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Postcard from Vienna

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By Rebecca Morrison

Vienna is beautiful at any time of year, not least at the beginning of winter. It may be cold, with a real bite to the wind, and a dampness to the grey, but there’s warmth of many varieties on hand to compensate.
 
The hospitality of the Literaturhaus, for example. Established in 1991 in tucked away Seidengasse, it has become a hub for Vienna’s literary life with a rich programme of readings and discussions, fine exhibition space and a marvellous library. It was here, at the time of my visit, that Peter Waterhouse (nbg – Spring 2007) gave a characteristically erudite lecture when he received the 2007 Erich Fried Prize, the climax of the annual symposium that celebrates a different aspect of Fried’s life as poet, writer, thinker, and – as was taken as this year’s subject – translator: Thomas Dylan, T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare are among those Fried translated. He had, incidentally, a particular link to London. It was his home for many years (he is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery) and his widow, the artist Catherine Boswell Fried, brought her husband vividly to life in the opening discussion and through her exhibition of paintings and sculptures inspired by him. Some of them showed him asleep. ‘It was the only time he was ever still!’ she exclaimed.
 
The three days of discussion and debate, readings and later conversation over a glass or two of wine were well attended. Among those who appeared were such local literati as the poet Friederike Mayröcker, she of the unmistakable Gothic appearance. From further afield came the now elderly Klaus Wagenbach of the eponymous Berlin publishing house, left in its leanings and distinguished for its books of Italian literature. Another distinguished participant was the elegant writer and critic Ilma Rakusa (nbg – Spring 2007), herself a translator and member of the jury at the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. It was a rare chance to hear translators talk of their work. Olivier Le Fay, the young, leatherclad Parisian translator into French of Nobel prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek (she lives in Vienna, too, but was, as ever, conspicuous by her absence) recounted how it took him three years to translate her novel The Children of the Dead, the walks he went on, the music he listened to, the French authors he read before sitting down to translate this challenging work in longhand.
 
This symposium comes highly recommended, as does a visit to that other literary institution, the Alte Schmiede in the heart of the old town. Here, under the wry gaze of director Kurt Neumann, the conversation is not only warm but also veritably fiery, if my evening’s visit was anything to go by. On the agenda was the subject ‘Literary Criticism and its Developments – or Demise?’ and critics from the Viennese newspaper Falter and also from Die Zeit fenced with philosophers, students and novelists.
 
Literary criticism certainly seems alive and well in Austria, with a remarkable number of publications dedicated to it, from Wespennest established in the 1960s to the weighty Kolik. Undaunted by the competition, and seeing a niche for a literary newspaper of a different slant, Thomas Keul and a colleague set up Volltext five years ago, and with its array of interviews with authors, reviews and published excerpts from new works, it has found favour among readers and writers.
 
While not boasting as many publishing houses as Munich, Frankfurt or Berlin, Vienna nonetheless has some famous high-fliers. One such is Paul Zsolnay Verlag, still in the offices it has occupied since the 1920s. The salon has a huge oval dark wood table where editorial meetings have taken place through the decades. During my visit the rooms played host to the launch of an anthology of post-war Austrian writing, and poets and critics, archivists and academics filled the high-ceilinged rooms with as much vivid conversation and laughter as they had ever heard. Then there are the nest-top offices of children’s publishers Verlag Jungbrunnen, with an Aladdin’s cave of toys and books on the ground floor of the building, and also the sleek elegance of Picus Verlag, a stone’s throw from the Burgtheater, and the cavernous old palace that houses the Austrian Book Trade offices, not far from the Mozart house and museum.
 
Warmth of a different sort can be found in the coffee houses of Vienna, particularly in excellent company: in Café Bräunerhof (a favourite haunt of Thomas Bernhard’s) novelist Lilian Faschinger entertained with tales of how Vienna has changed – ‘I’m starting to like it,’ she said laconically, having lived there for years. And call me a hopeless romantic, but tucked into a wooden booth at Café Europa, beneath life-size paintings of noblemen and women from the days of the empire, notebook in hand, leaning over a newspaper on its long wooden rod, strudel on the way, listening to the wearied-looking pianist moving through his repertoire from waltzes to Some Enchanted Evening on the Bösendorfer, and shielded from the cold outside by heavy felt curtains and an additional thin curtain of smoke, I found the atmosphere irresistible.
 
Another of the warm sensations particular to that time of year was the cone of hot chestnuts, and occasional mug of mulled wine, waiting to be sampled as one made one’s way from one meeting to the next – the majority of the Christmas markets retain something of their original old-fashioned dignity and charm. And of course the theatres and concerts, a trip to the Burgtheater or the opera house, some of the wonderful art collections (this time a feast of Titian at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the delightful discovery of whimsical Franz Sedlacek in the ‘Between the Wars’ exhibition at the Leopold Museum) add to the pleasures of a late autumn visit.
 
November 2008 will see the first Book Fair in Vienna – another reason to pack that winter coat and hat and make for the city that does melancholy, and warmth, so well.
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Rebecca Morrison
Rebecca Morrison
My thanks to the Austrian Cultural Forum, London, for supporting this trip.
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