Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Spotlight on Austrian Literature

Undeniably, my country is one of the small ones in the world and thus uses to receive only little attention. This is particularly true as regards our literature since it is habitually merged in the creative production of Germany and not perceived independently. It’s often said that the number of Austrians among German-language writers were disproportionate, but my insight into the literary scene is limited and so I am not the one to tell if this is in fact the case. Besides, Austrian literature is difficult to define. Place of birth, residence, citizenship, language or the declaration of an author can serve as starting points, but this doesn’t necessarily lead to a clear result, above all as regards the era of the Hapsburg reign and the interwar period (1918-1938). 

Source: Wikipedia
The Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy (as from 1867; Austrian Empire between 1815 and 1867) happened to be a multiethnic empire although German was the official language used in all administrative bodies, including many schools and the army, from Eastern Galicia (now divided between the Ukraine and Poland) to the Vorarlberg, from Bohemia (now: Czech Republic) to the Balkans (now: Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina) and the Southern Tyrol (now: Italy). Even in the most remote regions of Austria-Hungary existed German speaking communities, not least because the Austrian nobility and wealthy families used to own estates in several of the crown-lands and to live there with their entire retinue during certain periods. Also civil servants, including teachers and army personnel, often moved about with their families due to transferrals to new posts in completely different parts of the monarchy. 

Under these circumstances a thriving German-language culture developed all across the territory of the Hapsburg monarchy with the cities as hot spots. The works of nineteenth-century writers like Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850), Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868), Anastasius Grün (1806-1876), Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916), Ferdinand von Saar (1833-1906), Leopold Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895), Ada Christen (1839-1901), the nominee of the Nobel Prize in literature of 1913 Peter Rosegger (1843-1918) and the Peace Nobel laureate Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914) were widely read not just in Austria, but also in Germany and further abroad. 

During the years around 1900 until the end of World War I the number of Austrian authors who made their literary breakthrough continued to rise and several of them turned out to be innovators of international importance. The most prominent names among them certainly are Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932), Hermann Bahr (1863-1934), Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), Karl Kraus (1874-1936), Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), Robert Musil (1880-1942), Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), Leo Perutz (1882-1957), Franz Kafka (1883-1924), Franz Werfel (1890-1945), and Joseph Roth (1894-1939)

During the war many people preferred to return to mainland Austria where they had come from, while others fled the atrocities at the Eastern front which also hit the civilian population there. When the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy eventually broke apart in the wake of World War I (precisely in autumn 1918 with the new borders being confirmed or established respectively in the Treaties of Staint-Germain-en-Laye in 1919 and of Trianon in 1920), the German-speaking communities were all of a sudden part of new nation states and officially separated from mainland Austria. At that point those whose native language was German weren’t subject to more exclusion than before, though, nor were they driven away from their homes. In fact, after World War I most authors who had survived continued just like before writing for German-language newspapers or publishing houses. Most popular among writers were the big cities Vienna, Berlin… and Prague. 

During the 1920s and 1930s Austrian literature was at its height. Writers like Vicki Baum (1888-1960), Paula Grogger (1892-1984), Veza Canetti (1897-1963), Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897-1976), Ödön von Horváth (1901-1938), Elias Canetti (1905-1994), Friedrich Torberg (1908-1979), Hilde Spiel (1911-1990), Gertrud Fussenegger (1912-2009), and Annemarie Selinko (1914-1986) joined the ranks of already well-established Austrians in the German-language literary scene. However, a considerable number of them were of Jewish descent and in the 1930s the atmosphere became increasingly hostile against them, first in Germany and then in Austria too. Therefore many found themselves compelled to leave Austria or Europe altogether to save their lives (and that of their families) and some never returned. 

It goes without saying that World War II meant a considerable brain drain for Austrian literature. Despite all, literary life soon revived, above all in Vienna, and many Austrian writers joined the so-called Group 47, a loose writers’ circle that was formed in Germany and existed until 1977. The Austrian post-war authors Ilse Aichinger (1921-), Milo Dor (1923-2005), Herbert Eisenreich (1925-1986), Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973), Barbara Frischmuth (1941-), and Peter Handke (1942-) were among its members. In 1959 an association of artists, scientists and other people engaged in the cultural sector founded the Forum Stadtpark in Graz which had and still has an important influence on Austrian literature since it brings out the most renowned German-language literary journal called manuskripte

The decades after World War IIsaw the discovery and rise of many more authors, most notable among them Fritz von Herzmanovsky-Orlando (1877-1954), Heimito von Doderer (1896-1966), Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1998), Marlen Haushofer (1920-1970),  Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), Gerhard Roth (1942-), Franz Innerhofer (1944-2002), the Nobel laureate 2004 Elfriede Jelinek (1946-), Michael Köhlmeier (1949-), Lilian Faschinger (1950-), Marlene Streeruwitz (1950-), Elisabeth Reichart (1953-), Erich Hackl (1954-), Robert Menasse (1954-), Daniel Glattauer (1960-), Norbert Gstrein (1961-), Maja Haderlap (1961-), Robert Schneider (1961-), Arno Geiger (1968-), Eva Menasse (1970-), Thomas Glavinic (1972-), and Daniel Kehlmann (1975-). 

Certainly there are many more authors whose names would deserve being mentioned here, but of course it was necessary to make a choice and I hope that I've made a good one! Several books of the authors listed above have been translated into English (and other languages) although not too many, I'm afraid. 

For a list of portrayed authors, reviewed books and revisited poems in German from Austria or Austria-Hungary »»» read Austrians & Their Writings.

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