Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire

9780226054421Adam Kirsch at the NYRB:

For writers looking back on this long Indian summer of empire, from the vantage point of post-1918 anarchy, it was the very mildness of this ruling principle—its tolerance, even its slovenliness—that inspired nostalgia. This was especially true for Jewish writers who found themselves in successor states where anti-Semitism flourished, and who remembered the monarchy as a bulwark that had once held anti-Jewish hatred at bay.

One of the greatest elegies for the empire came from Robert Musil, who was born in 1880 and raised in Bohemia. In his unfinished novel, The Man Without Qualities, which is set in Vienna in 1913, Musil evoked the atmosphere of resigned mediocrity that sustained the empire he called “Kakania.” The name is a double pun. It evokes the phrase kaiserlich und königlich, “imperial and royal,” which was affixed to the empire’s institutions, since Franz Josef—in a typically Austrian compromise—reigned as both emperor of Austria and king of Hungary. But it also puns on the word “kaka,” which in German as in English is a childish name for excrement.

more here.