June 1, 2012

The life and work of Ödön von Horváth


Ödön von Horváth, author of the novels The Eternal Philistine and Youth Without God — the first in print and the second forthcoming from Melville House — died on this day, June 1st in 1938. He was 36. Although Horváth’s life ended in a Paris not yet at war, the Nazis are inescapably responsible for his cruelly ironic death.

Horváth was prolific. His work, especially the twenty-one plays published during his lifetime, won him international repute and praise from Weimar confreres Joseph Roth, Carl Zuckmayer, and Bertolt Brecht.  As judge, Zuckmayer awarded the 1931 Kleist Prize, the republic’s most prestigious, to Horváth’s play Tales from the Vienna Woods.

After the Nazis suspended the republic and established the Third Reich, Horváth’s works were proscribed. He fled, to Prague and Vienna and then, after the Anschluss in 1938, to Paris. With his death Horváth’s renown declined and his plays were rarely performed. (A production of Tales from the Vienna Woods provoked rioting when it was staged in Vienna not long after the war.)

Ironically, it was a lesser-known work, Horváth’s novel Youth Without God, first published by the Dial Press as The Age of the Fish in 1939, which preceded publication of the plays in English. In the 1970s and ’80s Christopher Hampton and Horváth’s fellow Hungarian émigré Martin Esslin translated the plays, leading to renewed interest in the English-speaking theater. Productions of Horváth’s plays are no longer unusual, especially in London. Hampton has even made Horváth the narrator of his own play, Tales from Hollywood, which imagines Horváth surviving 1938 and emigrating, as so many of his compatriots did, to southern California.

Like Kafka, Rilke, Roth, Musil, Zweig, and Freud, all offspring of the polyglot Austro-Hungarian empire, Horváth wrote in German.

“If you ask me what is my native country, I answer: I was born in Fiume, grew up in Belgrade, Budapest, Pressburg, Vienna and Munich, and I have a Hungarian passport, but I have no fatherland. I am a very typical mix of old Austria-Hungary: at once Magyar, Croatian, German and Czech; my country is Hungary; my mother tongue is German.”

It’s possible that this mélange of influences intensified the sensitivity to language — and its alienating effects — that is notable in Horváth’s novels. (Horváth was apparently unable to write in his “mother tongue” until adolescence.) As Michael Mitchell writes in the afterword to his translation of Tales from the Vienna Woods, “[Horváth’s] later plays however, although still betraying sympathy with the situation of the exploited classes, are more concerned with the way language is used for self-deception…. Seen as products of the situation in central Europe in the 1930s, what they show is not so much the specific political details of the rise of fascism as the potential receptiveness to fascism of these shallow, self-deceiving individuals.”

According to A Companion to Twentieth-Century German Literature, “It was whilst Horváth was about to visit Robert Siodmak to discuss the filming of Jugend ohne Gott [Youth Without God] that he was struck and killed by a falling branch on the Champs-Élysées during a thunderstorm.” Youth Without God is a representation of individual conscience subject to an unnamed totalitarian state. Siodmak escaped to Hollywood the following year. Jugend ohne Gott was finally filmed for German television in 1991. In 1946 Siodmak directed Burt Lancaster’s debut in the adaptation of Hemingway’s story The Killers and was nominated for the Academy Award.


Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.