should also revisit (after fifteen years).

If I stick to the kind of cutoff date I used in previous reading projects, say something around 1919, I will then stop before I get to Rilke’s best-known works, the Sonnets to Orpheus and Duino Elegies (both 1923).  I thus also cordon off most Robert Musil, all Joseph Roth, most Stefan Zweig, most Ernst Weiss, etc. etc.  Unwise, perhaps, but it is a guideline, not a rule.

An important exception: Young Törless (1906) is Robert Musil’s first novel, a story of boarding school sadism with a humanist turn.  It also features a long monologue about the meaning of imaginary numbers.  I have read it twice and will likely read it again.  A fine readalong book, but c’mon, The Last Days of Mankind, right?

Perhaps it is clearer why what once seemed like a project of wide scope has come to seem a bit narrow.  Valuable reading but less fun for more casual participants.

Tomorrow:  some supplementary or alternative paths that may well be more fruitful than anything I have mentioned so far.


  1. Keep the recommendations coming :)

  2. Karl Kraus sounds like a complete hoot: "They repel those readers whom I want to lose myself." Any idea if he influenced Thomas Bernhard?

  3. One more day, Tony, although some of the subjects will be obvious.

    The answer to your question, Richard, has to be "yes". They are certainly in the same surprisingly crowded Austrian tradition.

    Analogous to the Argentinean Literature of Doom is the Austrian Literature of - Loathing? Bernhard, Jelink, Handke, Kraus, what a crowd.

  4. If you haven't read it, I strongly recommend Stefan Zweig's memoir "The World of Yesterday". I know, I know, you have this 1919 cutoff but the first part of the book talks about growing up among artists and intellectuals in pre-WWI Austria. It's an amazing memoir and he movingly captures the essence of the era and its writers/artists, and how shocking it was when everything fell apart with the onset of the Great War.

  5. I tell you, I need Zweig recommendations, so this is much appreciated. My first try was kind of a dud - I will write about it sometime. The memoir is a good bet, though.