This is a book designed for the sheer pleasure of reading. Its rough-paper cover is handsome and feels good in the hand, and the stories and vignettes printed within are short and consumable within minutes. In this case the book-buyer is truly a “consumer.” There’s no plot, no difficulty, no need even to read them in order. You just pick out one after the other and consume it as you please.
Each one takes you back to a time when literature was not hype, not “riveting,” not “jaw-dropping,” and not “a must read.” It was a time when you were thrilled by an author’s curious point of view, unexpected turn of phrase and strange semblance of form. You had to read his work because it did something to you, maybe went straight to your heart and mind, and you wanted to feel the way he felt and see the way he saw. It’s a different kind of “must read” and a different kind of purpose, so private that you almost hope the book will not find many readers, because the pleasure seems so much your own.
Yet one could find a utilitarian purpose in it. Peter Altenberg walks out in the city and sees people every day or on occasion, in the midst of life. He notes something down at his cafe or goes home with an idea in mind. This he commits to paper as fast as he can to capture the moment. He is convinced that “Everything is remarkable if our perspective of it is remarkable! And every little local incident written up in the daily newspaper can sound the depths of life, revealing all the tragic and the comic, the same as Shakespeare’s tragedies!” Once the idea is on paper, it is fixed and he does not touch it again. It has crystallized into a prose poem. Writers constipated with the weight of significance and classes in creative writing burdened with technique could find a lesson here. As I said, it’s a different time, when writing a tribute to a beautiful shopkeeper, or a thoughtful prostitute, or a radiant bird is purpose enough.
In Telegrams of the Soul there are quite a few shopkeepers and pretty women, all treated with such a delicate love that you take it into your heart and cannot help but project it onto the quite different women you see in the world today, no less pretentious and no less vulnerable than the anonymous souls of the past. There are also a lot of little girls, perhaps too many. And aristocrats and relatives and historical figures whom Alterberg admires (Franz Schubert). And a few animals besides (kingfisher, lion, agoutis). Some pieces are humorous, such as “Theater Evening,” where the author babysits a poodle for a lady that both he and the dog impatiently hope will return; others are cruel, such as “Twelve,” where a little girl catches little fish and tosses them on the ground to die, while an old woman to the side mourns for them. Some are reflective, such as “Fellow Man,” which begins: “No man can abide another, in matters big or small, he just can’t do it, that is his eternally unspoken tragedy.” All are unique, so I won’t try to paraphrase any more.
The 85 or so prose poems are translated in a fluid and effervescent manner by Peter Wortsman, who does not, like most translators of German, eschew the American idiom. Here we have “for crying out loud,” “grin and bear it,” “yuck” and even “arghh,” bringing the Viennese setting close to home. Wortman also provides a charming afterword describing Altenberg as an overgrown child and ideal subject for Sigmund Freud. He characterizes his works as modern fairytales minus the “once upon a time” and usually the “happily ever after.”
As mentioned, the volume is done up beautifully, its brown cover illustrated with a stirring brown-yellow-red portrait of Altenberg done by blazing genius Oskar Kokoschka in his Expressionist period. The back cover contains blurbs — originally words of praise — by Karl Kraus, Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann. Thus the little-known miniaturist Altenberg appears in the center of the glorious Viennese-Germanic culture that blossomed in the first decades of the twentieth century, and his little stories draw in the other greats of the day — Arthur Schnitzler, Robert Musil, Georg Trakl, Egon Shiele, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Ludwig Wittgenstein, all those mentioned in the wonderful volume Wittgenstein’s Vienna by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin. And so, after such ease of reading and such excessive literary pleasure, you get a bonus: cultural enrichment. The way it used to be.