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Vienna and Literature
Admittedly, the Café Griensteidl no longer exists in its original form, since it had to close down at the end of the 19th Century because of demolition. In the new Griensteidl, opened in 1990, however, you can still feel some of that literary spirit that made this place world-famous. Once authors such as Hugo von Hofmannstahl, Arthur Schnitzler, Karl Kraus and Peter Altenberg gathered in the Griensteidl. It is worth a visit.
Coffee house literature
In Vienna, literature is closely connected with the coffee house. Because authors such as Stefan Zweig, Karl Kraus or Peter Altenberg composed many of their texts in coffee houses, they were called coffee house writers. Viennese coffee house literature became world famous and made literary history. Its heyday was the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century. But the coffee house remained even after this time a popular meeting point and workplace for Austrian authors and poets. The internationally celebrated dramatist and author Thomas Bernhard, say, preferred to drink his Mélange in Vienna in the Bräunerhof and went to the Sacher.
The best-known Austrian authors internationally are Peter Handke and Elfriede Jelinek. Peter Handke lives in Salzburg and Paris. Elfriede Jelinek lives in Munich, Vienna and Paris.
was born in 1871 in Gitschin in the Czech Republic and died in 1936 in Vienna. He founded the literary journal “Die Fackel” (The Torch), and composed numerous aphorisms and the epochal drama “The Last Days of Mankind”.
was born in Klagenfurt in Kärnten in 1880, studied and later lived in Vienna. Among his most famous works are “Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß” and “Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften”.
was born in 1881 in Vienna and died in 1942 in Petropolis near Rio de Janeiro. One of his best selling works is the volume of essays “Sternstunden der Menschheit”.
was born in 1883 in Prague and died in 1924 in Kierling in Lower Austria. He wrote many great novels and stories-among the most famous being “The Trial”, “The Castle”, “America” and “Metamorphosis”.
was born in 1890 in Prague and died in 1945 in Beverly Hills in California. Among his famous novels are “The 40 Days of Musa Dagh” and “The Song of Bernadette”.
was born in 1905 in Rustschuk in Bulgaria and died in 1994 in Zürich. In 1981 the author and essayist was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His most famous novel is “Die Blendung”, his most famous essay collection “Masse und Macht”.
was born in 1931 in the Netherlands and died in 1989 in Gmunden. He composed novels, stories and dramas.
was born in 1946 in Mürzzuschlag in Steiermark and lives as a freelance author in Munich, Vienna and Paris. Her story “Die Klavierspielerin” (The Piano Player) was made into a film in 2001 by the Austrian director Michael Haneke.
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Grillparzer is emblematic of the late Austrian monarchy for several reasons. He described himself as split personality always drawn between rational thought and galloping fantasy.
Raimund's plays are typical examples of romantic magical comedies with fairy stories, moral allegories and deus-ex-machina happy endings which are at odds with contemporary tastes.
Johann Nestroy is often dubbed the Austrian Shakespeare. Quite rightly: like the great master of English literature, Nestroy impersonated the one or other character of his plays himself until he died.
Arthur Schnitzler is one of Austria's literary heavyweights. He received extensive training in medicine and was especially interested in psychology, an interest that influenced his writing a great deal.
He is remembered for two publications which have little in common: Felix Salten was the one to cook up the heart-breaking story of a cute fawn named 'Bambi'. His other major novel is called 'Josephine Mutzenbacher'...
His first novel 'Die Verwirrungen des Zögling Törleß' (Confusions of Young Torless) was published in 1906 and hauntingly describes the experiences of a sensitive boy in an exclusive military school...
Joseph Roth was an acute chronicler of the downfall of the Habsburg empire and the reverberations for the Austrian people. Central to his work is the last imperial couple Franz Josef I (image) and Sissi.
Ingeborg Bachmann is one of the major players in Austrian literature. She has a reputation as a brilliant writer of poetry, prose and radio plays.
Thomas Bernhard's relationship to Vienna and Austria was ambivalent. His texts often contain harsh descriptions of life in post war Austria. Reading Bernhard is highly pleasurable, it is also unnerving.
Peter Handke is journalist, translater and highly successful writer of plays and prose. Many of his works have been translated into various languages.
Elfriede Jelinek is the younger counterpart of Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard. As Bernhard she is at the same time a highly acclaimed writer and proverbial Beelzebub abused for her critical views.
Right now, Wolf Haas is one of the most successful Austrian authors. Audience and critics both love him, his books sell and are occasionally turned into successful movies, too!
Vienna looks back on a thriving tradition of cabaret, a form of popular theater which often consists of short sketches, songs and parodies presented by a 'Conférencier', an eloquent entertainer.
The Most Famous
Writers from austria.
This page contains a list of the greatest Austrian Writers . The pantheon dataset contains 5,755 Writers , 68 of which were born in Austria . This makes Austria the birth place of the 19th most number of Writers behind Norway and Hungary .
