#GermanLitMonth: Robert Seethaler – Der Trafikant

germlitmonth

It is 1937 and 17 year of Franz Huchel leaves his beloved mother and the little village on the Attersee in the Salzkammergut (an idyllic area of Austria) to come to Vienna to train to be a tobbaconist, i.e. a seller of newspapers, cigars and other small merchandise in the formerly ubiquitous Tabak-Trafik stores of the Austrian capital.

tabaktraficOtto Trsnjek, his new boss, is a bit grumpy and demanding, but then he did lose a leg in the war and he hates politics because of its impact on the cigar industry. Franz is naive but means well and struggles to learn more about tobacco and the newspapers. He is fascinated by one of the regulars, Professor Sigmund Freud, famous by then all over Austria. As Franz sets out to discover the world of women and affairs of the heart, he asks Freud for advice, which leads to some of the funniest scenes of the book. He tells Freud that he plans to read all of his books, to which the elderly professor replies [my translation rather than the official one, with some cutting of the text]:

‘Haven’t you got anything better to do that to read the dusty old tomes of an old man?’

‘Like what, Professor?’

‘You’re asking me? You’re the young one here. Go out in the fresh air. Take a trip. Have fun. Find a girl.’

Franz looked at him wide-eyed… ‘A girl? If only it were so easy…’

‘Well, most people have done it.’

‘That doesn’t mean that I will.’

‘And why wouldn’t you, of all people?’

‘Where I come from, people know something about timbering or how to eke money out of the summer tourists. They don’t know a thing about love!’

‘That’s normal. Nobody knows anything about love.’

der-trafikant-robert-seethaler-1So this is a coming of age story, but given the setting and time period, you just can feel in your bones that it’s not going to end well. This sense of doom permeates the whole book, although there are plenty of light, amusing moments. Seethaler is a great storyteller, and the book is filled with memorable characters.

Franz pursues his love for a round-faced Bohemian girl through the Prater amusement park and the whole city, but is soon disappointed, while Freud proves to be no help whatsoever in affairs of the heart. However, he does take the old man’s advice on another matter: every morning he writes out his dreams from the night before and sticks them in the shop window. This attracts clients: some of them can relate to those strange dreams, but it leaves many more of them shaking their heads. The symbols of hatred, the day-to-day bullying or ignoring or complaining by the neighbours starts to build up. The shop front is daubed in pigs’ blood for daring to serve Jewish customers. Dr. Freud decides to leave the country. And Otto and his disciple… well, you’ll have to read the book to find out exactly what happens to them. The ending is perhaps just slightly sentimental, yet feels completely right.

Of course, with my current obsession about relationships between parents and children, I particularly adored the exchange of postcards and letters between Franz and his mother: such sweet, warm exchanges, yet very no-nonsense too. A mother all too aware that her (still) teenager is embarrassed by her, shows a lot of patience and understanding when he falls in love, but who insists: ‘Stop calling me ‘Mother’ in your letters, I’m your Mama and that’s that!’

tobacconistGood news: following the success of A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, this other novel of his has just recently been translated into English as The Tobacconist, transl. by Charlotte Collins, published by Picador. Bad news: the cover shows some random Central European townscape, rather than the Votivskirche/Währinger Straße area of Vienna, which provides the backdrop for the story.

See below a more suitable suggestion, although probably from 1910s.

From Vienna.at website
From Vienna.at website

 

I Was Jack Mortimer

german-2015

JackMortimerA strange little number this time round, somewhat reminiscent of ‘The Third Man’, by an Austrian author I had never heard of before. Pushkin Vertigo, the new imprint from Pushkin Press, seems to specialise in little-known, unusual mystery books. Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer (transl. by Ignat Avsey) is no exception. Published in 1933, it’s a book balancing between faded past and uncertain future, aristocratic and working-class Vienna.

There are clear parallels with German Expressionist films – Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ comes to mind – and early American gangster films, with ambiguous and unreliable main protagonists, cold femmes fatales and lack of clarity about who – if anyone – is on the side of the good and the just. Dashiel Hammett’s sparse, hard-boiled style must have been an influence on Lernet-Holenia. It sounds like his work is derivative, but it has its very own quirky originality and goes in unexpected directions.

