Austria

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).

Festival Neue Literatur 2013

The annual Festival Neue Literatur has announced the featured authors for this year’s festivities. Every February in New York City, the festival brings together six writers hailing from Austria, Switzerland, and Germany with the intent of offering interesting discussions and readings along with enhancing the visibility of these contemporary writers to an American market. With our dearth of foreign novels in this country, FNL can be an exciting time to learn about new authors.

This year’s events take place during 22-24 February and all are free and open to the public (however, a couple do require an emailed RSVP, so check the website for details). These events have filled up in the past; last year, most notably was NYU Deutsches Haus’ brunch. I heard they had to turn people away because there was no room.

Events are held all around the city. For the complete listings, check their website. You can also find information on the authors, moderators & curators, sample translated texts and more. Enjoy!

reading “The Rules of Civility” in Berlin

While on a recent trip to Austria, I grabbed a copy of Amor Towles’ The Rules of Civility. My brain was a bit fried from so much German, that I popped into an international bookshop with not much of an idea of what I would find. I perused the shelves and didn’t really see anything until I came upon it. I remembered the title from a then-recent post over at Literary Man. So, I snapped it up and was happy to have a new book to read as I next traveled to Berlin.

It is more than an ode to New York. The main character is the 25-year-old native New Yorker, Katey Kontent, who on New Years Eve in 1937, meets the enticing Tinker Grey. What comes is the next year of Katey’s life as she moves around the city with new jobs and new friends. The dialogue is snappy and the author makes sure to add an authenticity to the story by dappling the text with vogue establishments and trends of the time. One of my favorite lines was,

“Doesn’t New York just turn you inside out.”

It is repeated a few times and that is exactly was happens throughout the novel. The Rules of Civility was a real page turner and great relief to my brain which has been thinking German for too long. I popped in to a bookshop today with an international section. I won’t reveal what the novel is yet but it is British and it’s incredibly addicting.

 

post script Many apologies for my horrid grammar and syntax; I’ve been losing my language skills recently but this book is a must read!

thoughts on my new translator

A few months ago, I was asked if I would write a story to be included in an Austrian anthology. I was very honored but I told the editor that I could only write a story in English; I can translate from German but not write the other way. I was told that this would not be a problem at all and a translator would be secured for me. I was excited but then after the initial blush of being asked to be a part of this lovely collection, my fears started to set in.

Some of you might remember my first round of literary translation (we had a joint project where we both translated each other. We had no choice in picking each other and we were strangers before meeting). Granted, I wrote more about my experience translating her story, but she surely drove me nuts all around. Although, I have let it roll off my back, I am still unhappy with the way my short story turned out.

I thought about it and then quickly asked if I could find my own translator. No problem! A young writer friend of mine in Germany has taken up the task. I didn’t know if he had ever translated before but I had read some of his poetry. I was more concerned with him being a great writer because I believe that in order to be a fantastic translator, one must also be a fantastic writer.

My story for the anthology is short–about 1,600 words–and my friend has about a month to translate it. I have already received the first page in German. He had only a few questions and one or two slight misunderstandings, but I am over-the-moon. It has been such a relief knowing my story is in the right hands. Having your work represented in an unoriginal state could make one feel as if a pale facsimile is being produced (which can happen) but I hope that the German translation can become his own. I am very excited to see the entire project once it is completed.