PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Translator: Mike Mitchell
This is a superb collection of the bizarre, the terrifying and the twisted, as interpreted by the decadents and obsessives of fin de siecle Vienna. It features big names like Kafka, Rilke, and Schnizler, but more intriguing are the lesser-known writers such as Theodor Csokor with the vampiric The Kiss of the Stone Woman, Karl Hans Strobl, whose The Wicked Nun begins as a ghost story but twists and turns into insanity and Paul Busson, contributing an uncanny tale of feminine sorcery, Folter's Gems.
The best stories faultlessly follow the traditional template of deepening mystery grafted onto time-honoured methods of signalling narrative action. Recommended.
A welcome return to an era before fantasy, horror and the psychological thriller were compartmentalised and viewed as the slightly shameful, cheap thrills of literature, in a selection of stories that reaches out to the pre-Hammer Horror version of Bohemia. Kafka, Rilke and Schnitzler will be the best-known names here,but far from the only highlights. Lesser-known writers such as Ernst Fuch,Karl-Hans Strobl, Theodore Csokor and Jeannie Ebner pull the rug out from under us repeatedly, with stories that alter reality only slightly but just enough to jar,of dead lovers sending flowers, dead people who don't know they are dead, and ghosts merging with madness.
This is one of the best anthologies - as an anthology - I have ever read. It now has 43 tales in it, all of them exciting, all beautifully translated, ranging from the Austro-Hungarian decadence to modern science fiction. It also has an excellent introduction, describing the particular qualities of Austrian - as opposed to German, or any other - literatures. The Austro-Hungarian empire before the second world war was elegant, frivolous, possessed by baroque images of death and dissolution, full of witty sidelong comments on ossified political structures, in the form of bureaucracies and castles. Both of these were explored by Kafka, who is central to this anthology, in that there are three tales by him, and his rediscovery after the Nazi period has been a dominant and clearly benign influence on modern Austrian writing.
Claudio Magris, in his book on Austro-Hungarian literature, The Myth and the Empire, analyses what one might call its bearable and unbearable lightness. German tales are grimly and obscurely connected to darkness and violence, in black forests and dangerous cities. The Austrians, according to both Mitchell and Magris, have complementary passions for detail and for the dissolution of boundaries - between the real and the unreal, between dream and waking, between life and death. One of Mitchell's great achievements is the juxtaposition of a string of tales in which people hover between life and death, in a kind of animated limbo, constructed with a love of detail rather than a desire to create vague horror. There is Kafka's great "Gracchus the Huntsman", in which the dead man sails eternally around the world on a ceremonial barge, "because the boatman made a mistake". There is a wonderful tale by Max Brod - "The First Hour after Death" - in which an apologetic apparition cannot get its bearings in the room of an exasperated official, who shoots at it. There is a grim vignette (by Karl Hans Strobl) of the thoughts of a severed head in a basket after the guillotine, and a precise tour de force by Franz Theodor Csokor describing the thoughts and feelings of someone speeding in a red car who appears to end being buried alive after a crash - or alternatively, not understanding that he is dead.
Most moving of all, in its bright clarity, is Hugo von Hofmann-sthal's "Sergeant Anton Lerch". This is an almost perfect example of the Freudian "uncanny" in its overdetermined description of the daydreams of an officer in an occupying force. Everything he does is insignificant and too significant, until the end, when he is suddenly, and capriciously, shot for insubordination. The day was his last, and therefore full of meaning. Magris says finely of Hofmannsthal that his "idolatry of the detail" is only the reverse of his desire to escape its tyranny, to establish some set of connections and relations between things and the "forms of life, interior and exterior". His casual cavalryman and his equally casual executioner are parts of a critical vision of Austrian power, conveyed obliquely and obscurely.
