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Two Stories of Prague by Rainer Maria Rilke

December 29, 2018 8 comments

Two Stories of Prague: King Bohush and the Siblings by Rainer Maria Rilke (1899) My French edition is Histoires pragoises, suivi de Le Testament. Translated by Maurice Betz, Hélène Zylberberg, Louis Desportes and Philippe Jaccottet.

I have read Two Stories of Prague by Rainer Maria Rilke in French and my edition also includes a translation of another text, Le Testament. (Das Testament in German, I’m not sure that there’s an English translation; I suppose it’d be Legacy) Two Stories were published 1899, Rilke was 24 at the time. Legacy was written much later, abroad, in the winter 1920-1921.

Two Stories of Prague is composed of two related short stories, King Bohush and The Siblings. They are related to Rilke’s youth in Prague, his hometown. They were put together by Rilke himself with this quick introduction:

Ce livre n’est que passé. Son arrière-plan : le pays et l’enfance, tous deux lointains depuis longtemps. Aujourd’hui, je ne l’écrirais pas ainsi, mais je ne l’écrirais pas du tout. Cependant, à l’époque où je l’ai écrit, c’était pour moi une nécessité. Il m’a rendu cher ce que j’avais à demi oublié et il m’en a fait don. Car, de notre passé, nous ne possédons que ce que nous aimons. Et nous voulons posséder tout ce que nous avons vécu. This book is only about the past. Its background: my country and my childhood, both gone for a long time now. Today, I wouldn’t write it that way, but I wouldn’t write it at all. However, at the time I wrote, it was a necessity to me. It made dear to me things I had half forgotten and it made me a gift. Because from our past we only own what we love. And we want to own everything we’ve been through.

I like his introduction, his voice. He’s only 24 and he’s already aware that he’s moved on from his formative years in Prague but he still cherishes his early work. He knows these stories are clumsy but he doesn’t turn his back on them. He owns them as part of his past, a reminder of his younger self.

King Bohush describes how Rezek turned King Bohush, a pacific character of the Prague scene into a political activist who went into underground meetings to promote Czech nationalism. King Bohush opens with a scene at the Café National, actually the Café Slavia. Actors, journalists, students and Czech nationalists met there and discuss art and politics Founded in 1884, Rilke used to meet friends there and this café remained a place for political dissidents as it was also the one where Václav Havel used to spend time in. Poor Bohush is quite flattered to draw Rezek’s attention and he gets sucked into the Czech nationalist movement and forbidden political activities.

The Siblings is also set in Prague. We are with Zdenko and Louisa Wanka who just moved to the city from the country with their mother after their father died unexpectedly. They struggle to make ends meet and their mother works as a domestic in a German speaking household. Zdenko goes to medical school, at the Czech speaking university and Rilke explains that it’s less prestigious than the German speaking one. Zdenko also becomes one of Rezek’s followers and also gets involved in political activities.

The two stories have a lot in common. Set in Prague, the Czech activist Rezek appears in the two stories and both are focused on the division between the German speaking and Czech speaking inhabitants of Bohemia. Rilke explains that Czech-speaking are seen as second-class citizen, that everything German is supposedly better and that the elites of the country are looking west and tend to turn their back to Bohemian folk culture. The German speaking represent 10% of the people of Bohemia but seem to concentrate a lot of wealth and power and they clearly look down on the Czech speaking people. It is quite clear in the offhanded comment the German housewife makes about the Wanka. That part was interesting.

I like The Siblings better, probably because Louisa becomes a more prominent character as the story unfolds. She’s the symbol of the hope of reconciliation between German and Czech speaking Bohemians.

While the stories betray that their writer was a little green in his trade, they are still interesting for the descriptions of Prague and the glimpse of Rilke’s poetic eye and pen.

Les premiers soirs de printemps, l’air est d’une fraîcheur humide qui se pose doucement sur toutes les couleurs et les rend plus lumineuses et plus semblables les unes aux autres. Les claires maisons du quai ont presque toutes pris la teinte pâle du ciel, et seules les fenêtres tressaillent de temps en temps dans une luminosité chaude et, réconciliées, s’éteignent au crépuscule, lorsque le soleil ne les dérange plus. Seule, la tour de Saint-Vit reste encore debout dans son antique et éternelle grisaille.

In the first evenings of Spring, the air has a humid coolness which slowly settles on all the colors and make them brighter and more alike. The light houses on the embankment have almost all taken on the pale shade of the sky. Only the windows still quiver from time to time in a warm light and, reconciled, switch off at dusk when the sun doesn’t bother them anymore. Lonely, the Saint-Vit Tower stands still in its eternal dullness.

(my clumsy translation, sorry Mr Rilke)

Walking around Prague with Boshush and the Wanka siblings make you want to visit Prague and that’s already a success for Rilke’s stories. After all, it was about his hometown and his childhood.

