Austria today occupies an area of almost 84,000 square kilometers and has a population of nearly 9 million people - compared to the huge multicultural Habsburg empire which preceded it, contemporary Austria is a sort of rump state with Vienna. When it lost WWI, Austria tragically lost 90% of its territory as well as its monarchy. The Austro-Hungarian Empire occupied 622,000 square kilometers and had a population of almost 53 million (in 1914). It was the second largest country in Europe after the Russian Empire and contained such present-day countries as Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, parts of Poland, the western part of Ukraine, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, and parts of Italy. Although landlocked, it had a major port city in Trieste (today part of Italy), where the Austrian merchant marine was based. Trieste was linked by rail to Vienna. The largest cities in the empire were Vienna (at that time 2 million inhabitants), Budapest (1.2 million), Prague (668,000), Trieste (230,000) and Lemberg/Lviv (in the Ukraine, 206,000). Official languages were German and Hungarian and the major religion was Catholicism (three-quarters of the population). With more than 43,000 kilometers the empire had the largest rail network in Europe after Germany,Around 1900, Jews numbered about two million in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The majority lived in small towns in Galicia and the countryside in Hungary and Bohemia; but there were also large communities in Vienna, Budapest and Prague. Their position was sometimes difficult, as populist parties were on the rise, but the governments of Vienna and Budapest did not implement antisemitic policies. On the contrary, Jews often occupied important positions as physicists, lawyers, business owners and officers in the army. Thanks to the modernity of the constitution, the Austrian Jews came to regard the era of Austria-Hungary as a golden time. Important artists with a Jewish background were writers as Arthur Schnitzler, Franz Kafka and Stefan Zweig, composers as Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, a painter as Gustav Klimt, and early filmmakers as Josef von Sternberg and Max Ophuls. After the rise of the Nazis, this changed and the majority of Jews from the Austro-Hungarian Empire tragically ended up in Hitler's gas chambers; a minority of intellectuals fled, mainly to the United States.
Today's Austria is a republic and parliamentary democracy. It is part of the EU. The country can be divided into five areas, ranging from the Eastern Alps to the Vienna basin. Large cities are, besides Vienna, Graz (238,000), Linz (203,000), Salzburg (144.000) and Innsbruck (118,000).
Austria is a prosperous democratic republic, but the country is also class-conscious and leadership is often autocratic, with large power differences. There is a historical respect for aristocrats. Family connections and networking are an important part of the culture. Manners are formal and chivalrous.
Harboring the vibrant capital of what was a large empire, Austrian culture is very rich. We don't really have to mention Austria's famous composers, for everyone knows Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Johann Strauss, Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler, as well as the Vienna Philharmonic, Vienna State Opera and Wiener Symphoniker.
Austria was the cradle of numerous scientists with an international reputation, for example in fields as nuclear research and quantum mechanics. It also was the birthplace of two of the most noteworthy philosophers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. In addition, biologists Gregor Mendel and Konrad Lorenz as well as mathematician Kurt Gödel were Austrians - not to forget Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. In all, Austria has gathered 22 Nobel Prizes, of which 19 in science, medicine, or economics. Two were in literature, for Elfriede Jelinek (2004) and Peter Handke (2019).
The novel flourished relatively late in Austria (as in neighboring Germany) and there are only few important 19th c. authors. That changed in the early 20th c., with authors as Schnitzler, Zweig, Rilke, Roth, Broch and Musil who are all of world-scale. Important postwar writers are Bernhard, Handke and Jelinek.
Vienna is the city of The Third Man, the classic film by Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, so it is not surprising we also find some excellent homegrown thrillers, such as The Master of the Day of Judgement and I Was Jack Mortimer in the 1920s, and in our own time the humorous mysteries written in Viennese conversational style by Wolf Haas - and not to forget The Second Rider (see below) in which we find a great portrait of Vienna during the desolate aftermath of WWI, when Austria had lost everything.
The big themes of the Austrian novel are:
- The search for a positive identity after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the postwar four-power occupation
- A Kafka-esque mood brought about by the immense bureaucracy of the vast Habsburg empire
- Criticism of present-day Austria as tainted by Catholic paternalism and National-Socialism from the period of WWII
- Interest in psycho-sexology
The rules I have followed are:
(1) English translations must exist (it may be our of print, in which case you'll have to try the sellers at Amazon etc., or a good library)
(2) Every writer is represented by only one book (to prevent me from spamming the list with my favorites)
(3) One of the selection criteria is "sense of place," meaning that I have a preference for books that bring the reader closer to the country under consideration.
