Unsuccessful at law, medicine, and the book trade, it was only by chance that Richard Englander discovered his skill at writing when he was in his 40s. The son of a wealthy Viennese businessman, Englander took the pen name of Peter Altenberg and found success as a newspaper writer of brief sketches and vignettes, which he called “prose pearls.”“Success” is probably too positive a word for Altenberg’s writing career. He lived in cheap hotels on donations from friends and admirers. A true Bohemian who was prone to wild dress and outrageous opinions, he favored the company of prostitutes between his visits to the local asylum, where the city’s alcoholics were treated. Altenberg listed the CafÈ Central, a favorite of Vienna’s artistic set of the 1890s, as his official address. He would write the short prose he favored either at the coffeehouse or while propped up in his bed.
Inspired not only by the prose poems of Baudelaire but by that Austrian invention the postcard and its condensed style of writing, Altenberg’s prose pearls are a very personal form of writing “They’re extracts! Extracts from life,” he said. In fact, his personal life was often the subject of his writings, but he mixed fact and fiction freely, blurring the lines between the real and the imaginary. At his best, he is like a favorite lush uncle, telling wondrous stories you can’t quite believe. Altenberg relates his supposed encounters with shop clerks, waiters, and hotel maids, and displays his family’s dirty laundry “their financial and sexual hi-jinks” for all to see. He is prone to discuss very childish things, like what kind of pen he favors when he writes, and he’ll share his reaction to newfangled inventions such as the elevator. And he does not hesitate to discourse on his ponderings, both trivial and not so, sometimes venturing into waters a tad too deep for him.
Altenberg bragged that he never rewrote anything, that all of his writings were spontaneous first drafts. Some of them read that way, unfortunately, as if his deadline were pressing and he needed to end the piece and get it to the printer. Several! others! look! like! forests! of! exclamation! points! But then there are those pieces that truly are “prose pearls,” small works of perfect beauty. The piece entitled “Schubert,” for instance, traces a line of thought from its point of inspiration to its final destination. Altenberg begins by speaking of the print hanging on the wall of his room, which shows Schubert playing the piano for three little girls; this reminds him of the composer’s longing for the daughter of one of his patrons. When the girl teased Schubert that he had never dedicated anything to her, he exclaimed: “What for? As it is, it ’s all for you! ” Altenberg ends the piece with this telling remark: “That’s why I often turn to page 37 in Niggli’s biography of Schubert. ”