A few words about Legacy. It’s a collection of short texts, drafts of letters written during the 1920-1921 winter. Rilke was staying at the Berg castle near Zurich. The foreword by Ernst Zinn was a riddle impossible to decipher for a non-Rilke specialist. When you need footnotes to a foreword, it’s like a Russian doll game for the reader. Legacy in itself will probably be of some interest for Rilke’s fans who know a lot about his life and wanderings. For philistine readers like me, it was almost impossible to follow because a lot of references were lost on me.

Good news for English speaking readers, it’s no big deal that your edition of Two Stories of Prague doesn’t include Legacy.

For other billets about Rilke’s work see: Au fil de la vieLetters to Lou Andrea SalomeThe Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and Letters to a Young poet.

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth – German Lit Month – Wunderbar

November 18, 2018 17 comments

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth (1938) French title: La crypte des capucins. Translated from the German by Blanche Gidon.

Nous avions tous perdu notre position, notre rang, notre maison, notre argent, notre valeur, notre passé, notre présent, notre avenir. Chaque matin en nous levant, chaque nuit en nous couchant, nous maudissions la mort qui nous avait invités en vain à son énorme fête. We all had lost our position, our rank, our house, our home, our money, our worth, our past, our present and our future. Each morning when we got up, each night when we went to bed, we cursed death who had invited us in vain to her grand party.

The Emperor’s Tomb (1938) is a sequel to The Radetzky March (1932). You don’t need to have read the first one to read the other but both feature the same Trotta family. The Radetsky March takes us from the 1860s to 1916, the year the Emperor Franz Joseph died. Roth pictures the tragic fate of the Trotta family, a fate that is linked to the slow death of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He shows how rotten the Empire had become and how ready to collapse it was.

Then The Emperor’s Tomb pictures the Trotta family after the collapsing due to WWI, during the fragile First Austrian Republic up to the Anschluss in 1938.

It begins in April 1914. Franz-Ferdinand Trotta is 23. He’s young, idle and spends his nights drinking and partying with his friends. He’s living a dissipated life and barely sees the sun because he only lives at night. He’s influenced by his friends, he wants to fit in so badly that he represses his true self. He doesn’t openly court Elisabeth, one of his friends’ sister, because it was not fashionable to be in love. He’s carefree to the point of carelessness. He’s totally unprepared for adult life and he’ll have to grow up quickly because his life is about to change.

Franz’s father has just died and left some money to Joseph Branco, a cousin of the peasant branch of the Trotta family, the one still living in Slovenia. Branco is a farmer during the summer and a travelling chestnut seller during the winter. Franz-Ferdinand welcomes him with open arms, somehow glad to be with someone who is a link to his countryside roots.

During his winter travels around the Empire, Branco has befriended a Jewish coachman from Galicia. His name is Marès Reisiger and he has a son who wants to study music in Vienna. Franz calls for a favor and the young man gets in his music school.

A bond is formed between Franz, Branco and Reisiger, strong enough for Franz to go to Galicia during the summer 1914. That’s where he is when WWI starts. He comes back to Vienna to join his regiment, marries Elisabeth in haste and in fear of not coming back and leaves town. He quickly asks to change from his designated regiment to a less prestigious one to be with Branco and Reisiger. They are quickly captured by the Russian army and spend the whole war in a prisoner camp in Siberia.

Back to Vienna, Franz tries to adapt to the new reality of his life. Everything he knew has fallen apart. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is dead. His wife is a stranger. His mother is ageing and declining. He has no trade and is unfit to earn any money. His fortune is vanishing quickly, due to poor investments and the economic situation of the country.

Franz is a disarming, charming and yet infuriating character. His candidness is endearing and he doesn’t try to hide his flaws. He’s not class-conscious and doesn’t look down on Branco. He never makes fun of him, even when he takes him to breakfast in a posh café in Vienna and he asks for soup because that’s what he eats at home. He’s not ashamed of him and he even envies him in a way. Branco knows his place in the world, in the society.

Franz partially died when the empire fell. He’s a man from the past and he has trouble adjusting to the moving reality. Roth describes a feeling of disorientation and loss. Franz has lost his identity. He feels “ ‘extraterritorialised’ from the land of the living.” Franz is nostalgic of monarchy made of different countries and people, patched up into an empire through administrative and everyday life landmarks, like the railway stations and the post office. There are no borders and things feel familiar everywhere he goes. You could say that it is the beauty of colonialism seen from the side of the colonizer and that the people of the Austro-Hungarian empire certainly didn’t feel that way. But Roth argues through Franz that the Empire collapsed because it failed to see that the people from the Slovenia, Galicia, Romania, etc. were its wealth thanks to their diversity. Vienna made the mistake to turn to their German roots instead of embracing the vitality and diversity of the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Interwar period in Vienna sounds similar to the Interwar period in Budapest described in books by Zsigmond Móricz or Dezső Kosztolányi even if the description of the political context is not the aim of their books.

Contrary to The Radetsky March, The Emperor’s Tomb is a first-person narrative. Franz talks to us, bares his soul and lets us in. He shows his helplessness. He knows he’s not equipped to survive properly in this new world. He tries to stay afloat  and live one day at a time. He’s oblivious to the changing political context, he’s too focused on what he lost. He’s like the frog who is in a water bucket and the temperature of the water increases, increases, increases and the frog is dead before it realized it was time to leap out of the water.

