All posts tagged “Austria


The Loser, Thomas Bernhard (1983)

tumblr_mjhy1h8PM71qbrvi3o1_500I am not usually given to artist-groupie activities. I spent a year in Paris and felt no need to seek out Baudelaire’s grave; I took the tour of Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst and found it nearly as boring as church. But when I went to Vienna some years ago, I did visit the Bräunerhof cafe frequented by Thomas Bernhard, and I did sit there for an hour with a coffee and Linzer torte, thinking about him, and about the European culture that made him possible and disgusted him for having done so. There was a time when I would have called him my favorite writer.

I read The Loser once before, a long time ago, but all the recent news from Europe made me curious to look back into him, or through him. I can’t quite say why. He functioned for me, in my yoot, as an emblem of  of a type of European-ness, unfathomably cultured and decadently cynical, or the other way around, which I both envied and deplored. (Like almost all young people, I was ignorant of history and scattershot in my education; only years later would I discover Robert Musil, and realize that Bernhard hadn’t come from nowhere, as I’d imagined.) Since I last read The Loser, the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Eurozone came into being, and a Moroccan-born Muslim was appointed mayor of Rotterdam. My imaginary Europe has changed. The experiment was to re-read The Loser while thinking about Syria.

It was either a useless experiment or one whose value has yet to reveal itself. Bernhard’s masochistic attack on mediocrity (his own, and everyone else’s) is even more relentless and tuneless than I remembered. I once found the relentlessness exciting and the tunelessness edifying; this month the book’s seemed to me absurd and dull. I can feel that it’s too soon to be writing this note, that my thoughts haven’t jelled, but I’m doing it anyway, because I want to be done with it.

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The Post Office Girl, Stefan Zweig (193?/1982/2008)


Strange set of dates, right? This novel was unpublished at the time of Zweig’s death in 1942, didn’t appear in the original German until 1982, and was only translated into English in 2008. It continues to boggle my mind, how thoroughly this writer was forgotten. I know plenty of writers are forgotten, but Zweig was literally world-renowned before his death, and almost completely forgotten after. I think it has to do with the fact that his was a world, and a readership, which had largely disappeared by the time he died, either by violence or disillusionment. Of course that’s true of many others, too, but others had the chance to make a second act — like Brecht (though only briefly), or Fritz Lang. Zweig foreclosed that possibility with barbiturates.

This is the first of Zweig’s fiction I’ve read. I come to it very well disposed to like it, since I’ve become so fascinated with him through his memoir. It’s not a great novel. The story is quite simple and actually moves a lot like a screenplay. (Perhaps unsurprisingly; my very first (and entirely unconscious) point of contact with Zweig, as may be the case with you too, was Max Ophüls wonderful Letter from an Unknown Woman, based on a story by Zweig.)

The titular post office girl is a victim of postwar Austria’s grinding poverty, has the chance to spend a week at a glamorous resort in Switzerland with her aunt who’s married a rich Dutchman and lives in New York. That’s act one. In act two, she has her mind blown by opulence, but things go sour, and she winds up right where she started in her crummy garrett. In act three, she meets a man, a fully disillusioned and nihilistic veteran and former POW, and together they determine that because society has failed them so completely and unfairly, they will have their revenge through crime. It’s not joyful vital American crime like Bonnie and Clyde, though; it’s more of the existential killing an Arab variety. The end.

Pretty pedantic, but perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist, and I was surprised and somewhat (though not entirely) charmed by Zweig’s prose, which, contra its subjects and concerns, is full of froth and elan. He describes the hell out of everything in paragraphical gusts, and offers tasty little observations and figures on almost every page.