Yes, I am in Vienna, but I will take this country in discrete chunks because the contributions are so significant. Today is literature, here are a few remarks:
1. Thomas Bernhard. One of the very best post-war writers, obsessive and funny and extremely neurotic. The Loser [Der Untegeher] is the one that works best in English, though his unique style is not at its most fevered pitch. Wittgensteins Neffe [Wittgenstein’s Nephew] is my favorite, one of the smartest and funniest novels I know, close to perfect. Das Kalkwerk is entrancing, though I suspect unreadable in English. He remains grossly underrated in the English-speaking world, mostly for linguistic reasons but also he is a rebellion against the idea of a culture of entertainment. In my personal canon he is one of the more significant writers.
2. Hermann Broch. Death of Virgil is a 20th century classic, again much under-read amongst the American educated classes. Die Schlafwandler [The Sleepwalkers] is impressive, and perhaps seen as his major work, but it is more uneven in quality and eventually it falls apart.
3. Robert Musil. There are wonderful and historically significant major passages in The Man Without Qualities, but the drama loses its interest, the loose ends are not tied up, and ultimately I will call him overrated, especially compared to Bernhard or Broch.
4. Peter Handke. In German only, I say, and in any case not my taste. He is serious about politics in exactly the wrong way, and I hope future generations reject him.
5. Elfriede Jelinek. Many were surprised when she won the 2014 Nobel Prize in literature, and you are most likely to know her for writing the book behind the movie The Piano Teacher. Like Wagner, you could say her work is “better than it sounds,” but still it doesn’t sound that good. I find it irritating and offensive, plus she is a communist. Nonetheless, irritating fiction is better than boring fiction, see “Günter Wilhelm Grass.”
6. Karl Kraus. I used to think his work would eventually “come together” for me, but the more of it I read, and the more I read about him, I conclude he is a figure of historic interest only, and a good aphorist, but not an enduring literary artist. He was a keen satirist of the mores and totalitarian tendencies of his time, and that is to be appreciated. But if you try reading the rambling 500-page The Last Days of Mankind, in either English or German, you will conclude it was a work of its time only.
8. Christoph Ransmayr. He is popular in contemporary Austrian literature. I was not convinced, but will try again, if you love The Last World let me know.
9. Heimito von Doderer — I have not yet read him but am hopeful.
9b. Ingeborg Bachmann. I just bought some this morning.
10. Johann Nestroy. From the Enlightenment, mostly a playwright, worth spending some time with to get a perspective on Austrian literature before the 20th century.
11. Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Wittgenstein are both often best read as literature.
12. Stefan Zweig. The World of Yesterday is a favorite, sad and bittersweet, and it treats the European civilization that was passing away at the time of the Second World War, still relevant. Zweig committed suicide in Brazil, here is an excellent biography. The rest of his fiction still is read around much of the world (not so much America, famously in Russia), but I find it pretty ordinary and of its time.
I’m not counting Canetti, Kafka, and the like, who are not properly Austrian, though they lived in the Empire. Rilke does not count either, though he is one of the greatest of poets. Joseph Roth was born in Galicia, yet I think of him as an Austrian rather than Polish writer, again still somewhat neglected in the English-speaking world. Try Radetzky March. Franz Werfel I find ordinary, though I have not yet read Forty Days of Musa Dagh, for some his masterpiece, I did buy a copy of that one recently.
The bottom line: There are amazing wonders here, and yes “weird stuff.” Most of the educated people I know are not clued into them.