Experience Austria through Literature - Part II:
Proper Austrian Literature begins

In 1806, Austria became an empire with Franz II of the Holy Roman Empire turning into Franz I of Austria in response to Napoleons aggressive expansion. A reactionary suppression of revolutionary ideas followed, and the literature of the "Biedermeier" period (1815 to 1848) was constrained by censorship. Nevertheless, there are several writers from that period that picked up typically "Austrian" issues.

Franz Grillparzer wrote pompous literature of the Classic period

Do not read anything produced by Franz Grillparzer (1791 to 1872) - this peculiar man worshipped the German classics like Goethe and Schiller and produced heavy, pompous pieces of poetry and drama in a Baroque and Classical tradition. At least one piece by Grillparzer is still part of the what every middle school student in Austria has to read at some point, and usually all of them hate it - even the nerdy ones with glasses, like me.

Go rather for Adalbert Stifter (1805 to 1868), who had a little bit of success with his poetry and tales in a late Baroque, Rococo tradition - but not very much. Posthumously, at around 1900, he became popular for his novels. Along with Grillparzer, he is the most significant contributor to the Austrian branch of German Classic literature ("Weimarer Klassik").

In his novels, he often ignores social and cultural issues of the contemporary society of his days in favour of portraying people in an ideal state that should be desired. It is not surprising that Stifter as an advocate of traditional values was most popular around 1900, when neo-Romanticism and reactionary, imperialist ideas peaked in Austria and other European countries.

The "Wiener Volkstheater": Vienna's people's plays

Another typically Viennese development is the "Wiener Volkstheater" ("people's plays") of the early 19th century. The most important contributors are Johann Nepomuk Nestroy (1801 to 1862) and Ferdinand Raimund (1790 to 1836). These plays that were very popular among "simple" people of Vienna were influenced by Baroque drama (see Gryphius, above) and the Italian commedia dell'arte.

It is characterised by the use of local (Viennese) dialect, a mix of tragic and comic-satirical elements, local archetypes (farmers, bums, craftsmen), songs and strictly metaphorical criticism of nobility, church or other power structures. This was done in response to the censorship and suppression under Prince Metternich.

Raimund is considered to be more conformist than the critical Nestroy. The tradition of the Wiener Volkstheater is maintained in two ways: The original plays by Raimund, Nestroy and others are still widely performed in Austria (the songs are often "translated" to refer to contemporary social or political issues).

On the other hand, writers of the 20th century have picked up the concepts and archetypes of the Volkstheater (such as criticism of economic exploitation and other social issues) and developed it on. This includes works by Ödön von Horvath (1901 to 1938) and his "anti-Volkstheater" play "Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald" ("Tales from the Vienna Woods") and the plays be Franz Xaver Kroetz (born in 1946) and Peter Turrini (born in 1944). Back to the 19th century, though…

After the revolution 1848:
Realism & Naturalism (1850 - 1900)

Between 1850 and 1900, the unification of Germany, the industrialisation and the spread of imperialism in Europe change the society. In Austria, the revolution of 1848 had failed and power still firmly held by the nobility and church. Cities grew (especially Vienna), publishing companies became more common and printing cheaper, the aristocracy gained prosperity and national tendencies made intellectuals and artists deal with local cultural and social issues.

Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach wrote on the sorrows of 19th century peasants

These developments made many writers abandon the ideals of the Classical and Romantic period, which dealt with ideals of individuals and society. Writers increasingly looked at the bottom of society, labourers and peasants of the cities and countryside, low nobility and soldiers. What starts with observations ends with open criticism and political thoughts - a move from Realism to Naturalism with no sharp border, particularly blurry in Austria (where the industrialisation is slower than in Germany and the social and political changes of that period less dramatic).

Naturalists attack poverty, exploitation, domestic aggression and violence, alcoholism and other forms of abuse. Metaphysical ideas are abandoned in favour of sober, detailed protocols of sometimes socialist dimension and use a plain and direct language - even though the Austrian realists and naturalists were over-all a good chunk tamer than their colleagues in many other countries.

Ferdinand von Saar is one of Austria's most important writers of the Realist period

The most important realists/naturalists from Austria are Ludwig Anzengruber, Ferdinand von Saar (1833 to 1906) and Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830 to 1916). The latter one was noble, yet highly aware of the suffering of the rural working class of her time. Her novels and novellas are still widely read in Austria and beyond. I recommend any collection of novellas and stories by von Ebner-Eschenbach, but look in particular for "Krambambuli" or "Die Spitzin".

Both stories use the fate of a dog to illustrate the lifestyle and daily dramas of socially suppressed (such as gypsies). If you plan to travel to the Semmering area (a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site just outside of Vienna), you might want to read Ferdinand von Saar's "Die Steinklopfer" ("The Stone Breakers"). This tells the story of a former soldier and labourer that is working on the construction of the Semmeringbahn Railway. One day he kills his violent boss and get imprisoned. In the end he falls in love with his victim's daughter.

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Further Reading

A detailed History of Austria in 10 parts

Reading Austria: Which books to choose

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