Oesterreich - Literatur seit 1986 - Klaus Zeyringer
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Herzlichen Dank an Professor Zeyringer für das Bereitstellen dieses Textes für das eLib-Projekt.
- Klaus Zeyringer
- ÖSTERREICHISCHE LITERATUR SEIT 1986
- Deutsche Fassung/English Version
After 1945, the authorities of the Second Republic were intent on using Austrian culture as a tool for developing a national self-consciousness and also as a means of boosting the tourist trade. The scenario associated with the earlier Austro-Fascists and the Nazis was cleaned up and used as a façade behind which a new-born community could camouflage their collective suppression.
By the 1970s, most Austrians had a generally positive feeling about the nation's self-understanding, which however came in for ever sharper criticism from writers. The two opposing sides resorted to pithy metaphors to express their positions. While the epithet "Island of the Blest" ["Insel der Seligen"] practically became Austria's trade name in official and media presentations, the literary community voiced its feelings in more negative images. Kein schöner Land – "No land so fair" – is the title of a popular old Austrian song and one which was also used by Felix Mitterer as the title of a play he wrote about those who "simply did their duty" under Hitler and after the war claimed that they had been the victims of the Nazis. In this ironic sense, it could serve as a caption for the 1980s. Its poetic images reveal that Austria's ostensibly secure identity stood on the shaky ground of widespread double-standards and hypocrisy.
In 1970 Bruno Kreisky had paved the way for a new departure in cultural politics by appealing to the intellectuals, and to a "younger generation, up in arms in their disrespect of the established order", to join him in "treading a common path". The "disrespectful" young of those days are today's establishment and their original stance of "resistance" has long since become no more than a habitual pose.
From the end of the 1970s, more and more voices were raised in protest against the false façades, with criticism being levelled firstly against a socially conservative consensus dominated by political elites, and secondly against the general phenomenon of Austria as a "republic of scandals". Amongst the numerous scandals, one in particular strengthened the arm of the environmentalist movement, the conflict over the planned construction of a power station in the riverine forests along the Danube, an area of exceptional natural historical interest at Hainburg, east of Vienna. Since 1986, the "Greens" have constantly had representatives in Parliament.
1986 marked a caesura, a turning-point which brought about a re-shaping of the Austrian political landscape – in June of that year Kurt Waldheim was voted in as Federal President in an election which polarized around Waldheim's declaration that as a German soldier he had "simply done his duty" and was dominated by a defiantly "no-one tells us how to vote" atmosphere. This was followed by the end of the SPÖ-FPÖ coalition [between the Socialist Party and the liberal Freedom Party] and the re-establishment of the "broad coalition" [between the Socialists and the conservative People’s Party] under the social democrat chancellor Franz Vranitzky. The year 1986 also saw the retirement from office of Vienna's notably broad-minded Archbishop, Cardinal Franz König, which was followed by a number of highly conservative episcopal appointments. A further feature of this crucial year was the appearance of a new and no longer liberal FPÖ under the leadership of Jörg Haider, whose extreme right-wing populism fuels and feeds upon xenophobic and anti-semitic feeling, calls for a "healthily down-to-earth" sort of culture and rejects all critical "modern" art.
All these events provoked hefty reactions from Austrian writers, as have such post-1986 socio-political developments as the restrictive policies on immigration and on foreigners in Austria, the debate over the eastward expansion of the EU following Austria's entry into the Eropean Union in 1995, and the general status accorded to art and culture in these markedly neo-liberal years. Writers expressed their opinions both in their public appearances and in their writings, leading to a veritable boom in the genre of the Austria-essay in the hands of writers such as Peter Turrini, Michael Scharang, Josef Haslinger, Robert Menasse, Karl-Markus Gauß, Antonio Fian and Franz Schuh, a boom which still continues today.
The cracks in the publicity façade erected by a festival- and operetta-culture revealed facets of a society by no means as attractive as the advertised image. Gerhard Jaschke's auf der insel der seligen ["On the island of the blest"] – destroys these clichés by using alluding to operetta titles:
zwischen pestsäule und riesenrad wirbt es sich fürs wiener blut nicht jeder herzinfarkt ist gleich eine operette aus wien das land des lächelns ist versunken der bettelstudent trägt zeitungen aus
[between plague column and big wheel / vienna blood is advertised / not every heart attack / is like an operetta from vienna / the land of smiles has sunk into oblivion / the beggar student does a paper-round] All the well-worn phrases about "our time-hallowed Austrian culture" no longer ring true. As Thomas Bernhard wrote in 1966: "Austria, and our idea of what Austria is, must fall victim to the truth."
It was certainly no coincidence that the year 1986 also saw the two best-known Austrian authors of recent decades publish novels that certainly rate among the best they have written. The account given by the first-person narrator of Peter Handke's Die Wiederholung [Repetition] repeats in written form a journey he made 25 years earlier to Slovenia in search of his missing brother. While others talk about man's destruction of nature, and nature's destruction of man, Handke's subject is the comforting security of the paradise-like garden which the missing brother had created. The seeker only sees it in his dreams; ever since its creator has left, this image of harmony between man and nature has fallen into a state of neglect. "Wiederholung", repetition, reiteration, is the source of salvation; in a new understanding of writing and language, the "I" and the world can be raised to new life. So it is that this novel ends by invoking story-telling as mankind's great hope: "Story, nothing is more worldly, nothing more just than thou, thou my holy of holies". Handke makes an elegiac reconstruction of the world seem possible – in the light of poetry. This epiphany of primordiality is something which Handke celebrated in 1994 in his lengthy novel Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht [My Year in No-man's-Bay], in which there is talk of "the essence of the "Märchen" [the world of fairy-tales, legends and fable] as the highest form of reality". According to Handke, "Märchen" means "things are in order. And "Märchen" means: to penetrate the world as deeply as is possible". It cannot however be claimed that everything is "in order" in the Niemandsbucht. Towards the end of the novel Germany has to suffer an "internal blitzkrieg" as a necessary stage on its way to becoming part of the "new world". Handke's 1996 book on Serbia, Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina [ A winter journey to the rivers Danube, Save, Morav and Drina], confirms one's suspicion that the epiphanies are bound up with a reversion to a façade of primordiality. In the eyes of the visionary, poverty (the poverty of others, that is) is a fairy-tale from happier times long past.
In Thomas Bernhard's writings, the world falls apart, only to rise again as large-scale literary composition, different but still with all its contradictions. The novel Auslöschung. Ein Zerfall [Extinction] is based on a poetics of collision seen from the point of view of Franz-Josef Murau and his "complex about his social origins". He has left home, Schloss Wolfsegg, to live in Rome, far removed from the family surroundings which he so hates. There he receives the news that his parents and brother have been killed in an accident, returns to Wolfsegg for the funeral and finally gives the estate he inherits away to the Jewish community in Vienna. This is the outer plot of a long inner monologue – referred to in the first and last sentences of the third-person framing device as the report "Extinction" – written by Murau after his return from Wolfsegg before he dies in Rome. The intention of Murau's text is to "extinguish everything which I understand by Wolfsegg". It is however precisely as a result of this that we can get a clear picture of Wolfsegg and its Roman counter-world; only thus do images – part of a complex configuration of reflections – take shape and represent a totality complete with its inherent antitheses. A bipolar system of thought brings out the contrast between Germanic and Latin culture and the separation of head and body, and in turn comes into constant conflict with other equally starkly depicted polarities. The deconstruction being implemented is at its most concentrated right in the middle of Thomas Bernhard's novel: "To think is to fail, I thought." The world-images in this system of relations can play havoc with preconceived ideas. "I am so schooled in the art of exaggeration", we read in an oft-quoted passage, "that without hesitation I can call myself the greatest artist of exaggeration known to me." The whole text seems to be relativized in the light of the passage from which this quotation comes; it is broken up by laughter, only to be led back later into the realm of the tragic. The perspective offered here is one of universal comedy as universal tragedy as universal comedy.