(4) Besides "high literature," I also include a few "genre novels" (usually thrillers or mysteries), as these can give a good insight in the culture of a particular country.
Austrian Literature Online: http://www.literature.at/default.alo
I recommend checking out the various places mentioned in these novels via Google Maps or Wikipedia for a virtual trip!
1. Adalbert Stifter, Rock Crystal (Bergkristall, 1845)
A mythical story about two children from an Alpine village who get lost in the mountain snow on Christmas Eve, becoming trapped among the rock crystals of a frozen glacier. Conrad and his sister Susanna live in the small Alpine village of Gschaid, which is so isolated that it forms a separate world. There is a strong mistrust of outsiders, even if they come from the village in the next valley, like the mother of these children: while the mother's village is just a few hours' walk away, the people of Gschaid regard it as absolutely foreign.
The children must cross the mountain pass to visit their mother's parents in the next valley, a road they have often traveled - as they do today, because it is the day before Christmas and they have to visit their grandparents. Stifter clearly describes their route on the way to the village in the next valley. But when they start back home that afternoon the landmarks they traveled by are soon obliterated by heavy snowfall. The children panic as they loose their bearings - no matter which way they turn, they seem to keep going only upward, away from the valley and toward the glacier that soars above it.
Finally on Christmas Eve they emerge in an altogether unearthly landscape of nothing but ice. They have to spend the night on the glacier and the climax of the story is a beautiful epiphany, when at night the snowfall stops and the children find themselves looking from the heart of the void at a discharge of electric flashes in the sky. Piously, they think this is related to Christmas, but in reality what they see is an uncanny cosmic display, a strange celestial apparition. What started out as a folktale has turned into an existential riddle.
Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868) was the last representative of Biedermeier culture, but with a twist, for his novels and stories also have a weirdness and uncanniness that undermines small-bourgeois morality. Stifter influenced Thomas Mann and W.G. Sebald and it is time more of his novels are translated into English, for example such works as Der Nachsommer or Das alte Siegel. Thomas Mann paid famously homage to "Rock Crystal" in a pivotal scene in The Magic Mountain, in which Hans Castorp gets lost in a blizzard and experiences a fleeting understanding of man's destiny. The story was adapted to film and TV a number of times.
2. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs (Venus im Pelz, 1870)
The author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1835-1895) is famous for the term of sexual behavior called masochism which was derived from his surname. In that aspect, the novella Venus in Furs occupies a central position in his work, as it is indeed squarely about masochism in the relation between a man and a woman. The framing story introduces a man who dreams of Venus wearing furs (based on the Titian painting Venus with a Mirror); when he tells this dream to his friend Severin, he is given a manuscript which - he is told - will help him to break free from his fascination with cruel women. The manuscript relates how Severin used to be so infatuated with a woman, Wanda, that he begged to be treated as her slave. Until they arrived at the point of contractual slavery, there was a long and refined process of approach and seduction. Severin (in the role of Wanda's Russian servant "Gregor") and Wanda then travel to Florence, where Wanda treats him brutally as a servant, and recruits a trio of African women to dominate him. Severin describes his feelings during these experiences as "suprasensuality." But the relationship breaks up when Wanda herself meets a man (of the Byronic hero type) to whom she wants to submit, and Severin, after being whipped by his rival, decides to leave her.
In his novellas, Sacher-Masoch introduced Darwinian notions of survival and moral philosophy to challenge the notions of love and
sexuality of his own times. Nature is inherently cruel and makes us
suffer. Sacher-Masoch greatly dislikes this submission to nature,
which is the fundamental condition of humanity, and in this work he
demonstrates the absurdity
of living in that way. Sacher-Masoch drew inspiration from his own life: the novel's character Wanda was modelled after Fanny Pistor, who was an emerging literary writer. The two met when Pistor contacted Sacher-Masoch, under the assumed name and fictitious title of Baroness Bogdanoff, for suggestions on improving her writing to make it suitable for publication. Several plays and films have been based on the present novel, the most interesting adaptation is the one by Roman Polanski (2013) based on a play by David Ives.
