What is Austrian about Austrian literature? by Peter Zimmermann

In Austria, an audience attuned to culture gets indignant if Austrian writers are treated as German writers. This happens now and again – I last noticed it in Eva Menasse’s case in an anthology about German-Israeli relations. I have to admit, people used to get much more hot and bothered. For instance, a few years ago when ZDF published a list of Greatest Germans, which was based on a public vote, the featured names included Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sigmund Freud or Empress Elisabeth of Austria. The media then had a field day and moaned about the “Great Neighbour”. Tempers overheating in these situations like to slip in the word Anschluss to the protest. Maybe this seems like a digression from literature, yet it highlights the core problem of cultural identity: what is Austrian? Is that even a reasonable question?

There are linguistic rules that become accepted and those that sink in whose origin is indeterminate. The gradual disappearance of the concept of Austrian literature is classified under the latter rule. It is absorbed by the unsuspicious formula of German-speaking literature. Literature from Austria is sometimes referred to for marketing purposes, although the focus is only on a geographical delineation and by no means the content or formal quality. Yet does this mean that it makes no difference where somebody comes from and in which cultural, social or religious environment somebody grew up?

Firstly, it should be remembered that it’s not about nationhood, culture and specifically literature as ideological capital. In this sense, Austrians always had a tough time, since the historic constellations just in the 20th century make it impossible to define clear inclusions and exclusions. Franz Kafka was from Prague, which was part of Austria, but was he an Austrian writer? Joseph Roth, who hailed from Galicia, lived for several years in Vienna and served in the Austrian army during the First World War. He based his career in Berlin and died in Paris, and he’s regarded as an Austrian writer. His friend, Józef Wittlin, who also came from Galicia, lived for several years in Vienna, served in the Austrian army during the First World War, yet then based his career in Warsaw and died in New York. In terms of literary history, Wittlin is regarded as a Polish writer. In Austria, Elias Canetti was gladly described as a native Austrian, although he originally came from Bulgaria and spent most of his life in England and Switzerland. Yet, his novel “Auto-Da-Fé” (originally “Die Blendung” (The Blinding)), which he wrote in Vienna, is the wildest grotesque story about the precarious First Republic ever to be written.

In fact, Austria seems to have no role to play in contemporary literature. Daniel Kehlmann sees himself anyway as a European writer. Vea Kaiser, the darling of the moment in the German-speaking literary marketplace (so the Austrian as well) only uses the Alpine setting as a two-dimensional backdrop to spin directionless tales, or in her latest novel “Makarionissi oder die Insel der Seligen” as one of many locations for a story about a family’s emigration that spans Europe. Valerie Fritsch and Clemens Setz depart from any connection to a specific location and imagine counterworlds between an idyll and horror with plenty of traditional munitions in the baggage. There is everything here from the literary surrealism of a writer like Alfred Kubin and Albert Paris Gütersloh to the text building blocks of postmodernism. These few examples should suffice to highlight that a narrative model has obviously fallen into disuse after it was foremost in Austrian literature for three decades – from the 1960s to the 1990s. It became something of a trademark: the psychological strain of one’s native origins escaping from confined circumstances. Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, Peter Turrini, Elfriede Jelinek, Gert Jonke, Franz Innerhofer, Gernot Wolfgruber, Josef Winkler – to mention just a few – drew their material from the gap between the much-publicized idyll of the Second Republic, a kind of apolitical state aesthetics, and the actually effective mentality patterns that remained intact and undamaged from the course of recent history. That means: authoritarian Catholicism, fixed hierarchies in farming and bourgeois biotopes, the suppression of guilt, a compensated experience of powerlessness due to inner-familial violence and often poverty as well. This realism, which always also exposed the anti-idyll in linguistic structures, was not a question of style for writers born in the 1940s and 1950s; rather, it was existentially necessary. That explains the aggressiveness, drastic and harsh nature and probably also the lack of humour in their texts. (Above my desk in the Funkhaus is the quote of a listener’s phone-in complaint: Frau Jelinek said that no Austrian is allowed to laugh ever again! You should take that to heart!).

The existential necessity of writing nowadays exclusively refers to economic conditions and no longer to emancipation and the nightmare of one’s native origins. Writing is one of many potential forms of existence. The anxieties, hopes, even mundane everyday experiences are not essentially different in Austria than in Germany, France or Italy. The increasingly ‘coordinated’ (gleichgeschaltet) pan-European education system ensures that traditions – or let’s say: mentality layers – are no longer communicated institutionally. In literature, that makes plenty of things interchangeable. Thomas Glavinic, Eva Menasse and Vea Kaiser: they could be at home anywhere where circumstances are more or less ripe with inspiration (gesättigt?/saturated/satisfied??). You will never notice it in their books.

By Peter Zimmermann

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe on 26 July 2015.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory



  1. An enlightening essay on an issue that’s been exercising my mind recently. Thank you, Peter Zimmermann and Suzanne Kirkbright.

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