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.