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A Review of Telegrams of the Soul from M. Kasper (Amherst College), in CHOICE

 

Short prose, a little-acknowledged but widely practiced genre, had a highpoint around 1900, in Vienna. A vibrant crucible of modernist culture (in which Karl Kraus, Adolf Loos, Sigmund Freud, and Oskar Kokoschka rubbed shoulders), it found its keenest expression in sketch-writing for newspapers and magazines, and Altenberg (1859-1919) was its most celebrated practitioner. Writing self-conscious, self-referential pieces, Altenberg cultivated the image of an indolent bohemianism. The 90 pieces Wortsman chose (out of hundreds) offer a good variety, revealing Altenberg as a close observer of mundane environments and events, as anecdotalist and eavesdropper, as autobiographer, allegorist, journalist, and, always, writer. One sequence of seven here—which records Alternberg’s impressions of “the inhabitants of an African show-village … a live exhibit in Vienna” — is rich with fascinating pre-postcolonial ambivalence. Altenberg has been translated before, notably in Alexander King Presents Peter Altenberg’s Evocations of Love, ed. by Alexander King (1960), and the outstanding The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits, 1890-1938, ed. by Harold Segel (CH, Mar’94, 31-3673), and these three volumes overlap a bit, but not much. King’s translations are skilled but unreliable (he sometimes stitched together or abridged pieces), but Segel’s and Wortsman’s are impeccable. Wortsman’s afterword to the present volume is informative and elegant. Summing up: Essential. All collections of modern literature.

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