Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Austrian Literature Non-Challenge - Mellow fruit unendingly

Happy New Year!  Welcome back to Wuthering Expectations, where the literature of the year, which usually means more like nine months, is Austrian.

The Austrian Non-Challenge was meant to be the sequel to the earlier Scottish and Portuguese Reading Challenges, surely among the greatest reading challenges in book blog history, but the more I explored and thought about what I wanted to accomplish, the less social the whole thing seemed.  It may all be too narrow to support the amusing Challenge rhetoric.

However, as I spend a few days planning ahead, showing my bibliographic work, I do want to invite anyone interested to read along with me.  If anything strikes your fancy, or I fail to mention something I ought to read, let’s read it together.  This has always worked out well in the past.

This is what I am looking for:  the big change, the birth of the New, the invention of the Modern.  The metaphors are bad because the New, birthed by Flaubert and Baudelaire and Manet and others, is already thirty or forty years old by 1890 when Austrian literature begins to crack open.  The transition in Austrian literature, and art, and music is late but fast.  So I hope that I might learn something about how it happened, about the change in the ideas or tastes, the artists or audience.

My guess is that I cannot, that I am fundamentally mistaken in some way and am looking in the wrong place, and it is possible that I will never mention the idea again.  The books should still be good either way.

Two writers with parallel careers will likely make up the core of my Austrian reading.  Arthur Schnitzler has been on Wuthering Expectations recently enough that I will zip past him.  I want to read more of his plays, including some puppet plays that sound promising, and more of his fiction, including his single novel, the 1908 The Road to the Open, which sounds more relevant than good (pretty good and highly relevant), but we will see.  More promising:  the early stream of consciousness showpiece “Lieutenant Gustl” (1901) and some later novellas.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal was a decade younger than Schnitzler but their careers overlap almost perfectly because Hofmannsthal was another of those weird teenage literary prodigies I have been coming across lately, a writer of poems, essays, short stories, and verse plays of remarkable assurance and originality. 

Still in his twenties, Hofmannsthal suffered an aesthetic crisis  that he describes in the 1902 fiction now know as “The Lord Chandos Letter.”  The result in his own life was an almost complete abandonment of poetry and to a lesser degree fiction for theater, leading, eventually, to his series of operatic collaborations with Richard Strauss.  Here is a Hofmannsthal poem from 1898:

Traveller’s Song (Reiselied)
To engulf us water’s eddy,
Down the boulders roll, to crush,
And to bear us off already
Birds on powerful pinions rush.

But a landscape lies below
In its ageless lakes reflecting
Mellow fruit unendingly.

Brim of well and marble brow
Gleaming rise from flowery meadows,
And the gentle breezes blow.  (tr. Michael Hamburger)

Can I get to the mellow fruit before I am crushed by the boulders, that is the question.  The poem is on p. 11 of Poems and Verse Plays, Pantheon, 1961.

Tomorrow:  more fine Austrian writers, and perhaps even some duds.


  1. I'll be happy to join your non-challenge at some point during the year (in November, if all else fails...). There are too many great Austrian writers I haven't even tried yet.

  2. Oh, yes, that is a good idea - join up by proxy during the Caroline \ Lizzy November German event. A good time for a roundup.

  3. This is a (non) challenge I could love. Not too broad to be unfocused or too narrow to be uninteresting. And timely, I recently finished Karl Kraus' The Last Days of Mankind and thought it was hilarious.

    I hope you haven't read Musil's The Man Without Qualities so many times that it won't be included. I think I am about due for a reread.

  4. In the past I had a strict chronological cutoff - 1914 for Scottish, 1919 for Portuguese. Although I am reluctant to go too far past 1919 - if there is a cusp, 1920 is definitely on the other side of it - the hard cutoff does not make as much sense here. I don't know.

    I'll do something with Kraus tomorrow - he is essential reading here, someone I am anticipating with pleasure - and blow some smoke about Musil.

    I have not read The Man without Qualities. The big appeal of that book in this context (aside from it being really good!) is that it is an interpretation of the period I'm interested in here. So it would likely be even more useful than Schnitzler or Trakl or whoever. The Radetzky March has the same problem and potential - too late, but obviously directly relevant.

  5. Ach, a cutoff! I guess I can return Broch and Canetti to their place on the shelf.

  6. Yes, unless I start to wander in an interesting direction. Broch will make an appearance or two, though, in the specialized role of an expert on Hofmannsthal.

  7. I'll see if I can join you with some readings. But I can't promise you anything; my hands are quite full this year. But obviously I'll enjoy following your thoughts on this.

  8. Lemme go check your list.

    Hmmm. Kafka's Diaries are in the realm of possibility, but I fear that would be a uniquely bad readalong kind of book.

    Now, there are still the Borges lists - maybe some more Gustav Meyrink is in order? Maybe?

    Never mind. Forget Austria and read Tristram Shandy!

  9. I can't help feeling you'll be missing something in your intention by confining yourself to this place called "Austria" which existed pre-1918.

    Another idea (which may be true or not) is that the German-speaking "Austrians" were conservative and backward-looking, bewailing their loss of empire / privilege, while it was the Other-speaking "non-Austrians" who were eager for a new dawn of, er, nationalism, radicalism and existential alienation. - And what about those other "non-Austrian" German-speakers a bit to the north, whom we tend to refer to these days as "Germans". Munich's not so far from Vienna, after all - and people wrote some quite strange stuff (I'm thinking of Alfred Kubin).

    Which is all to say, if I find any German-language "Austrian" books in my non-German or Russian-language Eastern European project, I'll be sure to join in.

  10. I am already having regrets along the lines you suggest. The specific name of the current regret is "Stefan George" but others will likely arise.

    You have included one of my internal arguments for not going to far past the end of the war. In 1900 the empire is intact, the bourgeois are confident, and the hot ticket is a seat to hear whatever crazy violation of musical common sense Richard Strauss has come up with, perhaps after sitting for a Klimt portrait. Some Viennese were in a restless mood.

    Maybe Vienna Plus is a better name for what I am doing.

    I think Kubin counts as Austrian, though. If anyone wants to take a run at his strange novel The Other Side (1909), let me know.

    Also, if I want to get serious about the other German literature of this time that means Thomas Mann and more Thomas Mann; just the idea exhausts me.

  11. I'm game, but by my same rules-- you pick (and provide?) and I'll read.

  12. My comment was written before yours--I'm volunteering in general, not claiming I want to read the Kubin.

  13. I have to pick! That's tricky. I will have to ponder. The Stifter novel I am reading has a lot of curious lore about gardening and flowers and seeds, but I do not believe that will be my choice for you.

  14. Since I read Joseph Roth's Job for the German Literature Challenge and then didn't get around to writing about it, perhaps I can use it for this round?

  15. Job is a good idea. Let's schedule it in for (vague mumbling) sometime. Details to follow.

    The novel violates my idea of a cutoff by a decade, but is 1) about the earlier period, 2) short, which I appreciate, and 3) allows me to revisit some of the ideas and scenery from my old Yiddish reading project; I am thinking especially of S. Ansky's stunning 1925 THe Destruction of Galicia.