This post is dedicated to the memory of Elizabeth Oscanyan, affectionately known as Mama Beth, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer who post-processed, among many other projects, Peter Altenberg’s Neues Altes and „Semmering 1912“. The latter was her last project before she passed away last month.
Though she was not a native German speaker, in the true spirit of DP teamwork she worked with a German-speaking post-processing partner, woldemar, in order to make the project the best it could be. Another German-speaking DP volunteer, salmonofdoubt, was the post-processing verifier for the Altenberg projects and completed „Semmering 1912“ after Mama Beth died.
Mama Beth never shrank from a challenge, and the Altenberg books posed for her not only a language challenge but also a formatting challenge, due to Altenberg’s unique style, which often made it difficult to tell what was prose and what was poetry. Many thanks to woldemar and salmonofdoubt for helping her to make these projects as great as they are. Special thanks to salmonofdoubt for his kind assistance with the translations in this post.
Mama Beth was much loved by her many DP friends for her warmth and generosity. She will be much missed. Auf wiedersehen, Mama Beth.
Bohemians — not the Czechs, but rather those unorthodox artistes who came into full flower in 19th-Century Europe — will forever be associated with coffeehouses. And it was in the Belle Époque Viennese coffeehouse culture that the Austrian writer Peter Altenberg (1859-1919) gave birth to his eccentric, modernist work.
Born Richard Engländer into a middle-class Jewish family, Altenberg struggled against his parents’ bourgeois expectations, dropping out of both law and medical school. In his 30s, he plunged into the “Jung-Wien” (Young Vienna) artistic movement, even though he was older than most of its proponents, adopted oddball modes of dress — baggy clothes and broad-brimmed hats and sandals — and wrote the short poems and sketches that are the hallmark of his art.
Altenberg spent the vast majority of his time in Viennese cafés, especially the famous Café Central, where he even received his mail. There he hobnobbed with the likes of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Adolf Loos, Gustav Klimt, and other fellow iconoclasts who led the modernist movement in fin-de-siècle Vienna. They admired him; he admired them, drank with them, borrowed money from them. And he wrote — often for them — numerous snippets of prose and poetry that demonstrated his wit, his poetic sensibility, and his zest for humanity and nature.
Altenberg liked to scribble his striking pieces on the backs of picture-postcards and mail them to his friends. One such friend was the composer Alban Berg, who wrote Fünf Orchesterlieder nach Ansichtskarten-Texten von Peter Altenberg (Five Orchestral Songs on Picture-Postcard Texts of Peter Altenberg), more conveniently known as the Altenberg Lieder. Its 1913 premiere in Vienna literally caused a riot in the middle of the piece, with the audience calling for both Berg and Altenberg to be committed. Too late — Altenberg had already checked himself into a private asylum a few months before the concert.
Some of Altenberg’s Ansichtskarten-Texten — including the texts of all five Altenberg Lieder — can be found at Project Gutenberg in the collection Neues Altes (New Old), published in 1911. Here is a blank-verse ode to the Soul:
Seele, wie bist du schöner, tiefer, nach Schneestürmen — — —.
Auch du hast sie, gleich der Natur — — —.
Und über beiden liegt noch ein trüber Hauch, wenn das Gewölk sich schon verzog!
Soul, how much lovelier you are, deeper, after snowstorms — — —.
You have them, too, like Nature — — —.
And over both still lies an overcast tinge, though the clouds already dispersed.
And here, a prose poem that is a poet’s heart-cry:
Hier ist Friede — — —. Hier weine ich mich aus über alles. Hier löst sich mein unermeßliches unfaßbares Leid, das meine Seele verbrennt. Siehe, hier sind keine Menschen, keine Ansiedlungen. Hier tropft Schnee leise in Wasserlachen — — —.
Here is peace — — —. Here I weep my heart out over everything. Here is released my immense, unfathomable pain, which burns my soul. See, here are no people, no settlements. Here snow trickles gently into puddles — — —.
The asylum Altenberg had entered in late 1912 was where he completed another collection of short works, „Semmering 1912“, first published in 1913 and reissued in 1919, the year he died. Before committing himself, he had been staying at Semmering, an Austrian mountain resort. In “Winter auf dem Semmering” (“Winter on the Semmering”) he writes of his uneasy love affair with snow:
Ich habe zu meinen zahlreichen unglücklichen Lieben noch eine neue hinzubekommen — — — den Schnee! Er erfüllt mich mit Enthusiasmus, mit Melancholie.
I have added to my numerous unhappy loves yet a new one — — — snow! It fills me with enthusiasm, with melancholy.
In spite of his bouts with mental illness, Altenberg lived his unconventional life with gusto, and his vital spirit is fully reflected in his work. His many friends never stopped supporting him, even when he irritated them, and he was even nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1914 (but no prize was given that year, due to the outbreak of World War I). It is unfortunate that few of his works have been translated into English, but it is fortunate to have at least these German editions freely available to all on Project Gutenberg, thanks to the dedicated volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders.