My favorite things Austrian, part I writers

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 BrochDeath 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.

7. Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo Hofmannstahl.  Both remain underrated, and don’t forget Hofmannstahl’s libretti for Richard Strauss, including Der Rosenkavalier.

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 MarchFranz 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.


You didn't include Adolf Hitler in your list, obvious example of signalling.

Mises, Hayek? Part zwei


I strongly recommend Stifter, a major inspiration for Mann and Sebald among many others and quintessential Austrian. Nachsommer is perhaps the most famous.

I do not know precisely where Roth was born, but you pose him as being Austrian or Polish having been born in Galicia. But much of what was Galicia prior to 1918 is now part of western Ukraine, including the city of Lviv, formerly known as Lvov with both Russian and Polish pronunciations, as well as being Lemburg when it was part of Galicia. A large part of the population of Lemburg was Jewish, which Roth was, with that part of its population pretty much entirely gone now, either killed by Hitler or migrated elsewhere.

"I do not know precisely where Roth was born" well try clicking on the Wikipedia link that Tyler included in the post.

So, he was born near Lemburg, which means that he was born in what is now Ukraine, not Poland or Austria, although it was then under Austrian rule and later was under Polish rule before coming under Soviet and then German and then Soviet rule before getting to its current status of being part of Ukraine.

This is unpersuasive bragging. Revisit Aristotle, if your politics/income-stream allows it.

In regard to Europe, if anyone lives in La Jolla, can you please attend the below performances and write notes (it will make you look evocative and erudite) on Chee-Yun. Let me know....

OPENING NIGHT: Fiddles vs. Pianos


What a coincidence I'm vacationing in Tyrol.

Are you seeing or hearing about any violence or disruption due to the massive immigration from the ME and Africa???

No, they don't make it up the mountains.

Living in Germany, I can assure you that there is no significant increase in violence or disruption neither in the countryside nor in the big cities. This is not to say that there aren't some problems and tensions as well among immigrants as between immigrants and original population. But I'm quite convinced that an impartial spectator who walked through cities like Berlin or Vienna now and, say, 2014 could not observe a major difference...this is a country where more than one fifth of the population (nearly 20M) has an immigration background. Hence, even 1 million people coming to Germany in 2015 didn't change the overall picture.

To claim that Musil is "overrated, especially compared to Bernhard or Broch" is an outrage of incomprehensible proportions. Compared to Broch? Are you kidding me?? Broch is the B-movie version of Musil. Broch is Musil for Dummies.

A quote about Broch from Musil's diaries, complaining about how Broch had begun deliberately aping his style, has stuck with me for years: "If you stand too close to the wall, you can't help being splattered by paint."

But Bernhard is better than Musil!

Of course he is of considerably less historical interest. Austrians have been filled with melancholic, ie grandiose, disgust and self loathing since the 17th century, it is my opinion that the key to lower Austrian character is O du lieber Augustin and Bernhard is as eternal. Only a perfect Austrian would do it all in the form of the shaggy dog stories.

As to Musil he just buries it in the sort details historians love, but the historian who loves Bernhard probably is better suited to another career, I understand that soil science and mechanical engineering are good fits.

Broch however is just masturbation like all the worst elements of the Viennese. I once took art history from an archaeologist, he said that you learn nothing about a time and place by looking at a masterpiece, the truth is in the most dreary and cliched work. So I guess Hermann Broch is a national treasure.

As an aside Jelinek is singularly underrated in most circles, but every competent psychiatrist I ever met thought she was a genius, which makes sense if you think about it. I suggest "Women as Lovers" is the best place to start because the characters are surprised by their fate, her other books are much better, but her thesis is not as obvious there.

Weininger would interest someone like Tyler.

Nice and opinionated, I like it. Peter Handke, very accurate, can't stand him either.

The Death of Virgil is a great book.

Of course Kafka is Austrian. And he is considered as such by Austrians. Would you argue he is Czech?

Taking Musil to task for "not tying up the loose ends" of an unfinished book that was never completed because he was forced into flight by the Nazi takeover? Something tells me you haven't read any of Musil's other work beyond Man Without Qualities. I would start with the "Three Women" stories, they're incredible, blow anything by Broch out of the water. Agree about Handke and Kraus.

I think one should count Kafka as well as Roth as Austrian. For Roth, the decline and fall of the Austrian Empire is also one of the main topics of his work.
There are of course some problems with assigning writers which were born before World War I in the Austrian Empire to today's nation states.
One should be aware that both had Jewish origins which definitely influenced their writings. But with both writing in German they also showed their affiliation to the Austrian culture within the Empire.
Being German, I'd say one cannot overrate Kafka, but Roth is definitely one of the most underrated 20th century German writers.
I can also recommend "Die Strudlhofstiege" by Heimito von Doderer, but I'm not sure if it works in English. With its opulence it is very different from Kafka and Roth, however.

