German

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.

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* 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).

The Bureaucrat’s Recommended Reading List

The unending and illogical madness of government bureaucracy didn’t truly hit me until I worked for the government. For one year, the term kafkaesque permeated my life and my unfortunately battered psyche. Sure, I had read plenty of Kafka’s works up to that time, but they didn’t resonate in the same way until I found myself running in circles only to ram head first into a wall of slow policies and paperwork covered in absurdity resulting in bad handwriting and 4:30 martinis. But this sort of insanity can be found in other works by other authors as well.

Bureaucrat's Reading List

According to Merriam-Webster, Kafkaesque is defined as :  of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially :  having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality <Kafkaesque bureaucratic delays>

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Catch-22. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” One of the great American novels of the 20th Century, Joseph Heller’s World War II-set narrative finds bombardier Yossarian caught in an illogical roundabout that exams the insanity, idiocy, and other problematic facets of war.

Metropole. When a linguist boards the wrong plane in Budapest, he arrives in an unknown city where he can’t seem to understand anything anyone is saying. There is excessive queuing and official information is constantly changing from one day to the next.

The Passion According to G.H. A claustrophobic, ecstatic stream of consciousness begins when the maid quits, leading G.H. to go into the former employee’s room to find it spotless save for a cockroach that she goes on to kill. Language, memories, and philosophies are tangled around the lifeless vermin for inspection.

Invitation to a Beheading. I’ve always maintained that if you covered up Vladimir Nabokov’s name on the front cover and gave it to a new reader, they would immediately assume it was written by Kafka based on the style, tone, and premise. In an unnamed country, Cincinnatus C. is sentenced to death by beheading for being found guilty of “gnostical turpitude,” an undefined crime.

The Joke. This is Milan Kundera’s first novel and written during the brewing Prague Spring. Ludvik is sentenced to hard labor after sending a friend a joke written on a postcard that pokes fun at the communist regime. He is turned in and his trial is nothing more than a kangaroo court. 

The Garden Party.  The young Hugo is sent by his father to a garden party to meet a local bureaucrat who his father is certain will employ Hugo. The party-goers mistake him for a seasoned employee and soon Hugo is put in charge of liquidating the liquidation office. He fools them all by quickly mutating his language to that of the bureaucracy.

The CastleThis list wouldn’t be complete without Kafka, right? There are so many to choose from, but The Trial and The Castle are always cited as the most “kafkaesque” of them all. K. is a land surveyor who has been summoned to an unnamed town. He keeps trying to get into the castle to speak with a mysterious and unseen official. Paperwork and the unknowable are just two blockades to his pursuits.

These are just a few selections. Do you have any further recommendations?

Selected dialogue from The Garden Party,

The Garden Party


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Weekly Photo Challenge: Abandoned

The Weekly Photo Challenge this week is Abandoned. The creator shows a photo from Berlin that is excellent and writes: “I’ve always loved wandering inside and taking photographs of abandoned buildings. Ruins are fascinating: in these physical spaces, the past, present, and future are one, and time becomes fuzzy.”

I am currently working on a piece of writing that deals a lot with abandoned places, especially ones that are right in front of us, but somehow are forgotten or overlooked, hiding secrets and history. I once wrote a post titled, “Cities That Inspire Us For all Sorts of Reasons,” which included two photos relevant to this topic. Below are my photos of the block around the corner from where I stayed during my last bout in the former GDR city of Leipzig, Germany. I come back to these photos of the abandoned schoolhouse often and have even written a story about it.

Places, spaces, and how we relate to them in fiction and writing is a top fascination of mine. I thank you for indulging me and if you want to see some more excellent abandoned photos, look at the Doublewhirler photo-blog, where they have captured some haunting images of the graffitied bobsled run from the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Selfie

I’ve never participated in the Weekly Photo Challenge before and because of last week’s post–Bookishly Me–I felt motivated for two reasons. 1) No one has ever seen my face in this here land and 2) my undying love for Kafka and Prague. My reflection off the case surrounding a model from a film version of Franz Kafka’s short story, “In the Penal Colony.” The film never came to fruition and the model finds its home at the Franz Kafka Museum in the Lesser Quarter of the city.

I suggest going to this museum. It reminds me of a weird visual art exhibition if curated by David Lynch. Kafka’s writing is already absurd, horrifying, and kafkaesque. To whomever curates this museum–bravo. It can be so uncanny that there is even a warning sign to children at the cashier’s desk and I saw a crying girl brought out by her mother. This museum is so odd, that there is a water statue out front of two men peeing toward each other.

I have a few photos that count as “selfies” that might have been more interesting, but, alas, they showed too much of my face and for the time being, I would rather be obscured by a clay model of a man being tortured.

If you haven’t already, read “In the Penal Colony.” You can read it for free online, both in English and the original German. Enjoy!

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post script While typing this post, I accidentally typed Frank Kafka instead of Franz. I imagine Frank Kafka lives above a laundromat in Queens and enjoys Indian roti take-out. One day, someone will create a Lynchian curated museum to him, as well.

