How Do You Get to Austria from Here?

How a dissertation topic changed a life, or, how Musil turned a young man from Ohio into an Austrianist

You never know what one decision might bring. As I write this, I’m in Vienna, Austria, thinking about how I’ve been coming to this city and this country for thirty-six years. Yet I never meant to make Austria the second centre of my life, beside my home in Ohio, where I never thought I’d end up either.

Around 1980, I was in graduate school for German literature at the University of Michigan, casting around for a dissertation topic. My friend Rob Bloomer, a student in Germanic linguistics, called me to say his literature class was reading Robert Musil’s story ‘Grigia’. Could I help him understand it? I had read it as an undergraduate. I read it again.

‘Aha’! I thought. I could live with Musil. His dispassionate poetic language, his wit, his aesthetic approach to human problems that are also philosophical problems – all this gripped me. Musil it would be.

I hadn’t yet read Musil’s magnum opus, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften(The Man without Qualities). And so, from the musty air of the graduate library, I borrowed the first volume, with its flexible light-grey cloth binding and biblical onionskin paper. In the reading room of the Rackham School of Graduate Studies, I sat down at a massive wooden table under a high ceiling, ceremoniously laid the book on the table and, in the light sifting through the tall windows, started reading.

By the end of the first page, I was laughing. Musil is intimidating, with his big fat novel and big fat philosophical interests, but he’s witty too. The first paragraph gives a pseudo-meteorological description of the weather over Europe – ‘the isotherms and isotheres were doing their duty’ – then sums it up: ‘In a phrase that describes the facts quite well, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine August day in the year 1913’.

Later, perusing the index of the old edition (yellow cloth binding) of essays, letters and diaries, I found the name Ralph Waldo Emerson cited at least twenty times. What did Musil have to do with that Grand Old Man of American letters, whom my mother liked to quote (‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’.)? A lot, it turns out. Around his hundredth birthday, in 1903, there was general interest in Emerson in the German-speaking world, and before that, too – Nietzsche was an Emerson fan. Musil was intrigued by the form and idea of Emerson’s essays, and that’s what I wrote my dissertation about.

To do so, I had to study Musil’s unpublished papers. I applied for a Fulbright to Austria, with Vienna as my first choice (originals in the National Library), and Klagenfurt as my second (Musil Archive in his birth house). Of course, I didn’t get my first choice, so my wife, Christen, and I were off to Klagenfurt.

Later, at our farewell party in the Vienna Woods, Anton Porhansl, the Austrian Fulbright director, told me how I ended up in that provincial capital: Someone finally had a reason to go to there! The university was new, and they wanted to send an international researcher its way.

I’d never given much thought to Austria. I’d read some of the Austrian greats: Musil, Schnitzler, Grillparzer, Stifter, Rilke, Hofmannsthal, Bachmann, Bernhard. But I hadn’t read them asAustrian writers. They were part of that great abstract body, German Literature, which claimed them in spite of, not because of, their Austrian origins.

That year, I caught up on Austrian authors, especially the post-war poet and novelist Ingeborg Bachmann and Joseph Roth, the master stylist and eulogist of old Austria. One night I stayed up late to nurse Roth’s great novel, Radetzkymarsch,and finish a bottle of slivovitz. (This might have been a form of method reading – a lot of liquor gets put away in that story.) I finished the book (before the bottle) around 3 AM and went to bed in boozy tears.

A year after my PhD, I got hired by Bowling Green State University. BGSU has a study-abroad program at the University of Salzburg, and my Austrian connections probably helped. This job allowed and required me to live in Salzburg, four times for a year each, and once for six months.

I became an Austrianist. I wrote papers and articles on Austrian topics. I joined the editorial staff of Modern Austrian Literature. In 1999, its long-time editor, Donald Daviau, asked me to take over for him. I invited my fellow Fulbrighter, Jacqueline Vansant, to be my co-editor. We oversaw MALfor six years.

At BGSU I also had the chance to get to know Austrian literature up close and personal. In 1986, my colleague Klaus Schmidt started a writer-in-residence program sponsored by the Max Kade Foundation. Most of our yearly guests have come from Austria. In 1997, I translated texts for our authors’ bilingual readings, thus starting my career as a literary translator. When I visit Vienna these days, I move from café to wine tavern to Beisl, meeting with the authors I’ve befriended, and talking about translation projects. I’m often asked if I’m traveling to Austria professionally or personally. I say: Yes.

There’s something about the Austrian character – which Musil assures us is not a character, but an empty space left between the country’s contingent qualities – that spoke to me, a shy and depressive young man. With age, I’d learned to abandon myself to my fear of others and let it energise me. This has allowed me to make a living by speaking in front of groups, pretending so hard to be self-assured that I might as well be self-assured. But there was always the chance I’d fall apart and reveal the absurd little empty space between my qualities. We live between the setup and the punch line.

Like me, Austria is serious about not taking itself too seriously. While modern Germany arose by unifying, modern Austria came into existence through disintegration. When you go within months, as Austria did a hundred years ago, from a venerable world power to a state smaller than Ohio, and when your main identity is being German but not German (First Republic), and then Western but neutral (Second Republic), you live like a double exposure (remember double exposures?), where it’s unclear which image is real, the seemingly solid one, or the blurry ghost.

One of our guest writers, Michael Scharang, told me he likes to travel, because then there’s a reason he doesn’t feel at home. In Austria, I know why I don’t feel at home. It makes my double exposure obvious. What at home is existential background radiation becomes theproblem. But it can’t be solved, only lived with.

So, the decision to dissertate on Musil made it possible to get to know the country where, as Musil wrote, ‘the aversion to one’s fellow citizens was heightened into a sense of community’, and where ‘distrust of one’s own person and its fate’ assumed ‘the character of profound self-assurance’. Austria, where I’m always arriving but never getting there. Where I know I’m home as soon as I don’t feel at home.