Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 7. Nr. September 1999

Peter Rosei - A Case Study

Kathleen Thorpe (Johannesburg)


Peter Rosei is a highly regarded writer, but one who has yet to dominate the literary headlines within the current literary scene in Austria. Although Rosei fulfills most of the traditional requirements for canonization in literary-historical terms, for example, institutionalization, success on the literary market, translations of his works, award of prizes, recognition (although limited) by educational institutions (dissertations etc.)(1), he has yet to achieve what could be termed "popularity" by, for instance, producing an instant "bestseller" or markedly controversial work. It must be immediately remarked that the reception of Rosei's works by newspaper critics(2) tends to be either for or against. Those well-disposed toward his work are lavish in their praise and, while even his detractors usually acknowledge his skill as a writer, they generally reveal a certain irritation and helplessness as regards his themes. Although Rosei's work can be largely called "cosmopolitan", there is a not insignificant orientation toward Central and Eastern Europe. Together with this, there are other factors as well which make his work a point of convergence of specifically Austrian literary and historical influences.

In considering the case of Peter Rosei, it is helpful to make a rough grouping in his not inconsiderable oeuvre. For the purposes of this paper, I consider only the major prose works and regretfully disregard the essays, radio plays, work for the stage, and poetry.(3) The purpose of this brief overview is to highlight Rosei's main thematic and literary concerns. Commencing with Landstriche in 1972 and ending with Fliegende Pfeile(4) in 1993, three major works appear as watersheds or points of consolidation within the oeuvre as a whole. These are Die Milchstraße (1981), the 15 000 Seelen-Projekt, a triptych consisting of six works completed in 1988, and Rebus 1990).(5) I will pay most attention to Die Milchstraße, which has been rather neglected by scholars, but which stands at the very center of Rosei's literary output. Wilhelm Schwarz's book Peter Rosei. Gespräche in Kanada,(6) published in 1992, contains much useful information, but although it will save scholars many hours of poring over newspaper interviews and reviews, it does tend sometimes to reveal more of Schwarz's literary interests than about what Rosei actually writes.

Departing from the early stories, characterized by a type of dull atavism reminiscent of the earlier Thomas Bernhard, through the twin studies Entwurf für eine Welt ohne Menschen. Entwurf für eine Reise ohne Ziel. (1975), Wer war Edgar Allan? (1977), Von hier nach dort (1979) and Das schnelle Glück (1980),(7) one arrives at Die Milchstraße (1981). Rosei himself categorizes this work as a stopping off point: "Im Grunde", he remarks, "sind diese Bücher Vorstufen zur Milchstraße" (S. 65). In writing Die Milchstraße, Rosei also firmly roots his work in an urban environment, in other words, he also "writes"(8) the city. Die Milchstraße confirms Rosei's style of writing as well, with its marked tendency toward reportage, not so much in a documentary sense, but as a consequence of his stance toward reality which can be characterized as "Schauen". Rosei himself defines this as a type of

The more you look, the more you see. Da ist eigentlich alles drin. hinschauen, offen sein, nicht fertig mit der Welt. Sehen ist dann eine Art Verdichten, ein Zusammenfassen einer größeren Menge Erfahrungsmaterial, sehen im geistigen Sinne ... Neuigkeiten sind eher spärlich, das meiste ist nur Wiederholung. Das Neue liegt in der Art des Verdichtens, im Dichten. (S. 2)

Rosei remarks further on the same subject:

Psychologisch gesehen bin ich eher jemand, der die Welt beobachtet, indem er sich in der Welt umtut. Ich gehe also wie ein Detektiv, ein Naturforscher, wie ein Ethnologe herum. Beim Schauen, wie ich es verstehe, legt man ein paar Mikrophone aus und horcht. (S. 3)