[Sacher-Masow with Fanny Pistor]
3. Alfred Kubin, The Other Side (Die andere Seite, 1909)
This novel is a great example of European fantastic fiction. One day, the anonymous narrator of the story receives a surprising visitor, who invites him to move to the Dream Kingdom of Claus Patera, an old school friend of the narrator. He accepts the invitation and travels with his wife to Pearl, the capital of the Dream Kingdom, which is situated somewhere deep in central Asia. But the dream is soon the become a nightmare... he doesn't find a Shangri-la.
[Scenery in Pearl, the Dream City]
The Other Side was greeted enthusiastically by Expressionist and Surrealistic artists, not least of all by Franz Kafka himself. The author Alfred Kubin (1877-1959) was a graphic artist, who wrote this fantastic novel set in an oppressive imaginary land - his only literary work - in 1908. Born in Litoměřice, in the Bohemian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kubin studied painting in Munich, where he became interested in the prints of Max Klinger. In 1911, he joined the Expressionist Blaue Reiter group. He is known for his dark, spectral fantasies, often grouped into thematic series of drawings.
Kubin started his career just when Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, and it is clear he made a careful study of dreams himself. His drawings have been called "a guide into the shadowy corners of the unconscious." The same is true for The Other Side, where the Dream Kingdom becomes the setting for a hallucinatory vision of a society founded on instinct over reason. The novel culminates in a dazzlingly surrealistic apocalypse. What started as a utopia, soon becomes a dystopia and then a terrible cataclysm - the narrator is the only one who escapes to tell the tale.
The Dream City is clearly inspired by the realities of the Austro-Hungarian empire: for example, the description of the city as consisting of antiquarian buildings and objects can be seen as a critique of a country that is severely behind the times. Interestingly, the ruler, Claus Patera, rules his country via the dreams of the people, and via hypnotism. The name Patera = Pater = Father suggests authoritarianism and also Austro-Hungary was governed by an emperor who was a father-figure and who was getting more and more antiquarian with his advancing high age. Kubin's description of the absurd bureaucracy is reminiscent of Kafka's in The Trial and The Castle, two novels also inspired by nightmarish elements in the Habsburg state. (Detailed review on this blog)
4. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, 1910)
The fin-de-siecle saw a great flowering of culture in Vienna and at this time literature, too, finally came into its own. Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), who traveled all over Europe and died in Switzerland, was in the first place a writer of intensely lyrical verse, but he also wrote one great novel: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, a semi-autobiographical story written in an Expressionist style.
This book, written and set in Paris, consists of 71 fragmentary notes, almost individual prose poems. We are inside the fragmented consciousness of a would-be poet who is trying to create art out of his impressions of a hostile city. Rilke addresses existential themes, such as the quest for individuality, the significance of death, and anxiety and alienation in the face of an increasingly scientific and industrial world. Rilke was also influenced by Nietzsche.
5. Gustav Meyrink, The Golem (Der Golem, 1914)
The novel is based on the Jewish legend about a Rabbi who made a living being known as a "golem" out of clay and animated it with a Kabbalistic spell, although this has little to do with the story's plotline. The plotline centers on the character of Athanasius Pernath, a jeweler and art restorer who lives in the ghetto of Prague, and whose "life story" is experienced by an anonymous narrator, who, during a visionary dream, assumes Pernath's identity thirty years before. The Golem, though rarely seen, appears in the novel as a representative of the ghetto's spirit, brought to life by the suffering that its inhabitants have endured over the centuries. The story has a disjointed and elliptical feel, as the reality of the narrator's experiences is often called into question - some of them may simply be dreams. As Pernath's mental stability is called into question by his friends and neighbors, the reader must wonder what if anything that has been described in the narrative actually took place - are we reading Pernath's hallucinations, or is he really gradually becoming a golem?
Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) was born in Vienna, but from 1883 he lived for twenty years in Prague, a city which he has depicted many times in his novels. The Golem was Meyrink's first novel and became his most popular and successful literary work. It opens a window onto the cultural controversies of around 1900 that coalesced in radical municipal action targeting Prague’s German-speaking Christian and Jewish communities by Czech nationalists. Other works with strong supernatural elements by Meyrink are The Green Face and Walpurgisnacht. The Golem was filmed by Paul Wegener soon after the novel appeared (the 1920 version survives).
