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"Peter Altenberg's Extracts from Life:" a Review of Telegrams of the Soul from Ross Benjamin in Metamorphoses


In fin-de-siècle Vienna, the specters of the twentieth century were already stirring. Right-wing mass movements engulfed the once liberal bastion. A disconsolate artist by the name of Adolf Hitler stalked the streets and taverns. At the same time, an effervescent intellectual, literary, and aesthetic culture was awakening. Vienna was a vibrant center of nascent twentieth-century modernism, inhabited by such seminal figures as Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Arthur Schnitzler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gustav Klimt, Adolf Loos, and Arnold Schoenberg. Its legendary coffeehouses were hotbeds of radical innovation.

The prose-poet Peter Altenberg (née Richard Engländer, 1859-1919) numbers among the coffeehouse luminaries as one of the most captivating. Karl Kraus called him “the freest soul of the epoch.” Born into a wealthy, assimilated Jewish family, he indulged in a bohemian lifestyle in Vienna’s cafés and brothels, and wrote “extracts from life,” sketches that evoked everyday impressions with utmost abbreviation. As he confessed with his characteristic ebullience (and chronic overuse of the exclamation point), “I’d like to capture an individual in a single sentence, a soul-stirring experience on a single page, a landscape in one word!” His “telegram style of the soul” enchanted Thomas Mann, who remarked, “If it be permitted to speak of ‘love at first sound,’ then that’s what I experienced in my first encounter with this poet of prose.” Peter Wortsman’s new translation of a selection of Altenberg’s writings, Telegrams of the Soul, deftly reproduces the sonority, zest, and lyricism of the original prose.

A Baudelaire-inspired dandy, Altenberg sported an enormous mustache, baggy clothing, walking sticks, and open sandals. His celebration of individual fashion as a mode of self-expression (“For everything is an essay about the person who selected it and gladly dons it!”) no doubt resonates better with present-day readers than his ardor for thirteen-year-old girls. Some of his other traits are likely to provoke ambivalence: how do we, in our work-crazed culture, regard his fervent praise of idleness and his near religious practice of it? (Altenberg was in fact medically exempt from work due to “over-excitation of the nerves,” which ultimately landed him in the madhouse, and a concomitant “incapacity for gainful employment,” but he probably saw no need for an excuse to cultivate the fruits of idleness.) How do we evaluate his inveterate aestheticism and his claim that “little things in life supplant the ‘great events’” at a moment when the formidable social and political forces gripping Europe were propelling it into world war?

Altenberg’s aesthetics of the commonplace emanated from his conviction that “the significant things in life have absolutely no importance.” His keen poetic attention to quotidian minutiae and surface ephemera lends his prose its fresh and seductive appeal. Franz Kafka described him as “a genius of nullifications, a singular idealist who discovers the splendors of this world like cigarette butts in the ashtrays of coffeehouses.” Altenberg’s miniaturist method corresponds to his delight in the ornaments of fashion, his tendency to find significance “in the necktie, in the cloth of a dress, in the hat…in a thousand unlikely incidentals all the way down to the cufflinks….”

In Wortsman’s illuminating postscript to Telegrams of the Soul, he discerns a kinship between Altenberg’s technique of compression and the birth of the Correspondenzkarte (postcard) in Austria in 1869. He also likens Altenberg’s style to the Feuilleton, a first-person, impressionistic form of journalism widely practiced among literati and public intellectuals of the day. According to Wortsman, the influence on Altenberg’s sensibility of the general acceleration of communications “in the era of telegraphy, lightning fast trains, and automobile cars”—as Altenberg’s friend Egon Friedell put it—makes his writing particularly compatible with today’s electronic age. Such intuitions appear to have guided Wortsman in his translation: he fires off the sentences with an alacrity that mimics Altenberg’s brisk rhythm and tone.

Take, for example, the opening passage from Grammophonplatte (Gramophone Record), Altenberg’s evocation of Schubert’s Die Forelle (The Trout): In Musik umgesetztes Gebirgswässerlein, kristallklar zwischen Felsen und Fichten murmelnd. Die Forelle, ein entzückendes Raubtier, hellgrau, rot punktiert, auf Beute lauernd, stehend, fließend, vorschießend, hinab, hinauf, verschwindend / “Mountain stream water burbling crystal clear between cliff and pine tree permutated into music. The trout, a ravishing predator, light gray with red speckles, lurking, standing, flowing, shooting forward, downward, upward, disappearing.” Sentence construction, cadence, pace, the fall of the syllables – these elements conform precisely to the German. The fidelity of Wortsman’s translation to the musicality of the original is exceptional. Almost beat-by-beat he replicates the sprightly pulse of Altenberg’s percussive prose.

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