Writer Word Art + Nietzsche

Celebrating the 200th Post at Acid Free Pulp

How exciting! Yesterday marked the 200th post on Acid Free Pulp. In celebration (and because it’s Friday and time to goof off), I’ve compiled some bookish bric-a-brac for your perusing. Here are some internet finds that I’m finding amusing–or self-indulgent–today. Enjoy!

  1. If you haven’t had your daily dose (or any dose) of German poetry in English translation, I recently put up a new one on my personal project, Translations of Dead German Poets. Haven’t heard of avant-garde poet Else Lasker-Schüler? Well, now you have!
  2. This morning, I read a Q&A with debut novelist Yangsze Choo about her new book The Ghost Bride, which finds its inspiration in Chinese folklore about a woman who is asked to become the wife of a dead man. I’m excited and you should be, too.
  3. Short stories need to make a comeback and I’m a huge proponent of making the push for commuters (trains, bus types) finding the joy in the medium. Here is a list with links to the stories included of classic stories by Margaret Atwood, Grace Paley, Ernest Hemingway, Ray Bradbury and more for your short reading pleasure.
  4. If you didn’t catch JJ Abrams talking about the new book on the Colbert Report last night, you need to watch the clip. Co-written with novelist Doug Dorst, S looks super rad and I just want to touch it. Take a look at the photos on Amazon. It seems like some sort of mash-up of BS Johnson and  Mark Z. Danielewski. Me want!
  5. A new art project in London is designing city book benches inspired by such classics as The Wind in the Willows and 1984. The project hopes to raise enough funds for 50-70 BookBenches. Check the photos here.

‡For an honorable mention (or dishonorable?), I point you to this strange and cringeworthy news article. After reading it, I thought, “What poor book was he using?” Librarians and  book lovers, alike, beware….

Have any Friday fun to share? Please leave your finds in the comments.

Cities That Inspire Us For All Sorts of Reasons

This weekend marks the second year that I’ve been writing Acid Free Pulp. My first post was titled Prague and it was conceived after I returned back from a trip, which included a visit to the Czech Republic. Prague is one of my favorite cities for various reasons including its ability to inspire me. The hometown of one of my all time favorite writers, Franz Kafka, my mind constantly whirls with ideas when I’m in Prague. Even on a follow-up trip, as I sat on a wall overlooking the Vltava River, the skeleton of an idea came to me, which I was able to flesh out later in our apartment and on my flight back to the US. What came of this visit was a novella concerning a mysterious event in Prague (when I am done with my current project, I hope to return to it and expand on the characters and plot).

As I was contemplating the blog’s 2 year anniversary, I read a profile in New York magazine for their Winter Travel edition, which focused on “lesser-known cities for equally fine wine, just-as-ancient architecture, and even-more-secret warehouse parties.” They profiled Leipzig, a city about an hour away by train from Berlin. While Berlin is also a favorite destination and I’ve spent a good deal of time there, there is Leipzig, a former East German city that had once been grand before the World Wars.

Leipzig, Germany.

Leipzig, Germany.

Leipzig is a city I have mixed feelings about, but it has inspired me exponentially. I have written some of my best stories while living there or now, thinking back to it. It is a strange place where beauty and destruction have been forced together. There are elegant villas lining some streets, with a row of odd Soviet bloc apartments (plattenbauten) still standing and sticking out like sore thumbs. I’ve twice stayed in one of these apartment buildings where all personality is stripped and the shower can only be used when the sink is turned on. A third time in Leipzig, I stayed much longer and lived on a different side of the city with abandoned warehouses that had been turned into businesses or which were normally abandoned save for the midnight parties they hosted. Leipzig is a former city of greatness that is striving to retain that glory. I took the above photo in the neighborhood where I lived the third time. The buildings crumble on one street and empty spaces are being used by students for art and literary readings.

It is a city that inspires me in a different way than Prague. Where Prague is a city filled with rich colors and beautiful buildings, Leipzig crumbles around its own beauty. Part of it is full of life, where a large portion is still a ghost town since the dissolution of the USSR.

Leipzig, Germany.

Leipzig, Germany.

There are many cities that inspire me–Prague, New York, Bratislava, Edinburgh, to name a few–but something still holds me to Leipzig. I do not know if I will ever return; I feel as if my time there is done with. I have soaked up as much as I can and the friends I have there are starting to float away to other places, too. As I walked the streets, the thoughts of its great past always came over me.

Leipzig has been home to many great writers and musicians. Also, the second largest book fair in Germany takes place there–Leipziger Buchmesse. Many of the photos I have of the city are of crumbling buildings and graffiti but the city is quite beautiful in many places. Here are a few.

Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life

By now, most of us know that the new incarnation of the Doctor will be Scottish actor, Peter Capaldi. He’s fantastic and I am extremely curious to see how he’ll be as the new Time Lord.

