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Telegrams of the Soul Paperback – 4 Feb 2010

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Product details

  • Paperback: 250 pages
  • Publisher: ARCHIPELAGO BOOKS (4 Feb. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0974968080
  • ISBN-13: 978-0974968087
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 1.3 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 759,253 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Christopher H TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 12 Nov. 2012
Format: Paperback
This book was not at all what I expected. I felt the American readers' comments embellished what is contained in this slim volume.

The book is thin, and comprises a series of short reflections - some are prose poems - on the quirkiness and foibles of people. Most of them are less than a page in length. So it is probably best to approach this as somewhat like a volume of poems.

There is no apparent structure to the selection. Indeed, there are no publication notes indicating when and where each piece was first published, which is unfortunate because you cannot tell if the passage is written by a young or mature writer, and where it sits in relation to current events. Which pieces, for instance, were penned during the First World War?

The heart-warming, and at moments eccentric sentiments conveyed by these pieces are a rare joy. They are written with tenderness and an infectious humour. Much is conveyed by the title 'Telegrams of the Soul', for this is a book to take up and browse through if you have a case of the blues. It does lift the spirits.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4 reviews
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
By Gary Kern - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a book designed for the sheer pleasure of reading. Its rough-paper cover is handsome and feels good in the hand, and the stories and vignettes printed within are short and consumable within minutes. In this case the book-buyer is truly a "consumer." There's no plot, no difficulty, no need even to read them in order. You just pick out one after the other and consume it as you please.

Each one takes you back to a time when literature was not hype, not "riveting," not "jaw-dropping," and not "a must read." It was a time when you were thrilled by an author's curious point of view, unexpected turn of phrase and strange semblance of form. You had to read his work because it did something to you, maybe went straight to your heart and mind, and you wanted to feel the way he felt and see the way he saw. It's a different kind of "must read" and a different kind of purpose, so private that you almost hope the book will not find many readers, because the pleasure seems so much your own.

Yet one could find a utilitarian purpose in it. Peter Altenberg walks out in the city and sees people every day or on occasion, in the midst of life. He notes something down at his cafe or goes home with an idea in mind. This he commits to paper as fast as he can to capture the moment. He is convinced that "Everything is remarkable if our perspective of it is remarkable! And every little local incident written up in the daily newspaper can sound the depths of life, revealing all the tragic and the comic, the same as Shakespeare's tragedies!" Once the idea is on paper, it is fixed and he does not touch it again. It has crystallized into a prose poem. Writers constipated with the weight of significance and classes in creative writing burdened with technique could find a lesson here. As I said, it's a different time, when writing a tribute to a beautiful shopkeeper, or a thoughtful prostitute, or a radiant bird is purpose enough.

In TELEGRAMS OF THE SOUL there are quite a few shopkeepers and pretty women, all treated with such a delicate love that you take it into your heart and cannot help but project it onto the quite different women you see in the world today, no less pretentious and no less vulnerable than the anonymous souls of the past. There are also a lot of little girls, perhaps too many. And aristocrats and relatives and historical figures whom Alterberg admires (Franz Schubert). And a few animals besides (kingfisher, lion, agoutis). Some pieces are humorous, such as "Theater Evening," where the author babysits a poodle for a lady that both he and the dog impatiently hope will return; others are cruel, such as "Twelve," where a little girl catches little fish and tosses them on the ground to die, while an old woman to the side mourns for them. Some are reflective, such as "Fellow Man," which begins: "No man can abide another, in matters big or small, he just can't do it, that is his eternally unspoken tragedy." All are unique, so I won't try to paraphrase any more.

The 85 or so prose poems are translated in a fluid and effervescent manner by Peter Wortsman, who does not, like most translators of German, eschew the American idiom. Here we have "for crying out loud," "grin and bear it," "yuck" and even "arghh," bringing the Viennese setting close to home. Wortman also provides a charming afterword describing Altenberg as an overgrown child and ideal subject for Sigmund Freud. He characterizes his works as modern fairytales minus the "once upon a time" and usually the "happily ever after."

