These tales and essays, some only a few lines long, convey the fleeting intoxications of a fin-de-siecle idler. A dedicated admirer of the fair sex—especially, and no doubt disturbingly for many modern readers, as represented by 13-year-old charmers—Altenberg (1859-1919) passed his life in the coffee shops and brothels of Vienna. The pieces he wrote about his experiences there were admired by, among others, Thomas Mann, Arthur Schnitzler and Franz Kafka. A perennial enthusiast, the author cannot write four sentences running without resorting to the exclamation point. Rapture is triggered by the mundane: a dock in the sun, artificial flowers, a turn of phrase. His passion for women and young girls is exalted by attentive and unfailing compassion. In one piece, learning of a working-class nymphet’s passion for silk swatches, he obtains a box of them from the manufacturer. His ensuing description of the party she creates for her fellow urchins, presiding over their admiration of the rags like a queen, ends with the child’s peremptory dismissal of her benefactor. Another series recounts the everyday life of the Ashanti inhabitants of an African village transported to serve as a tourist attraction in the Viennese zoo. Altenberg developed close friendships with many of the Ashanti; his portraits of them are as sensitive as his renderings of family members, literary and professional acquaintances, and prostitutes. While the prose here is often overblown, it proceeds from genuine excesses of feeling; the writer has been carried away, and in almost every case, he takes the reader with him.
Winning expressions of pleasure, at once lyrical, incisive and funny.