Preface for Vienna

Thousand-year-old Austria has lived through a turbulent and colorful history, and much of it has been preserved and can still be viewed today throughout the land but nowhere more than in Vienna. The country was founded to serve as a buffer to keep invaders from the east and south from attacking Germany, a role that it performed valiantly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries against the Turks. In the nineteenth century, the wall around the inner city of Vienna was razed and replaced by the acclaimed Ringstrasse, which was lined with such impressive buildings as the University of Vienna, the Burgtheater, the Art Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Imperial Palace and the Opera House, each in a historical style that matches its function. Well-kept spacious parks and lavish palace gardens, all in close proximity, added to these sights. Within the Ringstrasse one is surrounded by history.

After decades of being reduced to a small portion of its former Habsburg self, Austria’s fortunes took a major turn for the better with the formation of the European Union, which has brought prosperity, closer ties with Germany and with most of the former Habsburg states, and an end to the nagging and much-debated question of Austrian identity, as the country becomes increasingly European in outlook. Much of Viennese literature grapples with the issue of identity. Two years ago Austria created the first literary prize for a book by any member of the European Union. There had been voices in Austria since the 1920s advocating a united Europe with Vienna as the center because of its geographical location at the heart of Europe, making it a natural bridge between east and west and north and south, but this suggestion was not followed.

Vienna, which once served as a Roman encampment (as the excavation on the Minoritenplatz on view in the center of the city documents), has developed differently than the rest of the country because of the masses of Eastern Europeans, who, beginning in the 1880s, flocked to the magnetic flourishing city, lured by the prospect of jobs and a better life. By 1900 Vienna had the largest Czech population of any city, including Czechoslovakia itself (Franz Kafka’s inclusion in this collection is a literary reflection of this). The city is known as Red (liberal) Vienna as traditionally opposed to the Black (conservative) provinces. In recent years, however, Styria, Burgenland, and Salzburg have broken ranks and adopted a socialist outlook and think and operate more like Vienna. Since the nineteenth century, Vienna has served as a mecca for tourists, fascinated by this attractive city, rich in historical atmosphere and warm in hospitality. Apart from a few modern buildings like the Hochhaus, the inner city, dominated by Vienna’s main landmarks, the imposing Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral from the twelfth century, the Graben with its highly ornate baroque statue commemorating the deadly plague in the seventeenth century, and the entrance to the grounds of the imperial palace flanked by its guardian statues and featuring the impressive iron grill over the entryway on Michaelerplatz . . . all remain as they have been for hundreds of years. A vigilant government carries on an active program of restoration and preservation, as it strives to protect Vienna’s historical appearance. Buildings in the inner city may be modernized on the inside, but the original facades must remain unchanged.

Many tourists never stray far away from the inner city because of the number and variety of museums, theaters, operas, coffee houses, restaurants, and stores, except to take the D-streetcar to Belvedere Palace to see the important Museum of Modern Art or the number 38 from Schottentor to Grinzing to sample the vintage Austrian wines in the atmosphere of the old wine houses. From Grinzing one can also take a bus up to the Kahlenberg, where one has a spectacular view of Vienna and can also hike in the Vienna Woods. There are commercial day and evening tours that in addition to the sightseeing in the city include a stop at a wine house in Grinzing, where one may wine and dine, possibly with the accompaniment of some zither music. The selection here by Ingeborg Bachmann humorously satirizes such a tour and the inadequacies of the guide in language and knowledge. For another trip one can take the subway (Vienna features one of the most efficient mass-transit systems you will find anywhere) to Hietzing to see Schönbrunn, the former imperial summer palace with its extensive, manicured grounds and the prominent Gloriette on the hill as an imposing backdrop. From the subway station one will see the Park Hotel, where Mark Twain, who loved Vienna, lived for two years.

