Vienna Tales – Arthur Schnitzler, Adalbert Stifter, and more (tr. Deborah Holmes)

I’ve long wanted to visit Vienna – a European city break is just my type of holiday. I’m sure I’ll get there one day, but in meantime, what better way to experience the city than through its literature.

Vienna Tales is a collection of stories featuring Vienna. This diverse anthology includes pieces by older, established writers such as Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), Joseph Roth (1894-1939) and Adalbert Stifter (1805-68), along with works by more contemporary authors, many of whom were new to me. As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to try to cover each story in turn. My aim instead is to give a flavour of the themes and a little of what I thought of the anthology as a whole.

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The stories in Vienna Tales are arranged geographically rather than chronologically, so we roam around the capital from west to east and back again. Several of the pieces are set in the margins of Vienna, reflecting the centre from a distance, but each one seems to capture a different facet of the city.

The collection opens with The Four-poster Bed, a poignant story about the demise of a love affair. In this early work by Arthur Schnitzler, a melancholy summer evening reflects the dying embers of one man’s love for a ‘sweet, darling girl’:

The last embers of sunset died down. Cool shadows crept up the houses, slowly, until they disappeared on the roofs. All that remained, way out on the last buildings, was a reddish, aching glow. (pg 24)

Many of the stories are packed with imagery, pictures of life in Vienna in the 19th and 20th centuries. In one of my favourite pieces from the collection, The Prater by Adalbert Stifter, we follow the narrator on an afternoon walk through this extensive park, an area that combines parkland, meadows, a fairground, beer stalls, coffee houses and more remote woodlands. It’s a feast day in May, and the Prater is bustling with activity:

Carriages drive through the midst of this crowd like ships in pack-ice, mostly slowly, often held up and forced to stand still for many minutes at a time, but then, when gaps present themselves, flying past each other like gleaming phantoms through the stolid, meandering mass. Figures on horseback can be seen rearing up out of the sea of pedestrians here and there, hopping over and through the line of carriages; (pgs. 164-165)

Joseph Roth’s short sketches, Day Out and Merry-go-round, also fall into this category.

Another of my favourites is The Feuilletonists by Ferdinand Kürnberger (1821-79), a delightfully amusing piece in which the narrator describes the characteristics of each type of feuilletonist (writers of feuilletons) to be found in the city. (Originating in France and Germany, popular in the mid-19th century, a feuilleton was the part of a newspaper or journal devoted to fiction, cultural criticism, light literature and gossip.) In Kürnberger’s sketch, we are introduced to the house feuilletonist, a writer who draws on his domestic surroundings for inspiration. Then we have the street feuilletonist, aka ‘the flaneur’ in high German, or ‘loafer’ in low German:

Exemplars of this species can often be found in front of the window displays of the larger fancy goods and fashion emporia. They also loiter in doorways to let the architecture of the magnificent new buildings opposite “work” on them; unfortunately, prestigious edifices freshly built in Vienna cannot be enjoyed from any other point of view. (pg 108)

By contrast, the tavern feuilletonist is to be found in the coffee houses of Vienna. ‘You will never find it there with a newspaper, but always with cards or a billiards cue in its hand. Loathing for periodical publications of all kinds is a distinguishing characteristic of this kind of journalist.’  There are one or two others as well, but I’ll let you discover them for yourselves should you decide to read this book. (Incidentally, a Viennese coffeehouse, Konditorei Demel, also features in Anton Kuh’s Lenin and Demel, a short piece on deposed aristocrats trying to getting to grips with the new culture following WW1.)

Several of the pieces in this anthology touch on the mood or atmosphere of the city. In Vienna by Heinrich Laube (1806-84), a man is entering the capital from the south by horse-drawn carriage. As he travels towards his inn in the dawn light, the visitor reflects on his impressions of Vienna.

Although I hadn’t even arrived at my inn, I could already tell how I would fare there. The city’s aspect is not one of overwhelming beauty, but picturesque, charming mellow. The warmer skies, the lilting speech, the plump, succulent bodies of the Viennese, their customs and habits, everything is locked in so blissful an embrace that the impulse is to open one’s own arms wide. And in Vienna, no one opens them in vain. It is a supremely humane and accommodating place. (pg. 97) 

By contrast, we see a different perspective on the city in Dimitré Dinev’s excellent story, Spas Sleeps. This contemporary piece features Spas, a Bulgarian refugee who fled to Vienna at the end of the 20th century in search of a new beginning. At the start of the story, Spas is sleeping on the street, but the vast majority of this tale focuses on the years leading up to this point. Reflecting on the time of his arrival in Vienna in the 1990s, Spas was full of hope and ambition, full of belief in the future. He longed to find work as it represented everything: a means of survival, peace of mind and the only way of staying in the city.

