A little book on the portent of the littlest things
Telegrams of the Soul is short enough to be read at one sitting, but I would advise against that. It’s the sort of book best kept at hand for dipping into at odd moments — while lingering over your coffee at breakfast, or waiting for the commuter train to arrive, or just before you turn out the light beside your bed.
This is, after all, a book whose author assures us that “the significant things in life have absolutely no importance.” It’s the little things that count: “In the necktie, in the cloth of a dress, in the hat . . . in a thousand unlikely incidentals. . . . For everything is an essay about the person who selected it and gladly dons it! He discloses himself to us!”
I first heard about Peter Altenberg when I was in high school. Author Alexander King, who was one of the regulars on The Tonight Show when it was hosted by the great Jack Paar, used to talk about Altenberg all the time. Both were native Viennese. Richard Engländer, who wrote under the name Peter Altenberg, was born there in 1859.
He was the quintessential Romantic bohemian, who scorned the straitlaced fashions of his time, preferring loose-fitting leisure attire and sandals. He consorted with prostitutes, lived in hotel rooms (Vienna’s Hotel Graben now has a Cafe Altenberg), and listed the Cafe Central (the favorite watering hole of turn-of-the-century Vienna’s writers, artists and intellectuals) as his official address — and today, the Cafe Central features a life-size statue of Altenberg sitting at a table.
He was born a Jew but converted to Catholicism in 1900. He was excessively fond of the plum brandy known as slivovitz and was also dependent on sedatives. His admirers included Franz Kafka, Arthur Schnitzler and Thomas Mann (who described his first encounter with Altenberg’s prose as an example of “love at first syllable”). He may be best known nowadays to concertgoers, thanks to Alban Berg’s Five Orchestral Pieces After Picture Postcard Texts of Peter Altenberg.
As befits a writer who thought greatly of little things, Altenberg was a miniaturist. The longest piece in this collection is just over four pages. Many are less than a page.
An insomniac, Altenberg wrote at night, sitting up in bed. In “A Letter to Arthur Schnitzler,” he says that he wrote “altogether freely, without any deliberation. I never know my subject beforehand, I never think it over. I just take paper and write.” Whether this is literally true or not, it is certainly true that what he wrote comes across as spontaneous. He would have made a great literary blogger.
He wrote a book called M”rchen des Lebens (Fairy Tales of Life). Included here is his “Retrospective Introduction to My Book M”rchen des Lebens,” in which he provides the perfect summary of his outlook: We “can all become poets . . . if we only take pains not to let slip a single pearl which life in its rich bounty tosses up every now and then onto the flat dreary beachhead of our day.”
His nonconformism notwithstanding, Altenberg was remarkably representative of his time and the city he rarely ventured far from (in “Traveling,” he describes “one dirt cheap pleasure I know that’s altogether free of disappointments, to study the train schedule from mid-May on and pick out the very train with which you would, if only . . .”). His attitude toward the elevator (“a great mystery”) and the automobile (it “wants to whisk away what’s left of your already overly burdened soul”) suggests a sensibility distinctly more 19th than 20th century.
And in fact, in “A Sunday (12.29.18),” published posthumously, it becomes clear that the price of maintaining his carefree persona was profound sadness and loneliness. World War I must have been a peculiarly poignant disaster for him. By the time he died, in 1919, he must have been painfully aware that the era of his flourish had predeceased him.