Vienna Tales

September 26, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Vienna Tales. A collection of short stories edited by Helen Constantine and translated by Deborah Holmes. Not available in French.

The good old days and good old Vienna belong together like husband and wife. When you think of one, the other comes to mind. There is something touching about the fearful assiduousness with which the Viennese seek to uphold the belief that the good old days are still here in Vienna and that the city remains unchanged. (Heinrich Laube)

I’d already planned to spend a few days in Vienna in August when I read Marina’s review of Vienna Tales, a collection of short stories by various authors. As the title gives it away, Vienna is the common point between the stories. Some are snapshots of life in Vienna at different times:

  • Day-Out by Joseph Roth (1894 – 1939)
  • Merry-go-round by Joseph Roth
  • Vienna 1924 to …by Friedericke Mayröcker (1924)
  • The Prater by Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868)
  • Ottakringerstrasse by Christine Nöstlinger (1936)

Vienna_TalesIn these stories, you wander in Vienna along with the writers, discovering neighbourhoods and places. For example, Day-Out is an impressionist description of an outing in the outskirt of Vienna and the story is so short it’s more like a vignette than an actual story. The Prater is the big park in Vienna a mix of Central Park and Tivoli Gardens (Copenhagen). Stifter’s description of people promenading in the park reminded me of Zola in Money or Proust when they show us bourgeois parading in their carriages in the Bois de Boulogne.

Some stories focus on a moment in Vienna’s history.

Vienna by Heinrich Laube (1806-1884) portrays Metternich, a major Austrian political figures of the 19thC century, in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat.

Lenin and Demel by Anton Kuh (1890 – 1941) is set between the two world wars and starts with an image of Bela Kun standing at Vienna’s gates. Demel is a famous café in Vienna. It reminded me of the beginning of Anna Edes by Desnő Kostolányi: the first scene is Bela Kun fleeing from Budapest in an airplane, taking with him pastries from Gerbeaud, the Budapest counterpart of Demel.

In The Twilight of the Gods in Vienna, German author and film director Alexander Kluge. (1932) retells the episode of WWII when the Vienna orchestra recorded The Twilight of the Gods during the bombing of Vienna by the Allies.

Other stories are common short stories set in Vienna, like

  • The Four-poster Bed by Arthur Schnitzler. (1862-1931)
  • Oh Happy Eyes. In memoriam Georg Groddeck by Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973)
  • Spas Sleeps by Dimitré Dinev (1968)
  • The Criminal by Veza Canetti (1897-1963)
  • Envy by Eva Menasse (1970)
  • Six-nine-six-six-nine-nine by Doron Rabinovici (1961)

The two stories by Schnitzler are very short too, infused with melancholy and philosophical thoughts. Where Roth is mainly descriptive, journalistic, Schnitzler looks more into the souls of his characters.

Spas Sleeps is one of my favourite stories of the collection. It resonates with today’s news about refugees seeking asylum in Europe. Dimitré Dinev is of Bulgarian origin, just like his character Spas Christov. The story opens to Spas, sleeping outside like a bum. He arrived in Vienna to find work, build a new life. He remembers his years as an immigrant and how work becomes the only thing that matters. It’s the Open Sesame! to a future because it means the end of fear, identity papers, money and dignity.

Work was the most important thing. Everyone was looking for it, not everyone found it. And anyone who didn’t find it had to go back. Work was a magic word. All the other words were inferior to it. It alone determined everything. Work was more than a word, it was salvation.

It takes a special dimension with the migrants pushing through the doors of Eastern Europe these days. The story is really moving. Dinev is not trying to sell misery. He just puts Spas’s hardship at human height. Through this single case, he triggers empathy. You see Spas’s experience with eyes that could be yours and you hear him, you root with him and hope he’ll get a work permit.

Oh Happy Eyes! is a lovely tale of Miranda who’s blind as a bat but refuses to wear her glasses because she finds that the world isn’t that nice when she sees it with clarity.

And last but not least, two stories are about the Viennese literary world.

