For decades Friedrich Achleitner (1930–2019), Austria’s most important architecture critic, systematically explored the country, documenting its buildings, always on the lookout for what he called the ‘G’fäude’, an Austrian dialect term combining the meanings of ‘verfault’ (rotten) and ‘verfehlt’ (failed). ‘Anything that slightly deviated from the norm was “g’fäud”’, according to Achleitner. ‘Finding something “g’fäud” was exciting, signifying a surreal element in the perception of situations.’ Achleitner’s mission in his multi-volume lifework, Austrian Architecture in the 20th Century, was to find these mystical, indescribable non-places, and then to describe them very precisely.
In the same way, my essay is not devoted to mainstream literature, but to the authors and history of Vienna’s ‘g’fäude’ side. My starting point is the pioneer of social reportage, Max Winter, who takes us back to the turn of the 20th century. Winter does not report on monarchical kitsch but focuses instead on the underbelly of the Habsburg metropolis. He writes about people living in the under-ground canals, the inhuman prison system, the shady bars of the then disreputable Viennese Prater area, where prostitution and illegal gambling flourished, and an illicit language known as ‘Rotwelsch’. Winter sought out the ‘G’fäude’ in the emerging Red Vienna and its socialist utopias. If he proved there were failures in the system, he believed the system would change. However, in the 1930s he was forced to flee the rising Austrofascism and died impoverished in Los Angeles in 1937.
During the Second World War, burglary and smuggling blossomed in Vienna, and during the occupation afterwards, the underworld divided the black market into its own districts. Spirits, cigarettes and goods of all kinds were traded on a grand scale – Carol Reed’s film classic The Third Man offers a glimpse into this world.
In the early post-war years, literary ‘G’fäude’ was explored by the poets and writers of the avant-garde ‘Art Club’ and ‘Wiener Gruppe’ (Vienna Group). Achleitner was not only a doyen of architectural criticism, but also an outstanding disruptor of literature and a leading force in these ground-breaking groups. Together with his allies, H.C. Artmann, Konrad Bayer, Gerhard Rühm and Oswald Wiener, he went on countless walks in search of Vienna’s ‘G’fäude’.
The city of Graz also played a key role in creating Austria’s alternative literary scene. Forum Stadtpark became an important cultural hub, and the Graz-based literary magazine manuskripte published texts by the Wiener Gruppe from early on. The magazine Wespennest, founded in 1969 by authors Peter Henisch and Helmut Zenker was a cheeky response to the established manuskripte, a case perhaps of yesterday’s rebels destined to become tomorrow’s bourgeoisie? In 1976, Gerhard Jaschke founded the Freibord magazine together with Hermann Schürrer, an enfant terrible of the literary scene. Freibord brought the torch back to Vienna from Graz and formed an alliance between the literary avant-garde, Fluxus experiments and Viennese Actionism.
Only a few years ago, Vienna’s Perinetkeller, the birthplace of Actionism, with its performances of the scandalous ‘Einmauerung’ (‘immurement’), reopened for events. Today it is the venue for a whole programme of new events, from Jaschke’s series ‘Nekrothek’, in which he discusses Actionism’s dead protagonists, to events with Hermes Phettberg, a phenomenon in his own right, transforming his life from gay altar boy to glutton, to celebrated superstar, to destitute down-and-out. Several of these writers and performers work across different art disciplines, like filmmaker Lisl Ponger, who captured the Perinetkeller scene in her book of photographs, Doppleranarchie.
There have been several books written about the Viennese underworld. The most reliable if unsystematic account is by sociologist Robert Geher, Wiener Blut (‘Vienna Blood’), published in 1993. The conceptual artist and writer Marc Adrian also examined the Vienna underworld in his montage novel Die Wunschpumpe (‘Wish Pump’, 1991), based on notes he jotted down as a cab driver in the 1950s and ’60s in the crime-ridden area around the Vienna Prater. It was only decades later that he found the right format for his scribbles and arranged them in a strict conceptual art system of his own invention. He employed remnants of the ‘Rotwelsch’ language and depicted his ‘journey’ as a relentless ghost train ride between intellectual abstraction, geographical meticulousness and raw brutality. In Adrian’s inversion of the ‘G’fäude’, moving from Max Winter’s social misery into a surreal underworld, not much separates the Prater from the Perinetkeller, or life from art.
The notorious criminals of Vienna’s underworld are explored in several autobiographies, for example by Heinz Sobota or Heinz Karasek, but by far the most accessible fictional account comes from David Schalko, also president of the International Thomas Bernhard Society. In his underworld epic, Schwere Knochen (‘Heavy Bones’, 2018), Schalko pays tribute to the legendary 1960s ‘Wilde Wanda’, a circus child from the Prater, who became the only woman to establish herself in the Viennese underworld as a pimp.
Finally, we come to Xaver Bayer. Born in Vienna in 1977, he has been homing in on the Holy Grail of the ‘G’fäude’ since his early works, deliberately seeking out ‘g’fäude’ locations in Vienna and sitting there writing his books, always by hand. Locations like ancient drinking establishments, forgotten petrol stations, unspoiled canteens and remote, undocumented city spaces – places that would have made Achleitner’s eyes shine. ‘Non-writing places’, according to Bayer, are becoming increasingly rare and tracking them down requires time and passion. They are the last refuges in an increasingly antiseptic world of uniformity; utopias destroyed one by one, transformed from Max Winter’s spaces of social reform to hip contemporary ‘Art Club’ venues. Bayer describes his ‘g’fäude’ locations in abstract terms so that they cannot be discovered or ruined by other people. He does not offer a safari or city tour to these ‘forbidden’ places but through literary sublimation, transports his readers into his own universe, where new temptations and trap doors await. He says: ‘There, forbidden thoughts are still possible.’ The latest fruit of Bayer’s clandestine quest, his book of short stories, Geschichten mit Marianne (‘Stories with Marianne’), became a bestseller and won the 2020 Austrian Book Prize. Together with his fellow author Hanno Millesi, he has also published Austropilot, a collection of excellent but forgotten texts from Austria’s literary magazines. In this, his systematic focus on the ‘G’fäude’, Xaver Bayer is doing for Austrian literature what Friedrich Achleitner did for Austrian architecture.
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