by Sonat Birnecker Hart
From the turn of the century until 1938, the Viennese literary coffeehouse was known to foster a liberal, intellectual, and creative environment; a kind of “ersatz-home” for members of society seeking refuge from the establishment and its parochial mores. Most of all, it owed its renown to its Jewish literary denizens, who not only wrote and conducted affairs in the coffeehouse but also celebrated its unique atmosphere in their literature. Among these writers, including Peter Altenberg and Joseph Roth, it is Friedrich Torberg who stands out for having created the most thorough tribute to the coffeehouse world in his Tante Jolesch or the Decline of the West in Anecdotes, published for the first time in English this year (Ariadne Press, ISBN: 9781572411499). In Austria, Tante Jolesch has already become a classic, beloved for its descriptions of a world with a slower pace than our own, one imbued with the cultural vestiges of the Habsburg Empire and its vibrant Jewish cultural elite.
Although Tante Jolesch, in the words of Torberg, is a “book about the coffeehouse,” it takes its readers far beyond the marble tables of Café Herrenhof or Café Central, describing “summering” in Bad Ischl, expounding on conversations overheard along the Corso in Prague or Graben in Vienna, relating the antics and personalities associated with the famous Prager Tagblatt and reviving the excitement of soccer games and water polo matches. Yet most of all, Tante Jolesch evokes the lives of many known and unknown “eccentrics and originals” in some way linked to the coffeehouse and its largely Jewish cultural milieu, such as Ernst Deutsch and Sigmund Freud.
Interestingly, given the importance of the coffeehouse, Tante Jolesch, the namesake of the book, has little to do with the coffeehouse herself. Instead she is symbolic of the heritage of many of the characters described, representative of a generation of Jews who valued wit and storytelling but had yet to exchange their homes for the coffeehouse and a Jewish colored German argot for the elegant High German prose of later generations. Nevertheless, Tante Jolesch’s bon mots and the anecdotes told about her, which Torberg learned from her nephew, set the stage for the more in-depth look at the assimilated community featured. Beginning in the comfortable familial surroundings of Tante Jolesch’s living room, moving to the literary circles of the coffeehouses and ending in American exile, Torberg is able to elucidate the various stages of assimilated Viennese Jewry from the turn of the century to the aftermath of the Shoah, when much of the culture described was either lost or transplanted to new shores. By celebrating the humor, wit, and multi-faceted nature of this community through these turbulent times, Torberg is able to provide a literary monument to a culture to which he himself was a part. Indeed, Tante Jolesch is a culmination of the anecdotes he told his entire life about his friends and acquaintances and was encouraged to write down for fear that they would otherwise be lost forever.
While Tante Jolesch is Torberg’s most successful work, it represents the crown of a long and successful literary career. Torberg was born on September 16, 1908 into a middle-class Jewish family, spending much of his youth in both Vienna and Prague. Torberg’s writing was, from the beginning, born out of a desire to reflect on what was going on around him. In fact, his first literary success, Der Schüler Gerber, was inspired by his own problems with the oppressive and at times abusive Austrian educational system. Published in 1930, when Torberg was only 22, this novel earned him the respect of literary luminaries including Thomas Mann and Karl Kraus, credentials assuring his entrée into Vienna’s elite literary circles, all rife with the kind of anecdotes and wit he would later preserve in Tante Jolesch. Torberg also used his experiences as a champion water polo player as the basis for his sports novel, Die Mannschaft (1935). Yet like many Jewish writers in the 1930s, Torberg’s career was cut short as his books were burned and he was forced to flee from the Nazis.
Torberg began his exile in Prague, where he spent a year in the Czech exile army, after which he fled to France, Portugal, and the United States, where the American P.E.N.-Club welcomed him as one of “Ten outstanding German Anti-Nazi Writers.” Like many of his friends, he began his American exile in LA, where he hoped to write for the blossoming film industry. Although he managed to write the film script, ‘Voice in the Wind’ (1944), he soon left LA for New York in hopes of finding a more European atmosphere and better job prospects. In addition to publishing three novels, concerning the psychological impact of the war and its atrocities, Hier bin ich, mein Vater (1948) Mein ist die Rache (1943) and Die zweite Begegnung (1950), Torberg also wrote for various magazines, including Aufbau and a proposed German language edition of TIME magazine that was later scrapped. The many friendships Torberg developed in exile are documented in a prolific collection of letters held by the Austrian National Library, which afford an inside look at the lives of many famous exiles, including Marlene Dietrich, Ernst Lubitsch and Erich Maria Remarque.
Although Torberg became an American citizen in exile, he chose to return to Vienna in 1951, where he became a journalist, theater critic, and founder of the pro-democratic intellectual magazine FORVM. While Torberg became known to a new generation of Austrians as a moral force, critical of communism and outspoken concerning Jewish issues, at the end of his life he once again became known for his literature. Torberg continued to write about Jewish themes, as he had done in exile, yet chose not to write about the war, turning his literary gifts toward demonstrating what he saw as the important cultural partnership that has existed between Jews and Austrians from the Middle Ages until 1938. Süßkind von Trimberg (1972) for example, chronicles the life of a medieval troubadour, the alleged first Jew who wrote in German, while Die Tante Jolesch oder Der Untergang des Abendlandes in Anekdoten (1975) [Tante Jolesch or the Decline of the West in Anecdotes (2008)] and Die Erben der Tante Jolesch (1978) attest to the cultural symbiosis that existed between Jews and non-Jews before the war. Just months before his death in 1979, Torberg was awarded the Austrian State Prize for Literature. Today his “Tante Jolesch” books continue to bring smiles to all who read them; this would please Torberg for as he writes in Tante Jolesch, “smiling is the legacy of my tribe.”