Ferdinand Sponer is a thirty-year old taxi driver with upwardly mobile aspirations. Having read the cover blurb, I was expecting a dead body in his cab from the word go, rather than a longish introduction in which he moons around after one of his passengers, a beautiful and haughty young lady of aristocratic descent. His behaviour might best be described as stalking, despite the fact that he has a long-suffering girlfriend, Marie, who takes good care of him (one of the typical Viennese ‘süßes Mädl’, a good-natured working-class girl more sexually available than her bourgeois counterpart, who frequently crops up in art and literature as an object to be used and discarded). So by no means a likeable person. Nor does author give us a great deal of insight into the character’s psyche: we can only deduce Ferdinand’s personality and thoughts from his actions, which are described in minute detail, with almost forensic precision and coldness. Here’s how he reacts, for instance, when he discovers the dead body (when it finally does appear):

He edged backwards out of the cab, straightened up and struck his head hard against the top of the door frame. His cap fell forward over his face. He instinctively pushed it back with his forearm instead of with his blood-stained gloved hand. He turned around… He took a couple of slow steps, then three or four very quick ones. He pulled off his blood-stained gloves and threw them into the car. Closing his eyes momentarily, he slammed the rear door shut, then got in his seat, turned off the interior light and, closing his own door with his left hand, swung the car to the right and headed towards the policeman operating the traffic signals at the centre of the crossroads.

Scene from The Third Man, from filmcapsule.com
Scene from The Third Man, from filmcapsule.com

But, needless to say, he does not quite succeed in alerting the police. Instead, he gets sucked ever deeper into a dangerous game of concealing the body and impersonating the dead man. This isn’t a conventional detective story, though, for it’s not really about finding a killer or even about discovering how the man in the cab got shot without the driver noticing. It’s more of a mad race through the streets of Vienna by night, including a scene of confusion and paranoia in the hotel room, plus a longish, very cinematographic chase scene with Marie as the heroine. So a thriller with a mad caper thrown in for good measure, and a personal journey of awakening for the main protagonist. Not quite a noirish ending either.

I’m not quite sure what to think of it. I rather admire the ‘behaviourist’ style, although it does get more interiorised as Sponer gets more panicky. I would have liked perhaps something more obviously noir and downbeat, but of course I enjoyed the descriptions of driving around a grey, Novemberish Vienna. I also liked the sly digs at a city in which everyone is slightly dishonest and snobbish. All in all, this is an atmospheric recreation of Vienna between the two World Wars.

 

Joseph Roth stories in ‘Vienna Tales’

This week is Joseph Roth week at German Literature Month. Although the month itself is hosted by Caroline and Lizzy in equal measure (and you will find many outstanding reviews and discover many enticing authors here) , the Joseph Roth special is hosted by Caroline.

From kuenste-im-exil.de
From kuenste-im-exil.de

Joseph Roth was an Austrian Jew who lived and worked both in Vienna and Berlin, fled to Paris after the rise of Hitler in 1933, and died there in 1939, following a period of alcoholism and depression. He is most famous for that masterpiece of a novel documenting the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Radetzky March (named after the march by Johann Strauss the Elder that is always played at the end of New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra).

The three short stories I am talking about here are really journalistic pieces which Roth wrote in 1920, when he was working as a journalist for several short-lived left-wing newspapers in Vienna.

The first of these, Ausflug (Day Out), is almost an impressionist painting of autumn in Grinzing – the outer district of Vienna where the new wine is served at open-air pubs called Heurigen.

You can smell the new wine already at Schottentor, the number 38 tram is tipsy and staggers off hung with bunches of human bodies.

It’s a very short, slight piece, yet it perfectly conveys the drunken shenanigans of the city-dwellers out on a day trip. Blackmarketeers without table manners (one of the most terrible accusations one can make in good old conservative Vienna), ordering hot chocolate and Sachertorte without really knowing what either of them are, sarcastic descriptions of the contrast between peaceful nature and sleepy suburbia and the almost unbearable despoiling of it by the urban hordes.

Grinzing vineyards.
Grinzing vineyards.

Nearly a hundred years later, the tram No. 38 still follows the same route from Schottentor to Grinzing, and the atmosphere is still the same at the Heurigen and in the Wienerwald. Roth was writing at a time when the great empire had disintegrated and he thought the city would be full of traumatic changes. He could not have foreseen that, even after a further World War, the city would change so little. The black marketeers have been replaced by tourists, the atmosphere in the trams is calmer and more subdued, but the outer districts retain their country feel and green vineyards. The pubs are still full of pleasure-seekers speaking and singing in all languages. And the Sachertorte is still rich and sinful.

