May 2009 Journal

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Grande Dame of Austrian literature’

Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 2007, 444 pp. paper; translated and with an introduction by Christine Shuttleworth

The Austrian writer Hilde Spiel became a legend in her own lifetime, dubbed the ‘Grande Dame of Austrian literature’ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung). In fact, her life was typical of the displaced intellectual of the twentieth century. Born in Vienna to well-to-do Jewish parents, she emigrated even before the Anschluss, arriving in London, together with her husband, Peter de Mendelssohn, in autumn 1936; while revisiting her native Vienna frequently in the post-war years, she returned permanently only in 1963. During some 25 years of emigration she created an impressive oeuvre, including novels such as Flute and Drums and The Fruits of Prosperity (originally written in English), a biography of Fanny von Arnstein, literary essays and critical works as well as numerous translations from English. Her memoirs were first published in German in two parts in 1989-90; her translator (her British-born and educated daughter) has combined the two volumes into one, but omitted nothing of note.

Spiel’s memoirs have a European sweep. She moves easily between English and Austro-German culture, without losing her footing in either. She is an acute observer, revealing a keen sense of place and of the time that defines it. Her evocation of the Vienna of the ‘Ständestaat’(‘time of contradictions’), her impressions of wartime London and her encounter with occupied Berlin in 1946-48 - all evoke a unique historical moment.

There are also impressions of the English literary world she aspired to join. In 1937 she joined the PEN Club – an English institution neglected by the English but highly valued by literary émigrés, to whom it offered friendship, assistance ‘and something that came close to a feeling of being at home’. PEN introduced her to Naomi Mitchison, Storm Jameson and Henrietta Leslie, who became a great friend. She also describes her contacts with other literary notables such as Cyril Connolly, V. S. Pritchett and, above all, Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, to which she became a regular contributor.

Spiel has the ability to isolate the personal moment which reveals the Zeitgeist in a way that the historian cannot. Visiting Kingsley Martin’s home in 1945, they heard on the radio that the Americans had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Realising that this meant the end of the war, Martin observed: ‘I expect you will go back to your own country now,’ voicing a general assumption, but shattering her private illusion of assimilating into the English world. However, it was as a correspondent for the New Statesman that she first returned to Vienna – and experienced the gulf between those who had emigrated and those who had not: ‘a chasm […] that would never close again.’

Spiel’s translator, her daughter Christine Shuttleworth, who is still resident in London, has served her well. While this English version is very welcome, it also prompts the question: why has it taken 20 years?
 

Richard Dove

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