"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 1, 2016

Best European Novels (1): Austria

For a start, we should clearly delineate the Austrian novel, on the one hand because most Austrian literature has been written in German so that it is often considered as "(pan-)German literature" (in the same way that Irish literature is often amalgamated with English literature), and on the other hand because Austria today only is the rump state of what until the end of WWI used to be a large multicultural empire that encompassed many different nationalities, leading to such discussions as whether Kafka is a Czech or Austrian writer. So here we go with our definition: the "Austrian novel" refers to German novels written in the Austrian Empire (created in 1804 out of the realms of the Habsburgs), its successor (since 1867) the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the present-day federal Republic of Austria, with its various predecessors (since 1919).

In contrast to classical music, the most important art form Vienna knew, the novel flourished relatively late in Austria and there are only few important 19th c. authors. The greatest of them is without a doubt Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868), who 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, besides Rock Crystal introduced below, also such works as Der Nachsommer or Das alte Siegel.

The fin-de-siecle saw a great flowering of culture in Vienna and at this time literature, too, finally came into its own. For starters, from this period we have two important writers who were born in Prague and about whose "nationality" many discussions rage. 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.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) needs no further introduction, except perhaps why I consider him as an Austrian writer: Kafka was born in Prague in a Jewish family at the time that Bohemia was part of the multi-cultural Austro-Hungarian Empire; he spoke and wrote in German. In other words, he was part of the German-speaking, Austro-Hungarian culture in Prague (about 10% of the population), not of the Czech population. Below, I have selected his novella The Metamorphosis as this is a perfectly chiseled work, even finer than his novels.

Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) has been introduced in several other posts in this blog (his short stories, his novel The Road into the Open) and is again 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. Below I have selected his novella Dream Story which is a perfectly balanced work, but 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 above-mentioned novel, which gives a wonderful panorama of Viennese society in the fin-de-siecle.

To the circle of Schnitzler also belonged the journalist Karl Kraus and playwright Hugo von Hoffmansthal - the last one wrote a famous short story, "The Lord Chandos Letter," in which he voices the fin-de-siecle crisis of language, as a medium no longer suitable to give expression to the human experience.

In interbellum Austria (now the small country of today) 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 (unfinished, the third volume was published posthumously). 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 orderly pupils who shamelessly abuse a classmate by night.

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 (see below). Another great novel 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.

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 (see below), which reflects the glory and (especially) fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in the fate of the Trotta family. In the 1930s his 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.

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 one novel, Auto-da-Fe (see below), written and set in Vienna in 1935, 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."

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. His only novel, Beware of Pity, is discussed below. Zweig also wrote opera libretti for Richard Strauss (as did the above-mentioned Hoffmansthal).

The period after the war is colored by Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), Peter Handke (1945), and Nobel prize winner Elfriede Jelinek (1946), who, besides novelists, are also important playwrights.

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 and Wood Cutters.

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 (see below), 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.

Elfriede Jelinek, too, 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. Her most approachable novel is The Piano Teacher, which was filmed by Michael Haneke (see below); other typical titles are Lust and Greed. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004 for her "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."

The best Austrian novels (and novellas) are (in historical order):

1. Adalbert Stifter, Rock Crystal (1845)
Mythical story about two children from an Alpine village who get lost in the mountain snow, becoming trapped among the rock crystals of a frozen glacier. With majestic descriptions of nature and a beautiful epiphany, when at night the snow clears and they find themselves looking from the heart of the void at a discharge of electric flashes in the sky. [tr. New York Review Books]

2. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910)
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. [tr. Penguin]

3. Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1915)
A perfect absurdist novella about iron "German" discipline (even after he wakes up as an insect, Gregor still worries he will be late for his office) and propriety (the family is ashamed of insect Gregor, as if he had a terrible illness), as well as appalling cruelty, not only from the hands of the father, but also Gregor's "dear sister." [tr. Penguin]

4. Arthur Schnitzler, Dream Story (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.  [tr. Penguin]

5. Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities (1930-43)
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. [tr. Vintage]

6. Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers (1931-32)
Hermann Broch's novel, 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 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. [tr. Vintage]

7. Josef Roth, Radetzky March (1932)
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. See my extensive review. [tr. Overlook Books]

8. Elias Canetti, Auto-de-Fe (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. [tr. Farrar, Straus and Giroux / The Harvill Press]

9. Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity (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. [tr. New York Review books]

10. Peter Handke, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (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. [tr. Farrar, Straus and Giroux]

11. Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher (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. Haneke's 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. [tr. Grove Press]

12. Thomas Bernhard, Wood Cutters (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. [tr. Vintage]