The Feuilletonists by Ferdinand Kürnberger (1821-1879) is another of my favourites in this collection. With a great sense of humour, Kürnberger pictures the different kind of feuilletonists working in Vienna. You have the house feuilletonist, the street feuilletonist, who strolls through the Hyde Park of modern industry like the serpent in paradise, seducing at every step the modern daughters of Eve who would much rather have the latest style in Parisian fig leaves than the most dewy-eyed innocence in all eternity, the salon feuilletonist, whose  natural habitat is actually Paris or London, the tavern feuilletonist, whose species is naturalized in the coffeehouse, the social feuilletonist and the forest feuilletonist who always walks alone. Seen from a distance, he resembles a candidate for suicide. I loved the description of the house feuilletonist:

‘There is, for example, the common house feuilletonist, Feuilletonistus domesticus. Only look at this exemplar and you will see right away that there is actually no need for city or public life to provide inexhaustible subject matter for a feuilleton. The material of the house feuilletonist is just that, his house. He describes to us his staircase, his parlour, his furniture, the view from his window. We are acquainted with the moods of his cat and the philosophical worldview of his poodle. We know the precise spot behind the oven where his coffee machine stands, and when he takes up the cross of civilization every morning with the first cup of the day, we know how many beans he grinds, how many drops of spiritus he uses, how much water is in his milk and chalk in his sugar. Like Humboldt discussing the folds of the earth’s crust, he talks about the tendency of his dressing gown to tear, missing buttons are sewn on before our eyes, in fact, he lives just like a prince whose every private action is performed in public. He seldom airs his own feelings (another aristocratic characteristic!), but shares with us in great historical detail the love affair between his poker and his shoe-horn, or else the stories he sees unfolding amongst the ornamental figures on his mantelpiece in the twilight hour.

I guess the contemporary house feuilletonist is a blogger, a frantic social media user. It seems that the temptation to expose one’s life to others is not new…

Out for a Walk by Arthur Schnitzler is best described by Helen Contantine is her informative foreword to the book:

‘Out for a Walk’ enriches my anthology not only with references to Viennese topography, but also to its literary history. The four friends would have been immediately recognizable to readers of the time as portraits of the central clique of ‘Young Vienna’: Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal, Felix Salten, and Richard Beer-Hofmann.

I totally missed the reference but I can understand that it was obvious to Schnitzler’s contemporaries.

I enjoyed Vienna Tales but I have suggestions about the lay-out of the book. Since we leap from one writer to the other, from one time to another, it would be great to have the year the story was published along with its title. Moreover, I have the Kindle edition and the lay-out of the pictures doesn’t work very well, I found it hard to navigate in the book and it’s something you want to do more with a collection of short stories from various authors than with a novel you’ll read from cover to cover. I also found it a bit difficult to switch from one story to the other, from one style to another and it took me longer than usual to finish the book. It’s still worth reading after a trip to Vienna.

I’ll end this billet with a last quote that really describes my experience with Austrian cuisine:

Overnight, Spas became a cook. He fried Schnitzel, chicken, mushrooms, cheese, and chips. He boiled egg dumplings, soup with strips of pancake or liver dumplings, frankfurter sausages and smoked sausages. He roasted meat and made salads. That’s how easy Austrian cuisine was!

  1. September 26, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    Thank you for the kind mention and for talking about each of the stories in the Vienna Tales. I had the hard copy and so it was a little easier to navigate, but I agree that a timeline would have been helpful, even if the stories were not in chronological order.
    I can never be completely objective about Vienna and its writers, so I’m pleased that you enjoyed the diversity of this collection and I hope you enjoyed your stay in Vienna!


    • September 27, 2015 at 9:18 pm

      I guess the paper version of the book was easier to browse through.
      Which story was your favourite and did you know all the writers of the books? I only knew a few of them.
      We had a great stay in Vienna, despite the scorching heat. (35°C-40°C)


      • September 27, 2015 at 9:35 pm

        Rabinovici and Dinev were new to me – and, as you say, I found Spas Sleeps one of the most moving stories in the collection, although probably the Eva Menasse one was the most typically ‘Viennese’ of the more modern crop of writers.


