Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, and Other Must Read Austrian Writers

As Europe collapsed in the late 1930s Austrian writers were producing compelling and visionary work says George Prochnik. He introduces readers to some of these unjustly overlooked writers—perfect for the dark nights of winter.

Joseph Roth—who somehow melds Kafka-like visionary radiance with a rollicking epic sweep suggestive of Tolstoy on a Red Bull jag—was in Paris on the eve of the Anschluss. Roth hardly ever left the Café de Tournon in those days. From his table he held court “with God and the world.” The diminutive, mildly rotund man with thinning hair, a straw-colored, bristly moustache and the chivalrous élan of the Imperial and Royal officer in the Austro-Hungarian army he’d once improbably been, sat all day above his novel, intersplicing the composition of each sentence with a sip from the water glass an attentive waiter kept filling—a glass which only his intimates knew contained slivovitz. Friends of the author would drift in and out of his presence, sometimes just for the pleasure of his dreamy company, sometimes soliciting his insight.

On this occasion, the young actress Hertha Pauli approached Roth to show him a ballot she’d just received from the German Consulate General. The form read, “Do you agree to AUSTRIA’S REUNION WITH THE GERMAN REICH as accomplished on March 13, and do you vote for the list of our Führer ADOLPH HITLER.” The query was followed by a gigantic circle indicating a “yes” vote and a tiny ring for a “no.” Pauli presented the document to Roth to get his take on whether she ought to cast her “no” into the tally. Without a glance at the ballot, he snapped back one word, “Farce.” She asked whether it might yet be worthwhile to take one of the buses provided by the Consulate across the border to register her disapproval. “Go and try,” Roth responded, while continuing to write on the page before him. Pauli noticed that Roth was no longer penning words in his meticulous, tiny handwriting, but had begun inscribing crosses—dozens of miniscule crucifixes soon covered the sheet. Abruptly, he began slashing back over each of the crosses, transforming them into swastikas. “By now, the result of the ballot is presumably in print,” he said. Then he crunched the page, plopped it into an ashtray, lit a cigarette, and immolated the paper with the same match.

“The mission of the press is to spread culture while destroying the attention span.”

A road map of political-ideological life in Mitteleuropa either side of the First World War might display, rather than a network of streets, an encyclopedic register of dead ends. Here, instead of studying how to travel from one point to another, we could examine every conceivable route by which human systems end up slamming into a wall. Yet no age has ever produced a greater profusion of writers who foresaw vividly and rivetingly the impending explosions. Reading their books is like clutching a series of crystal balls that keep getting too hot to touch. We who know their latter history in Berlin's Opernplatz are aware that in the end they actually did burst into flames. These literary luminaries are prophets in the Biblical sense in which prophecy is not about gazing through wispy mists into the Future, but about staring with blistering lucidity into the present—attaining an observational intensity so acute that the outlines of what’s to come glow visible in the here and now. Rather than a Hollywood Rat Pack, we might think of them as the Habsburg Wrath Pack.

Today, after decades of neglect in the United States, a host of re-publications and new translations enables us to explore the incisive social analysis, acid wit, and acrid yet agile erotics of this remarkable group. The incendiary Austrian satirist Karl Kraus, once quipped, "There are two kinds of writers, those who are and those who aren't." Picking up these books we always know we’re in the grip of the former.

Here are five works with which to begin sampling the kaffeehaus canon.

Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March examines the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s collapse through the lens of one family's interface with Habsburg power. Spanning several generations of the Trotta's ascent into imperial favor after a single act of martial pluck—and the putrification of the entire imperium conferring such favors—the novel tracks history with cinematic rush and microscopic attentiveness. Battles, drinking parties, card games, and pathologically overwrought ceremonials segue into meditations on the psychological resonance of epochal change. In one of the multiple tour-de-force summaries of vast transformations, Roth writes, “In the years before the Great War, at the time the events chronicled in these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a man lived or died. When someone was expunged from the lists of the living, someone else did not immediately step up to take his place, but a gap was left to show where he had been, and those who knew the man had died or disappeared, well or even less well, fell silent whenever they saw the gap…That’s how it was then!...Everything that existed left behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as we nowadays live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively.” Down a flagon of slivovitz to Roth’s memory! And when the world has stopped spinning plunge into the full array of his novels and essays.

Chapter Two of Veza Canetti’s consistently startling novel The Tortoises opens with a pastoral scene. A man “in traditional Alpine costume” addresses a group of children while holding a sparrow. The man, Canetti writes, with his “hollow cheeks,” “hollow, scrawny fist” and legs clad in white stockings, is charming for the way he cups the sparrow. He patiently explains to the children that while a sparrow is not an especially useful creature—it is, after all, responsible for scarring the beautiful red cherries—humanity yet allows it to live because “Man is magnanimous.” Then, abruptly, the homily twists. “But not when it is sick,” he continues. “A sick sparrow is like a cripple. A parasite. A parasite: that’s the same thing as a scrounger. So now you know what a parasite is. The man took the little head between two fingers and broke the bird’s neck…The children cried out. The red-haired girl collapsed and had foam around her mouth.” In matter-of-fact tones, Canetti’s novel depicts the ripening of ghastly ideological positions among modest souls in a storybook hamlet above Vienna. The story follows the plight of a Jewish couple, Eva and Kain, as the rooms of their villa are gradually appropriated by the Nazis. The intricate ways in which the pair are trapped even when not actually remanded to Nazi custody helps illuminate why so many European Jews who theoretically might have escaped stayed put. And the macabre cruelty of their adversaries is bottomless: The book’s title comes from the practice of one local Nazi who begins branding the shells of live tortoises with swastikas to sell in the village market. The gesture is intended as oracular of the Reich's future. But the tortoise-brander also knows that the longevity of these poor animals will keep the Nazi symbol crawling slowly through the homes of Austria for a century and more regardless of Hitler's fortunes.

