The Austrian Riveter: Homesick For Ourselves by Geoffrey C. Howes

Vienna is the undisputed literary centre of Austria, but the so-called ‘provincial capitals’, of Bregenz, Innsbruck, Salzburg, Klagenfurt, Linz, Graz, St. Pölten and Eisenstadt, as well as other towns, have their own literary centres, archives and museums. And many, if not most, of the authors who make Vienna their home come from other Austrian regions. Here is a small, personal selection of works, all available in English translation, that give at least an initial sense of the geographical – and aesthetic – diversity of recent Austrian literature.

Starting in the west, in the small state of Vorarlberg, we find a charming character named Herr Faustini in five short novels by Wolfgang Hermann (1961–). In the first of these, Herr Faustini Takes a Trip (2006; translated by Rachel Hildebrand, KBR, 2015), our modest hero, an inveterate homebody living in the village of Hörbranz near the state capital Bregenz, is content to stay at home with his cat. Just stepping outside is an adventure for this passionate ‘traveller in miniature’. But one day he decides to take a trip to southern Switzerland to celebrate his sister’s birthday. New people and new worlds make him realise that by maintaining his comfortable life he has only limited himself. At the end of the book, he resolves to travel again, this time to the sea with his new friend, an African prince.

Alois Hotschnig (1959–) was born in Carinthia but has lived in Innsbruck in Tyrol since 1989. The stories in Maybe This Time (2006; translated by Tess Lewis, Peirene, 2011) also deal with being thrust out of what is familiar, but much more uncannily than Herr Faustini’s trip. In the story ‘The Beginning of Something’, for instance, the first-person protagonist wakes from a dream of being in an unfamiliar country only to find himself in a strange world that resembles the one in the dream. Even his body seems alien. He turns for enlightenment to notes he seems to have written during the night, and a mysterious letter, but as soon as he remembers anything, he forgets it again. He distrusts his own sentences, which mysteriously hint at some kind of evidence against him, and he is suspicious of the noise from a neighbouring room. The last sentence: ‘Next door, the floor creaked.’

Salzburg is known for its natural and architectural beauty, but the boyhood memoir Gathering Evidence by Thomas Bernhard (1931–1989) looks beneath the refined exterior of the city of the famous music festival to find cruelty and corruption. This volume (translated by David McClintock, Knopf, 1985; Vintage edition 2011 including ‘My Prizes’, translated by Carol Brown Janeway) collects Bernhard’s five autobiographical books, which tell of his life in Bavaria with his grandparents at the beginning of the Second World War, his schooling in Salzburg under Nazi dominion, his budding musical education, the Allied bombing of the city, his decision to cut off his education to become a grocer’s apprentice, his chronic lung ailments and life in a pulmonary sanatorium, his defiant decision to stay alive, and his turning to literature. Bernhard famously loved and hated Austria, and so he loves and hates Salzburg. His style is bombastic yet musical, cutting yet sensitive. It’s hard to say which was worse for the young author: Salzburg in rubble, the noxious blend of Catholicism and Nazism, or his lung disease. Yet all of them helped make him a writer.

The southern federal state of Carinthia may not be well known to people outside Austria, but it has produced the Nobel Prize winner Peter Handke, the incomparable novelist and poet Ingeborg Bachmann, and the exquisite poetry of Christine Lavant (1915–1973; see Shatter the Bell in My Ear, translated by David Chorlton, Bitter Oleander Press, 2017). On the border with what was once Yugoslavia, Carinthia is home to a minority of Slovene speakers, among them Maja Haderlap (1961–), whose Angel of Oblivion (2011; translated by Tess Lewis, Archipelago, 2016) uses the first-person perspective of a young girl to wrestle with the legacy of the persecution of Slovenes during the war. Her grandmother was in a concentration camp, her grandfather and his sons fought alongside the partisans. Haderlap is a poet, and her language is rich and subtle even as it depicts unimaginable anguish. 

Marlen Haushofer (1920–1970) was born and lived in Upper Austria. She is best known for her 1963 novel The Wall (translated by Shaun Whiteside, Cleis, 1990), in which a middle-aged woman – the unnamed narrator – joins her cousin and her cousin’s husband for a weekend at their mountain lodge. Her hosts leave to get dinner in the valley, and the next morning she wakes to find herself alone with their dog. Searching for her cousin, she encounters what seems to be an invisible wall. She cannot find a way around it, and she can only see one person beyond it, a motionless man. Something has killed anything living on the other side. She is protected but trapped on the mountain. The Wall has been interpreted through a feminist lens and as a novel of the Cold War. In 2012 the Austrian director Julian Pölsler made a film based on Haushofer’s book.

Klaus Hoffer (1942–) was born and still lives in Graz, the capital of Styria. In 1979, he made his literary reputation with a novel titled Halfway: Among the Bieresch I, which was followed in 1983 by The Great Potlatch: Among the Bieresch II. After this promising debut – Hoffer won the Rauris Prize and was praised by reviewers – the author rarely appeared in public and published little else. Still, many regard Among the Bieresch as one of the most important post-war Austrian works, and in 2007 Droschl Verlag in Graz republished the two parts in one volume, which Isabel Fargo Cole translated and Seagull Books released in 2016. It is hard to synopsise this odd novel. The Bieresch were a social minority alongside the ethnic minorities – Croatians, Hungarians, and Roma – in the Burgenland, Austria’s easternmost state, which during the Habsburg monarchy was ‘German West Hungary’. They were mainly farmworkers for large, formerly Hungarian landowners. Hans arrives in the village of Zick near Lake Neusiedl because, according to a Bieresch tradition, he must assume the role of his late uncle, the village postman. Most of the book has no more plot than an account of conversations between the unwilling Hans and various members of the Bieresch community, in which he learns of this caste’s convoluted customs and history. They seem as frustrated as he is. His aunt tells him, ‘you must try to understand us, too. What on earth should we do? The curse has been upon us since the very first day! […] We’re homesick for ourselves, because no one can be as he is – everyone only mirrors the nature of his surroundings’.

‘We’re homesick for ourselves’. This could apply to characters in all these books: Herr Faustini’s cheerful guardedness; the dissolving self in Hotschnig’s story; Bernhard’s defiance of brutality and illness; the girl’s dreadful fixation on her family’s past in Angel of Oblivion; the woman in The Wall who finds a terrible strength in isolation; and of course, not only the Bieresch, but Hans as well. These works give the lie to the idyllic idea that life in the provinces, and hence Austrian literature in the provinces, is less complex and less alienating than life in the big city. And like much good literature, they are highly localised but universally accessible. To read about regional Austria is also to learn about ourselves.

Geoffrey C. Howes

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