This quirky anthology of essays, literary criticism and other fragments is unlikely ever to be translated into English, since it appeals to a very niche audience. This is a pity, because for the niche audience of readers fascinated by Viennese culture and psyche, it is a very enlightening and funny work indeed. It is also a sophisticated attempt to commemorate the year 2020, with all its fear, despair and odd little anecdotes.
Franz Schuh is the latest in a long line of public polymath intellectuals who seem particularly abundant in Central Europe. He is a philosopher, writer and essayist, editor of literary journals, and promoter of artists and writers. His latest book Lachen und Sterben (‘Laughing and Dying’) also shows him branching out into poetry and playwriting. A few of the pieces were previously published in newspapers or literary journals, but most of them were specially commissioned for this volume.
2020 was the year in which Schuh was hospitalised with a serious illness; he recovered but was then categorised as ‘vulnerable’ when the Covid-19 pandemic started. Although he claims the title of the book has nothing to do with Covid, most of the pieces in the book are about finding a way to cope with a sudden reminder of one’s own mortality. Schuh’s philosophy is that humour is the weapon you can use pre-emptively to remove the sting from the things you fear most – this symbiotic relationship between humour and death is something very typically Viennese, he argues.
In his essay about the concept of Viennese ‘Schmäh’ – usually translated as wit, sarcasm, dry humour mixed with charm – Schuh stipulates that, funny though it undoubtedly is, there is frequently something deeply unpleasant about Schmäh, a streak of cruelty, of enjoying the mockery of others. He sees this sarcastic humour as a typical response to the depressive spirit of the Viennese, their passive approach to life, their tendency to accept anything for the sake of comfort. The truth, even if they do not care to admit it, is that they feel powerless, so laughter becomes a way of asserting their strength or independence, a ‘weapon of the weak’ response to a deep-seated fear.
In addition to essays about fear and laughter, or critique of the gods of Austrian entertainment, such as TV personality Heinz Conrads or director Helmut Qualtinger, and pieces on writers Elias Canetti and Karl Kraus, there is the recurring theme of loneliness, very appropriate for the Covid-19 period but also perhaps for an ageing philosopher attempting to recalibrate his place in the modern world.
Reviewed by Marina Sofia
LACHEN UND STERBEN (‘Laughing and dying’)
by Franz Schuh
Published by Zsolnay (2021)
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Marina Sofia is a translator, author, editor and reviewer, who has never managed to shake off her Viennese accent when speaking German. She is also the co-founder of Corylus Books, purveyor of fine translated crime fiction with a social edge.
Read Marina Sofia’s #Riveting Review of LULLABY and ADÈLE by Leïla Slimani