The year 1986 also saw the publication of a volume of poetry by Heimrad Bäcker, which, though unnoticed then as now by the big-name German critics and literary historians, certainly deserves the accolade "a masterpiece of concrete poetry": nachschrift [Rewrite] - followed in 1997 by nachschrift 2. The "System Nachschrift" or "transcription system" is Heimrad Bäcker's answer to the view that writing about the Holocaust can never do justice to the unspeakable measure of suffering that it brought about, that Auschwitz cannot be formulated because this would reduce to human proportions facts and events which defy human comprehension. The right language for this purpose is for Heimrad Bäcker is precisely that of horror, that is to say lists, entries, prohibitions, dates, minutes, letters, death tallies, orders, statements in court. Ordered as they are in nachschrift, all the fragments project the system of the whole and are meticulously authenticated in the appendix. The principle that the very surfaces of the pages are an integral part of the text gives the document a new kind of effectiveness. Standing alone at the top of one page are the lines:
ich bin am zweiten juni zwölf jahre alt geworden und lebe vorläufig noch
[on june the second i turned twelve and am still alive for the time being]
The rest of the page is blank. On the opposite page there is likewise just one single sentence, taken from a telegram sent by the Gestapo in Brünn / Brno in October 1939), as it were the conclusion of "vorläufig noch", and bracketed by telegram crosses: ++wann kommt hauptsturmführer eichmann mal wieder hieher++ [++when will hauptsturmführer eichmann be coming again++]
All this brings across the totality of mass destruction with quite devastating clarity. These isolated sentences and punctuation marks strip the systematic inhumanity of its administrative camouflage, laying bare the murderers' view of the Holocaust as "simply a logistical challenge". One regulation provides a sobering example of the meaning of the expression "Schreibtischtäter" ["desk criminal"]: "if the clerk enters deceased against a wrong number, then the mistake can be rectified later by the execution of the party designated by the number in question". The ideology and mechanism of Auschwitz are embedded in the written symbols of its system; Heimrad Bäcker cracked this system, making it legible for his readers. The facts, re-presented in his literary "Nachschrift-system", prove themselves to be dehumanized modes of bestiality.
In the 1960s and 1970s the works of such writers as Ingeborg Bachmann, Hans Lebert, Gerhard Fritsch and Helmut Qualtinger had been rooted in a physical and social topography which told of the suppressing of the fascist past and the covert continuation of totalitarian structures.
In the 1970s Franz Innerhofer and Josef Winkler were among the writers who raised their intensely personal voices against their own fathers and the patriarchal character of society. This general orientation continued into the 1980s, with a certain change of emphasis as it moved its sights onto Austria as a whole. As the election of the "amnesiac" Waldheim as head of state sparked off intensive debate on the "victim-theory" underpinning the Republic, one subject which cried out all the louder for literary treatment was that of the country's totalitarian pasts.
It was strikingly often women who opened the floodgates of memory, both women authors and female characters in the texts. In Elisabeth Reichart's 1984 novel Februarschatten [February Shadows], it is the daughter who tries to fracture the language of repression. Haltingly and bit by bit, the story of the "Mühlviertler Hasenjagd" [Mühlviertel: the region of Upper Austria in which Mauthausen concentration camp is situated; Hasenjagd: rabbit shoot] is told: – in February 1944 almost 500 prisoners had escaped from Mauthausen, and the local population took part in the hunt in which almost all of them were murdered. In Komm über den See [Come Across the Lake] (1988) Reichart contrasts the past achievements of women in the resistance with the many unresolved issues of our own day. The following quotation has the character of a leitmotif: "Before each memory, the knowledge that no sentences leading into this yesterday can be anything other than bridges to islands."
In a "monologue" of 1994, Reichart offers fragmentary pictures from the life of a woman who is explicitly named as "co-authoress". Helene von Druskowitz (1856-1918) rejected all the female life-models available to her in the patriarachal society in which she lived. She published using pseudonyms such as Sakkorausch (which Reichart took as the title of her book – published in English as Foreign) and paid for her actions by being interned for 27 years in an institution for the mentally disturbed. The text which commemorates this woman is in a language which is anything other than "normal"; it only comes into being fragmentarily.
This literature also examined the role of mothers as the transmitters of norms, and looked closely at the power they hold, at the power their daughters encounter when seeking their own identity. In her 1983 novel Die Klavierspielerin [The Piano Teacher], Elfriede Jelinek shows the mother as a ubiquitous authority, "inquisitor and firing squad in one". She knows the phrases she can use to her own advantage, saying on one occasion to her almost forty-year-old daughter: "You must think that I will not find out where you have been, Erika. A child should account to her mother without being asked." Directly after the proper name comes the depersonalization: "Erika. A child". With Jelinek, furthermore, sexual aggression is the aggression of male language. The vocabulary that Jelinek gives us in Lust (1989) and in Die Kinder der Toten (1995) [Children of the Dead] is a vocabulary of destruction. In Die Kinder der Toten, the territory of the novel as well as of the language and the body is extended by the suspension of one boundary, that of death. At the "Alpenrose", a small Styrian guest house, the living and the undead come together; all Austria's depths combine to raise a many-layered nightmare of rape, murder and cannibalism, a sinister realm, neither here nor there. The commemoration of the victims of Nazi crimes is a recurring motif which reappears at the end of the novel. The literary programme is based on a "liaison dangereuse" of language levels, a constant and subtle slipping back and forth between levels of language and levels of consciousness. This technique also lies behind what is Jelinek's most brilliant – and probably her best – volume of prose Oh Wildnis, oh Schutz vor ihr (1985) [Oh Wilderness, Oh Shelter from it], which exposes what lies behind the façades of local patriotism and the willed suppression of past events.
One novel of female resistance to the Austrian reality of collective amnesia had appeared back in 1980, but did not receive the acclaim it deserved. Der weibliche Name des Widerstands [The female name of resistance] by Marie-Thérèse Kerschbaumer weaves a dense net of reflexions. In her seven accounts of women murdered at the hands of the Nazis, Kerschbaumer distances herself from the many apparently similar works that grapple with the past; what she does is to insert the historical theme into the very process of narration, which also embraces the life situation of the woman who is telling the story. Her prose is thus constantly situated on at least two levels, past and present, resulting in a comprehensive history of the victims. The "repeatability of the patterns" of being foreign and oppression is a leitmotif in the work of Marie-Thérèse Kerschbaumer. The 1982 novel Schwestern [Sisters] has an allusion to the theme in its very first sentence - a thoroughly consistent way of starting to tell the densely woven story of an equally densely-woven family and social net in the political contexts of the twentieth century. In the nineties, Kerschbaumer took the autobiographical backgrounds woven together in Schwestern, and made of them an epic trilogy which presents growing up as "something different", using an appealing aesthetic strategy in which a dislocation of the story-telling, significance, and language planes is combined with metaphorical fracturings to form an interlocking text which contrives to bring together various fragments from private and public spheres to form a coherent whole. The first book of the series, Die Fremde [The Foreign Woman], published in 1992, has the female perspective as an inherent part of its title, and depicts "deep" post-war Austria in the memory-layers of the daughter of a Cuban man and an Austrian woman. In the second volume, Ausfahrt [Exit], published in 1994, it is the young Barbarina's first attempt to break away on a stay in England which provides a narrative basis for the presentation of complex pasts, historical relationships, and fantasy travel images. The "third book", Fern [Far Away], which appeared in the year 2000, begins with the young woman travelling to Florence to work as a nanny for a titled family. The associations brought about by the tendential "repeatability of patterns" enables the story to combine various layers in a fine variation of tone and rhythm - train journey to Italy are associated with deportations; male relationships with varieties of oppression; short excerpts from her correspondence with her far-off father, with interpolations from a Minnelied, from the Bible, and from fairy-tales; images from a "little life" with art and myth. "Fern" is used to designate a relation, means "far away", in a different country, in another society, in other languages; and the matter in hand is becoming sure of the unfamiliar other through exact observation. At the end the "foreign woman" is still a seeker, "thief of her uncertain freedom".
