Sunday, November 24, 2013

Authors from Mitteleuropa

My interest in literary figures is fairly cyclical. There was a long period where I was mostly reading non-Western authors, particularly those from India and Pakistan (maybe because -- if one restricts oneself to novels that have been translated into English -- it felt like a manageable are to explore). I kind of stretched this to include a few Middle Eastern writers and then Naguib Mahfouz. I think it is probably safe to say that facing up to reading the Cairo Trilogy turned into a bit of a mental block, and I shied away from it a few times (until finally tackling it -- and enjoying it for the most part -- earlier this year), which meant that I also stopped reading Narayan. Now I am in a different space and am reading some European fiction before I finally return to Mahfouz and Narayan, tentatively scheduled for 2015. While I haven't actually read too much of them,* I am currently finding myself mysteriously drawn to the writers of Mitteleuropa, particularly those that knew they were watching the tail end of the Austrian Empire. I think there are strong parallels today, given that we are kind of watching the death throes of the American Empire, and that it is free-floating anger around loss of privilege which actually can explain part of the stress and anger in the American physche (to say nothing of the toxicity of national politics).

Partially guided by Amazon's cross-promoting tendencies, I have started to think of the following 4 writers as linked and worthy of greater exploration: Robert Walser, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig and Gregor von Rezzori. Lists of their key works follow.

I had at least a bit of exposure to 3 of them before, but Robert Walser is the one I have almost no familiarity with.  It also seems that he is the least similar of the bunch, being a bit more forward-looking (and more of a modernist writer than the others), less nostalgic and funnier than the others.  Despite being Swiss (rather than Austrian let alone German), he was fairly influential in Germany, winning praise from Walter Benjamin, Hermann Hesse, and Robert Musil.  Perhaps more notably, he was one of Kafka's favorite writers.  Still, I might as well keep him in this post rather than hiving him off.  Walser (1878-1956) had a fairly long career, though he only saw a single story "The Walk" translated into English during his lifetime, though most of his major works have been translated now, even if they have not all remained in print.  One interesting factoid (lifted from Wikipedia) is that he died of a heart attack during a walk in the snowy fields near where he lived, which is an image practically lifted from his first novel, The Tanners.

In the following lists, I will use R for I have read the work, O to indicate I own the book but haven't read it, and * to indicate that I am making it a (relative) priority to get around to reading the book.  If unstarred, I may simply never make it back around to reading this part of their oeuvre, as I will be off on a completely different tangent.

Robert Walser
*. The Tanners (Geschwister Tanner - 1907)
The Assistant (Der Gehülfe - 1908)
R Jakob von Gunten (1909)
. The Robber (Der Räuber - 1925)
(Short stories)
R Selected Stories
Speaking To The Rose: Writings, 1912-1932
Masquerade and Other Stories
R Berlin Stories
R A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories
R Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories

The other authors come from a slightly later generation and were far more impacted by WWII, particularly the persecution of Jews in Germany in the 1930s.  (Walser actually served in WWI.)  Roth more or less drank himself to death in Paris in 1939, following his dislocation from Germany, which was directly related to the rise of Nazism.  I may have read Flight Without End but can't recall.  It sounds like something that would have been of interest to me.  Well, it is short, and perhaps I will read it (or reread it) as a palate cleanser between some of the Celine that I expect to tackle in the middle distance (2016-7?).  What's somewhat notable is that his first three novels are written as exposés of post-War German society from basically a socialist position, and then Roth moves from the left to a far more middle-of-the road, even conservative, stance in his later novels.  Of these three, I enjoyed Hotel Savoy quite a bit.

Joseph Roth (1894 – 1939)
The Spider's Web (Das Spinnennetz) (1923)
R Hotel Savoy (1924)
R The Rebellion (Die Rebellion) (1924)
The Wandering Jews (Juden auf Wanderschaft) (1927)
. The Flight without End (Die Flucht ohne Ende) (1927)
Zipper and His Father (Zipper und sein Vater) (1928)
The Silent Prophet (Der stumme Prophet) (1929)
Right and Left (Rechts und links) (1929)
. Perlefter: the Story of a Bourgeois (Unfinished novel) (1929-30)
Job (Hiob) (1930)
*O The Radetzky March (Radetzkymarsch) (1932)
Tarabas (1934)
R The Antichrist (Der Antichrist) (1934)
Confession of a Murderer (Beichte eines Mörders) (1936)
R Weights and Measures (Das falsche Gewicht) (1937)
The Emperor's Tomb (Die Kapuzinergruft) (1938)
R  The Tale of the 1002nd Night (aka The String of Pearls) (Die Geschichte der 1002 Nacht‎) (1939)
R The Legend of the Holy Drinker (Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker) (1939)
What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933
O Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939 (aka The White Cities)
R The Hotel Years (1929-1939)
O The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth
The Blind Mirror (Der blinde Spiegel) (1925)
O The Leviathan (Der Leviathan) (1940)

