Friday, 9 May 2014

Book Review: Beautiful Days by Franz Innerhofer think that it’s again time to spread the word of Austrian literature for a change! To my regret, it’s a really big challenge to find something suitable in English translation although it’s often said that in proportion to the total population of my country the number of Austrians among successful German-language writers is amazingly high. Be that as it may, the English edition of the book that I picked for today’s review happens to be out of print while it’s available in German, French and Spanish. The novel was written in the 1970s by an author who lived in Graz and even had a small, not to say tiny book shop here for several years. However, with Beautiful Days by Franz Innerhofer I continue on the sad side of fiction with a strongly autobiographical touch.

Franz Innerhofer was born in Krimml, Austria, in May 1944. After a childhood marked by hard work on his father’s Alpine farm, he was apprenticed as a locksmith and attended evening school to pass the Matura. Afterwards he studied German and English at the University of Salzburg for a few years, but never graduated. As from 1973 he was a full-time writer and lived in Orvieto, Italy, and near Zurich, Switzerland. His first novel Beautiful Days (Schöne Tage) came out in 1974 and brought him considerable renown. Other autobiographical works, most notable among them Schattseite (1975), followed until the early 1980s. From 1980 on he ran a small bookshop in Graz and suffered increasingly from alcoholism. The writer tried a come-back in the 1990s, his work was received with negative criticism, though. Franz Innerhofer committed suicide in Graz, Austria, in January 2002 and was found dead in his flat only a couple of days later. 

Hiding behind the simple family name Holl, the author fictionalises in Beautiful Days his love-less and unhappy childhood on an Alpine farm in the mountains of Salzburg, Austria, shortly after World War II. Holl is an illegitimate child and treated as such from the very beginning. He spends his first six years on a small farm in the care of his unloving mother and her good-hearted husband. The family is growing and it gets increasingly difficult to feed all mouths, so she takes Holl to his biological father who has a big farm and is grateful for every cheap hand he can get to help. The boy is intelligent and very sensitive, but nobody cares, least of all his father who follows the example of generations beating their children into unquestioned obedience and emotional indifference. Holl suffers badly under the constant abuse, especially because he can’t understand the new rules and often finds them inconsistent. Before soon he begins to wet his bed in the cabinet adjacent to his parents’ bedroom… and is punished and humiliated for it. The boy’s days are filled with hard work from dawn to dusk like those of the other farm hands who are treated little better than slaves or serfs although they at least are paid petty wages. The father doesn’t care about Holl’s schooling and seldom leaves him time to study or at least do his homework, but he is too disheartened to make an effort anyways. When there is much work on the farm, he has to stay at home and ask the local physician for a certificate to justify his absence. In return for firewood the headmaster shuts his eyes to this practice. At some point the idea of killing himself (like so many others who are going through a similar hell) enters the boy’s mind, as he grows older, though, he is no longer willing to do the cruel lot pushing him around that favour. He goes on and turns into an unruly adolescent who is now big and strong enough to stand up against his father. In the end he manages to break free from the tyranny and becomes an apprentice to a locksmith.

In his (not too) fictionalised account of the Beautiful Days of his childhood Franz Innerhofer takes the place of a third-person narrator who can look at his protagonist’s life from a certain distance. The plot is marked by strong realism which also reflects in the author’s matter-of-fact language and unpretentious style. The description of events and the boy’s inner turmoil usually suffice to convey the immense suffering and desperation that cause the constant humiliation, corporal punishment and merciless exploitation of Holl by his father. The world in which the boy is doomed to grow up resembles much rather a hell on earth than the idylls of farm life and childhood which many (especially) post-war writers as well as film makers loved to produce until late into the 1960s. Franz Innerhofer doesn’t spare his readers a critical and blunt look at reality as he lived it, including all the mind-numbing cruelty and violence that he and many others had to endure, and yet, he manages to remain far from sentimental of accusing in his account. When the novel first came out in 1974, it received much critical acclaim – justly as I believe.

Reading Beautiful Days by Franz Innerhofer isn’t a cheerful experience, but it’s a powerful and impressive novel. The story absorbed me from the first page to the last and in my opinion it deserves being much more widely read. If you don’t mind a sad story and can lay hands on an English edition (or read the German original), you might enjoy this one.

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