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Menasse, Robert

MENASSE, Robert

Nationality: Austrian. Born: Vienna, 21 June 1954. Education: Studied literature, philosophy, and political science at universities in Vienna, Salzburg, and Messina, Ph.D. 1980. Career: Cofounder, Zentralorgan herumstreunender Germanisten (student magazine), 1979; guest assistant, Institute for Literary Theory, University of São Paulo, 1981-88. Since 1988 freelance writer. Writer-in-residence, Amsterdam, 1999. Awards: City of Vienna prize for literature, 1989; Heimito-von-Doderer prize of the Niederösterreichischen Society for Art and Culture, 1990; Hans Erich Nossack prize and Theodor-Körner-Stiftungsfonds prize for literature, both in 1992; Elias-Canetti scholarship, 1992-93; German Academic Exchange Service scholarship for study in Berlin, City of Marburg literary award, Alexander Sacher Masoch literary award, and Federal Ministry of Instruction and Art prize, all in 1994; City of Pirmasens Hugo Ball prize, 1996; Austrian state prize for Kulturpublizistik, 1998; Johann Jacob Christoph von Grimmelshausen prize, 1999.

Publications

Novels

Trilogie der Entgeisterung [Trilogy of the Breakdown of Spirit]:

Sinnliche Gewissheit [Sense Certainty]. 1988.

Selige Zeiten, brüchige Welt. 1991; as Wings of Stone, 2000.

Schubumkehr [Reverse Thrust]. 1995.

Die Vertreibung aus der Hölle [Expulsion from Hell]. 2001.

Other

Die sozialpartnerschaftliche Ästhetik: Essays zum österreichischen Geist [The Aesthetics of Social Partnership]. 1990.

Das Land ohne Eigenschaften: Essay zur österreichischen Identität [The Land without Qualities] 1992.

Phänomenologie der Entgeisterung: Geschichte des verschwindenden Wissens (philosophy). 1995.

Hysterien und andere historische Irrtümer. 1996.

Überbau und Underground: Die sozialpartnerschaftliche Ästhetik : Essays zum österreichischen Geist. 1997.

Die letzte Märchenprinzessin, with Elisabeth and Eva Menasse (for children). 1997.

Der mächtigste Mann, with Elisabeth and Eva Menasse (caricature of President Bill Clinton). 1998.

Dummheit ist machbar: Begleitende Essays zum Stillstand der Republik. 1999.

Erklär mir Österreich: Essays zur österreichischen Geschichte [Explain Austria to Me]. 2000.

Translator, Das Fest, by Ivan Angelo. 1992.

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Critical Studies:

"The Fragmentation of Totality in Robert Menasse's Selige Zeiten, brüchige Welt " by Peter Arnds, and "Of Inclusions and Exclusions: Austrian Identity Reconsidered" by Renate S. Posthofen, both in Transforming the Center, Eroding the Margins: Essays on Ethnic and Cultural Boundaries in German-Speaking Countries, edited by Posthofen and Dagmar C.G. Lorenz, 1998; "On Despotic Mothers and Dethroned Patriarchs: Barbara Frischmuth's Über die Verhältnisse and Robert Menasse's Selige Zeiten, brüchige Welt " by Peter Arnds, in Barbara Frischmuth in Contemporary Context, edited by Renate S. Posthofen, 1999; "Robert Menasse's Concept of Anti-Heimat Literature" by Michael P. Olson, in Austria in Literature, edited by Donald G. Daviau, 2000.

* * *

Born in Vienna in 1954, Robert Menasse belongs to the generation of Jewish writers whose parents fled Austria and Germany during the Nazi period and then returned in the late 1940s and '50s to resume their interrupted lives. Like many of this "second generation" of German and Austrian Jewish writers (Robert Schindel , Barbara Honigmann, Maxim Biller), Menasse has not written about the events of the Holocaust directly but rather addressed their residues in postwar and contemporary Austrian politics and culture. Unlike Schindel, however, for whom the Holocaust operates as a tangible point of reference for the contemporary relationships between Jewish and non-Jewish Austrians, Menasse investigates Nazi persecution only from the periphery, from the perspective of forced exile, and even this experience remains an often indirect and implicit theme in his fictional work. Indeed, his work rarely directly refers to the events in Europe between 1933 and 1945, and thus the Holocaust as a catastrophic event functions as an elusive force that informs his writing above all through its absence.

