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A Review of Telegrams of the Soul, from John S. Barrett in Southern Humanities Review


Southern Humanities Review
Spring 2006

“Who’s that supposed to be?” “That’s Peter Altenberg.” “Yeah, but who’s that??” Who indeed? The stuffed effigy of Peter Altenberg has been slouching in a seat near the door of Vienna’s Café Central for years, put there originally as a joke when that venerable establishment reopened in 1986, but now a permanent fixture, consistently more often the subject of tourists’ questions and more often photographed than any other object in the place. Who indeed? A native son of Vienna who lived from 1858 to 1918. In his earlier, fleshly life, a constant fixture at Café Central during its own earlier incarnation, a writer after several attempts at other jobs and professions had failed, an inveterate lounger, scrounger, looker, and wanderer, supported less by his writings and more by the largesse of friends and his brother, though the recipient’s gratitude was somewhat askew at best and occasionally replaced by rage and threats of violence if some object of his worship, often a lady of the night or a teenage girl, was demeaned by the harsh words of one of those supporters. Whose original name, Richard Engländer, had been exchanged for that of a favorite Danube vacation town, Altenberg, plus “Peter,” the nickname of a little girl whose brothers wouldn’t allow themselves to be waited upon by someone with a girl’s name. A balding, stocky, slouched, sad-eyed figure of a man with pince-nez, a walrus or Nietzschean moustache, depending on one’s preference, wearing baggy tweeds, a Sherlock-Holmes-style cloak, and lindenwood sandals regardless of the weather, and yet despite his appearance, or perhaps because of it, the subject of portraits by more than one of Vienna’s artists (Kokoschka’s is on the cover). Who, while preaching sound diet and the out-of-doors, used — very probably overused — Slivovitz, laxatives, and the sedative Paraldehyde, whose pungent, but not entirely repellant, odor doubtless pervaded the Vienna hospitals in which Altenberg was occasionally housed, as it did every big city hospital after the turn of the century. Who somehow, despite this impressive list of rather negative traits, not only remained in the good graces of most all and sundry, but was able to generate real affection toward himself, and the long list of those favorably disposed included, significantly, Karl Kraus, renowned and feared for his ability to smell out and slay the dragons of literary pretension and hypocrisy, both in person and in his periodical Die Fackel (“The Torch”). Peter Altenberg’s brief offerings, each a fine example of the Viennese feuilleton style, each as fragile and shimmering as a soap bubble, each as changeable and ambiguous as a holograph, were, and are, consistently able to evoke the aura of a life of joy and the joy of life. Savored slowly, they are unlikely to leave the reader unchanged.

Peter Wortsman has rightly chosen to begin his anthology with “Autobiography,” which says a great deal about both the author’s personality and his literary technique. In the very first sentence he gives a false date of birth, which, one supposes, should warn the reader to take everything else with a grain of salt. Altenberg’s father, pictured in blue robe and velvet collar and reading French periodicals, states that he was not overly vexed that his son remained an idler for so many years and, hence, he’s not overly honored that he’s a poet now. But is he a poet? “No way,” Altenberg shouts. Should we take that statement at face value or imagine that he wants us to conclude just the opposite? What he writes, he says, are “extracts,” and he compares them to bouillon cubes that have to be dissolved in the reader’s own lust for life in order to make them into a palatable, digestible broth. He labels his writing “the telegram style of the soul,” thus providing the title for this anthology. He presents himself as poor, but completely himself, the “Man without Compromises” (in fact he is the very antithesis of the “Man without Qualities” even before there was such a man), and, in answer to the question of how far that gets one, says “One hundred Guldens a month and a few ardent admirers.” Is that bad? Or good? And he confesses that his life, perhaps like his father’s, has been “devoted to the boundless admiration of God’s artwork, woman’s body,” an admiration which translated into a good deal of his daily activity (a friend remarked that “dotty old Peter“ had turned the heads of a large number of respectable and an equal number of not-so-respectable women) and informed a good deal of his writing, as is made clear by the selections in this anthology. Nude studies of teenage girls adorned the walls of his humble room on the top floor of Vienna’s Graben Hotel. Under one was the caption “There is but one indecency in the naked — to deem the naked indecent ” One senses a distant ancestor of Humbert Humbert here, but one more zesty, forthright, and without the philosophy, the gloom, and the oppressive weight of mortality. In fact, Altenberg’s whole attitude toward sexuality must have seemed, in some quarters at least, like a breath of fresh air in a city where Freud was finding his patients among those turned neurotic by the suppression of their instincts and Schnitzler was making a name for himself by writing about the sleazy, predatory side of eros.

