Torberg in Exile

The Kaffeehaus Literaten who lived for longing and writing leters; An exhibition at the Jewish Museum

Friedrich Torberg loved to write letters. When he died in Vienna in 1979, he left behind some 50,000 pages of correspondence to a wide circle of friends and acquaintances that has been produced several published volumes in his life time and after, and revealed a man who pleasured in companionship on paper.

Friedrich Torberg in 1960 in his study in Vienna; this year marks his 100th birthday | Photo: David Axmann

“My correspondence has taken on ruinous dimensions,” he protested to a friend. “It will probably ultimately reveal that the half of it is plagiarized, and what is hardly worse, that it has already made inexcusable demands in time and attention. But it was constitutionally impossible for me to write short letters, because it seemed too impersonal. Basically I have always divided people between those who could write letters and those who couldn’t.”

Which is fortunate for us, as it has meant a richly recorded life, that is the subject of a fascinating exhibit in honor of his 100th birthday, continuing through Feb. 2, 2009, at the Jewish Museum in Vienna’s 1st District – the most ambitious ever mounted on the life of an Austrian émigré writer. Of the leading Jewish writers who fled Vienna when the Nazis took over, Friedrich Torberg was one of the few returned, to produce much of his most important work and be showered with honors in his final two decades.

Besides letter writing, two things defined life for Friedrich Torberg: a remarkable contentment in marriage to his wife Marietta and the literary culture of his home city of Vienna.  Toberg was a true Kaffehaus Literanten, who came of age in the famed Café Herrenhof  in Vienna’s 1st District, where the currency was conversation and language reached the level of art. It was a circle of writers, rogues and reprobates, of dilettantes and eccentrics, the lively repartee a blend of wisdom, wit and downright foolishness.  According to biographer David Axmann, it was here that his world view was formed, such that he was never really at home anywhere else.

He was among the most Viennese of writers, taking enormous pleasure in its braced to defend the language against Prussian cretinism. He battled on what he called the “cream front” –  protesting the German use of “Sahne” instead of “Schlag” (whipped cream)  or “Obers” (top, or heavy cream), as in Austria – who saw himself as preserving the nuance-rich language of the Danube capital against efforts to coarsen it by “drowning everything in the same gravy.”

All of this was deeply connected to Vienna, and a sense of longing, that may have thrived on its very elusiveness. He knew it was all over, he insisted; he even knew the extent to which it was over.

“A world of appearances you say?” he wrote to Victor von Khaler. “Of course, but when was the shine and shimmer ever pushed so close to reality? So close that you can even get the appearance and reality confused….”

He knew it was all over , he insisted; he even knew the extent to which it was over.

“But what you call my Austrian longing, this I have not in spite of everything being over, but because of it. Because it means a guaranteed, unrequited longing, an imagined conception that can never be fulfilled – which is the very best thing that desire can ever know.”
In the middle of November 1940, Torberg went to work for Warner Bros. for a $100 a week, one of a group of “leading anti-Nazi writers” who had been sponsored by the international Association of Poets, Editors and Novelists (PEN). PEN had raised the necessary funds and helped Torberg and the others acquire all the proper papers and clearances. Torberg’s sponsor was Erica Mann, daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, who interceded for many.

Hollywood was a strange experience for Torberg. He was required to show up at the Writers Building at Warner Bros. everyday from 9 to 5, and work on ideas and treatments. He wrote of how busy he was, and how his skill in English meant that the management “actually intended to get their money’s worth. But he soon learned otherwise; the Anti-Nazi Writers were not taken seriously. After working for months on a project that had been given high priority, he delivered the treatment only to discover that the producer in question had forgotten all about it.

One of the lesser chapters of Torberg’s stay in America was his involvement with the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) the precursor of the CIA, who used him as an informant to identify what were then referred to as “Communist political cells” in Hollywood.  Having tried to enlist in the OSS for anti-Stalin work over seas, he had been turned down because of a heart condition, and accepted the domestic spying assignments. Torberg realized that motivations – however misguided — that could lead European Jews to see Stalin as an alternative to Hitler.
“Right now, I don’t think they can be blamed for failing to realize that the whole difference between Hitler and Stalin as far as the Jews are concerned,” Torberg wrote in a letter to Ursula Elkan Hammil in June of 1944.

“Hitler is killing us without further ado, while Stalin gives us the benefit of chloroform before killing us. It is there that the counter propaganda should set in: that by showing however attractively this counter-propaganda is labeled as ‘liberation,’ ‘liberty,’ ‘equality’ and what not, it is still chloroform and still intended to make us unconscious of the end to which it is applied.”

Immediately after the end of the war in 1945, Torberg began to report on acquaintances he saw as involved in dangerous communist association. “A close research into the situation seems to be in place, since there is no doubt that the intellectual leadership of German communists in this country is to be found there,” he wrote in a memo later found in agency files.

Among the targets of Torbergs sleuthing was playwright Berchtold Brecht, whom he began observing as early as 1943; his reports became part of the FBI case against Brecht and were used against him during his hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) under Congressman Martin Dies in the first stages of the Communist witch hunt continued  in the Senate by Joseph McCarthy. The day after the hearing Brecht left the United States for East Germany, never to return.

Tyranny comes in many forms and one can imagine that Torberg did not realize the use to which his information would be put. He was certainly not wrong about Stalin, and perhaps did not understand that America too could caught up in an obsessive fear of the “other.”

Although he spoke and wrote English well, Torberg produced nothing professionally in English. While in Hollywood, he wrote a number of Film-concepts and treatments in hopes of earning some money, but none of them came to anything.  Only his most famous work, Tante Jolisch and the Downfall of the West in Anecdotes, is available in translation.

This charming work is Torberg’s tribute to the life of the Viennese coffeehouse world as it was in the heady days of the First Republic following World War I until its final collapse in 1938. It is filled with engaging encounters with the intellectuals and eccentrics who filled his life, with philosopher Egon Friedell, cabarettist Fritz Grunbaum, and writers Alfred Polgar and Franz Werfel, this work evokes the storytelling and humor that characterized life among the habitués of  the Vienna’s coffeehouse.

It is a literary monument to a group of people, a time, and a culture that he mourned,  and in the telling, whose spirit he sought to preserve.

Friedrich Torberg – Die Biographie, by David Axmann, LangenMüller, 2008
from the F.A. Herbig Verlagsbuchhandlung GmbH, Müchen. ISBN 978-3-7844-3138-0

Friedrich Torberg – Die Gefahren der Vielseitigkei; Marcel Atze and Marcus G Patka, ed.
Wienbibliotech im Rathaus, 2008.published on the occasion of the exhibition in the Jewish Museum Vienna, 17.09.08 – 01.02.09.   ISBN 978-3-85493-156-0

Tante Jolesch or The Downfall of the West in Anecdotes (1975), a collection of amusing yet bittersweet anecdotes about Jewish life and personalities in pre-Nazi Vienna and Prague, among émigrés abroad , trans., Maria Poglitsch Bauer and Sonat Hart, Ariadne Press, 2008, ISBN 9781572411494

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