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List, Niki - Lloyd, Österreichischer (11/25)
Literatencafés, Wiener Literatur am Naschmarkt

Literatur, österreichische

Literature, Austrian: The question if and to what extent one can speak of "Austrian literature" as distinct from the literature of the other German-speaking countries is controversial. Attempts to define the specific nature of Austrian literature by assigning to it certain characteristics, have proved to be one-sided, and in many cases ideologically and politically biased.

Reflections upon the independence of Austrian literature started in the 2nd half of the 18th century, when the difference from the literature of northern German countries, in particular Prussia, became ever more obvious and when people frequently complained about Austria lagging behind. At the same time however, local literary forms, such as the Vienna popular comedy, further developed and flourished. One important result of this "drifting apart" was the fact that the usual model of classifying German literature into different periods ("Sturm und Drang", "Classical Age", "Romanticism", "Junges Deutschland", etc.) could not be applied, or only in a limited sense, to the Austrian history of literature.

A further problem arises in the definition of Austrian literature in respect of its authors. Are we to include all poets who are born in the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy or only those who wrote in German and were in some way attached to the territory of the present Republic of Austria? Significant authors are often claimed to be part of Austrian literature for questionable reasons, such as F. Kafka, E. E. Kisch, E. Canetti or P. Celan. One must not underestimate the economic dependence of Austrian authors on other German-speaking countries, in which most of their work is usually published and read. This creates a phenomenon whereby Austrian literature is mainly judged by its production and reception abroad.

In the Middle Ages literature was almost exclusively produced in monasteries and abbeys, where liturgical hymns, sacred songs, etc. were composed. The oldest literary documents are the Wiener Hundesegen (9th /10th centuries), the Altdeutsche Genesis (last quarter 12th century) and the Millstatt (Carinthian) Genesis (around 1200). The oldest German-speaking author known by name was Frau Ava, who died around 1127 near Melk. The work of Heinrich von Melk, which castigates the sins of priests and laymen, dates back to the 2nd half of the 12th century. The heyday of Minnesong, climaxing with Walther von der Vogelweide, was the beginning of the 13th century; at the same time the Courtly Epics were developed, which told of knightly deeds and chivalry, and the Middle High German heroic epics (Nibelungenlied, Kudrun, Dietrich Epics). The itinerant professional poet Wernher der Gartenaere (2nd half of 13th century) created the first sociocritical village tale, the poetic narrative "Meier Helmbrecht"; the lyric poet Neidhart ("von Reuenthal"), the most successful lyric author of the German Middle Ages and creator of courtly village poetry, worked at the court of the Babenberg duke Friedrich II. The minnesinger Ulrich von Liechtenstein composed the first autobiography; in the 14th century the so-called "Neidhartspiele" became popular, coarse farcical stories which focused on the differences between peasants and knights. The diverse, partly autobiographical poetic work of the Tirolean nobleman Oswald von Wolkenstein is ascribed to the late Middle Ages. Annals and Chronicles provide a record of the events of the time, mostly in concise form, only occasionally in detailed description.

A basic form of Austrian literature in the Middle Ages was Spieldichtung; all types of sacred and secular plays were cultivated from the 12th century onwards and became very popular everywhere in the outgoing Middle Ages, particularly in the Alpine regions (Passion Plays, mystery plays, Fasnacht, or carnival, plays). Urban artistic writing of later times as well as popular tales of peasant life have their roots in these plays; the Alpine play tradition continued to be popular during the Baroque period. The Meistergesang (mastersinging) never gained a foothold in Austria.

During the period of Humanism Vienna was a literary and intellectual centre; the combination of "philosophia christiana" and humanist culture, and revival of the formal canon of the world of Antiquity in Neo-Latin literature resulted in a rich production of literature, which included everything from occasional poetry, epic verse and drama to tractates; the most famous example being Konrad Celtis, forerunner of Neo-Latin writers of the early 16th century.

During the Counter-Reformation and later during the Baroque period the gap between south-German/Austrian and north-German literature became more evident. While the Protestant writing of the north took over elements of French classicism, the south developed a Catholic literature which was influenced by the Italian and Spanish Baroque. The written word played an important role for the Counter-Reformation: With the description of exemplary lives, the lives of Saints, collections of legends and Jesuit dramas, authors tried to fight Lutheranism. The Catholic chorale, songs and poems in praise of the Virgin Mary, and in particular sermons, which reached the height of popularity in the late 17th century and whose most important representative, Abraham a Sancta Clara, created works of powerful expression, received fresh impetus. In spite of the repressive attitude of the Habsburg dynasty, Austria was able to maintain a Protestant literary tradition, such as in the work of the Lower-Austrian noblewoman Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg, whose spiritual sonnets represent a high point of Baroque poetry.

