V is for Variety

A Critique of ViennaLit’s First-Ever Anthology of Writing on Life in Vienna

Vienna Views is the title given to an anthology of stories, essays, reviews, poems and more which was published in association with the ViennaLit festival last autumn. Notwithstanding some contributions that were less than distinguished, it is a collection that we should enjoy – and make a gift of to those who wonder why we choose to live here.

As a resident of Vienna for more than twenty years, I have a relationship with the city, and I mean a relationship. For which read, complex, changing, moody, ambivalent – but important. I care about Vienna for a myriad of reasons. And so I came to the book warily, as if to a psychotherapist who would be about to pronounce judgement on my marriage. My response was varied – as varied as the pieces.

Let us start with the dross, luckily in the minority. The format of the book (which sports an odd-looking, sinister middle-aged man on the cover) trumpets the fantasy novelist Jonathon Carroll: his piece is first, his bio-blurb is set apart from the others, etc. Yet what a tired and limited essay he submits! A sort of ‘Vienna then’ vs. ‘Vienna now’ construct, A Roof of Clouds fails signally to transport one up to the height of a roof, let alone the clouds. Carroll’s prose plods along as if encased in wooden clogs – and muddy clogs at that.

It is an essay dashed off between more important assignments, it seems. And indeed, such is the case: I learned later that this jaded work of reminiscence was merely an old magazine article the writer had forwarded along to the editors of the anthology. In short, yesterday’s pizza hastily warmed up – which never tastes good.

Michael Robinson, author of Vinter in Wien betrays more about himself than about the city: that ‘v’ in the title hinting at the vitriol that is to follow. The whole piece with its immoderate tone and lunging nastiness reminds me of bad actors imitating the Gestapo, every second line being “we have vays to make you tok”. He writes about the “hotness” of the girls which is embarrassing, and the ugliness of an old lady opposite him in the tram, which is gratuitous and ungracious. In its unexpected insight, the final sentence almost (but only almost) redeems Robinson: “Does this feeling of Schadenfreude suggest I’m a little more Austrian than I previously imagined?” Travelling broadens the horizon? In some cases, it merely flushes out existing prejudices. V for vitriol.

Another literary raspberry is Stamps Stempel by Frederick Baker. A poem concerned with Vienna’s love of stamps for bureaucratic purposes, the message is rammed home with monotonous repetition: “J was the letter / The stamp resolution / the sign of the times / for the final solution” is immediately followed by “Vienna’s the city / that’s held down with fear / guilt that stampedes through the visceral ear”, so that 60 years of parliamentary democracy, astute political cabaret and a culture of Kulanz across several post-war generations now elide into one another silently, effortlessly. Not bothering to think is another form of dishonesty.  This is, again, an outsider’s view that is clearly preconceived , conveniently finding expression in the form of a heavy handed and repetitive effort at verse I found it a bore.

But there are goodies here, real little gems that sparkle and shimmer in the light of a reading lamp. Harriet Anderson’s V stands for Vienna stands for Vanillekipferl evokes centuries of culinary culture in the capital. She draws links that we may already know about, but only vaguely, she puts the Christmas pastry in historical context, she brings the Vienna of the Turkish sieges to life. Her piece is personal yet wide-ranging, intimate and affectionate, yet subtly informative. Pastry and Vienna: don’t let’s underestimate that. I’m with you on that, Harriet!

And there is more: Reinhard Hackl’s Born in 1933 movingly recreates a refugee revisiting Vienna to see her brother. Here personal history and fiction are intricately interwoven to preserve the writer’s own story (or that of his family).

Bond Benton takes ironic distance one step further: his Anti-American Me is a subtle dig both at ignorant Americans and intolerant Austrians. Benton wants to tease both nations, he wants to get away with supra-cultural leg-pulling – and does.

The prose of Laura Grandlgruber, a German student resident in Vienna, has the air of ingenuous, wide-eyed enthusiasm that belies the stereotype of the arrogant German patronising her smaller neighbour. Walter Hölbing’s poem death at noon, while technically undistinguished, shows the darker side of the capital, the constant suicides. Jason Markovsky brings a rather seedy part of the city to life in the flinty, stark prose of his Vienna is the Place You Go When You Want to Be Left Alone. Vanessa Keitel almost shocks, certainly repels, in her recounted tale of public humiliation, Spitting Distance; her tone of injured rationalism at being spat on is almost poignant, certainly disturbing.

The team from Labyrinth, Vienna’s English-language poets, reflects the sheer multiplicity of the great metropolis in their montage of impressions, It Must Be Somewhere, a wry and vivid splash of descriptions, often wilfully contradictory, that was devised communally in a Viennese wine-tavern, and has that infectious sense of fun about it. Zum wohl, meine Damen und Herren!

And Shahid Hasan, Indian by birth and so spiritually aware of rivers, rightly puts the Danube back to where it once was, at the centre of the city’s geography and focus; this is a thoughtful piece that deserves to be expanded, for, as Hasan intuited from the start, the Danube is so much more than a grey-brownish trail of water glimpsed from the city’s bridges…

The more one piece contradicted the next, the more it responded to the reality of the city, and the more I liked the book overall. Even the prejudice needs to be in there, the splinter of ice-cold nastiness that we all have, as does Vienna.

Vienna Views was conceived by the ViennaLit festival impresario Julia Novak, and so as the shaker and mover behind this intriguing collection of pieces, surely it is she who must receive the final word of praise.

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