Roman Rocek: "Die neun Leben des Alexander Lernet-Holenia: Eine Biographie"
The interest in this once neglected genius of Austrian Letters following the one-hundreth birthday events in Austria, Germany and elsewhere in 1997, supports the notion that Alexander Lernet-Holenia was not only a writer of accomplishment and breadth (novels, novellas, short stories, plays, petry, essays, reviews, scripts, biographics, and translations), but also a provocative sociopolitical critic of Austria. Although the cliché Grand Seigneur image which has in the past suffocated ciritical analysis of his work is not something that should be revisited, Rocek's biography cannot help but find that Lernet-Holenia's persona often outdoes the exxentric characterizations of his most satirical writings. He was monarchist who claimed illegitimate Habsburg birth but spent much of his later life attacking the Imperial Hous and exploring the roots of his father-of-record; an officer who adored military glamor, yet offered some of the most stridently antiwar sentiments of his times; the author of a monumental novel of Austrian resistance and of teh earliest Austrian Vergangenheitsbewältigung who had also parodied Blut und Boden so well it raised doubts as to his politics, even among critics who should know better. It is little wonder that Austria, which has itself attempted to reinvent its identify and step out of history in the Second Republic, hat little patience for his heady brew of aristocratic protest against history, social critique and Jung-Wien irony. Although his works remained more or less in print throughout the 1980s, it was translations in English, French and Italian that stimulated the new phase of interest in the author. After a century of fascism, communism and provincialism in Central Europe (Lernet-Holenia had always understood the true Austria in terms of its multicultural, Danubian, not to say Habsburgian heritage), where inklings of a reawakened Mitteleuropean cultural community have appeared, Lernet-Holenia's work seems once again valid and even provocative. The new scholarly attempts to analyze his work have already offered scholars an fresh source of contoversy and brilliance. Nevertheless, biographical endeavors have remained vague or skeletal, in part due to Lernet-Holenia's desire to cover his personal tracks, and due to the success of his blending of art and reality throughout his metatextual writings. Roman Rocek, a long-time acquaintance of the author and the editor of his Lyrische Gesamtwerk, has not shrunk from the possibilities and rewards of telling the author's considerable saga. Die neun Leben des Alexander Lernet-Holenia is his highly welcome addition to the rediscovery of this unique literary voice, which, despite a somewhat biting tone, is very readable and astonishing in its detail.
Because Lernet-Holenia's work tended toward the roman à clef, often utilizing facts from his own existence, his reflected identity vacillates between a sophisticated mystery and a well-scripted theater of the Baroque. Rocek's work stands not only as a monument to Lernet-Holenia's creative prowess, but to this biographer's tenacity and detective's acumen. Above all, Rocek succeeds in dispelling clichés and letting the record stand on the topic of Lernet-Holenia's parents and his experiences in the Third Reich. This latter subjects is the core of the book, and along with the question of Lernet-Holenia's possible descent from Archduke Karl Stephan of Austria, these two topics have been underscored by Böhlau as marketing for the biography. Lest this be considered publisher's sensationalism, one must regard the darker by-product of any mid-twentieth century German-Language author's renaissance - the question of Nazi sympathy. For once, the Austrian press has not been guilty of pulling this trump-card and have welcomed, even celebrated the belated return of Lernet-Holenia to popular discourse. Given his banned 1941 novel, Mars im Widder, with its very un-National Socialist images of a distinct aristocratic Austrian society, Polish heroism, a contrived and bloody war, and a sub-rosa group of possible resistance fighters, and the following "salon mystery" of the 1942 Beide Sizilien, an only slightly less obvious paean to the Austrian past, the author's loyalties seem very clear. There are also astonishing works that warned of Eurasian totalitarianism: Die Auferstehung des Maltravers and Ein Traum in Rot, or that later attempted examination of Nazism, Austrian guilt and the passivity of his own class, such as the novella, Der 20. Juli, the long poem, Germanien and the novels Der Graf von Saint-Germain and Der Graf Luna.