Viennese, whose identity is largely shaped by their political affiliation and the Catholic Church, have not always been kind to outsiders. They persecuted Protestants in the seventeenth century, made the Czechs and other Easterners feel unwelcome in the nineteenth century, and throughout their history have always displayed some degree of anti-Semitism. Today the climate of intolerance has not disappeared entirely but it has improved. The government finally apologized for the country’s role in the Holocaust, and in recent years Austria has done more than any other European country to provide a haven for many asylum seekers from Eastern nations and also from Africa to add to the mix of former Turkish and Yugoslav guest workers who did not wish to return home. The ethnic diversity of the population will increase in future years because people from all of the member nations of the European Union may now move to any country to live, study, and seek employment, and Vienna remains a magnet.

Vienna has become one of the most successful cities in Europe in terms of business and finance, but not at the expense of its role as a center of culture. One of its first actions after World War II, when Austria was devastated and then occupied, was to renovate and reopen the theaters and the opera as a means of uplifting the spirits of the people. The nation has always turned to its literary and cultural heritage to draw strength in difficult times. After 1945 Otto Basil with his journal, Plan, worked to revitalize literature by reconnecting to the tradition that had been interrupted in 1938 by the German annexation. No noteworthy Austrian literature appeared during the war years, except ironically that produced by the Jewish writers in exile, who continued to produce important works while living for the day they could return home.

In the 1950s the returned exile author Hans Weigel began gathering and encouraging the numerous young writers with new themes and modern techniques. An enlightened government recognized the importance of literature and the other arts to the country and adopted a cultural policy to provide financial support to writers and artists in every field, a program that continues unabated today. For that reason Austria has many more writers than would be expected in a land of its size and has remained the leading German-language literature to the present day. Authors may receive a subsidy to write a book, which the state pays to have published and officially presented. No writer can live on the income from his or her books, not even the leading Austrian author, Peter Handke, whose literary papers the Government recently purchased so that he will have money to live on in retirement. To help authors survive, they are paid for lectures and for readings from their works, subsidized for reading tours, at times in foreign countries, and ultimately granted a pension in their old age. The theaters, operas, and the radio station ORF are also heavily subsidized, as are such literary organizations as Die alte Schmiede, Die Gesellschaft fuer Literatur, and the Literaturhaus, each of which offers the public several presentations—literary lectures, readings by authors and exhibits—every week without any admission charge.

Because of the close relationship of Austria and Germany up to 1804, distinctly Austrian literature only began to appear in the nineteenth century. Franz Grillparzer proclaimed independence in 1832 when he declared he was an Austrian, not a German author. The unique character of Austrian literature is henceforth readily apparent, particularly in the plays of Ferdinand Raimund and Johann Nestroy, authors who have no counterparts in German literature. Other notable nineteenth-century writers of note include the poet Nikolaus von Lenau, who attempted a new life in Ohio but returned home because of ill health, and the remarkable Charles Sealsfield, who emigrated to the United States and became a noted author of books about the western expansion. He wrote in English and critics, thinking he was an American, praised his writings as superior to those of James Fenimore Cooper.

Up to 1848, under the rule of Emperor Franz I and his loyal Chancellor Metternich, there was no freedom of speech or press in Austria because of the fear instilled in the emperor by the French revolution of 1789. He dedicated his rule to stifling progress and maintaining the status quo. He did not want enlightened citizens but obedient subjects of the state. Even the universities were prohibited from engaging in research. After the revolution of 1848, the new young emperor Franz Josef I was persuaded to tear down the old city wall that prevented expansion of the inner city and construct the showcase of buildings and palaces along the Ringstrasse. By around 1900, writers and all other artists and intellectuals contributed to implementing the program of modernity, devised and publicized by the author Hermann Bahr, the movement that ushered Austria as well as the eastern states into the twentieth century.

