When conversation was great.

When conversation was great.

When conversation was great.

A guide to 20th-century culture.
Feb. 16 2007 2:28 PM

Egon Friedell

The art of conversation.

(Continued from Page 1)

Horrific evidence suggests that the Austrian Nazis, when their armbands were still in their pockets, put the cafe talk high on their long list of Jewish intellectual pursuits to be trampled out of existence when the great day came. The future firebrands and executioners had been listening in for years, probably inflamed as much by sincere disapproval as by ­thick-­witted jealousy. After a single orgiastic day of violence in March 1938, there was ­no one left who had anything to say worth hearing. Hugo Sperber, already worn out from too many years of living on thin pickings, was thrown to the ground and kicked until he fell silent for good. Fritz Grünbaum, one of the stars of the Simplicissimus cabaret, was arrested within hours of the takeover, shipped to Dachau, and beaten to death. Whether in Austria or Germany, it had never been the fault of the Jews that they were so slow to realize the catch in the assimilationist ideal: The more indispensable to culture they became, the more they were resented.

Hitler needed no telling that there were a lot of brilliant Jews from whom ­German-speaking culture had gained luster. That was what he was afraid of: of a bacillus being called clever, and of the phosphorescence of decay being hailed as an illumination.


For him, as for every racial hygienist, the whole thing was a medical problem; the last thing he was likely to contemplate was that the medical problem might lie within himself. He didn't know he was sick. He thought he was well. For the Jewish intelligentsia, cultivated to the fingertips, it was very hard to grasp the intensity of the irrationality they were dealing with—the irrationality that was counting the hours until it could deal with them. Even in Auschwitz, some of the enslaved musicians must have thought that Schubert's writing for strings would melt Dr. Mengele's heart, as it had always melted theirs. And it did melt his heart. It just didn't change his mind.

To think of an equivalent to Egon Friedell, an English-speaking context is impossible. His writings give the comforting illusion that the historical accumulation of knowledge makes some kind of steadily increasing, and therefore irreversible, sense. He himself might have thought differently by the time of the Anschluss, when he anticipated his inevitable arrest by jumping out of his window, calling a warning as he descended: a cry whose lingering echo contains an era, with all its promise of a just world, and the despair of that world cruelly lost.

Translated into English in 1930, the ­three-­volume set of his Cultural History of the Modern Age was such a publishing disaster that it simply vanished. Today it can be obtained only from a dealer in rare books. In the original German, however, Kulturgeschichte derNeuzeit turns up secondhand all over the world, because it was a talisman for the emigration: The refugees took it with them even though, in its usual three-volume format, it weighed more than a brick. It should be said that Friedell's great book, for much of its enormous length, does not use wit for its texture, but it always has wit for a basis. The Viennese tradition of the enlightening wisecrack is there underneath. He was never unfunny, in the sense of straining to amuse, and missing the mark. He would have been a valuable voice in the English-speaking world if he had ever been taken up, but his name was never ­well-­known in Britain or the United States except to the ­German-­speaking refugees. Today, it is so thoroughly forgotten that he is not even listed in the excellent Chambers Biographical Dictionary, which is usually good about those who once were prominent but are so no longer. Friedell, however, was never there to be forgotten.

But if we know nothing about him, he, true to form, knew a lot about us. He was a student of British cultural history and wrote one of the best appreciations of Lord Macaulay. Typically playing himself in with a witticism—Friedell the cabaret artist always knew how to buttonhole the audience—he said that Macaulay was so highly regarded in Britain that his book of collected essays was included in any list of classics. In the English-speaking countries, Friedell pointed out, a list of classics was regarded as a guide to books that should be read, and not, as in the ­German-­speaking countries, to books that should be avoided.

It's easy to imagine that idea starting its life at a cafe table. Harder to imagine is how the giant could walk away from his laughing friends, climb the stairs to his apartment, and settle down for another day's lonely work on his strange and wonderful attempt to get the whole of creation into a nutshell.

Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.