Oh, Vienna, you double-faced city!

If you’ve ever come across Thomas Bernhard, you’ll know that he’s often called ‘the grumpy old man of Austrian literature’. He seemed to revile so much of Austrian society, history, smugness and hypocrisy, especially that of Vienna (which seemed to him the culmination of all things Austrian), that he even asked in his will that none of his works should be published (or his plays performed) there after his death. But he was far from the only Austrian writer who had a love-hate relationship with Austria – and with Vienna in particular. Nobel Prize winners Elfriede Jelinek and Peter Handke often launched into bitter invectives against the city, as did Karl Kraus. Even those who mourn the faded splendours of the city (and the death of a particular way of life) have very ambivalent feelings towards it: Elias Canetti, Joseph Roth, Schnitzler, Zweig. In fact, you can read a whole article about it in the Paris Review.

At a recent reunion with my international friends who all grew up in Vienna together, we realised that we all love the city, its beautiful architecture, the hills surrounding it, its rich cultural heritage, and above all its food (‘Mehlspeisen’ is the Austrian name for desserts, literally ‘floury meals’ and I’ve yet to meet someone who does not yearn for those extremely filling childhood joys). What do we remember less fondly? The rules and regulations, the ‘alles verboten’ draconian mentality, and the Viennese themselves. While I hesitate to put all Viennese in the same pot (some of my very good friends are Viennese), it’s undeniable that there is a schizophrenic element to the Viennese personality. Their renowned GemĂŒtlichkeit (warmth, friendliness, geniality) and politeness makes you feel initially much more welcome than you might do in the northern reaches of Germany, but then you realise that hypocrisy, pretentiousness and a deep-rooted suspicion of strangers (which seems bizarre in a diverse former empire) are equally engrained. Give me a rude, straight-talking but honest Berliner or Hamburger any time, you might be tempted to say.

And yet, reading Thomas Bernhard‘s hilarious send-up of the Viennese artistic circles in Woodcutters (in the translation of David McLintock), I couldn’t help but fall in love again with that particular Wiener SchmĂ€h – the black humour, often charming, frequently vicious – that is so characteristic of the city. The novel has the subtitle ‘eine Erregung’, which is usually used to describe sexual arousal, but could be translated in this context as an irritation or agitated rant. And this is exactly what it is. Our narrator is back in Vienna after a long period away. He runs into the Auersbergers, an artistic couple he used to be friends with three decades ago, and allows himself to be invited to a dinner party, which keeps getting postponed because the guest of honour, an actor at the Burgtheater, is late. While everyone is waiting and getting increasingly hungry, the narrator spends most of the rest of the book and the party seated in a wing-backed chair (the repetition of this phrase alone makes for a great comic effect), moaning and complaining about the people there and wondering why he ever accepted the invitation into a house and milieu that he thoroughly despises. He has been unnerved by the funeral of a formerly close friend who committed suicide (another staple in Bernhard’s fiction) and he really lets rip about his hosts and their guests.

… to think what these people have made of themselves in these thirty years!… All these people have contrived to turn conditions and circumstances that were once happy into something utterly depressing, I thought, sitting in the wing chair; they’ve managed to make everyting depressing, to transform all the happiness they once had into utter depression, just as I have…. All these people had come to Vienna in the fifties… hoping they would go far, as they say, but the farthest they actually went in Vienna was to become tolerably successful provincial artists, and the question is whether they would have gone any farther in any other so-called big city…

Of course, there is plenty to satirise in the vacuity and pretentiousness of the Viennese literary, musical and theatrical circles. Vienna is in many ways not a big city, not one of the world capitals. It is a city that was once the capital of an empire, but has now become a pretty piece of scenery and a backwater. None of its inhabitants accept that, of course. Culturally, at least (they tell themselves), they are still the belly-button of Europe. A new theatre director or conductor is headline news in Vienna, and everyone has an opinion about it. Apparently, the characters Bernhard mocks are so thinly veiled that they would have been perfectly recognisable at the time to any Austrian reader. The publishers feared libel suits and it was indeed soon banned.

Vienna is an art mill, the biggest art mill in the world, in which the arts and artists are ground down and pulverized year in, year out; whatever the art or whatever the artists, the Viennese art mill grinds them all to powder… and the curious thing is that all these people jump into this art mill entirely of their own volition…

But Bernhard does not just mock the guests. The narrator himself is also on the carving block. The way he paces up the Graben and down the KĂ€rntner Strasse, then up the KĂ€rntner Strasse and down the Graben again (two famous pedestrian streets right in the centre of Vienna), only to be accosted by old friends he supposedly wants to avoid, is very typical of the small-town mentality of promenading up and down the main road (what the Italians call the passeggiata). This habit is still alive and well in Vienna and you are likely to meet anyone who is anyone there in the centre sooner or later (plus a whole load of tourists nowadays). The grumpy passive-aggressive muttering in the corner is also typical of the Viennese personality. The actor, who at first seems to be a self-satisfied twit, then expresses a flight of fancy which captures the narrator’s imagination and pity. He says how much happier he would have been with the simple, lonely lifestyle of a woodcutter, and this yearning, although still dripping in Bernhardian irony, tugs a little at our heartstrings.

The final pages of the novel remind me so much of Cavafy’s poem about The City, the one you are doomed to always carry around with you, a burden and an ideal.

