Wiener Roast: Peter Altenberg’s short prose pieces wryly limned prewar Vienna
With his walrus moustache, the disheveled, baggy clothes he designed himself, sandals on bare feet in all weather, and exquisite walking sticks, Peter Altenberg was a fixture in the cultural life of fin de siecle Vienna. He was a master of the vignette, a diviner of the telling detail, a prose poet of the demimonde. Altenberg was a Baudelaire with only a touch of spleen. Elegant, arch, and concise, his snapshots of life on the margins were not without bite. In cheerful disillusion, he deflated the hypocrisy and social niceties that were so important to the refined Gemuutlichkeitof the middle and upper classes, but he did so with enough wit to amuse rather than insult his audience.
Take “Poverty,” in which the narrator relates a conversation with his ten-year-old dinner guest, Karoline B., whom he describes as “the little daughter of a poor widow, perfection in the making, already a profoundly human creature.
“Tomorrow, Sir, I have to travel far out to the ‘Doll Doctor’ in the Fifth District!”
“What ever for?”
“Somebody gave me a doll. She only has a top half.”
“Why curious?! If she’d had a bottom half, too, they damn sure wouldn’t have given her to me!”
Laconic but pointed, in similar fashion the two-sentence “Philosophy” took aim at the voyeurism and superiority masquerading as anthropologic interest when the Viennese public went to view an authentic West African tribal village set up as a year-long exhibit in the Vienna Zoo.
Visitors to the Ashanti Village knock in the evening on the wooden walls of the huts for a lark. The goldsmith Nothei: “Sir, if you came to us in Accra as objects on exhibit, we wouldn’t knock on the walls of your huts in the evening!”
In 1914, Altenberg was nominated jointly with Arthur Schnitzler for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But the war intervened, and Altenberg’s reputation, despite such admirers as Thomas Mann, Hugo von Hofmannstahl, Franz Kafka, and Robert Musil, then as now was mainly restricted to German-speaking countries. If not translated well, his deceptive simplicity and surface frivolity can cloy, turning his writing into period pieces. Alexander King’s collection, Peter Altenberg’s Evocations of Love, in 1960, and Harold Segel’s 1993 anthology, The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits, 1890-1938, offered brief introductions to Altenberg’s work. Now Telegrams of the Soul, Peter Wortsman’s translations of ninety prose pieces selected from Altenberg’s fifteen books, deepens the acquaintance. There is some overlap with King’s collection, but Wortsman’s limber translations are surer and more reliable. On the other hand, Telegrams of the Soul could—and should—have been twice as long, with more of Altenberg’s late writing, which became increasingly cynical as his mental stability frayed.
Born Richard Englander in 1859, Peter Altenberg was the eldest son of wealthy, assimilated Jewish parents. He betrayed no hint of literary skill for several decades. In fact, until his first book was published in 1896, he showed little sign of any talent whatsoever: An elementary school teacher described him as a “genius without abilities.” After desultory studies in law and medicine and a failed venture in bookselling, he was diagnosed by a psychiatrist as “constitutionally unfit for employment” because of his “nervous hypersensitivity.” Altenberg’s cultured, tolerant father never quite lost faith in him, but neither did he have much hope for him. In an autobiographical sketch, Altenberg notes that, when asked if he was proud of his son’s literary success, Moritz Englander replied, “I was not overly vexed that he remained an idler for thirty years. So I’m not overly honored that he’s a poet now! I gave him his freedom. I knew that it was a long shot. I counted on his soul.” As for Frau Englander, whom Altenberg passionately worshiped, she was far less understanding, preferring to remain estranged from her eccentric son even after his reputation soared. Altenberg’s literary quest was a search for that very quality of soul his father had put his faith in, and for the mysterious, inaccessible femininity his mother represented. He dove after those “pearls of the soul that roll under the table and are picked up by no one.” Altenberg had no time for the “great events” in life. The little things—the cloth of a dress, neckties, cufflinks, a stray remark—revealed more to him about the bearers’ true selves than any particular accomplishment. The insignificant, the flawed, the unfinished—these were his paths to revelation. “There are three idealists: God, mothers and poets! They don’t seek the ideal in completed things—they find it in the incomplete.” Unfortunately, Altenberg’s own mother’s idealism did not outlast his childhood. Still, his memory of it never faded. In “Perfume,” he associates the scent his mother wore when he was young “with all the love, tenderness, friendship, longing, sadness in the world,” as she was “the only womanly presence able to arouse pleasure and pain, ardent longing and deep despair, but who would always, always forgive whatever I’d done.” Next to the melancholic tranquility of his mother’s Peau d’Espagne, Pinaud, all the perfumes sent to him by guileless young women were merely the scents of “breathtakingly beautiful but rather poisonous exotic flowers . . . even though Mama was no longer there and could no longer forgive me for my sins!” The story “Theater Evening” describes his wait, with his beloved’s poodle, for her return from the theater. He and the dog watch the door, sinking deeper into despondency with each passing hour. But even the mistress’s return, “with her sweet, soft sliding steps,” can’t still the “longing, longing, that flows from the hearts of man and beast.” From this hopeless longing Altenberg sought refuge on the margins, among prostitutes and working-class women, and in his idealization of prepubescent girls. His “mystic cult of beauty,” with its element of self-conscious buffoonery, is neatly captured in a sketch not included in Telegrams.