In the Bestiarium Literaricum, a satirical anthology published in Germany in 1920, Stefan Zweig was labeled The Steffzweig, “an artificial product, created on the occasion of a Vienna poets’ congress from the feathers, skin, hair, etc. of every possible animal.” There is, at the least, something chameleon-like about Zweig and while this quality enhanced his cosmopolitan fluency, the contradictions in his character also tormented him. Although he was enormously popular (becoming briefly in the 1930s the world’s most widely translated author), Zweig was also excruciatingly conscious that his life work would vanish with the Nazi ascendancy. In the United States, until just a few years ago, Zweig’s colossal oeuvre had, indeed, effectively been erased. Yet the best of his writing abounds with insights into his age and the timeless convolutions of ambivalent desire. Beware of Pity, his one completed novel, traces the story of an army officer’s cascading entanglement with the lame, fascinating, self-loathing daughter of a wealthy landowner and industrialist. The story spotlights the question of what true compassion consists in—and whether pity ultimately must extend to the annihilation of the compassionate. At times, Beware of Pity reads as if Dostoevsky’s Underground Man has plunged through a false bottom into an imperial sewer system yet further underground, populated by Habsburg specters who duel with crutches instead of swords. But it also opens outward to offer a sharp look at the fatal codes of honor dominating the Austro-Hungarian military caste system. Regimental balls, drunken revelries, disquisitions on the Royal Polo Club in Cairo, choleric old veterans and mysterious, philosophy-mad doctors keep the vertiginous darkness from engulfing the reader. All at once some colonel cries, “God blast my soul, what the hell are you at! Back! Re-form, you rabble!” and we’re at attention once more.

Near the end of Arthur Schnitzler's novel, The Road Into the Open, after a night of fraught conversation about relationships and art’s possibilities, the young composer Baron Georg von Wergenthin, stands in an open window, thinking about his pregnant mistress Anna. He imagines her sleeping in the country cottage where he’s installed her to bear their child. “But it was a dim experience, as though this apparition did not stand together with his own destiny, but rather somehow with that of some stranger, who himself knew nothing of it.—And that in that slumbering creature another slept, more deeply and mysteriously, and that this other was to be his child—this he was unable to grasp. Now, as the dullness of early morning crept almost painfully through his senses, the whole experience seemed distant and unreal as never before…And George stood at the window without happiness or understanding.”

Roth has a swashbuckling side even at his most reflective; Canetti’s stories advance as if by a series of shocks from an electric cattle prod; Zweig’s fiction hurtles, breathlessly—sometimes frenziedly—toward a bad ending for everybody. Schnitzler’s novels and novellas, by contrast, unfold in a slightly opiated, nocturnal key. The Road Into The Open portrays a cross-cut of Viennese society at the end, when politics are moribund or mad, anti-Semitism is on the rise, sexuality has been profoundly deromanticized, and attempts at suicide seem a casual after-thought. Freud, openly envious of Schnitzler’s gifts, called the author his doppelgänger. Baron von Wergenthin and his circle of friends meet at the salon of the ambitious Ehrenberg family. They fall in and out of intellectual conversation and erotic liaisons. Characters fret about identity (Jewish? German?) and struggle with questions of vocation (Dilettante? Artist? Politician?) All the while, there’s a sense of somnomolence as people are gently sucked toward the abyss. The semi-voluntary character of this crepuscular glaze recalls something Schnitzler wrote elsewhere, “There are all kinds of flight from responsibility. There is a flight into death, a flight into sickness, and finally a flight into stupidity. The last is the least dangerous and most comfortable, since even for clever people the journey is not as long as they might fondly imagine.”

“The mission of the press is to spread culture while destroying the attention span.”

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“Erotic enlightenment belongs in art, not education, but sometimes things have to be spelled out for illiterates. Persuading the illiterates is key, since they are the ones writing the vice laws.”

“One quickly grasps the depths of a woman’s mind, but it takes so long to push through to the surface!”

These aphorisms, along with 915 more form the text of Karl Kraus’ Dicta and Contradicta, a dazzling collection assembled by Kraus himself, primarily from Die Fackel (The Torch), the journal he presided over as publisher, editor and often sole author for 37 years. Kraus’ satirical Jeremiad cut through the cant of the times until there was almost nothing left. Brecht declared, “When the age died by its own hand, he was that hand.” The unsparing rigor of Kraus’ standards—political, aesthetic, grammatical, and punctuational—inspired many of the best writers and minds of the time. He always pushed thought one step further than seemed possible. So, at the very end of the book, after having repeatedly scourged humanity’s reliance on truth-obfuscating fantasies we smack against the following line, “‘Having no more illusions’: that is when they really begin.”

The secret of literary prophecy lies deep inside that aphorism. All these books play out the truth embodied in its impossible contradictions.

Plus: Check out Art Beast, for galleries, interviews with artists, and photos from the hottest parties.