The following people are considered by Pantheon to be the top 10 most legendary Austrian Writers of all time. This list of famous Austrian Writers is sorted by HPI (Historical Popularity Index), a metric that aggregates information on a biography’s online popularity. Visit the rankings page to view the entire list of Austrian Writers .
1. Franz Kafka ( 1883 - 1924 )
With an HPI of 86.23 , Franz Kafka is the most famous Austrian Writer . His biography has been translated into 159 different languages on wikipedia.
Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) was a German-speaking Bohemian novelist and short-story writer based in Prague, widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature. His work fuses elements of realism and the fantastic. It typically features isolated protagonists facing bizarre or surrealistic predicaments and incomprehensible socio-bureaucratic powers. It has been interpreted as exploring themes of alienation, existential anxiety, guilt, and absurdity. His best known works include the short story "The Metamorphosis" and novels The Trial and The Castle. The term Kafkaesque has entered English to describe absurd situations, like those depicted in his writing.Kafka was born into a middle-class German-speaking Czech Jewish family in Prague, the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today the capital of the Czech Republic. He trained as a lawyer and after completing his legal education was employed full-time by an insurance company, forcing him to relegate writing to his spare time. Over the course of his life, Kafka wrote hundreds of letters to family and close friends, including his father, with whom he had a strained and formal relationship. He became engaged to several women but never married. He died in obscurity in 1924 at the age of 40 from tuberculosis. Kafka was a prolific writer, spending most of his free time writing, often late in the night. He burned an estimated 90 per cent of his total work due to his persistent struggles with self-doubt. Much of the remaining 10 per cent is lost or otherwise unpublished. Few of Kafka's works were published during his lifetime: the story collections Contemplation and A Country Doctor, and individual stories (such as "The Metamorphosis") were published in literary magazines but received little public attention. In his will, Kafka instructed his close friend and literary executor Max Brod to destroy his unfinished works, including his novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika, but Brod ignored these instructions, and had much of his work published. Franz Kafka is among those artists who reached fame only after their deaths: it was only after 1945 that his work became famous in German-speaking countries, whose literature it has since greatly influenced, and in the 1960s elsewhere in the world. Kafka's work has influenced a range of writers, critics, artists, and philosophers during the 20th and 21st centuries.
2 . Stefan Zweig ( 1881 - 1942 )
With an HPI of 78.92 , Stefan Zweig is the 2nd most famous Austrian Writer . His biography has been translated into 80 different languages.
Stefan Zweig (; German: [ˈʃtɛ.fan t͡svaɪ̯k] (listen); 28 November 1881 – 22 February 1942) was an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist, and biographer. At the height of his literary career, in the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most widely translated and popular writers in the world.Zweig was raised in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. He wrote historical studies of famous literary figures, such as Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky in Drei Meister (1920; Three Masters), and decisive historical events in Decisive Moments in History (1927). He wrote biographies of Joseph Fouché (1929), Mary Stuart (1935) and Marie Antoinette (Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman, 1932), among others. Zweig's best-known fiction includes Letter from an Unknown Woman (1922), Amok (1922), Fear (1925), Confusion of Feelings (1927), Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman (1927), the psychological novel Ungeduld des Herzens (Beware of Pity, 1939), and The Royal Game (1941). In 1934, as a result of the Nazi Party's rise in Germany, Zweig emigrated to England and then, in 1940, moved briefly to New York and then to Brazil, where he settled. In his final years, he would declare himself in love with the country, writing about it in the book Brazil, Land of the Future. Nonetheless, as the years passed Zweig became increasingly disillusioned and despairing at the future of Europe, and he and his wife Lotte were found dead of a barbiturate overdose in their house in Petrópolis on 23 February 1942; they had died the previous day. His work has been the basis for several film adaptations. Zweig's memoir, Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday, 1942), is noted for its description of life during the waning years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire under Franz Joseph I and has been called the most famous book on the Habsburg Empire.
3 . Peter Handke ( 1942 - )
With an HPI of 71.92 , Peter Handke is the 3rd most famous Austrian Writer . His biography has been translated into 76 different languages.
Peter Handke (German pronunciation: [ˈpeːtɐ ˈhantkə]; born 6 December 1942) is an Austrian novelist, playwright, translator, poet, film director, and screenwriter. He was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature "for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience." Handke is considered to be one of the most influential and original German-language writers in the second half of the 20th century.In the late 1960s, he earned his reputation as a member of the avant-garde with such plays as Offending the Audience (1966) in which actors analyze the nature of theatre and alternately insult the audience and praise its "performance", and Kaspar (1967). His novels, mostly ultraobjective, deadpan accounts of characters in extreme states of mind, include The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1970) and The Left-Handed Woman (1976). Prompted by his mother's suicide in 1971, he reflected her life in the novella A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972). A dominant theme of his works is the deadening effects and underlying irrationality of ordinary language, everyday reality, and rational order. Handke was a member of the Grazer Gruppe (an association of authors) and the Grazer Autorenversammlung, and co-founded the Verlag der Autoren publishing house in Frankfurt. He collaborated with director Wim Wenders, leading to screenplays such as The Wrong Move and Wings of Desire. In 1973, he won the Georg Büchner Prize, the most important literary prize for German-language literature, but in 1999, as a sign of protest against the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, Handke returned the prize money to the German Academy for Language and Literature.
