Alexander Lernet-Holenia


Biographical Notes

Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897–1976)

One of the most popular Austrian authors of the interwar and postwar periods of the twentieth century, Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897-1976) has only recently been “rediscovered” internationally, and not simply for his lingering reputation as an accomplished playwright. So varied is his oeuvre, which includes twenty-five stage plays, twenty-four novels, novellas, short stories, poetry collections, essays, biographies, radio plays and translations, that literary criticism had preferred to ignore the philosophical and sociopolitical underpinnings of his writings, thus effectively perpetuating clichés about the author’s aristocratic manner, his conservative ideology, and his role as perhaps the final exponent of Viennese literary modernism. While these aspects are not inaccurate, they have for too long detracted from the more precise exploration of a highly sophisticated writer who was not only a great stylist but who articulated his own cultural and metaphysical concepts in a transcultural manner.

Born Alexander Marie Norbert Lernet in Vienna to Sidonie Lernet (the widowed Baroness Boyneburgk-Stettfeld, née Holenia) and marine officer Alexander Lernet, who had married his mother shortly before his birth, the author was raised by his mother and her family in Klagenfurt and at their estate Wasserleonburg in the province of Kärnten. He added Holenia to his name when formally adopted by his mother's relatives in 1920. Following secondary schooling in Waidhofen an der Ybbs, Lernet-Holenia took up law studies at the University of Vienna. He volunteered for duty in the imperial Austro-Hungarian army in 1915 and fought in the eastern battle theatres, ending his service with the rank of lieutenant. He first took to poetry during his military years, and subsequently became a protégé of one of the most influential modern poets of the time, Rainer Maria Rilke. Originally raised a Protestant, Lernet-Holenia converted to Catholicism in 1923.

Lernet-Holenia’s literary roots may be found in fin de siècle Viennese impressionism, symbolism and aestheticism, but he arrived too late to actually be of those movements, just as he was not part of the form-experimental movements that followed. He devoted himself to writing after the war, publishing his first volume of poetry, Pastorale, in 1921 and his first drama, Demetrius, in 1925. He corresponded with Austrian playwright, librettist, and co-founder of the Salzburg Festival, Hugo von Hofmannsthal who influenced his early stage works. He found popular fame early, through his dramas and stylish salon comedies, and was awarded the prestigious Kleist Prize in 1926. In 1928, Lernet-Holenia collaborated with author Stefan Zweig to pen one of the most popular stage comedies of the time, Quiproquo. His neo-classical poetry attracted attention in more elite circles, while his prose, particularly the novel on the final days of the Great War and Austria-Hungary’s collapse, Die Standarte (1934; The Standard), displayed his immense talent for elegant style, conversational dialogue, impressionistic beauty and social critique. Die Standarte also revealed the author’s obsession with the lost Habsburg world – an empire and a polyglot Central European culture he would mourn throughout his life and work. Indeed, Lernet-Holenia’s exploration of his own identity is tightly linked to his reflections on the reinventions of Austrian national and cultural identity. He rejects the new republican world in the interwar period, warning of Nazism at the end of Die Standarte, even predicting the destruction of Austria at the hands of Germany and Italy in his allegorical novel Die Auferstehung des Maltravers (1936; The Resurrection of Maltravers), which parodies Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice as well as Nazi literary style. Yet Lernet-Holenia was never an overtly political writer. His interwar prose alternates between the escapism of Maresi (1936), Riviera (1937), and Strahlenheim (1938), and notions of pervading doom: the fantastic realist WWI novella Der Baron Bagge (1936; Baron Bagge); the Nibelung Saga intertext on German hegemony in Europe in Der Mann im Hut (1937; The Man in the Hat); and the tale of demons and revolution, Ein Traum in Rot (1939; A Dream in Red). Of his prolific work in several genres during the 1930s, three of his novels Die Abenteuer eines jungen Herrn in Polen (1931; The Adventures of a Young Gentleman in Poland, 1931), Die Standarte, and Ich war Jack Mortimer (1935; I Was Jack Mortimer) were made into popular films. It was also during this period that Lernet-Holenia began a friendship with Austrian author Joseph Roth, who had abandoned his early Marxist stance to deal with the loss of empire and Austrian identity in such famed novels as Der Radetzkymarsch (1932; The Radetzky March) and Der Kapuzinergruft (1938; The Crypt of the Capuchins). They had mirrored each other work on Austria from different social vantage points: Roth as the son of a Jewish middle-class merchant family from Brody in the Austro-Polish territory of Galicia, who wrote on the loss of empire and the crisis of Austrian identity; Lernet-Holenia, as the aristocratic individualist and former officer, whose early works dealt with the polyglot imperial military and which criticized the collapse of the multicultural state. Lernet-Holenia also closely associated with two later exiled writers, the German-Jewish playwright Carl Zuckmayer and the Austro-Hungarian dramatist Ödön von Horváth, and he was part of the German exile literary/theatrical and film artist group that met at Zuckmayer’s home near Salzburg known as the Henndorf Kreis.

Although he rejected Nazism, Lernet-Holenia chose to remain in Vienna after the Anschluss, when many of his friends and colleagues went into exile. Having been an imperial officer in the First World War, he easily fell into the role again in the Second, but having been wounded in the attack on Poland in 1939, he was transferred to the army’s military film office. His work there was limited because he was ideologically suspect. Lernet-Holenia’s antiwar and pro-Austrian identity literature had been “unwelcome” in Germany since 1933. The Jewish Austrian and American stage and film director, and founder of the Salzburg Festival, Max Reinhardt had produced his plays, and he had known Marxist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. His books were included on the first Nazi "black list" and subsequently burned along with those of other censured and Jewish authors. During this period in Berlin, Lernet-Holenia maintained contact with German writer Gottfried Benn with whom he would later publish a set of correspondences (Monologische Kunst) in 1953, and Bohemian-Austrian artist Alfred Kubin, whose influential surreal and pre-Expressionist drawings had been labeled "degenerate" by the Nazis, but was permitted limited illustration work for propaganda magazines. After having provided the basis for what eventually became Germany’s greatest film success of the era, the Zarah Leander romance, Die große Liebe (1942; The Great Love), Lernet-Holenia retreated to Vienna, and based on his memories and war diaries, composed the novel Mars im Widder (Mars in Aries) between December 15, 1939 and February 15, 1940. The novel, which has since been understood as a cryptic resistance work, first appeared uncensored in a serialized version in the unlikely magazine Die Dame (The Lady), where the focus of its narrative was also camouflaged with the sexually suggestive title, Die blaue Stunde (The Blue Hour). At its book publication in 1941, the Ministry of Propaganda forbade the 15,000 copies of the novel printed by S. Fischer Verlag. The entire condemned stock (including the confiscated author's copies) housed in a Leipzig warehouse, was destroyed in an Allied air raid, but Lernet-Holenia managed to republish the novel from a rediscovered proof copy found in Stockholm in 1947.

Goebbels, who rejected the work primarily due to its overt respect for the Poles and for its less than typical hero, did not understand the actual subversive messages of the novel. This had additional consequences. Lernet-Holenia’s plays were no longer performed and his earlier books would not be reprinted. The value of Lernet-Holenia’s Mars im Widder to today’s readership extends far beyond its sophisticated subversion and its literary brilliance. As a cultural document, it evokes concepts that span the classical and European cultural heritage. As the unofficial history of a time and place – of an ideological war – it is both richly specific and universal. As a presentation of an author’s worldview, it is nothing less than the suggestion that art might still change our lives.

In 1942, Lernet-Holenia expanded the fragment chapter “Silverstolpe,” which he wrote around 1924, into his second and final novel of the war period, Beide Sizilien (Two Sicilies). Disguised as a detective novel with a contrived plot featuring numerous assumed identities and set in 1925 Vienna, this monument to a lost Austria is only slightly less subversive than the previous novel. It is considered by many critics to be one of Lernet-Holenia’s most successful works. Viennese literary critic Hilde Spiel equates portions of the novel with Hofmannsthal’s The Letter of Lord Chandos and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and according to scholar Paul Kruntorad, it remains “one of the most beautifully written novels in Austrian literature.” Missing the point completely, the Propaganda Ministry approved publication, obviously considering it a safe foray into the nostalgia of drawing-room mystery, a mild recantation of the insolence of Mars im Widder.

A collection of recently discovered correspondence (141 letters and ten postcards dating from July 1938 to July 1945) from Lernet-Holenia to the daughter of the Jewish founder of the Manz publishing firm in Vienna and an editor in her own right, allows for a fresh and more complete understanding of the author. Lernet-Holenia's personal correspondences have been rare to impossible to locate (he habitually destroyed letters and notes) unless they were part of a publication as the case with Gottfried Benn or Carl Zuckmayer. While the actual extent of his relationship with Maria Charlotte Sweceny, née Stein, known simply as Lotte, remains somewhat clouded, clues suggest an affair on an early 1939 cruise to North and South America, during which Lernet-Holenia considered exile emigration. Far more important, however, are the sensitive and often troubled missives that appear here and which he sent to Lotte, a woman he trusted with his inspirations and fears, from the time of the Anschluss to the end of the war. Scholar Christopher Dietz has deciphered innumerable cryptic allusions to people, places and occurrences in his 2013 study. Seemingly inconsequential details prove to be important declarations on life, creativity, or on the workings of the Nazi regime. Often blatantly overcooked “pride” in the accomplishments of the Hitler or simply rote repetition of propaganda phrases against anything that Lernet-Holenia admired or cared for and was now deemed unacceptable, would suddenly interrupt the flow of a letter’s discourse. This was done to reassure the censors that there was nothing suspect in the postal relationship between this problematic author in a Wehrmacht uniform and a woman officially considered a “Mischling 1. Grades” (mixed race, 1st degree, according to the Nuremberg racial laws). Instead of a life in hiding in Vienna, Lotte, her gentile husband, and her brother purchased an isolated country house from the fleeing Anna Freud in 1938, which became a refuge and the center of a social circle that included Lernet-Holenia, famed art director Erni Kniepert, film critic Zeno von Liebl, and a small cast of cultivated industrialists, bankers, architects and their wives. Dietz considers that the obviously anti-regime clique certainly provided the basis for the mysterious figures and gatherings in Lernet-Holenia’s sub-rosa resistance novel Mars im Widder and that Lotte influenced one of the most fascinating of all the author's strong and intelligent female characters, the work’s memorably mercurial Cuba Pistohlkors.

Lernet-Holenia was able to easily resume his work in the postwar era when many had interrupted their careers with exile and political taint. In fact, the author was again so popular that in 1948 critic Hans Weigel remarked that Austrian literature "now only consists of two authors – Lernet and Holenia." The author immediately took on the Nazi past, when aside from Ilse Aichinger, most other Austrian writers avoided the subject. He produced such provocative writings on the immediate past as the novella, Der 20. Juli (1946; The Twentieth of July) and the long-poem Germanien (1946). He married Eva Vollbach in 1945 and the couple lived at his home at St. Wolfgang until 1951, when they also took an apartment in the imperial Hofburg Palace in Vienna. A plaque in in remembrance of Lernet-Holenia now hangs in the Michaelerplatz wing of the palace, across from the entry to the Imperial "Sissi" (Empress Elisabeth) Museum.

Several adventure and social satire novels followed the author's immediate postwar work, but the author also produced two of the most intriguing Austrian novels on personal and national guilt in the entire postwar era: Der Graf von Saint-Germain (1948; The Count of Saint-Germain) which focused on elitism, apathy and the Austrian Anschluss of 1938, and Der Graf Luna (1955; Count Luna), a jaundiced look at postwar Austria through the destructive paranoia of a man unable to resolve his guilt at having unintentionally sentenced a man to possible death in a concentration camp. His prose turned to a variety of subjects in the 1960s and 1970s, ranging from accomplished historical biographies (Prinz Eugen, 1960) and historical novels (Das Halsband der Königin, 1962; The Queen’s Necklace), to short-story collections (Götter und Menschen, 1964; Gods and Men); philosophical/metaphysical novels (Pilatus: Ein Komplex, 1967; Pilate: A Complex and Die Beschwörung, 1974; The Invocation) and metaphorical explorations of personal and national identity (Vitrine XIII, 1966; Cabinet XIII, Die Hexen, 1969; The Witches, Die Geheimnisse des Hauses Österreich, 1971; The Secrets of the House of Austria).

In 1954, Lernet-Holenia along with Austrian critic, journalist, and scriptwriter Friedrich Torberg (1908-1979), Friedrich Hansen-Loeve and Felix Hubalek founded the cultural and political journal, FORVM, which was originally supported by the a U.S. anti-communist advocacy group, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). With support from Hans Weigel, Torberg first used the journal to dissuade any discourse on or with the Eastern Bloc. Lernet-Holenia, however, often disagreed with the other editors. In 1951, he had openly criticized the Salzburg Festival for following commercial and political interests over artistic ones, by dismissing a board member that had supported Bertolt Brecht's naturalization as an Austrian citizen during his artistic-ideological difficulties with the GDR. A more pragmatic journalist, writer and activist, Günther Nenning, assumed editorship in 1966, which opened the publication to a discussion of leftist thought. Many of Lernet-Holenia's unique critical and philosophical essays regarding Viennese society, Austrian and Central European identity, and the Cold War, were published in the journal during its early run.

Although Lernet-Holenia remained outside of literary trends, he rejected artistic revolution for its own sake. When Romanian poet Paul Celan, now considered one of the major German-language poets of the postwar era, was accused of "poeticizing" the Holocaust in his difficult, highly personal, even abstract works in 1965, Lernet-Holenia rushed to advocate his voice: "There is nothing that cannot be sublimated, even healed, through true poetry." He continued to criticize Austrian and German society, politics and culture, recalling the value of high culture in life. He managed to make a cause célèbre out of his resignation from the presidency of the Austrian P.E.N. Club as protest of German author Heinrich Böll’s Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, due to what he felt was an unwelcome involvement of "certain Swedish circles" in Central European arts, and because of Böll's stance on the Baader-Meinhof terrorists. Ultimately, the author’s eccentric personality overshadowed his own literary fame, and much of his work fell into obscurity after his death in Vienna in 1976 of lung cancer. He was given a grave of honor at the Vienna’s Hietzing Cemetery by the City of Vienna.

The renewed interest in Alexander Lernet-Holenia since the early 1990s may be the result of an increased national discourse on the past and on Austrian national identity in light of the post-Soviet era, of the emergence of postmodernism, or of the influence of scholarship by international Austrianists and Germanists. Lernet-Holenia's widely varied output, which had distanced critics in the past, now appears as a form of Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) which was in constant progress throughout his life. A new generation began to analyze his works: Peter Pott examined his stage works in 1972; Franziska Müller-Widmer presented a first examination of his cryptic-resistance novel Mars im Widder in 1980; Elizabetta Bolla took on the author's concept of returning history in 1988. Also in 1988, Reinhard Lüth's comparison of Lernet-Holenia's style with one of his friends and influences, the Prague-born fantastic realist Leo Perutz recontextualized the author's style. Günther Berger's bio-bibliographical resource in 1989 and the 1997 biography, Die neun Leben des Alexander Lernet-Holenia (The Nine Lives of Alexander Lernet-Holenia), by journalist and critic Roman Roček, who also edited the complete collection of the author's poetry in 1989 provided significant background on the author. Both a new selection of Lernet-Holenia's lyric works by Rüdiger Görner and the first complete bibliography by Hélène Barrière, Thomas Eicher, and Manfred Müller were produced in 2001.

The International Alexander Lernet-Holenia Society was originally conceived by Alexander Dreihann-Holenia, grand-nephew of the author, and Robert Dassanowsky, whose first study on the Austrian sociopolitical themes of his novels, Phantom Empires (1996) re-introduced him to the German-language canon outside Austria. The organization was founded in Vienna in 1998, with publisher and journalist Fritz Molden as Honorary President, and author Marianne Gruber as Vice President. Many of the international board members are those literary critics and cultural scholars that have helped expand the knowledge and readership of Lernet-Holenia into the twenty-first century: Rüdiger Görner, Manfred Müller, Donald Daviau, Thomas Eicher, Günther Berger, Jean-Jacques Pollet, Krzysztof Lipinski, Hélène Barrière, Thomas Hübel, Franziska Mayer. International conferences, symposia, exhibitions, and new editions followed. In 2014, the Italian writer, publisher and renowned Kafka analyst, Roberto Calasso assumed the role of the Society’s Honorary President, and a new era of research developed with Daniela Strigl, Oliver Jahraus, Gerald Sommer, Clemens Ruthner, Martina Rauchenbacher, Stéphane Pesnel, Margit Dirscherl and others.

The Alexander Lernet-Holenia Park was dedicated to his memory the 17th District of Vienna in 1999. Since the turn of the millennium, a new international readership has discovered him in French, Italian, Spanish, English, Polish, Romanian and Japanese translation. This reborn and expanded interest underscores the universal appeal of Lernet-Holenia's stylistic accomplishment in his many genres, his history of the Central European experience in the twentieth century, his exploration and critique of Austrian identity and culture, and his unique philosophical directions.

Robert Dassanowsky