Menasse's oeuvre consists of novels, essays, and philosophical writings. In several volumes of essays published during the 1990s—Die sozialpartnerschaftliche Ästhetik (1990; "The Aesthetics of Social Partnership"), Das Land ohne Eigenschaften (1992; "The Land without Qualities"), and Erklär mir Österreich (2000; "Explain Austria to Me")—he investigates the literature and the political discourse of Austria's Second Republic, revealing an Austrian cultural identity founded simultaneously on the repression of its involvement in the Nazi persecution of the European Jews and on an obsession with fantasies of its own victimization under "foreign" occupation by the National Socialists. According to Menasse, Austrian society is caught in a schizophrenic holding pattern of "either-or," oscillating between the periodic acknowledgement of its role as perpetrator and the retreat into the attitude of victim.

Menasse is perhaps best known for his novelistic work, which includes Trilogie der Entgeisterung ("Trilogy of the Breakdown of Spirit," referring to G.W.F. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit ), published between 1988 and 1995, and Die Vertreibung aus der Hölle (2001; "Expulsion from Hell"). The novels of the trilogy, Sinnliche Gewissheit (1988; "Sense Certainty"), Selige Zeiten, brüchige Welt (1991; Wings of Stone, 2000), and Schubumkehr (1995; "Reverse Thrust"), center on the lives of three characters among whom the narrative perspective alternates. The protagonist of the first and third novels is the Austrian expatriate Roman Gilanian, who meets the Austrian-Jewish characters Leo Singer and Judith Katz in a bar in São Paulo. The second novel of the series explores Leo and Judith's stories from the beginning of their relationship in Vienna until Judith's death in São Paulo 18 years later.

A major leitmotiv in Trilogie der Entgeisterung is the notion of homelessness and exile; for Leo and Judith, the children of Jewish refugees who fled to Brazil in the late 1930s and, in the case of Leo's parents, who eventually returned to Austria, home cannot be found in Austria or Brazil. Alienated from Austria by both their Jewishness and the legacy of Austrian persecution in their families and seen as foreigners by the Brazilian natives, both characters are caught in a no-man's land between cultures and identities. In the third novel, which critics have described as an anti-Heimatroman (a critique of the Austrian/German genre of "homeland literature"), Roman returns in 1989 to an unknown and unrecognizable Austria caught between its repressed fascist past and the beginning of the "end" of history with the fall of the Iron Curtain. All three characters vacillate between the two geographical poles of their experience, searching but never finding a center point at which they would be able to ground their identities.

In addition to highlighting the problems of disconnected Jewish identity after 1945, Menasse's novels participate in a larger discourse on fascism and the Holocaust by making implicit comparisons between the Nazi period and other totalitarian regimes. In the trilogy readers can recognize the similarities between the Nazi rise to power in Germany and the Brazilian military coup of 1964; Judith witnesses the sudden disappearance of opponents after the coup, and Leo is banned from teaching at Brazilian universities after the student riots of 1968. Die Vertreibung aus der Hölle presents two stories of persecution and expulsion, separated by several centuries. Juxtaposed with the story of Manoel, a Jew threatened by the Inquisition in seventeenth-century Portugal, is that of Victor, whose father was forced to flee his native Austria after the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938). In this novel, as with all of Menasse's work, the protagonists do not themselves experience the sites of suffering, neither in the Inquisition nor in the Holocaust. By avoiding reference to the particular moment of violent persecution, however, Menasse is able to draw parallels between the modi operandi of oppressive regimes and at the same time to insist on the uniqueness of the individual experience.

—Erin McGlothlin

See the essay on Wings of Stone.

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