Thomas Bernhard broke with the ordering image of the Habsburg myth, but myth-writing continued from the beginning of the 1980s, with metamorphosis frequently providing the point of departure. However, these re-writings bear different authorial signatures. The Odyssey for Michael Köhlmeier's Telemach (1995) [Telemachos] is the trivial programme of utilitarian aesthetics, whereas in Inge Merkel's Eine ganz gewöhnliche Ehe (1987) [Odysseus and Penelope] it is an ongoing story about a relationship; in the large-scale project Grond Absolut Homer (1995), it is reworked as a travesty and conceptual art experiment. In his Die letzte Welt (1988) [The Last World], Christoph Ransmayr refracts Ovid in post-modernist manner. In search of Ovid and his Metamorphoses manuscript, Cotta, a Roman, embarks upon a journey in which he heads both to the end of the world and into the very space of the text. As in Handke's Die Wiederholung, a traveller is making a journey to search for someone who has disappeared, whose writing he then discovers graven in stone (in Handke's case, it just has to be on the wall of a chapel). However, Ransmayr combines ancient and modern myth – Ovid's and Hollywood's metamorphoses; he holds Ovid's central dictum "No one retains his form" up to a postmodernist mirror in which a bundle of microphones is a quite legitimate feature of a speech-scene in a Roman stadium. Once Cotta has disembarked from his ship at the Black Sea port of Tomi, more and more characters from Ovid crowd in their changing forms into the text, the world becomes increasingly dark and chaotic. The myth, which also does not retain its form, is no longer a world which is guaranteed to hold together. That stability and coherence can only be created through writing.
And it is also to be deconstructed. Werner Kofler uses Ransmayr's Ovid quotation "No one retains his form" as a "literary component part", ironically refracted, in his Hotel Mordschein (1989), a volume which is a veritable masterpiece of allusion. The first-person narrator observes himself in the Literaturhaus situated across the road and notes his own transformation: "As time went on, a trained eye such as mine could not fail to notice that over there I had become a different person." He even goes so far as to invert the words of Rimbaud which provided in their time a basis for European modernism and avant-garde: "I another? That, I thought, I could cope with, it was after all my profession. But if the other was myself and disposed over all my virtues – that would be terrible!" The broken narrative is fully in accord with the split identity – the text too "is another", partly quotation, partly literary building blocks, a web of allusions. Werner Kofler's prose is a whirling dance of variations on the theme of playing realities off against each other. In the volume Herbst, Freiheit (1994) [Autumn, Freedom], the first-person narrator cries out in a manner reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard: "reality: invented, a stinking lie, simply fabricated, or even more than that: stinking and fabricated through and through." "Who am I talking to?" is a recurring question in the "nightpiece" Herbst, Freiheit [Autumn, Freedom] in which time planes blur, and the narrative stops in its tracks before moving on again anew. The "I" appears in a variety of clearly distinct roles: "I AS HE. Difficult role. I as he, next to her"; "Me as him was also something I didn't understand that exactly either"; and then reversed, "he, as me"; and further, "me as a deputy hut warden"; and finally doubly transformed as "me as O. W. Fischer in the film Axel Munthe, the Doctor of San Michele - how do you find me? Not good? Yes, I also think I've been wrongly cast". Werner Kofler takes particles of reality and images from the media and introduces them into the literary text to bring about a certain "immediacy", but saves the text from becoming too totally "immediate" by a skilful breaking down of the narrative approach. The splintering into various voices makes the narrative person difficult to pin down, and certain central questions recur: Who is speaking? Who am I speaking to? What is the case? Writing is work which demands constant precision if it is to eliminate the merely genre-esque - as Kofler brilliantly showed in Kalte Herberge [Cold Lodgings] of 2004. The text is a confusing play of voices bracketed between the first and the last words ("I."; "No."). The truth, to which – as Bernhard said in 1966 – Austria would one day have to fall victim, can scarcely be fixed. Kofler thus follows a path which is consistent with the claim that art should go against – and not follow – the grain of reality. He runs amok among the scandalous states of affairs in his immediate and not-so-immediate environment – and the accompanying stupidity typically represented by tabloids such as the Kronenzeitung – peppering them with his verbal onslaughts.
Franz Haas, while noting that in his poetry of allusion Werner Kofler has successfully preserved Austria's public life and political model for the laughter of posterity, is however critical of the solipsism inherent in Austrian writing today. Journeys into other worlds represent one way out of the "closed circuit" in which critics and the objects of their criticism are more dependent on one another than is often apparent. The novel Finis terrae by Raoul Schrott and the large-scale project Grond Absolut Homer, both of which appeared in 1995, are certainly to be reckoned among the most interesting works of the last two decades and Austria does not feature in either of their itineraries.
In Finis terrae, Schrott's journeys to the ends of the world weld various narrative and temporal strata into an artful literary system situated somewhere between foreign territory and home ground, between the beginning and the end of a world, a culture, between beginning and end of life itself. The author presents himself in Romantic fashion as the editor of four notebooks from the estate of the archaeologist Ludwig Höhnel. The first is, in translation, the log-book of Pytheas of Massalia, "a Greek navigator and astronomer who discovered northern Europe in the fourth century BCE". His writings, so the author claims, were highly influential well into the Middle Ages and certain parts of them had circuitously found their way into later Utopian travel novels and even into Bürger's Münchhausen. The ancestry Schrott establishes thus places the novel firmly in a twilight zone between truth and lie. He is highly adept at building up a narrative and cosmic system in which the coordinates of the world-framework are determined by a number of different points of view.
Grond Absolut Homer has a production and reflexion system all of its own, based on Walter Grond's idea of a new Odyssey in the form of a kind of poetic relay race, an idea he had arrived at via the "portrait of the artist as a superannuated rebel", and current debates about today's book-publishing business. Drawing on concepts first formulated by Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys. Grond set up a project consisting of two parts, the first being an events venue in Graz and the second a travelling event which resulted in a collective novel, an Odyssey-travesty written by 21 authors. This collaboration takes Trieste and James Joyce's modern Odyssey as its starting-point and continues in double narrative movements across Europe and the whole world, with Circe living on the Lofoten Islands and the Sirens in Brazil etc., while the Telemachus-narrator in the part written by Walter Grond discovers Europe as a Museum of 20th-Century Atrocities. This gives a reason for all the other journeys, in the course of which fragments of a broken Europe are found all over the world.
Josef Winkler's version of the Odyssey takes him to India and combines the foreign elements he finds there, particularly the cult of the dead, with themes and motifs fundamental to Winkler's work – visions of decline and disintegration, physicality, ritual, communication in language. As Winkler shows at greater length in his novel Domra (1996), both the ceremonial on the Ganges and this stage of the Absolut-Odyssey are fertile ground for projections relating to our own ideas about life and death.
