Modern Austrian Literature through the Lens of Adaptation by Catriona Firth (review)
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Catriona Firth, Modern Austrian Literature through the Lens of Adaptation. Internationale Forschungen zur Allgemeinen und Vergleichenden Literaturwissenschaft 157. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2012. 241 pp.

Although film adaptations undoubtedly represent an important genre in twentieth-century Austrian cultural production, surprisingly little scholarship has been dedicated to this subject. This is obviously connected with the status of the discipline of adaptation studies, which for many years has been treated as an orphan, situated between literature and film studies. Catriona Firth’s Modern Austrian Literature through the Lens of Adaptation therefore fills a significant gap in current research in Austrian studies and epitomizes the recently awakened scholarly interest in adaptations.

However, what is most intriguing about Through the Lens of Adaptation is its aspiration to move beyond a traditionally linear conception of the adaptation process in order to understand the relationship between the two media not as a unidirectional but a more complex reciprocal transaction. Firth argues that by analyzing the inevitable as well as intentional distortions created in the process, an entirely new critical perspective on the original literary [End Page 140] work can be gained. Taking this assumption as a starting point and drawing on an arsenal of theoretical concepts developed within the realm of psychoanalytic film theory, the five chapters of the book explore five canonical texts in postwar Austrian literature and their filmic counterparts: Gerhard Fritsch’s Moos auf den Steinen (1956) and its adaptation by Georg Lhotzky (1968), Franz Innerhofer’s Schöne Tage (1974) and its adaptation by Fritz Lehner (1981), Gerhard Roth’s Der Stille Ozean (1980) and its adaptation by Xaver Schwarzenberger (1983), Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Ausgesperrten (1981) and its adaptation by Franz Novotny (1982), and Robert Schindel’s Gebürtig (1990) and its adaptation by Lukas Stepanik (2002). The book therefore proposes an alternative methodological approach that challenges the exclusive focus on written materials in literary historiography and sets out to question “a series of generic categories and grand cultural narratives” that have hitherto dominated the academic discourse on postwar Austrian literature (22). These include the dichotomy of continuity and rupture (Kontinuität und Bruch), traditional conceptions of the Heimat novel versus the anti-Heimat novel, and the problematic role of authors within Austrian society.

The book is well organized and spans six decades of postwar Austria in chronological order. In the first chapter, Firth endeavors to reread Fritsch’s literary debut after analyzing its filmic adaptation according to Peter Brooks’s Freudian conception of desire. Firth succeeds in offering a refreshingly new perspective on the overlooked subversive socio-critical elements of the work, which has long been pigeonholed as one of the many naive, nostalgic, and idealized portrayals of the lost world of Habsburg Austria of the 1950s and 1960s. She asks for a more balanced reassessment of the postwar period beyond the binary of continuity and rupture. The case studies of Innerhofer/Lehner as well as Roth/Schwarzenberger both engage with pervasive preconceptions of the critically acclaimed anti-Heimat novel. The former study demonstrates how the psychoanalytic discussion of identificatory structures in the film reveals, according to Firth, more problematic aspects of Innerhofer’s much celebrated work of this new genre. The latter applies concepts of visual anthropology to the close reading of the film in order to expose an overlooked authoritarian “urban gaze” that significantly undermines established positive narratives about the novel (138). The final two chapters deal with literary and filmic modes of Austrian Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Firth’s analysis of Jelinek/Novotny is informed by the Freudian conception of joking and, more specifically, Susan Purdie’s Lacan-inflected discussion of humor. [End Page 141] The comparative study of the novel and its adaptation tries to unveil the strategies of creating exaggerated, stereotyped characters in both works that discourage emotional involvement and spare potential “unpleasure” and thus enable the readers and viewers to critically engage with taboo subjects of Austria’s National Socialist legacy. The last chapter scrutinizes the mise en abyme device as applied in the works of Schindel and Stepanik from a psychoanalytic perspective, drawing on the Freudian conception of “dream-work.” Firth argues that the dual close reading of novel and film sheds...