4 . Peter Drucker ( 1909 - 2005 )
With an HPI of 71.68 , Peter Drucker is the 4th most famous Austrian Writer . His biography has been translated into 44 different languages.
Peter Ferdinand Drucker (; German: [ˈdʀʊkɐ]; November 19, 1909 – November 11, 2005) was an Austrian-American management consultant, educator, and author, whose writings contributed to the philosophical and practical foundations of the modern business corporation. He was also a leader in the development of management education, he invented the concept known as management by objectives and self-control, and he has been described as "the founder of modern management".Drucker's books and articles, both scholarly and popular, explored how humans are organized across the business, government, and nonprofit sectors of society. He is one of the best-known and most widely influential thinkers and writers on the subject of management theory and practice. His writings have predicted many of the major developments of the late twentieth century, including privatization and decentralization; the rise of Japan to economic world power; the decisive importance of marketing; and the emergence of the information society with its necessity of lifelong learning. In 1959, Drucker coined the term "knowledge worker", and later in his life considered knowledge-worker productivity to be the next frontier of management.
5 . Robert Musil ( 1880 - 1942 )
With an HPI of 70.15 , Robert Musil is the 5th most famous Austrian Writer . His biography has been translated into 58 different languages.
Robert Musil (German: [ˈʁoːbɛʁt ˈmuːzɪl]; 6 November 1880 – 15 April 1942) was an Austrian philosophical writer. His unfinished novel, The Man Without Qualities (German: Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften), is generally considered to be one of the most important and influential modernist novels.
6 . Arthur Schnitzler ( 1862 - 1931 )
With an HPI of 69.25 , Arthur Schnitzler is the 6th most famous Austrian Writer . His biography has been translated into 52 different languages.
Arthur Schnitzler (15 May 1862 – 21 October 1931) was an Austrian author and dramatist.
7 . Elfriede Jelinek ( 1946 - )
With an HPI of 69.18 , Elfriede Jelinek is the 7th most famous Austrian Writer . Her biography has been translated into 99 different languages.
Elfriede Jelinek (German: [ɛlˈfʁiːdə ˈjɛlinɛk]; born 20 October 1946) is an Austrian playwright and novelist. She is one of the most decorated authors writing in German today and was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature for her "musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that, with extraordinary linguistic zeal, reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power". Next to Peter Handke and Botho Strauss she is considered to be the most important living playwright of the German language.
8 . Sándor Márai ( 1900 - 1989 )
With an HPI of 68.30 , Sándor Márai is the 8th most famous Austrian Writer . His biography has been translated into 43 different languages.
Sándor Márai (Hungarian: [ˈʃaːndor ˈmaːrɒi]; Archaic English name: Alexander Márai; 11 April 1900 – 21 February 1989) was a Hungarian writer, poet, and journalist.
9 . Shmuel Yosef Agnon ( 1888 - 1970 )
With an HPI of 68.06 , Shmuel Yosef Agnon is the 9th most famous Austrian Writer . His biography has been translated into 78 different languages.
Shmuel Yosef Agnon (Hebrew: שמואל יוסף עגנון; July 17, 1888 – February 17, 1970) was one of the central figures of modern Hebrew literature. In Hebrew, he is known by the acronym Shai Agnon (ש"י עגנון). In English, his works are published under the name S. Y. Agnon. Agnon was born in Polish Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and later immigrated to Mandatory Palestine, and died in Jerusalem. His works deal with the conflict between the traditional Jewish life and language and the modern world. They also attempt to recapture the fading traditions of the European shtetl (village). In a wider context, he also contributed to broadening the characteristic conception of the narrator's role in literature. Agnon had a distinctive linguistic style, mixing modern and rabbinic Hebrew.In 1966, he shared the Nobel Prize in Literature with the poet Nelly Sachs.
10 . Paula Hitler ( 1896 - 1960 )
With an HPI of 67.94 , Paula Hitler is the 10th most famous Austrian Writer . Her biography has been translated into 30 different languages.
Paula Hitler, also known as Paula Wolff and Paula Hitler-Wolff, (26 January 1896 – 1 June 1960) was the younger sister of Adolf Hitler and the last child of Alois Hitler and his third wife, Klara Pölzl.
Pantheon has 68 people classified as writers born between 1114 and 1969 . Of these 68 , 13 ( 19.12% ) of them are still alive today. The most famous living writers include Peter Handke , Elfriede Jelinek , and Klaus Ebner . The most famous deceased writers include Franz Kafka , Stefan Zweig , and Peter Drucker . As of April 2022, 5 new writers have been added to Pantheon including Ceija Stojka , Annemarie Selinko , and Berta Zuckerkandl .
1942 - Present
1946 - Present
1964 - Present
1929 - Present
1954 - Present
1947 - Present
1963 - Present
1941 - Present
1961 - Present
1960 - Present
1969 - Present
1883 - 1924
1881 - 1942
1909 - 2005
1880 - 1942
1862 - 1931
1900 - 1989
Shmuel Yosef Agnon
1888 - 1970
1896 - 1960
Hugo von Hofmannsthal
1874 - 1929
1887 - 1914
1868 - 1932
Walther von der Vogelweide
1170 - 1230
Newly Added Writers (2022)
1933 - 2013
1914 - 1986
1864 - 1945
1858 - 1938
Which Writers were alive at the same time? This visualization shows the lifespans of the 25 most globally memorable Writers since 1700.
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Famous Austrian Novelists
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Considered one of the major authors of the 20th century, Franz Kafka was a Bohemian short-story writer and novelist. Franz Kafka is credited for being one of the earliest German-speaking authors to explore themes like absurdity, existential anxiety, and alienation. The term Kafkaesque is now widely used in the English language to explain those situations experienced by his characters.
Bohemian-Austrian poet and author Rainer Maria Rilke is best remembered for his numerous poetry collections and his only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge . His works contain metaphors, contradictions, and elements drawn from Greek mythology. Though most of his works were in German, he had also written in French.
Stefan Zweig was an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist, and biographer. He was one of the most widely translated and most popular writers in the world at the height of his career. His best-known work is Sternstunden der Menschheit, in which he wrote about decisive historical events. His later years were very difficult and he died by suicide in 1942.
Peter Handke is an Austrian novelist, poet, translator, playwright, screenwriter, and film director. One of the most respected personalities in Austria, Handke has won several prestigious awards over the course of his career. In 1973, he was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize. In 1987, he won the Vilenica International Literary Prize . In 2019, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch lent his name to the term masochism, a form of sexual deviation. Best known for his novel Venus in Furs , one of his rare books that have been translated in English, he depicted Galician romance and fantasies. He spent his final years in a mental asylum.
Once a governess of the four daughters of the affluent Suttner family, Bertha von Suttner later married the sisters’ elder brother, Baron Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner. The Austrian novelist was known for her peace activism, which made her the first female to receive the Nobel Peace Prize .
Elfriede Jelinek is an Austrian novelist and playwright who was honored with the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature . Widely regarded as the most prominent playwright of the German language, Elfriede Jelinek has several prestigious awards and honors under her belt.
Born to a doctor, Arthur Schnitzler had initially followed in his father’s footsteps and practiced medicine, gaining expertise in psychiatry. He later made a mark as an author and playwright with works such as Anatol and None but the Brave , which became hallmarks of modernism and the decadent movement.
Best remembered for his incomplete novel The Man Without Qualities , Austrian-German novelist Robert Musil had worked as a librarian, editor, and journalist and was also a qualified mechanical engineer. He had also served in the army during World War I but mostly gained fame as a modernist writer.
Austrian journalist and novelist Joseph Roth is noted for his novels Radetzky March and Job . He chronicled the decline and fall of Austria-Hungary in his family saga Radetzky March and wrote about plight of the Jews who migrated from eastern to western Europe following the First World War and the Russian Revolution in his short non-fiction book The Wandering Jews .
Thomas Bernhard was born to an unwed mother in Holland and spent a lot of his adolescence in hospitals due to his chronic lung disease, which eventually claimed his life at age 58. He excelled in music and drama and gained fame for his controversial and pessimistic novels and plays.
Max Brod was a Czech German-speaking Jewish author, composer, and journalist. He studied law at the German Charles-Ferdinand University and proceeded to pursue a career as a journalist and composer. He worked as an editor and literary adviser for the Israeli national theatre for three decades. He was a close friend and biographer of writer Franz Kafka.
Known for his lyrical poetry and plays, Austrian author Hugo von Hofmannsthal had initially studied law and philology but later devoted his life to writing. His collaborative works with composer Richard Strauss included libretti for many of his operas, such as The Cavalier of the Rose and Arabella .
Franz Werfel worked in a shipping house and fought in World War I before making his mark as an Expressionist poet. His fame rests on the iconic novels The Song of Bernadette and The Forty Days of Musa Dagh , with the former being turned into a four-time Academy Award -winning film.
Best known for penning the children’s classic Bambi , Felix Salten was forced to flee Vienna during the Nazi regime and eventually settled in Switzerland. His books were banned in Austria after Germany annexed the country, but that didn’t dent his popularity as an author. He was a skilled hunter, too.
Best known for his bestselling novel Tyll , which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and is also being made into a Netflix series, German author Daniel Kehlmann is the son of TV director Michael Kehlmann and actor Dagmar Mettler. His other notable works include Measuring the World and Fame .
