Top 7 Books to Understand Vienna’s Soul
Stefan Zweig and More. Yes, Viennese can be weird. Understanding the city and its culture includes understanding how Vienna’s locals tick. You can find a key in top literature and even cartoons by Viennese authors such as Stefan Zweig, and those living in Vienna.
Find out which of the top 7 books by Stefan Zweig and other acclaimed authors from my home town Vienna you’d like to read to connect more deeply with Vienna. All the books I describe below have been translated into English and are available on Amazon.
The World Of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig (1881 to 1942): ‘Why did nobody ever tell me about this book?’ an Amazon reader of The World of Yesterday asked. One more good reason to mention it here. This book carries all the weight, nostalgia and despair of someone who saw the Austro-Hungarian Empire break into pieces. Jewish-Viennese bourgeois and intellectual Stefan Zweig and more of his fellow writers of that time used autobiographic material for their most popular novels. The World of Yesterday reflects Zweig’s experiences with famine, civil war, two World Wars, antisemitism first-hand and finally escape from Austria. (Together with his wife, Stefan Zweig committed suicide in Rio de Janeiro, 18 months before the Allied Forces freed Austria.)
The novel Chess (Schachnovelle) by Stefan Zweig weaves historic and psychological topics that were close to Zweig’s own past into a story that grips you after a a few pages. Stefan Zweig and more of the writers below have been on the reading list of Austrian secondary school kids (including mine) for decades. Set into the scene of an atlantic ship cruise from New York to Buenos Aires after World War II, a millionaire challenges a famous chess player. A mysterious Dr. B from Austria comes to the millionaire’s rescue, and soon the narrator unveils the tragic reason of his ingenious chess skills. Now try to imagine playing 150 different games of chess against yourself in your head, which is what Dr. B did in his isolation cell when he was captured by the Nazis. You will probably go manic, then mad. Which is what he did. Great book for fans of historic novels and subtle psycho stories, ship cruisers, and chess players.
Tante Jolesch or the Decline of the West in Anecdotes by Friedrich Torberg (1908 to 1979) is a highly amusing and authentic portrait of the intellectual life of the Jewish community in Vienna before World War II. The story revolves around the popular Auntie Jolesch, a resolute Jewish-Viennese lady who outwits everyone with her shrewd mind and sharp tongue. I particularly like the descriptions of the many characters in the book. They remind me of some of the stories by my own Viennese grandfather. The book is best to be consumed in Vienna coffee houses, as large parts of the book describe the local coffeehouse culture. The standard anecdote I use from the book is the story why everyone in the family is crazy about Tante Jolesch’s white cabbage pasta? Because she never makes enough.
The Tragic Demise of a Faithful Court Official by Fritz von Herzmanovsky-Orlando (1877 – 1953) is one of his master novels of comical phantasies with lots of references to the antique and an exuberant written style. (If you like Italo Calvino, you probably like Herzmanovsky-Orlando.) The novel is about an Austrian civil servant Jaromir Edlen von Eynhuf’s bizarre objective to present the number 25 formed by 25 milk teeth to Emperor Francis I for his 25th anniversary of reigning the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As he searches for the milk tooth of a female singer he falls in love with her, and fate takes its tragic-comic turn. The novel forms part of Herzmanovsky’s Austria Trilogy and includes 24 illustrations by the author (see photo on top). Herzmanovsky literary collections form part of the literature inventory of many Austrian house holds. My father, a former Austrian civil servant, loves his books.
The Piano Teacher by literature nobel prize laureate Elfriede Jelinek (born 1946) is not for the faint hearted. It deals with the life and suffering of a Viennese piano teacher who is exposed to the violence and total domination of her mother, and who develops a tragic relationship with one of her pupils which ends in rape. The book was turned into a film by Austrian film maker Michael Haneke in 2001, starring Isabelle Huppert in the main role.
While the works of Stefan Zweig and more Viennese writers before World War II and the Second Republic include comic and bizarre stories with local historic references, contemporary writers like Elfriede Jelinek or Thomas Bernhard tend to challenge social phenomena such as domestic violence using an intense and sometimes hard to follow language. I am defining a Viennese writer by where he or she was or is mostly living, rather than where he/she was born. This emphasizes the current local environment that would influence his writing.
From Stefan Zweig And More Literary Writers To Cartoons
The Very Best of Deix, a cartoon picture book by Manfred Deix (born 1949). No one else has exposed the Viennese soul in a funnier, yet more wicked and scandalous way than Austrian Manfred Deix, arguably Vienna’s and Austria’s most famous cartoonist. He became immensely popular through his cartoons for leading Austrian weeklies. We came to love our political and ecclesiastical scandals not least because of Manfred Deix’ brilliantly disgusting but so truthful drawings. This book collects Deix’ best cartoons of mostly the Nineties.