In listening intently to the world about him, what does Rosei hear? Expressed in his characteristically understated and disciplined prose, with a quantifiable preference for the so-called "Nominalstil", with verbal constructions, indeed verbs at all, playing a subordinate role, Rosei registers the "lautlose Katastrophen" of everyday urban existence. As Peter Prochnik remarked in a revue of Die Milchstraße: "His prose is deceptively simple and sparse, but his uncommon imagination opens up terrifying hallucinatory inner spheres, as he explores the darker, less tangible areas of human relationships with a curious mixture of cold detachment and intense poetic sensibility".(9)In reaching Die Milchstraße, Rosei jettisoned the moralizing stance of the early stories. Rosei does not force his readers to interpret his works in a particular way, and his works are seemingly open-ended. In defense of the "Alltäglichkeit" of his themes, Rosei states: "Ich bin kein Schriftsteller einer Welt mit offenen Enden, sondern einer Welt, die in die große Verwaltung hineintreibt" (S. 82). Although one would be reluctant to label him for all time, his work is in the Realist tradition and didactic, too, in so far as he views reading as a learning process in the transformational possibilities reading facilitates, for example: "Man kann das Muster mit dem eigenen Leben vergleichen und sich sagen, so ist mein Leben, oder so ist mein Leben nicht, ich muß mein Leben ändern. Das verstehe ich unter ‘Lernen’" (S. 96). In Die Milchstraße Rosei scrupulously avoids judgmental attitudes. This allows an incomparable, subliminal quality to emerge from the carefully constructed sentences which describe the despair hovering just beneath the surface of a banal, everyday urban existence. Rosei writes travel literature(10) in the widest possible sense. His characters are "on their way" through life, led on by an illusory goal. As far as teleology is concerned, Rosei has the following to remark:

Natürlich streben wir einem imaginären Ziel zu, obwohl wir wissen, daß es das nicht gibt. Die Idee des Ziels ist wie ein Magnet. Wir stehen in seinem Bann. Die ständige Metamorphose der Welt und ihre Simultaneität lassen kein Ziel. ... Und obendrein kommt noch die Problematik der Sprache. Das Denken ist von den gängigen Bildern vorprogrammiert. Man sieht ja nicht die Phänomene selber, sondern die Bilder, die wir von ihnen im Kopf haben ... Die Uferlosigkeit des Wünschens ist die Grundlage aller Anstrengungen. (S. 11)

I quote from Die Milchstraße: "Gibt es denn Bekanntes, das einem fremd ist? ... Ja doch; es ist der gewöhnliche Fall" (M. 49). The "ordinary case", which is the material making up the stories of Die Milchstraße, is analogous to Peter Handke's "Fremder Blick" in his novel Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung,(11) thus pointing to the primacy of sight or perspective in relating to reality. The "Weltanschauung", in its most literal sense, of Rosei's characters in Die Milchstraße determines the degree of success they are permitted to achieve in coping with life. As already mentioned, not the extraordinary, but the ordinary predominates. Out of the flux of everyday situations "Characters appear, vanish and re-emerge in an ever-changing constellation of self-revelatory patterns".(12) A potentially amorphous mass of experience is contoured by certain characters, to whom prominence is given. As the critic Eric Frey also correctly observes: "Keiner ist ein Einzelfall ... So verschieden jede einzelne Episode in Handlung, Personen und Hintergrund ist, liegt dennoch allen das gleiche Muster zugrunde".(13) Lending cohesion to the whole is the central character Ellis, who is not only an "archetypal wanderer", but also a type of fixed star or orientation point for the work as a whole.

"Gemeinsamkeit" characterizes the figures populating Die Milchstraße. The seven books comprising the work describe lonely people in an urban setting, unable to achieve their goal of happiness, but nevertheless doing the best they can. To cite an example, the prostitute Thelma in the third book is really trapped in her room on the fringe of society, but she creates an illusion of freedom for herself - her room is decorated with "verschiedenfarbigen Tapeten" in which she feels herself to be a "Schmetterling" (M. 144). However, the freedom symbolized by the butterfly merely refers to a tattoo on her thigh, a memento of a journey long past. The conclusion of Die Milchstraße returns to the story of a garage attendant and his girlfriend Maria, whose "Krankheit heißt Sehnsucht" (M. 304). Whereas Ellis is able to grasp fleeting moments of happiness as an aesthetic experience that lends a temporary meaning to life, Maria cannot cope with uncertainty - "Ich möchte wissen, wozu wir da sind, das ist wohl etwas viel verlangt" - (M. 304) and commits suicide.

