About the Author and Her Work
For Reichart, born in 1953, the silence she first confronts is one that hides the fascist past of contemporary Austrian reality. Her first novel, the best seller February Shadows (1984), dares to fill the void of speechlessness; it puts into words the historical event called the Rabbit Hunt of the Mill District. During the night preceding February 2, 1945, the inhabitants of a small village aided the National Socialists in hunting down and murdering nearly 500 Soviet prisoners of war who had escaped from the concentration camp Mauthausen. Set in post-war Austria, the novel relates how the protagonist struggles between forgetting and remembering this night. Slowly, painfully, bits of the past resurface, until the carefully constructed dam of repressed memory breaks and the past—with all its horror, shame, and guilt—informs the present.
Upon publication of this novel, Reichart was heralded as one of a growing number of young authors whose books revisited the question of Austrian involvement in World War II. Events of the mid-eighties, in particular the 1986 presidential campaign of Kurt Waldheim and the fiftieth anniversary of Austria’s annexation in 1988, prompted the younger generation to reinvestigate previously accepted versions and explanations of history. Were the Austrians in fact victims of Hitler’s aggression, or is this status a myth that allows the country to maintain its pristine image and ignore its historical culpability? Where is the line between innocence and guilt, between active resistance, willing collaboration, and passive acquiescence?
Many of these same questions and themes resurface in the novel from 1988 titled Komm über den See (Come Across the Lake). Based on her own doctoral research into women resistance fighters during the Third Reich, it provides an additional example of Reichart’s attempt to explore denied history. In focusing on women’s role in the resistance movement, she addresses an omission in the traditional presentation of this time period and its actors. The author has stated that in her first two novels she felt compelled to tell the stories of the real victims of fascism, in particular of the women who have been largely excluded from public dialogue to date (DeMeritt, Ensberg 16-17). The protagonist toils to piece together a past circumscribed by loyalties in addition to betrayals, acts of bravery as well as cowardice, among female resistance fighters. Thus it is a nuanced telling in which the female figures are not mere objects of history, but subjects who recognize their own responsibility, and sometimes guilt, for events. As such, Reichart’s novel contributes to efforts begun in the sixties by writers and historians alike to illuminate the role of women under Nazism, for example the pioneering study of historian Claudia Koonz titled Mothers in the Fatherland.
In these first two novels as in all of her works, Reichart approaches the past from the perspective of the present. Like the author Christa Wolf, she believes that the past is not dead, but rather remains an integral part of personal and national identity. Her novel from 1995 titled Nachtmär (Nighttale) must be read as the attempt to make visible an invisible past and its invisible legacy, namely the obliteration of the Jewish presence in Austrian society past and present. Just as their parents and grandparents refused refuge to the persecuted under Nazism, Reichart’s four main characters rebuff their Jewish friend, who then retraces the footsteps of her ancestors and ultimately disappears. Identity is determined by absence, and silence guarantees its perpetuation. This parallels Austrian reality where cultural identity is also determined by Jews who are no longer present, either physically or in the collective memory. As Reichart notes in the conclusion of an essay celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war: "Fifty years of democracy. Fifty years of peace. This would be reason to celebrate. … But there are no guests to invite. We never asked the expelled Jews to come back and stay" ("Lebkuchenherz" 44).
According to social historian Margarete Mitscherlich, to avoid repetition of the past in the present, any attempt to confront that past must deal not so much with the specific content of a historical system as with its underlying societal structures (14). For Reichart, history is more than an event, more than a recounting of facts. The author seeks to understand the motives and reasons behind the facts, asking why an individual might act in such fashion. She depicts everyday people, predominantly women, searching for words in the midst of speechlessness, searching for identity at the crossroads of decision, even as social forces located within the family, school, and church consistently thwart this search. Central to each of the author’s works is the dialectic between public realities and private lives. Is self-determination possible in the face of seemingly overwhelming political, historical, and social pressures? To what extent is an individual governed by free will as opposed to imposed expectations, roles, presumptions, and socialization processes?
