Friends have called me a café ratón, literally a café mouse, a person who spends, according to some, too much time chatting and sipping coffee (tea, in my case, and writing), when they should be gainfully employed somewhere else. Why do I mention this? I will tell you in a moment. A couple of weeks ago, we arrived at the outskirts of Vienna on bicycles, after riding down the Danube Bike Path from Passau, Germany, and rode right into the Old Center—the home, it turns out, of many of the writers who seemed most important to me when I was learning what writing and storytelling was. And where did they hang out, these writers? Why, in the Viennese coffee house like the Hawelka Café. And what was that venerable establishment like? I thank Tereza Ištvánkova and her very good Czech B.A. thesis “Wiener Kaffeehausliteratur in Beispielen,” “Viennese Coffee House Literature through Examples,” for the following description by the Viennese poet Hans Carl Artmann, born in 1921).
The translation is mine: “Here in the Hawelka, headwaiter Herr Fritz, greets his customers with a handshake, ruling over his sector like a British colonel. Water glasses on nicked trays clink on their way through the gray-blue cigarette smoke, held aloft like crystalline birds. Chess opponents pursue their life or death games in silence. On scraps of paper, the artist Kurt Moldovan jots and sketches of Mexico on letter paper, if that is what is what is available, and, elegant as always, greets with equal kindness the pretty and not so pretty girls who enter. Ernst Fuchs, the modern Dürer, orders through his prophet’s beard his one-egg-in-a-glass and lays down his gold-leaf words so that they shimmer lightly as if through a covering varnish. Young actors and actresses play Canasta—because they have no Tarot cards—until the two o’clock closing hour. Poets, painters, sculptors and musicians swarm like bees around the same table. Frantic waiters struggle to get through the forest of chairs. The air is filled with the jubilant war cries of philosophers, as well as with the aroma of Austria 3 which rises in countless smoke rings toward the molded ceiling.”
You can read the original German at the end of this posting.
We had been in Vienna for several days, and I felt paralyzed by its historical dimensions. There was just too much of it. Still, I began listing all the voices and images that had formed me: Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach’s “Die Judenbuche,” an early murder mystery; Franz Grillparzer’s Der Arme Spielmann,” about a man who is a terrible musician but has a noble heart and great courage, none of which win him his love, who instead marries the butcher; Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “Brief,” a letter that Lord Chandos writes Francis Bacon on the impossibility of language to mean anything after WWI, and “Der Schwierige,” a play about an aristocrat who has returned from the Great War and finds almost all words suspect, clichéd and meaningless. Then there is Rainer Maria Rilke and his poem “Der Panther:” Der Panther Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris 1902:
Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden,dass er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.
Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.
Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf -. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille –
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.
My translation: His glance has grown tired from passing back and forth
before the bars, so tired that it no longer sees,
as if there were a thousand bars and behind those no world at all.
The soft gait, the supple strong steps, which turn
in ever-smaller circles, are like a dance
around a center in which stands
a great numbed will.
Only once in a while, the membrane over the pupil rises silently,
then an image enters,
goes through the coiled stillness of his limbs,
and ceases it existence in the animal’s heart.
If Rilke thinks this is what has happened to the panther in a modern city, what does he think has happened to us?
Then there Adalbert Stifter and his “Bergkristal,” a short story about two children who take the wrong path on a mountain path, are trapped by a snowstorm and spend the night in the protection of a glacial cave. The boy’s trusting younger sister Sanna agrees with all his reassurances and says, “Ja, Konrad” something like twenty times (in my memory, more). The two feuding villages on either side of the pass come searching for them in the morning and are reconciled by the miracle of their survival. Sanna says Jesus appeared to them during the night. Peter Altenberg held forth at the Central Café and even had his mail delivered there; Karl Kraus’s satirized those who love The Great War, profited from it and invoke the patria as mother, father and homeland; Stephan Zweig is currently remembered through the movie “The Budapest Hotel;” and Arthur Schnitzler dramatized what Freud was formulating in theory. We ate and wrote in the Freud Café. We saw paintings by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. We went to the Musikverein one night and heard Mozart played by musicians in white wigs. This was the city of Arnold Schoenberg and Schubert, also of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Buber, who warned us to see the Other as You and not It. Last of all: Lotte Lenya who collaborated with Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht (“Mack the Knife”).
I am sure I am leaving many out.
And finally, my favorite saying that supposedly distinguishes Austrians from Prussians (Germans). In WWI: a Prussian officer sends a dispatch with the message, “Die Lage ist ernst, aber nicht hoffnungslos.” The situation is serious but not hopeless. Fighting on the same side and in the same battle, the Austrian commander sends back the message, “Die Lage ist hoffnungslos, aber nicht Ernst.” The situation is hopeless, but not serious. The quote, perhaps apocryphal, I have always thought was gently complimentary of the Austrian character.
*This is the original quote describing the Hawelka Café in German: “Hier im Hawelka begrüßt der Chef des Hauses seine Stammkunden noch mit Handschlag, herrscht der Ober, Herr Fritz, souverän wie ein britischer Oberst, über sein Revier, schwirren auf vernickelten Tabletts die Wassergläser wie kristallene Vögel durch den bleiblauen Zigarettenrauch, werden lautlos erbitterte Schachpartien ausgefochten, Kritiken, wenn nicht anders, so auf Briefpapier verfaßt, der Graphiker Moldovan, elegant wie immer, begrüßt mit der gleichen Liebenswürdigkeit hübsche und weniger hübsche Mädchen, Ernst Fuchs, der Dürer der modernen Malerei, bestellt prophetenbärtig sein „Ei im Glas“ und spricht wohlgesetzte Worte aus Goldplättchen und schimmerndem Firnis, junge Schauspieler und – rinnen spielen bis zur Zweiuhrsperre Canasta, weil sie kein Tarock beherrschen, Dichter, Maler, Bildhauer und Musiker bilden manchmal wahre Bienenschwärme um einen einzigen Tisch, der geplagte Ober kann kaum durch den Sesselwald, und die Luft ist erfüllt von den Wohllauten philosophischer Kampfrufe, wie vom Duft der Austria 3, der in zahllosen Rauchringen nach dem Struckhimmel entschwebt.”