Marjorie Perloff looks back at Aus­trian literature’s nos­tal­gia for the im­pe­rial past

METROPOLE - Vienna in English - - CONTENTS - By Tamara Radak By Werner Garste­nauer

In Edge of Irony, Marjorie Perloff an­a­lyzes Aus­tria’s in­ter­war literature, which dealt with un­sta­ble times with nos­tal­gia and hu­mor. Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life po­et­i­cally de­picts Aus­trian moun­tain life, newly trans­lated into English by Charlotte Collins.

The 1920s in Vi­enna was a time of despair and con­fu­sion in a world of lost em­pire, po­lit­i­cal up­heaval and the trauma of war. De­spite the pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics for the work­ing class, cul­tural critic Marjorie Perloff reads the era as a time of cri­sis, of a dis­ori­ented na­tional iden­tity and a fore­shad­ow­ing of the war to come. Faced with an un­sta­ble present and an un­cer­tain fu­ture, Aus­trian writ­ers re­acted with skep­ti­cism, in a unique voice of in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic modernism that looked back to the past.

Frus­trated that the lead­ing lit­er­ary fig­ures of the “post­em­pire Aus­trian world” – Karl Kraus or Joseph Roth – are “vir­tu­ally un­known” in Amer­ica, Perloff told the au­di­ence at a re­cent book launch in Vi­enna, she set out to put “Aus­tro­modernism” on the map. In Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Hab­s­burg Em­pire, she ex­plores the Aus­trian literature that emerged from this era, a literature fraught with irony and am­bi­gu­ity that looks back at a world on the edge of war.

Born Gabriele Mintz in Vi­enna in 1931, Perloff im­mi­grated to Amer­ica in 1938. Her mem­oir, The Vi­enna Para­dox (2004), of­fers an in­sight into her life as an émi­gré, an in­quiry into the mix of iden­tity and alien­ation that de­fines her re­la­tion­ship with the city, and that she even­tu­ally re­solved through literature. In Edge of Irony, Perloff re­turns to the coun­try of her birth in her role as aca­demic, in­ter­spers­ing her read­ings with oc­ca­sional glimpses of per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. Perloff’s agility across lan­guages is pal­pa­ble on ev­ery page and makes a de­light­ful read. In­deed, mul­ti­lin­gual­ism emerges as a cen­tral as­pect that shaped “the deeply ironic literature of the de­funct, mul­ti­cul­tural, and poly­glot Aus­tro­hun­gar­ian Em­pire.”


Perloff shows how the sense of un­cer­tainty and in­sta­bil­ity per­vad­ing the in­ter­war years spills over into Aus­trian literature of the 1920s. These texts are frag­mented, frac­tured and of­ten in­com­plete, re­main­ing “wide open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion” and, in the case of Robert Musil’s The Man With­out Qual­i­ties, lit­er­ally un­fin­ished. “Aus­troModernism” is only tan­gen­tially re­lated to ex­per­i­men­tal bravado à la James Joyce, Vir­ginia Woolf, or the Ital­ian Fu­tur­ists, she tells us. Rather than fol­low­ing the Mod­ernist im­per­a­tive to “make it new,” fa­mously pro­claimed by Ezra Pound, Aus­trian au­thors “looked back with a mea­sure of nos­tal­gia on the Aus­tro­hun­gar­ian Em­pire.”

In Perloff’s read­ings, Joseph Roth’s Radet­zky March plays a lead­ing role. She de­tails how its pro­tag­o­nists long for the or­der and rigid rit­u­als ex­hib­ited in the Dual Monar­chy – mer­ci­lessly par­o­died by Musil – as a form of re­as­sur­ance against the feel­ing of in­se­cu­rity in the highly volatile peace­time years that fol­lowed. “The or­der they cling to,” she ar­gues, can be seen as “a mi­cro­cosm of the or­der of the em­pire it­self, with its end­less rules and reg­u­la­tions, its pro­vi­sions and per­mis­sions, its pomp and cir­cum­stance.”

The nov­els dis­cussed by Perloff do not of­fer re­as­sur­ance or res­o­lu­tion to the reader ei­ther, “there be­ing no clo­sure pos­si­ble in this world of failed po­ten­tial­i­ties.” They re­main deeply skep­ti­cal about the fu­ture and am­biva­lently nos­tal­gic about the past. The dom­i­nant mode of Aus­tro­mod­ernist writ­ing, Perloff con­cludes, is irony – “an irony less linked to satire (which posits the pos­si­bil­ity for re­form) than to a sense of the ab­surd.”

Perloff’s close read­ings are metic­u­lous and well­in­formed, pro­vid­ing new per­spec­tives on in­flu­en­tial fig­ures of post­world War I Aus­tria, on Karl Kraus, Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Elias Canetti, Paul Ce­lan and Lud­wig Wittgen­stein. De­spite this ex­pan­sive list, there are some note­wor­thy ab­sences, par­tic­u­larly the well­known move­ments of fin de siè­cle Vi­enna, such as Jung Wien (Young Vi­enna) or Wiener Moderne, that are usu­ally con­sid­ered in con­nec­tion with wider dis­cus­sions of Modernism.

Sim­i­larly, lead­ing fig­ures like Hugo von Hof­mannsthal and Arthur Sch­nit­zler are men­tioned only in pass­ing. Sch­nit­zler’s case is par­tic­u­larly sur­pris­ing given that his novella Lieu­tenant Gustl was a pi­o­neer of the stream of con­scious­ness tech­nique (think Ulysses, Mrs. Dal­loway) that be­came the hall­mark of high Modernism.

De­spite these omis­sions, Edge of Irony, like all of Perloff ’s works, is a plea­sur­able and in­for­ma­tive read that gives fas­ci­nat­ing in­sights into the cul­tural his­tory of Vi­enna and the Aus­tro­hun­gar­ian Em­pire as a cat­a­lyst for some of the best literature to come out of post­1918 Aus­tria. Perloff ’s por­trayal of a nos­tal­gia for peace­ful co­ex­is­tence in a mul­ti­cul­tural state is all too top­i­cal today in light of “the dark­ness and cyn­i­cism of our own dis­il­lu­sioned 21st cen­tury cul­ture.”

Many Aus­tro-mod­ernist writ­ers re­mem­bered the old em­pire fondly, cher­ish­ing its sta­bil­ity, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, pomp and cir­cum­stance.

Marjorie Perloff Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Hab­s­burg Em­pire Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press hard­cover May 2016 pp 224 €22.99

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