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The Eternal Philistine

with an Introduction by Shalom Auslander

Part of The Neversink Library

“At the World’s Fair in Paris I once lost my late husband and, just then, an elegant gentleman accosted me. As I look at him, he opens up his overcoat and hasn’t got anything on underneath. I only mention this in passing.”

This never-before translated work by a major yet overlooked mid-20th century writer is a brutally funny look at the human comedy on the eve of Europe’s descent into Fascism.

It tells the tale of a failed used car salesman who wants to live the high life, and so decides to travel by train from Munich to Barcelona to attend the World’s Fair—in hopes of meeting a beautiful, rich woman who will provide for his every whim.

It’s a highly stylized and, at times, raucously funny tale of the almost-absurd: a dark and satiric look at Europeans, and especially Germans, on the brink of cataclysm. Adrift in their acquisitive desires, they are vulnerable to the propaganda of the State—making this novel brilliantly foresightful in its understanding of politics and human nature at a crucial point in modern history.

Ödön von Horváth’s scathing insight, in fact, led to his having to flee the very society he depicted when, living in Berlin, he drew the wrath of the Nazis. And yet this hilarious tour-de-force—written just after his escape, and just before his death in a tragic accident—eschews bitterness for rambunctious perseverance and compassion, and provides ample evidence of why von Horváth deserves renewed appreciation.

ÖDÖN VON HORVÁTH (1901–1939) was born near Trieste, the son of a Hungarian diplomat who moved the family constantly. Horváth would subsequently say of himself, “I am a mélange of Old Austria; Hungarian, Croat, Czech, German; alas, nothing Semitic.” Although his first language was Hungarian, he went to high school in Vienna and college in Munich, and began writing plays in German. Leaving school, he settled in Berlin, where in 1931 his play Italian Night debuted to rave reviews—except from the Nazi press, which reviled him. His next play, Tales from the Vienna Woods, starring Peter Lorre, drew an even stronger, equally divided re-sponse. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 he relocated to Vienna, but on the day of the Anschluss—March 13, 1938—he fled to Budapest. From there, he soon moved to Paris, but on June 1, 1938, he was killed in a freak accident when, caught in a rainstorm coming out of a theater on the Champs-Élysées, he took shelter under a tree that was hit by lightning; von Horváth was struck by a falling tree limb and killed instantly. He was 36 years old and had published 21 plays and three novels—The Age of the Fish, A Child of Our Time, and The Eternal Philistine.

SHALOM AUSLANDER is the author of Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir, Beware of God, and the forthcoming novel Hope: A Tragedy. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, New York Magazine, and elsewhere, and he is a regular commentator on the NPR program “This American Life.”

“Horváth had turned his back on the mournful realism of the émigrés, with their passion for easy caricature and their desire for revenge. He had realized with extraordinary acuteness that to meet the horror of reality with a horror literature was no lon- ger possible or useful; that the reality of Fascism was in fact so overwhelming and catastrophic that no realism, particularly the agonized naturalism of the twentieth century, could do it justice.” —Alfred Kazin

“Ödön von Horváth was a brilliant German writer…. He makes the truth irresistible.” —Edmund Wilson

“Horváth is better than Brecht.” —Peter Handke

“One of the best Austrian writers … In every line of his prose there is an unmistakable hatred for the kind of German philistinism that made the German murder, the Third Reich, possible.” —Joseph Roth

“The most gifted of the young dramatists, and above and beyond the brightest mind….” —Carl Zuckmayer

“These works remain steps. But they lead to great heights.” —Franz Werfel

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