Life was grand in this heady atmosphere of what author Stefan Zweig called “the golden age of security,” that is, if you were titled, wealthy, or talented. The turn of the century, or as it is often called, fin-de-siècle Vienna, remains one of the most glamorous, exciting, and significant periods of Austrian literary, cultural, and scientific history, a flowering that rivals the Renaissance in its scope and importance, radiating from Austria in all directions. Much of the thinking shaping societies today—the independent lifestyle, the belief that each individual should be free to develop to the fullest—and a number of scientific developments were introduced during this uniquely fertile era, which gave birth to the unstoppable dynamic modern spirit animating, driving, and transforming societies from the stagnant nineteenth to the explosive twentieth century. The dramatic changes that took place in Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century—the rapid expansion of industrialization and the concomitant shift from a primarily agrarian to an urban society, the breakthroughs and advances in the sciences, the change from a belief in absolute to relative values, the replacement of the aristocracy by the monied bourgeoisie as the dominant economic and political class, and the gaining of voting privileges that propelled the move to democratization—acted as a catalyst for the “transformation of all values” (Nietzsche) during the transitional years, which lasted up to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

One of the greatest social changes has been in the status of women, who are still struggling to achieve full parity in the patriarchal society, including equal pay with men. Great improvement has been made, especially in the arts, where acknowledgment is based on ability rather than gender. When the noblewoman Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach began to write in the nineteenth century, an attempt was made to discourage her by insisting that such activity was unseemly for a woman. Because of her status she could ignore the warnings and persevere to become one of Austria’s greatest authors. Today outstanding women writers are well represented in the upper echelon of important authors, and all have received the same recognition in terms of support, awards, and prizes. Elfriede Jelinek’s “The Lovers,” included in this collection, is an apt representation of literature’s reflection of this feminist change.

Great literature aims to convey information and provide entertainment, and this collection of short prose writings by a small representative sample of the leading Viennese authors of the last hundred years is intended to fulfill that goal. These stories reflect the lifestyles, attitudes, and interpersonal relationships of a constantly developing society. As might be expected in the land that produced Freud, Viennese authors often focus on the inner life of the characters, portraying how they live or fail to fully live and how in terms of their nature, character, and background they react to an unexpected occurrence or circumstance in their lives. Thomas Bernhard, whose “Woodcutters” is included in this anthology, is a perfect example of an author whose work focuses on the thorough exploration of the inner human condition. Up to 1945, Austrian writers, including all the major authors in exile, focused their attention almost exclusively on Vienna. Only after the war, because of the Four Power Occupation and exiles who returned with expanded horizons, did the authors begin to range more widely in their choice of themes. Contributing importantly to this broadening was the influx of American and British literature and cinema.

Austrian literature has a global reach today, and it is particularly no stranger to the United States. At the turn of the century the plays of Bahr, Hofmannsthal, and Schnitzler, among others, were regularly performed on New York stages in German and in English, while the works of other authors were regularly translated. In the late 1920s, to speed up its development and at the same time to eliminate competition, Hollywood began aggressively recruiting talented writers, actors, actresses, directors, and cameramen from Austria, which had been instrumental in developing the film business. This influx of professionals was augmented significantly in the 1930s with the rush of exiled artistic talent, a veritable Who’s Who of authors, musicians, and artists, fleeing from the threat of Hitler’s annexation of Austria. In the United States, however, Austrians have never promoted themselves or featured their nationality and so their accomplishments gain no recognition for their country. They are The Quiet Invaders, as G. Wilder Spaulding titled his book describing the many contributions they have made to their host country. Writers in particular often go unnoticed as Austrians because of the tendency of American publishers to identify everything written in the German language as German literature.

The focus of this volume on Vienna and the space limitation prevented the inclusion of some of the most important contemporary authors, whose work deals with other areas of Austria, or appear in the form of poetry or plays. This brief collection is only the tip of the iceberg. If this introduction appeals to you, I urge you to further pursue the writings of Ilse Aichinger, Peter Handke, Marlen Haushofer, Robert Menasse, Anna Mitgutsch, Felix Mitterer, Christoph Ransmayr, Elisabeth Reichart, and Peter Turrini. The books of these authors can all be found in English translation. From the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present, every writer of importance is represented in English, in some cases by one or two works; in many others by their complete works. In the meantime, whether you are visiting this city that I love and have come to call my second home—or you are at home in the comfort of your armchair—I hope that this companion of Viennese authors provides you a window into the rich world of Austrian literature, and into the hearts and minds of the Viennese themselves.

Donald G. Daviau

July 2008

Posted on 21 September 2010

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