Ödön von Horváth was born in 1901 in what was then the Austro-Hungarian port city of Fiume and is now known as Rijeka, Croatia. His name and his family background reflect a Mitteleuropa that was thriving (at least for some people) when he was born, was damaged by the First World War, and practically destroyed in the fires of the Second. His father was an Austro-Hungarian diplomat; his mother came from a family of military doctors. Before Ödön — the name is the Hungarian form of Edmund — finished school, he had also lived in Belgrade, Budapest, Munich and Vienna. He began writing at an early age, and a play of his was staged when he was 20. It’s good that he did, because his would not be a long life.
Horváth’s family resources enabled him to keep writing through the turbulent early 1920s. He moved between Munich, Berlin, and his parents’ home in the picturesque small town of Murnau in southern Bavarian Alpine foothills. He built on his early success with more plays that found their way to stages across Germany and Austria. In the later 1920s, he warned increasingly of the dangers of rising fascism. Murnau would not have warmed to Horváth. Numerous men from the town had taken part in Hitler’s attempted coup in 1923. One-third of Murnau’s voters chose National Socialists in 1924, making them five times or ten times more popular there than in Germany as a whole, depending on which of the year’s elections is meant. Soon after Hitler came to power, the SA searched the Horváth family villa in Murnau.
Ödön, now over 30, took that as a cue to leave Germany. He had enjoyed great success with his plays, including his most famous piece “Tales from the Vienna Woods” (titled after the Strauss waltz), but the rest of his life would be a struggle with encroaching Nazism. He first moved to Hellersee, near Salzburg. Production of his plays was forbidden in Hitler’s Germany, depriving Horváth of most of his income. He had published just one novel by that time, in contrast to more than a dozen plays. In 1937, he published the novel Jugend ohne Gott (“Youth without God,” published in English as A Child of Our Time) in Amsterdam; that, too, was soon banned in Germany.
Following the Anschluss in 1938, Horváth left Austria, traveling to Budapest and Fiume, and then onward to Paris. On the evening of June 1, after a meeting about filming Jugend ohne Gott, he was walking along the Champs Élysées in a storm when a branch fell from a tree and struck him dead.
The Süddeutsche edition of Der ewiger Spießer (The Eternal Philistine) comprises three parts. In the middle is the text of Der ewige Spießer that was published as a novel in 1930. Before that comes Sechsunddresißig Stunden (Thirty-Six Hours), which Horváth finished in 1928 and had a contract for in 1929, but which was not actually published during his lifetime. It is followed by not quite 30 pages of preliminary versions of the two stories, which I did not read.
The two main stories tell slightly overlapping tales of life in 1920s Munich, mostly among people who are barely getting by, though there are some who are doing quite well amid the generally difficult situation. Thirty-Six Hours begins with Eugen and Agnes making each other’s acquaintance in Munich outside the municipal unemployment office on Thalkirchen Street. Horváth alternates between the two characters sentence by sentence as they start a flirtatious exchange and wind up going on a long walk together. Horváth brings a droll, unadorned style that lets readers find the humor, or the tension, or the absurdity in a scene.
“Ten minutes later Agnes and Eugen were sitting under an elm. He had just asked her if she didn’t want to sit down, he said he wasn’t tired but all the same he wouldn’t have anything against it if he could sit. She had looked at him somewhat skeptically, and he had made an entirely innocent face, but she had not believed in his innocence and said that she didn’t have anything against him wanting to sit, and if he wanted to sit then she would also sit.” (p. 15)
So they sit under the tree at an old military exercise field as evening gathers, and continue their conversation. At one point, Agnes laughs to herself as she recalls funny surnames of people she has known, including one whose last name was Salad. Eugen counters that he didn’t find that funny at all but tragic instead. He knew of a tragic case of a colleague in Linz who went to pieces because of his family name.
