Pamela S. Saur – Section report

Nr. 18    Juni 2011 TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften

Section | Sektion: Cities in Austrian Literature

Section report

Pamela S. Saur (Lamar University, Beaumont, TX, USA) [BIO]


 Konferenzdokumentation |  Conference publication


Many aspects of the theme of cities in Austrian literature were explored in the six papers presented. Perhaps because Austrian authors did not travel a great deal before the 1930s, the majority of the papers concerned contemporary authors and recent novels.  Discussed were Austrian novels whose stories take place in such cities as Tokyo, Los Angeles, and London.  These settings, all known by the authors first-hand, reflect the world travels typical of Austrian writers today, accustomed to participating in international cultural and scholarly arenas.  However, due to the enduring force of tradition and the cultural importance of present-day and historical Vienna , not surprisingly, several of the papers discussed the city of Vienna in Austrian books, from those of Hermann Bahr at the turn of the century, to contemporary writers Gerhard Roth and Doron Rabinovici.  The scope of the panel was broadened by an insightful historical piece on Austrian writers in Czernowitz, which developed a related idea, “Austrian Literature in Cities.”  

Two papers were delivered on the prolific contemporary writer and photographer Gerhard Roth, one on a novel in Tokyo and one on Vienna in his work overall.  In The City of Vienna in the Works of Gerhard Roth, Pamela S. Saur explored aspects of the presentation of the city in Roth’s early and late works, his books of photographs, and his essays as well as his novels and stories.  She found that many of his more recent volumes continued and developed subjects found in his earlier books. His writing and his creation of thousands of photographic images of the city reflect his need to return to the same locations again and again to experience and express new aspects of their beauty and significance. Often Roth aims to reveal that the city, whose culture is so widely glorified and admired by tourists, hides behind the surface ugliness, suffering, and brutality, poor and forgotten people, as well as suppressed traces of National Socialism. At times his art seems to protest against categorizing and “warehousing” people in institutions, and even aspects of the mission of museums resulting in preserving and displaying rotting horrors from the past.  However, his work displays similar impulses to express and preserve the truth about the city and her history as comprehensively as possible.  To be sure, Roth’s presentation of Vienna is ambivalent; he zealously exposes ugly truths, but he also portrays many of her beauties, both obvious and hidden, and his writings and photographs convey an obvious and enduring love of the city.

Todd C. Hanlin discussed Roth’s novel The Plan in his paper, Terra incognita: Gerhard Roth’s Tokyo. He noted that this tale of a repressed Austrian librarian, Feldt, on an adventure in Japan had some features in common with Heinrich von Kleist’s nineteenth-century novel “Erdbeben in  Chile.” However , Kleist had never been to Chile and had little interest in the real country he chose as setting.  In contrast, Gerhard Roth traveled extensively in Japan, made numerous photographs there, and learned a great deal about the culture. Ironically, however, Roth deliberately made his protagonist disturbed and disoriented in his foreign realm, just as Kleist had done. Roth’s protagonist tries to read “signs” and “omens” in Japan, and to apply his past knowledge to his experiences, but to little avail. He cannot comprehend the language, the culture or the people and his struggles to carry out his “plan” to make an illegal sale of a priceless Austrian artifact ultimately suggest to the reader that life is too uncertain for anyone to be certain about their “plans.” In his conclusion Hanlin puts something of a positive spin on Feldt’s “longed-for adventure,” stating, “he lives deeply for the first time . . . He discovers, however, that such a life is precarious, it is not safe, and an untimely death may be the result—something Feldt could not and did not avoid, since it is an intrinsic part of an unplanned, spontaneous and thus authentic life.”

Literary presentations of Vienna in recent Austrian literature were also discussed by Francis Michael Sharp in Vienna in the Fiction of Thomas Bernhard and Doron Rabinovici: A Study in Contrast. According to Sharp, Vienna is prominent in the fiction of both authors, and both incorporate the Holocaust in their portraits of the city, but the two take very different points of view.  Bernhard lays more weight on the legacy of Vienna as a bridge to Austria’s past cultural greatness.  He emphasizes the stain of the Nazi era in Austria, especially in his publications from the 1980s, but his fiction reflects his opinion that this stain cannot lessen the cultural achievements of the Imperial era.  Bernhard, known for exaggeration, at times makes extreme statements about both his love and his hatred of Vienna and Austria, which are not to be taken too literally.  In contrast, the image of Vienna in Rabinovici’s more recent novel Ohnehin , is both more broadly historical and more forward-looking.  The novel reflects the author’s background as an historian and an Austrian-Israeli Jew.  The novel not only portrays Vienna of the present and various times in the past, but offers some optimism about learning from the past and building a multicultural and peaceful future.

A contemporary woman writer and a representative of narrative experimentation, Marlene Streeruwitz, was the subject of a study by Raymond Burt, titled The Illusion of Hope: Urban Landscapes in the Novels of Marlene Streeruwitz. According to Burt, Streeruwitz’s characters are generally women in personal crisis, victims of the familial and social order constructed by the patriarchy. Her early novels focused primarily on the minutia and mundane of everyday life which evidenced the suppression and demoralization of her feminine heroines.  More recently her work has expanded to include the individual’s dilemma and search for authentic self in the wider context of global and historical frameworks. In her novels Nachwelt and Entfernung, this search for self-realization is conducted in foreign cities, Los Angeles and London respectively. Within the novels these cities are the physical, psychological and mythical landscapes for the tormented protagonists, who, while fleeing a crumbling past, seek restoration or a new path in life. The depiction of these cities is anchored in reality, not only by streets, landmarks, and minutely detailed descriptions, but also through significance moments in their history. The cities are viewed through the eyes of an isolated, vulnerable outsider, an Austrian woman seeking self-actualization against all odds. Popular images of these cities are shattered, but through the clash between subjective and objective realities, a glimpse of redemption in the mythic potential of these urban landscapes is exposed.

Nikolaus Unger shifted the focus of the panel from the current scene to a major cultural figure from Vienna’s past. His paper was titled, An Austrianism beyond the Viennese: The Role of Cities in Hermann Bahr’s Post-1900 Novels. His paper did not have an international focus, but concentrated on the importance of Vienna and other Austrian cities in Bahr’s cultural views and in some of his novels. According to Unger, after two decades participating in the cultural and socio-political transformations of the Austrian German and European fin-de-siècle in Vienna, Hermann Bahr called for a necessary expansion in the scope of an Austrian German modernism that had featured a near exclusive Viennese focus hitherto.  In an article entitled “Entdeckung der Provinz” (1900), Bahr argued that it had become necessary to move beyond the elite literary circles of the Austrian capital and focus on discovering the life of the Cisleithanian provinces.  Accordingly, he decided to develop this ideal via a series of consciously “Austrian” novels, envisaging a twelve work cycle that would provide his audience with a dynamic examination of his Austrian perspectives vis-à-vis his experience of the early twentieth century.    Using evidence from Bahr’s surviving correspondence and several of his post-1900 novels, which feature Vienna and other provincial cities as central backdrops, Unger explored the interplay between the capital and the provinces and its meaning to Bahr as he explored what it meant to be an Austrian German in the final years of the monarchy.

Joseph W. Moser presented the paper, Austrian Writers in the Former Crownland Capital Czernowitz. He noted that this city, now known as Chernivtsi, in the Ukraine, was the capital of Austro-Hungary’s easternmost crown land of Bukovia from 1849 until 1918. While the city has historically been contested by Romanians and Ukranians, in the nineteenth century its significant Yiddish-speaking population adopted German as their native language. As a result of the movement to emancipate the Jews in Austro-Hungary, the Germanophone Jews westernized this Eastern European town to the extent that Czernowitz remained a German-speaking city in the Interwar period under Romanian rule. Czernowitz in this time was home to a prolific community of Germanophone Austrian writers and artists. Only the invasion of German troops and their Romanian henchmen in 1941—following a brief period of Soviet rule—put an end to the thriving German-speaking culture in the ensuing Holocaust.  Moser discussed several writers from the city whose works are still known, but focused primarily on the historical and linguistic developments that so often have significant effects on the development of the arts.

Two scheduled presenters were unable to attend the conference, but their contributions will be included in the panel submission to TRANS. They were Friedrich Torberg’s Views of Hollywood, New York and Vienna by Donald G. Daviau and  selections from the poetry collection Aus vielen Stӓdten by Maria Luise Caputo-Maier.


 Inhalt | Table of Contents Nr. 18

For quotation purposes:
Pamela S. Saur: Section report: Cities in Austrian Literature –
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.

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