H. G. Adler, Austrian writer and nearly-forgotten witness


Where do the boundaries of Austria end? The boundaries of the Federal Republic are clearly defined, but the boundaries of Austrian literature, culture and memory are are a lot wider and a lot less clear. Robert Musil termed the sprawling, dysfunctional and multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire ‘Kakania’, and Kakania brought forth many brilliant writers who were born well beyond the current boundaries of Austria, but who certainly contributed to Austrian culture. Perhaps the most famous of these is Franz Kafka (born in Prague, now in the Czech Republic), but there’s also Rainer Maria Rilke (also from Prague), Joseph Roth (born in Brody, now in Ukraine), Elias Canetti (born in Ruse, now in Bulgaria), or Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (born in Lviv, now in Ukraine).

One nearly-forgotten writer from that lost Kakania is H. G. Adler (1910-1988). He was born in Prague and attended the German University there; although he never met Kafka, he considered himself close to the rich tradition of Prague-German writers that included Kafka as well as, among others, Johannes Urzidil and Adler’s friend Franz Baermann-Steiner. Adler’s early career followed that of an ambitious young writer and cultural entrepreneur; he received a doctorate, went to work at the cultural institute Urania, and worked on publishing his poetry.

But in 1938, the Nazis invaded Prague, and the Prague Jewish literary culture Adler belonged to was destroyed. In 1942, he was deported to Theresienstadt, in 1944 to Auschwitz, and was in an underground labour camp at Langenstein when the Second World War ended. Astonishingly, Adler kept writing, not only in Theresienstadt but also in Langenstein, and managed to preserve the work he produced there. In 1947 he emigrated to England, determined never again to live in a country that had been ruled by the Nazis, and embarked on a period of intensive writing. At the same time as composing a massive, and authoritative, sociological study of Theresienstadt (Theresienstadt: Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft), he wrote a series of novels bearing witness to his experience in the Holocaust and dissecting the condition of modern society.

Adler’s ongoing work as a sociologist and historian of the Holocaust was hugely successful and prestigious; however, his literary works struggled to find publishers. Finally, he managed to get his ‘ballad-novel’ about Jewish deportation, Eine Reise, published by a small Christian press in 1962, followed by two selections of his short prose, and then Panorama, a novel surveying the first half of the twentieth century, drawing on his own biography. The novels sunk more or less without a critical trace, and a third novel, Die unsichtbare Wand, was only published after his death in 1989.

Adler’s novels and prose are intellectually brilliant, linguistically experimental, passionately felt. They bear witness to the murder of European Jews and to the harrowing after-effects of the Holocaust on survivors. At the same time, they work out an ethical way to keep living in a world in which such atrocities happened. More, they are satirical accounts of the hypocrisies and follies of the first half of the twentieth century, and often very funny, in a sometimes horrific way. ‘Adler is really a frustrated humorist’, said one reviewer of Eine Reise – a humorist frustrated by the horrors of genocide.

So why didn’t these exceptional novels find a wide audience, despite several republications (and why are there still novels of Adler’s languishing unpublished)? Was it the subject-matter, too traumatic for a post-war audience in denial? Was it that, unlike the well-connected German exiles and “inner emigrants”, Adler had been in concentration camps for the duration of the war, and hence did not have the same influential contacts and patrons as those writers did? Was it that his ‘Kakanian’ style – drawing on a rich Prague German heritage of linguistic experimentation and an Austrian tradition of satire – was thought inappropriate to write about the Holocaust? Was his Kakanian view of the twentieth century out of time, or out of place, after 1945?

Happily, Adler is currently being rediscovered, thanks in part to the tireless work of his son, Professor Jeremy Adler, to bring his work to a wider audience. In the past four years, a biography, H. G. Adler: Privatgelehrter und freier Schriftsteller by Franz Hocheneder has appeared, Katrin Kohl and Hocheneder have published his collected poetry as Andere Wege, and Peter Filkins has translated The Journey and Panorama into English, and is working on Die unsichtbare Wand. Further, W. G. Sebald mentioned Adler’s Theresienstadt as a key source in his celebrated novel Austerlitz, guiding even more readers to his work.

In connection with this resurgence of interest, I am organising a conference, together with Dr. Lynn Wolff from the University of Stuttgart, H. G. Adler/W. G. Sebald: Witnessing, Memory, Poetics, to be held at the ACF and the IGRS on the 10-11 October 2012. We’re privileged to host Peter Filkins, Jeremy Adler and Katrin Kohl, among others, as speakers, and hope that the event will draw out these commonalities between these two great writers of the Holocaust and memory, and suggest productive avenues of comparison between them.

It’s to be hoped that all this renewed interest in his work will help H. G. Adler, belatedly, to his rightful place as a major name in Austrian literature – and to help his work further transform our ideas of what ‘Austrian literature’ really means.


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  1. Helen Finch

    Reblogged this on Helen Finch and commented:

    I’m delighted to have been invited to write for austrianresearchuk, a fantastic new blog promoting Austrian literary research in the UK! Here’s what I wrote for them about H. G. Adler.

  2. leifhendrik

    I think this is a very important short article on Adler. It’s really given me much to think about and explore. Perhaps the most interesting idea: Adler as frustrated humorist. The thought that his sometimes satirical treatment of holocaust themes might have kept him from wider recognition is intriguing, something I’ve thought of before but never heard voiced by anyone. I believe that the ‘satirical voice’, if I may call it that, is something very often misunderstood and even unrecognized in literature, much to our loss.

  3. Helen Finch

    Thank you so much for your kind comments! I’ve seen Adler referred to as a ‘humorist’ a few times. Here’s an extract from an article by Roland Wiegenstein, on ‘Drei KZ-Romane’, in Neue Rundschau (1963), that mentions Eine Reise :

    “ich werde das schreckliche Gefühl nicht los, daß dieser Autor eigentlich zum Humoristen geboren ist, er grimassiert und wäre doch lieber fröhlich. Wenn einem Jean Paul die Lager widerfahren wären, so ungefähr müßte er hinterher geschrieben haben.”

    Certainly Adler’s satire is very uncomfortable, but it’s also, as you say, a very important voice. I’m hoping to answer the questions as to why Adler, and other literary witnesses to the Holocaust, went unheard in my current research project.

    • leifhendrik

      Thanks for the quote from Wiegenstein. I suppose satire is often simply considered to be inappropriately irreverent and thus to be actively ignored, though in this case the question must surely be more complex than that. I always think of Nabokov’s maxim: ‘Laughter is the best pesticide’, which he used in response to comments by his own critics. Humor can really be a weapon, and perhaps Adler used it as such: he certainly had ample reason to do so. It’s also very human, another feature which I find interesting in Adler’s case, and especially in connection with the traditions of the various literatures of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

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