Some 99 years ago, Friederike Mayröcker was born in Vienna. A towering figure in Austrian literature, Mayröcker is not yet a household name in English, remaining more of a ‘writer’s writer’ – or a hot tip imparted by literary cognoscenti at in-the-know parties. Do not be put off, though. Her work might be experimental – but it is also deeply moving, charmingly personal, and thoroughly steeped in both beauty and insight.
Writing, she once said, is my belief system. I have lived under the half-craziness… for 70 years
Mayröcker is very much a spirit of that other great German-speaking literary capital: Vienna. It was there that she was born and lived, there that she met her husband, poet and author Ernst Jandl, and entered the heady world of Austria’s post-war avant-garde, there that she hung out in cafés and wrote (or co-wrote) over a hundred books of poetry and prose, becoming a major European author.
And it was there that she died aged 97, to a widespread outpouring of grief and appreciation, having given her long life almost exclusively to literature – Mayröcker retired from teaching early, had no children and lived apart from Jandl in order to focus on her literary output.
“Writing,” she once said, “is my belief system. I have lived under the half-craziness of this writing and […] have really done nothing else for 70 years.” Photographs of Mayröcker in her Vienna office – a lone, wry figure surrounded by an extraordinary mess of papers and books and magazines – attest to her dedication and zeal for words.
Yet Berlin also played a crucial role in Mayröcker’s life and legacy. She spent 1970-71 here as part of the DAAD program, which put her up in Max Frisch’s former apartment. She would later kvetch that caring for the dachshund that lived there cost her six months’ writing time. Berlin has proven even more influential in Mayröcker’s English-language reception, with the city being home to three of her most talented anglophone advocates.
In 2020, Donna Stonecipher published a brilliant English translation of études – the first in Mayröcker’s late prose-poem trilogy. A year later fellow US-born Wahlberliner Alex Booth translated The Communicating Vessels, an astonishing duo of genre-bending prose works that reflect on daily life, love, literature and loss before and after Jandl’s death.
Her work might be experimental – but it is also deeply moving
Meanwhile, local critic Ryan Ruby has proven one of Mayröcker’s most eloquent promoters. “Over the past quarter century,” Ruby wrote in 2020, “she has constructed a vast work of mourning, a mausoleum of text, a heaven of the book, where, one after another, she places the loved ones she has survived for safekeeping, leaving, as always, space enough for herself to join them when the time comes.”
Mayröcker’s time, alas, came shortly after. But her work remains – and is becoming increasingly available in English. Seagull released Booth’s excellent as mornings and mossgreen I. Step to the window last year, and will continue this summer with Stonecipher’s follow-up to études, Cahier. Perhaps fittingly, it may be after her passing that this life-hungry, death-haunted, utterly timeless German-language author gains the global esteem she deserves.