But…

In 1995, he won an Academy Award for a short film he wrote and directed titled Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The film focuses on one night as Herr Kafka is trying to write his famous novella, The Metamorphosis. He can’t seem to get that opening line right. What shall poor Gregor transform into? Kafka is continually interrupted by a strange knife sharpener, a gaggle of girls having a Christmas Eve party, and a costume saleswoman. Below is the video for the entire short film. Enjoy!

“Gregor Samsa, blah, blah, blah.”

Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind

spring awakeningSpring Awakening (or The Awakening of Spring as it had been translated into in the past, or the more closely Spring’s Awakening because of the original German title, Frühlings Erwachen) is a particular favorite of mine. Wedekind wrote the play in the late 1800s, but it was not performed until 1905. I have never seen it staged before–although, I know there was some kind of musical adaptation a few years ago–but, as a written text, it works very exquisitely.

“Oh, this feeling of shame!–What good to me is an encyclopedia that won’t answer me concerning the most important question in life?”

These are the words that are declared by Moritz, one of the three main characters of the play. Spring Awakening concerns itself with the fourteen year old school children of the village. There is not much distinguishing the adults (except their funny names: Knochenbruch, Zungenschlag, Fliegentod, tr. broken bone, tonguing or a manner of speaking but literally “tongue hitting,” fly’s death) and they serve to illuminate the lack of sexual education that the children are getting and are often the abusers both physical and emotional.

The play deals with abortion, sex, homosexuality, rape, suicide, and incest, which to say the least, were shameful topics to discuss during the time of the play’s conception. Young Wendla’s older sister has given birth and when her mother goes on about the stork delivering the baby, Wendla insists that her mother tell her the truth. She becomes flustered and refuses to tell her the truth. Instead, her mother concocts the idea that babies only come to women who are married and extremely in love with their husbands. I’m sure, close reader, we all have an idea how that will end. Meanwhile, Wendla’s schoolmates, Moritz and Melchior are also discussing sex. Melchior seems to be the only one of the school children to know anything about the matter and tells Moritz that he will write it all out for him with diagrams included.

The play sometimes carries the subtitle, A Children’s Tragedy. The story unfolds unpleasantly for the three characters because of the undue stress they are put under and the uselessness of the adults. The plot itself is quite intricate for a piece that takes about an hour to read. In his introduction to the 1909 translation, Francis J. Ziegler writes: “‘Frühlings Erwachen’ may not be a pleasant read exactly, but there is no forgetting it after one has perused it; there is an essential strength about it which grips the intellect.”

He is so right in these few words. I could go more into the plot of the play but it would be ill of me to ruin it for those who have never read it. It is boiling with misery, emotions, and brutality. The writing feels like it is part of modernity and a bold piece of art from the later 19th Century. The characters of the children are fleshed out even in just the written word without the help of a staged performance. Each sentences oozes desperation and melancholia. Moritz, Melchior, and Wendla’s frustration is vivid.

You can read Spring Awakening for free at Project Gutenberg (English translation) or Amazon (original German).

This is Number 2 on The [International] Reading List.

Reading & Chatting at the Bridge Series

bridgeYesterday was all rain and chill in New York City. So what better way to spend a damp evening than to go to The Bridge Series event hosted by Goethe Insitut. The Bridge Series “is the first independent reading and discussion series in New York City devoted to literary translation.”

I was pleasantly surprise. I can be a tough critique when it comes to readings (meaning, normally they are incredibly boring). But these translators chose mighty fine selections and their discussion after the reading was quite interesting. The translators included Ross Benjamin, Isabel Fargo Cole, Tess Lewis, and Tim Mohr. All four are working from German to English.

The standout of this whole event was how exciting all of the selections were. If they are not already released, the novels will be available very soon this year in the US (the UK already has some available in translation). Also, for any Kafka aficionados out there, Ross Benjamin is currently working on a translation of Kafka’s complete Diaries.

There were two questions that most peaked my interest. The first being, what happens if the author includes a blatant error in the original. An example given was an author writing about New York City had listed Gansevoort Street as being down near the World Trade Center (when in reality, it is over west in the Meatpacking District). The original author did this because he liked the sound of the name. It was convenient that he is a contemporary author because the translator was able to discuss this point with him and it was subsequently corrected in the translation. But whether or not such a mistake should be corrected was discussed further with one of the most notorious errors: Frank Kafka putting a sword in the hand of the Statue of Liberty in his work, Amerika. 

The second question was about how contemporary German literature (and foreign lit as a whole) has changed recently and how does that apply to translating. The translators hit upon the fact that many references are no longer solely Germany/Austria/Switzerland based. They also incorporate many North American trends and concepts. The translators didn’t weigh on whether they thought this was a good or bad thing but they did note that they didn’t have to look up as many culture reference anymore.

All in all, I was delighted to go to last night’s Bridge Series. I recommend it. Not only do they cover German literature but other languages as well. You can visit their website for more information.