The Austrian Riveter: Burning the Palace: Women Writing Austria by Eleanor Updegraff

From Elfriede Jelinek to Ingeborg Bachmann, Marianne Fritz to Friederike Mayröcker, the Austrian literary canon contains the names of many celebrated women writers. Known for their often postmodern, subversive approaches to literature – in both style and substance – they have helped to ensure that this Alpine nation has had an impact on German-language literature that its size might belie.

Now, however, a new cadre of female authors is taking centre-stage, continuing the genre-breaking, language-bending traditions established by writers such as Jelinek and Fritz, but also venturing into uncharted territories, exploring contemporary themes and new modes of expression to establish a literary canon all their own. With Austria Guest of Honour at the 2023 Leipzig Book Fair, and a slew of recent prize nominations confirming their repute, what better time to take a closer look at the women writing Austria – some of the boldest, most exciting voices in contemporary German-language literature.

Liquid Literature: Surrealism, Politics and the Past

Though, as with any national body of literature, it can be hard to define what exactly ‘Austrian literature’ is, one subject of particular importance to many of its authors is the country’s National Socialist past. The particular shape that reckoning with this period of history takes – or, rather, doesn’t take – in the national consciousness was famously set upon by writers such as Thomas Bernhard, Hans Lebert and Ilse Aichinger. Themes such as collective memory, inherited guilt and wilful suppression of the past continue to resonate loudly in contemporary literature, which often employs the same – sometimes even more pronounced – surrealist and allegorical approaches.

With its dark humour, dream-like tone and a good dose of ambiguity that asks its reader to do some work, Eva Menasse’s Dunkelblum (Darkenbloom, translation forthcoming by Charlotte Collins) offers a complex and chilling examination of Austria’s role in the Second World War – a topic about which Menasse has written before. In her fictional village of Darkenbloom, the very ground proves treacherous: a contentious excavation could bring to light evidence of mass graves from the 1940s, while increasingly porous borders take on an unsettlingly political aspect that can be extended to both Austria behind the Iron Curtain and the movement of people across Europe today. By holding up a mirror to the past, Menasse succeeds in also interrogating the present, with a strong message about accountability and collective silence.

Taking the surrealism up a notch, meanwhile – and making one of the biggest literary splashes in Austria of recent years – Raphaela Edelbauer’s mind-boggling Das flüssige Land (The Liquid Land, tr. Jen Calleja) also plays heavily with the ground beneath our feet to show how the past can be concealed but never entirely done away with. The Vienna-born author’s debut novel was shortlisted for the German Book Prize and firmly established her as a leading light in what could perhaps be termed ‘new Austrian surrealism’. 

While comedy and surrealism offer a powerful, sometimes shocking, lens through which to view the past, they can also help to make sense of the present, as shown by Elisabeth Klar. In Himmelwärts(‘Heaven Bound’), she blends fairy tale with reality to explore how those perceived to be outsiders are treated in a society that will not abide deviation from its accepted norms. Similarly, Mercedes Spannagel’s Das Palais muss brennen (‘The Palace Must Burn’), set in an absurd parallel present in which Austria has a far-right female president, is a fine example of one of the furious young voices calling for fundamental social and political change. Sharp-tongued, with a biting sense of humour that takes evident delight in undermining its narrator’s extreme anti-capitalist views, it is a creative examination of how intolerance at both ends of the political spectrum can lead to disaster – a rallying cry for dialogue.

Building on the firmly established Austrian tradition of the Anti-Heimatroman (anti-homeland novel), these varied works all mix surrealism with sharply realistic scenes to highlight the dangerous absurdities of the world in which we live, and how the past, as much as we may try to ignore it, is only ever a short way beneath our feet. But what of the overlap – often equally concerning – between present and future?

Slow Erosion: Climate Change and Dystopian Futures

It may not come as a surprise that Raphaela Edelbauer leads the way here too. Having made a name for herself by interrogating the past, she went on with her Austrian Book Prize-winning second novel, Dave, to deliver an unsettling visualisation of what is yet to come. Set in a dystopian future, Dave again uses surrealism and dark humour to great effect, calling into question what we think we know about the foundation of human experience – consciousness – and blurring the lines between the physical world and an absurdist dreamscape. Though artificial intelligence (AI) may be at its core, the novel draws on further themes such as community, loneliness and the morality of choice to explore how we interact with one another and our surroundings.