Rocek analyzes the author's often confused actions during this period as opportunism and calculation. Compared to the Austrian author Heimito von Doderer, who joined the NSDAP, and the "rehabilitated" German Gottfried Benn, Lernet-Holenia's early action in the Reich appears to vacillate between naiveté and the often clumsy, often shrewd acts of a suvivalist. As the story author of Nazi Germany's most popular entertainment film, The Zarah Leander musical, Die große Liebe, and yet one of the most famous authors of his time to be regarded as an exponent of Austrian "Inner Emiration", he holds a unique but not incomprehensible position. Rocek points out that after Lernet-Holenia's removal from his work at the Heers-Filmstelle in 1944, he escaped service on the shrinking Eastern Front through contrived illness and the help of the resistance network.
Rocek's minutiae regarding the author's postwar manipulation of his image and his continued love-hate relationship with the Habsburgs (despite his twenty-five year residence in an partment in Vienna's Hofburg Palace) is fascinating. We are made privy to his marriage with Eva Vollbach, his often rocky co-editorship with Günther Nenning of the legendary sociocultural journal Forum, and the behind-the-scenes events surrounding his elextion to the presidency of the Austrian PEN club. In the author's final years the controversies become his art as well: his self-appointed involvement in the planned return of Otto von Habsburg to Austria, the resignation from the PEN presidency in protest of Heinrich Böll's Nobel Prize (read: Bader-Meinhof connection), his friendship with Socialist Chancellor Bruno Kreisky and the author's ever increasing attacks on political leaders, aristocracy, and bureaucracy, which at the end of his life "nehmen von Fall zu Fall den Anschein von Donquichottieren an" (328).
There is much that is new and enlightening here, but despite a well-researched and eminently readable text the author seems to find it necessary to go to curious lenghts to make himself omnipotent in all things Lernet-Holenian. Rocek refers to my "unpublished manuscript", although my Lernet-Holenia study, Phantom Empires, was released in 1996 and I hae also authored several articles on the Lernet-Holenia's novels. My concepts, particularly on Mars im Widder as subversive text and on the still debated authorship of the Vitrine XIII book, are utilized by the author, but they are not referenced or credited, and Rocek does not explain what raw material he is using or how he obtained it. Similarly, Günther Berger's seminal article from 1989 which first presented biographical and bibliographical details on Lernet-Holenia and revealed the author's pseudonym, is buried in the endnotes but missing from the supposedly exhaustive bibliography. Michael Guttenbrunner, a well informed and published confidant of Lernet-Holenia, is completely ignored. Moreover, the misleading title of the book is derived from Rocek's arbitrary division of the author's life into nine chapters, and has nothing to do with what was an essentially dualist or "Janusköpfig" (364) existence of the subject. Finally, rather than follow through on the convincing examination of Lernet-Holenia's family in the early chapters, Rocek chooses to subvert his own analysis by repositing the Habsburg-parentage myth: sans any critical text, the death mask of Archduke Karl is juxtaposed with a phtograph of the aged Lernet-Holenia near the conclusion of the book.
Nevertheless, Rocek's biography of Alexander Lernet-Holenia is one obviously written with passion, critical sympathy and sesitivity for a complex artist and an oeuvre which has yet to be given the attention such lasting virtuosity demands. The benefit of heretofor unpublished letters (one hopes Rocek might soon publish these as a volume), documentation and his first-hand knowledge offers a solid basis for the exploration of this major author as man and artist, and will no doubt stimulate further biographical and critical writings. Rocek aptly concludes that the goal of Lernet-Holenia's provocations and protests, particularly after 1945, had been "die Gesellschaft in Bewegung zu bringen, sie zum Denken zu zwingen, das 'Kapua der Geister' aufzubrechen, die Halbheiten auszurotten, und zu jener Dynamik des Denkens und des Tuns aufzupeitschen, wie er sie in der bewegteren Zwischenkriegszeit erleben konnte" (372). He also laments that the "Kapua der Geister" has returned: Lernet-Holenia's memorial plaque placed with pride under the Michaelerkuppel of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna in 1979 has since been moved to an obscure area. Recently, this act has become a very Lernet-Holenian controversy between the leterati and the Austrian administration of state properties. It seems that Roman Rocek's praiseworthy biography and the new interest in Alexander Lernet-Holenia has again inspred an attack on the "Kapua". The protester against history would be pleased.
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs