The Austrian Riveter: Giving Life to Objects. Austrian literature and the Literature Museum of the Austrian National library by Bernhard Fetz

The Literature Museum in Vienna is not simply a museum full of books or precious manuscripts, nor is it dedicated to a single author: it is a showcase of Austria’s rich and varied literary output, from the Age of Enlightenment to the present. It opened in an historic building in Vienna’s city centre in 2015. The building itself was constructed in the middle of the 19th century for the Imperial and Royal Exchequer Archive to store the Habsburg accounts and financial documents. Austria’s most important dramatist of the 19th century, Franz Grillparzer, was Director of the Archive from 1832–1856.

The museum’s unique ambience is largely due to the dark wooden shelves. Extending to the ceiling and dividing the large rooms into long sections across two floors, the shelves were originally used to store the royal accounts. When you walk in, you might be reminded of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s ‘Carceri’ or Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘Library of Babel’.

The museum’s permanent exhibition of 2,000 objects is intended to illustrate the diversity and polyphony of Austrian literature. Arranged in historical and thematic chapters, the selection highlights what we believe characterises Austrian literature: its close affinity with music, the visual arts and all forms of theatrical expression; its frequent use of the grotesque, satire and polemics. Short-form prose, with masterpieces by Hofmannsthal, Altenberg, Musil, Canetti, (Elfriede) Gerstl and the Viennese avant-garde of the 1950s and ’60s, contrast with long-form narratives of famous modernist authors such as Kafka, Musil and Broch.

Austria is a country proud of its cultural identity, whose self-image is to a considerable extent based on its cultural achievements. It distinguishes itself from its much larger neighbour, Germany, through its particular linguistic and cultural characteristics. Contemporary Austrian literature is informed by the multi-ethnic and multilingual traditions of the multinational Habsburg state, characteristics which persisted after its collapse in 1918. On show we have many examples of texts, from the Enlightenment to today, by authors involved in the early creation and critical analysis of national clichés and stereotypes, given valuable context by being set against the backdrop of Austria’s precarious geographical, political and historical realities which shaped its literary history. One important theme deals with Vienna’s relationship as a metropolis with the provinces on the fringes of the Habsburg Empire; another theme is the writing of those authors exiled under National Socialism. The loci of Austrian literature, therefore, also lie far beyond its borders, and may be found anywhere in the world, from Galicia in Old Austria to the Himalayas.

I have selected four examples to illustrate the wide range of objects displayed in the museum.

1. The work of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard (1931– 1989) represents an important contribution to world literature. On display is a pair of Thomas Bernhard’s work trousers. They were torn to shreds by a chainsaw during an accident and later saved for posterity by Bernhard’s neighbour, the real estate dealer Karl Ignaz Hennetmair. By labelling and cutting out the particularly damaged areas, the trousers were already a distinctive writer’s relic, even before they passed into the archive. The most direct reference to the accident, however, is made in Bernhard’s play Die Jagdgesellschaft (‘The Hunting Party’), which premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 4 May 1974. For long stretches, the play consists of a rhythmic dialogue between a writer and a general, determined by the card game, Twenty-one. The talk finally turns to the ‘Zwischenfall mit der Motorsäge’ (‘incident with the chainsaw’). Unlike in real life, it is not the writer who suffers the horrible accident, but the general, who is also the owner of a huge area of forest infested by bark beetles. In the museum, the trousers therefore demonstrate a missing link between Bernhard’s life and work.

2. She was surely unique: writing and living were not separate for Friederike Mayröcker (1924– 2021). Interweaving them was the prerequisite for her poetic life’s work. In her books, notes of conversations, literary quotations, remnants of dreams, and visual and acoustic impressions blend and form dense texts. Particularly noteworthy is Mayröcker’s openness as an author to influences from the visual arts, music, philosophy, and international poetry. Before her ninety-fifth birthday, Friederike Mayröcker decided to entrust her entire archive to us, to the Austrian National Library, and thus to secure it for the nation. This incomparable collection encompasses several hundred archival boxes and is of great value to scholars. It provides insights into the workshop of an obsessive writer. The objects survived for decades partly covered by layers of dust, like ores in a mine. Huge numbers of slips of paper, photographs, drawings, cassette tapes, packaging material, medications, stuffed animals, typewriters, dedicated poems, pictorial works by once-unknown and now-famous artists – all this is now part of our archive, physical evidence of the creative processes and artistic conditions of pre-digital production in the 20th century.

3. In the 1980s, Peter Handke’s (born 1942) writing changed from his experimental and language-critical early work to the high ideal of ‘narrative description’. Ever since, he has written by hand. The ‘pencil manuscripts’ on display show his writing process. Handke continuously notes the date of origin of each individual page. The sheets of paper show signs of use, sometimes the typeface is blurred, especially when he writes outdoors. An impressive example in our collection is the manuscript for Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht (‘My Year in the No-Man’s Bay’) from the early 1990s. Handke wrote this epic narrative by a pond in the forest of Chaville, where he was living south of Paris. The work eschews the digital. It is old-fashioned, baggy and classic-heavy, with references to Homer, Goethe, Tolstoy and others. The pursuit of his ideal of pure ‘narrative description’ is based on Handke’s heightened sensitivity to visual, gestural, acoustic and linguistic stimuli, beyond the everyday. You can see this development clearly in his notebooks and manuscripts – as well as one of Handke’s walking sticks, which has a route between the Austrian border and Trieste engraved on it.  These objects signify the ties of the written word to the physical process of its production.

4. Finally, a seemingly inconspicuous note from the literary estate of the Jewish writer, exile and feminist literary scholar Ruth Klüger (1931–2020). It shows again how everyday objects can be charged with meanings that exceed the object itself. Klüger’s decision to have her concentration camp tattoo removed was preceded by a long period of humiliation and pain. Although Klüger polarised opinions by showing her tattoo as a visible reminder of Nazi atrocities, she never understood it as ‘provocation’ or as ‘attention-seeking’. The incident concerning the tattoo took place around 1972 at the University of Virginia, when Klüger was a professor. This aggressive note, written in red pen and capital letters, was sent to her by an irritated and upset student: ‘I’m glad it’s getting cold and you’re starting to wear long sleeve dresses because I could not stand looking at your fucking tattoo for another five weeks. Do you want to make the whole world feel guilty about what the Nazis did to you?’ Klüger’s subsequent attempts to bring the case to the university’s student Honour Committee failed. No one wanted to have anything to do with it, no one cared in 1970s Virginia. The note is now on display at the Literary Museum. As a physical object, it bears witness to the humiliation, resentment and repression of Ruth Klüger and other Jewish writers.

Bernhard Fetz

The Literature Museum is holding an exhibition at the 2023 Leipzig Book Fair. For further information please see:


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