Poet with a Flash of Genius and Correspondence Artist

Der Standard (9/16/2008)

Poet with a Flash of Genius and Correspondence Artist
Daniela Strigl

The title of the exhibition is “The Dangers of Versatility,” which Vienna’s Jewish Museum has chosen to honor Friedrich Torberg. One hundred years ago today the author, feature writer and critic was born in Vienna.

Vienna – The matinee performance in the Theater in der Josefstadt was sold out. Its organizer, Miguel Herz-Kestranek, would give a dacapo – let him. It wasn’t the theater which organized the reading; the actor had to lease the theater. There is apparently a discrepancy between Friedrich Torberg’s degree of popularity with the public and his official reputation. The Burgtheater has forgotten the former national prize winner; the Jewish Museum is doing an exhibition, naming it, however, somewhat disrespectively “The Dangers of Versatility,” because Torberg was critical enough to attest to the same things about himself.

Native-born, passionate Viennese, who caused a fury in 1930 with the grandiose debut of his novel, “Der Schüler Gerber hat absolviert”, was also a lyricist, feature writer, sports commentator, writer of cabaret, translator, critic, impersonator and theater critic with an unrivaled flash of genius. Like he said, because he “never failed to be convincing,” he kept juggling his many talents until the end of his life in 1979. Moreover, Torberg wrote some 50,000 letters – “organically untreatable short letters” – which is proof of a rare art of correspondence. The highly amusing exchange of letters with Marlene Dietrich (the two had a close, fond, but platonic friendship) and with Ephraim Kishon have just now appeared on the market, making Torberg popular as translator in German-speaking countries.

In the eyes of younger readers, however, this all fades - even the flourishing figure of “Tante Jolesch” (1975) fades before the “Brecht Boycott.” From 1953 to 1958, none of Bertold Brecht’s pieces were played in Austria because Friedrich Torberg and Hans Weigel wanted it so. The Social Democrat Torberg meant this to be an expression of his commitment to speaking out against totalitarianism, in which Austria during the coldest period of the Cold War was dangerously near during Soviet occupation: “I am not against Brecht. I am against Brechtococcus.”

Wit and Water Polo

As publisher of the excellent monthly mazagine, “FORVM,” indirectly financed by the CIA, he confessed to the cultural war directed against genuine and imaginable Communists, (Thomas Mann, Hilde Spiel), criticized and set about scheming out of personal conviction. As an informer, he certainly didn’t allow himself to be villainized with impunity.

Marcel Atze and Marcus G. Patka, neither in their exhibition nor in their comprehensive catalogue, devalued the many good sides of Friedrich Torberg. Thus, the “last German-Jewish writer” lets himself be newly discovered according to one’s own view, whether as a language virtuoso with sharp wit or as successful water polo player, who was the checoslovakian champion in 1928 with Hagibor-Prag.

In 1921 the son of the businessman Alfred Kantor moved to Prague, where he failed his high school studies. With help of Kafka’s friend, Max Brod, he began his literary career under the pen name Torberg. He was accepted in Vienna in Karl Kraus’ illustrious circle. His emigration took him to Hollywood and New York. With his return to Austria in 1951, he wrote to the all-too-conciliatory Hans Weigel that he was prepared “to look upon the balance sheet as zero,” provided he is welcome to those who stayed behind as an Austrian and a Jew

Torberg had no illusions about anti-Semitism, one of the “integral characteristics of the Austrian nature” and is still the example of an all-round successful remigration. He severely criticized the mildness of which Justice meted out punishment of NS criminals, at the same delved again into the world of the k.u.k Monarchy, whereby he allowed for the staging of the “Decline of the West in Anecdotes” with striking reminiscence and perfect punch lines.

Biographer David Axmann writes that as a true giant of literature, the confessed conservative doesn’t belong “in second class, but sits certainly way up front.” His books written in exile, Hier bin ich, mein Vater and Mein ist die Rache deal stirringly with the problem of individual morals during the time of NS dictatorship.

The novel, Die Mannschaft, and the short novel, Der letzte Ritt des Jockeys Matteo, the highpoint of Herz-Kestranek’s brilliant reading, are model examples of sportsman’s literature. They are all worth reading.