Thomas Bernhard on Literature & the Viennese Coffee Haus Disease

As I type this, I sit in my friend’s Wohnung in Vienna. I arrived last night, later than expected as all flights in Berlin were delayed due to a supposed bomb threat according to our pilot, and when I arrived in Austria, it was dark and drizzling. I have been to Vienna once before for just over a week. Perhaps, the great gods of Viennese arts and thought will strike me down as I take my sip of coffee, but I found the city–albeit, beautiful–a bit dull. The buildings are grand and opulent; sometimes I think of structures carved from marzipan by master bakers. I am here for three weeks and a pit grows in my stomach as I try to consider how this city will be more appealing for this longer stay.

Thomas Bernhard, 1957

Like all semi-tech savvy 21st century citizens, when recommendations failed from my friends, I went straight to the internet. There are certainly a few sites and top 10 lists, but they often suggest the same handful of Schlösser, other palatial estates, and museums. I’ve found some sites that are well-kept by engaging locals, which I am more than grateful for, but the trend is to point people of the non-castle trekking variety* to coffeehouses (Kaffeehäuser). Coffeehouses are completely part of Vienna. You have a coffee and a cake (actually, with all of my complaining, this is one of my favorite things to indulge in while in German-speaking countries; I can wax on endlessly about my favorite: pflaumenkuchen.)

I should be more grateful, as I am in the city for a literary grant, but in my curmudgeonry, I thought to Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard was a 20th century Austrian writer who often poked satirical fun at what he thought were the tired and stupid ways of Austrians. His works caused scandals. A favorite of mine is Woodcutters (original title: Holzfällen), where the narrator cleverly mocks a group of dinner guests all the while sitting in a wing chair.

As I sidetracked from my original mission to find something interesting in Vienna, I did a quick internet search of Thomas Bernhard and if he had specific thoughts on the city. I immediately found an excerpt from an autobiographical work called Wittgenstein’s Nephew. The short bit is a humorous reflection that Bernhard has about his relationship to Viennese coffeehouses and what he calls the Viennese coffeehouse disease. It’s a quick read, for sure, but here are a few favorites:

On other literary-inclined coffee house patrons,

These friends introduced me to the refined world of the Sacher, Vienna’s premier coffee-house — not, I am thankful to say, to one that was frequented by the literary folk, whom I have basically always found repugnant[.]

On German and Austrian newspapers (compared to English and French),

From my early youth I have regarded the ability to read English and French books and newspapers as the greatest advantage I possess. What would my world be like, I often wonder, if I had to rely on the German papers, which are for the most part little more than garbage sheets — to say nothing of the Austrian newspapers, which are not newspapers at all but mass-circulation issues of unusable toilet paper?

On Viennese coffee houses and himself,

The truth is that I have always hated the Viennese coffeehouse because in them I am always confronted with people like myself, and naturally I do not wish to be everlastingly confronted with people like myself, and certainly not in a coffeehouse where I go to escape from myself. Yet it is here that I find myself confronted with myself and my kind.

So there you have it. My Viennese dilemma. If you haven’t read Thomas Bernhard, you certainly should start right away. I think many of his books have been reissued in recent years in English translation. Has anyone else visited this beautiful yet dull city? Perhaps you are like my friend who has lived here for many years and compares it and its people to a mausoleum.

_____

* I love castles, but I think I have seen so many on my previous trip to Vienna, there is no reason for me to go out of my way to see one. If I happen to stumble upon one, I shall look at it, thinks it’s beautiful, and continue walking on (probably to a coffeehouse to have a cake).

Inherent Vice Trailer

The film adaptation by Paul Thomas Anderson of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice has been released. It’s a book I haven’t read (and probably won’t), but by the trailer, it looks entirely intriguing. I know that Pynchon can be a love or hate author*, but I shall still see the film when it’s released.

 

 

*I am particularly fond of The Crying of Lot 49–a book which I’ve read twice–but haven’t had the drive to read his others.

