, , , ,


Books vienna_150In  the quieter and cooler hours between visiting museums, decoding monuments, walking the hot wide avenues of Vienna I savor, like hard candy, the short fiction pieces collected by Donald Daviau in Vienna: A Traveler’s Literary Companion,  2008 by Whereabouts Press.

Among the 15 Austrian authors are some who would be recognized by most serious readers, Stefan Zweig, Thomas Bernhard, Elfride Jelinek (Nobel Prize for Literature, 2006), Elias Canetti and, a bit strangely, Franz Kafka. Others, such as Ingeborg Bachman and Rose Auslander, whatever their literary merits, won’t be recognized by many. Their inclusion by Daviau, an American professor steeped in Austrian matters, promises discoveries. The inclusion of a bit of Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualites, may serve as ‘trailer’ of his widely praised, though unfinished, novel of the same name.  Said by some to have the stature of Mann’s Magic Mountain, or Joyce’s Ulysses, the detailed, sometimes hilarious, send-up of haute Viennese culture on the eve of WW I should certainly be better known among English readers.

The opening piece, ‘Sight Seeing in the Old City,'” by Bachmann, will bring a snort of recognition to anyone who has been on a race-through guided tour of any city, but particularly Vienna.  Though it was written before her death in 1953, and the tourist trade has grown exponentially since then, the lampoon is the same.

At the Votive Church which was built to remember the salvation from the first Turkish danger and the beaten turks left us the best coffee and the famous viennese breakfast, Kipfel, to remember…

“A Visit to Vienna” by Erich Wolfgang Skwara, has a man returning to the city of his youth after many years, walking along the Kärntnerstrasse, the wide pedestrian avenue of the old town, visiting the pain of absence, watching children, and imagining exile and return in their future,

… the curse of still waiting, of no longer being able to speak their language, of hesitating before every syllable, of no longer bringing the dialect of youth past their lips although they hungered for it so much.

Stephan Zweig, recently glimpsed in American popular culture as the writer on whose works the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel, by Wes Anderson, was based, offers a telling story of guilt, fear of revelation, love’s betrayal, overwhelming a young officer despite the enormity of WW I beginning the same day as his own EVENT.  A very nice piece though offering more of a Viennese writer and his ruminations than anything about a Vienna we ourselves might see.

The same is true of Jelinek’s disturbing “A Love Story.”  Her savage view of women’s place in the world, for which she is well known [The Piano Player, Lust] is fully on display.  Except for the names of the protagonists, Brigitte and Heinze, however, it is a story that could be told most anywhere — a man with a future and a woman with no future, but in the man.

Ditto, Barbara Frischmuth’s  charming “The Convent School.” In what turns out to be a letter to a friend, gone from the school, a young teenager still there, working off a six week self-taken vow to attend early mass every day, reveals her doubts and, not quite admitted to herself, her growing taste for freedom.  Quite wonderful, with a special tang for those brought up Catholic.  The girls could be Irish, or Spanish or Croat, however. The time could be in the 1920s or the 1990s, we don’t know.  Nothing wrong with that, and much right.  However, this is a volume curated for travelers to Vienna.

The inclusion of Franz Kafka in the volume is odd because, while it is true that he died near Vienna he had only been there for two months, trying to find a cure of the throat cancer that made swallowing so painful he apparently died of starvation.  “The Hunger Artist,” was his last story. True also, he wrote in German, but he was Czech to the bone, and Jewish — from which come all his work.  In his place I would vote from something from the Viennese war experience, perhaps a selection from Hans Lebert’s “Wolf’s Skin,” an allegory about Austrian silence following the Nazi alliance, or another from Bachmann or Auslander who surely had something to say about their own experience.

This sorting through a nation’s or a city’s literature with a particular audience in mind — reading travelers or traveling readers– presents a small conundrum: what should be given privilege — works which are place specific, or those which are fine-writing filtered? Give the reader streets, monuments and parks populated by citizens of the place, or offer the best, roughly contemporary, fiction and let the reader intuit place and person?  Perhaps also, a sorting and sampling by years of publishing.  Is there something from the most recent decade? Ideally, all of the above would apply.  Limited to 15 or 20 pieces, decisions have to be made. Daviau seems to me to have struck a good balance with some quite place-specific stories and others less so but reflective of a writer’s own time and place and frame of mind.

As is too typical of fiction in general, and these small collections in particular, what is missing are any accounts of the lives of working people.  Jelenik’s piece is one small exception. Her female sews brassieres and corsets, her male is an electrician.  The story is not about this, however, but about the status and denigration of the woman.  Otherwise, the characters here are doctors, military officers, professors, wine party attendees. Again, nothing wrong with this, but worth noting.  Stone cutters and carriage drivers have stories too.

Another thing, while not missing, but less than might be hoped, are stories about WW II and Austria’s election to be part of the Third Reich — either in the lead up to the war, experience during the war — Vienna was seriously bombed by the allies– or stock-taking and rebuilding afterwards. Rose Auslander’s interesting “The Curse II” about an old woman who claims that her curse, a gift of God, caused Hitler’s death, is an exception of sorts, but leaves untouched the non-Jewish experience of this predominantly Catholic country.

Peter Henisch’s “Negatives of My Father” does exactly what I’d have like to seen more of.  It’s a part of his novel of the same name and ever so matter-of-factly tells how the narrator’s father entered the Nazi Youth Movement and used his photography in the service of the Reich.  It is chilling to read how absolutely normal the small steps were, the ways in which people were caught up.

As with all the Whereabouts volumes I’ve read, I greatly appreciate this one. A layer or two is added to a walk down the Kärntnerstrasse imagining the character in a story walking there, too, imagining his muteness in a language long unspoken. The cobbles still sound from the clop clop of the horse drawn carriages, even if only for tourists.  Close your eyes and the doctor of Schnitzler’s tale might be alighting.

Certainly, a post-travel resolution will be to pick up, and finish A Man Without Qualities, set down after 600 pages several years ago, and to find one of Bernhard’s novels, perhaps The Wood Cutters, declared by Harold Bloom to be his masterpiece.  Continuing with Henisch in his “Negatives of My Father” will take top priority.

Reading about a city and its citizens makes us think it a different way than that brought on by monuments and steeples, by importuning hawkers of yet another concert, by crowds who, whatever their merits and intentions, makes us feel like a little too much like one of them, being herded here and there on impossible culture quests.


Related posts here, and here.

And more photos, here.