The Emperor’s Tomb is really moving even if I wanted to shake Franz and urge him to live his live instead of suffering through it. But Franz, like the monarchy he was born under, is an oak with old roots. And oaks, like Lafontaine told us, do not bend like reeds when the wind is too strong. They get uprooted and die.

There would be a lot more to explore about this book, about its form and its substance. I didn’t write anything about its style but it was exceptional. I have read The Emperor’s Tomb in an excellent French translation by Blanche Gidon who knew Roth when he was exiled in Paris in the 1930s. My paperback edition includes a good foreword by Dominique Fernandez and a touching afterwords by Blanche Gidon about her last meeting with Roth and her take on The Emperor’s Tomb. There’s an English translation by Michael Hoffman, and I heard from you all that he’s a good translator.

This was my second contribution to Caroline’s and Lizzy’s German Lit Month. I had The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth on my shelf and I’m happy that Lizzy’s readalong pushed me to read it at last.

German Lit Month: The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler. Disappointing

November 11, 2018 24 comments

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler. (2012) French title: Le tabac Tresniek. Translated from the German (Austria) by Elisabeth Landes.

The Tobacconist is my first read for German Lit Month organized by Caroline and Lizzy. I’m not sure I need to introduce this novel as it has been reviewed numerous times.

The young Franz Huchel is sent from his village on the Attersee in Upper Austria to work as an apprentice at a tobacconist in Vienna. The owner, Otto Tresniek is an old friend of Franz’s mother and has accepted to take him under his wing.

Franz arrives in Vienna at the end of the summer 1937, a few months before the Anschluss. He stays with Otto Tresniek and is introduced to the tobacconist-newsdealer trade. He learns about the different kind of cigarettes and cigars and slowly gets used to reading all the newspapers everyday as a proper newsdealer should, in Otto Tresniek’s mind.

Up to that stage of the book, I enjoyed it. The descriptions of the Salzkammergut region were nice, it looked like a good coming-of-age novel in troubled times. We’re in page 43 in my French edition when Sigmund Freud enters the story and everything went downhill from there.

I disliked that Robert Seethaler felt he needed the crutch of a larger-than-life character like Freud to give substance to his story. He had a good start, why were anonymous Vienna inhabitants not enough to hold the story?

Then Franz spends a Sunday at the Prater amusement park, gets acquainted with a mysterious girl who disappears on him. This part was nice and should have ended there, as a lesson learned for young Franz. But he becomes obsessed with this girl, talks about love with Freud and decides to look for her. He finds her, her name is Aneszka and she comes from Bohemia. That thread peters out oddly and suddenly we leave his angst and Aneszka behind without really understanding why.

In the background, the Nazis take power in Austria, in the country but in the minds too. The tobacconist is attacked, the Nazi dictatorship settles in the country and the first visible deaths arrive. But to me, that part wasn’t convincing either. There is no real exploration either of what happens to the country on a political level or on what it does on people’s everyday lives. There are hints but not built well enough to create a clear picture in the reader’s mind.

The Tobacconist felt like a series of missed opportunities. To picture Vienna in 1937. To dissect how the Nazi took power in Austria. To show how a young country boy adapted to the big city and to the political context. To recreate the life of ordinary people in the Vienna of that time.

There are good ideas in this book but for me, they didn’t click together and made a convincing puzzle. And, as you can see, I have no quote to share because I didn’t highlight anything in the book. If you’ve read The Tobacconist, I hope you’ll share your opinion about it in the comments, I’m looking forward to discussing it with you.

For more enthusiastic reviews, see Lisa’s here and Susanna’s here.

The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth

November 12, 2016 38 comments

The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth (1932) French title: La marche de Radestky. Translated by Blanche Gidon and reviewed by Alain Huriot.

roth_radetskyThe Radestky March is the second book by Joseph Roth that I’ve read. (My billet about Hotel Savoy is here.) It was published in 1932 and it’s famous for describing the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Roth was Austrian and I think that Embers by Sándor Márai is the Hungarian counterpart of Roth’s Radetsky March.

The book opens at the battle of Solferino where the Austrians fight against the French in 1859. France was ruled by Napoléon III at the time and it’s a victory for the French. The Austrian emperor Franz-Joseph I is on the battlefield and he’s about to do something stupid that could get him killed by a French sniper. Lieutenant Trotta sees it coming, throws the emperors to the ground and saves his life. Franz-Joseph ennobles Trotta who becomes Baron von Trotta and Sipolje, the small village he comes from. (Now in Kosovo). This distances Trotta from his family and his origins and pushes him to a social class where he feels he never belongs. It cuts this branch of the Trotta family from their roots.

