‘Anna Mitgutsch’s novels make readers feel uncomfortable’ (Shafi, p. 87). Monika Shafi’s claim is justified. Mitgutsch’s works are frequently concerned with power, abuse, and otherness, and they make for painful reading. Another critic, Dagmar C.G. Lorenz, links the writer’s concern with marginality to her biography, in particular to her experiences as an Austrian woman in the United States, her life as the mother of an autistic child, and her status as an Austrian woman of Jewish descent. Mitgutsch has indeed converted to Judaism ‘in a conscious effort to regain part of her Jewish heritage’ (Lorenz, p. 287).
Mitgutsch was born in 1948 in Linz, Austria, and studied German and English at the University of Salzburg. She gained her doctorate in 1974 with a dissertation about English poetry. Between 1975 and 1978, she worked as a teaching assistant at the American Studies Institute at Innsbruck University. She has also taught at Hull University and UEA in Britain, and in Seoul, South Korea.
From 1979 to 1985 she lived in the United States, teaching at a number of different universities. After the publication of her first novel Die Züchtigung [Three Daughters] (1985), she moved back to Austria. Since then she has been a freelance writer, continuing to teach in Austrian and American universities and dividing her time between Boston and Linz, where she now lives. Mitgutsch has published numerous translations and scholarly articles, and eight novels, many of which have been translated into English. A number of Mitgutsch’s novels have been bestsellers in Austria, and her work has also attracted significant scholarly attention.
Mitgutsch’s work deals in part with Austria’s Nazi past, and with the memorializing (or hushing up) of that past, which cannot be shut off or tamed. Mitgutsch states: ‚Ich hasse das Wort “Vergangenheitsbewältigung“. Das kann man nie bewältigen’ [I hate the word ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ [coming-to-terms-with-the-past]. You can’t come to terms with that] (Kecht, p. 130). Almost every novel Mitgutsch has written explores the link between the present and the past. Thus her work challenges accounts of the past that attempt mastery and closure. This set of issues is especially pertinent and potent in the Austrian context.
Die Züchtigung explores the difficult relationship between a mother and daughter, which affects the latter’s interaction with her own child. The novel, which moves back and forth in time, exposes the persistence and pervasiveness of violent and ‘othering’ behaviours and links the ‘personal’ experience of abuse to wider societal problems. The novel thus illustrates and enacts a merging of personal and political and of individual and collective. The back-and-forth movement of the narrative between different pasts and the present also demonstrates the operations of memory, which is continually constructed in the present.
Mitgutsch suggests that Austrian society in particular is intolerant of anything it deems ‘abnormal’, such as disability. Ausgrenzung [Jakob] (1989) for example, tells of Marta and her son Jakob, who is labelled autistic. The novel is a study in extreme otherness. Marta struggles to create a bearable life for herself and child, but is thwarted at every turn: by her controlling, careerist husband, by the uncaring medical establishment and by other mothers, who appear competitive and shallow. Ausgrenzung thus anticipates the later work Zwei Leben und ein Tag [Two Lives and One Day] (2007), a searing critique of a cruel and ableist society. In this novel, Gabriel, who is perhaps autistic, suffers horrific abuse and violence.
Mitgutsch’s works also thematize the discomfort of Jewish Austrians. In Abschied von Jerusalem [Lover, Traitor: A Jerusalem Story] (1995) and Haus der Kindheit [House of Childhood] 2000), the protagonists Dvorah and Max both struggle to establish identity, to create a coherent narrative. In both cases, genealogies have been disrupted, family lines severed. Neither Dvorah nor Max feels able to live in Austria.
Mitgutsch’s disconsolate narrations are instructive. She addresses such issues as anti-Semitism, violence, and murder in novels that are not always easy or enjoyable to read. The narratives of these works are often slow in pace and characterized by repetition or stagnation, rather than by tension or movement. They refuse to comfort the reader or offer pleasure. It is in its warning or corrective potential that Mitgutsch’s work is most worthy of interest.
Compiled by Emily Jeremiah (London)
Die Züchtigung [novel] (Berlin: Claassen, 1985)
Das andere Gesicht [novel] (Berlin: Claassen, 1986)
Ausgrenzung [novel] (Frankfurt a.M.: Luchterhand, 1989)
In fremden Städten [novel] (Hamburg: Luchterhand, 1992)
Abschied von Jerusalem [novel] (Berlin: Rowohlt, 1995)
Erinnern und erfinden: Grazer Vorlesungen [essays] (Graz: Droschl, 1999)
Haus der Kindheit [novel] (Munich: Luchterhand, 2000)
Familienfest [novel] (Munich: Luchterhand, 2003)
Zwei Leben und ein Tag [novel] (Munich: Luchterhand, 2007)
Wenn Du wiederkommst [novel] (Munich: Luchterhand, 2010)
Die Welt, die Rätsel bleibt [essays] (Munich: Luchterhand, 2013)
Die Grenzen der Sprache: An den Rändern des Schweigens [essays] (St. Pölten: Residenz-Verlag, 2013)
English Translations of Mitgutsch’s Work
Three Daughters [Translation of Die Züchtigung by Lisel Mueller] (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987)
Jakob [Translation of Ausgrenzung by Deborah Schneider] (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1991)
In Foreign Cities [Translation of In fremden Städten by Lowell A Bangerter] (Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 1995)
Lover, Traitor: A Jerusalem Story [Translation of Abschied von Jerusalem by Roslyn Theobald] (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1997)
House of Childhood [Translation of Haus der Kindheit by David B. Dollenmayer] (New York: Other, 2006)
Jeremiah, Emily: Nomadic Ethics in Contemporary Women’s Writing in German: Strange Subjects (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012)
Kecht, Marie-Regina: 'Gespräch mit Waltraud Anna Mitgutsch' (Women in German Yearbook 8, 1992, pp. 127-40)
Lorenz, Dagmar C.G. (ed.): Contemporary Jewish Writing in Austria: An Anthology (Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 1999)
—: ‘Intersection Vienna: Crime and Transnationalism in Post-Shoah Austrian Fiction and Films’ (Journal of Austrian Studies 47.4, 2014, pp. 65-87)
Shafi, Monika: Balancing Acts: Intercultural Encounters in Contemporary German and Austrian Literature (Tübingen: Stauffenberg, 2001)