I ran away from the Auersberger nightmare and toward the Inner City, and as I ran I reflected that the city through which I was running, dreadful though I had always felt it to be and still felt it to be, was still the best city there was, that Vienna, which I found detestable and had always found detestable, was suddenly once again the best city in the world, my own city, my beloved Vienna, and that these people, whom I had always hated and still hated and would go on hating, were still the best people in the world: I hated them, yet found them somehow touching – I hated Vienna, yet found it somehow touching – I cursed these people, yet could not help loving them – I hated Vienna yet could not help loving it… This is my city and always will be my city…

It’s a very tongue-in-cheek novel, in which you must question nearly everything that the narrator tells you, yet there is also a lot of truth in what he says. While you may not find it quite as hilarious as someone who loves/hates the Viennese, it is a bright and short introduction to Bernhard’s work, far more accessible than some of his other works.

Typical Viennese architecture

By pure chance, a few evenings ago I attended a seminar organised by the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies which confirmed the almost schizophrenic nature of Viennese society, especially in the 1930s. Entitled ‘A School turns Brown: A Micro-Historical Analysis of the Grammar School G3 in Vienna and the Expulsion of its Jewish Pupils in April 1938’, the historian Dorothea McEwan (who herself had been a pupil of that school in the 1950s and absolutely loved its humanist tradition and ethic) showed how it took only 6 weeks after the Anschluss for the ‘purification’ of the school. The curriculum was ‘cleansed’, Jewish pupils were expelled and teachers who were not loyal to the Nazis were suddenly moved elsewhere. Six weeks. It is frightening how easy it is to descend into blind obedience to the siren call of law and order and authoritarianism. And Austria has never been immune to that siren call…

Poetry Review: Father Dirt by Mihaela Moscaliuc

FatherDirtThe poet Mihaela Moscaliuc was born and raised in Romania, but came to the United States in 1996 to do her graduate work in American literature. She is now married to an American poet and lectures in world literature, poetry and translation in New England. She was recommended to me by another poet, because in her first poetry collection ‘Father Dirt’ she captures perfectly the ambiguity of living a-straddle between two worlds, two languages and cultures.

Like any immigrant, she has come across the ocean with ‘a saddlebag of ghosts’ from her homeland:

We carry cemeteries on our heads,

in our bellies, round our ankles.

She used to be:

the girl who dreamt her escape…

who now fuels homesickness with immigrant tales.

And what tales she has to tell! She remembers with sensuous delight the rich tastes, images, sounds of a Romanian childhood: the odd astringent friendship of quince, cutting the corn porridge with butter-combed strings, spitting out cherry stones in the graveyard, the wary pleasure of having blood oranges for Easter (an uncommon delicacy in those days), good-natured banter and gossip during the home-waxing sessions among women. There are also aspects of her cultural heritage that she struggles to come to terms with: the old-fashioned beliefs in potions and tinctures, the healing powers of nettle and marigold tea, rituals for the dead, whispered curses and protection against evil. There is both a luminous and an ominous quality to her remembered life.

Yet the shadows hanging over these childhood memories are much deeper than that, for these were the years of deprivation and dictatorship, when abortion was illegal and even young girls were subjected to forced fertility checks. Moscaliuc remembers denouncements of classmates in school assemblies, the arrest of midwives who performed abortions, the suicide of a high-school classmate, the forced sterilisation of Roma women. She remembers fear and innuendo, when a careless word could send you to labour camp.

In the most heart-rending section of the book, there are a series of poems about children in orphanages and on the streets, youngsters who died far too young, for whom Father Dirt was a comforting figure, opposed to the bleached soul of the poet who was trying to help them on a voluntary basis. These are angry, fierce, immensely sad poems, individual stories almost too grim to contemplate. Moscaliuc piles on detail after sordid detail, until they sound almost banal, in a condemnation of society’s collective blindness to the problem.

My orphans grew up and disappeared below the earth.

Twice a day they ascend, cross the boulevard,

Sniffing auroleac, flapping plastic bottles…

Sometimes they’re electrocuted. Come dawn,

they’re carted to common burial…

Come spring, the survivors will honeycomb the town,

each crater strategically placed to absorb warmth and mercy.

Portrait of Mihaela Moscaliuc, from internationalpscyhonanalysis.net
Portrait of Mihaela Moscaliuc, from internationalpscyhonanalysis.net

These poems come from a harsh, unforgiving place and they brought up painful memories for me.  The poet admits that they may not be to everyone’s taste or understanding, but she almost performs an act of exorcism by writing them down.

You ask me where these poems come from.

You traveled my country enough to know…

But this is the skin she wants to shed, the waters of yesterday that she no longer wants to wade through, although she will never completely forget them. She wants to fit in with her new world, with the sweet tomato aroma of her new home, and this is where she truly speaks to that yearning and sense of never quite belonging which every immigrant knows.

I want dreams in the American idiom –

[…] dreams with popcorn plots and slick endings,

dreams with heirloom seedlings, dreams

never in need of translation

An unforgettable volume of poetry (even given my biased reading, being of similar age and background as the poet). I was fascinated, absorbed, dragged into deep pockets of pain and back again. Above all, it has given me the permission to be bolder, more honest, more open about my own past and my cultural influences.