Austrian author, novelist, dramatist, translator, and banker, Gustav Meyer, who used the pseudonym Gustav Meyrink, is best-known for his novel The Golem . Gustav established his own bank but was eventually charged with fraud and jailed for two months. He depicted his jailhouse experiences in The Golem . A prolific translator, Gustav’s translation works include translating fifteen-volumes of Charles Dickens into German.
Born to an Austro-Hungarian diplomat, Ödön von Horváth grew up studying in Hungarian but later became one of the finest writers of German literature. The writer of iconic plays such as Italian Night and Tales from the Vienna Woods , he was a significant anti-fascist playwright. He died in a thunderstorm.
The son of an affluent weaver and merchant, Adalbert Stifter had initially studied law but quit without earning a degree. He later turned to writing and created masterpieces such as Witiko and Der Nachsommer . His tales mostly had pastoral backdrops, influenced by the countryside he grew up in.
Ilse Aichinger and her twin sister, Helga, were half-Jews and were thus forbidden to study by the Nazis and sent to a button factory as laborers instead. Following World War II, she studied medicine but later quit studies to pen her harrowing experiences in her bestselling novel The Greater Hope .
Vicky Baum was an Austrian-American novelist, who had more than fifty books to her credit, many of which were adapted into successful films. Starting to publish at the age of thirty-one, she wrote about strong women caught up in chaotic times. Vicki Baum produced her first bestseller, Stud. chem. Helene Willfüer , at forty and her best known work, Menschen im Hotel, at forty-one.
Best known for her psychological novels which depicted the lives of both the affluent and the poor, Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach was the daughter of an Austrian baron. One of the finest German authors ever, she experimented with the bildungsroman and penned works such as The Child of the Parish .
Friedrich von Hügel, also known as Baron von Hügel, believed in Roman Catholicism but was tolerant of other views, too, making him a significant figure of Modernist Christian theology. He believed a middle path between religion and science could be reached. The Mystical Element of Religion remains his best-known work.
While he initially gained fame as a novelist, Fritz Mauthner later became one of the finest Austrian theater critics. His work also involved philosophy of languages. He believed that though words have social value, they reflect imperfect sense experiences and showcase distorted reality, as they are used subjectively by people.
Best remembered for his novel The Demons , Austrian novelist Heimito von Doderer was a five-time Nobel Prize in Literature nominee. Born into a family of famous architects and industrialists, he was an army officer in World War I and worked as a lumberjack in Siberia after being captured by the Russians.
While he initially studied mining, medicine, and architecture, Gregor von Rezzori eventually graduated in arts. Fluent in several languages, he had a successful stint as a journalist and became known for both for his light novels and the more poignant ones such as Memoirs of an Anti-Semite .
Best known for his novel Die Standarte and his plays such as Austrian Comedy and Mishmash , Austrian author and poet Alexander Lernet-Holenia had initially studied law and also fought in World War I. During World War II, he traveled as part of an army film unit.
After losing his father at 5, Ludwig Anzengruber grew up amid poverty. A school drop-out, he eventually found work at a bookstore and then stepped into acting, too. He later ventured into writing and penned some of the most loved plays of his time, such as The Pastor of Kirchfeld .
Robert Hamerling was born into poverty but secured a place at the University of Vienna with financial assistance from people who were impressed by his talent in poetry. He is best remembered for his poems such as A Swan Song of the Romantic and Ahasuerus in Rome .
Born to a schoolteacher, Karl Schönherr initially studied philosophy and grew up to become a physician. However, he later gained fame for his iconic plays such as Faith and Homeland and The Judas of the Tirol . He was inspired by Henrik Ibsen and merged symbolism and realism in his works.
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Playtime in Vienna: The Austrian Literary Scene Finds Its Sense of Humor
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A t the new Literaturmuseum, nestled in a historic building on Johannesgasse in Vienna’s 1st District, there is a wall devoted to the word Kafkaesque , displayed in a half-dozen languages. Though Kafka was Czech, he spent much of his life in Vienna, and the city claims him as a native son.
Beneath the Kafka wall, one of the museum’s founders and curators, Hannes Schweiger, begins reciting a poem by Ernst Jandl, a midcentury Austrian poet and translator famous for his Sprechgedichte , or sound poems. Thanks to the poem’s intrinsic playfulness and Schweiger’s enthusiastic performance, the German words traverse the linguistic divide, bringing smiles to the faces of the American students who make up his audience. Schweiger informs us that there is a push to make jandling a verb denoting a kind of experimental wordplay, though it has yet to gain the traction of Herr Kafka’s adjective. Next, our group files into a small movie theater, where we watch Jandl jandling in front of thousands of fans in Royal Albert Hall, including a reverent Allen Ginsberg.
The Literaturmuseum, which opened in 2015 and is affiliated with the city’s National Library, offers a glimpse of the country’s literary history as a kind of palimpsest, where the emergence of giants like Thomas Bernhard and Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek can be understood in the context of predecessors like Stefan Zweig and Ingeborg Bachmann.