Work was a spectre. It hid itself from them and tormented everyone. Only those who found it found peace of mind. Six months should be long enough, the law decreed. After that it persecuted anyone who still haunted the place without work: an exorcist who thought six months was long enough to prove who is a person and who is a ghost. The ideal world wished to remain so. (pgs. 133-134)

We follow Spas and his friend, fellow Bulgarian student, Ilija, as they search for any kind of work, be it temporary manual jobs or something more stable. The two young men share everything, pooling their resources along with the opportunities to work and study. As the years pass, the laws get tighter and tighter making it increasingly hard for them to survive. There are many compromises and sacrifices along the way. This is a very poignant, thought-provoking story, one that remains all too relevant in Europe today. I think it will stay with me for a long time.

There are stories by other contemporary writers too. These include: Envy by Eva Menasse (b. 1970) – a subtle story that touches on love, loss and the tensions in a family; and Six-nine-six-six-nine-nine by Doron Rabinovici (b. 1961) – an eerie story of a composer who, when he rents a garret in the Viennese suburbs, hears a mysterious voice on the phone line.

Vienna Tales is a really interesting collection, all the more so for the sheer variety of pieces included. I would recommend it to any lover of literature with an interest in the city. The anthology also contains an excellent introduction by the curator, short biographies of each writer and a myriad of suggestions for further reading on Vienna (both fiction and non-fiction).

I’ll finish with a favourite quote from Out for a Walk by Schnitzler, in which four men debate their differing perspectives on the city. For one man Vienna is a melancholy place, for another it has a strong sense of nostalgia, for the third man it is merry and carefree while the fourth feels it has let him down. As the story opens, the sun is setting, and the men are walking to the periphery of the city:

Grimy children played noisily in the streets; and on the dull green meadows that began here and faded into gentle hill country further out, there were common folk who yearned for fresher air without knowing it: little boys and girls rolling on the ground or running to and fro, soldiers smoking cheap cigars with idiotically cheerful off-duty faces, streetwalkers in twos and threes laughing loudly as they strode over the fields, and the occasional solitary wanderer who had ventured out to savour the atmosphere of this peculiar no-man’s land where the city gradually comes to an end, its raw, drawn-out, fearful panting ceasing in a weary, thankful sigh. (pgs. 259-260)

Emma and Marina Sofia have also reviewed this collection, which I read for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month.

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Vienna Tales is published in the UK by Oxford University Press. Source:  review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

65 thoughts on “Vienna Tales – Arthur Schnitzler, Adalbert Stifter, and more (tr. Deborah Holmes)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d heard of Schnitzler, Stifter and Joseph Roth, but this was my first experience of reading their stories. On the strength of the pieces included here, I shall definitely be looking out for more of their work. All of the contemporary writers were completely new to me, though!

      Reply
  1. MarinaSofia

    So pleased you liked this collection! It certainly offers less well-known perspectives of Vienna and some writers you might not encounter otherwise.
    As for Vienna, I am obviously biased, but yes, it is so worth a visit! Autumn or spring are particularly lovely, although the Christmas markets are magical too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you for introducing me to this one, Marina! I really enjoyed the variety of stories included here, and there’s an interesting mix of snapshots of the old Vienna and more contemporary pieces. Did you have any particular favourites from the collection? Schnitzler’s stories, Kürnberger’s The Feuilletonists, and Dinev’s Spas Sleeps were the highlights for me.

      As for Vienna itself…yes, I’m going to have to get there at some point. A spring break sounds just the thing.

      Reply
  2. Caroline

    It does sound like a great collection.
    When I visisted recently I was so glad to discover that the famous coffee houses still exist. You can read any newspaper you like, drink one coffee and stay for hours without anyone bothering you. I’m not familiar with Dimitre Dinev but will look him up.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a very diverse collection. That’s the beauty of something like this – you’re never quite sure what’s coming next. Dinev’s Spas Sleeps was my favourite of the contemporary pieces, so it’s definitely worth checking him out.

      I would love to visit Vienna, especially after reading about your recent trip there. Magnificent architecture, wonderful art galleries and all those traditional coffee houses, too – what’s not to like? A slice of Sachertorte at Demel’s would be a must!

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        It is a rather stunning place. :)
        I just ordered Dinev’s collection. It should be here tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll get a chnace and not just another book for the piles.

        Reply
  3. gertloveday

    I have to say that ever since I read “The Hare With Amber Eyes” I’ve associated Vienna with vicious anti-semitism. It’s so interesting that such high culture can coexist with the basest human instincts.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      As a collection, Vienna Tales doesn’t dwell too much on anti-Semitism. In fact, much to my surprise, only a couple of the stories included here touch on WW2. (I thought there might be more about this period, but in many ways I’m glad this collection branched out into different areas.) One of the pieces (Alexander Kluge’s The Twilight of the Gods in Vienna) gives an account of a performance of Wagner’s opera during the final stages of the war in 1945. As Soviet assault detachments surrounded Vienna, the ruler of the city, Balder von Schirach, commanded one last gala performance. The night before one of the final rehearsals, the Opera House was gutted in a bombing raid on the city, so the orchestra had to split into groups located in separate underground shelters. The conductor was able to connect with each section of the orchestra by the use of field telephones. The whole performance was recorded section by section and then pieced together many years later when the tapes were discovered. It’s quite a story, one that taps into that juxtaposition you mention in your comments.

      Reply
    2. Max Cairnduff

      Many of the great Viennese writers of this period were Jewish. The early 20th Century saw an explosion of art and creativity among Vienna’s then substantial Jewish population.

      By the mid Twentieth century most of these writers are dead. That’s not a coincidence. That comes later though.

      Joseph Roth in particular writes with huge power about the rise of the Nazis in one of the pieces in his collection of essays on Berlin. There’s a review at mine, but it’s scathing stuff. They built something wonderful that we’re still rediscovering, but most of them died believing that it was dying with them.

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Many thanks for these comments, Max. You’re much better versed in the Viennese literature of the early 20th century than I am. The three Joseph Roth pieces included here are quite short, just two or three pages per story. Two of them are brief (but very effective) sketches of a day trip by tram and a scene at a merry-go-round. There is something very mournful about ‘The Spring Ship’ though, a longing for a feeling of stability or a passage to a place of refuge, perhaps. The Schnitzler stories are two of his earliest pieces, but again they are underscored by a sense of melancholy. I suspect you would be able to see connections between these pieces and some of the other works you’ve read. I’m sure you would be able to put these works into a broader cultural and political context, too.

        I must a look at your Roth review when I have a moment…adding it to my list of pieces to read. :)

        Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    I think that it is a great idea to collect stories such as this around the common theme of Vienna. Sequencing them based on geography also seems neat and creative.

    I think that it would be interesting if similar collections popped up based around other cities.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the decision to organise the stories by geographical area is an interesting one. I liked the idea of roaming around the city, but it would have been helpful to have had a note of the date of publication of each story either next to the title or at the end of each piece. The authors’ biographies are situated in the reference section at the end of the book, which is fine if you’re reading a physical copy but less convenient if you have the e-book version. Emma picked up on this point in her review, and I agree completely with her comments.

      This OUP series includes collections covering a few other European cities. I have the Copenhagen Tales anthology and another blogger I follow has reviewed the Moscow one. There’s also a Madrid version (translated by one of my favourite translators, Margaret Jull Costa) which I would love to read. It includes one of Javier Marias’ stories, so it’s got to be worth a look.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          You’re welcome! I just glanced at the contents last night. Like its Viennese companion, the Copenhagen anthology contains a mix of pieces by older established writers and contemporary ones. I’m looking forward to it.

          Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review as always Jacqui! I’ve read a few of these collections and really, really enjoyed them – the variety is always intriguing. Adding this to the wishlist…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, I remember your review of the Moscow one! The diversity of pieces is definitely part of the attraction. These collections are also a great way of sampling the work of a variety of writers, including some you might not come across otherwise.

      Reply
  6. Max Cairnduff

    Emma’s review put this on my radar too. It really does sound a fantastic collection. Roth and Schnitzler are both authors I love. I know of Stifter and have one of his, but haven’t read him yet. The others are new to me.

    It’ll be after the #TBR20 (with so much else…), but I do see myself reading this in due course. Lovely review as ever.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Max. I think you would really enjoy the pieces by the older, established writers. Schnitzler and Roth are sure to hit the spot, and I would put money on you liking Stifter’s story of The Pater and Kürnberger’s sketch on The Feuilletonists (a highlight of the collection for me). The contemporary pieces offer something completely different, but that’s one of the upsides of a collection like this – you never quite know what’s coming next.