Rosei's city people may indeed be "Bewohner des Jammertals", but they cling tenaciously to life. With few exceptions, they survive to battle against the gravitational pull of the black hole within themselves. As Peter Prochnik confirms: "Rosei's work is undoubtably gloomy, but not unremittingly so. In a world he views as devoid of certainties and fixities, he creates in sharp detail the emotional driving forces behind human relationships. Individuals may slither through life, be deluded losers, but the urge for some kind of self-assertion is never wholly absent".(14) The final message behind Die Milchstraße, undermined somewhat by Maria's death, is carried by the survivors who seek to live, avoiding collisions with reality and the resultant "Beulen" (301) where possible. Counteracting the self-destructiveness emanating from a view of life as though staring into "ein schwarzes, unersättliches Loch" (M. 157) is the character Will's buoyant philosophy of life:

Schick ein bißchen Geld, Ellis! Tragisches liegt nicht in meinem Metier. Ich will leben. Deshalb bin ich ein wenig schäbig, kleinkariert, zu kurzatmig, um zu erschüttern. (Prächtig!) Hier wird keiner geläutert; aber man kann lernen, sich nicht ernst zu nehmen, das heißt, nicht allzusehr. Ist das nicht wichtig? (M. 303)

The 15 000 Seelen-Projekt expands on the themes of everyday life: failed relationships, unfulfilled longings. The novelty of the triptych structure or bathroom mirror successfully unites the ordered form of the "Heilsgeschichte" with the chaotic "Unheilsgeschichte" of a quotidian urban existence in a consumer society that has got completely out of hand, as the cacophanous central work 15 000 Seelen so impressively demonstrates.

Rebus moves in somewhat quieter waters and can best be characterized as a study. It is a collection of street scenes and reflections written partly in everyday Viennese dialect and with passages of delightfully self-deprecatory irony which at times also reads as a defense of the banality of many of his themes. To quote but one example from Rebus: "Ja, unser Stoff ist krud. Ordinär und absurd. Aberwitzig. Der ist ja ganz gewöhnlich! Wir entschuldigen und jetzt schon. Kitchen-sink-story! Purer Asphalt! A human-interest-feature für Bunte" (R. 218). The chapter entitled "Phalansterra", hearkens back to Fourier's utopian concept of Phanstere and is a rather tongue-in-cheek view of utopian conceptions, for example,

Was das Projekt Phalansterra bestimmt, ist eine vorbehaltlose Liebe zum Menschen und zwar, auch zu seiner Kleinheit, Vorläufigkeit, zu allem Transitorischen in seinem Wesen. Von Liebe reden alle, wenige haben sie. Man sagt: Liebe macht blind. Es wird also eine nüchterne Liebe sein (offene Augen). ... Es gibt kein Geld in Phalansterra, nur Anerkennung. (R. 267)

As regards this picture puzzle of Rebus as a whole, Rosei points out that his work is a game with the structure of the novel, a novel à rebour. He further remarks: "Im herkömmlichen Roman organisiert der Autor die Fakten so, daß eine kohärente Welt entsteht. Ich organisiere nur die Fakten, die Kohärenz muß der Leser selber herstellen. Der Leser ist der Autor bei Rebus" (S. 40). This work is essentially about city life. Rosei notes: "Ich hätte mit demselben Material ein Lehrbuch schreiben können: Zur Soziologie der modernen Großstadt" (S. 41). Although he describes the city as a labyrinth in one of the chapters in Rebus, his cities are generally well-organized. In other words, they are not so much places in which to get physically but rather spiritually lost, as this description of a modern part of Vienna in Das schnelle Glück shows: "Eine Weile spazierte ich durch das Hochhausviertel, das diesen Teil der Stadt bildet. Die Straßen sind hier nach der Art eines rechtwinkligen Rasters angelegt. Nur ausnahmsweise durchschneidet eine alte, gekrümmte Straße das regelmäßige Gitterwerk".(15)

This description of the old occasionally cutting through the new could be seen as a fitting analogy to Rosei' relationship with other authors and the Austrian tradition. It is tempting to try to read Rosei's works like a late twentieth-century consumer in the universal library or rather supermarket, and to fill one's cart with intertextual goods, without knowing if one really needs them, having been seduced into doing so by an inviting display. One can try to list Rosei's literary influences, as some critics feel obliged to do, and come up with a motley assortment of writers from Kafka to Kerouac, but these do not really offer any help as far as determining Rosei's relationship to literary tradition. There are however, two exceptions: Edgar Allan Poe and Adalbert Stifter. Poe, Rosei readily acknowledges as having influenced him in the deliberate construction of works, as exemplified in the "Kalkül".(16) The novel Wer war Edgar Allan? bears ample witness to this. It must also be borne in mind that Poe was capable of the literary hoax,(17) which Rosei's novel is, too - we are taken on a literary "trip". The relationship with Stifter is more complicated, although Rosei plays down Stifter,(18) denying that he was an important example for him. I maintain that the affinity between the two authors is not so much on a surface, but on a deeper level. The "adventures" of Rosei's characters are not on a large scale, neither were Stifter's. However, it is the subliminal quality of their writing that brings these two authors together - tragedy hovers just beneath the seemingly smooth surface.