The museum also does an impressive job of representing the dualities of Austrian literature, allowing Kafka’s absurdism and Jandl’s avant-garde playfulness to butt up against the sobering realities of history; a section of the museum is devoted to those Austrian writers murdered in the Holocaust as well as those who survived the violence. A haunting telegram from Hannah Arendt, sent from New York City on May 23, 1941, says only, We are saved . A chilling display resembling a train schedule lists the names of writers beside the names of the concentration camps where they died.
In the context of this history, one begins to understand why Bernhard, in his novel Woodcutters , writes, “I hated Vienna yet could not help loving it.” It is a city where, in 1913, Hitler, Trotsky, Tito, and Stalin all resided, frequenting the elegant Kaffeehäuser and nurturing the dark ideologies that would disfigure the world in just a few short years. It is a place that birthed both world wars, with their attendant traumas, as well as modern psychoanalysis, courtesy of Sigmund Freud, who practiced out of his home in the 9th District (the home has been turned into a museum).
The aesthetics of twentieth-century Austrian literature are inextricably linked to the traumas of the country’s past: Bernhard’s relentless rants against Haus Wolfsegg—a stand-in for House Austria—in his masterwork, Extinction ; the sinister, fascistic mother figure in Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher , as well as the graphic violence of the prose. Even Jandl’s silly stylings reckon with war: in one of his most famous sound poems, “schtzngrmm,” the words reproduce the sounds of weaponry. An experimental writers’ collective called the Vienna Group, of which Jandl was a member, emerged after World War II seeking to preserve the Austrian dialect from German influence and to valorize free expression as a means to oppose totalitarianism. It is impossible not to read these authors in a Freudian context, doomed to perpetual struggle against the brutalities of the fatherland.
Beneath the city’s formal, elegant surface pulses an energetic, playful, and vibrant literary scene, one peopled by writers and tastemakers who understand the past but are not burdened by it.
But step into twenty-first-century Vienna, and the city—its writers and literary advocates—present a very different face. Beneath the city’s formal, elegant surface pulses an energetic, playful, and vibrant literary scene, one peopled by writers and tastemakers who understand the past but are not burdened by it; who engage with the troublesome political questions of the day but are also free to make art for art’s sake.
On a midsummer evening, a thousand people gather in the central square of the MuseumsQuartier, a sprawling arts complex housed in what was formerly the Habsburg stable. Technically, they are here for O-Töne, a literary festival that presents author readings every Thursday evening, but in actuality they are smoking joints and drinking wine, giving the event a carnivalesque atmosphere and rendering the authors—reading from a large, brightly lit stage beneath colorful museum banners—somewhat secondary to the party.
Or at least the first author, a debut writer by the name of Marie Gamillscheg, for whom the microphone is faulty and the audience, restless. But when literary heavyweight Robert Seethaler takes the stage, a hush falls over the crowd, and miraculously—and quite unfairly—the microphone volume is dialed up a few notches. A trained actor, Seethaler’s resonant voice moves over the crowd. Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 for his novel A Whole Life , tonight he reads from his latest work, Das Feld (The field), which is not yet available in English translation.
Despite the natural difficulties that arise from offering a literary event in an open-air space—yapping dogs, skateboarding teenagers—there’s something enchantingly democratic about a city that dares to place its literary writers on a stage in the middle of a party, inviting all comers to bask in the fine language, if only for a moment.
Leave the cheerful noise of the festival and wander through the gardens separating the palatial Kunsthistorisches Museum from its twin, the Naturhistorisches Museum, past the resplendent National Library, and emerge into the narrow, cobblestoned alleys of the 1st District. There, St. Stephen’s Cathedral casts its gothic shadow over cozy Kaffeehäuser frequented by Vienna’s literati, who, according to the writer Judith Nika Pfeifer, still view coffeehouses as a kind of “third space” where they can work, eat, socialize, and carouse. Of coffeehouse culture, Austrian-Israeli writer Doron Rabinovici writes: “Everyone has a right to their coffeehouse. And actually even to three; one where he can show his face, one where he can go unnoticed, and one in which he never, never wants to set foot.”
One of the grande dames of Kaffeehaus culture is Cafe Korb, the preferred spot of Elfriede Jelinek. Indeed, crowded together on a red velvet banquet with Pfeifer on a stormy Viennese afternoon, rain pouring off of café umbrellas in sheets, we can feel the moody energy of this place steeped in literary history. “We’ve got to soak up all the vibes,” says Pfeifer, a luminous poet and fiction writer, who, though based in Berlin, believes strongly in the literary life of her home city, of which she says, “Though rather conservative-looking on the outside, Vienna provides a great playground—there’s a long tradition of experimental, quirky, avant-gardist art and literature in Vienna. . . . Of course, there’s also a more market-oriented literature; it’s this diversity that makes the scene so rich and beautiful, and I am grateful to all the decision-makers and engaged literary people that made and make this possible.”
