THE COLLAPSE of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1918 meant that its subjects, instead of living at the heart of a massive multiethnic empire, suddenly found themselves enclosed by previously nonexistent borders. It is this world, and its writers, that Marjorie Perloff chronicles in Edge of Irony, her new study of Austro-Modernism between the World Wars. Perloff’s book gathers a group of writers whose work, she tells us, was “characterized by a deep irony, an irony bordering on cynicism that accompanied extreme disillusion coupled with nostalgia for a loved and lost culture.” The way Perloff elaborates her description here, going in for one stab at the problem after another — ironic, but not quite cynical, colored by disillusionment but also nostalgic — reflects the emotional complexity of the object of study itself. Feelings tended to accrete to Austria-Hungary in the moment of its vanishing, feelings that at once defied clear definition and demanded clarity above all.

The protagonists of Perloff’s narrative — the writers Karl Kraus, Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Elias Canetti, and Paul Celan — were all inhabitants of the country that Musil, in his massive unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities, christened “Kakania”: a play on the abbreviation “k.u.k.” (“imperial and royal”) that accompanied most of its dignitaries, but with reference as well to the word “kaka,” the German equivalent of “doo-doo.” Musil describes Kakania as an empire only half-committed to modernity, to nationhood, to imperialness itself, but more than his disdain for the vanished country we get a sense of deep longing and regret. Not for the country itself, God forbid, but for those days when one could travel there by train and take a holiday from progress: “A homesickness, a longing to be stopped, to cease evolving, to stay put, to return to the point before the thrown switch put us on the wrong track.”

The story Perloff tells incorporates not only the imperial capital of Vienna but the far-flung territories that were, at one point or another, part of the Habsburg lands. Musil’s academic family moved every few years between the different tiles of the vast Habsburg mosaic. He arrived in Vienna in 1910, and in 1917 received a hereditary title from an Empire that was to endure barely another year. He later lived in Berlin, and after the Anschluss in 1938 he moved to Switzerland where he tried in vain to complete The Man Without Qualities, his massive summa of the vanished country of his youth. The other figures who populate Edge of Irony were similarly peripatetic. Karl Kraus was born in Bohemia, but moved to Vienna as a child. He kept an angry, put-upon faith with the city and its people through the decades, commenting on its excess, stupidity, and hypocrisy in his periodical Die Fackel, and later in the colossal, unperformable play The Last Days of Mankind.

Joseph Roth, born in Galicia, arrived in Vienna for the summer semester of 1914, just in time to watch things fall apart — by the first week of August his Galician home was Russian. In 1916, he watched Emperor Francis Joseph, after 68 years on the throne, being carried into the Capuchin Crypt, which would later furnish the title for one of his novels. There he felt the “fractured mourning over the dissolution of a fatherland that had reared its sons to oppose it.” After the dissolution of the Hapsburg monarchy, he worked as a journalist in Berlin and Paris. Elias Canetti was born into a Ladino-speaking Sephardic family in Bulgaria; he moved to England at an early age, and only later to Vienna. Canetti lived most of his life far from Kakania, but he carried Austria-Hungary in what mattered most to him, his language. Paul Celan, meanwhile, was born in Czernowitz and educated in German. He arrived in Vienna after having survived Nazi ghettos and camps, having fled the Eastern Bloc, but he too did not stay there long; he spent most of his writing life in Paris, and killed himself by throwing himself into the Seine.

An ambivalent, vexed nostalgia for the lost world of their childhood unites these writers. It’s shocking when, on the eve of the German Anschluss of Austria, Roth, unsparing chronicler of the old monarchy, writes in letters that he wants his Habsburgs back. But more than any adoration for the 68-year Kaiser it is the simple sense of being a citizen of “the World of Yesterday,” as Stefan Zweig titled his memoirs. Granted, it was a stupid, vainglorious, pointless country, but it was the only one he could regard himself as a citizen of.

