How Austrian Literature Taught Me to Stop Worrying and Hate America
We could learn a lot from the way the country’s artists demonstrate their frank disgust with its Nazi past
Repeat a word enough in anger and it becomes a curse. In the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard’s final novel Extinction (1988), he uses the term Weinflaschenstöpselfabrikant over and over. It means, literally, “wine bottle stopper manufacturer,” and refers to the narrator’s brother-in-law, whom he hates. Like the brother-in-law, the word is grating, dull, and pedantic. (German has a word for cork. It’s “Korken.”) The compound noun contains everything that disgusts the narrator about his new brother-in-law, and so much of what angers Bernhard about his home.
Bernhard spells things out for us, using ugly words for a depressing society. He hardly ever replaces Weinflaschenstöpselfabrikant with a pronoun, making us hack through the consonants every time it appears. Later on in Extinction, the narrator, who lives in Rome, must return to Austria because his parents and his brother have died in a car crash and he needs to attend their funeral. He describes the funeral with another long compound word: nationalsozialistisch-katholisch, observing, “Our Nazi-Catholic orchestra is playing. And the Nazi fireworks are being shot from the entrance to the graveyard, and the Catholic church bells are ringing. And if we’re lucky, I thought, our Nazi-Catholic sun will be shining, or it’ll rain, if we’re unlucky, our Nazi-Catholic raindrops.”
Bernhard, who died in 1989, was the dean of what might be called Austrian anti-patriotic literature. His words are straightforward but his sentences are polyrhythmic, virtuosic in their insistence on the hopeless state of the world. They can’t help but wear you down and convince you that his countrymen are stupid and cruel. Right before the funeral, the Weinflaschenstöpselfabrikant sits in the kitchen, eating sausages and reading newspaper reports about the gruesome car accident, which left the narrator’s mother beheaded. He is completely oblivious to the bereaved man sitting next to him. “I said hideous, but my brother-in-law didn’t look up, he didn’t let my saying the word hideous disturb him, prevent him, so to say, from greedily indulging.”
Disgust with his fellow Austrians, not to mention the Germans and the Swiss, is a consistent element in Bernhard’s highly varied output, which includes novels, plays and poetry. In a piece from his collection of very short fiction The Voice Imitator (1987), a man from Augsburg is sent to an insane asylum because he passionately believes that Goethe’s last words were misheard. A doctor who hears of his obsession disagrees and has him committed. “This doctor, as I read in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, was awarded the Goethe Medal of the city of Frankfurt,” Bernhard writes. The absurdity of the man’s fixation is outmatched only by the doctor’s cruel, yet symbolically narrow-minded act. “Frankfurt” is repeated twice within the short final sentence as a talisman of mediocrity.
Hatred of home is a strain in Austrian literature more generally. The Nobel Prize-winning writer Elfriede Jelinek similarly critiques her society with pointed observations of its pervasive sexism and selfishness. In her Princess Dramas. Death and the Maiden (2003), she retells classic fairytales as they might have played out between real Austrians. The prince whose kiss wakes up Sleeping Beauty is an entitled bore. “I really like what I see, it’s already worth it, that much I can tell you,” he says. “How nice that you’ve already acknowledged that you owe your entire existence to me.” In Jelinek’s retelling of “Snow White,” the hunter refuses to help the abandoned princess find her way to the seven dwarves. He doesn’t believe her story about the wicked stepmother and mansplains to the recently apple-poisoned and abandoned woman what clothing is appropriate for a forest. “Let my hat be an example to you. That’s the kind you should be wearing!”
Not even classical music, a part of Austrian culture people tend to admire, is safe. Jelinek’s novel The Pianist (1986) portrays musicians as strange, banal, selfish people. “Erika has a main goal in common with every other performer: be better than the others!” Similarly, Bernhard’s The Loser follows two friends of the pianist Glenn Gould during his time at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and shows the destruction that follows in the wake of genius. (I attended the Mozarteum. When I told a woman I met at a party I was studying there, she said, “I’m so sorry!” She had just finished reading The Loser.) Classical music is often portrayed in literature as a path to transcendence, or at least an art form that lends meaning to suffering. Jelinek and Bernhard show it instead as intertwined with a heartless Austrian culture.
Austrian artists working in other mediums distrust their country too. In Ulrich Seidl’s film “Paradies: Liebe” (2012), an Austrian single mother travels to Kenya, hesitantly curious about the possibility of love. At the climax of the movie, the mother and a group of other Austrian women from the resort where she’s staying hire a local stripper. “He’s all yours, from his head to his cock,” one says in the Austrian dialect of German. They drink champagne and don’t offer him a glass; they tie a bow on his penis, compare him to various jungle animals, and compete to see who can get him hard first. When it takes a while, they speculate about his sexuality. It’s a painful, visceral portrait of a people that, even after the Holocaust, still tends to treat people it considers foreign as less than human.
Pessimism about Austria can even be translated into sound. Georg Friedrich Haas’s “In Vain” (2000), for chamber music ensemble, was composed in the wake of the rise of far-right FPÖ party politician Jörg Haider. Haider, who was later killed in a car crash while driving drunk, was openly fascist, at one point causing Austria to be officially sanctioned by the other members of the European Union. The title “In Vain” refers to the hope that Austria could ever leave its Nazi past behind. It’s difficult for music to criticize concrete problems in society, but the intention of Haas’s work is unambiguous. We sit in a darkened concert hall, unable to see the person next to us, caught in groaning microtonal aggregates, descending slowly three times over the hour-long work as if to hell.
To an American reader, all the Austria-bashing in Austrian art is shocking at first. The first things you notice about Austria today are its good public health insurance, crystal-clear lakes and Mozart-inspired marzipans. Even if its Nazi past is well known, we are used to taking the good with the bad within a culture, to valuing nuance; and when artists reject an entire society, it can read as superficial adolescent rage. But Austrian artists are right. Their deep cynicism is only jolting if you haven’t yet looked beneath the surface.
I’ve been immersing myself in Austrian literature while watching America’s shift to the far right. The artists’ anger makes a different kind of sense to me now. In recent years, as America lurches from black sites and torture to drone strikes on civilians to the abuse of Central American children, I find the relentless negativity of Austrian literature consoling. At least it’s honest. The terrible truth is better than a balanced lie.
The hatred Austrian artists have often provoked in their audiences shows that they must be revealing something raw. An acting minister of culture once implied that Bernhard should be the subject of medical experiments. A reporter in the Kurier called Jelinek “disgusted with herself,” and a 1995 campaign poster by the FPÖ read, “Do you love Scholten, Jelinek, Häupl, Peymann, Pasterk…or art and culture?” (Those quasi-fascists are back in the Austrian governing coalition, proving Haas’s pessimism to be prescient.) One common insult refers to Austrian artists as Nestbeschmutzer, or people who dirty their own nest. “Go live somewhere else if you don’t like it,” commenters say. But only people who are intimately familiar with a society can perceive its deepest evils; maybe only artists, who critically observe everyone, including themselves, can perform the thankless, valuable task of making complacent citizens a little less so. In one poem, Bernhard called his countrymen “these incomprehensible people / who lack a sea and a conscience.” He and the artists who followed him are Austria’s conscience. I hope American artists are prepared to make us feel equally guilty.