Later, von Trotta discovers in a school text book how the story of the battle of Solferino is taught to the children. It is grossly embellished and he decides to appeal to the emperor to have the facts straightened up. But the emperor leaves it as it’s told, which disgusts von Trotta from the military. Therefore, he will not let his son go to military school and he makes him become a civil servant. The young M. von Trotta ends up prefect in the district of W, in Moravia. His short marriage gives him a son, Carl Joseph, who is actually the main character of the novel.

The Radetsky March is a remarkable book. From a literary point of view, it’s extremely well written. Roth describes the family relationships, the education in the military circles and the lack of warmth in this education. Prefect von Trotta loves Carl Joseph but he’s totally unable to show affection. And this is also a trait that Márai points out in Embers. Carl Joseph is enrolled to military school upon his father’s decision. His father never imagined to ask him what he wanted to do with his life. Carl Joseph is not cut out to be an officer as he has no military skills. He can’t ride a horse properly, he’s hopeless with topography and other military disciplines. He can’t choose his career. He has this cumbersome aura that prevent people from really befriending him. He feels awkward with his comrades and he has trouble bonding with people from his generation. He only becomes friend with older men and his lovers are almost mother figures. I won’t tell you too much about the plot and his life but poor Carl Joseph is not up to other people’s expectations. He’s incredibly lonely and he lives his life like a fish out of water.

The heritage of his grand-father weighs on his shoulders. He’s the grand-son of the hero of Solferino never just himself. And this inheritance burdens him with other people’s expectations. He’s the offspring of the hero of Solferino and there is a consensus that he inherited his grand-father’s courage. But his grand-father’s greatness was grossly exaggerated in text books that minded more of propaganda than of historical accuracy. So, Carl Joseph measures his actions against the shadow of a man who never really existed.

Le sous-lieutenant Trotta ressemblait à quelqu’un qui n’a pas seulement perdu son pays, mais aussi la nostalgie de son pays. The sub-lieutenant Trotta looked like someone who not only had lost his country but also the nostalgia of his country.

I pitied him for these heavy expectations and because he lacked the character and intelligence he would have needed either to rebel and choose his path or shine in the path that was chosen for him. In older French translations of books, European names are often translated and this edition of The Radestky March is no exception. As a consequence, Carl Joseph was Charles-Joseph for me. The more time I spent in Charles-Joseph’s company, the more I thought of Charles Bovary. The two men have something in common, both being pushed in a career for which they have no taste and no gift. They’re slow, they’re lonely and lack of social skills. They’re not bad people, just stupid.

The Radetsky March also portrays the decay the Austro-Hungarian empire. Roth describes very well the hypocrisy of the military circles. The military are drilled to respect rules, as stupid as they can be. They follow an honor code up to blindness and refuse to see the obvious. The army is disconnected from the world and unaware of the upcoming changes and challenges.

Ils étaient nés en temps de paix et ils étaient devenus officiers en s’adonnant paisiblement aux manœuvres et aux exercices. Ils ne savaient pas alors que chacun d’eux, sans exception, rencontrerait la mort quelques années plus tard. Aucun n’avait alors l’ouïe assez fine pour entendre tourner les rouages énormes des moulins secrets qui commençaient déjà à moudre la grande guerre. La blanche paix de l’hiver régnait dans la petite garnison. Et, comme une draperie noire et rouge, la mort flottait au-dessus de leurs têtes dans la pénombre de l’arrière-boutique. They were born in a time of peace and had become officers by peacefully devoting themselves to parade grounds and exercises. None of them suspected that they would die a few years later. None of them had keen hearing and heard the wheels of huge secret mills turning and already grinding the Great War. The white winter peace has settled on the small garrison. And, like a black and red drape, death was flying upon their heads in the dark corners of the back shop.

The officers do their routine, gamble and drink. They’re isolated and most of them don’t have a family. They keep to themselves. Roth makes fun of them and their blind respect to tradition and their propensity to fret about tiny details. The overall picture gives an idea of an army unfit for the upcoming battles.

The empire is also cracking under the demands for more rights for the minorities. It is a mosaic of people who no longer want to live together. Minorities push at the seams of the old imperial clothes and the old emperor Franz Joseph I sounds totally unfitted for his position. See what Roth puts in Chojnoki’s mouth, a Polish rich man who lives near Carl Joseph’s garrison:

Sceptique, moqueur, sans crainte et sans scrupules, Chojnicki affirmait communément que l’Empereur était un vieillard étourdi, le gouvernement une bande de crétins, le Reichsrat une assemblée d’imbéciles naïfs et pathétiques, il disait l’administration vénale, lâche et paresseuse. Les Autrichiens de souche germanique dansaient la valse et chantaient dans les guinguettes, les Hongrois puaient, les Tchèques étaient nés cireurs de bottes, les Ruthènes étaient des Russes travestis et des traîtres, les Croates et les Slovènes des fabricants de brosses et des marchands de marrons et les Polonais dont il était, des jolis cœurs, des coiffeurs et des photographes de mode. Skeptical, derisive, bold and unscrupulous, Chojnicki often said that the Emperor was a forgetful old man, the government, a bunch of cretins, the Reichsrat, an assembly of naïve and pathetic morons. He said that the administration was venal, weak and lazy. Austrians from German origins waltzed and sang in guinguettes, Hungarians stank, Czechs were born flatterers, Ukrainians were Russian in disguise and traitors, Croats and Slovenes were brush makers and chestnut sellers and Poles, as himself, were flirts, hairdressers and fashion photographs. 