¤

Perloff’s book makes a claim for Austria-Hungary as a sort of spiritual homeland of modernism. Parisians and Londoners required a nudge toward recognizing fractured selves and the constitutive role of language; Kakanians simply lived these truths. Different languages, different worldviews, different ages circled through them, and warred within them. For a reader encountering Kraus’s monumental play The Last Days of Mankind without knowing much about its author, it’s easy to imagine that these scenes of Viennese life during the Great War are heightened comic flights of fancy. But many of the play’s most hilarious send-ups of empty phraseology are, in fact, quotations from the press, from pamphlets, from speeches. Austro-Hungarians didn’t have to look very hard to see that essences didn’t get one very far, that the self was, as Hermann Bahr put it, was “unsalvageable”: they simply had to listen.

This is a dimension of Austro-Hungarian history that is easily missed, since one of the distinguishing features of Kakania’s citizens was their acute eye for their society’s dysfunctions well before it actually came apart. Austria-Hungary was, as Musil put it, an “a state just barely able to go along with itself.” To its more cynical citizens, which was pretty much all of them, it was over long before it was over. And to its sentimental citizens, which again was largely all of them, it was an object of nostalgia even while it was still around.

The irony of these writers was not, even at its most public-facing, satirical. After all, as Perloff remarks, satire “posits the possibility for reform”: it attacks the existing culture with a view to how things ought to be. Roth and Musil satirize a world no longer afforded the luxury of reform; if anything they are only able to imagine how things ought to have been. They resurrect, often painstakingly, the hollow cant of an earlier era, without false affection, but also perhaps without being able to muster the inquisitorial cruelty of a Thomas Bernhard or an Ingeborg Bachmann. And if the past at times sets an exacting standard by which the present can be judged, they do not therefore regard it as superior: “colloquial and newspaper German should thank God should it ever be on that level again at which Schopenhauer deemed it rebarbative,” as Kraus’s aptly named alter ego “The Complainer” (Der Nörgler) remarks in The Last Days of Mankind.

Kakanians had to put their faith in something, even in something as thoroughly negated by history as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. “If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put,” Wittgenstein wrote. Kakania furnished the phantom hinges on which these writers’ work turned. The protagonists of Edge of Irony do not belong to the celebrated generation of Schnitzler, Mahler, and Freud, for whom the widening gyres of imperial circulation opened up new possibilities and spaces. Freud and Mahler had followed the natural path from the provinces to Vienna: the capital was their destination and their destiny, it would either kill them or make them famous, often both at once. For Roth’s generation, Vienna was the object of a transit. They’d strafe it in passing, they were prevented by history from ever coming into its orbit, and Perloff’s subtitle suggests that perhaps there was no longer an object to orbit in the first place. All there was was a shadow.

This is the common route of the band of itinerants Perloff traces in Edge of Irony, and the very regularity of their orbits renders her periodization somewhat fuzzy. These missed approaches to Vienna existed before the Empire imploded, and continued, as she points out, well into the post-Kakanian reaches of Austrian literature: Thomas Bernhard’s characters, for one, have a funny way of fuming about Vienna while staying resolutely put. And Perloff is perhaps too quick to group a man like Kraus, who was born in Bohemia but moved to Vienna at age three, and who if anything evinced a pronounced desire to escape rather than to return, with men like Canetti or Celan, who were forever executing missed approaches.

But in identifying a particular mode of not quite making it to Vienna, Perloff unearths an interesting and perhaps underappreciated streak of repulsed provincialism. Austro-Modernism, she shows, was not primarily a creation of the metropolitan culture. The metropolis had a role to play, but more as a structuring absence; her writers belong “not only to the historical edge” of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but “to its geographical edges.” It was in the provinces that the different languages, alphabets, systems of governance, and belief made a unique alloy of each imperial subject. With a wry pseudo-anthropological tone, Musil’s narrator claims that every human being has nine characters: “He unites them in himself, but they dissolve him, so that he is really nothing more than a small basin hollowed out by these many streamlets that trickle into it and drain out of it again, to join other such rills in filling some other basin.”