      By the way, I also have a companion collection of stories set in Copenhagen (funnily enough, it’s called Copenhagen Tales). Another city I’ve yet to visit, but I think you’ve been there a few times…we may have discussed it in connection with that Helle Helle book.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, this collection has definitely whetted my appetite for more Schnitzler, more Stifter and something else by Roth as well. No Thomas Bernhard, I’m afraid….his name keeps cropping up so I’ll have to try him at some point.

      Reply
  7. Amateur Reader (Tom) (@AmateurReader)

    Hey, this has some translated Stifter I have not read. I’ll have to look for it.

    Vienna is one of the best tourist cities in Europe, packed with wonderful things but easier to manage than, oh, Paris or Rome. It is as packed with art as an Italian city, so when you go watch out for the Stendhal Syndrome.

    To Max’s and Gert’s point, a visit to the Jewish Museum in Vienna is a good idea.

    I spent a year, a couple of years ago, reading Austrian literature, so I have a lot of writing salted away over at Wuthering Expectations. Some of it is probably still readable.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, this collection is definitely worth seeking out, especially if you’re a Stifter completist. I really enjoyed his piece on The Prater – it’s full of wonderful imagery and little details that breathe life into each scene.

      Thanks for the information on Vienna, that’s very useful. Exploring a city by foot is always the best way, so I’m glad to hear Vienna is relatively compact. (I got that impression from the stories included here, but it’s good to have it confirmed!) A trip to the Jewish Museum sounds essential, thank you. And I’ll definitely take a look at your archive on Austrian lit – full of treasures no doubt. I’d love to read more by Schnitzler, Stifter, and Roth, so it sounds as though I’ve got plenty to look forward to there.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d enjoy this one, Guy. As you say, the inclusion of contemporary writers is a bonus – I doubt whether I would have come across writers such as Dinev and Menasse without this anthology.

      Reply
  8. litlove

    Oh Adalbert Stifter! I ploughed through his 600-page novel Der Nachsommer when I was a student (I cannot help but remember it because I began it on the first day of the Gulf War and a ceasefire was called during the night after I finished it. I told this to my German lit supervisor who said ‘How can you live with yourself?’ – though I hasten to add he was teasing me). I know it was an amazing book although I can’t remember anything about it now, alas. I’ve also enjoyed the Schnitzler I read. I used to love German literature at uni, and now I hardly ever read it. Always fun, then, when Caroline and Lizzy hold their special month!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Gosh, 600 pages – that’s quite a commitment, and no wonder it sticks in your memory! Rock Crystal is the Stifter I’ve been considering. It sounds strange and haunting and utterly compelling. Plus it’s a novella, which is no bad thing right in my book! Schnitzler is another author I’m keen to explore, especially as I’ve heard nothing but great things about his work. Can you recall which one you read?

      Caroline and Lizzy’s event on German Lit continues to highlight such a wide range of interesting authors. It’s the same old story, though…so many books, so little time. :-)

      Reply
  9. Emma

    I’m glad you enjoyed this too.
    I see we both really liked The Feuilletonists (so funny) and Spa Sleeps. (this one was poignant, especially this year)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I really enjoyed it this time! August just wasn’t the right time for me in the end as I’d overdosed on short stories with the Silvina Ocampo (fabulous stories, but very mysterious and rich in imagery). Plus a member of my book group had just picked a Gabriel Garcia Marquez collection, so I had to add that one to my August reading. Oh, well…at least I found the right time with Caroline and Lizzy’s GLM event.

      I loved The Feuilletonists – an eminently quotable story, probably my favourite piece in the whole collection. Schnitzler’s stories and Stifter’s piece on The Prater were wonderful, too. As for the contemporary stories – yes, I was rather moved by Spas Sleeps. Eva Menasse’s story, Envy, was another very interesting one – I loved the subtlety of it and the way it was structured with a ‘reveal’ at the end. All in all, a fascinating collection.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. I really enjoyed this collection, and there’s a good mix of the old Vienna and more contemporay perspectives here. It has certainly piqued my interest in reading more by Schnitzler, Stifter. and Joseph Roth…possibly Kürnberger as well if The Feuilletonists is typical of his work.

      Reply
  10. Scott W

    I haven’t been to Vienna, but I do like collections built around cities – even if occasionally one stumbles on a collection aimed a bit too squarely at the sugary sentimental heart of the tourist. I have a couple such collections on Venice, and have read others on San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Madrid collection sounds great.