Prefect von Trotta has no idea of how to deal with the nationalist upheavals in his district. The central power of the country doesn’t know what to do. The old emperor is cristallised in conservatism and lacks of political insight.

It is the end of the reign of Franz Joseph I who is a central character of the book. He’s the deus ex-machina of the novel. It’s a cheeky literary device, to use such a historical figure that way, but it works. The emperor puts in motion the change of social class of Trotta. He refuses to change the narration of the text books despite Trotta’s request. He will intervene several times when the von Trottas need him. The emperor is like a father figure to them.

Il [von Trotta] aimait l’Empereur qui était bon et grand, supérieur et juste, infiniment lointain et tout proche, particulièrement attaché aux officiers de son armée. Mourir pour lui aux accents d’une marche militaire était la plus belle des morts, mourir au son de la Marche de Radetzky était la plus facile des morts. He [voon Trotta] loved the emperor who was good and great, superior and fair, aloof and close, especially attached to the officers of his army. To die for him to the sound of a military march was the most beautiful death, to die to the sound of the Radetsky March was the easiest death of all.

Franz Joseph I had one of the longest reigns in Europe. He was in power from 1848 to 1916. I was in Vienna last September and there was an exhibition about him, sinc 2016 is the centenary of his death. It was explained that there are plenty of images of him since he had his portrait done at least once a year since his childhood. His mother groomed him to ground his power on a cult of personality. See a sample of these images.

00_images_franz-joseph_i

I thought that this exhibition was very complacent, only showing the good side of the man. I regretted that there was no attempt to put in perspective the decisions he made. After all, he was very conservative and probably made poor choices along the way, like everybody else. I was ill at ease in this exhibition, feeling too much blind praise and nostalgia in it and not enough critical mind at work. Here’s Roth about Vienna:

On voyait déambuler, dans la large Ringstrasse, les habitants de cette ville, joyeux sujets de Sa Majesté apostolique, tous laquais de sa cour. La ville tout entière n’était que la gigantesque cour du château. You could see the inhabitants of this city stroll on the large Ringstrasse. They are the happy subjects of His Apostolic Majesty, all lackeys of the court. The whole town was actually the gigantic courtyard of the castle.

There was a cult around the Habsburg family and I’m not sure it’s deserved. This was my second visit to Vienna and my impression of the city center is that it still participates to the cult of the Habsburg family. In the comments written in the museums, in St Stephen cathedral, I felt an unhealthy nostalgia for lost grandeur. When in London, I didn’t have the impression that the city was turned into a museum longing for the Victorian era. In Vienna, even my children got sick of hearing about the wonderful Sissi and the great Maria Theresa. I loved that Joseph Roth didn’t follow this line of thinking. He is irreverent and critical, maybe because he was an outsider, as a Jew from Galicia.

The Radetsky March is a wonderful read for its literary merits (not obvious in this billet since I had to translate the quotes), for its humor, for its characterization and its insight on the Austro-Hungarian empire. A must read to understand Europe’s past and if possible to be coupled with Márai’s Embers.

2016_german_lit_monthThis billet about The Radetsky March is my contribution to Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month. Incidentally, November is the month to celebrate the end of WWI and Franz-Joseph I died on November 21st, 2016.

 

 

Elisabeth II by Thomas Bernhard

January 6, 2016 14 comments

Elisabeth II by Thomas Bernhard. (1987)

Elisabeth II is one of the last plays written by Thomas Bernhard. It is set in an apartment in Vienna. The old industrial tycoon Herrenstein owns an apartment in the center of the city, ideally situated to see and cheer the passage of Queen Elisabeth II during her visit to Vienna. As a consequence, his apartment will be soon overflowing with eager relatives and acquaintances who want to see the queen. That’s the plot.

Herrenstein is an angry disabled old man. If you’ve seen the French film Tatie Danielle by Etienne Chatiliez, you’ll picture him in your mind. He’s in a wheelchair but insists on rewinding the clock himself. He’s cantankerous, whimsical and has an opinion about everything. He hates his family and relatives who give it right back at him, except for one nephew. His everyday life depends on his secretary/companion Richard and his housekeeper Miss Zallinger. He’s egoistical, violent in his speech. His mind runs in circles and the play is made of long monologues where he complains about this or that, trying to decide where he’ll drag Richard on holiday the morrow. He rants and raves against anything and everything: the stupidity of watching Queen Elisabeth drive under his windows, the mentality of the Austrians, the atmosphere in Vienna, his relatives, his bad health…

This is a play that needs to be watched and leaves no room for poor acting or a weak direction. The text is composed of long rants that deserve to be told and not read. The actor playing Herrenstein is stuck in a wheelchair and speaks during two hours. According to the cast and the direction, this play can be fantastic or a total disaster. Mildly successful is not an option; as its main character, the text is not forgiving for lukewarm interpretation.