One theme that emerges from Reichart’s analysis of societal structures is the continuity of fascism. Although National Socialism has disappeared as a political system, Reichart’s work reveals that as a mechanism of power it nonetheless retains control over thinking. State institutions inculcate the values of obedience, subordination, and submissiveness, and in doing so they perpetuate into the present a state of what has been labeled "personal fascism" by literary critic Regina Kecht (315). Everyday fascism, as an authoritarian and hierarchical mode of thought and behavior based on discrimination and lack of equality, renders attempts at self-definition futile and interpersonal relations hence potentially exploitative and explosive. War, understood both as a realistic setting as well as a psychological and philosophical point of departure, is imminent for Reichart’s figures. Each of the author’s works is an example of what critic Elaine Martin has termed "’war literature,’" not in the narrow sense of depicting a specific outbreak of war, but rather defined more broadly as texts whose subtext is violence (12). Each portrays a general state of war, of latent violence and violation that may at any time erupt into an incident of actual abuse.
The brutalization and debasement of those outside the structures of society by those ensconced within them—this is Reichart’s core topic, and most frequently it finds expression in the power relations between men and women. The potential for violence in our society is located within unequal gender relations, within the values and principles of patriarchy as instilled by social roles and institutions, in particular the family. For the author, the family unit is a means by which the state imposes the virtues of conformity. It serves as a microcosm of a system where the strong rule over the weak, and men prevail over women. Reichart’s texts picture historical fascism as well as "everyday fascism" in the present, for the structures of male domination have remained constant. Women are not necessarily less predisposed to violence than are men; rather, the difference lies in the socialization process each gender undergoes. Violence is a question of power, and within contemporary patriarchy it is men who wield that power.
More than any other work, Reichart’s novel Fotze (1993) thematizes the relationship between sexuality, violence, and language, thereby once again probing territory considered taboo. The title of the work expresses this relationship. In Austrian German, Fotze not only means a derogatory term for the vagina, but also denotes the mouth and a slap in the face. Although the novel’s concrete historical impetus was the rape and brutality against women committed daily in the Yugoslavian war, it depicts above all the suppression of women as reflected and perpetrated through public speech. The narrator experiences first-hand the effect of the language of domination and seeks an alternative, a language of self-realization. However, she cannot escape the thought patterns and structures of her society; she is too conditioned to break out of her prison and must ultimately assume contemporary discourse or fall silent.
In Reichart’s most recent novel, Das vergessene Lächeln der Amaterasu (The Forgotten Smile of the Amaterasu) (1998), the protagonist faces a loss of language and confrontation of taboo similar in many ways to earlier female figures, but rendered all the more radical and absolute through the foreignness of a different culture and the rigidity of its patriarchal system. The novel depicts how Alwina, an artist from Vienna, accompanies her Japanese boyfriend back to his homeland, where her curiosity and anticipation provoke only incomprehension, exclusion, and reproach. She is silenced both literally, for her new family refuses to speak anything but the local dialect with her, and figuratively, for this new society makes no room within its rituals or hierarchies for her as foreigner, woman, or artist. Eventually, however, Alwina rebels against those taboos and unspoken norms that create alienation and begins to reconstitute self through the acts of painting and speech.
In all of Reichart’s works, it is not enough to break the code of silence if the language used to do so is merely part of the same code. It is not enough to give words to the silence; these words themselves must work against the forces of co-optation. The role of language is ambivalent. It is and always has been complicitious with power. It has the ability to make one forget, to manipulate, to entrap the individual within the thought and power structures of a particular societal order. Contemporary language, especially the incessant media chatter of today, tends to simplify and to erect rigid dichotomies of right versus wrong, black versus white. In contrast, Reichart strives for an artistic form that works against reduction of thought and sustains the grays of life. She is uncompromising in her refusal to seduce or manipulate the reader, forcing active reflection rather than passive consumption, irritating and activating emotional as well as rational facilities by continually "breaking" her language and thereby thwarting reader expectations.
The search undergone by the protagonists in the pages of Reichart’s texts is reflected in the open, frequently fragmentary nature of her language. Inner monologue, multiple narrative perspectives, word plays, broken chronology, unexpected syntax and punctuation—here is a narrative voice that, precisely because it has no ready-made answers or solutions, is prepared to confront suppressed questions and problems. Reichart harbors the simultaneous belief in the impotence, but nonetheless importance, of literature. Though not naïve enough to presume that art can bring about emancipation or effect political change, she hopes to reawaken in her reader a memory for alternatives and an openness for otherness, a longing to see things differently. Her texts endorse those feelings, behavioral patterns, and thoughts that deviate from the norm. They undermine the status quo and expose fissures in an ideology or system assumed impermeable and closed. In doing so, insecurity is created, but in our discomfort perhaps we can better perceive and accept our own individuality. At the very least we must engage the questions posed in her texts and discern the absences revealed. Reichart’s poetic language does more than document the silences and taboos in today’s society; it strives to resist their perpetuation into the future.
About La Valse
The introductory story, titled "The Sunday Roast," is typical for the collection in portraying gender relations as well as in linking the familial hierarchy to fascism. In this short, but remarkably rich and powerful story, Reichart depicts the traditional Sunday dinner in post-war Austria. The women serve the meal, receiving only the lesser pieces of the roast they have prepared, and retreat to the kitchen when it is time for the men to relive the glory of their days in battle. The men’s identity is tied to war, to a time that gave their lives meaning through a sense of camaraderie and adventure. For them, time has stood still. Reichart begins each of her paragraphs with the same words—"it began"—in spite of the fact that they are organized chronologically and progress through the forties, fifties, and sixties. Instead of forward movement, however, there can only be repetition, for the hierarchical authoritarianism characteristic of the military is duplicated on the homefront, where the father figure preserves his position of privilege and dictates rules and orders to his subordinates. Non-conformism, questions, and even curiosity are not tolerated and immediately punished as forms of disobedience.
The stories of La Valse show again and again the brutality and domination emblematic for gender relations in contemporary society. In the title story, the legitimacy of violence under the Nazis has been reaffirmed in the present under the guise of the marital contract, which allows the father to beat his wife and rape his two daughters. The narrator cannot escape her role as caretaker and makes room for her father’s deathbed at the expense of her own living space. The title, "La Valse," suggests the deformation of interpersonal interaction. Instead of two people stepping together to music, the father forced the narrator as a young girl to dance alone, for his voyeuristic pleasure. Now she spins wildly to the same music until she falls from dizziness, indicating perhaps the will to escape patriarchal authority but also the difficulty of such an attempt. Even her sole act of rebellion, which is to appear before her father and his business cronies as a whore, is determined by her past, and the man she chooses as partner rapes and humiliates her, a reincarnation of her father. The hope implicit in her father’s ultimate death is simultaneously eroded by the resigned tone marking her final staccato and fragmentary sentences—"So I can go. I’m free now" (36).
Each of the subsequent stories in Reichart’s collection follows the movements of a waltz gone brutally awry. In "Abandoned Sisters" Barbara, who identifies with her mother, attempts to leave her sister Clara, the embodiment of the traditionally masculine values of societal success and power, but she is shot in the back by her sister while departing. The protagonist of "The Scar" finally leaves her husband, a plastic surgeon who erased all flaws from her face, but who demands a similarly cold perfection and impersonal sterility for their personal lives. In "Beneath the Fluttering Wing of the Pigeon…" Reichart uses exaggeration to provoke awareness and resistance to gender roles and expectations. The male protagonist so needs female subservience that he replaces his girlfriend Sonja with a more docile and wounded pigeon, Sonja the second. Then, when the pigeon asserts its independence, it is replaced by a mechanical toy. The progressive subordination and dehumanization of the female partner is made abundantly clear in the final sentence of the story: "He would have to look for Sonja the third in the toystore tomorrow, preferably one with a built-in motor, which would hum softly, almost like a heart" (84).
