02 February 2011

Peter Altenberg: Dispatches From A Viennese Cafe

"Everything is remarkable if our perception of it is remarkable."

"There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man: love trouble, ambition, and financial catastrophe. And that's already three things, and there are a lot more." - Peter Altenberg

Less well known than Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig, and Robert Musil, is their contemporary Peter Altenberg, whose work is available y in a new translation by Peter Worstman (Telegrams of The Soul, translated from the German, Archipelago Books: 2005). Alternberg's confections  were originally written in the cafe fin-de-siecle Vienna and published in newspapers. They belong to the genre of the feuilleton,  invented by the French at mid-century, at mid-century, the term suggests  sheets of paper and little leaves in one word.  The popular publications of the day are still remembered for their energetic iconoclasm: Ver Sacrum, Simplississmus, Pan, Jugend,Wendingen  and Die Bombe (The Bomb) among them

Altenberg reveals himself to be our conflicted familiar. A man who praises the pastoral life, yet  never deserts his cafe table and its creature comforts. A Nietschean believer in the primacy of the aesthetic, he champions the rights of  working people and finds beauty in humble things disdained by his peers. Unusually, Altenberg displays an empathetic understanding of the lives of women, children and servants. In The People Don't Always Feel Altogether Social Democratic we find him arguing for equality as his carriage driver upholds class distinctions.

Like other men of his time, Altenberg elided the contradictions between bourgeois respectability and sexual expression, as women could not. When a young woman he is wooing protests that his interest in her is only sexual, he replies "What's so only?" Persecution Complex is Altenberg's argument with Sigmund Freud and his new practice of psychoanalysis, praising "within reason the capacity to see coming misfortune and the capacity by force of intelligence, wherever possible, to avoid it." Altenberg  himself had been diagnosed with "over-excitation of the nervous system", resulting in an "incapacity for gainful employment" that left him free to pursue the bohemian life he preferred. This did not prevent him from portraying his psychiatrist as a humorless stuffed shirt in Sanitorium For the Mentally Imbalanced.

Though little known to non-German readers, Altenberg has  been a favorite of other writers. Thomas Mann  recalled reading Altenberg as "love at first sound." His friend, the playwright Arthur Schnitzler, dubbed Altenberg a "professional neurotic" but was eager to borrow his ideas. Franz Kafka described Altenberg's talent for  "finding the splendours of the world like cigarette butts in the ashtrays of coffee houses." In 1914, Altenberg and Schnitzler were nominated to be co-recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature; inexplicably no prize was awarded that year.

Who was Peter Altenberg?  Born in 1859 to a prosperous Jewish family that supported him throughout his life, Altenberg showed no inclination to pursue a career. Motivation was never a strong point; he failed his high school composition examinations even though he was a talented writer. Altnenberg published eleven books but never made a living from them; his finances were supplemented through the patronage of admiring friends. Camping out in a series of cheap hotel rooms, Altenberg's real life was lived in the cafes where he spent most of his time, absorbing atmosphere, intuiting the psychic states of those around him, and writing everything down - inimitably. He was a self-described "little pocket mirror" that reflected the world as he found it.

Altenberg also wrote poetry on the backs of the postcards he collected. This novel item was a recent Austrian invention (1869).  This habit inspired his friend Alban Berg to compose Five Songs On Postcards with lyrics by Altenberg. When the music premiered in 1913, the audience rioted and the piece was withdrawn, not to be performed again until 1952. At the time, people said that within a week, half the audience had taken themselves to the couch of Dr. Freud!

Prone to melancholy, Altenberg became dependent on alcohol and other drugs. He also suffered from insomnia, having no reason to keep regular hours.  He was committed to mental institutions four times  during the period 1909-13 and his pessimism only increased with the outbreak of the Great War. At a time when many regarded Austria as a charming asylum, Altenberg actually ended his days in one, dying of pneumonia in 1919.

Turn of the century Vienna in the declining days of the Habsburg Empire, although sliding ever closer to political instability, was an ideal place to escape from the exigencies of daily life through art. The educated class had come to regard political activity as futile, escaping into narcissism. The writer Theodore Herzel was only nineteen in 1879 when he identified the predominant personality of his time as one "falling in love with his own spirit, and thus of losing any standard of judgment." Reason enough for us to pay attention to Altenberg now.

1.Gustave Jagersparcher - Portrait of Peter Alternberg, 1909, Neue Galerie, NYC.
2. Karl Fischer Koystrand - poster for The Bomb, 1899, Albertina Museum, Vienna.
3. Koloman Moser, cover for Ver Sacrum, Museum of Applied Culture, Vienna.
4. Ludwig von Zumbach - cover for Jugend, 1896, Albertina Museum, Vienna.
5. Koloman Moser - poster for Ver Sacrum, Albertina Museum, Vienna.
6. Fritz Zeymer - Gertrude Bernstein at Cafe Fledermaus, 1907, Austrian Theatre Museum, Vienna.
7. Urban Jahnke - Postcard #140  for Wiener Werkstatte, Albertina Museum, Vienna.
8. Josef Maria Auchentaller - Woman With Parrot, Leopold Museum, Vienna.
9. anonymous - Masked Ball, 1900, Albertina Museum, Vienna.
10. Koloman Moser -  poster for Furst von Metternichsche, 1899, Albertina Museum, Vienna.

Recommended reading : Fin-de-siecle Vienna by Carl Schorske, New York, Alfred A. Khnopf: 1980.


P. M. Doolan said...

Thanks for drawing our attention to this. I love Archipelago Books and their mission, to bring wonderful but neglected authors to the attention of the English speaking public through translations. They have a fantastic catalogue. By the way, are you sure you don't mean "Theodore Herzl"? If you mean who I think you mean, he was 39 in 1899, not 19 (but maybe I am thinking of the wrong Theodore H).

Jane said...

Thanks to P.M., typo corrected. I agree with your praise of Archipelago Press. However, their catalogue is pitifully and unfairly short of books by women. I wrote to them about it a few months ago and, in return, they sent me a fund-raising letter. Oh, well.