He and she are sitting side by side on a bench, at night, in the ducal garden. In the stillness she says, “Would you like to kiss me?”
SHE: “My hand?”
SHE: “My mouth?”
SHE: “I think you are revolting!”
HE: “I wanted to kiss the hem of your gown.”
Altenberg befriended and even fell in love with some of the Africans who lived in the Ashanti exhibit, as did his father. (In fact, Moritz’s affection for the Africans was ridiculed locally as a congenital condition passed down from his son.) Among the Ashanti, Altenberg found the natural dignity, candor, and sincerity that he believed European civilization had all but extinguished. The Africans, he found, were free of his contemporaries’ rampant egotism, which turned human relations into a contest. True friendship among Europeans had become rare. “Only after death do we fully fathom the distinctive qualities of a loved one, delve deeper into their essence, the living manifestations of which no longer disturb us. So long as he lived he committed the irritating maladroitness to be someone other in his thinking and feelings than ourselves!”
A passionate collector of postcards of landscapes, children, and women (often nude), Altenberg passed his frequent bouts of insomnia obsessively rearranging the more than fifteen hundred cards he kept in three lacquered boxes. It was as effective a therapy as any. On himself “as collector,” he noted, “‘Collecting’ means being able to concentrate on something situated outside the sphere of one’s own personality, yet something not quite so perilous and thankless as a beloved woman—” The family business, importing goods from Croatia, had been passed on to his younger brother and went bankrupt in 1905. So Altenberg supported himself by writing theater reviews as well as his prose pieces. His needs were few, aside from the bottles of vodka he kept under the bed and large quantities of beer, but his increasing emotional and financial instability left him reliant on the kindness of friends, patrons, and lovers. Until his death in 1919, Altenberg moved from one seamy hotel to another; his most permanent address was his regular table at the Cafe Central.
Charming, fragile, witty, incisive, self-deprecating, Altenberg proved an irresistible case study. Freud believed he suffered from “aesthetic impotence.” Schnitzler called him a “professional neurotic.” Unsuited as he was to the more practical demands of life, Altenberg shrewdly recognized the advantages of playing up his neuroses, provided he was in a condition to do so. In “The Mouse,” he tells of checking into a good hotel with just two pairs of socks and two large bottles of slivovitz, for “unseen eventualities.” His complaints about a mouse in his room are coldly dismissed by the hotel staff. After a chambermaid finds one of the books he has written, the staff begin to treat him as an invalid, overlooking his “little weaknesses.” Having caught the mouse, however, he just gets rid of it, realizing his “aura of a man without luggage, with two pairs of socks, two bottles of slivovitz, a book entitled What the Day Brings, and who already claims to see mice every night, would thereby be considerably shaken,” making him just one more kvetching, transient guest. The empty mouse trap on the floor the next morning brings “even greater deference,” and his departure is met with the “friendliest expression of sympathy and devotion.” “Everything is remarkable if our perception of it is remarkable! And every little local incident written up in the daily newspaper can sound the depths of life, revealing all the tragic and the comic.” Peter Altenberg did not aspire to anything so ambitious as Stendhal’s view of the novel as a mirror carried along a roadway. He was content with his unfinished, “worthless samples.” “I’m a just a kind of little pocket mirror,” he wrote, a “powder mirror, no world-mirror.” But that was more than enough to reflect his world.
Tess Lewis writes frequently on German-language literature.