Category Archives: austro hungarian literature

Call me PoMo: The Weather Fifteen Years Ago

The publication of the second half of John Domini’s essay on postmodern fiction is a great occasion to talk about The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, which I finished over the weekend. I think it would fit in comfortably somewhere between Michael Martone and Zeroville as a book that absolutely thrives off of metanarrative and modern entertainment culture but that also manages to fit in quite a bit of what would generally be construed as novelistic.

The book is written in the form of a series of interviews with an author named Wolf Haas (also the name of the author of Weather) about his latest book. The book “Haas” is discussing is a love story, and one of the striking things about this form of narration is that we quickly learn that the fictional lovers in his book are modeled on “real-life” lovers that “Haas” discovered while watching TV. So right away we have a number of levels of reality interspersed: the twice-invented lovers that are created in the book by the authorial persona “Wolf Haas”; the singly-invented lovers that the real-life Haas creates for “Haas” to discover in the reality of the book’s world; and the authorial persona “Haas,” whose words we get to hear first-hand. The whole state of affairs is summed up well in this review of the German-language edition of the book:

It’s a neat reversal: early in the novel we learn that “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” had been written from Kowalski’s perspective, so that many aspects that concern only him are not raised. As Wittgenstein said, you can’t see your own eyeballs. Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, in contrast, is written from Haas’ perspective so we only get his reading of the story. The aspects he selects to make the fictitious novel palpable, are those that his individual critical mind would consider relevant. The discussion of the limitations of Kowalski’s point of view are allusions to this. Thus, the book becomes a Chinese box of poetological reflections.

Weather is indeed a delight for people who enjoy play with metanarrative and conceptual games, but it also has quite a bit of what, for lack of a better name, I might call good old fashioned realism. “Haas” and his interviewer spend a lot of time fleshing out the four principle characters (as well as a handful of adjuncts) and their motivations, and the result is that–though we only know all of these people secondhand–they come across as better realized and more interesting than characters in many books I read this year that attack the matter of character-creation head-on. Oddly enough, if I were to complain about characters in Weather, it would be about the ones we know most directly, “Haas” and his interlocutor. It’s not that they’re done badly, just that compared to the characters they discuss over the course of the interviews they don’t quite feel as richly imagined.

Ariadne Press–publishers of Elfriede Jelinek, Arthur Schnitzler, and Gert Jonke, among other notable Austrians–has done great work by bringing this book into English. Though it was a best-selling award-winner in Austria, it’s the kind of book that I have a hard time seeing many U.S. publishers taking a chance on. But it really is an excellent execution of a find concept, and it sits well among a lot of what has been going on in American postmodernism these days. And the translation here is first-rate. These interviews move back and forth between conceptual lit-crit talk and idiomatic spoken language, and I’m guessing that it took some work to bring both into authentic-sounding English. But time and again I was forced to stop in admiration at how translators Stephanie Gilardi and Thomas S. Hansen handled (what I imagined to be) another translation challenge.

Feel the Strangulation!

This essay on several recent books by or about Kafka turns up this gem from the ossified Austro-Hungarian empire:

At the fin de siècle, the state bureaucracy already held
considerable sway over people’s lives and selves, and Kafka wrote from
the center of the age’s contradictions and anxieties. When he assumed
his position at the Insurance Institute in 1908, after having spent a
dismal year in the employ of Assicurazioni Generali, an Italian insurer,
the Dual Monarchy was groaning under a superabundance of paperwork.
Legislation enacted in the 1880s had ushered in the European welfare
state, and its administration required a massive expansion and
modernization of the notoriously sclerotic royal bureaucracy. By the
turn of the century, district authorities were processing four times
more paperwork than they had been twenty years earlier; the empire was
"being suffocated by files and drowning in ink," wrote the governor of
Lower Austria. Meanwhile, the arcane official idiom had become so
divorced from vernacular German that the bureaucrats and their charges
could hardly communicate. One imagines a cadre of clerks madly dashing
off reports and edicts, which would be inevitably eclipsed by newer
documents before they arrived at the appropriate filing facility. In
Kafka’s last, unfinished novel, The Castle, this flood of
imperial documents has so overwhelmed the citadel that the living rooms
of village homes have been turned into storage annexes.

For more on the literature this great stultified empire produced and why we love it so, see The List of Austro-Hungarian Literature.

The Revised List of Austro-Hungarian Fiction

A couple weeks back I noted that a a great city (Vienna) surrounded by a great empire (Austria-Hungary) deserved great literature. I started making a list of this literature, and readers had no trouble filling in the blanks for me.

So now I present the revised list of great literature of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

First off, I should mention a nonfiction book. It is a guide to fin de siecle Vienna’s politics and culture that I’ve found indispensable, the aptly titled Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture by Carl E. Schorske.

Now on to the literature.

Here are my original picks:

And here are the reader recs:

There were also mentions of Thomas Bernhard and Peter Nadas, which I didn’t include in the above list because I wanted to restrict it to writers who worked during the days of the actual empire and the fin de siecle era. But, their mention does point to a rich vein of literature that was produced after World War II and continues up to today with authors like Bernhard, Nadas (whose Book of Memories is absolutely incredible), and, more recently, Attila Bartis and Imre Kertez. For more on contemporary Hungarian lit, have a look at the indispensible Hungarian Literature Online.

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