If Roth isn't Austrian, Freud isn't Austrian either. After all just as Roth was a Galician Jew who moved to Vienna ad fell in love with a dead empire, Freud was a Moravian Jew who came to Vienna and decided that the inner life of a few Viennese haut bourgeoisie and the occasional aristocrat were the basis of a new science.

It is much more reasonable to argue that Freud and Roth are Austrian than it is to make the same argument about Kafka, who stayed in Prague his whole career.

Agree. But it would also not be correct to treat Kafka as a Czech writer...that's why I think it is not really possible to make an allocation of authors of German tongue born somewhere in the old Austrian Empire to today's nation states.

But Prague was a German city. It had the first German-speaking University, years before Vienna and Heidelberg. Please don't use contemporary borders to infer something about history...

'I just bought some this morning.'

What a strange way to refer to literature.

You need to see somebody about your OCD.

Zweig's "The royal game" is an excellent novella.

There are several "architectural" competitons running currently in Vienna at:

"Most of the educated people I know are not clued into them." You must be using "educated" in some technical sense.

To reprove an unfinished novel for not tying up loose ends seems rather unfair. I'd call Musil the most forceful metaphorical writer of the twentieth century, and a psychologist with the sensitivity of Proust. It's not about plot– it's much more important than that...


Most any Google search about Austria and Austrians will result in hits for Austrian economics, a rather obscure subject for most people (although definitely not obscure for the faculty at GMU and at the Mercatus Institute). Are Austrians in general dogmatic ideologues? One might get that impression from Google searches (I am referring to Austrians not Austrian economics, although it's difficult to separate the two). In today's America, Austrians have an out-sized influence, whether or not Americans know it or read books by Austrian authors. I suppose one could say that we live in a highly dogmatic and ideological time, making Austrians well-suited for it. That's not to say that things Austrian don't appeal to me. Certainly Vienna (where my grandmother trained in her medical specialty). And Austrian economics more and more, as I've come to appreciate that solutions to economic issues and problems crafted by individuals are as flawed as the individuals who craft them. If Austrians and their intellectual heirs would drop the secret handshakes and secret code words they wouldn't be as scary. Dividing people between a few superior gnostics and many inferior nitwits isn't a good way to make many friends.

Agree with 1, 3, 7 and 11. Violently disagree with 4. In the mid-early work of Handke I could detect no politics at all. Just lots of beautiful landscape writing and atmosphere. You should not read "The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick" as his best work. You should try "Slow homecoming" or "My Year in the No-Man's-Bay". It combines detailed observations with pleasant landscape mysticism and feels almost like Sebald or Gracq. I can detect no politics in these books.

And the people who claim Franz Kafka for Austria might also consider claiming Jaroslav Hasek of the "Good Soldier Svejk" for Austria. In what way are those two not part of the same K.u.K Habsburg cultural environment? Maybe "Svejk" could be seen as the common man's equivalent of the "Man without qualities" :-)

Kafka wrote in German, Hasek in Czech.

#12 It must be remembered that while America sent refugees back to the Nazi ovens, Brazil was protecting refugees, including intellectuals such as Zweig, Paulo Rónai and Carpeaux. As famous Brazilian senator and presidential candidate Ruy Barbosa said to French Nobel laureate Anatole France, Brazil is for world-wide peace and brotherhood.

Zweig went to America before Brazil. He left, but we didn't send him away.

He was an exception: for most people Brazil (Rónai, for instance) saved, the option to Brazilian good will was Hitler's ovens. Also, Zweig left Germany-controlled Europe early. Unfortunately some people were not so lucky: "The captain then steered the St Louis towards the Florida coast, but the US authorities also refused it the right to dock, despite direct appeals to President Franklin Roosevelt."

Has there been any noteworthy Austrian economist?

I've never been able to finish a book by Bernhard, Broch, or Musil. They all seem equally unreadable.

I was thrilled to see Bernhard on your list. Old Masters is wonderfully bleak. Harper's ran an old interview with him a few years ago. Not to be missed:

Jean Amery. He's about as profound a writer as you'll find.

How can you talk about Austrian writers without mentioning Felix Salten? He wrote Bambi, A Life In The Woods which in its original form is considered the first eco-novel. Disney completely changed the tone for the spectacular animated feature. He is also believed to be the author of Josefine Mutzenbacher, among the earliest works of literary erotic pornography. Strange fact: the English translator of Bambi was Whitaker Chambers, later much more famous for something else.

