Friday, 29 May 2015

Book Review: Yellow Street by Veza Canetti interwar period appears to have been a particularly creative time considering how many important artists it brought forth despite the poverty and misery that a great part of humanity had to face during those turbulent years. Also writers have been very productive in the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the German-speaking world and not least in Austria. And as can be expected many of them wrote about the vicissitudes of life that they saw every day in their neighbourhoods. Yellow Street by Veza Canetti is such a novel. Set in Vienna in the early 1930s it tells the stories of five ordinary women or girls living in a street where people know each other and where a great number of small (Jewish) shops provides the perfect environment for gossip.

Veza Canetti was born Venetiana Taubner-Calderón in Vienna, Austria-Hungary (today: Austria), in November 1897. Although suffering from a physical defect – she had no left forearm so her hand was joined directly to the elbow – she had a rather ordinary childhood. In 1924 she met Elias Canetti whom she married only ten years later, when she had published her first short stories under different pen names in newspapers and collections. After 1934 her works were no longer eligible for publication since she was socialist as well as Jewish and her forthcoming first book Yellow Street: A Novel in Five Scenes (Die gelbe Straße: 1990) couldn’t be released as planned. In 1938 the Canettis emigrated to the U.K. In exile the author wrote the novel The Tortoises (Die Schildkröten: 1998), but soon gave up her literary ambitions in favour of translating to be able to support her husband. Veza Canetti died in exile in London, U.K., in May 1963. Some of her work was (re)discovered and (re)published after 1990. Apart from the two mentioned novels the collection Viennese Short Stories (1995) is available in English.

The inhabitants of the Yellow Street, which is inspired by the existing Ferdinandstraße, make the best of their petty existence in 1930s’ Vienna. They are the years of the world economic crisis and many in the Jewish neighbourhood have a hard time making ends meet. Some run small shops like Runkel, a physically handicapped and deformed woman of thirty-six who inherited a tobacco-shop and a soap shop from her father and provides for the living of her entire family. People dislike her not just for her repulsive looks, but also for her particularly cold and strict behaviour towards others. When one of the fussiest inhabitants of the street complains about her clerk in the tobacco shop, she has no scruples to dismiss the attractive girl although she stands hardly any chance to find another job. Also Mr. Iger is a shop-owner although contrary to Runkel he is popular with people in the street because he is known to be generous and helpful. His young wife, however, gets to know a completely different side of his character soon after their wedding and arrival in Vienna. As regards private expenses he is miserly and he beats up his wife (later their son too) for nothing. Mrs. Hatvany, on the other hand, has many trades. For a while she offers her services as an employment agent for domestic helpers, but as it turns out many of the jobs require being friendly with the employers or their guests to an extent that the often desperate job seekers find scandalous and unacceptable. Also Mrs. Andrea, a married woman and mother of a grown-up daughter, seems to be in danger to step into the trap of a notorious philanderer who noticed her in a café when she accompanied a singer on the piano to increase the family’s income. To her daughter’s surprise she proves to be much better prepared for his unwanted advances than she thought. And then there’s little Hedi who helps to collect donations for a children’s home and secretly hands the box with the money to her friend Helli who misses her mother and yearns for visiting her.

As reveals already its English subtitle, Yellow Street is a novel in five scenes. In fact, the author patched together five narratives which she had written and published previously using the yellow street of the leather merchants in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt with its yellow shop signs as a red thread. Consequently the novel doesn’t have a central plot, but there are five successive and quite independent stories which are interwoven mainly with the help of the common environment and its inhabitants who appear in several of them. Each one of the chapters is dedicated to a main female character from whose point of view the respective story is told and which carries – except The Canal – a title referring to the protagonist’s (evil) male opponent. The language of Veza Canetti is as concise as precise and always seasoned with a good dash of sarcasm which is characteristic of many Austrian authors of the time. The author’s sense of irony also shines through in the title because the shop signs are only one possible explanation for why the street is yellow. The colour can just as well be associated with emotions like envy, jealousy and anger… or with dog droppings. All characters are described in great detail and often with a touch of the grotesque which doesn’t ever prevent them from feeling authentic. It goes without saying that I read the original German edition which is a slim volume that I could easily have read within only one afternoon.

Summing up the experience, I can say that Yellow Street by Veza Canetti has been a pleasurable read and that I’m glad to have come across this novel of an Austrian woman writer who passed almost all her life in the shadow of her famous husband Elias Canetti. It’s a pity that so much of her literary heritage seems to be lost to the world due to the turmoil of emigration and World War II. At least I get the chance to recommend this book which allows an interesting glimpse at a world that no longer exists.

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