Reichart concludes her volume with two stories that return more explicitly to the topic of Nazism. "How Close is Mauthausen?" is divided into two parts. The first, "Cells 1," traces the experiences of two friends, Eva and Fanni, in Kaplanhof, a concentration camp for women, where they face daily fear, torture, and interrogation for their work as resistance fighters. The second part follows their attempts to redefine and build a home after the war, but its title—"Cells 2"—implies that they remain imprisoned by a society that refuses to confront its guilt. Eva and Fanni, visible reminders of the recent past, become outcasts among those who would rather not see. In both "cells" they must provide each other the support necessary to break out and begin to live their own lives. In the companion piece to this story, "How Far is Mauthausen?," the narrator reflects on the eighteen months she worked in Mauthausen as a tour guide. She abhors the disinterest and even disbelief she encounters among the school children she leads through the camp, and ultimately quits because of her own callousness toward a catastrophe that must never become familiar. She quits because her answers become pat, her sentences "ready-made." In this story as in all of her work, Reichart writes against a language that has become "natural," a language that precludes questions, a language that reinforces and obscures rather than challenging and illuminating assumed perceptions and ingrained patterns: "I am afraid of the ready-made sentences. Of the old sentences. I am afraid that this experience did not change during the time of forgetting" (128).
Reichart’s monologue gives Druskowitz, a woman whose own work was never heard, a voice; it allows her to step onto stage as a subject. As such, as critic Allyson Fiddler has pointed out, it contributes to efforts by feminist writers and historians since the 1960s to reclaim history for women, whether through bringing to light authors previously ignored by a male-dominated establishment or researching the social conditions under which women have lived and written (263). Reichart’s drama focuses on the author’s years of incarceration and depicts the psyche of a sensitive and creative woman subjected to the roles and conceptions of patriarchy. It shows how this society aims to break her, as well as the rebellion and indomitable spirit of a figure who refuses to be broken.
In many ways, Druskowitz is an example of the "mad woman in the attic," as coined by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Grubar. Because she refuses to conform to male society’s expectations for women, and because in that refusal she becomes a threat, she is disempowered with the label "insane" and relegated safely to a place outside the spheres of influence. Reichart reverses the valuation. She esteems and thereby redeems the indefatigability with which Druskowitz pursued her goals and the tenacity with which she fought against the obstacles placed in her way. Reichart’s text serves to subvert a definition of insanity still prevalent today, one tied to the preservation of male domination. Non-conformity, far from being mad, is revealed to be a form of resistance to a "normalcy" ludicrously insane in its disregard for human life—the supposed normalcy of war. The words and thoughts of this philosopher are revealed to be imminently sane—in fact the sole sane voice within the violence and degradation raging throughout the patriarchal world surrounding her.
The specific instance of war depicted in the drama is World War I, although allusions are made to wars past and future, in particular World War II. The drama is divided into two acts, one taking place just before the outbreak of WWI and the second documenting that outbreak, and the monologue consists of comments upon life both inside and outside the walls of Mauer-Oehlig. This switch in perspective between inside and outside, between pre-war and war, manifests the interdependence between the personal and the political. By describing the mundane world of the asylum and its inhabitants, Reichart’s figure simultaneously identifies the attitudes and behaviors that ultimately lead to the destruction of other people. The guards, who terrorize the female inmates with their "grasping hands" (3) and force them to adhere to foolish rules and regulations, demonstrate blind reverence of obedience and authoritarianism. The doctors, who would rather administer sedatives than reexamine their diagnosis of insanity, illustrate the refusal to question societal norms and expectations, in particular gender roles. Reality within the walls of Mauer-Oehlig mirrors and thus serves to indict reality outside those walls. As Druskowitz states, "… the only difference between Mauer-Oehlig and the world is that here chaos reigns by choice, whereas out there it prevails by force" (8).
Reichart intersperses her text with original, but unmarked quotes from the last known work of the historical Druskowitz, written during internment at Mauer-Oehlig and titled Man as a Logical and Moral Impossibility and as the Curse of the World: Pessimistic Premises. In it, Druskowitz advocates total separation of the sexes, including a ban on procreation, not only to allow women to discover their more noble nature, but more importantly to guarantee the eventual demise of a race that has caused so much strife and pain. For the most part it is impossible to discern Reichart’s as opposed to Druskowitz’s words. The contemporary author and the historical figure are equal partners, "co-authors" as stated on the title page, and their texts exist side-by-side free of a hierarchy that would impose supremacy of one over the other. At the same time, the difference in perspective allows Reichart to comment upon the earlier text. Druskowitz’s words become prophetic; the apparently preposterous has become reality. The views expressed here are radical and exaggerated, especially for the times, yet they contain insights into societal conditions past and present as well as into the reasons behind those conditions. While some examples point to forward progress, others indicate that little has changed over the past century. As Druskowitz states, the bits of power thrown woman’s way have created, at best, a false sense of accomplishment and, at worst, collusion with those very power structures that oppress women in the first place. We must reassess the state of women’s fight for equality and acknowledge that it is anything but complete.
