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von Horváth, Ödön

Ödön von Horváth

Hungarian writer Ödön von Horváth (1901–1938) captured in his novels and plays the degradation of language and the bitterness of lower-middle-class life that preceded the emergence of Nazism. Well known in German-speaking countries, he is regarded as a writer who saw fascism coming and grasped the underlying social trends that produced it.

Afew of Horváth's works deal directly with the early fascist era; two of the novels he wrote at the end of his short life were widely translated and read as the clouds of world war gathered. His 17 plays, however, are seen only occasionally outside of the German linguistic sphere, for they are uniquely difficult to translate. This difficulty stems from the most characteristic feature of Horváth's work—his fascination with, and frequently satirical attitude toward, the speech patterns of common people. That was a trait Horváth shared with another German-language dramatist of his time, Bertolt Brecht, although in other respects the works of the two are very different. In Germany today Horváth and Brecht are regarded as the two greatest dramatists of the era between the world wars.

Had Multilingual Upbringing

Horváth was born on December 9, 1901, in the city of Fiume, on the Adriatic Sea at the southern extremity of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is now Rijeka, Croatia. Horváth's father was an Austro-Hungarian diplomat, and his mother was of Czech background. Speaking mostly German at home, Horváth became fluent or near-fluent in a large number of languages: German, Hungarian, Serbo-Croatian, Czech, Yiddish, French, and Latin. His family moved frequently from place to place; his father was sent to Munich, Germany, in 1909, but Horváth went to an Episcopal church school in Budapest until 1913. He spent three years in school in Munich, often arguing with a religiously oriented teacher, and his academic career worsened when he was sent to school in Pressburg (now Bratislava, Slovakia) and was almost expelled after writing a satirical essay that pilloried his professors. Adding to the instability of his life was the upheaval of World War I; he was quoted as saying in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay that "my life begins with the declaration of war…. The World War darkened our youth, and we hardly have any childhood memories."

Horváth passed high school exams in Vienna after the war. His parents had bought a house in the mountain resort town of Murnau, and he enrolled at the University of Munich in 1920. Theater classes interested him, but he was a mostly indifferent student, throwing himself into side projects such as a pantomime play a student composer asked him to write. Five hundred copies of the play, titled Das Buch der Tänze (The Book of Dances), were printed, but Horváth later bought them all up and destroyed them. He also wrote satirical short stories for the magazine Simplizissimus. In 1922 he dropped out of school without finishing and spent time at his parents' house in Murnau, and in Paris. He moved to Berlin, the freewheeling German capital and the center of German intellectual life, in 1924.

Horváth made friends among German creative figures such as Carl Zuckmayer, who encouraged his attempts to write. For several years he worked for a nonprofit group, the German League for Human Rights. This stint gave him raw materials for his creative works, as did his habit of spending time on the fringes of society—he liked to sit and write in cafés frequented by circus performers, for example. Horváth's first major play, Die Bergbahn (The Mountain Railroad), was begun in 1927 and premiered in 1929. It was based on real-life labor strife that broke out after several workers died while building a cable-car system in the Bavarian mountains.

His next play, Zur schönen Aussicht (The Pleasant View Hotel), featured a group of shady characters hiding out in a cheap hotel. From this point on, Horváth would set his works mostly among petit-bourgeois or lower-middle-class people whom he treated satirically but not unsympathetically. His female characters, especially, were depicted as being forced to select from among bad choices in a corrupt society. Horváth's plays drew on the tradition of the Volksstück or folk play—a genre with a long German-language history featuring scenes of small town life. Horváth, however, turned the genre inside out in order to show what he saw as the negative influences of mass culture. His plays were often funny, and Krishna Winston, writing in the Massachusetts Review, likened them to the 1970s television series All in the Family. The malapropisms and bigotry of All in the Family's Archie Bunker could have come out of the mouth of a character in one of Horváth's plays, but, like the writers of All in the Family, Horváth did not condemn his characters but rather the society in which they lived. His characters spoke in what Horváth called Bildungsjargon—an "educated jargon" filled with massmedia clichés and, increasingly, extreme nationalism.

Sharpened Satire as Political Situation Deteriorated

Horváth wrote a novel called Der ewige Spiesser (The Eternal Philistine) in 1930, tracing the adventures of a rather crass car dealer and a journalist as they travel around Europe. He hit his stride as a dramatist in the early 1930s, just as Germany, having suffered through defeat in World War I and then through waves of crippling inflation and economic depression, was becoming polarized between leftist and fascist extremes. Sometimes Horváth's plays reflected political realities directly. His 1931 play Italienische Nacht (Italian Night) was a farce with dark undertones, depicting a clash between leftist and rightist social clubs in a Bavarian village. A fascist critic later took note of Horváth's stance of ridicule toward the Nazi party and warned that he was in for a surprise, but the play was a hit and won Horváth a major theatrical honor, the Kleist Prize.

More and more often, politics lurked under the surface in Horváth's writing. His 1931 play Geschichte aus dem Wiener Wald, with its title parodying that of a famous Johann Strauss waltz, eviscerated the sentimental myth of Old Vienna with its unflattering portrayals of the city's modern-day citizens; it, too, was a hit in Berlin, and Horváth emerged as one of Germany's best-known playwrights. His 1932 play Kasimir und Karoline brought his adult home town of Munich in for similar treatment; set entirely during the city's famous Oktoberfest, it is centered on a dysfunctional couple that breaks up amid the festivities.

Horváth wrote one more play in the Volksstück vein; Glaube Liebe Hoffnung (Faith, Hope, and Charity) was slated to be performed in Berlin in late 1932 and dealt with a woman who tries to sell her body to medical researchers. But as Adolf Hitler seized power in the first months of 1933, Horváth's situation quickly changed. His plays were banned in Germany and he was harassed by German police. The fact that he was a Hungarian national bought him some time, and he emigrated to Salzburg, Austria, and then made his way to Vienna, where some of his plays were produced in small underground theaters. While there he married a German Jewish singer, Maria Elsner. They divorced in 1934, and it is thought that the marriage had been undertaken in order to help Elsner gain Hungarian citizenship and evade German persecution.

At the beginning of the Nazi era, Horváth, along with other German writers, hoped that Hitler's government would not last. Horváth returned to Germany, wrote some uncontroversial movie scripts, and kept a close watch on developments. After police ransacked the Horváth family home in Murnau, however, he left Germany for good, settling in Vienna. He continued to write and to try to stage his plays in German-speaking areas of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Two of his plays of the mid-1930s, Figaro lässt sich scheiden (Figaro Gets a Divorce) and Don Juan kommt aus dem Krieg, transplanted characters from Mozart's operas into chaotic modern situations. Horváth's plays of the 1930s remained mostly unpublished until much later; cut off from German audiences, he was marginalized in the theatrical world.

Wrote Anti-Nazi Novel

Partly as a result, Horváth turned to writing fiction once again. In a six-month burst at the end of 1937 he wrote two novels, Jugend ohne Gott (Youth Without God) and Ein Kind unserer Zeit (A Child of Our Time). Jugend ohne Gott appeared in English, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Chinese. One English translation had the title The Age of the Fish, taken from a scrap of dialogue in the novel in which a minor character says, "Cold times are coming—the age of the fish. In these times, the human soul will become immovable, like the face of a fish." The novel's central figure is a school-teacher who hears Nazi slogans coming out of the mouths of his students, and becomes embroiled in a murder committed at a paramilitary training camp. One of the first writings that dealt with the experiences of ordinary people under fascism, the novel gained a wide readership in the West; its importation into Germany was banned, even though Horváth did not refer specifically anywhere in the book to the German state.

The link between fascism and the power of the mass media was a major theme in Jugend ohne Gott, as the teacher observes the way in which radio and newspapers shape the thinking of his students. The same theme echoes through Ein Kind unserer Zeit, the "child" of whose title is a soldier whose thinking is deformed by repetitive Nazi ideas. Winston referred to the continued relevance of Horváth's writing, noting that "thanks to television, our expression and our thoughts are increasingly dominated by advertising catch phrases, news clichés, technical jargon, political slogans, sports terminology, and other elements of prefabricated speech."

As German troops overran Austria in March of 1938, Horváth was forced to flee once again. He stayed briefly with a friend in Czechoslovakia and then made his way to Amsterdam in the Netherlands by way of Hungary, Italy, Switzerland, France, and Belgium. Plans were discussed for an American film version of Jugend ohne Gott, and Horváth spoke of moving to neutral Switzerland to work on a new book. Horváth visited a fortune-teller in Amsterdam, and she is said to have told him that in Paris, at the end of May, he would experience the greatest adventure of his life. Horváth avoided leaving his Paris hotel room for several days in late May, but when he went out on June 1, 1938, he was caught in a freak thunderstorm and killed by a falling tree branch.

Horváth's works were mostly forgotten for two decades after his death. When a younger generation of writers began to investigate the roots of German fascism, however, his work was rediscovered and the mix of anti-fascism and Christian humanist elements in his later works, which stood in contrast to the socialism of Brecht, was appreciated anew. Jugend ohne Gott was often assigned to German students, and even in translation, Horváth's work found new admirers. Kasimir und Karoline was staged in a new production in New York in 2005.

Books

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 85: Austrian Fiction Writers After 1914, Gale, 1989.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 124: Twentieth-Century German Dramatists, 1919–1992, Gale, 1992.

Four Plays by Ödön von Horváth, introduction by Martin Esslin, PAJ, 1986.

Huish, Ian, Horváth: A Study, Heinemann, 1980.

International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 2: Playwrights, St. James, 1993.

Periodicals

Massachusetts Review, Spring 1978.

Online

"Ödön von Horváth," Schlossmuseum Murnau, http://www.schlossmuseum-murnau.de/Rundgang7.htm (February 21, 2006).

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