Much later stories are also political myths. Utopian socialism, as Jack Zipes has pointed out, used the fairy tale and fan tasy to criticise the existing state of things and to express hope for other ways of living. The tales in this book by Jeannie Ebner (born in 1918) are beautiful images of whole societies - one advancing with armies against a receding frontier, one treading water in a swamp to keep alive. Both have this identifiable Austrian quality of elegiac good temper and delicious imagined details which make their worlds mysterious - no simple allegory here. Connected to their mood is "Ebb and Flow - Flow and Ebb" by Anton Fuchs (1920-95), two masterly evocations of a valley with a defunct castle and a dripping water tap, and a post-diluvian waterworld full of sunken ships and creatures, where the narrator can move easily and play. The empire is there, and its vanishing is there, but again it isn't an allegory. It's a mystery of detail. Flux and shiftings are parts of much of this collection's world.
Another unexpected and solidly recurring theme in the later parts of the anthology is cannibalism. There are two stories in which people are nearly eaten in railway carriages - in Marlen Haushofer's "Cannibals" a whole railway carriage is turned (metaphorically) into ravening hyenas and other carnivores by an unwitting, scarcely pubescent girl, preoccupied with the examination of her hands and knees. In Jakov Lind's "Journey Through the Night", a man meets an amiable and determined slaughterer with his little case of dissecting instruments (the detail again), who tries to persuade the narrator that his life is so insignificant that he may as well give pleasure to a flesh-eater. Both these - and Peter von Tramin's more gleefully sinister "The Sewermaster" - appear to domesticate horror, and elegantly arouse the reader's own ambivalences.
Reading these tales suggests returning to The Uncanny - Freud's puzzled and endlessly suggestive study, published in 1919. Nicholas Royle has just published a book-length study of this work. Royle's Derridaean book has a suggestive chapter on cannibalism and the uncanny, although it is not a subject Freud treats in the book - "Nowhere in The Uncanny does Freud explicitly speak of the uncanniness of cannibalism." But Royle, using Freud's analysis of ETA Hoff mann's Sandman, argues that the Sandman, who tears out the eyes of little children, and then carries them away in his sack "to the crescent moon as food for his little children", conflates the Freudian "fear of blindness-as-castration" with a more primitive fear of eating and desiring to eat. He cites Totem and Taboo , in which Freud describes the primal orgy in which the sons devour the dethroned father. And he asks, wickedly, if Freud is not perhaps protesting too much when he calls the first stage of human desire, that of the breast-fed baby, "oral or as it might be called, cannibalistic". Babies are not cannibals. Maybe Freud was himself more cannibalistic than he was prepared to admit? What is odd about all three cannibal tales in the anthology is the kind of gleeful serenity of their telling - nothing horrible, as in Hoffman - the desire to dismember and consume others is made to seem a part of civilisation.
Freud, of course, was Viennese, and The Uncanny is written from the point of view of someone who inhabits the civilisation that produced these stories. He points out the slipperiness of the words "heimlich" and "unheimlich" - (in his interpretation, homely or familiar, and unhomely or uncanny). He makes the point that for a tale to be uncanny, it must start in the everyday and familiar. He is interested in the relation of the "uncanny" to dreams, to repressed desires and fears (early and close to home) and to stages of civilisation we have not outgrown. ("The dead do after all return, it is after all possible to kill someone by wishing them dead.")
The Austrian uncanny corresponds to Freudian dreams - to generalise wildly. Jungian, German dreams tend to thin things to symbolic and ritual and occult manifestations. They are heavy with significance. Freudian dreams trap you in muddle and bizarrely concrete inescapable situations. Not rent veils and walking statues, but grinning crocodiles and dangerous teapots and socks. This is true even of the dream-visions in this collection (Franz Werfel), which at first sight appear schematic, psychoanalytic arcana.
It would take a longer review to indicate the richness of this volume, or to sketch the influences of fin-de-siecle decadence,Freud and Nazism on Austrian writing.The anthology balances big-hitters such as Kafka and Rilke with less well-known names, and ranges from schlock horror to underplayed menace. As a sampler, it excels in introducing such writers as Jonke, Ebner and Fuchs;as a collection, it offers a striking diversity of voices.