"Everything is different" is a phrase central to Austrian literature of the 1990s, as is "But that wasn't true". The "resistance" integral to the texts is connected with a socio-political crisis affecting the self and the self's relation to reality. At the forefront of this literature are conceptions which are reluctant to give up the subversive element in art and – particularly since the formation of the current ÖVP-FPÖ [People’s Party-Freedom Party] coalition government – an intellectual tradition in which aesthetics provide a substitute for morality and the language of poetry is understood as being the language of the "morally better" members of society. "But that wasn't the case," runs the last sentence of Alois Hotschnig's 1992 novel, Leonardos Hände (Leonardo's Hands, tr. Peter Filkins, University of Nebraska Press). A criminal becomes an ambulance driver to gain access to the clinics where he may seek out his guilt in the shape of his victim. For Kurt Weyrath took flight after causing a car accident in which a married couple died and their daughter Anna was seriously injured. This reality, imprinted on Weyrath's mind and also reported in a newspaper article, turns out not to be the whole picture - and thus a misleading facade. The novel also begins with a conditional and an inversion; it is an end that forms the beginning (the name of his supposed victim Anna is can be read forwards or backwards): "When someone dies, then here that means that he doesn't go shopping again. The newspaper is read from back to front, the last page first. Death notices." In the first sentence, dying is referred to in a circumlocution; this phrase appears again - as do numerous motifs in this complex text network - at a significant point, namely when Kurt Weyrath is, or so he believes, beginning a "new life" with Anna. At that point the first thing they do together is: "We are going shopping." In the light of the first sentence, what this means is: We are alive. The situation both at the outset and at the end also has validity as a language situation. At the beginning, the novel itself is constructed as a multiplicity of voices, with Anna's voice as she lies in a coma becoming ever clearer, a leitmotif call: "Get me out of here." The hands given a prominent position in the signify communication positions, and life and death positions; their gestures punctuate life's phases. The central passage in the novel gives a thoughtful description of the painting by Leonardo, "The Annunciation", in the Uffizi. This scene compresses the linking of past and present, of signs and stories, of image and layers of consciousness. For Anna, the drug addict art history student, these pictures give meaning to her life. "For me," she explains in front of Leonardo's painting, "the world takes place in these hands." From the point of view of the end, the last sentence, of course, is the answer to the whole novel's narrative ...
In the mid-1990s, a literary world that was still in one piece seemed to be a thing of the past. Even what the theatre produced was based on what were quite clearly fragments. The two places associated with a certain order in dramatic production and reception in Austria in the 1980s are the Burgtheater and Heldenplatz. Burgtheater by Jelinek (1985) und Heldenplatz by Bernhard (1988) both took a far-reaching look at a thoroughly repressed past and consequently incurred the disfavour of wide sections of the public. After these plays, the theatre had significantly less potential to stage conflict, or to put it another way, the conflict became that much more predictable, so that the likes of Peter Turrini had to lay it on all the thicker in his "shock theatre".
Back in 1979, Ernst Jandl's spoken opera Aus der Fremde [From Strange Lands] which is set in the subjunctive throughout, had presented word-images of the indirect from the greatest distance imaginable. Since the beginning of the 1990s, Werner Kofler's and Antonio Fian's "dramolettes" have adopted the opposite extreme. They are not so much intended for a theatre audience as for a readership and indeed read like direct broadcasts from what seems to be the greatest possible proximity to everyday life in the public realm. They present scenes from the reality conveyed by the media, take particles of reality out of context – alienating them by confronting them –, flashing a spotlight on the overweening weaknesses and pettiness of public figures straining after political stature.
The dramatically radical plays of Werner Schwab tell of a horribly broken world presented in senseless talking about irrelevancies. The content is deliberately dilute, language is stretched to the extreme and overlaid with discursive forms. Speeches to do with relationships are pornographic at root, a feature which is also apparent as part of a choreography of world-disintegration in Marlene Streeruwitz's New York. New York (1993) and in Jelinek's Raststätte oder Sie machens alle (1994) [Rest Stop or They're all at it], which is set in a WC. The setting for New York. New York is that of tourism and the underworld – it takes place in a urinal dating from Austria's imperial past. The entrance lobby of this Viennese gents lavatory is an ante-room to Limbo; here the effluent of a modern-day Letzten Tage der Menschheit [Last Days of Mankind] is excreted as a variété revue. The lavatory attendant reminds us in her name, Horvath, of the Tales from the Vienna Woods, which present a violent collision of different worlds. Situations are "set up", stage-realities no longer hang together and are underlaid with excerpts from film sound-tracks. The disintegration of language is paralleled by a whole range of images of decay and horror from everyday life. The lavatory attendant is, according to Marlene Streeruwitz, the only figure who "maintains an unequivocal identity"; otherwise New York. New York presents us with an array of mutable and unreliable characters, including a pimp whose name is reminiscent of that of a former Minister of the Interior, a university professor who has a manic propensity for smashing up lavatory bowls, and a tour guide by the name of Sellner with a group of Japanese tourists masquerading in traditional Austrian costume. Sellner explains that the convenience was opened in 1910 by Emperor Franz Joseph himself: "It is told that he pissed in here and said: 'It was very beautiful. I was very pleased.'" and a Japanese chorus repeats the Emperor's habitually used phrase in English.
Everything is fake, everything is pose. Marlene Streeruwitz delivers a vehement rejection of traditional Austrian stage production – the double-headed imperial eagle has gone down the toilet. The places where symbols are at their densest and most telling are no longer Heldenplatz or the Burgtheater; their place has been taken by Anglo-American names for a society predicated on virtual switching.
The drama Ocean Drive – unexpectedly, given the title – crosses mountain sagas with the Austria-myth, with musical theatre and Greek tragedy. Elizabeth Maynard, an ageing film-star, having bought an Alpine peak, has herself lowered onto a nearby glacier to give an interview to star reporter Leonard Perceval. The whole piece is a linguistic and dramatic ballet of interferences, setting up collisions between the apparently alien and the ostensibly familiar. Gert Jonke's literary work builds on interferences in many different ways. Jonke uses the backdrop of alpine mythology against which to set his drama Es singen die Steine [The Stones are Singing], premiered in September 1998 at the Stadttheater Klagenfurt. In a refined genre mixture composed of Greek tragedy, fairy tales, criminal history, science fiction and political didactics, Jonke plays on the farces of both Nestroy and Raimund, the Brothers Grimm, Peter Handke, Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo, and, in his subtitle "A piece of nature theatre", also on Kafka. What is presented as "nature theatre" turns out to be highly artificial. Jonke's symphony in sounds and words revolves around a person named Wildgruber, which was at the same time the name of the lead actor in the Klagenfurt production. This comical Kaspar Hauser figure, thrown into the world quite literally like a stone at the beginning of the play, finds himself at the centre of a variety of liberation ventures, in a "civil war" between a people of theatre directors and eco-freaks on the one hand, and unscrupulous powermongers on the other; Wildgruber himself appears in three forms, as a grown-up, as a child, and as a famous actor. The characters, images, and models appear in fractured form, and Jonke gives his own answers to the clichés (particularly the alpine ones). There is no alpine sunset, but an "evening-red-light-infection", which "bespatters and covers the highest peaks of these mountains with sunlight that has become much too dirty"; the echo discovers a mind of its own and "Wanderer" hears it blasting back "You idiot", before finally making the mountain rocks roar without being roared at first - the stones are singing.
If one can but distance oneself a little from the official and generally accepted proclamations of what constitutes the "canon", it has since the 1980s become ever clearer that what is known as the "avant-garde" is first and foremost a natural concomitant of the literary scene. Ever since the 1960s, "progressive" poetry had been simply defined as that which was against all that was "reactionary". As it succeeded in becoming accepted, "critical discourse" was often used as a front for strategies to facilitate the proponents' own hold on symbolic power. The recognition accorded in the 1970s to the quite outstanding authors associated with the Graz "Forum Stadtpark" – with Peter Handke as its internationally acclaimed star author and Alfred Kolleritsch as its "governor-in-chief" – was to a large extent due to a group dynamic, which propagated its own history as a redemptive story of its own progressivity and "resistance".
The narrower the artistic field, the more coherently it can suggest a literary canon. There is a certain automatism built into an idea of art which works along these lines; once a certain acceptance has been achieved, then success is all the easier. This tautological aesthetic – "we are artists, therefore art is what we artists create, therefore we are artists" – functions within a discourse of (self-)praise, which Pierre Bourdieu considered to be detrimental to analysis. Art is the fetish which separates the believers from the non-believers and the "doxa" is in the hands of the creator-prophet and his circle of commentator-disciples. Following Bourdieu's analysis, which I can here only render in its roughest outlines, the message preached by the "doxa" is that there is another world far more mighty than the social world, namely that of the language of art. What is extraordinary about Austria is that artistic posturing (such as that of Peter Rosei, Helmut Eisendle or Alfred Kolleritsch) also passes for political engagement; the above literature which was accorded such recognition was, after all, heralded as representing a "poetics of resistance".
