The translator Tess Lewis on writing and publishing in and from Austria.
The contemporary literary scene in Austria
Austria’s literary scene is thriving. With a population of just over 8 million, Austria has thrown long shadows over the landscape of German-language literature for decades. Pound for pound, or rather page for page, it punches well above its weight. There are a number of very good independent literary publishers in Austria, but it’s hard for them to compete with the immense marketing machinery of the large German publishers and conglomerates. Still, they are excellent at spotting and fostering new talent and supporting established literary writers whose works appeal to a selective readership.
The most recent noteworthy development is the brand new Austrian Book Prize, founded as a counterpart to the German and Swiss Book Prizes. Intended to draw attention to the quality and originality of contemporary Austrian literature across the genres, it is open to works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and drama. Frederike Mayröcker, the grande dame of Austrian poetry, is the inaugural winner and the list of nominees offers a good selection of the year’s most interesting books.
I offer a taste of some of the current Austrian writers I find most interesting—Karl-Markus Gauss, Alois Hotschnig, Maja Haderlap, Anna Weidenholzer, and Antonio Fian—in my Austrian literature special feature in the February 2016 issue of Words Without Borders.
Must-read classics from Austria available in English
For a panoramic view of the Hapsburg empire on the brink of dissolution, there is no better novel than Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March (tr. Joachim Neugröschel, Overlook 2002). Peter Altenberg, the consummate Viennese flâneur and master of the journalistic vignette offers a more intimate view of Vienna in all its glory with a touch of squalor in Telegrams of the Soul, (tr. Peter Wortsman, Archipelago Books 2005). And for insight into some of the complexities in post-World War II Austria, Thomas Bernhard is essential reading. His novels and plays have had a profound and extensive influence on German and English language literature—and they’re deeply, darkly, viciously funny.
Best new books from Austria available in English
One of the most important books published in Austria in the last decade is Maja Haderlap’s novel, Angel of Oblivion, which I was honored to translate for Archipelago Books. Based on the experiences of Maja Haderlap’s family and the Slovenian speaking minority in southern Austria, many of whom fought as Partisans against the Nazis during the Second World War it’s also the heartbreaking story of a young girl learning to navigate the treacherous terrain between two hostile communities and two extremely burdened languages: Slovenian, a language of heroic resistance and continued humiliation, and German, an escape from her stifling rural upbringing but also the language of the camps which her Grandmother barely survived and many family members didn’t.
Set in Japan, Milena Michiko Flasar’s novel, I Called Him Necktie, (tr. Sheila Dickie, New Vessel Press 2014) tells the story of two misfits who meet on a park bench. At first wary and tentative, the two form a friendship and are gradually able to speak to each other about things they’ve been unable to reveal to anyone else.
Robert Seethaler’s short novel, A Whole Life, (tr. Charlotte Collins, FSG 2016), nominated for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award, renders the concentrated drama of a life spent almost entirely in a remote Alpine valley.
Let me add a fourth novel that is both one of the very best recently published books from Austria and an essential classic, Gregor von Rezzori’s An Ermine in Czernopol, exquisitely translated by Philip Boehm, (NYRB 2012)
Publishing houses that publish contemporary fiction
Literary magazines for contemporary fiction
And finally, new books or authors from Austria that absolutely have to be translated into English
Karl Markus-Gauss is one of the most important Austrian writers and European essayists writing today. His books are a distinctive and highly literary mix of cultural history, travelogue, personal essay, and measured political commentary. He has charted the mysterious and overlooked corners of Europe and brought back news of endangered cultures—the Sorbs in Lusatia, the Abëreshë people in Albania, the Armenians in Macedonia and Bulgaria, the Gottschee in Slovenia, and the Sephardim of Sarajevo in The Dying Europeans—and of the Roma of Slovakia in The Dog-Eaters of Svinia. Gauss’ collection of essays, In the Forest of Metropoles, covers a wider range of less esoteric cultures, figures, and events, offering an indispensable and idiosyncratic cultural history of Europe.
In her fiction, Anna Weidenholzer explores the fringes of the Austrian middle-class—those struggling to make ends meet, the chronically unemployed, the socially hapless—with wry delicacy and understated humor. Her most recent novel, Why the Men are wearing Starfish, follows a retired teacher who sets out to find the secret of happiness by interviewing the residents of a snowless ski resort using a survey initially created to measure the gross national happiness in Bhutan.
The 19th century writer Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916) was once one of the most popular and prominent writers of her time but has, as far as I know, never been translated into English. A new edition of her complete works—fiction, drama, and aphorisms—was published last year for the 100th anniversary of her death. Her refined psychological insight, cutting irony and satirical undertones make her work ripe for (re)discovery.
And finally, a writer worth keeping an eye on is Laura Freudenthaler. Her first book, Madeleine’s Skull, is a collection unsettling, shrewd, and sharp short stories. Her first novel will be published next year.
Tess Lewis is a writer and translator from French and German. Her translations include works by Peter Handke, Anselm Kiefer, and Philippe Jaccottet. She has won a number of awards including the 2015 Austrian Cultural Forum NY Translation Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is an Advisory Editor for The Hudson Review and writes essays on European Literature for a number of journals and newspapers including The Hudson Review, The American Scholar, The Wall Street Journal, and Bookforum.