As mentioned, the volume is done up beautifully, its brown cover illustrated with a stirring brown-yellow-red portrait of Altenberg done by blazing genius Oskar Kokoschka in his Expressionist period. The back cover contains blurbs--originally words of praise--by Karl Kraus, Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann. Thus the little-known miniaturist Altenberg appears in the center of the glorious Viennese-Germanic culture that blossomed in the first decades of the twentieth century, and his little stories draw in the other greats of the day--Arthur Schnitzler, Robert Musil, Georg Trakl, Egon Shiele, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Ludwig Wittgenstein, all those mentioned in the wonderful volume WITTGENSTEIN'S VIENNA by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin. And so, after such ease of reading and such excessive literary pleasure, you get a bonus: cultural enrichment. The way it used to be.

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
"Was ist so nur?" 3 Feb. 2010
By R. M. Peterson - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Peter Altenberg (1859-1919) was one of the literary lions of Vienna around the turn of the last century. His specialty was short prose pieces that were poetic in their economy, turns of phrase, and allusiveness. He was equally known for his carefree, unorthodox lifestyle, which included being a habitué of the coffeehouses and, though a life-long bachelor, a lover of many women (and, like Lewis Carroll, an ardent admirer of prepubescent girls). In his excellent afterword to this volume, the translator Peter Wortsman summarizes Altenberg as a "turn-of-the-century Viennese raconteur-scribe, * * * a walker and a talker and an inveterate loll-about." Wortsman also passes along Franz Kafka's assessment: "Peter Altenberg is a genius of nullifications, a singular idealist who discovers the splendors of this world like cigarette butts in the ashtrays of coffeehouses."

TELEGRAMS OF THE SOUL is a collection of 90 of Altenberg's short prose pieces, none over five pages and many less than a page. They are, in Altenberg's words, "extracts from life", as seen and fancifully embroidered and creatively expressed by a man with a poet's sensibilities. Most deal with everyday bourgeois life in Vienna, circa 1895 to 1915, which included not only the coffeehouses and the Prater, but also the "Puff" (brothel) and such exotica as the village of Africans that for a year was set up as an exhibit at the Vienna Zoo.

Many of the pieces are whimsical. Some are cynical. A few are silly but they are offset by a few that are acutely poignant. A fair percentage, however, left me mildly baffled or utterly indifferent; too much time and distance, perhaps, separates Altenberg's aesthetic sensibility from mine. It is difficult to read more than four or five pieces at a time. In other words, the book does not lend itself to being read cover to cover.

Altenberg had a keen wit. One example is an aphorism from this book: "Coquetry is the immense decency of a desirable woman, thereby, for the moment at least, to hold off the disappointments she is bound to bring you." A second example is a quip included in Clive James's profile of Altenberg in "Cultural Amnesia": a young woman with whom he had struck up an intimate relationship reproached him because his interest in her was based only ("nur") on sexual attraction; Altenburg replied, "Was ist so nur?" ("What's so only?").

TELEGRAMS OF THE SOUL is scarcely essential reading, but it does illuminate, at first hand, the indolence and decadence that marked much of Vienna in the two decades before WWI, and it also reflects (albeit in shadow) one of the more distinctive souls of Viennese culture. Finally, I wish to commend the publisher, Archipelago Books, for a very sturdy, reader-friendly, and handsome paperback volume. Three-and-a-half stars, rounded up for the physical quality of this edition.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Haunting Insights 28 Jan. 2008
By Jonathan A. Weiss - Published on
Format: Paperback
Not well known now, Peter Altenberg has obviously influenced many who followed and read him. His distinctive reflections are often incisive. Particularly memorable are the haunting sections on his involvement with the Hotentots (Bushman) exhibited in a zoo village with his righteous revulsion at their treatment.
My words would diminish his...were I to assume to do more than to read/listen...I say, "Thank You...Thank you for everything." 18 Dec. 2013
By Anny - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Peter Altenberg's writing shows there is something exquisitely special about being a human. I would like English translations of all his observations and thoughts. Life, ephemeral, as the smoking aroma of coffee, penetrated his nostrils, he caught the flavor and ground it into the espresso of life...STRONG STUFF.
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