Austrian literature since 1900 tells a story of two different worlds: it reflects momentous political, social and demographic changes in Austria, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, as documented by writers such as Joseph Roth, Karl Kraus and Stefan Zweig. Yet at the same time – perhaps precisely in response to these shifting realities – another strand of Austrian literature has repeatedly returned, that of a fantastic, tumultuous and sublimated Über-reality.
Austria is a country with a double, with two realities: its earlier imperial incarnation, beloved of tourists and lovers of The Sound of Music, which throws a shadow over its collective cultural identity. And its hidden darker past: the country was centrally involved in both World Wars and the Holocaust, and for many decades, unlike Germany, skirted around public discussions of collective guilt and responsibility. How writers and thinkers address these dualities and secrets is central to Austrian literature.
In 2008 an article in the Times Literary Supplement referenced the notorious Lower-Austrian abuse case of Josef Fritzl, highlighting the prominent role that basements, cellars and canal systems assume in Austrian culture and collective memory. The author of the TLS article, Ritchie Robertson, notes that psychopathic and abusive patriarchal authority runs through Austrian literature as far back as Ferdinand Raimund and Johann Nestroy’s Viennese comedies, through Adalbert Stifter’s story ‘Turmalin’, (‘Tourmaline’, 1853), to recurring themes of torture described in the work of Elias and Veza Canetti. The protagonist of Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina (1971) disappears into a wall in her own home to escape coercive control, and Elfriede Jelinek even made Fritzl the protagonist of her 2014 play, FaustIn and Out. Marcus Fischer’s recent anti-Heimat novel Die Rotte (‘The Pack’, 2022) deals with the invasion of privacy as well as the brutal uncovering of hidden secrets and a history that has been collectively suppressed in a rural village.
It is the Viennese founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud who theorises the power of the metaphorical underground, representing the suppressed emotions which drive all human behaviour. His game-changing hypothesis was that we are not the rulers of our own psyche: what we think we know and see is impacted by our consciously or unconsciously suppressed feelings and knowledge about events and experiences. Freud’s ideas were taken up by his literary contemporaries, such as Hermann Bahr in Dialog vom Tragischen (‘Dialogue on the Tragic’, 1904), Hugo von Hofmannsthal in the tragedy Ödipus und die Sphinx (‘Oedipus and the Sphinx’, 1906) or Arthur Schnitzler in Traumnovelle (‘Dream Story’, 1925), set in an unreal nocturnal Vienna of sex and intrigue, which inspired Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
Even a century later, Freud’s 1919 essay on ‘Das Unheimliche’ (‘The Uncanny’) still provides a blueprint for literary representations of uncanniness in human experience. As social historian and psychoanalyst Peter Gay says, we all ‘speak Freud’s language, whether we know it or not’. Freud’s uncanny centres on the return of the repressed: the unspoken and unspeakable presence of something familiar that cannot be acknowledged. Post-war and millennial Austrian culture offers rich potential for the uncanny.
The contemporary uncanny can be found in images of death and the return of the dead, as in Anna Kim’s Anatomie einer Nacht (‘Anatomy of a Night’, 2016), or the eerie presence of something absent becoming tangible in Thomas Glavinic’s Die Arbeit der Nacht (‘Night Work’, 2005), or Daniel Kehlmann’s F (2013) and Du hättest gehen sollen (‘You Should Have Left’, 2016). Blurred realities underlie Constantin Göttfert’s Satus Katze (‘Satu’s Cat’, (2011), Alois Hotschnig’s Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht (2006, Maybe This Time, 2011) , as well as Clemens J. Setz’s novel Indigo (2012) and his story collection Der Trost runder Dinge (‘The Solace of Round Things’, 2019). For Kathrin Röggla, in Nachtsendung (‘Night Broadcast’, 2016), as also for Kim and Glavinic, night-time opens up the cracks of the uncanny other of daily life. Finally, Ann Cotton’s sci-fi-influenced collection Lyophilia (2019) explores the strange new worlds generated by AI or a bot as the author.
What unites these works is a deep irritation with the façade that Austria presents of a harmonious everyday reality. They remind us that Austrian society’s cellars and basements – as well as its hills – are alive with pathologies, monsters and weird collective dreams which continue to shape ‘Austrianness 2.0’.
Heide Kunzelmann and Lyn Marven
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