Austrian Literature Features

Gerhard Roth: Writer of Vienna

By Uwe Schütte
© Philipp Horak
Gerhard Roth
‘There can be no doubt’, the renowned critic Ulrich Greiner remarked in 1979, ‘that Gerhard Roth, alongside Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke, is one of the most important contemporary writers in Austria.’ In the three decades since Greiner made this remarkable statement, Roth has proved him absolutely right. His next novel, the semiautobiographical Stille Ozean (‘The Calm Ocean’) appeared in 1980 and triggered a most unusual literary project: a cycle of seven works called Archive des Schweigens (‘Archives of Silence’) comprising novels, essays and documentary volumes.
Roth completed his heptalogy in 1991 by framing it with a collection of essays on Vienna and a volume containing photographs of rural Styria, where he had settled in the early eighties. With the Archive des Schweigens, Roth achieved no less than a literary diagnosis of the Austrian psyche. He opened up the repressed, disavowed, and silenced parts of society to expose an uninterrupted tradition of fascist values in the Second Republic that included xenophobia, authoritarianism, anti-Semitism and an obsession with hunting.
Although the Archive des Schweigens consolidated Roth’s literary fame, and despite his popularity and media presence in Austria, he has never been as well known in Germany as Handke or Bernhard. Like his colleagues, he emerged from a humble, provincial background and took part in the literary movement of the sixties that turned the sleepy town of Graz into a hothouse of literary talent. Roth initially wrote experimental fiction but abandoned it in the mid-seventies to craft a number of realist novels. These books were structured as crime novels but were really about existential despair, the most accomplished example being his 1978 tale Winterreise (‘Winter’s Journey’), about a couple’s journey through Italy.
During the eighties Roth increasingly positioned himself as one of the foremost public intellectuals in Austria. His political interventions responded to the reactionary tendencies of Austrian society – not just the Waldheim controversy but also the everyday occurrences of anti-Semitism, the unstoppable rise of right-wing parties and the racist murder of four gypsies in the mid-nineties. Death threats followed but did not deter Roth. His passionate mission has a biographical background: his parents were members of the Nazi party and refused to discuss or even acknowledge Austria’s involvement in the Holocaust.
Roth’s political commitment may also explain his extraordinary literary productivity. Following his cycle of seven books Roth began a second eight-volume cycle called Orkus. Fascinatingly, these two large-scale endeavours are both subtly and explicitly interwoven, like an intertwined double helix – certain motifs and themes mirror each other, while characters from the first cycle reappear in Orkus and mysteries left open in Archive des Schweigens are resolved in the second cycle.
Although the Orkus cycle opens at Austria’s famous Neusiedler Lake, the title’s allusion to Homer’s Odyssey is telling: subsequent novels are set in Spain, Japan, Greece and Egypt, greatly expanding the narrative scope of the first cycle, which focused on Austria. Roth’s Orkus cycle also references major works of world literature from Dante’s Divine Comedy or Cervantes’ Don Quixote to modern classics such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. While volumes such as Der Plan (1998), Der Berg (2000), Der Strom (2002) and Das Labyrinth (2004) are indispensable components of the second cycle, they are also selfcontained novels: travel stories based on first-hand research by Roth, but fictionalised and framed in suspenseful crime stories. This formula probably works best in Der Plan, which tells the story of a librarian who tears a sheet from a Mozart manuscript and attempts to sell it. Disaster strikes when he travels to meet his mysterious buyer in Japan.
In Die Stadt (2009), Roth collects a number of topographical essays dealing with sites in Vienna that are far off the well-beaten tourist track, such as the Institute of the Blind, the Museum of Forensic Medicine or a refugee camp. It is a veritable companion piece to his bestselling Eine Reise in das Innere von Wien (‘A Journey into the Inner Vienna’, 1991) from the Archives of Silence, which adheres to the same recipe and has achieved cult status amongst visitors to the Austrian capital.
Orkus is concluded by two major volumes, both in excess of 700 pages. Das Alphabet der Zeit (2007) is the autobiographical account of Roth’s childhood and youth. From playing amongst the ruins of the destroyed city of Graz, we learn how young Gerhard grew increasingly suspicious of the all-pervading conspiracy of silence that strove to blank out Austria’s involvement in the Nazis and the Holocaust. In Orkus. Reise zu den Toten (‘Orcus. Journey to the Dead’, 2011), the major characters of his literary double helix all congregate in Vienna to meet their author and Roth, too, turns into a literary character, disappearing in that strange dominion between fact and fiction, dream and reality.
After completing an enterprise undoubtedly unique in world literature, Roth might have deserved a rest, yet he keeps on writing. His most recent book, simply called Portraits, is a collection of essays on major figures of the Viennese cultural scene, with many of whom Roth was personally acquainted. Apart from literary colleagues such as Elias Canetti or Thomas Bernhard, we also find incisive portraits of the chancellor Bruno Kreisky and the (in)famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, along with touching essays on art brut artists. Engaging and varied, Portraits provides a perfect entry point to discover one of the most remarkable authors to have emerged in Austrian post-war literature.

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Uwe Schütte
Uwe Schütte
completed his PhD thesis on Gerhard Roth’s Archive des Schweigens in 1996, supervised by W.G. Sebald at the University of East Anglia. He is a Reader in German at Aston University, Birmingham and has written nine books and numerous articles on contemporary German and Austrian literature. Forthcoming in 2014 is a general introduction to the life and works of Gerhard Roth, published by Residenz Verlag.


Gerhard Roth in English translation

  • The Autobiography of Albert Einstein
    (Atlas Press, 1992)
  • The Calm Ocean
    (Ariadne Press, 1993)
  • The Story of Darkness
    (Ariadne Press, 1999)
  • The Will to Sickness
    (Burning Deck Press, 2006)
  • The Plan
    (Ariadne Press, 2012)