The second and third piece are portraits of some of the eccentric characters which are also part of the Viennese landscape. In ‘The Spring Ship’ we meet a boatsman and his family, off a white steam ship on the Danube Canal. The yearning for the great wide world in this small landlocked country is evident here. In ‘The Merry-Go-Round’ it’s Herr Rambousek, director of said merry-go-round, which migrates annually all through the Vorstadt neighbourhoods. He wears a suit of blue corduroy velvet and brandishes a horse-whip. He too reeks of the wider world and its dangerous charms…

In just a few pages we catch a glimpse of the sharp observational skills, irony and wistfulness of the Roth style. Even in his mid-twenties, early on in his writing career, he has the knack of the perfect phrase. “The poodle’s chain of thought is soaked now. It trembles, dripping nerves and water.’ ‘People who have city slicker ties around their necks and the boots of country dwellers on their feet.’

ViennaTalesThe whole book ‘Vienna Tales’ (edited by Helen Constantine, translated by Deborah Holmes, published by OUP) is worth reading for the combination of nostalgic and neuralgic insights into the city and its inhabitants. Ingeborg Bachmann is present with a story about a woman whose bad eyesight permits her to distance herself from any painful realities. Bulgarian-born Dimitre Dinev shows us the tribulations of an asylum-seeker in the centre of (still quite xenophobic) Vienna. Arthur Schnitzler is featured with two previously untranslated stories, while other writers such as Christine Nöstlinger, Veza Canetti, Adalbert Stifter and Heinrich Laube are little-known outside their native country.

This is a review linked of course to that wonderful German Literature Month meme as seen below. I’m discovering so many outstanding new writers thanks to having joined this initiative, I am truly grateful. And that’s my Thanksgiving moment for the week! Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends!

 

And Now for Something Completely Different…

Two very different books for a change (and a break from my usual crime or other gruelling subjects): memoirs and poetry.

www.wien.gv.at
http://www.wien.gv.at

Hilde Spiel was a highly versatile Austrian writer and journalist (from a highly integrated Jewish family), who fled to London in 1936 (after the assassination of her beloved university lecturer Moritz Schlick). Her diary of her trip to Vienna in 1946 as a correspondent for the British Armed Forces was originally written in English but was later edited and published in German as ‘Rückkehr nach Wien (Return to Vienna).

This is a very poignant and thoughtful report of a city changed beyond recognition by bombs and defeat… and yet unchanged in many ways (some good, some bad). [All translations my own.]

I must learn everything anew. The cold mouldy stone smell of Viennese houses… the unrelenting stare of the housekeeper… the suspicious, unfriendly smile that was there before the Nazis and will always be there.

hilde spielSpiel refrains from sentimentality. She is clear-sighted and precise in her description of everyday heroism and cowardice, of opportunism and the complicated relationship between the victorious Allies and the local population. She talks to a Count and Countess, who now live in their crumbling little palace in the Russian Sector. They tell her about the day the Russian army descended upon their property, camped in their garden with fifty horses, shattered all their crystal and raped their female servants. The author understands their feeling of helplessness, but cannot help thinking:

Nevertheless, the two of them have lived for seven years side by side with barbarians. Only… their own barbarians were smooth-tongued, able to converse politely about Goethe and Mozart, with good table manners, agreeable hosts and guests, polished, elegant and thoroughly European. Yet they did far worse things behind prison walls and camp fences than the rape of helpless women. It’s only when the barbarians take on their eastern, unvarnished and shameless form that the Count and Countess realise the degeneration of the present day.

This trip is of course also an opportunity for self-reflection. To what extent can we ever go home to that place where we have been happy in the past, when we have changed and the place too has changed in a different way? Who wins in the battle between heart and mind? How much of our true selves do we have to hide or abandon when we become immigrants and have to abide by the rules and cultural mores of our adopted country?

 

I fear that my centre of gravity is somewhere above the skies of Europe, drifting in a cloud above England, Austria, Italy, France, simultaneously attracted and repelled, never really coming down in any of these places… I will have to test again and again where my true home is.

returnViennaSpiel once said that she could never have worked without England, but she couldn’t live without Vienna. Yet, even as she enjoys a few musical performances at the temporarily re-housed Vienna Opera, she wonders:

Is there anything in this city still alive and contemporary, something I can admire unreservedly, that is not soaked up in the past like a sponge …?

Bonus tidbit of information that I discovered while reading the book is that Hilde Spiel spent the first ten years of her childhood on the street next to the one where I spent mine and had a similar near-Catholic experience in the very same little parish church (which is featured on the cover of the English language edition of her book).

For an additional book review and information on how to get hold of this fascinating book, see here.

