Austrian Literature Beyond Coffee House Romanticism

Heimito von Doderer, Thomas Bernhard and Gerhard Roth: weighty writers left their mark on Austrian literature in the twentieth century. But what about the present? A short look – and three reading tips.

Mieze Medusa: „Mia Messer“, published by MILENA Verlag, Vienna Mieze Medusa: „Mia Messer“, published by MILENA Verlag, Vienna | © MILENA Verlag, Vienna The book market in Austria is strongly influenced by German publishers; in addition, three or four large Austrian publishing houses determine what will find its way into the book shops. Thanks to a munificent funding system, small, independent publishers also have a chance of gaining attention – and so also of presenting exciting, young writers to the reading public.

The close relationship between the neighboring countries of Germany and Austria makes it difficult at first glance to draw a unified picture of contemporary Austrian literature. Best-selling authors such as Thomas Glavinic and Daniel Kehlmann, who was first published by the Viennese publisher Deuticke and later switched to Suhrkamp in Frankfurt and then to Rowohlt in Hamburg, are not necessarily seen as typically Austrian writers in the public eye. The German perspective, on the other hand, often subjects Austrian books to stereotypes: people think of black humor, detective stories in bright local color or coffee house romanticism when they don’t immediately reach for a travel guide to the most attractive regions of the Alps.

Holiday snaps in prose

On closer inspection, contemporary Austrian literature is all the more interesting. In addition to the capital city of Vienna, Graz plays a major role in providing a stimulating scene for young writers who, independent of mass production, set their own accents. They also find a platform in the Graz-based literary magazine Lichtungen (Clearings), where works by Andreas Unterweger, one of the most interesting young Austrian authors, have appeared. His artistic background underlines the versatility with which young artists set to work today. He is a guitarist and singer in the band ratlos (clueless), writes poems, has published a novel and, in his latest book Du bist mein Meer, has revived the genre of the holiday novella in an original way. A couple goes on holidays, but forgets their camera. Thus the narrator confines himself to recording the impressions of a trip to England in short prose sketches. Schooled in music and poetry, Unterweger (born in 1978) is a sensitive narrator with a flair for the unusual.

“He sees in one such photo the belly of his wife. He thinks of the unborn child inside. He thinks of it as a newborn child, of which he can not take a picture. He sees the impossible picture before his eyes. He knows: he has never seen so much of his child.”

Art theft as a political message

Mieze Medusa, who came to writing through hip-hop and poetry slam, also stands in close relationship to the music scene. Her second novel, Mia Messer, is about an art thief who specializes in the works of feminist artists and dreams of landing the big coup. Staccato-like sentences, clear words: the breakneck paced story is fast and funny and plays incidentally with the reversal of male and female role stereotypes.

“Mia is single. She lets a genuine Niki de Saint Phalle slip out of its frame, rolls the canvas up and slides it into her bag. Not in the Centre Pompidou, mind you; they decimate their own holdings quite well enough on their own; they don’t need experts from outside.”

Lost in the cities

The work of Martin Mandler, who was born in Tyrol and now lives as a creative director in the Eifel, leads back again to Germany. His debut novel, 23 Tage (23 Days), was reviewed in supra-regional media such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and is perhaps a small success story of how a young Austrian writer, who does not write for the mass market, can find an audience beyond the borders of his country. Mandler tells the story of a separation, reaching from Austria to Berlin and London, in the laconic, almost self-pitying tone of a thirty-something who, all at once, becomes aware of the precariousness of his entire life.

“I’m in Berlin. I’m driving a car through the city and lose myself in the names on the white streets signs, in the flood of roads and streets, move in a circle in the semi-helpless search for the Hobrechtstraße, for my goal in Berlin, if you can call that a goal, if you can call a place where you don’t know what to do with yourself a goal.”

We seek in vain in Andreas Unterweger, Mieze Medusa and Martin Mandler a unifying element or link with a strong literary tradition such as is often somewhat rashly associated with Austria. They instead concentrate on the search for new forms, unusual narrative perspectives and the real life of young people who have to cope with their everyday lives in all their normal banality and which are always worth recounting. Here small, independent publishers make their contribution by forming a counterweight to the market-dominating companies and so enabling the preservation of a diverse literature in Austria.