All quiet on the western front…

It seems that everything has been a little bit hushed around here. This is mostly due to massive amounts of traveling in the past weeks (London, the Welsh countryside, and now France; I’m off to Berlin tomorrow). I have so many writerly things to write about: bookstores, author tombstones, etc. But this will still have to wait. Instead, I leave you with this lovely sign posted in southeast London about not doing a certain thing against a wall.

cctv

In the Year 2889 by Jules Verne

2889 cover

I must admit that I originally began reading this short story based solely on its title and that said title’s similarity to the song, “In the Year 2525.” When I began reading, the preface notified the reader that this Jules Verne story was in fact not written by the great Nineteenth century French science fiction/fantasy author, but by his l’enfant terrible son, Michel, who occasionally wrote fiction but published it under his famous father’s name.

The prose is not entirely eloquent, but the intrigue is found in how Michel describes his version of the future. At times, it is both amusing and oddly prophetic. Like me, I’m sure anyone fond of The Jetsons will enjoy the pneumatic tubes which people travel by or the flying cars that line up at your window (or the very George Jetson automatic dressing machine you just step into).

In the Year 2889” focuses on Mr. Fritz Napoleon Smith, an extremely wealthy newspaper magnate (apparently, in the distant future, newspapers are money makers with thousands of employees). He owns the Earth Chronicle that has 80,000,000 subscribers,

“Smith’s wealth went on growing, till now it reaches the almost unimaginable figure of $10,000,000,000.”

I wonder if the younger Verne would be disappointed in the state of newspapers in the year 2014. However, the newspapers of 2889 aren’t read: “Instead of being printed, the Earth Chronicle is every morning spoken to subscribers, who, in interesting conversations with reporters, statesmen, and scientists, learn the news of the day.”

2889

Michel Verne uses what I assume is exacting technical language to give a futuristic feel to 2889. Besides being delivered by tubes and flying cars, there is a Skype of the future, which Mr. Smith uses quite frequently to speak with his wife when she’s away (“the transmission of images by means of sensitive mirrors connected by wires”–this is how I assume Skype works). The above image is an artist’s interpretation of their shared meal, even though he is in Centropolis (one must imagine this is what NYC is going by in the future) and she is in France.

There is an oddness to it all, however, in that phonographs are often used in 2889. Every subscriber of the Earth Chronicle has one. It’s so endearingly antiquated as it’s mashed into the future.

The story might not have the same pizzazz of an authentic Jules Verne story, but the imagination is there. It’s pretty marvelous to read what Michel Verne was coming up with in 1889. “In the Year 2889″ is definitely worth a read and especially so, because it’s free in the public domain.

Distractions: Roald Dahl and Jet-Lag Recovery

gloop

Mrs. Gloop: Don’t just stand there, do something!
Willy Wonka: [unenthusiastically] Help. Police, Murder.

I’m a wee bit tired after just returning from a week in Berlin. I have some interesting books up my sleeve, but with my eyelids wanting to droop over at any given minute, they will have to wait. Instead, here is a Sunday distraction: How Much Do You Actually Know About Roald Dahl’s Books? I only answered about 50% correctly. It’s been ages since I’ve read a Roald Dahl book, but I’ve always been a fan (I’m sure many of you are, too!). Did you do any better?

This distraction is inspired by the–admittedly, nice–seatmate I had on one flight, but because she was rather large (and German) and intruded on my small space, I couldn’t help but be entirely mean and think of Augustus Gloop.

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit by Graham Joyce

This summer has seen a light sampling of haunting reads. Ghost stories are no longer dedicated to autumn/October release dates and this is something I’m entirely happy about. With that said, however, I was a smidge disappointed by the prolific Graham Joyce’s The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit.

electric suit

The novel is being promoted as one that taps into a more supernatural motivation, but taking the back burner would be a whopping understatement. Though, the writing itself is quite strong and clean, any notion of a “ghost” or an “electric blue suit” is wholly reduced in favor of more mundane plot points.

