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from the February 2016 issue

The Reverberations of History: Contemporary Austrian Literature

The variety and exuberance of contemporary Austrian writing is little known among English readers. Often lumped into the unwieldy category of German-language literature or overshadowed by Austria’s literary giants, many of its most interesting writers have yet to be translated into English. A country of eight million people, Austria has six official languages. A century ago, under the Hapsburg Empire, more than twice that many ethnic and linguistic groups were bound in a fruitful if sharp-elbowed co-existence and those creative tensions invigorate Austrian writing to this day. The friction between language and politics, history and memory, the center and peripheries that marked the literature of Joseph Roth, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann, Robert Musil and others, still energizes this country’s current writing, much of it spiced with a tonic dose of schmäh, a particularly Viennese combination of charm and guile, sardonic wit and cheerful malice. I have chosen four writers whose works are animated, in very different ways, by these magnetic poles.

Born into the Slovenian-speaking community in Carinthia, Austria’s southernmost province, Maja Haderlap writes poetry that explores the interplay of language and identity and revels in the richness and hazards found in linguistic borderlands. During much of the twentieth century, the Carinthian Slovenes’ struggle to maintain their language and culture was regarded with suspicion and even outright hostility by their German-speaking compatriots. At an early age, Haderlap learned with particular immediacy that the choice of one language over another is never made independent of social and political contexts. She continues to write in German and Slovenian, experiencing the constant demands in interviews and at readings that she identify herself with one culture or the other as an ongoing border control. In one poem she writes “my small language dreams of / a country, in which it can build nests of words / that will fan out across borders / that are not its own.”

For several decades, essayist Karl-Markus Gauss has been charting Europe’s obscure peripheries and ethnic minorities—Arbërëshe, Aromanians, Roma, and Sorbs among others. In his memoir The First Thing I Saw, Gauss, a child of Donau Swabians who fled to Austria after World War II, captures the excitement and tension of living in a multilingual community and the psychological aftershocks that trouble the families of refugees for generations. In a series of vignettes, Gauss recreates the atmosphere of Salzburg in the 1950s and his nearly idyllic childhood in which freedom was offered in almost equal measure by a red scooter and books. Still, reminders of the recently ended Second World War and the current Cold War constantly intruded on his awareness in the frequent sight of war invalids missing various limbs, his father’s sardonic references to their "Nazi" neighbors, and stories of relatives behind the Iron Curtain.

Alois Hotschnig has written fiction and plays that explore questions of personal guilt and collective responsibility and probe the fickleness of memory. His story Getting Undressed, Yes straddles the genres of fiction and drama. Out of the cacophony of a doctor’s waiting room, one particular storyline emerges—two patients trying to come to terms with their own and each other’s anxieties and delusions.  

Antonio Fian excels in the dramolette, a flash-drama with bite. He uses humor to skewer social and political pretensions, much like Calvin Trillin does in his comic verse. The cranky exchange between dyspeptic residents of a senior citizens’ home in his Heldenplatz succinctly shows that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Faulkner’s adage “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” is one that Austrian writing illustrates particularly vividly. The four authors I’ve chosen all write with antennae finely attuned to reverberations of history in the present and sharp eyes for the ways that legacies of the past—both toxic and tonic—influence current affairs.

With this feature I invite you to dip a toe into the ocean of literature flowing from land-locked Austria, with its currents and counter-currents, shallows and depths, tides and backwaters, and then encourage you to take the plunge.

© 2016 by Tess Lewis. All rights reserved.

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