6. Leo Perutz, The Master of the Day of Judgement (Der Meister des Jüngsten Tages, 1923)
The Master of the Day of Judgement fuses elements of a crime novel with metaphysical themes and Freudian psychology. The book starts as a crime story: in the Viennese autumn of 1909, famed actor Eugen Bischoff is driven to suicide, after telling his guests about some other mysterious cases of self-immolation he has recently heard about. All eyes are on one of the guests, Baron von Yosch, who was once the lover of the dead man’s wife - and still has special feelings for her. The baron's pipe is found at the scene of death, and his memory of events (he is the - unreliable - narrator) is confused, to say the least. One of the other guests, however, proclaims the innocence of the baron, although the suicide seems not to have been of Bischoff’s own volition either. The baron then (rather unwillingly) joins that other guest, an engineer called Waldemar Solgrub, in investigating the suicide (or murder?) during the following days. As in Eco's (later) The Name of the Rose, the trail leads to an old book that contains dangerous knowledge. Soon we are in the realm of gnostic doings and a frightening, long-dead Italian painter who claimed to have been able to bring people to their final judgment. The solution, however, is not supernatural - and perhaps a bit disappointing. But then, in the last pages, Perutz undercuts that solution with a coda that gives a completely different interpretation of the events in the novel. And that is not all: the reader is clearly expected to develop her own theory... one could for example consider the novel as a story about the creation of art. No wonder that this Russian doll-type mystery was highly praised by Jorge Luis Borges.
Novelist Leo Perutz (1882-1957) was born in Prague at the time of the Austro-Hungarian empire to a family of Jewish ancestry. He mainly
lived in Vienna, where he studied actuarial mathematics and wrote his first novel, The Third Bullet, while recovering from a wound sustained in WWI. Among Perutz' eleven
novels are historical novels combining fast-paced adventure with
a metaphysical twist, and also supernatural mysteries. Another major work besides the present novel, is By Night Under the Stone Bridge (1952), an episodic work consisting of separate stories bound together by the illicit love shared, in their dreams, by a Jewish woman and the Emperor Rudolf II. Another important novel is Saint Peter's Snow (1933), about a drug which induces religious fervor; the Nazis, understandably, did not care for it. At the time of the Nazi Anschluss of 1938, Leo Perutz emigrated to Palestine.
7. Arthur Schnitzler, Dream Story (Traumnovelle, 1925)
A doctor and his wife, seemingly happy in a harmonious marriage, are both tormented by unfulfilled desires and dreams, leading to alienation and a crisis. The doctor, Fridolin, has a nightly adventure which symbolizes a voyage of discovery into his own psyche. In the end, he realizes the danger of the subconscious for his relation with his wife, and strives to overcome it. (Detailed review on this blog).
Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) has been introduced in several
other posts in this blog and is an author who deserves to be much
better known in English. In his stories and plays he shows great
psycho-sexual insight, applying his colleague-doctor Freud's insights
about dreams and the subconscious in his stories. Schnitzler was also
one of the first writers to use stream of consciousness techniques, so
that he could demonstrate what went on in that subconscious. Besides Dream Story, I also would like to call attention to such stories as Fräulein Else
(a stream of consciousness story about a young woman who is sexually
blackmailed when her family suddenly falls into poverty) and Doctor Graesler
(who is afraid to marry a strong-willed woman although she can help him
set up his own sanatorium), as well as the novel The Road into the Open, which
gives a wonderful panorama of Viennese society in the fin-de-siecle. (Review on this blog of Schnitzler's short stories).
8. Vicky Baum, Grand Hotel (Menschen im Hotel, 1929)
This popular novel is set almost exclusively in a Berlin luxury hotel and thrives on the relationships that develop between the guests staying there during the golden 1920s. The focus is on lonely, mentally and physically deformed people as well as the decline of bourgeois values. We meet: an aging prima donna, the Russian ballerina Gruszinskaya (based on Anna Pavlova), Kringelein, a downtrodden bookkeeper who is terminally ill and looking for a chance to enjoy life one last time, Doctor Ottenschlag, a war veteran addicted to morphine, Baron von Gaigern, an impoverished aristocrat, Preysing, a textile company owner desperately trying to save his factory from bankruptcy, and Flämmchen, a young woman dreaming of a film career, but for now earning money by occasional secretary work (and any additional services demanded by wealthy men). All these intrigues, plotlines, and fragments of life stories get stirred into a dazzling cocktail. Although sometimes called a "pulp novel," the characters really come to life on the page and the story is enthralling.