Stefan Zweig (1881 – 1942) is the writer I have the most familiarity with.  One of the strangest aspects of Zweig's life is that he had seen the writing on the wall (in Nazi Germany) and had escaped Germany in time, eventually settling in Petropolis, Brazil in 1940.  However, he seemed completely convinced that the Axis would win the war, and he and his wife committed suicide in 1942.  Obviously, I think this is a tragic waste, though certainly part of his decision was that the cultured world of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (with a significant Jewish influence) would never return, which of course was accurate.  The World of Yesterday, published in 1942, was his memorial to this world.  The list of his fiction runs very long, as he published quite a few novellas.  (A fair number of these are collected in a really nice 2 vol. set called Kaleidoscope, which I managed to score in a used book store in Oakland.  Pushkin Press has been doing a good job of keeping Zweig in print, along with NYRB Classics.)  However, I think I will list only a subset of his fiction and direct you to Wikipedia for the rest if interested. 

Forgotten Dreams, 1900 (Vergessene Träume)
In the Snow, 1901 (Im Schnee)
Two Lonely Souls, 1901 (Zwei Einsame)
The Love of Erika Ewald, 1904 (Die Liebe der Erika Ewald)
R The Star Over the Forest, 1904 (Der Stern über dem Walde)
O The Fowler Snared, 1906 (Sommernovellette)
R Twilight, 1910 (Original title: Geschichte eines Unterganges)
R Burning Secret, 1913 (Brennendes Geheimnis)
R Fear, 1920 (Angst)
Compulsion, 1920 (Der Zwang)
R Fantastic Night, 1922 (Phantastiche Nacht)
R Letter from an Unknown Woman, 1922 (Brief einer Unbekannten)
R Moonbeam Alley, 1922 (Die Mondscheingasse)
O Amok, 1922
R The Invisible Collection, 1925 (Die unsichtbare Sammlung)
Confusion, 1927 (Verwirrung der Gefühle)
O Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, 1927 (Vierundzwanzig Stunden aus dem Leben einer Frau)
R Buchmendel, 1929
O Leporella, 1935
*O Beware of Pity, 1939 (Ungeduld des Herzens)
R Chess Story or The Royal Game, 1942 (Schachnovelle)
*O The World of Yesterday
R Journey into the Past, 1976 (Widerstand der Wirklichkeit)
The Debt Paid Late, 1982 (Die spät bezahlte Schuld)
R The Post Office Girl, 1982 (Rausch der Verwandlung)

Finally, Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1998)  Curiously, he lived in Berlin through WWII, but was not drafted because of his Romanian origins.  Nonetheless, some of his later novels are often read as an exploration of German postwar guilt.  It appears he wrote quite a few novels, but he has only partially been translated into English. Also it seems he continued to write various stories and novellas about Maghredbinia, though these have not been collected in one place (perhaps something for NYRB Classics to tackle).  I wonder if Kain, his posthumous novel is any good.  If so, I do hope that is also translated in the near future.  Now at one point, I definitely owned The Death of My Brother Abel, and it had nearly made it to the top of the TBR pile, when it was knocked down for some unremembered reason.  I suspect I still own it in a random box of books, but I probably won't get to it until the move to Toronto and the massive unpacking of boxes that will entail.  In the meantime, I will probably satisfy myself with reading his early and late works, and then come back around to the middle works in a few years.  I have a suspicion that at least some of his books will mesh with my interests & sensibilities.  It also doesn't hurt that he seems to have done his best work in his 50s, giving me some hope that it is never too late...

Tales of Maghrebinia, 1953 (Maghrebinische Geschichten)
R Oedipus at Stalingrad, 1954 (Ödipus siegt bei Stalingrad)
R An Ermine in Czernopol, 1966 (Hermelin in Tschernopol)
*O The Death of My Brother Abel, 1976 (Der Tod meines Bruders Abel)
R Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, 1979 (Denkwürdigkeiten eines Antisemiten)
O The Snows Of Yesteryear, 1989 (Blumen im Schnee – Portraitstudien zu einer Autobiographie)
Guide for Idiots through German Society, 1992 (Idiotenführer durch die Deutsche Gesellschaft. Hochadel, Adel, Schickeria, Prominenz)
R The Orient Express, 1993
Kain. Das letzte Manuskript (posthumous novel, 2001)**

Upon reflection, Zweig is by far the most daunting, but I have read a large part of his oeuvre already.  I think for the others, reading a book or two a year would allow me to get through their key works in a reasonable time frame.  Just as with Alice Munro, it might be better to sample occasionally rather than gorging on all of their novels in one go.

* Not counting Kafka.  I've read plenty of Kafka and actually a fair bit of Zweig, as it turns out.

** As I mentioned in this much later post, in 2018 NYRB will be coming out with an English translation of Kain and pairing it with a new translation of The Death of My Brother Abel.

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