A different kind of dystopia appears in Lucia Leidenfrost’s Wir verlassenen Kinder (‘We Abandoned Children’), an unsettling view of a society ruled by children, reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. But while power struggles, isolation and the threat of an increasingly intolerant ‘we’ help drive the plot, there is a deeper, yet more disturbing element in play here: these children appear to have been abandoned because their country is at war. Published in the pandemic, Leidenfrost’s slender novel has become even more eerily prescient in light of the war in Ukraine.

Quite different in style yet no less haunting, Aufruhr der Meerestiere (‘An Uprising of Sea Creatures’) is the second novel by Marie Gamillscheg. Following her highly acclaimed debut, Alles was glänzt (‘All that Glitters’), which explored the slow erosion of community in a former mining village feeling the effects of urban migration, Gamillscheg pursues her recognisable style of prose – thoughtful, by turns economical and lyrical – to tell the story of a young marine biologist returning to her hometown of Graz. Concerned with the impact humanity is having on the natural world, it also explores distinctly female experiences: the struggles women face in the scientific community, and the narrator’s destructive relationship with her own body. Contrasting powerfully with Gamillscheg’s nostalgia-ridden tone, these challenging topics call to mind Elfriede Jelinek’s outspokenness about women’s bodies and sexuality, given a contemporary overhaul.

The Parts We Play: Family Dynamics and Women’s Roles

Joining Raphaela Edelbauer and Marie Gamillscheg as a unique, fearless new voice in Austrian literature, Mareike Fallwickl champions female narrators in both her own and others’ writing. Following an Austrian Book Prize nomination for her debut novel, Dunkelgrün fast schwarz (‘Dark Green Almost Black’), she recently released her third, Die Wut, die bleibt (‘The Rage That Remains’), in which women’s multifarious roles are examined intently, often from a rather discomfiting angle. Suicide, sexual violence and self-harm all loom large in this unflinching novel, but Fallwickl also disrupts classic tropes by creating a gang of vigilante women who enact retaliatory violence on men who harm women. With a strong sense of black humour and extremely contemporary edge (the novel is set during the pandemic), Fallwickl looks at the female experience in terms of broader social concerns, but also at the minute details of domesticity and family relationships.

Family dynamics, particularly from children’s points of view, have long been a subject of fascination for Monika Helfer, who has been publishing critically acclaimed works for more than four decades. Her most recent novel, Löwenherz (‘Lionheart’), is the conclusion to a trilogy that employs a potent blend of fiction and autobiography to tell the story of Helfer’s own family. In this final instalment, the author’s brother Richard is the main protagonist: a man both ordinary and extraordinary, whose tragic fate is balanced by Helfer’s cool prose and lightly ironic tone. Despite its brevity, Löwenherz captures complex relationships and also speaks to the process of writing, showing the author herself at work as she considers how best to convey certain episodes.

In Die Nachricht (‘The Message’) by Doris Knecht, we also meet a writer, this time fictional – though narrator Ruth is not without certain similarities to Knecht herself. This novel, too, is concerned with family dynamics, though of a gentler sort: following the death of her husband, Ludwig, Ruth finds herself borne up by family and friends. Knecht paints a rich and moving portrait of what it is to rebuild one’s life in the wake of tragedy, but also shines a light on female friendship, marriage, sexual violence and, specifically, how women are treated in the age of social media. As in her previous novels, trust and betrayal are important factors in the lives of Knecht’s characters. They are too for Laura Freudenthaler’s – particularly in Geistergeschichte (‘Ghost Story’), a novel with an imaginative premise that refreshes the love-triangle trope. Blending dreams and reality, Geistergeschichte also makes creative use of sound, becoming a lyrical, musical read that hints at female empowerment yet refuses to offer resolution.

Why Austria, Why Now?

For many of these writers, Austria provides a recognisable backdrop against which to explore universal themes. For others, the country itself is a stepping-off point from which to examine critically how society engages with the past, and how the long arm of history can inform the present. From Salzburg to Vienna to quiet countryside villages, all these novels express a distinctly Austrian flavour, yet at heart they highlight issues that go far beyond national borders, portraying the state of the country but also the wider human – and, in most cases, specifically female – experience.

Eleanor Updegraff

A version of this article was first published on the New Books in German website.

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