edge of irony

Started reading Marjorie Perloff’s Edge of Irony (Modernism in the shadow of the Habsburg Empire). Very eye-opening. She herself grew up as a Jewish child in Interwar Vienna, in what were the ashes of the former empire, and then emigrated with her family; they found refuge in the United States. Writing recently on the city that finally regained its former splendor, she stresses in Viennese literary modernism the crucial role of being on the edge: although German was the language in which people as varied as Musil (born in Brno), Canetti (born in Bulgaria, but really formed in Vienna), Celan (born in Bukovina), Kraus, etc. wrote, they all were immersed in many languages, in the peculiarity of being Jewish in a cosmopolitan city at a time where anti-Semitism was growing.

In the Introduction, amid many names one would expect (Wittgenstein, Musil, Canetti, etc.), Perloff includes as an interesting case of study the truly painful to read Gregor von Rezzori who wrote his Memoirs of an Anti-Semite in 1979. The directness of his account of anti-Semitism in Vienna between the wars is both horrific and eye-opening. There seems to be a short story of “himself when young” living with his very anti-Semite grandmother in Vienna as a student, and falling in love with Minka, the Jewish young women in the apartment upstairs. What is scary is the description of the mind of a young anti-Semite with a Jewish girlfriend, and the juxtaposition of (on one hand) thinking “if… the Germans want to conquer Austria, so much the better. The German-speaking peoples would be united again, as they had been in the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne”… but at some point he goes with Minka to a beer cellar and “a huge, rather shabby-looking young man roared in our faces, ‘Juden Raus!’ … I felt frightfully sorry for Minka and all our friends, but it was not my fault that they happened to be Jews, and in the event that they got into serious trouble I could use my connections with the SS to help them out again”, so the narrator continues.

What is most chilling in the passage above is the kind of “normalization” of anti-Semitism, of fascism, and to realize it happens daily in the 21st century. Of course, against the backdrop of what we know happened later, the last sentence is brutal.

I saw Perloff’s book first in the bookstore at the Freud Museum in Vienna. It seemed like a perfect gift for my father, except he wasn’t reading by then. I kept the name and decided finally to order it a few weeks ago, to continue the sort of dialogue he was so fond of, the sort of dialogue he started years ago when I was still living at the home of my parents.

the back yard of Freud’s apartment, summer of 2018 (photo: avn)
summer of 1979, in Schönbrunn, Vienna (photo: jlv)

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