Book Review: Friedrich Torberg's Die Tante Jolesch

In Tante Jolesch, Friedrich Torberg pays homage to the Jewish intelligentsia and a Viennese civilization he thought was dying

TVR Books | Marlies Burkhardt | March 2009

Torberg at work on a script in Hollywood (Photo: Jewish Museum, Wien)

Queen of the Kaffeehaus

Die Tante Jolesch, a landmark of Austrian Kaffeehausliteratur, has taken on new life lately in honor of the 100th birthday of its author, Viennese-Jewish writer and journalist Friedrich Torberg (1908-1979). First published in 1975, Die Tante Jolesch oder der Untergang des Abendlandes in Anekdoten (Aunt Jolesch or the Downfall of the West in Anecdotes) is a book of wistfulness. Torberg indulges in nostalgia from the time of his youth between 1918 and 1938.

This exceptional work describes and worships the era that gave it life: Kaffeehausliteratur was a genre deeply rooted in the predominantly Jewish fin de siècle bohémien Vienna, Prague and Budapest and in the lifestyle of the Habsburg Monarchy. It had its origins at the old Café Griensteidl on Herrengasse near the Hofburg, where writers like Schnitzler, Hoffmannsthal, Beer-Hoffmann or Bahr – the so-called Jung Wien - met regularly and did their philosophizing.

The basis of it all is Tante Jolesch, an intellectual patron of all those bohémiens – she was a real person, her favorite nephew, Franz, a friend of Torberg’s – who later found their inspiration in coffeehouses all over the Empire. Her unerring, pithy aphorisms became legend, cited amongst her circle and beyond with due respect and enthusiasm.

Her stories began as everyday situations before rising to the level of art. "Guests are beasts," (‘E Gast is e Tier’), mumbled Tante Jolesch, frowning in disgust at cigarette stubs and ashes spread on the floor, half-eaten hors d’oeuvres in ashtrays and empty bottles in the sink. Members came from all over the Habsburg countries for the huge Jewish family gatherings, and there was a Tante Jolesch whose authority was admired and feared at the same time.

In their prime, Literaten inhabited many of the great coffeehouses of Vienna: Karl Kraus, Peter Altenberg, Egon Friedell, and Alfred Polgar in Café Central through the end of WWI, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil, Franz Werfel, and Joseph Roth presiding at the Café Herrenhof until after the Second World War.

Since then, however, this tradition has faded, although it hasn’t disappeared altogether. Helmut Qualtinger was a fixture at the Café Alt Wien through the 1950s, Thomas Bernhard at the Café Braunerhof and Robert Menasse at Café Korb. But in the 70s, Torberg sensed an era passing.

So, he built a verbal monument, bringing these protagonists and compatriots of the Viennese Jewish Bourgeoisie to life, their originality and sense of humor as an expression of a particular sensibility, a savoir vivre unparalleled since.

In the world of Tante Jolesch, most like to spend a few weeks of summer in the country – the so-called Sommerfrische, mostly in Bad Ischl. But not this Tante Jolesch, who abhorred travel or any change of place, rooted in her profound scepticism towards the unknown and foreign.

"Every departure is rushed," she said conclusively. She preferred to have a close look at a place first – hard to do if she never got there at all.

Similarly, critic Egon Friedell indulged in his aversion to any kind of snobbery, but always with an edge – something that is generally termed as "jüdischer Witz". Invited to one of Max Reinhardt’s opulent dinner parties at Schloß Leopoldskron in Salzburg, he eyed the pomp with scepticism. As the liveried servants flanked the entrance holding torches and, Friedell asked dryly, "What is the matter? Short-circuit?"

But, sarcasm could also be used to handle unpleasant situations. As an editor in chief of the Prager Tagblatt in the Dollfuß era of the 1930s, the trouble was Dr. Keller’s daily business. Once, following a particularly acid political critique, he was forced to listen to the complaints of a delegation of Social Democrats. Patiently, he waited until the delegates had finished their reproaches.

"Gentlemen," he replied thoughtfully, "I think, you know how chaotic it can be – especially in times of political turmoil – incidents are hot on the heels of one another. So, it might accidentally happen that one writes the truth." It is not known how the delegates reacted. 

These and more anecdotes were discussed and refined in the coffeehouses; and became part of the Kaffeehausliteratur culture. Torberg takes us to all of these coffeehouses, private salons, Bad Ischl, etc. – sharing the stories and their protagonists. It is easy to plunge into this era and soak in its atmosphere. Hopefully, with the revival of this minor masterpiece, the world of Tante Jolesch will re-emerge as well, from the dust of oblivion.


Friedrich Torberg - Tante Jolesch or The 

Downfall of the West in Anecdotes (1975),

Available at Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers

1., Sterngasse 2

(01) 535 50 53

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    the vienna review March 2009