I’ve seen a version directed by Aurore Fattier with Denis Lavant playing Herrenstein.

Bernhard_2_personnages

Both direction and acting were absolutely stunning. Aurore Fattier managed to make us laugh at and with this cranky old man and made the best of the almost silent second characters. Alexandre Trocki plays Richard and he’s on stage almost as long as Herrenstein but he barely speaks. He manages to impose his silent presence to the spectator as comic counterpart to his vituperating master. The coming and goings of the servants preparing the reception for all the people who invited themselves to watch the parade of Elisabeth II is full of mischief and comical effects.

Bernhard_denis_lavantDenis Lavant owns the space, incarnates perfectly this obnoxious old man. His speech, his movements and his tone are brilliant. I admire his stamina and that kind of performance is the quintessence of theatre. Why go to the theatre? Because there’s nothing like watching actors playing live a whole text, not scenes that have been put together afterwards like in a film. Denis Lavant slips into Herrenstein’s skin for two hours. During this time, he’s Herrenstein for us and the old man becomes real. Nothing compares to that.

As a spectator, we are horrified by Herrenstein’s cruelty and at the same time, we pity him. Like the playwright, he’s been ill for a long time. He’s old and at the mercy of Richard and Miss Zallinger’s services. He’s pathetic at times and needy. He’s afraid of Richard leaving him. He’d like to be strong but he’s totally unsettled by the change in his routine coming from all the fuss around the queen’s visit.

This is my first encounter with the work of Thomas Bernhard. I expected bleak, it was as bleak as books about nasty old age can be. It reminded me of The Hateful Age by Fumio Niwa.

I also knew he was harsh on the Austrian people but I didn’t expect that he would be that harsh, basically calling them weak and talking about nests of Nazis. As the crème de la crème of the Vienna aristocracy and bourgeoisie gush about how healthy he looks and how excited they are to see the queen, he hurls insults behind their back. Bernhard emphasizes on the narrow-mindedness of the upper classes and their inherent vulgarity.

Berhnard has been ill for most of his life, suffering of lung problems. Just like Proust. I couldn’t help comparing Miss Zallinger to the poor Françoise in In Search of Lost Time and to the real life servants who took care of Proust. He must have been a difficult patient and I suspect Bernhard was one too and that Herrenstein owns a bit of his creator’s nature.

As you’ve probably understood by my enthusiastic commentary, this is an outstanding but vicious play. The ending is unexpected, ironic and perfect. The version I’ve seen is flawless. Really. But I still think it was too long. In my opinion, there were repetitions in Herrenstein’s rants that could have been cut. I understand that these long monologues are Bernhard’s brand of theatre. I don’t think I’ll read his other plays but I’ll sure watch them if I have the opportunity.

Vienna Tales

September 26, 2015 18 comments

Vienna Tales. A collection of short stories edited by Helen Constantine and translated by Deborah Holmes. Not available in French.

The good old days and good old Vienna belong together like husband and wife. When you think of one, the other comes to mind. There is something touching about the fearful assiduousness with which the Viennese seek to uphold the belief that the good old days are still here in Vienna and that the city remains unchanged. (Heinrich Laube)

I’d already planned to spend a few days in Vienna in August when I read Marina’s review of Vienna Tales, a collection of short stories by various authors. As the title gives it away, Vienna is the common point between the stories. Some are snapshots of life in Vienna at different times:

  • Day-Out by Joseph Roth (1894 – 1939)
  • Merry-go-round by Joseph Roth
  • Vienna 1924 to …by Friedericke Mayröcker (1924)
  • The Prater by Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868)
  • Ottakringerstrasse by Christine Nöstlinger (1936)

Vienna_TalesIn these stories, you wander in Vienna along with the writers, discovering neighbourhoods and places. For example, Day-Out is an impressionist description of an outing in the outskirt of Vienna and the story is so short it’s more like a vignette than an actual story. The Prater is the big park in Vienna a mix of Central Park and Tivoli Gardens (Copenhagen). Stifter’s description of people promenading in the park reminded me of Zola in Money or Proust when they show us bourgeois parading in their carriages in the Bois de Boulogne.

Some stories focus on a moment in Vienna’s history.

Vienna by Heinrich Laube (1806-1884) portrays Metternich, a major Austrian political figures of the 19thC century, in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat.

Lenin and Demel by Anton Kuh (1890 – 1941) is set between the two world wars and starts with an image of Bela Kun standing at Vienna’s gates. Demel is a famous café in Vienna. It reminded me of the beginning of Anna Edes by Desnő Kostolányi: the first scene is Bela Kun fleeing from Budapest in an airplane, taking with him pastries from Gerbeaud, the Budapest counterpart of Demel.

In The Twilight of the Gods in Vienna, German author and film director Alexander Kluge. (1932) retells the episode of WWII when the Vienna orchestra recorded The Twilight of the Gods during the bombing of Vienna by the Allies.

Other stories are common short stories set in Vienna, like

  • The Four-poster Bed by Arthur Schnitzler. (1862-1931)
  • Oh Happy Eyes. In memoriam Georg Groddeck by Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973)
  • Spas Sleeps by Dimitré Dinev (1968)
  • The Criminal by Veza Canetti (1897-1963)
  • Envy by Eva Menasse (1970)
  • Six-nine-six-six-nine-nine by Doron Rabinovici (1961)

The two stories by Schnitzler are very short too, infused with melancholy and philosophical thoughts. Where Roth is mainly descriptive, journalistic, Schnitzler looks more into the souls of his characters.

Spas Sleeps is one of my favourite stories of the collection. It resonates with today’s news about refugees seeking asylum in Europe. Dimitré Dinev is of Bulgarian origin, just like his character Spas Christov. The story opens to Spas, sleeping outside like a bum. He arrived in Vienna to find work, build a new life. He remembers his years as an immigrant and how work becomes the only thing that matters. It’s the Open Sesame! to a future because it means the end of fear, identity papers, money and dignity.

Work was the most important thing. Everyone was looking for it, not everyone found it. And anyone who didn’t find it had to go back. Work was a magic word. All the other words were inferior to it. It alone determined everything. Work was more than a word, it was salvation.

It takes a special dimension with the migrants pushing through the doors of Eastern Europe these days. The story is really moving. Dinev is not trying to sell misery. He just puts Spas’s hardship at human height. Through this single case, he triggers empathy. You see Spas’s experience with eyes that could be yours and you hear him, you root with him and hope he’ll get a work permit.

Oh Happy Eyes! is a lovely tale of Miranda who’s blind as a bat but refuses to wear her glasses because she finds that the world isn’t that nice when she sees it with clarity.

And last but not least, two stories are about the Viennese literary world.

The Feuilletonists by Ferdinand Kürnberger (1821-1879) is another of my favourites in this collection. With a great sense of humour, Kürnberger pictures the different kind of feuilletonists working in Vienna. You have the house feuilletonist, the street feuilletonist, who strolls through the Hyde Park of modern industry like the serpent in paradise, seducing at every step the modern daughters of Eve who would much rather have the latest style in Parisian fig leaves than the most dewy-eyed innocence in all eternity, the salon feuilletonist, whose  natural habitat is actually Paris or London, the tavern feuilletonist, whose species is naturalized in the coffeehouse, the social feuilletonist and the forest feuilletonist who always walks alone. Seen from a distance, he resembles a candidate for suicide. I loved the description of the house feuilletonist:

‘There is, for example, the common house feuilletonist, Feuilletonistus domesticus. Only look at this exemplar and you will see right away that there is actually no need for city or public life to provide inexhaustible subject matter for a feuilleton. The material of the house feuilletonist is just that, his house. He describes to us his staircase, his parlour, his furniture, the view from his window. We are acquainted with the moods of his cat and the philosophical worldview of his poodle. We know the precise spot behind the oven where his coffee machine stands, and when he takes up the cross of civilization every morning with the first cup of the day, we know how many beans he grinds, how many drops of spiritus he uses, how much water is in his milk and chalk in his sugar. Like Humboldt discussing the folds of the earth’s crust, he talks about the tendency of his dressing gown to tear, missing buttons are sewn on before our eyes, in fact, he lives just like a prince whose every private action is performed in public. He seldom airs his own feelings (another aristocratic characteristic!), but shares with us in great historical detail the love affair between his poker and his shoe-horn, or else the stories he sees unfolding amongst the ornamental figures on his mantelpiece in the twilight hour.

I guess the contemporary house feuilletonist is a blogger, a frantic social media user. It seems that the temptation to expose one’s life to others is not new…

Out for a Walk by Arthur Schnitzler is best described by Helen Contantine is her informative foreword to the book:

‘Out for a Walk’ enriches my anthology not only with references to Viennese topography, but also to its literary history. The four friends would have been immediately recognizable to readers of the time as portraits of the central clique of ‘Young Vienna’: Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Felix Salten, and Richard Beer-Hofmann.

I totally missed the reference but I can understand that it was obvious to Schnitzler’s contemporaries.

I enjoyed Vienna Tales but I have suggestions about the lay-out of the book. Since we leap from one writer to the other, from one time to another, it would be great to have the year the story was published along with its title. Moreover, I have the Kindle edition and the lay-out of the pictures doesn’t work very well, I found it hard to navigate in the book and it’s something you want to do more with a collection of short stories from various authors than with a novel you’ll read from cover to cover. I also found it a bit difficult to switch from one story to the other, from one style to another and it took me longer than usual to finish the book. It’s still worth reading after a trip to Vienna.

I’ll end this billet with a last quote that really describes my experience with Austrian cuisine:

Overnight, Spas became a cook. He fried Schnitzel, chicken, mushrooms, cheese, and chips. He boiled egg dumplings, soup with strips of pancake or liver dumplings, frankfurter sausages and smoked sausages. He roasted meat and made salads. That’s how easy Austrian cuisine was!