Marianne Fritz seems to me to represent a phenomenon with a particularly significant place in this canon consensus. The object of the book she is currently engaged upon is the total liquidation of the great Austrian legitimisation narrative; ever since 1985, when Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst [Whose language you don not understand] appeared, she has been working on her "fortress project", of which two parts have already been published – Naturgemäß I (1996) and Naturgemäß II (1998) – amounting between them to no less than 10,000 pages. This experiment against traditional narrative patterns is set around the Przemysl fortress and deals with the fragmentation of worlds at the beginning of the First World War. Fritz's apologists constantly resort to such criteria as "unswerving purpose" and "obsession" as critical standards for texts which hardly anyone has read, thus availing themselves of the myth of the "great oeuvre", consecrating Fritz herself as a mythic writing machine. Vienna now has a "Marianne Fritz Study Circle" which now offers "help in conquering the text" – after all, an art brought forth by high priests cannot do without its faithful acolytes. Some of course have raised objections to all this, notably Uwe Schütte in 1999: "How is that none of the philologists who take Fritz's side sees that there is a contradiction between the enlightened intention which they constantly praise to the skies (that of writing counter-history from the point of view of the disadvantaged and oppressed) and the totalitarian net result, namely books which are, both for financial and intellectual reasons, only accessible to an elite circle of readers?". Literature as private myth, art as cultural myth – through the bestowal of recognition, a cultivated elite allows an artist to exist, and the artist in question collaborates in maintaining the existence of the elite. This kind of circular logic and this elitism are two powerful reasons why art can be used so effectively as hallowed façade and moral authority.
The power of discourse is made manifest in state prizes and expresses itself by setting up bounds which may not be passed – one may, for instance, not "go back" beyond Musil, Broch and the like. An inadmissible attitude to narration is thought to be lying in wait in this forbidden territory, an approach which is too content-orientated by far and fails to take account of the fractures of modernism. In the last few years a number of younger authors have consciously distanced themselves from the kind of attitudes which, too much engrossed with formal consideration, not infrequently degenerate into elitist posturing.
Walter Grond's 1998 novel Der Soldat und das Schöne [The soldier and the beautiful] shows up the links between art and power in a carefully assembled mosaic of inner views of gossiping intriguers who bring down a recently-appointed arts centre president. Grond's intention is to tell his story from the very depths of a cultural enterprise gone cynical, to portray the realities and shabby accommodations in his own profession. His volume of essays Der Erzähler und der Cyberspace (1999) [The narrator and cyberspace] expounds literary accessibility as being rooted neither in the formal sphere nor in the work's aura, neither in the artist as visionary nor in the artist as sufferer. The post-avant-garde writer is rather challenged to describe "what social reality looks like under the new circumstances determined by the communications revolution". Grond's novel Old Danube House, which appeared in summer 2000, takes the reader into worlds of cultural mélange and into a variety of alien territories. Johan Nichol, Professor of Physics, encounters in Vienna the desires of his young wife, the rave-and-Linux culture of his students, a colleague's all-male Catholic fraternity, and a Bosnian mentor. His past catches up with him at a congress in Moscow, where he is confronted with international networks and the reality of the post-communist world. On the Internet he hears about the mysterious suicide of a physicist in post-war Sarajevo, which proves to be the meeting-point for a various tracks and extreme opposites. It is perhaps worth adding that the novel's themes and the questions it asks were used as the basis for a multi-layered hypertext in the Internet salon [house],"on alienesses and peripheries" (www.kultur.at/3house), which in turn is the starting point for paths leading out all over the (virtual) world.
The figure of the physicist is also a reference to the role of the natural sciences in contemporary cultural transformation and has an implicit relevance for the mode of narration. Going quite against the grain of the accepted view ("back no further than Musil") that complex and fragmentary worlds can only be narrated in a complex and fragmentary way, Grond makes the observation that in view of the enormous complexity of their fields of research, natural scientists are compelled to communicate in language derived largely from everyday experience and in a plain, straightforward narrative style. With his novel Almasy, Michael Grond presented his readers with a literature which depicted figures, plots and networks of relationships, while at the same time attempting to bridge the gap between the history of ideas and technical recombination under the sign of the digital code. After conducting his own research, Grond came to see the Austro-Hungarian aristocrat Ladislaus E. Almásy, who as a desert fanatic provided the model for Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, as much more than just a split personality - in Grond's view, the events bound up with that bizarre character constitute nothing less than the genesis of our present day. He tells the story of this genesis in a number of taut episodes which together form a multifarious web of forms, norms and figures floating between occident and orient, between the progressive and the archaic, between attraction and repulsion. Grond interlocks the thirties and forties with our own day increasingly as he writes. A young product manager from Vienna has been engaged by a Cairo automobile manufacturers to organize the marketing of the "Almasy", a new four-wheel drive, and becomes increasingly fascinated not only by his Egyptian-Austrian interpreter and the old Canadian woman Hana, but also of the spell of this exotic land's history, and above all of the stories of and around the historical figure of Almásy himself.
A physicist is also the protagonist in Daniel Kehlmann's Mahlers Zeit [Mahler's time], which was published in 1999 and gives an enigmatic account of a thrilling story. David Mahler dreams that he has found the four formulae which can reverse the direction of time. This is the beginning of a plot which is interspersed with flashbacks – the narrative reversal of time – and which finally leads to the physicist meeting his own end, having believed all the while that he could avoid the inevitability of death. Daniel Kehlmann has created a splendid figure of vanity from the world of art in his novel Ich und Kaminski (2003), the first-person narrator Zöllner, who is so nauseatingly pushy that his many faux-pas seem to him to be strokes of genius - even in the title, he is already making a show of his ego. He wants to write a book about a famous painter who has retreated to live in a remote Alpine settlement, and is hoping that the aged master will die at the right moment for his own publication to benefit from the publicity. Like many another young man in literature, he travels the steep road up into the mountains - but not in order to learn. He is, rather, the seeker-hero, but in a highly unpleasant guise, constantly seeking to impose himself on all and sundry. Kaminski, well-thought-of by Matisse and Picasso, became famous with his series of pictures "Reflections", a system of mirror-images opening up "silver-grey paths to infinity", and with his contribution to a New York pop art exhibition, "The interrogation of St Thomas", sub-titled "painted by a blind man". In the success-story of the blind painter and his mysterious blind spots can be detected allusions to the questions which run through the novel: What is true, what is visible, what can be depicted? "We have entirely false images in us," says Kaminski, who has indeed never made a success of his self-portraits, which now gather dust unfinished in his cellar-studio. If the biographer exalts the man he is writing about, it is only to exalt himself. In the end, however, Zöllner is brought low in no uncertain terms - in the sea, which destroys all trace of him and his former certainties. Kehlmann's sensitive story-telling embeds unexpected turns of events and purposely unresolved situations in a narrative flow which contrasts tellingly with Zöllner's insensitive pushiness; Ich und Kaminski is permeated with subtle irony, and is seasoned with interludes of high satire, notably a wildly funny vernissage scene.
At a recent forum entitled "Gespräch der Dreißigjährigen" ["Discussion among the thirty-year-olds"] – at which, incidentally, Marianne Fritz was accused of charlatanism – Daniel Kehlmann described those who "have for 40 years taken out exclusive rights on an unchanged notion of the avant-garde" as outmoded imitators. Bettina Balàka emphasized that narrative deconstruction has had its day, and Thomas Glavinic voiced his opinion that it was "clearly told stories" which were the most interesting works of world literature: "Story-telling is something which is possible all over the world except here, where it has been prohibited for 40 years. We can see where that has got them – no one reads them."
