Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The things Altenberg writes, we already know them anyhow! - Vienna's perfect Bohemian

Yesterday I wrote about Stefan Zweig, who was loathed by his writerly peers like Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Thomas Mann.  Today, Peter Altenberg, who was adored by the same crowd.

Altenberg was a Viennese Bohemian, the artistic kind, not the Czech kind, the artist who hangs out in cafés with the other Viennese writers, wears shabby clothes, and always seems to have just changed his abode.  Altenberg published a twenty five year stream of odd little newspaper pieces – prose poems, sketches, stories, fantasies.  Charles Baudelaire is the useful but insufficient predecessor.  On the basis of Telegrams of the Soul: Selected Prose of Peter Altenberg (2005), enthusiastically translated by Peter Wortsman, Altenberg is not nearly as weird or outrageous as Baudelaire.

I wonder if the Austrian artistes were simply thrilled to have their very own flaneuring Bohemian – “just like you read about in the Paris newspapers!”  Arthur Schnitzler or Karl Kraus, early supporters of Altenberg, are saying that, or so I imagine.  Franz Kafka called Altenberg a “genius of nullifications,” which sounds exciting but, to pick a representative quotation, “Art is art and life is life, but to live life artistically; that is the art of life” is just the sort of thing I expect an 1890s aesthete to say (quoted from Carl Schorske, p. 306).

Now I sound as if I am complaining.  Oh no no.  The fragments and images and overheard conversations and attitudes Wortsman collects in this attractive Archipelago Books edition are enjoyable and edifying.  How could I not like a list of “My Ideals” like this:

The adagios in the violin sonatas of Beethoven.
Speckled tulips.
Franz Schubert.
Solo asparagus, spinach, new potatoes, Carolina rice, salt sticks,
Knut Hamsun,
The blue pen “Kuhn 201.”
The condiment: Ketchup. (87)

Not to be confused with the composer: Ketchup, although he was quite good, too.

Altenberg gave me a tour of his Vienna.  Sitting in a “champagne pavilion,” someone in his party recognizes a celebrity – Gustav Klimt! – but no one is impressed until someone else says “But that’s the guy who paid for twelve bottles of Charles Heidsieck champagne at the Casino de Paris last winter!” Now everyone is impressed.  In a note, Altenberg confesses that the champagne was actually a different brand, but he has hopes that the Charles Heidsieck company will compensate him for the endorsement.  See p. 26.

Altenberg goes to the cabaret, chases women in the big amusement park, and not only visits the Ashanti Village, an appalling living anthropological exhibit, but over the course of a series of pieces makes friends with the exhibited Africans and treats them as if they were human:

“We’re supposed to represent savages, Sir, Africans.  It’s completely crazy.  We’d never go around like this in Africa,  Everybody would laugh at us” (65).

Altenberg is on to me, way ahead of me:

“The things Altenberg writes, we already know them anyhow!”

Because he writes in such a way as to give you the impression that you’ve always known it anyhow.  (55)

Maybe so, maybe so.


  1. I had not heard of Altenberg. It sounds like he wrote lots of short works. I would think that for me reading him in large doses might be just a little frustrating. Do you find that he develops unifying or common ideas?

  2. I wonder if he published anything of any length. I don;t know. His books are collections of his short newspaper pieces.

    He does develop unifying ideas - or the translator selected pieces to make it look like he does. Examples: the variety of city life, a sensual approach to women, the pleasures and follies of his unusual lifestyle.

    But his great idea, and I think this is what Kafka was responding to, was formal - a perfect freedom of subject and approach, and a compressed style that was full of surprises.

    I am never the right person to ask about ideas, though!

  3. Interesting. Some of Altenberg's bubble goes flat in the Wortsman translation. There are many of the same stories in this edition as in the Alexander King. Perhaps it is the lovely simpatico between King and Altenberg that preserves (or creates? what do I know?) his spirit more accurately?

  4. I had thought that you just picked fizzier quotes! I will definitely try Altenberg again with another translator. As if that is a hardship!