Peter Rosei is an Austrian by birth. He lives in Vienna and is an avowed European. What is his attitude toward the so-called Austrian tradition and Austria in general? Answers to these questions are provided by Peter Rosei himself:

First: Vienna:

Eine der wenigen Tugenden der Österreicher ist es ja, daß sie keinen Nationalismus haben und keinen nationalistischen Stolz. Das gilt besonders für die Wiener.Wien war immer ein Schnittpunkt, ein internationaler Schnittpunkt von Wegen und Ideen. Man geht nach Wien, und man geht wieder fort von Wien. Zu Wien habe ich kein besonders inniges Gefühl eher schon zu unserer Kultur, zu unserer versinkenden, versunkenen Kultur. (S. 32)

Second: His general background:

Natürlich lege ich... den Maßstab des Gewohnten an, und das Gewohnte, das ist für mich vor allem Österreich, Süddeutschland, Ungarn und die angrenzenden Länder, Jugoslavien natürlich. Die angelernten Farbskalen und Geruchsskalen und Temperaturskalen wird man nicht los, an denen man mißt ja, ob man das bewußt tut oder nicht. (S. 33)

Third: The Austrian tradition:

Mit einer gewissen österreichischen Tradition bin ich sehr eng verbunden. Das ist die kritische Linie, die man ungefähr festlegen könnte mit Wittgenstein, Freud, Malinowski, Paul Feyerabend, alles Leute, die erstens einmal die Vernunft einsetzen und die zweitens wissen, daß alle Lösungen nur etwas Vorläufiges, etwas Modellartiges sind, Was man später, vom Strukturalismus her, als bric-a-brac bezeichnet hat, das haben die Österreicher schon viel früher gepflegt, das haben sie als Pfusch und Wurschtelei umschrieben, mit einem tiefen Mißtrauen gegen alle Patentlösungen. Es ist undenkbar, daß ein Österreicher die Kritik der reinen Vernunft geschrieben hätte, das würde dieser Tradition zutiefst widersprechen. Sie bewegt sich immer in Vorschlägen, diese Tradition, in Annäherungen, in Detaillösungen. Alles läuft irgendwie weiter, und zwar nicht aus Faulheit und Schlamperei - wohin es natürlich abgleiten kann, in den Fatalismus, ins Treibenlassen. Im Grunde ist das eine sehr vernünftige Tradition. Es gibt in der Welt keine zwei Dinge, die sich gleichen, und in einer halben Stunde ist alles anders als jetzt. Deshalb kann man alles nur kurzfristig regeln, und man muß immer sehr viel offen lassen, offene Enden, damit man dort weitermachen kann. (S. 67)

In conclusion, when the History of Austrian Literature is finally rewritten, Peter Rosei should not receive only honorable mention, but should be given a position some prominence as a chronicler. The themes of his work are everyday, even banal - the drifters, the unemployed, ordinary folk trying to make their way through life as best they can. The time for heroes in the traditional sense has passed. Indeed, the view may be put forward that in determining the allocation of an author to any cultural grouping, such as, for example, "Austrian Literature", citizenship or place of birth should be secondary to cultural affinity. This affinity manifests itself not only in the author's language usage but especially in the "Weltanschauung" that becomes particularly apparent in depictions of everyday life. It is here rather than in great philosophical or historical themes that the author's cultural affinity is most likely to be demonstrated.

In conclusion, Peter Rosei's works reveal a number of features that mark his work as being in an Austrian "tradition". As a chronicler of the specifically non-extraordinary he nevertheless is an author who represents a successful combination of certain Austrian traditions. For example, the line from Stifter is maintained in his ability to write subliminally and added to this is a high degree of tolerance toward the mutability of existence and thought. In addition, there is a certain degree of ease and familiarity in dealing with countries to the east of Austria. Taken together, these factors contribute to what can be termed a specifically "Austrian" approach in capturing the "Zeitgeist" of the late twentieth century.