        • September 27, 2015 at 9:40 pm

          I didn’t like the Rabinovici, ghost stories aren’t my thing.

          Spas Sleeps and Oh Happy Eyes were the most moving stories to me, for different reasons.

          I thought the Eva Menasse story excellent too. There was a timelessness in it. I couldn’t figure out when it was set.


  2. September 26, 2015 at 6:20 pm

    Great commentary as always Emma.

    I really like the idea of books that have a themed selection of short stories as this book has.

    I wonder if there are collections corresponding to other great cities. I think that reading fiction about a place that one will be visiting or recently visited is a really neat thing to do.


    • September 27, 2015 at 9:20 pm

      Thanks Brian.
      I’m sure there are other books like this one about famous cities like Paris or New York. I have one about Budapest, it gives impressions about the city. Unfortunately,this collection is often out-of-print.
      I never know if I’d better read books about a place before visiting it or after. Lately, I’ve found more pleasure reading them after because I can picture the places better.


  3. September 26, 2015 at 6:38 pm

    I’m hoping to read this for german lit month


    • September 27, 2015 at 9:21 pm

      It’s certainly a good choice for German Lit Month.


  4. September 27, 2015 at 2:09 am

    This could be a choice for German literature month. I think it’s hard to review short stories.


    • September 27, 2015 at 9:24 pm

      It is a nice choice for German Lit Month.

      I find it hard to review short stories as well. I always want to include the list of the stories included in the collection I’ve read. Otherwise, I try to find an angle to write about and to avoid writing about each story. Finding the angle is the most difficult thing.


  5. September 27, 2015 at 8:53 am

    I love how you’ve reviewed this collection, Emma, as your commentary gives a flavour of the different themes and styles across the range of stories.

    I had intended to read this with you in August, but it probably wasn’t the right time for me in the end – I started it but didn’t get very far. Circumstances were against me, I think. My book group picked a set of GG Marquez’s stories that month, and I’d already started reading Silvina Ocampo’s collection, so it was probably a case of short story overload. Your review has definitely encouraged me to return to this collection, though…and I really liked that opening story by Schnitzler, the Four-poster bed.


    • September 27, 2015 at 9:28 pm

      Thanks Jacqui, I never know how to write about short stories.
      I know we said we’d read it along but I imagined you’d been too busy. I’ve been quite absent in September, I know how everyday life and work get in the way of reading plans. (and in my case, blog reading…)
      The Four Poster Bed is a fantastic story. Schnitzler really knows how to wrap something trivial and yet profound in a few pages.


  6. September 27, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    This isn’t for me as I don’t read German in translation but it does sound very good.
    I’ll be in Vienna in October. Last time I was there I wasn’t too keen in the food to be honest. But I’m fussy anyway.
    I’ve never read Kürnberger but that quote makes me want to.


    • September 27, 2015 at 9:36 pm

      I don’t read French in translation either, I understand your point.

      I hope you’ll have a nice stay in Vienna. I wasn’t too keen on the food either. No way I’m going to eat Sauerkraut by 38°C.

      I’d like to read more by Kürnberger but he’s not available in French. His Feuilletons are available in German.


  7. September 28, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    That sounds great, though clearly better in the paper edition which was worth knowing. I’ve no idea when I’ll next get to Vienna, probably not for some time, but I’ll take a note of this for when I do.

    Roth was a superb Feuilletonist. I’ve reviewed one or two of his collections at mine. Brilliant stuff. That, and Schnitzler, and so much other good stuff? A definite must have.

    I recognise the food quote too…


    • September 29, 2015 at 10:46 pm

      The paper edition must be better. There’s a picture before each story and the ebook version didn’t do them any justice.
      This trip to Vienna would be another visit or a first one? I liked Budapest better.

      The food quote rings so true…I guess I’m a bit difficult with food. My favourite European place for food is Italy, so far.


  1. November 10, 2015 at 9:21 am
  2. November 11, 2015 at 10:34 am

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