Glavinic, on the contrary, is an author who is being read. His debut novel Carl Haffners Liebe zum Unentschieden [Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw] was published 1998 and was voted Book of the Year in England. The story it tells, that of a world chess championship held in 1910 in Vienna and Berlin, is an exciting one, and is at the same time a precise character study. The introverted Carl Haffner, a genius of the defence, is intent on being considerate to everyone and a burden on no one. He is up against world champion Emanuel Lasker, who unexpectedly makes a blunder. Haffner does not want to win by taking advantage of this slip and reacts by going on the offensive during the decisive match. In this critical situation, Glavinic skilfully weaves together all the narrative threads – both of chess and of Haffner's life story – , affording the reader profound insights into the psychology of his characters.
This year Glavinic presented his own answer to tabloid headline culture with a novel entitled Der Kameramörder [The camera murderer], couched in the form of a report which reads like an attempt at the official style of a witness statement. The first sentence sets the tone: "I have been requested to write everything down." A couple are paying a visit to friends of theirs in Styria, but the peaceful relaxation of their Easter week is disturbed by the news of a double murder committed not far from where they are staying. A man has abducted three children and forced two of them to throw themselves from the tree-tops to a certain death below, even making a video recording of the cynical psycho-terror to which he was subjecting the children. The video cassette falls into the hands of a private German TV channel, who broadcast it (interrupted, it goes without saying, by the usual commercial breaks), which sets the wheels of media sensationalism in motion with all the attendant consequences: a massive police operation, mass hysteria, ghoulish tourism, politicians making their statements. The report made by one of the two visitors is to all appearances an accurate rendering of the events as they were observed to have happened, ostensibly sober and objective. The man not only remains nameless but also – in contrast to the increasing hysteria around him – emotionless. He appears from behind the sentences just as little as the murderer behind the camera and they both disguise their voices. His account is consistently cast in the plausible style of bureaucratic documents, right through to an ending which makes it quite clear to what depths this prose style can lead: "Every person is an abyss". Der Kameramörder is a work of suspense which at the same time gives a perceptive picture of certain social realities and insights into the depths of the human soul in the world of modern communication technology. A present-day work of Austrian literature does not necessarily have to be primarily concerned with the country's political situation, and if it happens not to, then it does not mean that it automatically lacks relevance or artistic excellence. In Wildwasser [Mountain Torrent], published in 1997, Paulus Hochgatterer has his first person narrator report on a couple and their refractory son, suffering greatly at his parents' hands. Caretta Caretta of 1999, a chronicle of adolescent vagaries, is also written from this perspective - the summer of 1998 sees the fifteen-year-old Dominic, who is receiving therapy in a home for delinquents, taking it into his head to try out a ticketless train trip to Paris. After disposing of the ticket-inspector and swiping a Colt automatic from two dubious characters, he activates the emergency brake and heads back to Vienna. There, while pursuing his various little improbities and involving himself in prostitution, he keeps his head above water in the midst of conflicts by fixing his attention on certain pictures of footballers and animals. Finally, Dominic makes his way to Turkey with his latest girlfriend from the home and a dying official from the judiciary, to see Caretta Caretta, the sentimental creature from which book takes its title, a tortoise supposed to be able to cry and credited with an unimaginably accurate sense of direction. Hochgatterer skilfully builds upon a construct which slowly reveals elements from the boy's earlier life, namely his brutal victimization by his stepfather and the latter's punishment. There seems to be a strange parallel co-existence between the adult world and the world of the young; in the same way, Hochgatterer's 2002 novel Über Raben [About Ravens] gives parallel accounts of a man teacher and a girl pupil who, while they do not actually come together, nevertheless meet tangentially at certain points. The profound perceptiveness of Hochgatterer's writing owes much to his well-judged use of metaphor, his narrative leaps and the fine differentiation of his language planes; in Eine kurze Geschichte vom Fliegenfischen [A Short Story About Fly-Fishing], published in 2003, he has perfected an apparently sober narrative style which nevertheless proves capable of revealing great depths when the author chooses to prompt it to - three men spend a day by a river, and the day, as the first sentence reveals in passing, just happens to be September 11, 2001 ...
The Salzburger Karl-Markus Gauß makes an entirely new kind of link between social realities and literature. Von nah, von fern ["From near, from far"] is the name of his "annual book" for 2003, a continuation of the world-explorations of this mighty master of the written word. The sixteen chapters depict and reflect upon events and characters, upon injustices and the just, strange things and estranging things, sayings and words. Its opening sentence, "My grandfather had a suitcase full of money and was poor," could equally well be a kick-off line for a novel. The beginning is set two generations back in the family history which itself forms one of the volume's leitmotifs. The grandfather is of German extraction and a native of the Vojvodina; in his lifetime, his homeland underwent numerous changes of territorial identity, rule and rulers, involving him in a sequence of money-changing transactions which lead to his ending up in 1947 as a refugee in a Bavarian village with a suitcase full of obsolete Hungarian pengö. After a little reminiscing on the details, Gauß turns his attention to an array of charlatans and tricksters. He conducts a close examination of facades put up by the media, of party political slogans and of the buzz-words of the powerful, and has hair-raising stories to tell of the doings of the unscrupulously calculating. One of his principal themes is identity, particularly - with the Euro and the grandfather having a heavily symbolic contribution to make - in the Europe of the EU, and, on the other side of the coin, further to the East. Just as he did in his 2001 book Die sterbenden Europäer ["The dying Europeans"], Gauß speaks on behalf of the "little peoples"; in addition, an array of individual sketches are combined with finely drawn short anonymous personality studies under the rubric "Characters" to make Von nah, von fern into a veritable portrait gallery from past and present.
Gauß's finely-chiselled discourse is seismic in character and has Central and South-Eastern Europe for its epicentre. Gauß succeeds in setting the seemingly peripheral off against the essential, creating an analytical narrative out of the two perspectives. His concern is to bring together facts and fictions into a composition more far-reaching than any of its component parts. The pluralism of essayistic-literary forms cultivated by Gauß in his books is thoroughly artistic - the resulting work of art is diary, philosophical novel and almanac in one, very much a form for our own day.
Norbert Gstrein's chosen theme is a terrible reality almost on Austria's border, only a couple of hundred kilometres away, a reality which has been a fact of life in a large part of the Balkans since the beginning of the nineties. His novel Das Handwerk des Tötens (2003) [The Craft of Killing] tells the story of Christian Allmayer, a journalist from Tyrol who was shot in Kosovo while working for the German media. This ingeniously many-layered novel is written from a posthumous perspective, that of a distant friend of Allmayer's reporting on research into the event conducted by another friend. One main focus of the novel is on the question as to how we in our own countries can tell a story about a phenomenon which we can hardly imagine, or even begin to understand – war. The dedication at the beginning of the volume is pure poetry – it calls to mind a person, "about whose life and death I know too little to be able to tell his story." As the work came into being, this postulate clearly lost its literal validity, a fact for which Gstrein offers an explanation in his slim volume of 2004, Wem gehört eine Geschichte? [Who does a story belong to?], which considers, "how a new kind of reality is constructed when a story is told". While many of the reviews were generous in their praise of Das Handwerk des Tötens, a few critics charged it with dishonest representation of reality. But as Gstrein explains in Wem gehört eine Geschichte?, his way of going about writing is one which expressly emphasizes "the constructed character of all reality", an idea which is also fundamental to his magnificent 1999 novel, Die englischen Jahre (The English Years, tr. Anthea Bell, Harvill Press). In the figure of Christian Allmayer he gives a penetrating picture of the archetypal experience of an ostensibly non-participant observer of war. The stories and myths that come out of the rubble and debris of former Yugoslavia remind Gstrein of the everyday aggressions of his own native land, so that he is able to see his novel as a part of the story of his own background and origins, thus avoiding the danger, "of writing about the horrors of war as if such things were only possible in the Balkans."