Though rather conservative-looking on the outside, Vienna provides a great playground—there’s a long tradition of experimental, quirky, avant-gardist art and literature in Vienna.
Another storied spot is Café Engländer. Its location around the corner from Alte Schmiede, which each year hosts more than 150 readings and events, makes it an ideal postreading gathering space for writers, editors, and literature lovers. It is a Monday in July, and though many Austrians have decamped for holidays in the countryside, Viennese literary life churns on. Around the table are Florian Neuner, an experimental writer who has given a reading tonight and who publishes the annual magazine Idiome ; Peter Pessl, who also read; there’s the author Annalena Stabauer, who introduced and interviewed the authors for Alte Schmiede; and Ilse Kilic and Fritz Widhalm, who run a literary press called Das fröhliche Wohnzimmer (The Cheerful Living Room). We are all guests of Daniel Terkl, Alte Schmiede’s literary events programmer.
Compared with the large-scale production of O-Töne, the readings at Alte Schmiede are intimate, churchlike. The name, which translates to Old Smithy, comes from the space’s previous life as a blacksmith shop, and in one of the two event spaces on site, authors hold forth amidst a battery of blacksmithing tools—hammers, anvils, thousands of various-sized pikes—which make the space intensely atmospheric, reminiscent of both torture chamber and S&M dungeon.
There is an air of relaxed expectancy as the people arrive. Most guests are greeted individually with a handshake, and people nod hello to each other. Stabauer takes her place at the podium, briefly introducing Neuner, who then reads from his third book, Drei Tote (The three dead): “A fight against disease, the city of Essen, impending poverty in old age. Against alcohol. Against forgetting.” Peter Pessl reads next, framed by the projection of a giant mouse, his illustration of the title figure of his book Mamamaus Mandzukic: Zaubermärchen aus der Traumazeit (Mamamaus Mandzukic: Fairytales from the trauma period). The language is musical and reminiscent of jandling . Mamamaus and associates metamorphose on the screen as the setting changes from Palmyra to Ravensbrück to the Roman ghetto. The playful narrative is lulling yet powerful, harking back to war and terror in its subtones. The audience applauds, and we move to the Alte Schmiede library to converse and buy books.
After the event and subsequent dinner at Café Engländer, Terkl takes us back to Alte Schmiede for a private tour. He moves happily among the tools, switching on lights, wielding a hammer like a bookish Thor. He tells us that Alte Schmiede averages forty-five guests per event, an impressive number given that they put on three to four events per week and must also compete nightly with Vienna’s robust cultural programming. Upstairs is a public work space lined with a display of the latest German-language literary magazines, and Terkl draws our attention to manuskripte , one of Austria’s most esteemed journals, based in Graz and now edited by the poet Andreas Unterweger. Rumor is that the Viennese smile sparingly, but Terkl is an outlier; the joy he takes from his job, as well as his pride in the literature, are readily apparent.
Alte Schmiede is funded primarily by the cultural department of the city of Vienna, reflecting the strong tradition of government support for the arts in Austria. The arts and culture division of the Austrian federal chancellery provides grants and stipends to individual writers through a juried application process. Additionally, many of the country’s publishing houses are subsidized by public money, reflecting the Austrian view that the production of high-quality books is a public service necessary to society’s flourishing.
“Most of the authors here, they’re happy if they sell three or four hundred books. If you sell ten thousand, that’s a best-seller,” Terkl says.
Compare this writer-friendly system to the hypercapitalistic American model of the “Big Four” New York publishing houses, where books are mass-produced commodities whose worth is almost wholly determined by the profit they turn, and where authors are forced to transform into salespeople when their books are published, stumping for each sale on social media as if their lives depended on it—because, in a way, they do. Awarded large advances based on little more than an editor’s instincts, American writers are then forced to live and die by their sales performance.
The author Angelika Reitzer turns up to teach a seminar on contemporary Austrian literature carrying a haul of recently published books: Johnny und Jean and Oh Schimmi , by Teresa Präauer; Du bist mein Meer (You are my sea) and Das kostbarste aller Geschenke (The most precious of all gifts), by Andreas Unterweger; and her own novels, Obwohl es kalt ist draussen (Although it’s cold outside) and Wir Erben (We, the heirs).
They are beautiful objects, the pages thick and creamy; the cover art—rather than the tired photographs of women’s heads one sees so often in the States—is actually art, gold-foiled, embossed, painterly. The care with which these books has been produced is evident, and it is a pleasure to turn them over in the hand. Unfortunately for now, that’s the extent to which an English-speaking audience can enjoy them—none are yet available in translation.
Though the Viennese live in a highly globalized world—American and British pop music is inescapable in Vienna—the literary scene remains somewhat pure of influence, or at least contemporary influences.
