Thursday, April 28, 2005

Introducing Peter Altenberg

Peter Altenberg (1859-1919) was the pen name of Richard Englaender. He was the quintessential Viennese bohemian, pioneering a leisurely style of dress, who usually wore sandals and sported a great, bushy mustache (which did not make him look mean at all). His most characteristic writings are short, seemingly spontaneous pieces. Typical is his account of How I Became a Writer. He would have made a perfect blogger.
I first heard of him on the Jack Paar Show, back when I was in high school. One of Paar's regular guests, author Alexander King, a native of Vienna and quite a bohemian himself, often told stories about Altenberg. One of them I have never forgotten:
It seems that Altenberg -- who lived in a hotel room and gave the Cafe Central (a favorite hangout of Vienna's intellectual set) as his official address -- woke up one morning after a night of overindulgence and decided to spend the day in bed. But, just as he was falling back to sleep, he remembered it was the birthday of a woman he very much loved. So he roused himself, got dressed, and went to the florist's, where he bought a large bouquet consisting all different sizes, shades and varieties of yellow flowers, and sent it the woman -- but without a card.
Later that day, he stopped by the woman's house to pay his respects. Only she wasn't home. But her maid told Altenberg about the wonderful bouquet someone had sent the woman. The maid said she just hoped that the bouquet was from Mr. Spellmann, because her mistress was very much in love with Spellmann. Whereupon Altenberg assured her that it was indeed from Spellmann. He knew, he told her, because he had been with Spellmann when he bought it.
Still later in the day, Spellmann dropped by to pay his respects, and the woman showered him with kisses and thank-yous for the wonderful bouquet. Spellmann had no idea what she was talking about, but didn't want to spoil her joy either, so he took the maid aside and asked her about it. The maid told him what Altenberg had said, and Spellmann put two and two together and went out and bought a second bouquet, this one made up of all different sizes and shades and colors of different flowers -- and sent it to the woman with Altenberg's card.
That night, when the woman was retiring, she said to her maid, "You know, I just received another beautiful bouquet, this one from Mr. Altenberg. But you know, I like the other bouquet better, the yellow one, because it was sent by someone who really loves me. A woman can tell such things."
Thanks to Archipelago Books, you can read a representative selection of Altenberg's writings, very nicely translated by Peter Wortsman. It's called Telegrams of the Soul.

3 comments:

  1. Alexander King! Now there's a name from the past. Like Frank, I used to watch the old Jack Parr "Tonight" show as a teenager -- a wannabe sophisticate in a high school in a small city in Upstate New York -- and to me the show and guests like King were the height of sophistication. I did not know, or have forgotten, King's Viennese roots. Encountering the name again makes me want to go out and re-read his "May This House Be Safe From Tigers," which I read as a teen in hopes of acquiring some of that sophistication. I think that was the title.
    I never became a sophisticate, but I did get out of the small city in Upstate New York -- only to end up in one in Wisconsin.
    Sincerely,
    Willis Wayde

    ReplyDelete
  2. Alexander King! Now there's a name from the past. Like Frank, I used to watch the old Jack Parr "Tonight" show as a teenager -- a wannabe sophisticate in a high school in a small city in Upstate New York -- and to me the show and guests like King were the height of sophistication. I did not know, or have forgotten, King's Viennese roots. Encountering the name again makes me want to go out and re-read his "May This House Be Safe From Tigers," which I read as a teen in hopes of acquiring some of that sophistication. I think that was the title.
    I never became a sophisticate, but I did get out of the small city in Upstate New York -- only to end up in one in Wisconsin.
    Sincerely,
    Willis Wayde

    ReplyDelete
  3. Alexander King! Now there's a name from the past. Like Frank, I used to watch the old Jack Parr "Tonight" show as a teenager -- a wannabe sophisticate in a high school in a small city in Upstate New York -- and to me the show and guests like King were the height of sophistication. I did not know, or have forgotten, King's Viennese roots. Encountering the name again makes me want to go out and re-read his "May This House Be Safe From Tigers," which I read as a teen in hopes of acquiring some of that sophistication. I think that was the title.
    I never became a sophisticate, but I did get out of the small city in Upstate New York -- only to end up in one in Wisconsin.
    Sincerely,
    Willis Wayde

    ReplyDelete