Apart from the unconscionable sin of ranking Musil below Bernhard and Broch, I generally agree with these assessments. Jelinek is not a patch on Bachmann, who in my opinion is THE postwar Austrian writer, who unfortunately died under terrible circumstances. Her later work, particularly Malina and Simultan, is untouchable.

Also better than Jelinek is Marlene Streeruwitz, who adopts a more "documentary" tone than Jelinek and avoids Jelinek's stultifying hopelessness and fatalism (though since this is Austria it is still plenty bleak). Taking this documentary tone to an extreme is Marianne Fritz, who may well have been a genius but whom I find unreadable.

The Sleepwalkers reads to me as a second-rate Man Without Qualities. The Death of Virgil, however, really is something special and unique--and deserves a better English translation than the one terrible one in existence. Some of Broch's essays, collected in Hugo von Hofmannsthal & His Time, are insightful as well. But I can only agree with the above that Musil's depth of thought easily beats those around him.

My picks for the best Bernhard works are Correction and Extinction. Kalkwerk is excellent as well, but I feel Correction develops those themes to a deeper level. I saw an amazing stage performance of Kalkwerk some years ago put on by a Polish company. If a video exists, it is worth seeking out.

Peter Altenberg is an early modernist progenitor who is very worth reading, somewhere between Walser and Kafka (who I believe were both fans). Not quite on the level of the brilliant Hofmannsthal, but worthy.

Mela Hartwig's Am I a Redundant Human Being?, from 1931, is a small masterpiece. I wrote about it here:

Doderer is...okay. I've known people who really love him but have never quite gotten him. Werfel was a very bright hack, of whom someone (Canetti? Broch?) said that he had many ideas but no discriminatory capacity. Handke and Zweig are indeed terribly overrated.

Leo Perutz is worth a read for his pre-postmodern sensibility. I enjoyed The Master of the Day of Judgment.

As for Stifter, I think Carl Schorske's pointed assessment of him in Fin-de-Siecle Vienna is on the money. Stifter was a very talented writer, but what he represents is another matter entirely.

Hofmannsthal, so underrated that his name is misspelled twice. It is known that Kafka was an admirer of Hofmannsthal; Kafka quoted him in correspondence, and the influence of Conversations about Poems, The Tale of the 672nd Night, and Letter of Lord Chandos on Kafka's work is clear. Recommended, alongside Borges, who is also in many ways their literary descendant and inheritor.

Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Wittgenstein are both often best read as literature.

"Often" yes indeed ....

Some people say Wittgenstein uncovered fundamental truths about language and about the limits of rational inquiry. You should read him to figure out whether or not he is correct, not to impress your New Class friends in cocktail parties.

Interesting reply, Guy M. Without directly contradicting anything you have said, I would like to add the following (61 comments in and almost a full solar day after the original post, not many people who do not care one way or the other will waste their time on this comment of mine. Believe me.) Harold Bloom, who is often wrong about many things, I admit, has read Freud without preconceived bias for about 60 years and he too says Freud is often best read as literature (specifically as a literary critic in the line of Johnson, Coleridge, and Hazlitt, and as a critic - not a critic at the Shakespearean level, but still a critic - with insights into what we can and cannot know about the soul, which is a tall order for anybody, one has to admit (as for me, the arrangement of 8,000 words in the Hebrew scriptures impresses me, but there is a level above that, of course - and whether I respect Freud or not, nobody will disagree that he is several levels short of describing the reality of the human soul, and he wouldn't either). As for Wittgenstein - when Bruce Charlton wrote that he (Wittgenstein) might possibly be the only well-known philosopher who was just simply not very intelligent, he was almost certainly right. I have known a lot of rich kids from messed-up families (sorry, my heart breaks that there is such a thing as a messed-up family, but there is one or more in every civilization) and poor Wittgenstein (the philosopher Wittgenstein) was the Platonic ideal of a rich kid with a good education and a desire for the truth (one is not here using the language of flattery, but the honest language of description as to minimal qualifications, of course) who was just not all that bright but who worked hard and, as such, did not always say that which was very much worth not saying.

very interesting. Thank you.

Kudos for mentioning Joseph Roth. I actually think he belongs further up top on the numbered list. Content is perhaps not so interesting today, but his language and style are just extraordinary. Tight but fluid prose that almost sings. As you suggest, sadly neglected here in the English-speaking world.

I wish I could speak German. Ugh.

Shout out to Tyler for these pointers. I'm already starting on Wittgenstein’s Nephew, which is excellent. (But what does the absence of paragraph breaks signal?)

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