The book begins engaging enough and gets the story going quickly. David Barwise is a young college student who goes to work at a shabby seaside resort during his summer break. He’s drawn to the town because it is the same place that his father disappeared from fifteen years prior when David was only three years old. His mother and step-father are mighty worried and question him on his decision to go there. When David arrives he sees a man and a young boy on the shore. This, of course, brings up memories off his lost father.

David is much different than the rest of the employees who are entertainers–ventriloquists, stage performers, dancing girls–and the rest who make sure the holiday resort runs smoothly.

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit has all the pieces that should make it a stand-out work. Joyce positions the mysterious intrigue right at the beginning, but some how it gets lost. I think of this book has being in quarters: the first quarter whets our whistle; we must know about this man and boy on the shore.

“The man’s suit is blue and it darts with watery phosphorescence. The suit is beautiful, alive, quivering like the scales of fish.”

The man appears to him in his waking life and even in his dreams and nightmares. Joyce further goes on to set the novel in 1976, the hottest summer in recent memory, and makes the setting even more bizarre by having swarms of ladybugs engulf the town like a plague.

The second and third quarters are where we have a problem. There is too much concern with the minutiae of running a seaside holiday resort; the characters, as well, are little more than lightly stenciled versions of people. They seem fuzzy in my imagination and are never truly realized even though there is a sense that the author wants them to stand out.

The final portion is slightly more interesting. Questions are inevitably answered and mysteries are flattened out leaving them resolved. It all seemed as if it suffered from too little, too late syndrome.

Perhaps, I’m being too harsh on this novel, but I had such high hopes. It might be more suited for a casual reader sitting poolside who’s one or two mojitos in already. I haven’t read any other novels by Graham Joyce, but I’m under the impression that he’s highly regarded by fantasy enthusiasts and he’s won the O. Henry Award. Has anyone read his other books?

Jackaby by William Ritter

Jackaby by William Ritter

The year is 1892 and Abigail Rook, a young English woman struck by wanderlust sets sail to the New England town of New Fiddleham. Abigail is bored by what is expected of a young lady in the nineteenth century and would rather be digging up a dinosaur than moping around an English garden. When she arrives stateside, Abigail is in search of a job and lodgings when she sees a notice inquiring after an investigative assistant (“strong stomach preferred”). The placer of the ad is none other than Mr. R.F. Jackaby, a strange man who is part Sherlock Holmes, part Doctor Who, and part himself. He is an independent investigator who sees the extraordinary around every corner. When a series of murders begin to take place, Jackaby and Abigail are quick to start an independent investigation that differs greatly from the police’s own.

Debut novelist, William Ritter, has created an exquisite first novel that never becomes dull. It’s less about the killings and more about the peculiar personality of Jackaby. The solutions to problems can’t be what we expect. No, it must be a banshee or some other folklore creature. Abigail stumbles through her first case and is warned of the impending doom that might befall her by joining the odd detective (a former assistant has supposedly been changed into a duck, who still resides in Jackaby’s house).

Abigail is a droll narrator who finds the immense humor in the queer detective and her passion for a good adventure was entirely enjoyable. She makes the reader want to dash off with the strange man as they search for supernatural critters and serial killers.

Although, targeted for young readers, I was happy that I toed the line for this title. With the over-saturation of books targeting young readers (young adult, middle grade, what have you), it’s hard for one to stand out and Jackaby certainly does. The sentences are light and fly by. Ritter has respect for his readers and there is a refreshing literary quality about the book. The best books for children are ones that are also enjoyed by adults.

I couldn’t help but be stunned by the color blue that washes over this cover. I am a huge fan of cover art and I think this one is top-notch. Though, generally not a reader of books targeted for young readers, the synopsis and subsequently, the author’s excellent writing were enough to make me rave here about it. So go read it!