In the centre of Baroque Literature were the richly staged Baroque theatre and the plays written and performed by various religious orders. Festive performances at court and in church with their impressive use of luxurious costumes, as well as extempore plays and comedies or farces (Hanswurstspiel), represented by J. A. Stranitzky, G. Prehauser, J. Perinet and J. F. Kurz-Bernardon, enjoyed great popularity. During the conflict about Hanswurst plays ("Hanswurststreit") in the middle of the 18th century, Philipp Hafner opposed the dictate of the north-German rationalists and promoted the further development of these popular theatre forms into the traditional Viennese popular comedy, which amalgamated elements of Commedia dell´arte with the tradition of English theatre.

Outstanding examples of Baroque narrative art are the chivalric romances and picaresque novels of the Upper-Austrian Johann Beer.

In the following years Austrian literature developed on the foundations of the Baroque. The first highlight of the "age of reason" in Austrian literature was made possible by the tolerant, enlightened policies of Emperor Joseph II; polemical treatises, pamphlets, and papers on a variety of subjects of public interest were published in great numbers; from then on Austrian intellectuals associated the era of Josephinism with the concept of freedom and rulers who respected the dignity of their subjects. This flood of publications came to an end with the beginning of another reactionary period under Emperor Franz I, and "revolutionary" authors were oppressed. The war of independence against Napoleon also inspired Austrian patriotic writers: I. F. Castelli, the brothers H. J. and M. Collin, J. Hormayr, J. C. Zedlitz and K. Pichler, in whose salon the literary world of Vienna came together.

It has invariably been with a good deal of surprise that literary historiographers have reported the sudden appearance of a number of significant Austrian writers in the 1st half of the 19th century: F. Grillparzer, A. Stifter, F. Raimund, J. Nestroy, E. Bauernfeld, F. Halm, E. Feuchtersleben, N. Lenau, A. Grün, J. N. Vogl, J. G. Seidl. It is interesting to note that their work had already started to move away from contemporary literary trends in the German-speaking countries, with respect to the subject treated (mainly Austrian motifs, in particular with Grillparzer) as well as language. In his essay "Worin unterscheiden sich die österreichischen Autoren von den übrigen?" ("What distinguishes Austrian writers from others?"; 1837) Grillparzer was the first to try to define the position of Austrian literature. The Viennese popular comedy experienced its prime in the attractive burlesques and parodies of Nestroy and the no less popular fantasy plays of Raimund; a realistic narrative style was championed by the widely-read American novels of C. Sealsfield, a native of Moravia; the political commitment of authors such as N. Lenau or E. Bauernfeld was stifled from the very beginning; for them, as for most other writers, the burden of revolutionary (pre-March) censorship under State Chancellor Metternich became almost unbearable. However, what the Austrian writers had expected from the revolution of 1848 was only realized for a short period of time.

In the multiracial state of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy, with the capital of Vienna as its unquestioned centre, Austrian literature continued to acquire an independent profile in the 2nd half of the 19th century as well. The social commitment of naturalism was anticipated by M. v. Ebner-Eschenbach in her touching village stories; at the same time the former second lieutenant F. v. Saar wrote melancholy and pessimistic narratives and saw himself as a link between late classicism and Austrian modern literature around 1900. L. Anzengruber and P. Rosegger were the first to depict the native peasant world, the "discovery of the province" became a catchphrase and popular subject. Vernacular Literature culminated in the work of F. Stelzhamer; R. v. Kralik in Gralbund and E. v. Handel-Mazzetti gave new strength to Catholic literary tradition.

At the turn of the century the authors of "Junges Wien" (Young Vienna), A. Schnitzler, R. Beer-Hofmann, H. v. Hofmannsthal and H. Bahr took up the new movements of the modern age, such as decadence and symbolism, neo-Romanticism and impressionism, and formed them in a specific manner. Schnitzler´s dramas and prose painted a powerful portrait of bourgeois society during the monarchy, while Hofmannsthal focused on "death" and the "inadequacy" of language; his "Letter by Lord Chandos" (1902) became a key text of this era. At that time essential impulses began in Austria, which still influence world literature. Schnitzler carried the "inner monologue" to even greater heights, Hofmannsthal revived antique tragedy and the mediaeval mystery play and stimulated the Austrian Baroque theatre tradition. Language criticism was also the main concern of the great polemicist K. Kraus, who, with his own periodical, "Die Fackel", created a satirical sociocritical medium of the time (1899-1936). In Tirol the group "Jung-Tirol" gathered around A. Pichler; in 1910 L. v. Ficker founded the periodical "Der Brenner". Young authors, such as G. Trakl, F. Werfel, S. Zweig, M. Brod and F. Kafka started to publish their works; they were all to gain world-wide recognition. R. M. Rilke decisively stimulated the language of modern poetry; R. Musil created one of the pioneering narrative works of the period with his essayistic monumental novel "Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften" ("The Man Without Qualities"); Kafka´s works, some of which were fragmentary or published posthumously, represent a very intense document of painful experience; H. Broch´s "epistemological" novel was the last attempt to revive the totality of this literary genre.

The collapse of the Habsburg monarchy, anticipated by many Austrian writers, was a severe trauma and aroused in many of them the desire to conjure up once again the atmosphere of the old Empire of the 1st Republic (K. Kraus, F. Werfel, H. v. Hofmannsthal, R. Musil, F. v. Herzmanovsky-Orlando, O. Stoessel, F. Braun, F. T. Csokor); the downfall of the monarchy found its exemplary depiction in the narrative work of J. Roth ("Radetzkymarsch", 1932).

The rise of social democracy had led to the formation of a working-class literature; beginning in 1910, Expressionismwas developed, which gathered numerous young authors (R. Müller, A. Bronnen) in the struggle against the generation of their fathers and conventional morality.

The increasing radicalisation of the political camps in the 1920s was also eventually reflected in literature; a number of successful authors (R. Hohlbaum, B. Brehm, K. H. Strobl, F. K. Ginzkey, M. Jelusich, M. Mell, M. Grengg, J. Weinheber) at the beginning of the 1930s moved, more or less openly, to the camp of the National Socialists and thus contributed to the division of Austrian literature even before 1938; In May 1933 a meeting of the PEN Club in Ragusa became a turning point, which resulted in an open split and the resignation of "national" authors from the PEN Club. In the "Bund deutscher Schriftsteller Österreichs" (Federation of German Writers of Austria) the members and sympathizers of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Worker´s Party) gathered in an illegal cover organisation, which energetically worked towards the Anschluß. Meanwhile many authors (K. H. Waggerl, J. Perkonig, O. Leitgeb) contented themselves with writing about the sheltered world of "rural life" or chose historical and heroic topics (M. Jelusich, R. Hohlbaum); those who did not want to give up their critical democratic writing, and those who were of Jewish descent, had to leave the country (such as E. Canetti, J. Roth, R. Musil, R. Neumann, B. Viertel, S. Zweig, F. Werfel, H. Broch, F. T. Csokor and Ö. v. Horváth); some of them, such as the young dramatist Jura Soyfer and A. J. Koenig, stayed on too long and were sent to concentration camps, where they were killed. Others tacitly integrated themselves and opted for "inner emigration" (A. Lernet-Holenia, R. Henz).

The often postulated "New Beginning" of Austrian literature in 1945 did not quite correspond to reality; numerous authors who were successful during the Third Reich (G. Fussenegger, K. H. Waggerl, F. Tumler, etc.) continued to be published after its fall; the surviving emigrants were, on the whole, reluctant to return, and the tendency to pass over in silence the years of Nazi occupation also made itself felt in the field of literature; a projected "Literature Purification Law" (1946) never took effect.

With the avant-garde periodical "Plan" (1945-1948) O. Basil was able to continue the tradition of Austrian modern literature; young authors, such as I. Aichinger ("Die größere Hoffnung", 1948), C. Busta, P. Celan and E. Fried, published their work in "Plan". How to come to terms with the past slowly became a central subject for many writers, as in the dramas of F. Hochwälder and the novels of H. Zand, G. Fritsch and H. Lebert ("Die Wolfshaut" 1960); events of the 1920s up to 1927, when the Ministry of Justice was set fire to, were dealt with by H. v. Doderer in his monumental novels "Die Strudlhofstiege" (1951) and "Die Dämonen" (1956). I. Bachmann describes in her work basic experiences such as bewilderment, alienation, the striving for identity, and at the same time vehemently denounces the cruelty of a society dominated by men. A new dimension of language criticism was developed by the "Wiener Gruppe" around F. Achleitner, H. C. Artmann, K. Bayer, G. Rühm and O. Wiener in the course of systematic experiments with language as a "material"; their dialect poems, montages and "concrete poetry" profoundly extended the "grammar of modernism". This treatment of language found its continuation in the pointedly funny sound poems of E. Jandl as well as in the often hermetic texts of F. Mayröcker.

