Tuesday, May 08, 2007
Leo Lensing on Altenberg
never, never, never should feel a woman, unless I want to feel her. My name is Altenberg after all, not Strindberg.” In 1915, the year in which this aphoristic wish fulfilment appeared in print, the pen name of the Viennese prose miniaturist Richard Engländer (1859–1919) was still famous enough to play off against those of his most prominent European contemporaries. A year earlier, he and Arthur Schnitzler had been under consideration as Austrian co-nominees for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The First World War intervened, however; and Peter Altenberg’s literary fortunes entered a decline that would be hastened by the Third Reich and from which they have never fully recovered.
It was Altenberg’s first book, As I See It (1896), that made his literary reputation. Recommended by Karl Kraus to Samuel Fischer, the leading publisher of Austrian and German modernism, this collection of sketches, brief dialogues, prose poems and aphorisms drew admiring reviews in most of the major German-language newspapers between Berne and St Petersburg, and in The Future, the influential journal of culture and politics edited by Maximilian Harden in Berlin, from a young Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Although As I See It would soon be translated into several European languages and belatedly, in 1919, even into Yiddish, neither it nor any of the ten other collections that appeared during Altenberg’s lifetime were ever rendered into English. The only book-length translation until now has been Alexander King Presents Peter Altenberg’s Evocations of Love (1960), an eccentric compilation illustrated, edited and, all too frequently, blithely rewritten by a third-rate American novelist and caricaturist.
Peter Wortsman, himself the author of a book of “small stories and microtales”, makes no secret of his own imagined affinity with Altenberg; in an interview with bookslut.com, he even calls himself the writer’s “love god-child”. Among other things, this apparently means that the process of translation was something akin to secretion: “the whole project poured out of my pores”. Speaking on Austrian National Radio, Wortsman revealed that the selections and renderings had in fact poured out in a mere four months, while he rode the A train to work in New York City.
Telegrams of the Soul stakes its claim for Altenberg’s importance on a very modest number of texts. The anthology contains some ninety pieces from an oeuvre comprising more than 2,000 titles in the books alone, a figure that excludes hundreds of uncollected reviews and other occasional writings. Still, Wortsman has made some fine choices. Several of the best-known, humorously self-referential sketches are here, such as “The Walking Stick” or “The Mouse”, a vignette made canonical by Kraus in his famous public readings. There are also prose snapshots of eccentric relatives that coalesce into an unconventional family gallery featuring an aunt whose compulsive laughter masks her desperation about an empty marriage. Another compelling series gathers sketches about scents and flowers. “Tulips”, for example, its botanical details pulsing with submerged eroticism, reads like a caption for a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph.
Altenberg’s obsession with the thoughts, movements, clothes, and, inevitably, the “ideal” bodies of girls and young women, which he dramatized subtly and, sometimes, not so subtly in hundreds of texts, is also amply documented. The darker bands in the broad spectrum of his experimental responses to sexual themes, however, which include photographs published together with poetic or aphoristic commentaries as well as suites of calligraphically inscribed postcard portraits collected in private albums, scarcely come into view. Although the afterword offers a glancing reference to Lewis Carroll, Wortsman’s predilection for relatively harmless sketches about prostitutes and brothels obscures more telling connections. Altenberg’s verbal-visual collages can also be understood as anticipating the serially reproduced Medici maidens, dolls and other fetishized miniatures in Joseph Cornell’s “boxes” or even the unsettling armies of prepubescent girls in the illustrated epics of the outsider artist-poet Henry Darger.
Far too meagerly sampled are sketches about painters, dancers, vaudeville artistes of all kinds, and even about performing animals that constitute another important subgenre in Altenberg’s work. The best of these, which originated in newspaper columns and reviews, metamorphose almost imperceptibly into allegories of literary identity and artistic crisis. Missing, for example, are “The Female ‘Hunger Artist’”, in which the poet declares a young woman fasting in a glass box on a Berlin avenue to be his “spiritual sister”, and other texts that help to explain why contemporary reviewers of Kafka often compared him with Altenberg.
Texts with Jewish themes, which Altenberg usually treated self-deprecatingly in reference to himself but aggressively in reference to others, are conspicuous by their absence. “How I Became Me”, for example, describes how Altenberg was discovered by the poets of Young Vienna as he sat in a coffee house writing a commentary on a newspaper illustration. The text ends with the ironically ambiguous revelation that instead of becoming a proper writer he has turned into a “schnorrer”, a Yiddish term for sponger, but also, in its original medieval meaning, an itinerant storyteller who sings for his supper. Sorely missed is the post-humously published “Race Problems”, an astonishingly prescient analysis of Jewish cabaret artists who are applauded in Vienna, the “metropolis of ‘organic anti-Semitism’”, as long as they restrict themselves to performing their “Andersrassigkeit” (“racial difference”).
Even the thoroughly engaging texts that Wortsman does include are not always rendered free of false notes. The periodic resort to slang such as “no way” or “in the buff” introduces a deceptive contemporaneity that more often than not disturbs the subtle registers of Altenberg’s delicate diction. Phrases that reflect then current scientific theories or new technologies are routinely reformulated in ways that obscure their ideological frisson. In “Autobiography”, for example, Altenberg, who had himself fallen under the sway of Ashanti families on exhibition at the Vienna zoo in 1896, quotes public reaction to his father’s joining him on his daily visits to see them: “The old man has inherited a genetic defect from his son”. This humorous reversal is reduced to the flat pronouncement that the “old man and his son are two of a kind”.
Most distressing, perhaps, are deficiencies in layout, typography and punctuation that will be invisible to readers who do not know the originals. Altenberg’s characteristic dashes, quotation marks and exclamation points are reduced to a minimum. His consistent use of italics (Sperrdruck or spaced letters in the originals), which not only signals emphasis but also imbues the prose with poetic rhythm, is dispensed with entirely. As we know from his correspondence with his publisher S. Fischer, Altenberg, belying the cliché of the careless coffee-house scribbler, complained bitterly when his directions for such details were not followed.
Even as perceptive and efficient a reader as Walter Benjamin, who once acknowledged Altenberg as the exemplary “agitator” (Aufwiegler) for individualism in an age of mass culture, thought that his writings demanded “prolonged exposure for their absorption”. This is good advice for Altenberg’s next anthologist, for whom, one hopes, we shall not have long to wait.