Jackaby will be released by Algonquin Books on September 16th.

 

Harry Houdini!

This past December, I reviewed Harry Houdini’s The Right Way To Do Wrong, which I highly recommend. Like many people, I’m fascinated by escape artists and illusionists of varying kinds with special note to talents of past days (I’m completely keen on the film The Prestige, too).

So, I am super excited for the History Channel’s two part series titled Houdini starring Adrien Brody. The trailer was just released. Have a look-see before the Labor Day release and also, read his book, too. You can find out Houdini’s feelings on “frog swallowing.”

Vapor by Amanda Filipacchi

I have a strong hunch that Amanda Filipacchi and I were separated at birth. Granted, we were born in different decades and on different continents, but I’m about 97% certain that this is the case. Why I have not read her till just now is really a shame. She is quick, funny, absurd, and daring. Often readers (especially those who declare themselves “exclusive readers of literary fiction”) have a hard time opening their reader’s mind to bold narratives that are out of the ordinary, that keenly twiddle the knife of humor and the bizarre.

vapor book

Vapor is a strange interpretation of Pygmalion (think George Bernard Shaw). Filipacchi has taken the premise of the play and turned it upside down, inside out, and chopped it up to make a cutting novel that will appeal to lovers of books like Catch-22 and the works of Kurt Vonnegut.

Anna Graham is an acting student in New York City, who is told by her instructor that she will never be much of an actor and perhaps, she should consider letting another more excellent student use her name as the other’s stage name. She takes it hard, but Anna considers what she should do about, because she will not quit acting,

“For months I had been trying to be less myself. This effort extended to every aspect of my life, including my personal tastes and opinions. I wanted to be pliable like warm wax. I began to admire vague people.”

Out late one night, Anna is down in the subway dressed in a garish fairy queen costume when a lone man is being attacked down on the tracks. She takes her industrial strength pepper spray and saves the man from his attackers. Anna becomes oddly entranced by Damon and hopes he calls her to thank her for coming to his aid. Filipacchi draws Anna as a strange, unreal person. Her reactions are odd and can’t possibly live off the page, but that doesn’t matter. Her oddities and perceptions are what make her such an engaging character.

Even with all of her eccentricities, Anna doesn’t compare to Damon. He wears only see-through clothing, giving up on opaque clothes ages ago, he’s very particular about the pH balance of his bottled water, and he’s a cloud scientist who fabricates small clouds that fit in rooms. Also, he decides to kidnap Anna and keep her in a cage. His rationale is to whip her into shape to become an excellent actress. She is obstinate, of course, as one would be if they were being held in a cage and forced to act out scenes with their captor.

There are so many layers to this novel. Filippachi is entirely successful in presenting such off characters engaging in unexpected and fantastic behavior. The prose is so effortless as you read each chapter wondering what could possibly happen next. I’m hesitant to give any more of the plot away as there are far more twists that are taken and excellent characters squeezing their way out onto the page.

This comic novel takes a strange look at the Pygmalion myth that has so permeated our culture and literature. It can be read for it’s unique look at the female form and what is expected of women in entertainment. Bluntly, Vapor is hilarious even during the most absurd moments. I found myself laughing at many of Filipacchi’s sentences and for her whip smart narrative, which should be enough for any reader.

Vapor was recently re-released by Open Road Media (who has also re-released the rest of her previous novels). I was a bit bummed to read that a film adaptation by the playwright Neil LaBute was cancelled some years ago. Has anyone else read Amanda Filipacchi before or are you late to the party like me?

Distractions: Which Classic Novel Describes Your Life?

After watching about 37 minutes of last night’s news, my brain could no longer take the massive global overload of despair, doom, and destruction. I heard the serpent calling me to click over to Playbuzz. Blerg. Weakness. At first, I was surprised (what? A trivial internet multiple choice didn’t pin me down?!), but then I read the final few sentences, which I found to be strangely familiar. Which novel did you get?

lord of the rings