Tag Archives: Austrian fiction

The Leviathan: Joseph Roth

At 52 pages (some blank) Joseph Roth’s The Leviathan can be classified as a short story. It’s essentially a fable-like tale which tells the story of a successful coral merchant Nissen Piczenik who lives in the small town of Progody. Nissen’s corals aren’t the cheapest but his reputation ensures ample customers. He employs a number of female workers who, working in Nissen’s home, thread the corals. At one point, Nissen married one of these threaders, but she’s aged and he cares nothing for her. The only thing he cares about is coral.

Sometimes he dreamed that the Great Sea–he didn’t know which one, he had never seen a map, and so where he was concerned, all the world’s seas were just the Great Sea–would one day flood Russia, the part of it where he lived himself. That way, the sea, which he had no hope of reaching, would come to him, the strange and mighty sea, with the immeasurable Leviathan on the bottom, and all its sweet and bitter salty secrets.

Time passes and Nissen grows discontent and restless. Then a sailor returns home on leave, and he persuades Nissen to leave home and travel to Odessa to see the ocean. Things are never the same. …

The Leviathan

In spite of its brevity, this is a rich allegorical tale which delves into human discontent and corruption. Nissen’s life was good, he suffered no hardships, and had an excellent reputation, yet his discontent gnaws away at his brain until he satisfies his desire to see the ocean. And then everything went to hell. …

There’s mention on the back cover of “an evil twist” and “the final decider of his [Nissen’s] fate may be the devil himself.” I read those quotes and thought I was going to read a Faustian tale. But my take on this doesn’t include the devil; it’s simpler than that. It’s about wanting more than what you have.

Translated by Michael Hoffman



Filed under Fiction, Roth Joseph

The Governess and Other Stories: Stefan Zweig

I never thought I’d say this: but I was disappointed by two of Zweig’s tales in The Governess and Other Stories. This edition includes Did He Do It? (just over 50 pages long) The Miracles of Life (over 90 long), Downfall of the Heart (almost 50 pages long), and The Governess (just over 20 pages long). This edition is one of Pushkin Press’s attractive pocket-sized books.

The governess

Did He Do It? started out very promisingly indeed. The story is narrated by the wife is a retired government official. They spent their lives in the colonies, and deciding to retire to a small village outside of Bath, they buy a plot of land near the banks of the Kennet and Avon canal. They have a cottage built there, and since there’s not much canal traffic, they look forward to solitude. But of course, their peace doesn’t remain intact for long, and someone builds a house right next door.

Waterweed grows so densely from the bottom of the sluggish, black water that the surface has a shimmer of dark green, like malachite; pale water lilies sway on the smooth surface of the canal, which reflects the flower-grown banks, the bridges and the clouds with photographic accuracy. There is barely a ripple moving on the drowsy waterway. Now and then, half sunk in the water and already overgrown with plants. a broken old boat by the bank recalls the canal’s busy past, of which even visitors who come to take the waters in Bath hardly know anything

A young married couple move in, and while the wife is quiet, self-contained and private, the husband’s boisterous nature grates all too quickly. There’s something off about the couple. Can that be attributed to the mismatch?

Now while the set up sounds good, the denouement is disappointing (and vaguely silly). I can’t say anything else without spoiling the story.

The second piece, The Miracles of Life is an extremely sentimental novella, with loads of religious overtones, about an artist who seeks a model for his painting of the madonna. He ends up finding a young Jewish orphan and persuades her to pose.

The third story Downfall of the Heart is the best of the lot, and if it had been in another collection, I suspect I would have liked it even more than I did. This is the tale of a hardworking man who takes his wife and daughter to Lake Garda instead of following doctor’s advice to “take the waters” at Karlsbad.  He suffers from a number of ailments including gallstones, and during the holiday, he learns, the hard way, how he has spoiled his wife and daughter with the result that that they are ashamed of him and consider him annoying. In some ways, the story reminded me of Bunin’s The Gentleman from San Francisco. Downfall of the Heart is a disillusionment story: here’s a man at the end of his life who discovers, painfully, that he’s slaved and sacrificed for nothing.

I would have liked to be happy myself, just once, feel how beautiful the world of the carefree is for myself, just once, after fifty years of writing and calculating and bargaining and haggling, I would have liked to enjoy a few bright days before they bury me. 

In the last story, The Governess, two children try to make sense of the abrupt dismissal of their beloved Governess. It’s a slightly sentimental story, but doesn’t drip with this emotion as does The Miracles of Life. Two children run headlong into the complex world of adult behaviour and morality, and we know these children will only be able to make sense of this episode when they are adults themselves.

So one really good story, one good story and two not so-hot  tales.