There’s a lot of insomnia going through the closed double-doors of a sleeping hotel.

January 6, 2013 26 comments

Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum 1929 French / English title : Grand Hotel

I know, I know, I’m like two months late for German Literature month but I needed a lot of time to read Grand Hotel in good conditions. I didn’t want to ruin it by reading it a bad time and November was such a rush in the office that any evening was a bad evening to savour this book. I discovered Grand Hotel when Caroline reviewed it and I was immediately drawn to it and I wasn’t disappointed.

Baum_Grand_hotelGrand Hotel describes a set of characters that stay in the eponymous hotel in Berlin. We’re at the end of the 1920s and Vicki Baum slowly introduces us to a crowd of lost souls. Preysing is here on business. He runs a textile company which is in a tough corner and is in Berlin to negotiate a merger with another company. He comes from the small town of Fredersdorf, just as Kringelein, who actually works for Preysing’s company as an accountant. They move into very different circles and when Preysing meets Kringelein, he seems vaguely familiar but he cannot remember why. Doctor Otternschlag lives in the hotel the whole year-round. He lingers in the salons, regularly asks the reception for messages that never come. He was badly wounded during WWI and never recovered physically and mentally from his years on the front. His face is totally ruined on one side and he doesn’t live but barely survives. I wondered what kept him alive. Curiosity? The Grousinskaja is an aging Russian ballet dancer, a star who has lost her shine. She still performs but her public is rare and she doesn’t want to acknowledge that she needs to retire before it’s too late. Baron von Gaigern is a ruined aristocrat who turned into a a con-artist to find money to keep his standard of living. He’s a Balzacian character, addicted to gambling, playing with women and unable to actually work to earn money. (Or marry a rich heiress). He’s a pleasant character though; nice to everyone, always joyful and polite. He’s the kind of entertaining parasite you’re bound to meet in such places.

All the characters are flawed and fragile and consequently rather moving. Preysing is the CEO of his company but still lives in the shadow of his step-father; the suit is too big for him. He struggles with the negotiation, isn’t shrewd enough for a business man. And the situation is so desperate that failure isn’t an option. Kringelein is dying and he decided to leave his wife, take all their savings to live in this posh hotel where he knows his boss stays when he’s in Berlin. Kringelein is seeking real life, not the poor and petty life he lived with his stingy wife. He’s seeking Life, with a capital L and takes advice from Doctor Otternschlag and Gaigern to show him the world.

This novel has the bittersweet flavor of the end of an era. Of course we know what will become of the Weimar Republic. It has the taste of the 1920s: tea dances, jazz, scars from WWI, an eagerness to live. It was written before the Black Tuesday and the Great Depression and yet you can see through Preysing’s meetings with his consultant that the economy has gone wild. Financial markets although less developed than nowadays have gone crazy. Businessmen are ready to manipulate the values of company shares. Everything and everyone rush headlong to their downfall, the people and the society.

I was fascinated by the pages where Vicki Baum describes the business meeting between Preysing, his lawyer specialized in M&A and the CEO of the acquisition target. Things haven’t changed that much. Meetings on neutral territories in hotels; selling the company’s results by doing a quick financial analysis, outlining the win-win situation of the merger without giving too much away. Deciding what to say and what to hide; balancing between giving information and thinking about its confidentiality if the deal fails. Absolutely fascinating. I wonder how Vicki Baum knew about that.

Kringelein’s story is easy to relate to. This is a man who realizes he’s going to die very soon and that he hasn’t enjoyed life. He throws caution to the wind now that he has no future and turns to frenzy of discovering the world. It’s interesting to see where the others take him to experience Real Life. He attends a show by the Grousinskaja, a boxing match, rides in a car, flies in a plane, buys expensive clothes. But he doesn’t really know what he’s looking for or what he means with Life.

I think Grand Hotel is a multilayered book. It’s very down-to-earth when it depicts the workings of the hotel, the rooms, the furniture, the habits, the staff. It portrays the German society of that time, as the hotel guests are a sample of this society. It reaches the universal with Kringelein’s quest (What is “living a full life”?), Grousinskaja’s angst (How do I cope with ageing?), Doctor Otternschlag‘s difficulties (How do I heal from a trauma?).

The French translation I have dates back to 1997, so it’s rather new. However, it sounds like the 1920s especially with the English words used in the French, words we don’t use anymore (Lift, sportsman, suitcase, jumper) but you can find some of them in Proust (especially Lift). This hotel seems midway between the hotel in Balbec and the one in Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth, a few years later.

I’d love to include quotes in this billet, to share with you pieces of Baum’s marvelous prose but I didn’t find an English version and it’s too difficult for me to translate properly. I know this book is hard to find in English, it’s only available in used copy now. I fervently hope that a publisher will decide to republish it or that it will be available for ebooks. If you can read in German or in French, go for it, it’s worth reading.

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