This part of the world is also the setting of the gripping story Engelszungen [Tongues of Angels], published in 2003, by Dimitré Dinev, a German-language writer who came to Austria from Bulgaria in 1990. One by one, a helpful Pole sends two desperate Bulgarians from a gaming hall in the Prater to Vienna's central cemetery to the grave of the Serb Miro, assuring them that this "angel with the mobile phone" is the only one who can help immigrants in desperate situations. Svetljo and Iskren meet up at the cemetery, where it turns out that they and their families have run across each other in the past, in Plovdiv. This lengthy and powerful cemetery scene gives Dinev the opportunity to give a retrospective account of where they have come from, two parallel family sagas running along paths which intersect, both in the principal strands of the story and in the most minor sub-plots. At the same time he presents a history of Bulgaria after the First World War and accompanies the reader into a world at once distant but also close at hand, a world which will ring familiar bells in the mind of the imaginative reader.
Franio, a volume of precise and taut prose likewise nourished by images of the Eastern past, was the book which in 1994 brought celebrity overnight to Radek Knapp, a Viennese Pole writing in German. Knapp takes story-telling traditions, such as the village story tradition, and gives them a new flavour and present-day substance. The skilfully depicted scenes, in which the everyday often leads on to the transcendental, are borne along with a refined wit and a tinge of melancholy; the German-speaking reader is transported into a world which for all its foreignness is all that far away and finally turns out not to be all that foreign either. The stories are set in the Polish village of Anin, where everything is so small that even the clouds floating over Anin are "thinner than elsewhere". In Julius geht nach Hause, Julius the pastry-cook, walking home one evening, looks in through the windows and wonders to himself "how one could possibly become happy here"; he himself makes some of his customers happy in a small way. Franio, who gives his name both to a story and to the volume as a whole, has tried his luck elsewhere but returns to the village as a highly talented entertainer. The story thus finds its way out of the microcosm, and then back to it again. This motif of the journey and of life in a foreign environment was a continuation from previous writing by Radek Knapp. Herrn Kukas Empfehlungen (1999) [Mr Kuka's Recommendations] is a novel about the rogue Waldemar, who is making his way to the "golden West" on a cheap Polish bus-trip; in Papiertiger we find a tragi-comic Pole in search of his vocation, clearly in Vienna, ending up becoming a writer – one story leads to another.
Since February 4th, 2000, Austria has had a coalition government formed by the populist far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the conservative People's Party (ÖVP) under Wolfgang Schüssel. This political situation has led to those writers best-known in the media being traded upon as moral authorities and their books are indeed conspicuously concerned with well-worn political issues. The intense concentration on Austrian issues that has been a feature of the literature of the past two or more decades has hitherto generally met with good will among critics abroad, but is now, particularly in Germany, dismissed as mere genre writing. In the German reviews of the novel Gier [Greed] by Elfriede Jelinek, there was criticism of the "childlike self-aggrandizing tendency" of certain Austrian writers to "dump their emotional junk". These belletrists, claimed the critic of Die Zeit, were so narcissistically in love with hating that they believe the whole world to be evil. For that critic, Jelinek is a "typical Austrian", whereas in her own country she finds herself written off by the FPÖ as an "Austria-hater".
Those who are tempted to see a general tendency towards "solipsism" in Austrian literature overlook numerous works that demonstrate remarkable diversity. One particularly finely nuanced writer is Gerhard Amanshauser, whose Mansardenbuch (1999) [Attic book] is couched in concise, subtly ironic prose of exceptional precision. The detailed observations and concise tours d'horizon made from Amanshauser's poetic home above Salzburg provide the matrix for imagery which captures apparently everyday things in a quite new, and yet soberly factual, way; for example his way of referring to a birthday ["Now is the seventieth circling of the sun."]
Melitta Breznik uses a precise network of motifs in her writing; the character studies in her short stories Figuren (1999) are soberly drawn but give penetrating and detailed pictures of people in their social context. The moments she chooses are mostly unspectacular, points of isolation, fragments from lives that have gone wrong, stories of failure, humiliation and alienation.
Lydia Mischkulnig chose a significant setting for her novel Hollywood im Winter (1996), a variation on the Oedipus theme, an artists' tragedy in which a number of textual layers are cleverly woven together into a consummate poetic whole. The immensely rich Tauschitz, who lives in the Salzburg Festung (the fortified castle which dominates the city), buys up Salzburg's whole cultural operation. At the same time he "stages" the upbringing of his son Caesar, who finally plays the title role in Oedipus Rex, the climax of the Festival. Both the theatre of life and theatre-life are set in the framework of a game of power and relationships. The "I" is constantly on stage, art is at the service of stagings in which money is the prime concern and the elite artists – the chosen ones – are rewarded by being allowed to live in the tower of the castle, itself a symbol for the power of big business. The relationships between the Tauschitz parents and their children also revolve round the tower – the symbol of potency – which is a central part of the all-important "dove" metaphor. In the tower, their little daughter Antonia looks through a slightly open door to witness her mother rocking to and fro naked on the genitals of the famous director Berg, while her father looks on, accompanied by an American couple: "And Mother Edith coos away, with a strange man underneath her". For Antonia this cooing becomes a complex from which she is unable to break free. "The theatre has a false bottom, and so does Caesar" is a sentence from the beginning of the novel; true to form, in the second part it turns out that it was actually Berg who fathered the rich man's son. Theatrical parricide follows in a scene with multiple layers of meaning, and Caesar, after a massive success as Oedipus Rex, goes to Hollywood, thus putting out not his own eyes but the eyes of art. Salzburg is of course in reality not so far removed from these kind of productions.
Barbara Frischmuth's Die Schrift des Freundes (1998) [The Writing of a Friend] is political detective story and multicultural society novel set in Vienna, and a work in which the unfamiliar and foreign, although it is to be found on one's doorstep, is not so easy to pin down. Anna Margotti, a young Internet specialist who has been engaged by the Minister of the Interior to set up a computer program to store information on all the country's minorities, falls in love with a Turk, Hikmet, who belongs to the Alevite movement and is considered a dangerous extremist by the police. The written scripts of different levels of reality in this novel have many features: the testimony of the restrictive policies applied to foreigners in Austria, of the cool dialogues of the computer generation, or of Barbara Frischmuth's well-known transition zones from the real to the transcendental, to the realm of dreams and fairy-tales. "The friend's writing can", explains Frischmut in an epilogue, "represent the fate of the friend; in all Islamic lands, writing on the forehead signifies that individual's fate. The friend is at the same time a synonym for Ali, who according to mystical teaching was considered to be the incarnation of Allah. But the whole world is contained in the writing."
In a short story by Irene Prugger, Verliebte Tiroler [Tyroleans in Love] Lisa is working as a short-term waitress at a Tyrolean funfair when she has an encounter with the unfamiliar and foreign in the person of a Turkish shopkeeper, just after she has found out that she is pregnant. Nackte Helden [Naked Heroes] is the title of the volume of fifteen short stories Prugger published in 2003 with the subtitle "und andere Geschichten von Frauen" ("and other stories of women"), a subtitle which points out a constant perspective, that of various female standpoints as they strip the male heroes of their showy and boastful guises. The relationships between the sexes bring disillusionment and cold-heartedness, even hatred. Lisa cannot in the end bring herself to feel attracted to the Turk. What does he have to offer her apart from a little grocery store? "Great cultural differences," she says to herself. On the one hand, she is prepared to believe the long chain of grandmothers and mothers for whom love was "a constantly disciplined effort to find common ground"; on the other hand, in one version, she lets him go back towards his village at the end of the funfair: "She saw him - how else could she have seen him? - missing the village, and wandering through a desert for a thousand and one nights." The myth told differently - we are to imagine that Odysseus had never gone off on his travels. In Irene Prugger's short and highly concentrated story, Heimkehr [Return Home], Odysseus's wife Penelope feels that she is to blame for the "great missed opportunity" and for the fact that her hero husband's life is no more than a life that might have been. This scene from a marriage presents staying at home as something terrible. What would Penelope not give for "that sweetly painful desire which was denied her because he stayed at home."