Zur Autorin

Der hier publizierte Beitrag erschien erstmals in: Donald G. Daviau/Herbert Arlt (Hgg.): Geschichte der österreichischen Literatur. Teil II. St. Ingbert: Röhrig, 1996 (=Österreichische und internationale Literaturprozesse, Bd.3, Teil II). S. 475-482.

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(1) The most comprehensive work on Rosei to date [1996] is the volume Peter Rosei edited by Gerhard Fuchs and Günter Höfler. Graz-Wien: Literaturverlag Droschl, 1994. Dossier Band 6. hrsg. vom Franz Nabl Institut für Literaturforschung der Universität Graz. In this volume see the vita by Marianne Baltl: " ... ständig unterwegs, die Möglichkeiten auszuloten", pp. 349-359.

(2) Ibid. see Kapitel III: Kritiken. pp. 255-346.

(3) Ibid. see Bibliographie Peter Rosei. pp. 363-388.

(4) Rosei, Peter. Landstriche. Erzählungen. Salzburg: Residenz, 1972; Fliegende Pfeile. Aus den Reiseaufzeichnungen. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1993.

(5) Rosei, Peter: Die Milchstraße. Sieben Bücher. Salzburg/Wien: Residenz, 1981. Komödie. Salzburg/Wien: Residenz, 1984. Mann und Frau. Salzburg/Wien: Residenz, 1984.15000 Seelen. Salzburg/Wien: Residenz, 1985. Die Wolken. Salzburg/Wien: Residenz, 1986. Der Aufstand. Salzburg/Wien: Residenz, 1987. Unser Landschaftsbericht. Salzburg/Wien: Residenz, 1988. Rebus. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1990. Quotations from Die Milchstraße and Rebus will be acknowledged by M. and R. respectively with the page number in brackets.

(6) Schwarz, Wilhelm: Peter Rosei. Gespräche in Kanada. Frankfurt am Main. Bern. New York. Paris: Peter Lang, 1992. Quotations from this work will be acknowledged by S. and the page number in brackets.

(7) For publication details see Peter Rosei. Dossier 6, note 1. pp. 363-365.

(8) See Bartens, Daniela: "Stadt ist, wo noch keiner war. Stadt und städtische Strukturen im Werk Peter Roseis". In: Peter Rosei. Dossier 6. Ibid. pp. 91-168 for a comprehensive study on this aspect of Rosei's work.

(9) Prochnik, Peter. "Patterns in Motion". In: The Times Literary Supplement. 7.10.1983, p. 1094.

(10) See for example the essay by Peter Ensberg: "Einfach unterwegs sein". Zur Wahrnehmungsproblematik und zum Problematischen der Wahrnehmung bei Peter Rosei. In: Peter Rosei. Dossier 6. Ibid. pp. 33-63.

(11) Handke, Peter: Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung. Frankfurt am Main. Suhrkamp. 1975. "Im Sand zu seinen Füßen erblickte er drei Dinge: ein Kastanienblatt; ein Stück von einem Taschenspiegel; eine Kinderzopfspange. Sie hatten schon die ganze Zeit dagelegen, doch auf einmal rückten diese Gegenstände zusammen zu Wunderdingen."( p. 81)

(12) Prochnik. Ibid.

(13) Frey, Eric: "Schöne Schatten, triste Bilder". In: Die Wochenpresse. 9.9.1981. p. 37.

(14) Ibid.

(15) Rosei, Peter: Das schnelle Glück. Salzburg/Wien, 1980. p. 41.

(16) "Poe hat mir damals sehr viel geholfen, vor allem durch seine Poetik. Poe ist ja der schärfste Feind der Inspiration, von irgendwelchen numinosen Kräften. Er sagt, Literatur sei essentiell etwas Gemachtes". In: Peter Rosei. Gespräche in Kanada. Ibid. p.65.

(17) See Symons, Julian: The Tell-Tale Heart. The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe. London: Faber and Faber, 1978. Symons discusses the two opposing aspects of Poe as follows: "Visionary Poe was concerned with the nature of art, with man's relationship to God, with the connection between beauty and death. Logical Poe was given the task of making a living, playing jokes, evolving hoaxes, creating and solving Puzzles and cryptograms, and in the end creating the detective story". p. 207.

(18) See for example the conversation with Günter Eichberger: "Das Leben – Ein Energiefluß". In: Peter Rosei. Dossier 6. Ibid. p. 19.

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