When P. A. (in this first selection, Altenberg already displays his tendency to refer to himself in the third person — sometimes just by his initials — shades of Bob Dole) wakes, he sees those pictures of nudes and knows he’ll be able to take in stride the trouble and stress of existence, thanks to having been “endowed with two eyes to drink in the holiest loveliness on earth.” Elsewhere he refers to eyes as “those most precious organs . . . inexhaustibly rich,” whereas the pleasures of other organs are fleeting. That emphasis on seeing has been used to brand Altenberg an impressionist, which is not entirely fair, since he was at pains to have people see things as they really were. He characterized himself as “just a little pocket mirror,” and one of his books, As I See It, led to arguments as to which word of the title ought to receive the accent. “See” won. And when it comes to seeing, it’s the little things that count. Not big things, big events — “All the least consequential things are monumental.” Clearly, despite Altenberg’s free spirit and womanizing, in other words, there is a strong pedagogical thread to his writings. At the end of “Autobiography” he confesses to the belief that he had “. . . a hand in infusing a whiff of the Greek cult of beauty in the harried life of a few young fools.” Then, typical of the gentle dialectic with which many of his writings are suffused, he says, “But that too may only be a utopia.” Of the contradictions present in Altenberg’s writings, as well as in his life, Karl Kraus said, “The artist’s contradictions are contradictions within the beholder who does not experience day and night simultaneously.”

Legend, and another of his stories, would have it that Altenberg’s career as a writer began when he was found by Arthur Schnitzler and other members of the Young Vienna writers group scribbling an essay at a table in Café Central. How did he write? Again, if we care to believe what he says in “A Letter to Arthur Schnitzler” he simply took a piece of paper, then tossed off a title without thinking anything over, and hoped that what came out would have something to do with the title. Writing was the “natural organic spilling out of a full, overripe person.” No revisions. People mistake such things for “. . . little rehearsals, whereas they are, alas, already the very best I can do. But what’s the difference? I couldn’t care less if I write or not.” (Sixteen books is not a bad score for someone who didn’t care one way or the other.) He remains a writer of “worthless samples” — the finished product never appears. But short pieces are surely dangerous ground for authors — and, for that matter, translators and reviewers as well — so it’s hard to imagine not wanting to polish them carefully. Take “Poverty,” all of 74 words long and yet it says everything that needs be said about the subject: a little girl, the daughter of a poor widow, tells Peter Altenberg she has to take a trip to the “Doll Doctor.” Someone has given her a doll with only a top half. “If she’d had a bottom half, too, they damn sure wouldn’t have given her to me ” Hard to think that this piece did not receive considerable deliberation. And the fact that many selections begin and end with nearly similar sentences also speaks for some degree of crafting. On the other hand, the Graben Hotel has framed examples of works that Altenberg dashed off on house stationery. Whatever the reader’s thoughts are about such claims of spontaneity, the good news is that he or she need not be uncomfortable at reading an anthology: Altenberg’s books themselves look like anthologies, full of things of variably short length, without any overriding internal organization. Wortsman has selected wisely, and equally wisely toned down the author’s annoying use of triple dashes (pace Céline) in the originals. The remaining bursts of combined question marks and exclamation points (likened to scourges that thrash the Philistines into paying attention?) are quite enough.

These writings are by no means just Alka-Seltzer tablets for the headaches of human existence, however. Many are bittersweet, describing lives that are one continuous, sad song of disappointment if not heartbreak, and in presenting them, Altenberg shows himself to be an expert matador in the arena of kitsch, never slipping beyond simple but sympathetically presented facts into tearful pathos or worse, even when it came to writing about his own impending death (“It’s my fate, and you, death, are not responsible for the inescapable catastrophe of my existence.”). In “Uncle Max,” Max’s mistress, saved by him from a life of drudgery as a seamstress, is eventually thrown over when his family forces him to marry properly. Anna is then “married off to a man who had been terribly fond of her since childhood,” going along with it since “it is better to go along with things when not to go along with them is of little use.” The reader will find it less easy in the future to shrug off the lines from Die Fledermaus — “glücklich ist, wer vergisst, was nicht mehr zu ändern ist” (happy the one who forgets things that can’t be changed anyway). In “Marionette Theater,” a little girl has been taken to the theater by her old grandfather and is so excited that all she can tell her mother is “I was at the theater.” Mother wants more details, gets no more than a repetition of the same statement, and replies, “What a little ninny.” Whereupon Peter A. replies, “That says it all. Need anything more be said? ” The bald statement is sufficient shorthand for the whole rush of excitement the little girl feels. Put off, her mother begins a litany of sadness. Deserted, left with a child, left all alone. Housework, nothing more. She orders the little girl to say thank you. Altenberg thinks, “These words, ‘say thank you’ . . . were like shots fired in peacetime. The hell with ‘say thank you.’” Clearly children, that is to say little girls, are given carte blanche to not say thank you, to be arbitrary, even cruel—to little, caught fish and other little girls — since their very being places them in the realm of minor goddesses.