    I think you’ll like Rock Crystal. I know it’s available from NYRB, but there’s a beautiful 1945 hardcover edition in English with lovely illustrations by Josef Scharl. I’m currently re-reading Joseph Roth; he just gets better and better every time I pick him up (though this particular work has nothing to do with Vienna).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I really like the idea of collections themed around cities as well. You’ll have to tell me more about the Venice ones at some point as that’s a city of interest to me.

      The Madrid Tales collection in this series does sound very good. The blurb mentions a Galdos story, so I’m guessing that’s Benito Pérez Galdós, the author of the wonderful novel, Tristana. So – Galdós, Marias and more…this anthology is getting better by the minute.

      Thanks for the tip about the different editions of Rock Crystal. I was aware of the NYRB editions (and I’m pretty sure there’s a Pushkin one as well) but I’ll keep an eye out for the illustrated version you’ve mentioned here. Joseph Roth is definitely on my list for the future. The three Roth pieces in Vienna Tales are very short (just brief sketches or snapshots of scenes), but they’re so effective. I hope you’ll write about the one you’re re-reading at the moment – I’d like to hear more about that.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think this collection offers a good introduction to Vienna. It roams around a fair bit, so as a reader you do feel as though you are getting an insight into a range of different facets of the city, both old and new.

      Reply
  11. 1streading

    These anthologies sound like a great way to read writers you already know alongside those you’ve never heard of (I had never heard of Stifter so I’ve learned something already!) They should be obligatory of you plan to visit the city.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That combination of the known and unfamiliar was one of the attractions of this anthology for me. Well, I say “known”…I hadn’t actually read anything by Schnitzler, Stifter or Roth until I started this collection, but I knew enough about their work to feel confident that I would enjoy them! Stifter only came to my attention last year when I read a couple of reviews of Rock Crystal (quite possibly as part of GLM 2014). That little novella does sound excellent, so it’s another addition to the ever-expanding wishlist!

      Reply
  12. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I do hope you will get to visit Vienna one day. It is a wonderful city, and I actually think the four men who are discussing the city in Schnitzler are all right about it (although Vienna has never let me down personally). I hope to be able to read Hilde Spiel’s Fanny von Arnstein for German Lit Month. It takes place in 18th-century Vienna. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      So do I! It does sounds wonderful, and I’m pretty sure I’ll fall in love with the city. Schnitzler’s stories were one of the highlights of the collection for me – he captured so much in just a few pages.

      I hope you manage to find time for the Spiel. That’s a new one on me, so I just looked it up – sounds fascinating!

      Reply
      1. TJ @ MyBookStrings

        “Fanny’s own emancipation was prelude to the world of Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Arthur Schnitzler,…”
        I think this book would be right up your alley, if you don’t mind that it’s nonfiction.

        Reply
  13. roughghosts

    Good heavens I can’t keep up with the German reviews. This sounds like a great collection. I am in a serious short story mood lately (something I never have been before) and the fact that this is an anthology is especially appealing. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know – they’re coming thick and fast, aren’t they! It’s great to see such a huge amount of interest in GLM again this year.

      As for Vienna Tales, it’s a very diverse collection, but that’s one of the most interesting things about this type of anthology. Even if you don’t enjoy every single story to the same extent, you’re bound to find at least two or three writers to explore in more detail. :)

      Reply
  14. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock

    You make this sound quite wonderful. The only author I know is Adalbert Stifter – courtesy of the NYRB edition of Rock Crystal, which I loved – and this collection could be an interesting introduction to others.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you – it is a really interesting collection, all the more for the sheer variety of pieces included here. These anthologies are a great way to sample a broad range of writers both old and new. I’m absolutely delighted to hear that you loved Rock Crystal as it’s firmly on my wishlist – I don’t know why it has taken me so long to discover Stifter’s work as he’s clearly one of the greats.

      Reply
  15. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  16. Mytwostotinki

    That sounds like a Must Read book. The lesser known names survive mainly through such story collections, and Vienna (as Prague or even Czernowitz) had such a diversity and wealth of interesting authors that for most of the readers it will be a discovery of authors they have never heard of. Thanks for this very interesting review, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. That was one of the biggest attractions of this collection for me – the chance to read work by a wide range of authors both old and new, some familiar and others less well-known. Even though I enjoyed some pieces more than others, the diversity made for a fascinating journey through the streets of this city.

      Reply
  17. Pingback: German Literature Month V: Author Index | Lizzy's Literary Life

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