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Posts Tagged ‘H. L. Mencken’

This post continues a series of  personal reflections on Vienna, a city that is my very own Scene of the Crime–setting for my Viennese Mystery series and for much of my other published work.  That this article appears on Mothers Day is purely fortuitous and more than somewhat ironic. Read on to discover why.

For those of you who love to play butterflies or six degrees of separation, the world of Vienna 1900 is no stranger. Going forward or backward in time, you’re pretty likely to hit on a link in fin de siècle Vienna if you’re dealing with someone in the arts, literature, science, or world affairs. From Freud to Mahler, Klimt, and Hitler, the city was an amazing cauldron of cultural innovation (and, yes, in Hitler’s case, destruction) around the turn of the previous century.

At the epicenter of all was the young polymath, Karl Kraus, cultural critic, grammar policeman, and word maven of Vienna 1900. Kraus, a frail-looking man, beavered away for over three decades, single-handedly publishing his magazine, Die Fackel (The Torch). In this journal he took on the hypocrisies of the day, stood up to the rich and the powerful when need be, fought crime and societal stupidity, and generally pissed off everybody. The ultimate aphorist, Kraus termed Vienna 1900 a “laboratory for world destruction.”

In my novel, Requiem in Vienna, I describe Kraus thusly:

“A slight man with a curly head of hair and tiny oval wire-rim glasses that reflected the overhead lights, Kraus dressed like a banker. One of nine children of a Bohemian Jew who had made his money in paper bags, Kraus lived on a family allowance that allowed him to poke fun at everyone in the pages of his journal.”

Kraus frankly did not care who he angered. And sometimes he paid the price for his outspoken views. Once part of the Jung Wien group of writers, including, among others, Arthur Schnitzler–whom Freud termed his double–and the young Felix Salten–later author of Bambi– Kraus soon turned against them. In a famous article, he ridiculed the group’s coffee-house culture and earned a bitch slap from Salten at the Café Central for his words. On another occasion, he took a punch on the nose from an irate cabaret performer who did not care for Kraus’s reviews.

Kraus was most definitely a man of contradictions. On the one hand, he could defend the right of prostitutes to carry on their trade unmolested by the authorities:

“Corruption is worse than prostitution. The latter might endanger the morals of an individual, the former invariably endangers the morals of the entire country.”

At the same time, however, he could write this about women in general:

“Intercourse with a woman is sometimes a satisfactory substitute for masturbation. But it takes a lot of imagination to make it work.”

No one ever said Kraus was likable.

Something of the H.L. Mencken of Vienna, Kraus enjoyed a turn of phrase, enjoyed shocking people. But most of all he enjoyed being at the center of the rippling pool of Vienna 1900’s artists and intellectuals. He was the ultimate filter of gossip in fin-de-siècle Vienna; he knew where all the bodies were buried.

Kraus was also a major celebrity in his day. “I am already so popular that anyone who vilifies me becomes more popular than I am,” he liked to say. Besides the regular publication of his journal, Kraus was also a performer. Again from Requiem in Vienna:

“Despite his slightness of bearing, Kraus had a fine speaking voice. He had tried for a career as an actor as a younger man, but stage fright had intervened. He was said to be experimenting with a new form of entertainment, however, much like the American, Mark Twain and his famous one-person shows. At fashionable salons, Kraus was already entertaining the cognoscenti with his interpretations of Shakespeare and with readings from his own writings. Another of his aphorisms Werthen [my investigator protagonist] had heard: ‘When I read, it is not acted literature; but what I write is written acting.’”

And oh my but he makes one hell of a fictional character. So acerbic, so full of self-contradictions, so full of himself. I am not sure I would have liked to sit down over a cup of coffee or glass of wine with the man–nor he with me, I am sure–but anybody who could quip that “psychoanalysis is that disease of which it purports to be the cure” would have been worth knowing.

(For those who read German, the entire edition of Kraus’s Die Fackel is available free online)

(This post originally appeared on the blog, Murder Is Everywhere.)

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