Filed under Fiction, Zweig Stefan

Genius and Discovery: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017Genius and Discovery is another nifty little collection of Stefan Zweig gems from Pushkin Press. Triumph and Discovery contained select moments in history, and this collection contains the following five sections:

Flight into Immortality

The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel

The Genius of a Night

The Discovery of El Dorado

The First Word to Cross the Ocean. 

In the preface, Zweig talks about “genius

Millions of people in a nation are necessary for a single genius to arise, millions of tedious hours must pass before a truly historic shooting star of humanity appears in the sky. 

Genius is pushing it a bit with a few of the people mentioned here.

Flight into Immortality is the incredible story of Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Gold fever grips Spain after Columbus “who always fanatically believes whatever he wants to believe at any given time” tells tales of “gold mines of immeasurable extent,” in the Americas.  Gold seekers, adventurers, ruffians, you name it, arrive in Española (“later San Domingo and Haiti”).

But what a dismal tidal wave of humanity is now cast up by greed from every city, every village, every hamlet. Not only do honorable nobleman arrive, wishing to gild their coat of arms, not only are there bold adventurers and brave soldiers; all the filthy scum of Spain is also washed up in Palos and Cadiz.

While lawyer Martín Fernandez de Enciso readies a ship to sail to the San Sebastián colony “near the straits of Panama and the coast of Venezuela,” many of the Spanish adventurers are stranded on Española and hope to avoid debt by taking a ship out. The governor orders that no man may leave without his permission, but that doesn’t stop Vasco Núñez de Balboa who boldly smuggles himself aboard Enciso’s ship on a crate.

Genius and Discovery

And so begins Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s incredible adventures as he seeks gold and becomes the first European to see the Pacific ocean. This is a story of the highs and lows of human nature; mention is made of how he used hungry dogs to tear apart prisoners.

The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel is the story of how Handel recovered from a stroke and eventually wrote the Messiah.

The Genius of a Night is the story of how The Marseillaise was created, and this section wasn’t that interesting for this reader. The First Word to Cross the Ocean is the story of Cyrus Field and the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean

And now The Discovery of El Dorado. This is the story of John Augustus Sutter, born in Switzerland, who traveled to California, and becomes the luckiest and unluckiest of men when gold is discovered on his property. The Zweig version differs wildly in several aspects from the Wikipedia version, and while some of this can, perhaps, be ascribed to our modern sensibilities, some of it cannot. Zweig paints Sutter as a more tragic figure, and tells us that Sutter’s wife died after shortly arriving in California. Zweig says Sutter had three children while Wikipedia says five. Zweig portrays Sutter as a man stripped of everything: attacked by a mob, his “eldest son, threatened by these bandits, shoots himself.  The second son is murdered; the third runs for it but is drowned on the way home.”  Zweig creates a portrait of a widower, a demented beggar whose children are all dead. Wikipedia has Sutter’s wife living to a ripe old age, and one of his sons became the founder and planner of Sacramento.

Zweig didn’t have Goggle.

Apparently Zweig wrote 12 of these vignettes, so between this collection and Triumph and Disaster, we can read ten. Sadly omitted: Cicero and the (mock) Execution of Fyodor Dostoevsky

Review copy

Translated by Andrea Bell



Filed under Non Fiction, Zweig Stefan

Grand Hotel: Vicki Baum (1929)

“It is an odd thing about the guests in a big hotel. Not a single one goes out through the revolving door the same as when he came in.”

Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel is set in 1920s Berlin and portrays a varied cast of characters who take rooms, for a range of reasons, at the best hotel in town. The first notable guest is Kringelein, a middle-aged, dying bookkeeper whose illness has liberated him from a mediocre life of servitude. After receiving a diagnosis, he leaves his home town of Fredersdorf and heads to the Grand Hotel in Berlin, longing to experience the lifestyle enjoyed by his employer, company director, Preysing. Taking all the money he can gather, Kringelein intends to live a life of luxury for a few months and live as he imagines Preysing, a man about the same age, lives. Initially given one of the hotel’s worst rooms thanks to the snobbishness of the staff, Kringelein pitches a fit until he gets the sort of room he thinks Preysing would enjoy. Ironically Preysing also comes to stay at the hotel, and he balks at the extravagance of his room. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that Preysing, who is not as affluent as he appears, is burdened with horrendous financial concerns.

Kringelein, “spending a month’s salary in two days,” strikes up an unlikely relationship with a fellow guest, the solitary, morphine addicted Doctor Otternschlag who guesses that Kringelein “wanted to seize one hour of crowded life before he died.” Dr Otternschlag, “a fossilized image of Loneliness and Death,” whose horribly disfigured face is a “Souvenir from Flanders,” sits in the lounge reading newspapers and asking daily for a letter which never arrives.

grand hotel

Another guest at the hotel is professional thief, Baron Gaigern, a very good-looking, charming man who lives lightly but expensively.