In 1958 the "Forum Stadtpark" was founded in Graz, whose periodical "manuskripte" soon became the most important literary review; in 1973 the "Grazer Autorenversammlung" (Graz Authors´ Assembly) was established in conscious opposition to the Austrian PEN Club; the majority of the Austrian avant-garde became its members.

The tradition of Austrian "language scepticism", mainly influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein, is continued in the work of two outstanding authors of Austrian contemporary literature: Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke, who have left their mark on German-language literature as a whole. While the texts of Bernhard, denying the possibility of narration, revolve in almost monomaniacal fashion around the hostility of the "native" landscape, the coldness of personal relations and the hopelessness of life which is destined for death, Handke, who started his career as a young rebel ("Offending the Audience", 1966), in his later works finds new confidence in language, telling of a world "that hides itself again and again, a world that is humanly possible, a good world." In the mid-1970s the social-liberal reform euphoria of the early Kreisky era also caused a new awakening in Austrian literature. Young authors, such as M. Scharang, G. Roth, G. Wolfgruber, W. Kappacher, F. Innerhofer and E. Jelinek, came out with works which depict social grievances in an authentic, provocative and disillusionizing manner; in drama this includes works by W. Bauer, P. Turrini, F. Mitterer, W. Schwab and Jelinek, who create a sensation through their radical demolition of bourgeois values. A change to subjectivity and introspection at the end of the 1970s, demonstrated by authors such as Handke in the working group "Langsame Heimkehr" (1979-1981), and in particular by J. Winkler in the trilogy "Das wilde Kärnten" (1984), was again followed by authors of the 1980s and 1990s who believed in the power of narrative, i.e. E. Hackl in his detached documentary stories about the fate of women and girls and C. Ransmayr in his Ovid novel "Die letzte Welt" (1988) which oscillates between the ancient and the modern world. Numerous young authors follow Austrian narrative traditions (M. Köhlmeier, N. Gstrein, R. Schindel, E. Gstettner, etc.).

Literature: J. W. Nagl, J. Zeidler and E. Castle, Deutsch-österreichische Literaturgeschichte, 1898-1937; J. Nadler, Literaturgeschichte Österr., 1948; A. Schmidt, Dichtung und Dichter Österreichs im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, 2 vols., 1964; C. Magris, Der habsburgische Mythos in der österreichischen Literatur, 1966; H. Spiel (ed.), Die zeitgenössische Literatur Österreichs, 1976; F. Aspetsberger (ed.), Staat und Gesellschaft in der modernen österreichsichen Literatur, 1977; H. Zeman (ed.), Die österreichische Literatur. Eine Dokumentation ihrer literarhistorischen Entwicklung, 4 vols., 1979-1989; W. Weiss, Die österreichische Literatur der Gegenwart, in: M. Durzak (ed.), Deutsche Gegenwartsliteratur, 1981; K. K. Polheim (ed.), Literatur aus Österreich - österreichische Literatur. Ein Bonner Symposion, 1981; H. Seidler, Österr. Vormärz und Goethezeit, 1982; K. Bartsch et al. (eds.), Für und wider eine österreichische Literatur, 1982; K. Amann, P. E. N. Politik, Emigration, Nationalsozialismus, 1984; H. Giebisch and G. Gugitz, Bio-bibliographisches Literaturlexikon Österr., 21985; F. Aspetsberger et al. (eds.), Literatur der Nachkriegszeit und der 50er Jahre in Österreich, 1984; M. G. Hall, Österr. Verlagsgeschichte 1918-38, 2 vols., 1985; G. Renner, Österr. Schriftsteller und der National-Sozialismus (1933-40), 1986; S. Patsch, Österr. Schriftsteller im Exil, 1986; S. P. Scheichl and G. Stieg, Österr. Literatur des 20. Jahrhunderts, 1986; E. Fischer and W. Haefs (eds.), Hirnwelten funkeln. Literatur des Expressionismus in Wien, 1988; K. Rossbacher, Literatur und Liberalismus, 1992; H. Zeman (ed.), Geschichte der Literatur in Österreich von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart, 7 vols., 1994ff.; W. Schmidt-Dengler, J. Sonnleitner and K. Zeyringer (eds.), Literaturgeschichte: Österreich. Prolegomena und Fallstudien, 1995.

References to other albums:
Video Album: Thomas Bernhard im Interview zu den Salzburger Festspielen,

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