IF YOU ARE ASKED about literary modernism in the German language, you think of Thomas Mann? Bertolt Brecht? Can we include film, you might ask, and then add, reluctantly, Leni Riefenstahl? Or maybe not, given her Triumph of the Will. While we know that the German word moderne occurred frequently in journal and book titles over the turn of the 20th century, expressing that self-consciousness about being “modern” intrinsic to modernism, the actual cultural production of modernism in Germany still seems scanter than expected. Remember, however, that the term “modernism” has been applied for the most part retrospectively, and mainly from British and American standpoints: the momentous events of 1914–’45 have shaped the cultural and literary histories we have written about the earlier century, giving the victors the privilege of ignoring much.

Can this account for the shadow that has fallen over the modernist literature of interwar Austria? Karl Kraus, Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Elias Canetti, and Ludwig Wittgenstein: most of these names are known, though at least half of them — Kraus, Canetti, Musil — might prompt a confession that one should know more than one does. Take Musil. He may be recognized, even renowned, but more often than not he is overlooked; invoked, but unread, so that his status is still undersized in relation to the length and accomplishment of his immense, if unfinished, novel The Man Without Qualities. The others are better known, yes, but to varying degrees and in very different ways: Roth’s career and Celan’s ended early, while Wittgenstein’s writings hover somewhere between analytical and discursive philosophy, between the German of his Viennese origins and the English of his later academic residence in Cambridge. If this is the canon of the modernist literature of interwar Austria, it is a body of writing which, to be held together, requires a strongly binding critical narrative.

One of the problems in our conceptions of this literature may be the result of that all-too-available marker of geopolitical time and space: “interwar Austria.” The term is too cool and neutral, too adequately curt. This is the shortfall Marjorie Perloff is attempting to correct as she resizes its referent to appropriate scope in the subtitle of her new book — Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire. What the otherwise blandly accurate “interwar Austria” really tells, in this reckoning, is a story of loss whose emotions are scaled to the magnitude of the difference between the Habsburg Empire of 1914 and the “Austria” of the “interwar” period.

The difference in dimensional identity is immense: an empire of 240,000 square miles contracts into a nation of 32,000; a diverse population of 50 million people shrinks to six. Invisibly, but measurable in the longer-lived histories of language and literature — the multiple tongues of a multiethnic culture lose their place in the loosely polyglot skein of the dually monarchical Austro-Hungarian federation. Far from speaking out with a new sense of long suppressed autonomy, however, these speakers drift toward Vienna like orphans of the storm. It is in the cultural capital of this now disaggregated empire that Perloff finds the force field and staging area of a literary sensibility founded on loss and mourning, and whose works become newly coherent due to the critical narrative she tells so powerfully.

In the larger critical picture of modernism — or modernisms — Vienna has not lacked its place. Among the capitals of urban modernity, the city has stood equally with London, Paris, and Berlin, with New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and is rightly seen to have fostered the modernist imaginations and intelligences of Freud and Schoenberg, Mahler and Rilke, as well as the figures in Perloff’s own census. In previous understandings, however, Vienna stands more or less on its own — a metropolis without a country, a cultural capital without a political history. So, the critical accounts of the modernist art, music, and literature of the city have tended to generalize across the more standardized maps of pan-European and transatlantic modernisms.

What Perloff’s account provides is an understanding of a Viennese modernism within the history of a fallen Austrian state, where, with compelling clarity, she reconstructs and conveys a sense of the gravity specific to those conditions: “ironic, satiric, darkly humorous” most of the time, alternately “erotic” and even “slightly mystical.” These characteristics are not unknown in the literatures of other modernisms, but Perloff provides a frame of reference and a framework of analysis that allow each of these features to be tuned up, as it were, to be amplified and clarified, to be heard as the sounds history was making in a literature of major record.