Gaigern was not a man of honor. He had stolen and swindled before now. And yet he was not a criminal, for the better instincts of his nature and upbringing too often made havoc of his evil designs. He was a dilettante amongst rogues.

It’s no accident that Gaigern is staying at the Grand Hotel. He’s not there for pleasure-he’s there for work, and it’s a job that causes him to cause between the two sides of his nature: self-interest or gallantry.

Another important guest is aging Russian dancer Grusinskaya who is accompanied by a coterie of faithful professionals who’ve sacrificed their lives to make hers easier. She possesses a valuable pearl necklace which she wears for every performance but now believes it brings bad luck. She’s already had plastic surgery, and is terrified of aging. Here she is looking at her reflection:

Grusinskaya fixed her eyes on her face as though on the face of an enemy. With horror she saw the telltale years, the wrinkles, the flabbiness, the fatigue, the withering; her temples were smooth no longer, the corners of her mouth were disfigured, her eyelids, under the blue makeup, were as creased as crumpled tissue paper.

In this novel, the guests represent a microcosm of Weimar Berlin society, and are all rather sad human beings. The war is in the not-so-distant past, and financial instability is glaringly present. Both Baron Gaigern and the doctor are veterans of WWI, but somehow the Baron remains a happy-go-lucky fellow, while the doctor is a shell of a man.

Since the focus is life in the hotel with its various comings and goings, Grand Hotel is not a traditional novel, but more a series of connected scenes as the guests meet and collide. There’s always a feel of the throw of the dice with a novel such as this; there’s no cohesive narrative which details the prior lives of our characters, but rather this is a group of diverse men and women thrown together by chance in a particular place, at a particular time. Each of the guests possesses some salient, unique, admirable, and achingly human quality: Grusinskaya possesses talent, Gaigern possesses a love of life, Kringelein possesses the will to pack a lifetime of living into a few weeks, and Preysing adores his family. All of these qualities are somehow or another challenged as the characters mingle in the hotel. The story dipped and lost its pace at a couple of points, but it’s well worth catching for the way the author bounces her characters off of one another, throwing them onto new pathways.

On a final note, while chewing over the idea that novels set in hotels capitalise on the idea that various types, who would not normally co-mingle. are thrown together, I began to count other, similar, scenarios: cruise ships, shipwrecks, people trapped by the elements, the work place.  Any others?

Here’s another review from The Bookbinder’s Daughter

Review copy.

Translated by Basil Creighton. Revised by Margot Bettauer Dembo.


Filed under Baum Vicki, Fiction

Fame by Daniel Kehlmann

“Reality isn’t Everything.”

Did someone declare Austrian literature month around here? First Anna Edes by Austro-Hungarian  (yes that’s cheating a bit) Dezso Kosztolányi, then Concrete by Thomas Bernhard and now Fame by Daniel Kehlmann. I’m going to admit that I’d never heard of Daniel Kehlmann or his latest book Fame before, but he came highly recommended from Seeing the World Through Books. What is Fame–is it a novel? Or is it a collection of nine cleverly interwoven short stories? I suppose I should opt for the latter, but part of me really wants to lean into the novel idea for some reason, and this seems validated by the fact the author (and after all, he wrote it) states it’s a “novel in nine chapters.”

These stories or episodes are so well done, so clever, there’s not a loser in the bunch. Sometimes the connections between the characters are obvious, and sometimes the connections are much more subtle. While the characters come from various walks of life, there’s a common thread throughout: fame, identity, and the cell phone. Kehlmann introduces cell phones in his stories or chapters and never once does this ring a false note or seem contrived as cell phones become a crucial element through the lives of his characters.

Here’s an overview of each story:

In Voices (one of my favourite episodes), Ebling buys a cell phone and begins getting calls for someone named Ralf. At first he’s annoyed by the calls, and then he’s intrigued. Ralf becomes Ebling’s “doppelgänger, his representative in a parallel universe.” Ebling becomes increasingly disinterested in his own life as he waits for calls intended for Ralf–a man who seems to have a more far exciting time. In one great passage, Ebling is hiding from his wife and running off to the cellar to make assignations with sexy-sounding women:

He had worked out that he could say anything provided he didn’t ask any questions, but that people got suspicious the moment he wanted to know something. Yesterday a woman whose throaty voice he particularly liked had accused him directly of not being Ralf–all because he’d asked where in Andalusia they’d been together on summer vacation three years ago.   

 In In Danger (another of my favourites) neurotic novelist Leo Richter (who reminds me a great deal of a Woody Allen character) is on a circuit tour of Central America, and he asks his fairly new lover, Elisabeth, a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders to go along. Richter is an astonishing blend of neuroses & self-centeredness, and there’s a sort of fuzziness instead of a dividing line between Richter’s reality and Richter’s fiction. He’s a hilariously funny character–terrified of air travel and yet unexpectedly casual in certain situations.

In Rosalie Goes Off to Die, an elderly woman diagnosed with terminal cancer books a trip to a Swiss clinic where she plans to end her life. But is this her plan or Leo Richter’s?

In The Way Out, famous actor Ralf Tanner’s life takes a turn for the worst when his phone stops ringing. He experiences an identity crisis which is exacerbated by sessions watching Ralf impersonators on YouTube and reading error-riddled articles on Wikipedia:

He had long suspected that the act of being photographed was wearing out his face. Was it possible that every time you were filmed, another person came into being, a less-than-percent copy that ousted you from your own presence? It seemed to him that after years of being famous only a part of him survived, and all he needed to be whole again was to die, and to be alone in the place he truly belonged: in films and in his myriad photographs.  

The coup-de-grace arrives when he stumbles into a discotheque and learns he can’t even impersonate himself convincingly.

In The East detective writer Maria Rubenstein attends a writers’ trip to Central Asia, and here she learns the hard way that fame and cell phones don’t always mean a great deal in the squalor and harsh poverty of a gadgetless third world country.

In Replying to the Abbess, Blanco, a phenomenally successful writer known for his bestsellers that explore the meaning of life and inner serenity discovers his own nihilistic truth after reading a letter from an Abbess questioning his faith.

A Contribution to the Debate is written by Molwitz aka mollwit–a forum and chat room poster who’s unexpectedly asked to attend an important business conference. This has to be my all-time favourite episode. Molwitz is a walking disaster–a 37-year-old man who ignores personal hygiene (after all, his relationships takes place in cyberspace), lives with his controlling, hysterical mother and whose social life is spent on various internet forums. This section of the book is written by Molwitz, and some of his conversations resemble internet forum exchanges. Here he is, seriously disturbed when he discovers he has no internet access in the hotel:

At Reception, I demanded instant Internet. The woman looked at me like an obelisk. “Internet! Hello, Internet!”

Her: “not working right now.”

“Pardon, what, how, huh?”

Her: yes, so sorry, service interrupted at the moment, usually the rooms have wi-fi, but not for now.

Me: just stared. Couldn’t get it.

“It’ll be fixed next week.”

Me: Fanbloodytastic. Really helps me. What’s the prob?

Stared at me blank. Sarcasm: new territory for her. So shocked felt faint. Hotel parked in booniest boondocks. No village, no Internet cafe, so either someone lent me his HSDPA card, or situation pitch-black. And come on, nobody lends you their internet card, everyone’s afraid you’ll download movies at company expense. So: catastrophe. Catacombs. Night night.

And then Mollwitz runs into Leo Richter….

How I Lied and Died concerns a man who begins an affair that’s either facilitated or complicated by a cell phone.

The last story, In Danger revisits Elisabeth and Leo Richter. This time, they’re on her turf when Leo accompanies Elisabeth to a dangerous war zone. She knows it’s dangerous but she thinks she “wanted finally to show him this real life.” At first Leo acts in a fairly predictable fashion asking the European doctors if the soldiers in jeeps carry “real” weapons. We might expect writer Leo Richter  to blur reality and fiction, but is it a coincidence that his girlfriend Elisabeth’s life mirrors that of one of his most famous characters? Instead of the trip defining reality for Leo, Elisabeth finds herself in a confusing blend of fiction and reality.

Fame is highly entertaining and really very funny–no argument from me on that score, but the book is a lot more than that. I found myself thinking about the characters a great deal, and then I’d return to the book and reread quotes. In Fame, Kehlmann’s characters don’t exactly struggle with reality. They juggle with it as their lives are caught between reality and fiction.

The East and The Way Out both explore the connection between reality and fame.  The main characters in these stories are celebrities, yet when they lose their fame they both cease to exist and find themselves sliding towards new lives. Their existence is defined by their fame to one degree or another. When that’s stripped away, what’s left? I think most of us would argue that the projected ‘famous’ images of Ralf and Maria are more real than Mollwit’s internet identity, and yet all three characters flounder when detached from the identity they’ve formed for themselves.  Are the images we’ve formed of ourselves fragile once removed from their context? 

What of Mollwit? His entire life is spent flaming others on the internet through various identities, and in a sense you can hardly blame him as his ‘real’ life is quite dreadful. But what is Mollwit’s real life? Is his internet life just as real as his pitiful home & office existence? And this moves to the question of the image we have of ourselves and the image others have of us. Which is real? How ‘real’ is anything?

I find myself agreeing with Leo. Here’s a conversation he has with Elisabeth:

“All this isn’t real,” she said. “Or is it?”

“Depends on your definition.” He lit a cigarette. “Real. It’s a word that means so much, it doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

Review copy courtesy of Pantheon books. My version is translated by Carol Brown Janeway


Filed under Kehlmann Daniel