[Scene from the film Grand Hotel
(Wallace Beery and Joan Crawford)]
Vicky Baum (1888-1960) was born in Vienna
into a Jewish family. She studied at the Vienna Conservatory and later
worked as a journalist, before striking gold with her blockbuster Grand Hotel.
The book was filmed in Hollywood with Greta Garbo, John and Lionel
Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery and a host of other stars. Baum
emigrated to the United States with her family after being invited to
write the screenplay for this film, settling in the Los Angeles area.
With the rise of National Socialism in Austria and Germany, her literary
works were banned as being sensationalist and amoral. In 1938, she
became an American citizen, and her post-WWII works were written in
English rather than in German.
9. Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, 1930-43)
In interbellum Austria literature continues strong and we find several giants, in the first place Robert Musil (1880-1942), the writer of the influential modernist novel The Man without Qualities. The novel, set just before WWI, is a detached commentary on the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, an event satirized with heavy irony. Musil is also known for his much earlier Bildungsroman, The Confusions of Young Torless, in which we see a prefiguring of Fascism among pupils of a boarding school who shamelessly abuse a classmate by night.
The Man Without Qualities is a monumental novel of more than 1,700 pages in three volumes - and even then, unfinished. A "story of ideas," and at the same time a very ironical view of Austrian society just before WWI. Officially, the novel is set in the capital of a fictitious European country named "Kakanien," a name derived from the German abbreviation "K und K" ("kaiserlich und königlich" or "Imperial and Royal“) for Austria. Musil remarks about Kakanien: "By its constitution it was liberal, but the system of government was clerical. The system of government was clerical, but the general attitude to life was liberal. Before the law all citizens were equal, but not everyone, of course, was a citizen." Introduces many bizarre characters from Viennese life.
10. Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers (Die Schlafwandler, 1931-32)
Another giant is Hermann Broch (1886-1951), whose The Sleepwalkers consists of three linked novels which portray different cases of ''loneliness of the I'' stemming from the collapse of any sustaining system of values. A second great novel by Broch is the difficult The Death of Virgil, which in a hallucinatory way reenacts the last 18 hours of the Roman poet Virgil. It ends with the conclusion that poetry is immoral in an age of decline.
The Sleepwalkers is one of the most remarkable works of modern times. It follows the transformation of Central Europe from its last fin-de-siècle glory to its post-World War I decline. The first part of this epic trilogy is about a neurotic army officer (set in 1888); the second about a disgruntled bookkeeper and would-be political assassin (set in 1903); and the final part tells the story of an opportunistic war-deserter (set in 1918). Each of the three parts is written in a different style to reflect the different plots: from a gentle parody of the German novelist Fontane in the first volume through modernistic, essayistic segments in the last part. A prophetic portrait of a world tormented by loss of faith, morals and reason.
11. Joseph Roth, Radetzky March (Radetzkymarsch, 1932)
While Musil labored in obscurity, Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was that rare combination, both a great and a popular author, who became especially famous after publishing his novel Job. His greatest novel is, without a doubt, The Radetzky March, which reflects the glory and (especially) fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in the fate of the Trotta family. In the 1930s Roth's work became increasingly filled with melancholic nostalgia for the lost imperial state, which had given a true home to many central Europeans, especially Jews. Roth himself became a wanderer, trekking from hotel to hotel, addicted to alcohol. He finally died in Paris after finishing his novella The Legend of the Holy Drinker about the epiphany of an alcoholic vagrant.
[The novel's namesake, Josef Graf Radetzky von Radetz.]
Radetzky March depicts the rise and fall of three generations of the Trotta family, concentrating on the youngest and last member, Carl Joseph, paralleled by the glory and subsequent disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire in which they live and serve - in other words, the passing of the Old Europe into the modern world. (Detailed review on this blog)
12. Alexander Lernet-Holenia, I Was Jack Mortimer (Ich war Jack Mortimer, 1933).
A crime story set in Vienna. A passenger is shot dead in the back of a cab. The panicked taxi driver didn't notice anything, but now he courses through the backstreets of Vienna as fear and paranoia close in, afraid nobody will believe he is innocent. After much agonizing, he therefore dumps the body of the unknown man in the Danube, cleans the taxi, and takes the man's suitcases to his flat. But he is still afraid questions will arise when the man doesn't check in at his hotel (he has picked him up at the station and people may have seen him get in his taxi). He therefore decides to play the role of the murder victim so that the murdered person is not missed - he dresses in the man's clothes (the passport informs him the name was Jack Mortimer), takes the suitcases and checks in at the luxurious hotel the man was headed for. It is clear that this makes him even more suspicious and that he will be in a hopeless situation if it is discovered that he is not who he claims to be... "One doesn't step into anyone's life, not even a dead man's, without having to live it to the end." A sinister tale of false identity and the demons in our heads, twice adapted for the silver screen. The novel is well-written, except for one thing: in chapter 6 we leave the head of the taxi driver as an omniscient narrator takes suddenly over to fill in the background story about Jack Mortimer - this is rather jarring and could have been handled more subtly.
[1935 film adaptation with Anton Walbrook]
Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897-1976) was a lyrical poet and protege of Rainer Maria Rilke. He also wrote novels and was also active as a screenwriter. He is the author of more thrillers (such as Resurrection of Maltraven), but also of sophisticated literary novels, of which the most important is Mars in Aries, the story of a romance between an aristocratic Wehrmacht officer and a mysterious woman in Vienna set against the 1939 invasion of Poland; this book was banned by the Nazis upon its
publication 1941 due to its ambiguity, lack of heroic military images, and the sympathetic portrayal of a suffering Poland. Although a conservative and aristocratic elitist throughout his life, Lernet-Holenia kept his distance from National Socialism, and refused to endorse the Nazi political system or participate in its "blood and soil" literary efforts.
13. Elias Canetti, Auto-da-Fe (Die Blendung, 1935)
Called Die Blendung in German (“Bedazzlement”), this 550 page thick novel was published in 1935 in Vienna, Canetti’s hometown at the time. It is one of the central novels of the first half of the 20th century, with Ulysses and novels by Kafka, Proust, Musil, and Mann. It is an apt allegory for the conflict between the lonely, reflective mind and reality. Sinologue Kien is only interested in his books and leads a secluded life. The world is lodged in his head, and his head is not interested in the world outside, which he grotesquely and routinely misinterprets. When in a moment of insanity he marries his housekeeper, he is faced with the chaos of “normal” life - with tragic consequences, resulting in a terrible struggle that will be fought with all means available (detailed review on this blog).
Elias Canetti (1905-1994) was born in Bulgaria, but he lived most of his
life in Austria and Switzerland (although he finally became a British
citizen). His chosen language was German. He wrote only this one novel, and is further known
for a trilogy of autobiographical memoirs of his childhood, and for Crowds and Power,
a study of crowd behavior as it manifests itself in human activities
ranging from mob violence to religious congregations. Canetti won the
Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981, "for writings marked by a broad
outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power."
14. Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity (Ungeduld des Herzens, 1939)
As a fiction author, Stefan Zweig is best known for his melancholy short stories; this is the only novel he published. A young lieutenant stationed before WWI at the edge of the large Austro-Hungarian empire, is invited to the home of a wealthy local landowner. There he makes the painful mistake of asking the crippled daughter for a dance. Gradually, pity and guilt will implicate him in a well-meaning scheme, where he promises to marry her when she is recovered (hoping that this will motivate her to take a certain treatment). But tragedy follows when he denies the engagement in public.
[1946 film adaptation with Lilli Palmer]
Vienna-born Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was one of the most popular
European authors of the interbellum. His novels, stories, plays and
carefully researched biographies (Zweig in fact wrote more non-fiction
than fiction) were translated in countless languages. He is also known
for his interesting memoir, The World of Yesterday.
15. Peter Handke, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter, 1970)
A modern classic that portrays the self-destruction of a murderer in ways that recall Camus' The Stranger. The mental breakdown of a soccer goalkeeper / construction worker who wanders aimlessly around a sleepy Austrian border town after murdering, almost unthinkingly, a female movie cashier. Handke's fractured language deftly mirrors the disintegrating state of mind of the protagonist.
Peter Handke was an enfant terrible and member of the avant-garde group "Gruppe 47." He also wrote plays in which the actors do nothing but insult the public. His novels are more traditional. His best work is The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, almost a psychiatric case study about anxiety. Other novels are Short Letter, Long Farewell, The Left-handed Woman and Repetition. Handke has also written many film scripts and is known for his collaboration with the well-known German director Wim Wenders. In 2019, he received the Nobel prize in Literature "for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience."
16. Ingeborg Bachmann, Malina (1971)
Malina tells the story of a female narrator (only known as "I"), who is a writer and intellectual living in Vienna, and her relationships with two different men, one joyous and one introverted. She shares a flat with the calm and rational Malina, a historian, who offers her the necessary support as she is often confused and seems to be losing touch with reality. She eventually meets Ivan, a young Hungarian, and falls in love with him. They begin an affair but soon Ivan is starting to avoid her and ultimately rejects her. In the second chapter we find several dream sequences in which the narrator remembers the horrors of the Second World War, gas chambers and rape. A “father” figure is omnipresent in her dreams but she realizes that he doesn’t represent her own father but is a personification of the male-dominated world of Nazism (Bachmann's real father was indeed a Nazi supporter). In the final chapter the narrator realizes that a relationship with Ivan or any other man is not possible for her, and that she can’t live in this male-dominated world anymore. At the end of the novel, she disappears without a trace into a crack in the wall and Malina removes any sign of her existence from their flat, as if she had never existed.
Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973) was born in Klagendurt and studied in Vienna where in 1949 she became Doctor of Philosophy with a study about Heidegger. She was in the first place active as a poet and wrote opera librettos for Hans Werner Henze. From 1958 to 1963, she lived on and off with the Swiss author Max Frisch, something reflected in the figure of Ivan in Malina (and in Frisch' novel Montauk). Malina was Ingeborg Bachmann's only novel; she died tragically due to a fire in her apartment. The book was in 1991 adapted into a film directed by Werner Schroeter from a screenplay by Elfriede Jelinek.
17. Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher (Die Klavierspielerin, 1983)
Erika Kohut, a piano teacher in her late thirties who teaches at the Vienna Conservatory and still lives in an apartment with her very controlling mother, finds an outlet for her repressed sexuality in voyeurism and sadomasochism. Then one of her students, a handsome seventeen-year-old, becomes enamored with her and sets out to seduce her. Jelinek's very sarcastic look at the relation between the sexes as a mirror of society finally leads to perversity and violence. The novel employs various avant-garde techniques and is not easy to read. Michael Haneke's eponymous film, with a wonderful performance by Isabelle Huppert is faithful to the book; only Erika's seducer is constructed in a more friendly way than in the much more sardonic novel. It is one of the rare cases in which I prefer the film to the book.
[Film poster with Isabelle Huppert]
Elfriede Jelinek is a controversial author who has been
accused of providing "hysterical portraits of Austrian perversity." She
is a communist and feminist; female sexuality, sexual abuse, and the
battle of the sexes are prominent topics in her work. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004 for "the musical
flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that, with
extraordinary linguistic zeal, reveal the absurdity of society's clichés
and their subjugating power."
18. Thomas Bernhard, Wood Cutters (Holzfällen, 1984)
The narrator has been invited to an "artistic dinner" for a famous actor and sitting in a wing-backed chair apart from the other guests, sipping champagne, in one long torrential rant he dismantles the hollow pretentiousness and cruelty at the heart of the Austrian bourgeoisie. Bleak, but also comically nihilistic. Possible Bernhard's best performance. Bernhard has been called "the missing link between Kafka, Beckett, Michel Houellebecq and Lars von Trier," and a great practitioner of the literature of alienation and self-contempt.
Thomas Bernhard is Austria's greatest postwar author, known for his
dislike of his own country - he attacked the Austrian state as
"Catholic-National-Socialist." His work typically features long
monologues or rants about the state of the world and it also deals with
the isolation and self-destruction of people striving for an unreachable
perfection. Bernhard wrote 13 novels and 3 novellas. Important titles
are Gargoyles, The Lime Works, Correction, The Loser, Old Masters, Wittgenstein's Nephew and Wood Cutters. I am not such a great fan of either Jelinek or Handke, but Thomas Bernhard is a superb writer,
19. Wolf Haas, Come, Sweet Death (Komm, süßer Tod, 1998)
Ex-cop Simon Brenner, who tries to position himself as far away as possible from the drudgery and corruption of being a police detective, takes a job as ambulance driver in downtown Vienna. But that is not exactly a retirement position, because of the tendency of his new colleagues to place bets on how many red lights they can run. Another problem is that his unit's major competitor is listening in on their radio communications and beating them to many pickups. Knowing his past as a cop, Brenner’s boss asks him to investigate. Meanwhile, is it Brenner’s paranoia or are certain wealthy elderly patients dying more quickly than they should (and leaving their money to the ambulance service)? Then ambulance drivers start being killed and Brenner's life is in danger, too... some people obviously don't want their business exposed. Brenner has no choice but to act as a detective once more and race around summertime Vienna with blaring ambulance siren in order solve a complex puzzle. The title "Come, sweet death" is based on a famous aria by Bach, which gives Brenner the literal hint to help him solve the mystery. A hilarious book.
