The 1920s in Vienna was a time of despair and confusion in a world of lost empire, political upheaval and the trauma of war.

Despite the progressive politics for the working class, cultural critic Marjorie Perloff reads the era as a time of crisis, of a disoriented national identity and a foreshadowing of the war to come. Faced with an unstable present and an uncertain future, Austrian writers reacted with skepticism, in a unique voice of individualistic modernism that looked back to the past.

Frustrated that the leading literary figures of the “post-Empire Austrian world” – Karl Kraus or Joseph Roth – are “virtually unknown” in America, Perloff told the audience at a recent book launch in Vienna, she set out to put “Austro-Modernism” on the map. In Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire, she explores the Austrian literature that emerged from this era, a literature fraught with irony and ambiguity that looks back at a world on the edge of war.

Born Gabriele Mintz in Vienna in 1931, Perloff immigrated to America in 1938. Her memoir, The Vienna Paradox (2004), offers an insight into her life as an émigré, an inquiry into the mix of identity and alienation that defines her relationship with the city, and that she eventually resolved through literature. In Edge of Irony, Perloff returns to the country of her birth in her role as academic, interspersing her readings with occasional glimpses of personal experience. Perloff ’s agility across languages is palpable on every page and makes a delightful read. Indeed, multilingualism emerges as a central aspect that shaped “the deeply ironic literature of the defunct, multicultural, and polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire.”

Irony Perloff
Marjorie Perloff
EdgeofIrony:Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire University of Chicago Press hardcover May 2016 pp 224 €22.99
© Cover Courtesy of the Publisher

Moving Forward, Looking Back

Perloff shows how the sense of uncertainty and instability pervading the interwar years spills over into Austrian literature of the 1920s. These texts are fragmented, fractured and often incomplete, remaining “wide open to interpretation” and, in the case of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, literally unfinished. “Austro- Modernism” is only tangentially related to experimental bravado à la James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, or the Italian Futurists, she tells us. Rather than following the Modernist imperative to “make it new,” famously proclaimed by Ezra Pound, Austrian authors “looked back with a measure of nostalgia on the Austro-Hungarian Empire.”

In Perloff’s readings, Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March plays a leading role. She details how its protagonists long for the order and rigid rituals exhibited in the Dual Monarchy – mercilessly parodied by Musil – as a form of reassurance against the feeling of insecurity in the highly volatile peacetime years that followed. “The order they cling to,” she argues, can be seen as “a microcosm of the order of the empire itself, with its endless rules and regulations, its provisions and permissions, its pomp and circumstance.”

The novels discussed by Perloff do not offer reassurance or resolution to the reader either, “there being no closure possible in this world of failed potentialities.” They remain deeply skeptical about the future and ambivalently nostalgic about the past. The dominant mode of Austro-Modernist writing, Perloff concludes, is irony – “an irony less linked to satire (which posits the possibility for reform) than to a sense of the absurd.”

Perloff’s close readings are meticulous and well-informed, providing new perspectives on influential figures of post-World War I Austria, on Karl Kraus, Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Elias Canetti, Paul Celan and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Despite this expansive list, there are some noteworthy absences, particularly the well-known movements of fin de siècle Vienna, such as Jung Wien (Young Vienna) or Wiener Moderne, that are usually considered in connection with wider discussions of Modernism.

Similarly, leading figures like Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Arthur Schnitzler are mentioned only in passing. Schnitzler’s case is particularly surprising given that his novella Lieutenant Gustl was a pioneer of the stream of consciousness technique (think Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway) that became the hallmark of high Modernism.

Despite these omissions, Edge of Irony, like all of Perloff’s works, is a pleasurable and informative read that gives fascinating insights into the cultural history of Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a catalyst for some of the best literature to come out of post-1918 Austria. Perloff’s portrayal of a nostalgia for peaceful coexistence in a multicultural state is all too topical today in light of “the darkness and cynicism of our own disillusioned 21st century culture.”