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 outside Austria than Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig, and Robert Musil, their contemporary Peter Altenberg is well served by a collection of his writings Telegrams of the Soul, translated by Peter Worstman (Archipelago Books: 2005). Alternberg's confections  were originally written on the fly in the cafes of fin-de-siecle Vienna and published in newspapers. They belong to the genre of the feuilleton,  a term  invented by the French to suggest at once sheets of paper and little leaves.  Altenberg's work appeared in popular publications of the day: Ver Sacrum, Simplississmus, Pan, Jugend,Wendingen  and Die Bombe (The Bomb) among them.

In these charming pieces Altenberg reveals himself to be conflicted in ways familiar to us.  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 for a man of his time and place, 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.

But, like other men of his time, Altenberg elided the contradictions between bourgeois respectability and sexual expression, a choice not available to women.  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 the 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."   Altenberg and Schnitzler were nominated to be co-recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1914; 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 with him; he failed his high school composition examinations even though he was a talented writer. Nevertheless, Altenburg 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, postcards being 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 as he was, Altenberg became dependent on alcohol and a variety of other drugs. He also suffered from insomnia, having no reason to keep regular hours.  After being committed to mental institutions four times  during the period 1909-13, 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 there of pneumonia in 1919.

The declining days of the Habsburg Empire, Vienna,  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, with narcissism as a ready escape. 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." If this sounds all too similar to our own preoccupations, then reason enough to pay attention to Altenberg now.

1. Gustave Jagersparcher - Portrait of Peter Alternberg, 1909, Neue Galerie, NYC.
2. Ludwig von Zumbach - cover for Jugend, 1896, Albertina Museum, Vienna.
3. Fritz Zeymer - Gertrude Bernstein at Cafe Fledermaus, 1907, Austrian Theatre Museum, Vienna.
4. Urban Jahnke - Postcard #140  for Wiener Werkstatte, Albertina Museum, Vienna.
5. anonymous - Masked Ball, 1900, Albertina Museum, Vienna.

For further 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.