Wolf Haas was born in 1960 and is the author of eight thrillers and several other novels, non-fiction books and books for children. The present book is the third one about ex-cop Brenner. Haas' dialect-full writing style is interestingly close to the Viennese speaking style (just listen in on what you can hear in a Viennese pub) and full of digressions. It is also larded with morbid Viennese humor. Judging from other online reviews that is not everybody's cup of tea and supposedly a lot is lost in translation. When you can, read the book in the original and you'll enjoy the authentic Viennese atmosphere. The plot is in fact quite good as well and the novel won the German Thriller Prize; it was also adapted by director Wolfgang Murnberger in 2000 to become a successful film.
20. Daniel Kehlmann, Measuring the World (Die Vermessung der Welt, 2005)
This novel marks the debut of a new talent on the international scene. Young Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann’s brilliant comic novel revolves around the meeting of two colossal geniuses of the Enlightenment, who late in the 18th c. both set out to measure the world in different, but equally groundbreaking ways. The natural scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) negotiates jungles, travels down the Orinoco River, tastes poisons, climbs the highest mountain known to man, and explores and measures every cave and hill he comes across.
[Humboldt and Bonpland at the foot of the Chimborazo Volcano]
The reclusive and barely socialized mathematician and geodesist Carl Friedrich Gauß (1777–1855) proves that space is curved without leaving his home. Both were brilliant scientists, although their characters and methods were widely different. Various periods in their lives are described in this fictional double biography, culminating in their meeting in 1828, when Gauss, having been invited to Berlin, took part in a scientific meeting there organized by Humboldt and stayed in Humboldt’s home. Note that this book is fiction and should be read as such; it is not an actual biography and has been criticized for treating biographical facts rather too loosely, especially as regards the character of Gauss, who was not at all the uncouth figure Kehlmann makes out of him.
Daniel Kehlmann was born in Munich in 1975 but was educated in Vienna where he attended college and then studied philosophy and German studies. In 1997 he published his first novel. He held poetic lectureships in Mainz, Wiesbaden and Göttingen and was awarded numerous prizes. Measuring the World was a bestseller; by 2012 it had sold more than 2.3 million copies in Germany alone. Other novels by Kehlmann include Me and Kaminski, Fame and You Should Have Left.
21. Alex Beer, The Second Rider (Der zweite Reiter, 2017).
Vienna 1919, post WWI, is a desolate and run down place. The Habsburg Empire is a fading memory and most of Vienna’s remaining population survives by its wits, living hand to mouth in a city rife with crime, prostitution, and grotesquely wounded beggars – many of them soldiers returned from the war to find a very different city to that which they had left. Poverty abounds and the only functioning market is the black one, which functions (literally) underground – with the sewers (which also play such a large role in The Third Man) used to store and transport the goods. Shortages of vital goods create countless opportunities for unscrupulous operators.
August Emmerich is a police inspector in the city. Emmerich is determined to join the Viennese major crimes unit, and he’s
more than willing to break the rules in pursuit of his ambition. He is also a war veteran who uses alcohol and heroin to control the pain from a war wound. He, and his junior partner, Ferdinand Winter, are involved both in tracking down black market smugglers and in investigating a series of murders in the city (labeled as suicides by their superiors). The two cases inevitably overlap – with war crimes committed on the eastern front, in Galicia, returning to impact post-war society.
Besides being an excellent thriller, this novel is also a meticulously researched piece of historical fiction (comparable to the Gereon Rath novels by German author Volker Kutscher which are set in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis). Post WW1 Vienna is beautifully recreated. Alex Beer is a pseudonym of Daniela Larcher (1977), who was born in Lustenau (in the western tip of Austria) and studied archeology in Vienna. Larcher is the author of ten thrillers, of which four in the "August Emmerich" series.