Homage to the People on the Fringes
In her autobiographical coming-of-age novel, Stefanie Sargnagel looks back on her youth under the influence – years full of freedom from fear, of curiosity and wondrous encounters. The book title says it all.
By Helena Matschiner
In Dicht – Aufzeichnungen einer Tagediebin (Wasted – Notes from a Slacker) Stefanie Sargnagel looks back at her youth between the ages of 15 and 20. She herself is the “slacker” who drifts aimlessly through life.
Invincible and lost at the same timeThe young protagonist is annoyed by school, her unmotivated teachers, the educational system, which neither asks for nor desires her opinion on the subject matter. She much prefers to spend time with her classmate and pot-smoking pal Sarah inventing alternatives to competitive society and radical reform ideas for the school system. The two agree that real school takes place on the street.
So the author takes us on their forays through Viennese pubs, coffee shops and dive bars that, despite all attempts at gentrification, are the meeting places for drunks and other antiheroes of the city and where “Lipton iced tea” is the code word used to buy hashish. Always in a foggy state, they elicit the life stories from their nightly acquaintances before they can drown them in alcohol. The acquaintances become companions for the teens in search of an unorthodox way of life.
Hungry for adventure, laidback as only a teenager can be and driven by the fear of missing out on something, the protagonist gets involved with people, drugs and situations that usually end well, but narrowly escape ending badly more than once. For example, when she follows a man home who gives her knockout drops, when her stoned friends steal a car to go on holiday or when an LSD trip turns into a journey through hell. Depression, humiliations by narcissistic men, the fear of disappointing her mother and the breakup of her friendship with Sarah with whom it all began are reminders of the fragility of youth and the basic feeling that the author describes as being “invincible and lost at the same time.”
A sordid safe spaceMichi, whom his friends call “Aids-Michl,” offers paternal support. Michi is an alcoholic himself, but despite being broken, has retained something impish. He impresses the young protagonist with his intelligent puns and his zest for life. The gatherings of the companions now move to Michi’s sordid council flat where the soundtrack is provided by the music of Georg Kreisler, Viennese singer and poet and, at the time, an underdog like the protagonists.
School fades more and more into the background while hanging out together in Michi’s flat becomes significant. With his penchant for petty crime, but also with his openness and tolerance towards the unfortunate and the outlaws, young Stefanie sees Michi as her real teacher and herself as his trainee. Like Michi, she wants to see life as a playground and by watching his tricks, learns to take a holiday from life’s demands.
Michi’s flat becomes a safe space where Michi protects Stefanie from abuse by inebriated old junkies, shares his hot, spicy ginger detox tea and attentively covers Stefanie with a blanket after an ecstasy trip. He is also the first to encourage her to become an artist. The book therefore doesn’t end with her predictable expulsion from school, but with the protagonist’s admission to the Academy of Fine Arts.
Blissfully wastedThe book title refers not only to the constant highs of the protagonists, but also to Stefanie Sargnagel’s preference for the aesthetics of language and poetry. She always had a notebook with her in which she wrote down and sketched the most imaginative word games, most poetic verbal excesses and most absurd situations of her youth. Her powers of observation and talent at exaggerating without drifting into the grotesque, her brash phrasing that doesn’t lapse into polemics, and her honest affection for the people she describes and of whom she has made dignified portraits, make the book a worthwhile excursion into the world of the people on the fringes of Vienna – or any other big city – characterised by clouds of smoke and hazy lines of thought.
Stefanie Sargnagel: Dicht. Aufzeichnungen einer Tagediebin
Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2020. 256 S.