Most Obscure on My Shelves – the Austro-Hungarian Empire

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

We’re at the lower centre-left bookshelves now (I always go bottom to top, for some reason) and this is where my literature in German resides, as well as my Nordics. I have a lot of Scandinoir, obviously, including the entire collection of the Martin Beck novels, which is one of my favourite crime fiction series ever. I also have a lot of Tove Jansson and live for the day when everyone will appreciate her as much as I do. But I have written about these before, so my choices are slightly more obscure now. And when I looked more closely, I realised they all represented different parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Elias Canetti: Die gerettete Zunge 

Translated into English as ‘The Tongue Set Free’, this is a memoir of Canetti’s peripatetic childhood and youth in Vienna, Zürich, England and Bulgaria. A book with multicultural references and influences which will resonate with any ‘Third Culture Kid’, it is also an insight into the life of a well-educated Jew in the early 20th century in Central Europe. This book tells me more about being European than many contemporary writers. We are all creatures of many different facets, where worlds collide and merge.

What gives a man worth is that he incorporates everything he has experienced. This includes the countries where he has lived, the people whose voices he has heard. It also takes in his origins, if he can find out something about them… not only one’s private experience but everything concerning the time and place of one’s beginnings.

Brigitte Hamann: The Reluctant Empress

This is the English translation of what is generally considered the definitive biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sissi), the romantic, unhappy, complex figure who has been adulated and booed at, and who found her death on the shores of Lake Geneva. The author was a well-respected German historian who lived in Vienna for most of her life, and her books are not only well-informed and meticulously researched, but also fun and readable. She also happened to be the mother of my earliest childhood friend, and I spent many happy days at her home when I was a wee mite. Her book Hitler’s Vienna, proving that Hitler’s anti-semitism and ideology of hatred was nourished by the Austrian capital just before the First World War, proved controversial of course in Austria. She passed away last year.

Franz Kafka: Tagebücher (Diaries) – 1910-1923

OK, I admit, Kafka is anything but obscure, but he was one of my major literary influences as I was growing up. In this volume, Max Brod gathered together pretty much all of the fragments of notebooks which Kafka had bequeathed to him, and they are the ultimate inspiration for anyone who is struggling to be a writer. He scribbles about everything – self-hatred, moaning about his friends, complaining about his work, about the world, how hard it is to write – but  he also writes about his dreams and fragments of fiction and ideas for stories. I may admire his finished work more, but it’s above all this diary (and Virginia Woolf’s) which made me a writer.



18 thoughts on “Most Obscure on My Shelves – the Austro-Hungarian Empire”

  1. I’m stunned – only today when tidying bookshelves, I paused and flicked through three Canetti works “The Tongue Set Free”, “Auto Da Fe” and “Crowds & Power” (which moved to my must read pile). How bizarre.

    1. I love these coincidences! Crowds and Power is a classic study in social psychology. Auto da Fe is quite disturbing, but again a brilliant portrayal of totalitarian mindset. I want to reread it now – and unlike you, I do not have it on my shelf!

  2. Fascinating! And I have heard of, and own, books by two of the authors on the list – Canetti and Kafka. Although I confess that I have Auto da Fe and I still haven’t read it. Maybe soon!

    1. Well, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend starting with Auto da Fe – it’s a bit of a strange one, and might put you off. His trilogy of memoirs is a good place to start, or, given your fascination for Soviet stuff, perhaps his essay on populism and the rise of authoritarianism ‘Crowds and Power’.

      1. Oh, I’d disagree: definitely start with Auto da fe. I re-read it along with ‘The Tongue Set Free’ as my GLM contributions. I hope to re-read C&P sometime soon.

  3. Interesting, Marina Sofia!! I’d very much like to read the Hamman. I think it’s fascinating to see the difference between what people think of the lives of noted people, and what was really true. That one got my attention.

  4. Lovely post, I like your idea a lot!
    I haven’t thought about this before, so I’ll have to take a look at my old bookshelf to properly answer you question. What I do remember is that I have a very old edition of “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe, which was one of the first books I’ve read outside the school curriculum and I truly enjoyed it 🙂

  5. I have a old boxed set of Summer 1914 and the Thibaults by Roger Martin du Gard. Just ‘found’ it when moving a bookcase this weekend.

    1. O, that sounds heavy. I think I may have accidentally read a book by him but cannot remember much. Except that I don’t much like family sagas.

  6. What awesome books you have! Since you are posting about the Austro-Hungarian empire, I have to mention my books — in English and Czech — by Božena Němcová, the famous Czech fairy tale writer (and subject of my latest book), who may or may not be the daughter of an Austro-Hungarian princess! (I quote from Kafka’s Letters to Milena quite a bit in my book too…)

  7. One of my favourite odd books is one called Swamplands of the Soul – New life in Dismal Places by James Hollis. I bought it when I was feeling yes, you guessed it!, depressed. Any book that had had hope in the title would have had me chewing the wallpaper. It’s written by a Jungian therapist and uses a lot of literary references. I love it because it was very helpful at the time and whenever I see the title it makes me smile because it’s so uncompromising.

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