Experience Austria through Literature - Part VI:
Austrian writers beyond the Nazi trauma

Hans Carl Artmann

Hans Carl Artmann (1921 to 2000), who wrote avant-garde poetry that is hard to classify in stylistic terms, bits and pieces of prose and some drama. He became famous for a collection of poems, published in 1958: "med ana schwoazn dintn", written in Viennese dialect, but clearly not folkloristic. He worked as a translator and writer, and remained being identified as a dialect poet - which he was not, as "med ana schwoazn dintn" was only one of many experimental texts by Artmann.

Peter Handke

Peter Handke (born in 1942), often regarded to be the best contemporary writer from Austria, became famous in 1966, when he insulted the artists of the "Gruppe 47" and published the "Publikumsbeschimpfung" ("Offending the Audience"), a play that abandons the distinction between actors and audience and in which the actors insult and mock the audience. In his play "Kaspar", the Austrian criticism of language comes up once again: A speechless boy is found in the woods and through the teaching of language, pressed into a social and cultural frame.

Through other important texts like "Die Angst des Tormannes vorm Elfmeter" ("The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick") or the biographical "Wunschloses Unglück" ("A Sorrow beyond Dreams. A life story", dealing with his mother's suicide), Handke earns himself an international reputation as an outstanding literary figure. Privately, he acts arrogantly and selfishly, insults journalists, colleagues and everybody disagreeing with him.

In recent years, he was noted mostly for his undifferentiated pro-Serbian view on the Nato's war on Yugoslavia and his support for the criminals of war such as the former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. When Elfriede Jelinek (see below) got the Nobel prize for literature in 2003, she said that Handke would have deserved it more than her (and I agree).

Elfriede Jelinek

Elfriede Jelinek (born in 1946) uses an impulsive, complex, fluent and inclusive language that often endorses elements from slang, commercial terminology or swearwords to draw drastic images. In terms of issues, Jelinek favours feminist motives dealing with exploitation, violence and suppression. For many years, she was engaged in a personal struggle with Austria's rightwing populists.

After their triumphant victory in the national elections in 1999, Jelinek announced that she would leave the country. In 2003, she was awarded a Nobel Prize in literature - at a time when rightwing populist movements were on the rise all over Europe. Due to mental illness, Jelinek could not receive the award personally, but recorded a rather peculiar speech instead. Jelikek is mostly known for her plays, but also for some novels such as her first published work "wir sind lockvögel baby" (We are Decoys, Baby!").

Ernst Jandl

Ernst Jandl (born in 1925) is Austria's most famous writer of experimental poetry in the tradition of expressionism and dadaism. Stylistically, he cuts and distorts, bends and mixes words, leaves vowels away, exchanges consonants, removes syllables, mixes words of different languages and reads his poems in a way that they make perfect and wonderful sense again in the end.

Jandl himself classifies his poems into four groups: Poems in normal language, sound poetry, speech poetry and visual poetry. A full understanding and appreciation probably requires a deeper understanding of German, due to the phonetic importance and the rhythm of Jandl's work, translations make little sense.

Thomas Bernhard

Thomas Bernhard (1931 to 1989) was born to Austrians in the Netherlands, but grew up with his grandfather, the writer Johannes Freumbichler (see above), and later lived and studied in Salzburg and worked in rural Upper Austria and Vienna. His work deals with the role of individuals on the edge of bourgeois societies, his own biography: his humble childhood, the constraints of village communities, his lung disease and emotional isolation.

In the 1980ies, he turns more to drama, writes several highly controversial plays dealing with the Austrian society and the hate-love relationship many Austrian intellectuals have with this country. If I had to name my three favourite Austrian writers of the 20th century: here is one! Read "Heldenplatz", his most controversial play first performed in the sacred halls of the Burgtheater in Vienna, split Austria into a right and a left half. Or "Ein Kind" (translated with the same title by Michael Mitchell) for his biographical novels. Or try "Der Untergeher" ("The Loser") for a great example for his elaborate monologues.

Franz Innerhofer

Franz Innerhofer (1944 to 2002) is famous for a socially critical, autobiographical trilogy in which he deals with his own harsh past as an illegitimate child in the rural Alps. His work can be seen as a destruction of the romanticising view on poverty and the rural life in the remote areas of the Alps as previously shown by writers like Karl Heinrich Waggerl or Peter Rosegger (both, like Innerhofer, from Salzburg). He committed suicide in 2002. Another writer with a similar biography and works compared to Innerhofer is Gernot Wolfgruber (born in 1944).

Christoph Ransmayer

Christoph Ransmayer (born in 1954) studied ethnology and philosophy in Vienna and worked as a freelance journalist mostly on cultural and travel themes. As a writer, he is difficult to classify - he stands more in the tradition of early American novelists like Herman Melville or Jack London, picking up adventurous themes, but draws a fine line between his work and triviality. Realist-like aspects in the language are contrasted by a poetic and colourful language and the choice of his themes: Expeditions to the end of Worlds that are often surreal, fantastic, dream-like.

Read "Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis" ("The Terrors of Ice And Darkness") as a record of an Austrian 19th century expedition to the arctic sea. His novel "Morbus Kitahara" is a masterpiece in which he describes the relationship between three people in an apocalyptic Alpine setting of a Morgenthau World (the Morgenthau Plan was an idea of the allies to "reverse" industrialisation in all German-speaking countries after WWII to prevent future warfare). Ransmayer lives in Ireland and Vienna.

Hermes Phettberg

Hermes Phettberg (born in 1952) is an eccentric side-phenomenon of Austrian literature and - to me - severely underestimated and undervalued in his qualities as a writer. Active as a TV presenter, art performer and journalist, he is a bizarre mix of a devout-desperate Catholic, gay masochist with a passion for being publicly humiliated and whipped, a left-wing humanist, a creator of sentences of great beauty and images utterly disgusting.

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Further Reading

A detailed History of Austria in 10 parts

Reading Austria: Which books to choose

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