Reichart uses Druskowitz as the embodiment of an individual struggling against the constraints of gendered norms and societal definitions of normalcy. This struggle assumes its most visible form in the fact that the historical Helene von Druskowitz continued to write even from within the walls of the insane asylum, and even though there was never an audience, either before or after internment, to receive those words. Similarly, Reichart’s fictional Druskowitz writes while simultaneously accepting the reality that no one will hear her. She mourns the silence surrounding her, mourns the necessity of her monologue, but her final words point to a time in the future when the starlings, who were driven away by the war, will return. On that day she will perform her drama for them and allow the poet queen to fly: "I never wanted to believe in her flying skills. My lack of belief held her here. I will hold you no longer. FLY! Your Highness, FLY!" (37). Thus the narrator’s final words do not express resignation, but the hope for a peace someday that will welcome the voice of women.
DeMeritt, Linda and Peter Ensberg. "’Für mich ist die Sprache eigentlich ein Schatz’: Interview mit Elisabeth Reichart." Modern Austrian Literature 29.1 (1996): 1 – 22.
Fiddler, Allyson. "Post-War Austrian Women Writers." Post-War Women’s Writing in German: Feminist Critical Approaches. Ed. Chris Weedon. Providence, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1997. 243 – 268.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.
Kecht, Regina. "Faschistische Familienidyllen—Schatten der Vergangenheit in Henisch, Schwaiger und Reichart," Austrian Writers and the Anschluss: Understanding the Past—Overcoming the Past. Ed. Donald G. Daviau. Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 1991. 313 – 337.
Koonz, Claudia. Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
Martin, Elaine. "Women Right/(Re)Write the Nazi Past: An Introduction." Gender, Patriarchy, and Fascism in the Third Reich: The Response of Women Writers. Ed. Elaine Martin. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993. 11 – 31.
Mitscherlich, Margarete. Erinnerungsarbeit: Zur Psychoanalyse der Unfähigkeit zu trauern. Frankfurt a/M.: Fischer Verlag, 1987.
Müller, Karl. "Gespräch mit Elisabeth Reichart." Deutsche Bücher 1997.2: 88 – 98.
Reichart, Elisabeth. Februarschatten: Roman. Vienna: Verlag der österreichischen Staatsdruckerei, 1984. New edition: Salzburg: Otto Müller, 1995. February Shadows, translated and with an introduction by Donna Hoffmeister. Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 1989.
___________. Fotze: Erzählung. Salzburg: Otto Müller, 1993.
___________. "Die Grenzen meiner Welt sind die Grenzen meiner Sprache: Wiener Vorlesungen." Wespennest, 1991.82, 114-142. ("The Borders of my World are the Borders of my Language: Viennese Lectures on Poetics").
___________. Komm über den See: Erzählung. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1988. (Come Across the Lake).
___________. "Das Lebkuchenherz auf der Brust." Reden über Österreich. Ed. Manfred Jochum. Salzburg/Vienna: Residenz Verlag, 1995. 31 – 44. ("The Gingerbread Heart on Your Chest").
___________. La Valse: Erzählungen. Salzburg: Otto Müller, 1992. (La Valse: Short Stories).
___________. Nachtmär: Roman. Salzburg: Otto Müller, 1995. (Nighttale).
___________, ed. Österreichische Dichterinnen. Salzburg: Otto Müller, 1993. (Austrian Women Poets).
___________. Sakkorausch: Ein Monolog. Salzburg: Otto Müller, 1994. (Foreign: A Monologue).
___________. Das vergessene Lächeln der Amaterasu: Roman.
Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1998. (The Forgotten Smile of the Amaterasu).
This is the introduction to a forthcoming translation of two of Reichart's works, La Valse and Foreign. The translation is scheduled to appear within the next year, published by SUNY Press.