Abrauschen [Flying Off] is the title of Kathrin Röggla's 1997 short novel. A young woman is living with her child - there are some allusions to the possibility of a kidnapping - in Berlin, wants to buy a flat in Salzburg, takes (thought-) flight and finally returns to Berlin. In short sequences, an "I" puts together impressions from a shimmering urban landscape and a TV-computer-Internet-mobile world. Kathrin Röggla builds phrase montages and makes composites out of bits of jargon; a fast-moving "world à la photocopy procedure" is translated into a language "à la photocopy procedure". In her 2004 novel wir schlafen nicht [we do not sleep], Röggla gives a voice to the economic lives of our day by making montages of those initiates of the new economy who no longer know the joys of sleep and whose dreams revolve around money. These start-up-slaves, as interviewed by Röggla, are also the characters in her play Junk Space, which was premiered in Graz in autumn 2004. The situation is a seminar for managers suffering from fear of flying, and the title gives the setting away - Junk Space is a non-place, a space without function or significance, the space in front of an escalator, for example. Jargon conceals hard reality - what is talked about is "staff concentration", but what is really meant is "redundancies". In her work, Kathrin Röggla shows the rifts in the relationships between enterprises and human beings, between society and the individual.
By way of conclusion, I would like to demonstrate the great variety in contemporary Austrian literature by looking briefly at poetry written since the death of Ernst Jandl (without doubt the most outstanding poet of recent decades) and focusing on four very fine, and very different, poets.
What language does is to open and close the window to understanding, explains Ferdinand Schmatz in his programmatically-titled book of 1992, Sinn und Sinne [Sense and Senses]. What the poetic subject now has to do is to shift modern word-fields around, to dislocate our linguistic images of the world, even to the extent of applying this to original texts. Schmatz was one of the writers who re-explored the Odyssey tradition in the 1995 project Grond Absolut Homer, and a few years later it was the Bible which provided the model for das grosse babel,n (1999) [the great babble,on]. Certain passages he recreates by taking existing figures of speech and manners of speaking and shifts them around, commenting on, expanding, paring them down, re-configurating the relationships and meaning:
babel wars und nun, was bleibt, gebrabbel, aber gross und weiter wird es fordern, zu wetzen den schnabel, sieh und höre: das grosse babel,n wird sich fort verschreiben
babel it was and now, what remains, mere babbling, / but great, and further it will demand / the beak be sharpened; see and hear: / the great babble,on will never stop writing its mistakes.
Here Schmatz has condensed the guidelines of the poetic strategy with which he contrives to traverse the spaces of language and of consciousness between the images that precede and the echoes that come after – the fractures within words and the bridges between words, and the fractures and bridges in grammatical structures (e.g. the comma in the title). This Genesis is accompanied by the bringing-into-being of a grammar and by the creation of a lyrical idiom, in which the interlock between the real world and language is particularly reflected in slight displacements (lichtung - richtung, zucht - frucht, hülle - fülle). The path over these shifting linguistic sands leads Adam and Eve to leave the cloud of uncertainty for the fullness of life – to go, reading the text à la lettre, from "NEBEL" to "LEBEN".
The first-person narrator is a poet from the town. He lives with his wife and his poet-friend behind Mount Hochwechsel, between the villagers and their noble lords – between "up there" and "down there" – but he finally plumps for "down there", behind the castles, whither he goes with his girlfriend. That is the narrative framework for Schmatz's novel Portierisch (2001) [an invented name, a "portmanteau" word: Portier - porter, concierge; tierisch - adj. animal, bestial], a poet's exploration of a new prose form. The literary principle of constant change between various levels (yesterday – today, inside – outside, head – body, poetry – mere punning, firm – free-floating) becomes a theme in its own right and comes into its own in a sensual, occasionally melancholy-ironic narrative which is in itself a study in the criticism of conventional models: "I am fed up with hearing doubts about language; when I do, I come up with a quotation from Courier". The very name of the American interlocutor, Courier, makes us think, among other things, of a font and of the pleasure we have in things that are cunningly put together. The process of naming and even the process of writing are caught in the novel's shifts – there are social, linguistic and geographical changes, slightly altered place names, word-changes and word-exchanges. Right from the outset, even the title Portierisch has to do with the problematic fragmentation of consciousness; and here it is Musil's "little words of narratability" ("when", "while") that play the role as it were of hinges that articulate the text.
While the appeal of this writing derives from form, speech and meaning being subjected to complex but systematic processes of dislocation, the attraction of the poetry of Maja Haderlap, who writes in both Slovenian and German, stems from the vividness of her concise and sharply-drawn images. Her Gedichte. Pesmi. Poems (1998) open and close other windows onto understanding, above all of the multiple possibilities of identity, of what is alien and what is a part of one's self.
einmal im jahr, wenn lesezeichen aus meinen büchern fallen
once a year / when bookmarks / tumble from my books
introduces the annual trip back to "my village" in the poem was war [what used to be]. The world of reading has taken the edge of the rural world but not obliterated its shadow: "upon the open pages / the stories turn yellow. / they have become legends / and laid down their weapons". In the fourth and last strophe, the groove of the stone "to remind me / of where I came from" corresponds to the "open pages" of the second strophe. Again and again, Maja Haderlap has her "I" seek places of refuge and temporary accommodation, and note images of splitting – a precise poetry of transitions.
The poems in Evelyn Schlag's volume Brauchst du den Schlaf dieser Nacht (2002) [Do you need the sleep of this night] describe the process of transience, ageing, a "landscape of memory", in poetic moments made up of small gestures and larger movements. They condense the motifs of drifting and of drifting apart, of flowing and flowing away, into a poetry of desire and loss. Two long central poems relate the beginning of an e-mail love (later finely recounted by Schlag in her novel Das L in Laura, [The L in Laura] published in 2003) when the Austrian poet Laura and the English poet David meet in Lisbon. The poems present a precise picture of a loose, shifting relationship between the writers and the city which is foreign to them, between time and perspective, between writing and reading.
In his volume of poems Indikationen [Indications], which appeared in autumn 2000, Gerhard Ruiss shows that there are a variety of poetic routes still open – far as he is from being an acrobatic depth-plumber of poetic hermeneutics. The point of departure for a number of his "indications" is not infrequently the kind of Austrian Realpolitik that tends towards the virtual, along with its slogans and claims. Ruiss the "ear-witness" draws on his acute political and artistic memory to make montages which show up the arsenals of well-worn formulas for what they are. One "occasional poem", for instance, picks up a phrase from the FPÖ party manifesto "Art is a private matter" and spins it out through to a final collision of catchwords:
gesundheit ist privatsache arbeit ist privatsache einwanderung ist privatsache wohlstand ist privatsache [...] öffentlichkeit ist privatsache lawinen sind privatsache der staat hat nur für die rahmenbedingungen zu sorgen.
[health is a private matter / work is a private matter / immigration is a private matter / prosperity is a private matter […] the public sphere is a private matter / avalanches are a private matter / the job of the state is simply / to provide the framework.]
Ruiss avails himself of a wide range of registers in these social poems, pictures of "things that are a private matter" from the media, the economy, the world of culture and urban life to love. Making use of popular sayings as well as Lichtenbergesque aphorisms, he captures quite new dialectic tones; what he creates is a successful combination of elements from Erich Fried and Ernst Jandl, as is shown by his poem on the jahrhundertsonnenfinsternis ["solar eclipse of the century"]:
- im entscheidenden augenblick
- war es
[at the decisive moment / it was / dark.]
Danksagung und Rechte
Die Veröffentlichung der Beiträge, die im Rahmen des Liffey Projektes erschienen sind, wurde mit freundlicher Genehmigung des Autors und des Literaturhauses Wien (http://www.literaturhaus.at/) ermöglicht.