 

 

sonnetsThe second book is a collection of 101 Sonnets published by Faber and Faber.  Poet, writer and musician Don Paterson curates this eclectic collection of one of the best-loved and most popular verse forms in the Western world, often with witty asides about each poem. For instance, about Elizabeth Daryush’s Still Life:

The best breakfast every described, though the end of the poem you want to go at it with a cricket bat. It’s hard to know exactly where the poet stand on all this, but we can perhaps sense her disapproval in the pampered insularity of the scene. I hope.

I had no idea there were so much breadth and variety of modern sonnets, from Seamus Heaney’s beautifully controlled ‘The Skylight’ to Elizabeth Bishop’s unconventional two-stress lines to Douglas Dunn’s blissful description of a summer of ‘Modern Love’. A volume to treasure and dip into, again and again. (And yes, that explains my own two recent sonnet attempts.)

Real Viennese Crime Fiction

This is not really a book review, more of a declaration of love for its setting, and it fits into my Global Reading Challenge, the meme launched by the incomparable Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise.

Ah, Vienna!  City of my heart – no matter how many places I live in, this is the place that feels closest to home, perhaps because I spent most of my childhood there.  Yet it’s not just gold-tinged nostalgia.  I will forever be regarded as an outsider there: no matter how fond how I am of Grinzing and the wooded hills extending beyond it, no matter how familiar I am with every element of the Viennese cuisine, no matter how easily I slip into the lazy lengthened vowels of the Viennese accent.

Viennese Souvenirs
Viennese Souvenirs

Yet still I thrill to the slightest mention of the city, and I cannot resist any novel that is set there.  Yet somehow, until recently, crime fiction set in Vienna seems to have been written largely by foreign authors. The obvious one to mention is Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man’.  Both the book and the film are excellent at conveying the disquieting atmosphere of a city on the very border of the Cold War. Frank Tallis has series of novels featuring a psychonalytical detective in early 20th century Vienna, but I found it a bit too rich, like a Sachertorte.  J. Sydney Jones also addresses the same period in Austrian history, introducing real-life literary celebrities, musicians and artists such as Gustav Klimt and Gustav Mahler with his Viennese Mysteries series.

However, in recent years, there has been a surge of native crime writers telling us of their love/hate relationship with their capital city.  [Because you aren’t a real Viennese until you learn to complain about the city and its inhabitants.] Some of them rather obviously cater for the tourist market, much like the Mozartkugeln confectionery.  Some of them are intended for the domestic market (which includes Germany and Switzerland, of course).  None of them have been translated into English yet, as far as I am aware, but I will keep my eyes open for Wolf Haas (many of his books have been filmed for Austrian TV),  Edith Kneifl’s evocations of the Prater fun fair, Andreas Pittler’s novels set in the tumultuous 1930s, Marcus Rafaelsberger who changed his name to Marc Elsberg and now lives in Hamburg, and Alfred Komarek’s melancholy detective Polt, who lives just outside Vienna amidst beautiful vineyards.

But every now and then you find the genuine thing: a book that conveys all of the contradictory atmosphere of this city, everything that charms and frustrates you about it. This author is Stefan Slupetzky and his crime series is about Poldi Wallisch, a.k.a the Lemming for his tendency to engage in self-destructive behaviour.

LemmingThe book I read, ‘Lemmings Zorn’ (Lemming’s Rage) is the fourth in the series, but I don’t think this is a series you need to read in chronological order.  Not surprisingly, it’s about rage and frustration, about average people trying to make a life for themselves in the city of endless construction sites, unapproachable neighbours and high noise levels. It is also about powerlessness and revenge, about shame and shamelessness.

It starts out as a humorous family saga. It’s a lovely May Day holiday and the streets of Vienna are empty, save for Lemming and his heavily pregnant life partner, Klara. Suddenly, Klara’s waters break, the ambulance fails to arrive and panic sets in.  Until the couple are saved by a stranger, Angela, who helps them with the birth, names the baby and becomes a family friend.  A few months later, however, on Christmas Eve, Lemming has to leave the baby with Angela for a few hours.  When he goes to pick up his son, he makes a gruesome discovery which changes their lives forever.

Macabre humour mixed with slapstick, surrealist dream sequences, philosophical asides and tongue-in-cheek observations, this is a crime novel unlike any other you have read.  I absolutely loved it and laughed out loud throughout.  Whether it would appeal to anyone who doesn’t know Vienna or the black humour of its inhabitants, we won’t know until it’s been translated into English. I do hope someone hurries up and does just that!