- Eine Literaturgeschichte: Österreich seit 1650 by Klaus Zeyringer and Helmut Gollner
Blurbs can never be taken at face value, but Daniel Kehlmann’s recommendation on the back cover hits the mark: “Eine erstaunliche Leistung und ein zukünftiges Standardwerk.” Standard beyond question, for this is an exhaustive history that includes expected canonical authors but also seeks out lesser-known [End Page 147] writers from the “unendecktes Österreich” traced by Karl-Markus Gauß. Standard with a few reservations, however, the first of which is that Kehlmann is treated admiringly (778–81) in the very book he’s praising. Isn’t that an unwise conflict of interest?
More on such flaws later, because they are minor compared to the monumental scope of this achievement. The authors make clear from the beginning (13) that the specific nature of Austrian literature cannot be understood “mit den Epochenschemata deutscher Geiestesgeschichte […]. Wir haben keine authentische idealistische Klassik, keine Vorklassik der […] Ich-Emanzipation, keine Romantik, keinen Materialismus, keinen Naturalismus.” Rather, the particulars of Austrian history and social structures need to be considered at all times to illuminate the dynamics of literary creation and reception. Accordingly, Zeyringer’s chapters offer lucid summaries of the backgrounds and forces operating in society; for example, he first discusses the state of religious disputation and the role of sermons within it, the conditions of the book market, and the expansion of the mercantile spirit, before undertaking his discussions of Katherina Regina von Greiffenberg (34–36) and Abraham a Sancta Clara (36–39). All of the themes he brings up prove strikingly pertinent to the authors’ works. In section after section, Zeyringer’s background comments elucidate the specifics with skill and conviction. One of his especially successful devices is in showing contrasts between authors from the same era, reading Aichinger’s narrative methods, for instance, against those of Lernet-Holenia (620–24), or studying Doderer’s belief in “Erzählbarkeit” (624–28—including Eisenreich and Saiko) against the “Anarchieprinzip” of Gütersloh, Handke, Konrad Bayer, Aichleitner, Okopenko, and Jonke (630–32).
Gollner’s task was to prepare separate essays on individual authors, most of which are equally excellent and deliberately provocative through calculated “Parteilichkeiten” (13). This combined general and particular approach “ergibt […] zwei unterschiedliche Herangehensweisen an Literatur, deren Koexistenz uns aber gefiel” (13). The essays on Stifter (327–49), Raimund (181–99), Nestroy (199–227), and Grillparzer (227–59) in the nineteenth century, or on Jandl (657–67), Handke (703–6), and Jelinek (709–15) in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries will be definitive for some time. Yet both authors sometimes undermine their efforts by succumbing to faddish judgments. They are crude in not differentiating “die Hochkultur” (616) in itself from the political mendacities and evasions it has been invoked to serve. They [End Page 148] paint with so wide a brush that one would think Mozart and Schubert were themselves complicit in evasion or that anyone who loves Die Winterreise is just a history-denying escapist.
And of course anything connected with patriotism or Catholicism is automatically branded as reactionary. The main victim of these blanket judgments is—here we go again—Hofmannsthal, in whom it now seems verboten to find anything good. The authors miss no effort to pillory him as a jingoist, a cultural and religious reactionary (e.g. 463, 502–5), and an incorrigible aesthete, which had ceased to be true by 1902 at the latest. As for this latter point, perpetuating a serious misjudgment made by none other than Kraus does not make it less serious. By the same token of received current orthodoxy, not a word can be spoken against Musil. Too many of the authors’ judgments are clichés that need revisiting.
Some adjustment to Gollner’s idiosyncratic and rather misleading terminology is needed as well, to such an extent that the reader might be better oriented by first reading the epilogue, which deals with treatments of Faust (787–96), including comments on Grillparzer’s Der Traum ein Leben as an answer to Goethe’s Faust (241). Something called “Posthumanismus” allegedly marks Austrian literature since the...