Novels set in Austria: book illustration by Fritz von Herzmanovsky Orlando

Novels Set In Austria: 7 Bestsellers To Search Our Soul

Novels Set In Austria. At the latest since Sigmund Freud, it became evident that Austrians can be weird. Even more so, understanding where they come from and how they tick is key to unlocking local culture. To help you do that, I have pulled together 7 books that hold the keys.

What to expect from Austrian literature? In short, many Austrian writers before World War II and the Second Republic wrote comic and bizarre stories with local historic references. However, contemporary writers like Elfriede Jelinek or Thomas Bernhard tend to challenge social phenomena such as domestic violence using an intense and sometimes hard to follow language. 

In the list below, find out which of the top 7 novels set in Austria you’d like to read to connect more deeply with the city. By the way, all the books I describe below have been translated into English and are available on Amazon.

1. The World Of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig and More: Cafe Central ViennaNovels Set In Austria. ‘Why did nobody ever tell me about this book?’ an Amazon reader of The World of Yesterday asked. One more good reason to mention it here. Clearly, this is a must read for history fans. Imagine a story carrying all the weight, nostalgia and despair of someone who saw the Austro-Hungarian Empire break into pieces. In the World of Yesterday readers closely follow Zweig as he experiences famine, civil war, two World Wars, and antisemitism first-hand. When he finally escapes from Austria together with his wife Zweig still thinks of starting a new life.

But the diaspora has shattered his entire world: Just 18 months before the Allied Forces free Austria Stefan Zweig and his wife committed suicide in Rio de Janeiro. Jewish-Viennese bourgeois and intellectual Stefan Zweig (1881 to 1942) and other fellow writers of that time used autobiographic material for their most popular novels.  

2. The Chess Novel, by Stefan Zweig

Novels Set In Austria. After just a few pages of the Chess novel (Schachnovelle) Stefan Zweig grips you so tightly there is no going back. At a time when Sigmund Freud explored the human mind, Zweig weaved historic and psychological topics that touched his own past into a brilliant psychodrama: During an atlantic cruise from New York to Buenos Aires after World War II, a millionaire challenges a famous chess player. As the game runs its course, a mysterious Dr. B from Austria comes to the millionaire’s rescue. After the chess game is over, the narrator unveils the tragic reason of the doctor’s ingenious chess skills.

When the Nazis captured Dr. B he spent years in an isolation cell, without anything to distract him. During that time, he played 150 different games of chess against himself – just in his head. Honestly, I would probably go manic, then mad. Which is exactly what Dr. B. did. All in all, a fascinating book for fans of historic novels and subtle psycho stories, ship cruisers, and chess players. 

3. Tante Jolesch, by Friedrich Torberg

Stefan Zweig and More: Cafe LandtmannNovels Set In Austria. Until today, some of the older locals still quote the Tante Jolesch in her infinite wisdom. In Tante Jolesch or the Decline of the West in Anecdotes Jewish Viennese author Friedrich Torberg (1908 to 1979) paints a highly amusing and authentic portrait of the intellectual life of the Jewish community in Vienna before World War II. Essentially, the story revolves around the popular Auntie Jolesch, a resolute Jewish-Viennese lady who outwits everyone with her shrewd mind and sharp tongue.

In particular, the descriptions of the many characters in the book, are clearly taken from real life. In fact, they remind me of the anecdotes my own Viennese grandfather used to tell. As large parts of the book describe the local coffeehouse culture you can perfectly imagine yourself in a Vienna coffee house as you turn the pages. By the way, my favorite anecdote from the book is the story why everyone in the family is crazy about Tante Jolesch’s white cabbage pasta… because she never makes enough.

4. The Tragic Demise Of A Faithful Court Official, by Fritz von Herzmanovsky-Orlando

The Tragic Demise of a Faithful Court Official by Fritz von Herzmanovsky-Orlando (1877 – 1953) is one of his master novels. Using comical phantasies and hilarious exaggerations the self-taught writer and illustrator relishes in a bizarre caricature of Biedermeier Vienna before 1848. (If you like Italo Calvino, you probably like Herzmanovsky-Orlando.) In the novel, Austrian civil servant Jaromir Edlen von Eynhuf’s plans to present the number 25 formed by 25 milk teeth to Emperor Francis I for his 25th anniversary of reigning. As he searches for the milk tooth of a female singer he falls in love with her. Subsequently, fate takes its tragic-comic turn.

The novel forms part of Herzmanovsky’s Austria Trilogy and includes 24 illustrations by the author (see header picture). Since Herzmanovsky’s literary collections love to parody the Austrian civil service, a lot of older-generation Austrians with a career in the civil service enjoy them.

5. Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth

Novels set in Austria: Austro Hungarian military official uniforms at Museum of Military HistoryNovels Set In Austria. Not just Stefan Zweig portrayed the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even more comprehensively, Austrian writer Joseph Roth (1894 to 1939) uses the story of a traditional Austrian family during three generations: In the family novel Radetzky March the von Trotta family lives through decades of a crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire. Beneath a rich plot of tragic incidents and emotional turmoil, a social value system emerges that tightly connects with the Habsburg Emperors’ political decay.  As you follow the military and civil service careers of the von Trotta’s, their loyalty to the monarchy is increasingly put into question.
As for the book title,  Johann Strauss (senior) fans will recall the famous march music that Strauss composed in the mid 19th century. Until today, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra performs the Radetzky March regularly at the New Year’s Concert. In 1964 and 1995, Austrian film makers Michael Kehlmann and Axel Corti turned the trilogy into a film and a TV adaptation in three episodes.

6. The Piano Teacher, by Elfriede Jelinek

Novels Set In Austria. Not for the faint hearted is The Piano Teacher by literature nobel prize laureate Elfriede Jelinek(born 1946). Essentially, the story revolves around the life and suffering of a Viennese piano teacher. For years, Erika Kohut is exposed to the violence and total domination of her mother. Eventually, she develops a tragic relationship with one of her pupils which ends in rape. In 2001, Austrian film maker Michael Haneke in 2001 famously turned the book into a film, starring Isabelle Huppert in the main role.

7. Best Cartoon Book: The Very Best Of Deix

Although The Very Best of Deix is a cartoon picture book rather than a novel it can’t be missed if you search for Austria’s soul. None other than famous cartoonist Manfred Deix (1949-2016) has better exposed the Austrian soul in a funnier, yet more wicked and scandalous way. In the 1980s, Deix became immensely popular through his cartoons for leading Austrian weeklies. In fact, Austrians came to love their political and ecclesiastical scandals not least because of Manfred Deix’ brilliantly disgusting but so truthful drawings. The Very Best of Deix collects the cartoonist’s sharpest drawings of mostly the Nineties.

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