“His name was Johann Soup and he was famous across Upper Austria, he was the waiter at the Grand Duke Albrecht Restaurant who brought people their bills, and all the guests addressed him like ‘Herr Beef-Soup!’ ‘Herr Noodle-Soup!’ ‘Herr Rice-Soup!’ ‘Herr Cabbage-Soup!’ ‘The bill, Herr Bread-Soup!’ ‘You have made an error, Herr Potato-Soup!’ ‘Where’s my pea soup, Herr Pea-Soup?!’ ‘What’s happened to my beer, Herr Beer-Soup?!’ ‘It’s a pig-sty, Herr Pork-Soup!’ and so forth until one day he said, ‘Now I am tired of soup! By my soul, I will change my name even if it has to be Pischeles!’ He went to the magistrate to fill out the forms to change his names, but these forms were in the hands of a bureaucrat who was also a regular guest at the Grand Duke Albrecht and who had immediately addressed him as ‘Herr Bean-Soup’ and asked, ‘So what’s missing, my dear Bouillon With Egg?’ and then my unfortunate colleague had criminally insulted an officer of the law, and then later in jail had a complaint of the stomach such that when he got out the doctor said to him ‘You have to follow a very strict diet, you can only ever eat soup from now on and nothing else.’ Then he turned very pale and the doctor wanted to comfort him and said ‘Well, that’s the way life is my dear Herr Consommé!’ and then her went after the doctor and then got tossed in the clink for grievous bodily harm and then hanged himself there. He died of himself.'” (pp. 16–17)
Both parts of the book are full of anecdotes like that. They start plausibly enough but without any change in register by the teller, they swirl further and further into improbability. There’s a recurring bit about an antiquarian bookstore run by two little old ladies, but it turns out that their main source of income is pornographic postcards, and they are more than a little acquainted with Munich’s red-light side. Horvárth also has a keen eye for the ways that men take advantage of women.
“In fact she had lost her proper house key three weeks ago, when she had gone to the movies with her aunt’s boarder, a certain Herr Kastner. They went to a showing of ‘Madame Does Not Want Any Children’ and Herr Kastner’s hands kept wandering, she had fended him off and lost her house key in the process. But her aunt must not find out about it because she would have a terrible fit, not about the handsiness but about the key.” (p. 24)
Agnes quite enjoys the company of men, even the intimate company of men, but the morals of the time mean that far too many men think they are entitled to her because they have taken her to the movies or bought her a meal at a restaurant. There’s a funny sequence where she agrees to be a nude model for an artist, and he never quite gets around to taking advantage of her as she had more than halfway hoped he would, and for lack of anything better to do she makes off with various stamps from his collection. Characters bounce around, some making mere cameo appearances, and in the end, presumably thirty-six hours after the beginning, Eugen is able to do Agnes a very good turn without expecting anything in return. Horváth stops there, writing “And that’s the end of the story.” (p. 107)
He divides The Eternal Philistine into three parts: “Herr Kobler Becomes a pan-European,” “Miss Pollinger Gets Practical” and “Herr Reithofer Acts Selflessly.” The second and third parts reprise much of Thirty-Six Hours, with slightly different details. For example, Agnes Pollinger from the earlier story becomes Anna Pollinger; their initial encounter takes them to the movies instead of under an elm, and ends much less intimately.
The first and longest part of Philistine concerns Herr Kobler, a traveling salesman who is not above a good bit of chicanery to make sure the money keeps flowing in his direction. After a not entirely above-board car sale nets Kobler a substantial sum, he decides to seek his fortune at the International Exposition in Barcelona by finding, seducing, and marrying a rich woman who has come to see the World’s Fair. Not any particular woman; Kobler just figures a lot of wealthy women will be there, and really any of them will do. The bulk of Herr Kobler’s story is taken up by the train journey from Munich to Barcelona, including border crossings into Fascist Italy, restaurants and bordellos in Marsailles, and various other opportunities for Horváth to exercise his drollery on the foibles of salesmen, would-be journalists, and other traveling Germans. It’s darkly funny all the way through — especially as characters quickly throw over convictions they had just said were deep and true expressions of their souls, or when characters who aren’t terribly bright take on deep questions. Here’s Kobler: “If there were no coincidences, there would be no loving God! That’s because thinking things through and making sure everything is organized are human qualities, but the complete senselessness of coincidence, that’s divine.” (p. 155)
The Eternal Philistine was translated and published in English for the first time in 2012, although I think that edition does not include Thirty-Six Hours which, on balance, I preferred.