Reading Austria: Which books to Choose

The State Hall in the National Library in Vienna

Choosing books to read as an appetiser for a trip to Austria or as a supplement for your journey is difficult considering the wealth of literature originating from this country.

The following list is zigzagging across the history of Austrian writing; I chose books that I liked myself and that cover many different aspects of Austrian history, life and culture. They were all fairly important ones and their writers are regarded to be shaping figures for the course of Austrian literature.

Many of the following works are very concise, so that you can probably read several from the list on the average Austria vacation with long train rides.

Adalbert Stifter: Biedermeier

Adalbert Stifter (1805 to 1868): "Bunte Steine" ("Colorful Stones"). This collection of novellas and stories makes a good example for pre-revolutionary Biedermeier literature. Traditional, domestic values are regarded highly, the language is romantic and idealising. Note that Stifter's popularity peaked around 1900, in response to progressive movements like expressionism or the Wiener Moderne.

Johann Nepomuk Nestroy: Wiener Volkstheater

Johann Nepomuk Nestroy (1801 to 1862): "Lumpazivagabundus". A piece of drama best viewed on stage (as all drama) and a typical example for Biedermeier "Wiener Volkstheater" (Viennese people's theatre) that combined traditions of Baroque performances and the Italian commedia dell'arte. A magical setting brings wealth to a hobo - a classic theme for the Volkstheater and an opportunity to criticise the reactionary politics of the days. The Volkstheater tradition was passed on, developed and is still alive.

Ferdinand von Saar: Realism / early Naturalism

Ferdinand von Saar (1833 to 1906): "Die Steinklopfer" ("The Stone Breakers"). A novel that is typical for Austrian realism/naturalism: Socially critical, descriptive and indirectly political. It tells the story of a labourer and former soldier working on the construction of the Semmering Railway, who kills his boss in self-defence.

Georg Trakl: Expressionism

Georg Trakl (1887 to 1914): Poetry. Austria's most important expressionist writer, a psychopath in the true sense of the word, suffering all through his short life and producing poems of unrivalled intensity.

Arthur Schnitzler: Wiener Moderne / Fin de Siecle

Arthur Schnitzler (1862 to 1931): "Der Reigen" ("Hands Around"). Schnitzler uses his sober, but expressive language to combine precise observations of the Viennese "fin de siecle" society with his interest in psychoanalysis. In this play he tells the story of a long "string" of loosely connected people that have affairs with each other. The first performance caused a major scandal in Vienna.

Stefan Zweig: Wiener Moderne / Fin de Siecle

Stefan Zweig (1881 to 1942): "Die Schachnovelle" ("The Royal Game"). Zweig was a great humanist, observer of human behaviours and aristocratic master of the novella, the novel's little sister. The "Schachnovelle" tells the story of a former Gestapo prisoner that saved his mind through playing chess against himself until he collapses. Later on a cruise, he is challenged with his past and gets torn between memory, reason and madness.

Ödön von Horvath, pre-war drama

Ödön von Horvath (1901 to 1938): "Jugend ohne Gott" (same title used for the English translation). The son of Hunarian diplomats tells the story of a boy in the fascist machinery of a paramilitary training camp on which he kills another young man. The corruption of the (Hitler) youth leading to a loss of traditional morals.

Elias Canetti: Nobel-awarded inter-war melange

Elias Canetti (1904 to 1994): "Die Blendung" ("Auto-da-Fe" or "The Tower of Babel"). The story of a sinologist that dissolves himself in his library, looses touch with reality and is locked into the horizon of his experience. In the end he burns himself with is books. Nobel laureate Canetti lived in Vienna in his younger years, this novel is a typical Viennese piece of literature in the sense that language criticism was deeply rooted in the city's intellectual community.

Thomas Bernhard: Modern hate-love of Austria

Thomas Bernhard (1931 to 1989): "Heldenplatz". An old Jewish professor returns to Austria with his family and rants about the country, its people and history - thereby revealing a hate-love relationship, a manic obsession with the country that is typical for Bernhard's works. The play caused a major scandal in Vienna, with weeks of arguing between leftwing and conservative politicians and media. Bernhard's dramatic masterpiece.

Peter Handke: Contemporary works

Peter Handke (born 1942): "Wunschloses Unglück" ("A Sorrow beyond Dreams. A life story"). The controversial re-newer of German literature writes the story of his mother's silent suffering in response to her suicide. It is one of Handke's most accessible and intimate works and has a very personal focus on rural, domestic life in Austria.

Christoph Ransmayer: Contemporary

Christoph Ransmayer (born 1954): "Morbus Kitahara". After WWII, the allies considered for a while to reverse industrialisation in all German-speaking countries and make all Germanic people farmers and peasants to prevent future wars. This apocalyptic scenario serves Ransmayer as a frame in which three people engage in a complicated relationship around desire for each other and for survival. An intense novel striving with colours and metaphors.

Further Reading

Experience Austria through literature - in 6 parts

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