Sooner or later, the reader will identify the persistent scent of the Biedermeier era throughout these pages, more than can be attributed to just the occasional references to Schubert. One can almost hear Metternich instructing his ambassadors “We will gain much as we demand little” as one reads these tender tales of hearth and home, with their emphasis on the small events of life, the joys of modest possessions such as Altenberg’s walking sticks (for the handle of one, a girlfriend made a protective leather sheath — Freud reportedly hyperventilated upon reading that passage) and his collection of picture postcards, a subject which was later set to music by Alban Berg. But whereas contemporaries looked upon Altenberg’s collecting zeal as one more bit of evidence of his looniness, he himself sagely remarked, in “Peter Altenberg as a Collector,” that the activity of collecting provides “two healthful deflections from the leaden weight of one’s own self,” first, the pleasure of collecting, itself, and second, the pleasure of doing so on behalf of someone else — he’d just sent his postcards and their display cases to a lady in faraway Hamburg.

The leaden weight of self is also avoided by Altenberg’s sometimes becoming the butt of his own stories: in “An Experience,” while visiting a friend in the suburbs, he misses the last tram home, but is rescued by two familiar, hail-fellow-well-met ladies of the oldest profession, who take him along in their carriage, proving to the friend that the “golden Viennese heart” is not dead after all. But later, after lengthy haggling, the ladies stick Peter with the ten-crown taxi fare (remember: that’s a significant portion of his monthly income ). Miffed at having been taken advantage of, he pays up, gets out, and pens a note to the friend, telling him to hold off on declaring the golden heart still alive. Next day, he meets one of the “sweet young things,” who tells him the rest of the story: after they dropped Peter off, she got up and drove the carriage, the coachman got into the passenger compartment with the other girl and pulled the shades. At the conclusion of the interlude, the coachman gave Peter’s ten crowns to the girls. “A proper gentleman — let that be a lesson to you.” Altenberg, who has thus paid for the girls’ ride and the coachman’s pleasure, writes his friend to tell him that the golden Viennese heart is indeed alive and well It’s the sort of frequently used reversal that, in yet another way, warns the reader against being hidebound — in thought or otherwise.

Given some of the author’s antics, as well as his writings, it may seem surprising to say that a certain amount of well-directed moralizing is mixed in here as well. Perhaps “moralizing” is the wrong word. Perhaps “worldly wisdom” and a respect for others as individual humans with feelings is a better way of putting it, the wisdom residing in the fact that respect for others may well bring tangible benefits to its practitioner. In “The Mouse,” having checked into a hotel, Peter finds his sleep disturbed by nibbling. The haughty hotel staff refuse to consider the possibility of a mouse, particularly when the complaint is lodged by a visitor who showed up with nothing more than two pairs of socks and a bottle of Slivovitz. He buys a trap, catches the rodent, and is on his way to wave it under their noses when he realizes he’s going to give offense for no very good reason, disposes of it elsewhere, and goes on enjoying the perks that come with being considered somewhat daffy. In “The Walking Stick,” he decides not to insist to the shopkeeper that his walking stick has not actually been repaired. Better to avoid proving that the other person’s in the wrong and go on being treated with kid gloves because one is a “stick nut.”

In fact, if there is a common theme underlying these diverse writings it is this: that the flip side of his strong, and often theatrical, Bohemian individualism is, again somewhat surprisingly, a deep respect and thoroughgoing gentle fondness for each and every individual he seems to have met — including himself — which prevents his writings from becoming nasty caricatures and infuses them with a sunny and uplifting spirit. The stage settings for that spirit, provided by Altenberg’s incredibly sensitive social antennae and his words, provide a picture of fin-de-siecle Vienna that is vivid, lively, finely detailed, and amazingly comprehensive for all its brevity. Significantly, only the war that would destroy forever the possibility of leading a life like his gets short shrift; otherwise it’s all there: literati, chambermaids, artists such as Klimt, the Café Fledermaus, the downtrodden souls, the upper crust, oddities such as shivering Africans on exhibit, the coffeehouse as a preventive for suicide and homelessness, psychiatry, illness, and even a rant on clothing styles (in “Psychology”) that surely has to be a parody of the sartorial tastes and tirades of his dear friend, that pot-banger of an architect, Adolf Loos. Someone called Altenberg the “carnival barker of life,” and that certainly fits if one compares his writings to the brittle dryness of Stefan Zweig’s much-better-known picture of the same society, The World of Yesterday But perhaps “solo violinist of life” would be more accurate, one with a huge repertoire of rousing gallops and polkas, but some sad melodies as well.

So, Servus to you, Peter Altenberg. Glad you never tried to hang yourself from that window box but wrote for us instead. You always did deserve to be remembered by more than a couple of portraits, a café named after you, and a dummy that occasionally gets dusted off and fluffed up; and now, thanks to Peter Wortsman, who has expertly and empathetically supplied you with English words, and the daring Archipelago press, which gave you pages and a face, you will be more widely remembered.

(Many thanks to Raimund Höflinger of Café Central and Michaela Wimmer of Graben Hotel for providing information concerning Altenberg memorabilia.)

John S. Barrett

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