The Austrian Riveter: Tentacles of Trauma: Inherited Burdens in Austrian Literature by Tess Lewis

Contemporary Austrian literature is perhaps most famous – or, rather, infamous – for its tradition of Nestbeschmutzer (fouling its own nest) and anti-Heimat writing from the pens of Helmut Qualtinger, Karl Kraus, Elias Canetti, Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek, Joseph Winkler, and others. Although denounced as recalcitrant, these unflinching diagnosticians of societal and political ills were driven more by disappointed idealism and an injured sense of justice than by a desire to soil the nest. Still, with their verbal fireworks and incisive eloquence, these sardonic realists have overshadowed another, deeply interiorised thread of political and societal critique in Austrian fiction.

These quieter, but no less profound, novels explore the way social structures can perpetuate the injuries inflicted on the weak and the defenceless. Maja Haderlap, Monika Helfer, Laura Freudenthaler, and Alois Hotschnig are among the most compelling Austrian writers today whose works expose the intricate ways trauma inserts its tentacles into the lives and psyches of those touched by it directly or indirectly across generations. 

Parul Seghal has written in The New Yorker about the current popularity of the trauma plot, which often uses trauma as a crutch to bring an easy infusion of emotional and moral weight to threadbare narratives. However, she notes, ‘with a wider aperture, we move out of the therapeutic register and into a generational, social, and political one. It becomes a portal into history and into a common language.’ The strength of these Austrian writers lies precisely in the broad perspective they bring to their characters’ lives and their sensitivity to the pull of history’s undercurrents in the present.

Two doyennes of this interiorised fiction – Ingeborg Bachmann and Christine Lavant – both died in 1973 and both won great acclaim for their poetry before their equally accomplished prose was given its due. In many respects these two women were opposites. Highly educated in philosophy and literature, Bachmann was glamorous and cosmopolitan, an active public speaker, and politically outspoken. Lavant, born Christine Thonhauser, the ninth child of a poor miner, was a reclusive auto-didact who spent almost her entire life in a remote Carinthian valley. She was half-blind and tubercular and had a penchant for the mystical. As writers, however, Bachmann and Lavant shared many of the same concerns. Both were highly attuned to the myriad ways traditional patriarchy undermines the dignity and self-worth of all individuals in the system, and their fiction dramatised the ways women are psychically and physically destroyed by their fathers, husbands, lovers and brothers. 

Maja Haderlap was known for her poetry in Slovenian before she burst onto the German-language literary scene in 2011 by winning the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for an excerpt from her novel Angel of Oblivion. This heartbreaking and lyrical novel is based on the experiences of her family and the Slovenian-speaking minority in Carinthia, many of whom fought as partisans in the Second World War and suffered resentment and suspicion from the German-speaking community in the decades after. It is also the coming-of-age story of a young girl who must learn to navigate the no-man’s land between two hostile communities and two historically and emotionally fraught languages. The community has been deeply scarred by the war and these scars give rise to a confusing mix of contradictory emotions: shame, grief and pride, nightmares and nostalgia. Illuminating an almost forgotten chapter of European history and the European present, the book portrays family dynamics poisoned by war and torture. Interwoven with this is a compelling reflection on storytelling: the narrator hopes to rid herself of the emotional burden of her past and to tell stories on behalf of those who cannot.

Monika Helfer’s clear-eyed, unsentimental trilogy – Die Bagage, Vati, and Löwenherz (‘The Riff-Raff’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Lionheart’) – relays the stories of her grandparents, parents and, in the final volume, her eccentric brother Richard. This family saga is filled with colourful, often tragic characters, and artfully told with authorial asides, flashes forward and flashbacks. Through her relatives’ fates, Helfer charts the effects and side-effects of poverty, narrow-mindedness and misogyny through three generations of a family in a remote valley in Vorarlberg. Maria Moosbrugger, Helfer’s happily married grandmother, was a woman of exceptional beauty, a beauty that drew the lust, suspicion, and envy of all the villagers, even – and perhaps most toxically – that of the parish priest. Maria’s husband, Josef, is called up and sent to the Ostfront in the Second World War. During Josef’s absence, a handsome German stranger shows up on her doorstep after noticing her at a fair. When Maria’s pregnancy begins to show a few months later, malicious tongues in the village immediately start counting the weeks since Josef left, disregarding his two visits home on leave, and conclude that the child is illegitimate. Despite Maria’s assurances, Josef believes the gossip and never once speaks to or looks directly at his fifth child, Grete, who will become Monika Helfer’s mother. This silence will reverberate through three generations.

In Laura Freudenthaler’s two recent novels, silence is a weapon of self-defence, particularly for women, but also a double-edged sword. In Die Königin schweigt (‘The Queen is Silent’; 2017), the widowed Fanny, like Helfer’s grandmother, lived a hard, impoverished life in the early 20th century in a small mountain village. Still, she so internalised her father’s dictum, ‘there are certain things you just don’t talk about’, that she is unable to find any way to alleviate her own suffering or the pain of those around her. Although her grand-daughter tries to break through Fanny’s veil of muteness, certain wounds remain shrouded in silence. In Geistergeschichte (‘Ghost Story’; 2019), we see a woman losing her ability to communicate at the same time as she loses her sense of self and her ability to play the piano. Anne is a French woman who moved to Austria to be with her Austrian husband but never overcame her sense of being a foreigner. Her marriage of twenty years is faltering and when she takes a sabbatical from teaching, her already fragile ego begins to fray. She and her husband are drawing farther apart and yet she is paralysed, unable to reach out to him or confront him with her suspicions that he’s having an affair. Isolation, stress and depression eat away at the foundations of her personality.

The narrator of Alois Hotschnig’s third novel, Der Silberfuchs meiner Mutter (‘My Mother’s Silver Fox’; 2021), talks eloquently, almost obsessively, about the circumstances of his difficult early life and his mother’s disastrous experiences during the Second World War. Heinz Fritz is a child of the Lebensborn, a state-supported system founded by the SS to increase Germany’s ‘Aryan’ population by relocating to the Reich women made pregnant by German soldiers in occupied territories. When Heinz’s mother, Gerd, a nurse in northernmost Norway is brought to Hohenems, the father of her child will have nothing to do with her or Heinz. After years in foster homes, Heinz is reunited with his mother who has become a scarred, erratic being. Heinz’s monologue skips forward and back, tracing his attempts to find his father and fill in the many gaps in his mother’s story.

Like the novels of Haderlap, Helfer, and Freudenthaler, Hotschnig’s fiction recounts stories of the silenced and the traumatised. Yet, by focusing on the unsaid, on the underside of history, and on how their characters’ experiences and wounds reflect the predatory social structures and destructive circumstances in which they lived, these writers elevate personal traumas to emblematic tragedies. Equally important is the artfulness with which these narratives are constructed. The complexities of memory and repression as well as the vagaries of our inner lives are reflected in the warp and weft of these narratives. As Joan Didion reflected, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’. We also tell them – and read them – in order to understand the world around us and how history has shaped us.

Tess Lewis

Read The Austrian Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

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