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Authors: Odon Von Horvath

The Eternal Philistine

BOOK: The Eternal Philistine
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“Horváth had turned his back on the mournful realism of the émigrés, with their passion for easy caricature and their desire for revenge. He had realized with extraordinary acuteness that to meet the horror of reality with a horror literature was no longer possible or useful; that the reality of Fascism was in fact so overwhelming and catastrophic that no realism, particularly the agonized naturalism of the twentieth century, could do it justice.”


“Ödön von Horváth was a brilliant German writer.… He makes the truth irresistible.”


“The most gifted writer of his generation.”


“Horváth is better than Brecht.”


“One of the best Austrian writers … In every line of his prose there is an unmistakable hatred for the kind of German philistinism that made the German murder, the Third Reich, possible.”



(1901–1939) was born near Trieste, the son of a Hungarian diplomat who moved the family constantly. Horváth would subsequently say of himself, “I am a mélange of Old Austria; Hungarian, Croat, Czech, German; alas, nothing Semitic.” Although his first language was Hungarian, he went to high school in Vienna and college in Munich, and began writing plays in German. Leaving school, he settled in Berlin, where in 1931 his play
Italian Night
debuted to rave reviews—except from the Nazi press, which reviled him. His next play,
Tales from the Vienna Woods
, starring Peter Lorre, drew an even stronger, equally divided response. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 he relocated to Vienna, but on the day of the Anschluss—March 13, 1938—he fled to Budapest. From there, he soon moved to Paris, but on June 1, 1938, he was killed in a freak accident when, caught in a rainstorm coming out of a theater on the Champs-Élysées, he took shelter under a tree that was hit by lightning; von Horváth was struck by a falling tree limb and killed instantly. He was 36 years old and had published 21 plays and three novels—
The Age of the Fish, A Child of Our Time
, and
The Eternal Philistine

has worked as a lexicographer and editor for Langenscheidt. He is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University.

is the author of
Foreskin’s Lament, Beware of God
, and the forthcoming novel
Hope: A Tragedy
. His essays and reviews have appeared in the
, the
New York Times, New York
magazine, and elsewhere, and he is a regular commentator on the NPR program
This American Life


I was by no means the only reader of books on board the
Several other sailors were diligent readers, though their studies did not lie in the way of belles-lettres. Their favourite authors were such as you may find at the book-stalls around Fulton Market; they were slightly physiological in their nature. My book experiences on board of the frigate proved an example of a fact which every book-lover must have experienced before me, namely, that though public libraries have an imposing air, and doubtless contain invaluable volumes, yet, somehow, the books that prove most agreeable, grateful, and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there; those which seem put into our hands by Providence; those which pretend to little, but abound in much


Originally published in German as
Der ewige Spießer
by Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1930

Copyright © 1974 by Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main

Translation © Benjamin Dorvel, 2011 (text follows Vol. III,
Ödön von Horváth, Gesammelte Werke
; Suhrkamp, 1970)

“Einsamkeit” by Rainer Maria Rilke (1902) translated by Andrew Brown, © 2012

First Melville House printing: February 2012

Melville House Publishing
145 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

The Library of Congress has cataloged the paperback edition as follows: Horváth, Ödön von, 1901-1938.
  [Ewige Spiesser. English]
  The eternal philistine : a novel / Ödön von Horváth; translated by Benjamin Dorvel.
   p. cm. -- (Neversink)
eISBN: 978-1-935554-74-5
I. Dorvel, Bejamin. II. Title.
PT2617.O865E813 2011





What is comedy without truth and fury?

Nikolai Gogol

The novel you hold in your hands is, unfortunately, funny. In some places, I am loath to admit, it’s hilarious. There are prostitutes, whorehouses, cheaters, liars, radicals, pointless journeys, empty philosophies, anti-Semites, more prostitutes, hypocrites, fools, nose-pickers, semen-wipers, adulterers, xenophobes, and, briefly, a World’s Fair (which only leads to more adultery). It is full of truth and fury, and you’ll want to tell your friends about it, but because the book is funny, I can tell you right now that they are not going to be very impressed.

“Is it funny?” they’ll ask.

“Hilarious,” you’ll reply.

“Oh,” they’ll say with an air of disapproval—not just with the book, which they’ll immediately reject, but with you for even suggesting it. “We’re reading X,” they will say, the serious book of the moment written by the serious author of the moment, which will weigh in at a minimum of four pounds and tell a miserable tale of spiritual sadness and unfulfilled longing no one will understand or care to try. It will be about
a man lying in bed. The review will call it hilarious. It won’t be. It will win many awards.

I’m going to be honest with you—I don’t like your friends. They’re shallow assholes desperate for external validation who fear the very mirror that reflects them most faithfully, frankly, but I don’t blame them; reading is difficult, and books don’t have a touch screen or downloadable apps (yet), so the only real reason to suffer through them is to impress other people. Of course this book
a foreign translation, it does have that going for it, and the author is not only dead, but he died young—both of which should give the book a certain literary respectability, but not enough, sadly, to overcome the fact that it is (there’s just no getting away from this) funny. If satire, as they say in the theater, is what closes on Saturday night, humor in literature is what gets belittled by reviewers, ignored by the award committees, goes out of print and is never spoken about again. Comedy bravely stands up, speaks the harsh truth, attempts to show things the way they are, to teach us to see and laugh at our own shortcomings and failures. For that it is dismissed. The fate of humor in literature, one could say, is utterly tragic, but then one would be saying something funny, and one would be ignored.

I was born on 9
December, 1901, and it was in Fiume, on the Adriatic, at 4:45 in the afternoon (4:30 according to another report). When I weighed twenty-pounds I left Fiume and loafed about partly in Venice and partly in the Balkans, and experienced all sorts of things, among others the murder of H.M. King Alexander of Serbia along with his better half. When I was four foot tall I moved to Budapest and
lived there for half an inch. There I was a keen visitor to numerous children’s playgrounds and was conspicuous in a rather disagreeable way because of my dreamy and mischievous personality. When I grew to a height of about 5’0” Eros awoke in me, but initially without causing me any bother … My interest in art, especially in the classics of literature, stirred relatively late (at a height of about 5’7.5”) but it only became an urge from about 5’11.5”, not, it is true, an irresistible one, but there all the same. When the first World War broke out I was already 5’6”, and when it ended I was 6’ (I shot up very quickly during the war). At 5’7” I had my first proper sexual experience—and today, now that I have long since stopped growing (6’1”), I think back with tender nostalgia to those portentous days.

—Ödön von Horváth

BOOK: The Eternal Philistine
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