The Dedalus Book of Austrian Fantasy, edited and translated by Mike Mitchell (Dedalus, paperback, $17.95), is the latest anthology from the premier publisher of decadent, turn-of the-last-century European fiction. This might sound like a small niche indeed, but there are superb Dedalus anthologies of Portuguese and Polish fantasy, as well dozens of novels redolent of cigar smoke and absinthe -- and imbued with theosophy or sado-masochism -- about hapless epicene aristocrats in thrall to a Venus in furs, a Parisian grisette or a spectral will o' the wisp.
As Mitchell notes in his introduction, the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire can be likened to the Dream Realm evoked by Alfred Kubin in his novel The Other Side, a "kingdom where time has stopped, guarded by a punctilious and rigid bureaucracy" that "reeks of decadence and decay." Among the authors who figure in this seductive collection are such haunted denizens of Vienna or Prague as Arthur Schnitzler, Gustav Meyrink (author of The Golem), the poet and librettist Hugo von Hoffmansthal, Leo Perutz and, of course, Rilke and Kafka, not to overlook such later talents as Ilse Aichinger, H.C. Artmann and Jakov Lind.
Several of these tales are deeply symbolic. Meyrink's "The Master," for instance, builds on all the usual Gothic frenzies -- the crumbling manor house in the forest, a decrepit bed-ridden old man, his strangely manic countess, malevolent servants, a hypersensitive son. "The years slip by like the beads of a rosary, nothing changes, not inwardly, not outwardly, only the sun grows dimmer." Is this an allegory of Austrian life? The plot piles on murder, incest, exile, a spiritual journey and even Satanic rites:
"Suddenly he sees that the wall at the back is transparent, like oily glass. Behind it is a figure, arms outstretched, dressed in tattered clothes, hunchbacked, a wide-brimmed hat pulled down over his eyes, standing motionless as death on a mound of bones from which sparse blades of grass grow: the Prince of this World."
"The Master" is almost a Baudelairean prose poem, as are several others here -- when they're not horrific or science fictional. Still, I generally prefer the tales of psychological disorder, of suavity and overheated (or unacknowledged) sexuality. In Schnitzler's "Flowers" a callous well-to-do lover discards his mistress, who dies alone in despair. But flowers from the dead woman arrive in winter -- and the narrator finds himself growing more and more obsessed by them and the memory of their sender.
The collection provides a revealing angle on twentieth-century Austria from Hapsburg to Haider. Connoisseurs of fantasy will also find much to please them, whether they prefer blood-curdling shrieks or spine-chilling whispers.
The Dedalus Book of Austrian Fantasy 1890-2000 contains bizarre and ghostly tales of vampires and crazed lunatic stories from some real heavyweights of Austrian fiction including Kafka, Rilke and Schnitzler, alongside new discoveries like Barbara Neuwirth and Karl Hans Strobl.
The Dedalus Book of Austrian Fantasy 1890-2000, edited by Mike Mitchell, is one of the most illuminating - and exciting-anthologies I've read- a real way in to Austrian writing, full of surprises and delights.
The good news is that within these pages lies a different world than the one that mostly we are used to. It transports us to a matrix of another sort - one you need to woo with a dedication to skip past the instant gratification of most modern fiction. This selection of supernatural may be Austrian, may be a mixed bag and may be harder than Harry Potter to read, but when it hits the right spot - the flowing script, and devotion to take you beyond the immediate and into a more slow burn scare fulfilment definitely works.
Austrian literature positively oozes opulence, romance, the macabre and the sardonic, and each of these stories, from authors ranging from Kafka to Brod, have been carefully selected by Mitchell to provide the reader with an unyielding sense of the much talked about, but never properly defined, uncanny.