The multi-talented Elias Hirschl, born in Vienna in 1994, is a spoken word artist, musician, playwright and novelist. His bestselling novel Salonfähig (‘Presentable’ or ‘Socially Acceptable’) featured in all German-language broadsheets and made Hirschl the go-to authority on the meteoric rise and spectacular fall in 2021 of Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s youngest ever chancellor. Kurz formed a first coalition with the far-right Freedom Party from 2017–2019, and the resonance of the German word Salonfähig implies that the use of xenophobic and fascist language had once again become socially acceptable, albeit in the slick guise of Sebastian Kurz.
When the second coalition of Kurz’s chancellorship, this time with the Green Party, collapsed after the publication of his social media posts detailing illegal media manipulation, and more, Hirschl’s novel, published some months earlier, seemed prophetic. Real life messages such as ‘I love my chancellor’ could have been uttered by the novel’s narrator, who idolises its young fictional chancellor, Julius Varga. The text’s quality and appeal does, however, go beyond the glittering surface of a roman-à-clef, and Kurz was not the sole inspiration.
Hirschl’s satirical and hilarious portrait of neo-conservative methodology and phraseology combine with a serious study of mental breakdown. The nameless narrator moulds himself after Varga by adopting his language and quite literally becomes him in a surreal and very funny final, and infinitely filmic, long take (but no spoilers!). The narrator craves authenticity, without any original thoughts or words whatsoever. All he can do is repeatedly post and spout ready-made factoids, which he disgorges at length to the irritation of recipients. One harrowing passage in the novel takes place in a toilet when he verbally barrages a survivor of the Shoah with empty words at a commemorative event in the former concentration camp at Mauthausen.
The novel was marketed as ‘Austrian Psycho’, referencing Bret Easton Ellis’s classic novel American Psycho. There are indeed many parallels, and Elias Hirschl himself explained in one interview that a scene at a concert is itself a parody of David Foster Wallace’s parody of Bret Easton Ellis (whom he disliked, and vice versa). Whereas American Psycho is lengthily and explicitly violent, Hirschl’s novel is rather a meta-analysis of how we deal with media reports of violence. The narrator and his colleague are obsessed with terror attacks and rate them on their aesthetic qualities, talking about the Red Army Faction’s ‘late style’, for example. Such passages transcend the framework of a satirical novel about neo-conservatives to reflect more broadly on the challenges of how we react to and represent violence in society and in the media.
Reviewed by Andrea Capovilla
Salonfähig (‘Socially Acceptable’)
by Elias Hirschl
Published by Zsolnay (2021)
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Andrea Capovilla is the director of the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre for Austrian Literature and Culture at the Institute of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of London. She has taught German-language literature and film at the Universities of Vienna, Oxford and Cambridge. Special interests are gender, exile and migration.