I sometimes think I can catch a glimpse of the lost world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as I walk through the streets of Vienna late at night. Walking past the windows of a gasthaus (a tavern with bar or restaurant) or heuriger (a wine tavern), I like to imagine the old Austrians sitting inside are characters in a Viennese novel. Their faces flushed, they almost look as crippled by their frailties as do some of the characters in the Austrian literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
This seems to be especially so with many of the later turn-of-the-century stories and novellas, which seem to revel in the gloom and melancholy of their protagonists. In the stories of Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), for example, lonely sympathetic characters often end up struggling with moral dilemmas or carry the pain of unrequited love. Zweig tells of the desperation in the lives of his characters and, in many cases, his characters end up as suicides.
When I began reading such stories, I sat in the corner of one of the many local cafés and simply watched people. I wondered whether any modern-day Austrians still shared any of this ”gloominess” or if it had all only been from a bygone age. I wondered about this for months, but once I read William M. Johnston’s The Austrian Mind: An Intellectual and Social History, 1848-1938, I began to see things more clearly. Although some consider this 1972 work a bit dated, I find it useful. Johnston provides a broad look at the legal, economic, artistic, literary, and social changes that the Austro-Hungarian Empire underwent in less than a hundred years. From the onset of the Great War in 1914 to the collapse of the Empire in 1918, from revolutions to repression, his account shows that the Austrian people absorbed a lot of anguish over many years, possibly leaving a deep wound in the national psyche.
In one passage, Johnston cites a description of Austrian writers whose works exhibited “[a] luxuriance in pessimism and passivity . . . , a wry sentimentality, a cultivation of mystery, and the sense of belonging to a dying elite.” This applies perfectly to Zweig and many of his contemporaries, all of whom, in one way or another, celebrated with great nostalgia the pre-war stability that they had all enjoyed as youths. “[They] rejoiced in a society where prosperous families could contemplate the future with equanimity,” says Johnston. And while they looked back to the fin-de-siècle Vienna that they had known, they also began to write with great apprehension about the modern era, “portraying characters gnawed by premonitions” about the future.
One of Zweig’s contemporaries was Joseph Roth (1894-1939), author of The Radetzky March (1932). Full of colorful personalities, the novel tells the story of Carl von Trotta, a young cadet who lives in the shadow of his grandfather, a military hero ennobled after saving the life of the young Kaiser Franz Joseph. Carl, raised by a cold and rigid father, comes of age just as the Empire begins its slow decline into decadence and irrelevance. The story ends with the eventual outbreak of the Great War.
Moved by Roth’s story, and intrigued by what his writings said about the Austrian experience, I began to read more by and about him. Like other Austrian writers of the time, Roth studied philosophy and literature at the University of Vienna. He later fought in the First World War and then worked as a journalist for many years.
Literary critics have described the “homelessness” that pervades Roth’s work – a sense of loss brought on by the collapse of the Empire. Roth’s stories and writings are full of nostalgia for imperial Europe and for the restoration of the monarchy. In addition, they reflect his growing disillusionment with contemporary society, a recurring theme in many of his other works, such as The Emperor’s Tomb (1938), a short sequel to his 1932 novel.
Although I have yet to exhaust Roth, I’ve already started looking at other Austrian writers. Many works are long out-of-print or are simply unavailable in translation. But over the past decade or so, London-based publisher Pushkin Press has painstakingly re-introduced English language readers like me to many Austrian (and Eastern European) authors. It is through Pushkin Press that I discovered Stefan Zweig as well as Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.
Today I am an enthusiastic reader of Zweig. His stories and novellas probe the psyche. He portrays people worn by inner struggles or torn by divided loyalties. These are stories that take root once you start reading; then you find you cannot stop talking about them! One tale, Brief einer Unbekannten (Letter from an Unknown Woman, 1922), haunts and gnaws at me, almost as if I knew the woman in the story.
In Buchmendel (1929), Zweig tells the poignant — and, in the end, tragic — story of a simple lover of books. Set against the backdrop of an impending war, its main character lives only for books and passes his days innocently in a Viennese café – until his end. The story closes with a line that encapsulates the importance of the written word: “[One] only makes books in order to keep in touch with one’s fellows after one has ceased to breathe, and thus to defend oneself against the inexorable fate of all that lives – transitoriness and oblivion.”
Recently, I took a look at Zweig’s autobiographical Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday), published in 1943, one year after he and his wife committed suicide in Brazil. Through personal anecdotes, Zweig poignantly describes the artistic and social life in Vienna at the turn of the century – and gives modern readers a glimpse of the order that was shattered and the world that was lost. His nostalgic opening paragraph says much:
“When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security. Everything in our almost thousand-year-old Austrian monarchy seemed based on permanency, and the State itself was the chief guarantor of this stability. . . . In this vast empire everything stood firmly and immovably in its appointed place, and at its head was the aged emperor; and were he to die, one knew (or believed) another would come to take his place, and nothing would change in the well-regulated order. No one thought of wars, of revolutions, or revolts. All that was radical, all violence, seemed impossible in an age of reason.”