Language organized not just communities, but even families. Canetti framing his childhood memories as a matter of the “tongue” is symptomatic for the way language organized Kakanian biography. How one came to acquire one’s particular bundle of languages carried enormous significance: What language different members of the family spoke, who they spoke it to, or refused to speak it to. Growing up in newly formed Bulgaria to Vienna-educated parents, Elias Canetti first encountered German as his parents’ secret language of romance. No wonder these writers developed as good an ear for family dynamics as they did for language. No wonder too that they regarded both with as much suspicion as admiration.

Perloff is deeply sensitive to the fact that German, which was the language in which these writers published, existed for them always in the context of a garrulous heteroglossia; indeed, their work doesn’t sound German at all “to an Austrian ear like my own.” This linguistic sensitivity pays enormous dividends in her discussion of Celan’s poetry: where Celan is often seen deploying German, that “language of the murderers” (Mördersprache), against itself, Perloff sees his poetry emerging from an Austrian provincial idiolect that “inevitably turns to combination in the process of absorbing the ‘purer’ forms of the dominant languages.” But we can see its traces also in Kraus’s intense moralizing of language, as when he charges that Heine “loosened the corset on the German language that today every salesclerk can finger her breasts.”

Perloff’s sensitive account makes clear that while these writers’ Judaism tethered them to the Empire through language, their peculiar mode of attachment was a far more universal thing. It was just that the easy nationalistic flight into the language of “the people” remained barred to them. At the end of Roth’s 1932 novel Radetzky March, a multiethnic gathering learns of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Some Magyars begin cheering, while pan-Slavists and German nationalists run riot. In the midst of the tumult Lieutenant von Trotta, scion of a Slovenian peasant who has been accidentally elevated to nobility, stands stunned as “the Fatherland of the Trottas was splintering and crumbling.” Roth makes clear that these men are not discovering their true identity; they are playing a role. They are, in this moment, amputating a part of their selves that has become inconvenient. Jewish grandparents, Croatian roots, and recently acquired titles all disappear to make way for old grudges founded largely on fictions.

Roth’s sense that nationalism is a willful self-mutilation can’t help but resonate in 2017. The new nationalism of border walls and Brexit is all about retreat, about base tribalism, and about forgetting the very things that actually made one’s country great. It would have been all too familiar to this final generation of Kakanians. Perloff’s book, generous, warm-hearted, and openly nostalgic, is both an expedition into her own past — her family fled Vienna in 1938 — and a letter to our present moment. Any trip to an EU airport, where multiethnic families chatter away in multiple languages, calls to mind the linguistic crazy quilt of Austria-Hungary, as much as the linguistic monomania of Farage, of Orbán, of Le Pen recalls those forces that tore Kakania apart.

It is easy, even seductive, to see one’s own time reflected in Kakania’s mirror, if for no other reason than that few ages seem to have matched the late Austro-Hungarian Empire in self-consciousness. The Kakanians were like Wile E. Coyote after he’s bounded off the cliff’s edge, obsessively staring into the abyss where the ground once was. Its citizens had borne its contradiction with requisite irony and misplaced faith, and perhaps this is why their way of life still fascinates us today. Perloff is right to suggest that, in Kakania, irony was no longer an oppositional stance; it was the only stance. In Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 (1899/1900), the final movement, has the composer’s note that it is to be sung “without a hint of parody.” Yet the text Mahler wants his soprano to present perfectly straight-faced is at times savagely ironic: while “we enjoy heavenly pleasures,” the saints graphically butcher half a farm’s worth of animals. Nothing is more ironic in Austria at the turn of the century than sincerity.

It is safe to say now, in January 2017, that we have failed to learn from Kakania’s example. When faced with a situation seemingly stolen from The Man Without Qualities in November, the United States would have been well served by a bit of Musilian irony. A patience with the limits of political aspiration, a tolerance for confusion and non-transparency, a sense that humanity dwells in the eternal muddling along. Kakania offered a chance to describe a present that we understand as deeply dysfunctional, riven with potentially irreconcilable contradiction, and yet to lend expression to the fear that whatever might follow, were it to give way, would be far worse indeed. Will it be long before we other Kakanians mourn a long-gone nation “just barely able to go along with itself”?

¤

Adrian Daub is professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature at Stanford University.