Vienna-Despising Viennese


Self-portrait, Egon Schiele, 1911

From The Paris Review:

Alone in Vienna, January sky smoothed and silvery over a thin lip of sunlight, streets windless, I sat in the Café Museum before a strudel and a cup of milky coffee, reading an Austrian novel propped open and freshly coffee stained. I was perfectly, touristically happy, a state in which even the most prosaic things partake in the novel glory of a place. I had just dispatched a schnitzel the size and shape of a small umbrella, beaded with oil, as well as a pilsner whose gold-brown glow rhymed with the schnitzel, the coffee, and the dusk lights—everything, in fact, seemed fringed with burnt gold. The booth was crushed crimson velvet, soft but thinly packed and straight-backed, a blithe discomfort surviving charmingly out of the past. Similarly, the waiter—bow-tied, bald head monumentally mounded and catching the light like marble—was unaccommodating and gruff in a manner that seemed, at the time, a piece of old-world charm. Across the street, washed hospital white, the Secession Building, house of Gustav Klimt’s luminous Beethoven Frieze, was wrapped in a mesh tarp and looked like the depression of a pulled tooth covered in gauze.

I found it all beautiful. And yet, as I sat and sipped and sighed like a sentimental character in a nineteenth-century novel, the twentieth-century novel I was reading, Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, in which a narrator attends a dinner party with old artistic friends he despises, was heaping scorn on this very city: “This dreadful city of Vienna,” “Going for a walk in the Graben, I thought as I sat in the wing chair, means nothing more nor less than walking straight into the social hell of Vienna.” Adolf Loos, the architect and designer of the very Café Museum I sat in, I later learned, had derisively called Vienna a “Potemkin city.” I left the Café Museum and walked to the Inner City as dusk clasped around the metropolis, in a trance, blessing all the facades.

Once I noticed Bernhard’s disdain, I saw it everywhere. Vienna is an important city—birthplace of psychoanalysis and Zionism, the great and prideful musical hub of the nineteenth century. From 1890 to the 1950s it produced an astonishing group of writers, a group as brilliant as those produced by any other city—Karl Kraus, Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Elias Canetti, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arthur Schnitzler, Hermann Broch, Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek—and, in some way, they all seemed to despise the city in at least equal measure to their affection.

In Karl Kraus, stern judge of fin de siècle Vienna and éminence grise of all Vienna-despising Viennese, his Vienna-dislike appeared as pure vitriol. For almost two decades, he single-handedly published his magazine Die Fackel, relentlessly attacking Habsburg politics as well as the Viennese press and art world, embroiled in perpetual feud for his venom. As Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin relate in Wittgenstein’s Vienna, when a prominent writer died in 1919, the Viennese Neue Freie Presse, a favorite Kraus target, refused to cover the funeral because Kraus had delivered the eulogy.

“Thomas Bernhard, Karl Kraus, and Other Vienna-Hating Viennese”, Matt Levin, The Paris Review