Though the Viennese live in a highly globalized world—American and British pop music is inescapable in Vienna—the literary scene remains somewhat pure of influence, or at least contemporary influences. When asked which American writers the Viennese are reading, two people remarked on the popularity of the Beats (the Vienna Poetry School was modeled after the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado), and this year Vienna hosted the European Beat Studies Network Conference (“Beats and Politics: Past and Present”). At one point, George Saunders comes up, and our guest stares blankly at us; we’re told that Austrian writers don’t really read the Paris Review or the New Yorker .
But why would they? German is their mother tongue, and there are an abundance of German-language literary magazines to read and submit to. There are a number of Vienna-based literary magazines, including Der Hammer (Alte Schmiede’s magazine), Wespennest , Zeitzoo , Literarisches Österreich , Podium , Flugschrift , and Idiome . Fritz Widhalm from Das fröhliche Wohnzimmer hands us the fiftieth and final issue of the journal he and his wife publish, which is titled Die Zeitschrift für unbrauchbare Texte und Bilder (Magazine for useless texts and images), a sly nod to Wespennest , which claims to be “the magazine for useful texts and images.”
Rather than look toward New York for inspiration, Viennese writers look to Berlin, that bigger, edgier sister city to the north, to which many Austrian writers have defected. The German market is ten times larger than the Austrian one, and many of Austria’s most famous writers had close ties to German publishing houses, such as Thomas Bernhard and Suhrkamp/Piper, Elfriede Jelinek and Rowohlt.
Though Viennese literary life has traditionally been viewed as sleepier and more buttoned-up than that of Berlin, the city’s current vibrancy is undeniable. Even the definition of what it means to be an Austrian writer has shifted as the culture embraces the multiplicity of voices that now comprise the country. Maja Haderlap, a bilingual Slovenian-German Austrian prose and poetry writer, won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2011 for her novel Engel des Vergessens (Eng. Angel of Oblivion , 2016), an account of Austria’s only military resistance movement against the Nazis. Ilija Trojanow is a Bulgarian-German writer, translator, and publisher who, after receiving political asylum in Germany, now calls Vienna home. The Viennese chapter of the PEN organization regularly publishes diverse Austrian authors writing in their native languages, alongside German translations, in the online journal words&worlds .
Even the definition of what it means to be an Austrian writer has shifted as the culture embraces the multiplicity of voices that now comprise the country.
Still, the past is never entirely past, and though they compose in a new century, Austrian writers are keenly aware of the rising threats of far-right politics across Europe and at home in the form of the Austrian Freedom Party, which in 2017 created a coalition government with the center-right Austrian People’s Party. Alte Schmiede’s Daniel Terkl says, “Many are writing about the so-called migrant crisis. Many are referring to politics again. The rise of the far right has increased writers’ engagement with political questions.”
Though Bernhard was derided by many Austrians for being a Nestbeschmutzer (roughly: one who shits where he eats), he spoke truth to power through his literary rants against Austria’s provincialism and embrace of fascism. The people we encounter in Vienna say that Austria has yet to fully reckon with its complicity in Hitler’s rise and its historical reputation as, to use Reitzer’s words, “a playground for the right wing.” They speak of a kind of latent Austrian fascism, one that lies dormant for periods of time but never quite dies.
In these uncertain political times, it is possible to take comfort in the fact of Vienna’s literary robustness, for literature provides a necessary counternarrative to damaging propaganda and fake news and provides people with a way to engage meaningfully with one another, without the mitigation of a screen or a politician.
Ray Bradbury once said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture; just get people to stop reading them.” There’s little risk of that in today’s Vienna, where the cultural fabric is indeed strong, and where a small army of writers and intellectuals are poised to defend the hard-won free society that defines the city and country today.
It’s close to eleven o’clock in the evening, and we’ve stumbled away from the Seethaler reading and the crowd in MuseumsQuartier. In the mild evening, we amble into Heldenplatz, where the magisterial National Library glows gold against the night. The library celebrates its 650th anniversary this year. Many of its holdings were looted from Jewish families and other victims of the Third Reich, and in 2003 the library began returning these items to the rightful owners or heirs.
We pause beneath the Michaelerkuppel dome and sing out a few notes, watched by nearby statues of the Virtues. Under cover of darkness, Vienna’s grandness yields to intimacy. History is all around us, impossible to ignore. But the night is new, the breeze, fresh. As we walk on, we imagine Bernhard’s character racing before us, admitting defeat in the face of Vienna’s complicated seduction: “And now, as I ran through the streets of the Inner City, I thought: This is my city and always will be my city.”
Vienna / Tulsa
Mandakini Pachauri is an Indian poet writing in English. She lives in Vienna and is currently pursuing the Pan-European MFA at Cedar Crest College.
Keija Parssinen is the author of the novels The Ruins of Us , which received the Michener-Copernicus Award, and The Unraveling of Mercy Louis , which earned an Alex Award from the American Library Association. She is currently an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Kenyon College.
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