In any critical reading of this literature, the most substantial challenges probably come from Roth’s Radetzky March and Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Commonly acknowledged as landmark texts, these books nonetheless lack a commensurate critical bibliography, no doubt because their tones as well as their times have proven so difficult to fix. Written in the early 1930s, situating its fiction over the long turn of the century and signaling awareness of the Great War only incidentally and elliptically, Roth’s novel follows a provincial family’s unlikely rise to status within the military culture of the Habsburg world. The major point of critical and interpretative interest is the attitude in which the novelist is framing the polities and rituals of this erstwhile world, which he observes with sometimes loving punctilio. Similarly, Musil’s magnum opus, which was begun in the early 1920s and written across several decades — its story is also set in a prewar moment (1913), but it keeps overlaying that signal instant with images of later times, offering a sometimes hyper-vigilant degree of circumstantial detail in the wrong historical moment. That is only the most manifest sign of the challenges this book presents to any historically informed reading. It is not for nothing that Perloff dubs Roth’s book “a deeply ambivalent and complex novel” and Musil’s a compendium of “absurd contradictions,” however “deliciously absurd” such contradictions may be. In what imaginative tense, then, is the history within this literature being situated, and in what register of feeling do we hear the authorial voices recording it?

Perloff’s response to these questions stands as one of the major accomplishments of this book. The answers — in a shortened version of a more widely working critical narrative — are in double-time, and in double-speak. In double-time: The account of a world no longer there as though it still were; this is the temporal imaginary of Roth’s novel, where the overlay of foregone fact and knowing retrospect creates an utterly irreducible complex of tones, so that “the ostensible realism of the narrative is itself a form of irony.” Perhaps the best word for the composite quality of feeling here is nostalgia, in the root sense of the term: not an emotionally twilit past, not a Disneyland of fuzzy feeling, but the pain of return, where loss is renewed rather than assuaged in revisiting what is gone but cannot be let go.

Similarly, for Musil, where “seeing double” in time de-familiarizes not just the past but also the present and even the future: in a book that is still recognizably an “historical novel,” the impaired status of historical fact transforms our understanding not just of what did happen but what is happening and even what will or might happen. The reader’s experience of history is thus “coupled with an awareness of the possible, the contingent, the subjunctive.” This dimension of possibility opens up an appreciation not just of the essayistic form of the novel, where those possibilities are modeled in a semi-discursive or pseudo-discursive way, but with the very history of its composition: a novel committed to an unbound future has a hard time reaching an end. Beyond these critical conceits, however, it is Perloff’s capacity as a reader of these texts, both in the original and in translation, that makes her account uniquely persuasive. She is known primarily as a critic, apologist, and controversialist in the scene of contemporary poetry and poetics, and it is her mastery of close and subtle reading of prose that makes her case so compelling.

Beyond the decisive accounts of Roth and Musil, this book presents a gathering of companion talents and of miscellaneous accomplices, most of whom contribute to a composite understanding of a lost continent in the geography of modernism. These writers are all citizens in the state of existential homelessness; while they are all co-natural to the German tongue, they share a more profound imaginative apprehension that this is a second language, the speech of the state of the secondary, a condition that speaks to — and from — the Jewishness which almost all of these writers share.

The literary implications of this condition are spelled out tellingly across Perloff’s review of the other careers: Canetti gives the impression of writing in “the language of the always already translated”; Wittgenstein “of never being at home in language”; Celan of taking verbal irony “to its final conclusion, which is to say, to a refusal to define, to assert, to take a stand.” This is an idiom recognizable, even familiar in the modernism of Beckett or Joyce, Wallace Stevens or Gertrude Stein, but it comes here with an historical specificity which, in lacking an established narrative beforehand, helps to explain why it has taken this long to be recorded.

For Parisian or Anglo-American or Weimar modernism, then, this book provides not so much a substitute or alternative modernism, as Perloff sometimes suggests, as a kind of radical “modernism” — again, in the root sense of the word. The Latin modo means not “modern” or “contemporary,” not really “today” or “now,” but “just now.” A critical instant, a precipitous moment, a blink (and brink) of time. The word occurs for the first time in the 6th century, as the Roman empire is falling apart, when it conveys a sense of that most exceptional present, a time of crisis, when even the measures of temporality itself are in question. And if distant antiquity seems like a long reach for this critical narrative of mid-20th-century modernism, Perloff’s new book claims that extended memory — and some of its echoing depths — as a resonance for her powerful account.

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Vincent Sherry is Howard Nemerov Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis.