Writer and comedian Stefanie Sargnagel (whose surname translates as ‘coffin nail’) became famous in Austria in the late 2000s for the sharp, witty social and political commentary – wrapped in a typically Austrian black humour – that she published on Facebook and Twitter.
Giving the underdogs a voice, and critical of Austria’s socio-political landscape, she became a literary icon for the social media generation. Excerpts from her online stories from 2008–2013, where she describes her time working in a call centre, the Viennese underground scene, or her crazy hitchhiking adventures, were published in book form with the title Binge Living: Callcenter-Monologe (2013).
The success of her very distinctive and timely writing helped her to achieve cult status amongst fans and launched her career as an author. In 2016 she was given the audience award of the annual Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and won several comedy awards between 2019 and 2022. The accolades keep on coming and her first novel, Dicht – described by the author as auto-fictional – was highly anticipated.
Vienna has often ranked high as one of the world’s rudest cities. Reading Stefanie Sargnagel’s book confirms this status. Sargnagel tells stories about the underdogs, the outcasts, and those who have been dealt a raw deal in life. Dicht is an account of Sargnagel’s youth in Vienna, growing up between subcultures, non-conformism, and protest. Classed as auto-fiction, this makes it hard for the reader to know what is true and where she might exaggerate or try to satirise or mask her own sadness about the truth. It reads as a very honest, but distanced account of an outcast coming of age by staring into the abyss – waiting for a monster to look back at her. But there are no monsters in this story, only lost souls, overwhelmed by a world they can’t or won’t fit into, always in search of their own place in the gaps between. The central story revolves around Michael who is diagnosed with AIDS and becomes an outcast. Stefanie becomes friends with him and it seems as though their journeys are similar, although they end differently.
Knowing her short-form written oeuvre and her critical commentary well, I am not surprised that the book does not read as sharply and as on point as her short-form writing. Although the acerbic Viennese sense of humour is enjoyable and fun, I would not count this novel as her best work. It is full of love for her oddball characters, but I can’t imagine the humour transferring to English without losing its original charm. While undoubtedly funny and the perfect long read for her fans, it lacks the freshness, excitement and perfect pitch of her other literary works.
Reviewed by Petra Freimund
By Stefanie Sargnagel
Published by Rowohlt (2020)
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Petra Freimund is a director, producer, cultural manager and dramaturg with over fifteen years of international experience working across the fields of art, media, technology and science to foster new imaginations and address current issues. She initiates and develops interdisciplinary cultural experiences and cross-sector collaborations based on storytelling.