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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

die verbesserung
von mitteleuropa, roman

Oswald Wiener

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To purchase die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman

Title: die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman
Author: Oswald Wiener
Genre: Novel
Written: 1969
Length: 218 pages
Original in: German
Availability: die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman - Deutschland
Il miglioramento della mitteleuropa, romanzo - Italia
  • die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman has not been translated into English
  • The 2013 Jung und Jung re-issue is edited and includes an Afterword by Thomas Eder

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Our Assessment:

A- : a fascinating if daunting piece of work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Books Abroad . (44:1) Winter/1970 Rainer Schulte
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 26/7/2014 Beatrice von Matt
Der Spiegel . 6/7/1969 .
TLS . 25/9/1969 John Neves

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is a novel, but one quite different from previous novels. Wiener has disregarded all laws of punctuation and syntax, any kind of chronological sequence or descriptive development of plot. (...) Although the novel is not about anything in particular, Wiener covers the wide range of human experience. Any concept, any idea or impression is potential material for the book. (...) It can be considered one of the most important innovations in the writing of novels since Proust and Joyce." - Rainer Schulte, Books Abroad

  • "Das Ergebnis ist ein monströser Torso, ein literarisches Perpetuum mobile mit hohem Reiz- und Irritationswert, das besonders den Schreibkollegen imponiert." - Der Spiegel

  • "(T)he reader's attention is retained by the tension between the scholar's style and apparatus on the one hand, and the unpredictable leaps and bounds of the 'open form' on the other" - John Neves, Times Literary Supplement

  • "His extraordinary novel Die Verbesserung von Mitteleuropa, not published until 1969, sums up much of the work completed before his break with the Group in 1959 and is deeply influenced by the development of Wittgenstein's thought. Its central theme is the basic discrepancy between the need to express and the inadequacy of the means at the writer's disposal. Equipped with an impressive knowledge of experimental art, information theory and linguistic philosophy, Wiener's book is really an anti-novel -- a self-ironizing treatise complete with a monstrous academic apparatus. His apparent aim is to bring language and reality into as sharp a confrontation as possible. The result is a text of chaotic richness, shot through with flashes of stringent socio-cultural criticism. In effect, a massive erudition is marshalled in a sustained attack on its own cultural foundations." - Hans Wolfschütz, in Modern Austrian Writing (London: Oswald Wolff, 1980)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title of this work, die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman ('The Improvement of Central Europe, novel') asserts and insists that it be considered a novel, but it soon becomes clear that it is an extreme example of the form. Indeed, it is a work that clearly means, in myriad ways, to categorically challenge literary conventions. This begins with the presentation.
       The title -- and practically the entire text -- are written in lower case, including the first letter of each sentence -- something that makes an even stronger impression in German, where all nouns are capitalized. (The very rare occasions when words are capitalized in the novel thus stand out all the more so, as in, for example, a section with a repeated "Ich" ('I'), beginning: "Ich bin die redensart von descartes" ('I am Descartes' turn of phrase'). Other exceptions include: "appendix A" and "appendix B"; "DNS-stränge" ('strands of DNA -- whereby 'Stränge' would normally also be capitalized in the German), and "TDYST", as in Hanscarl Leuner's transphänomenale dynamische System (which Leuner himself however abbreviates as: 'tdyst' ...).)
       The novel does not begin with the text itself, but rather a (selected) people- and subject-index ('personen und sachregister (auswahl)') -- an inversion of the usual order. (German books do, oddly, often put the table of contents at the end, rather than the beginning of a book, but indexes are something rather different.) It is a thorough and useful index -- but, coming before the fact, also oddly anticipatory; while many readers might skip over it, it arguably does serve a purpose in suggesting much of the material addressed in the text proper. (The novel also does include an extensive bibliography of sources and influences; this is, however, presented more traditionally, at the conclusion of the book. (All references here are also printed in lower case, however.) There is no table of contents.)
       The pagination then is in Roman rather than Arabic numerals, yet another twist on presenting a feature of the book that readers expect (numbered pages) in incongruous form -- an effective variation of sorts on Brecht's alienation effect. (Interestingly, Brecht is not among the authors referred to in the extensive bibliography.) The text goes up to page CCV -- while the Afterword in the Jung und Jung re-issue is then paginated in Roman numerals, neatly also helping to separate it from the original.
       The epigraph is tersely presented simply as: "joh. 19,22" ("Pilate answered, What I have written I have written", in the King James version) -- though in his notes to his Italian translation, published also in German as Zur Theorie eines », roman«, (see more below) Nicola Cipani notes that in the manuskripte-version (in several issues of which much of the novel was previously presented) and in a typoscript of the manuscript found in Wiener's literary archive the original choice of epigraph was a passage from a Giordano Bruno dialogue -- in English translation (Dorothea Waley Singer, 1950): "Thou wouldst be more learned than Aristotle wert thou not a beast, destitute, a beggar, miserable, fed on millet bread, dead with hunger, born of a tailor and a washerwoman, nephew of Neddy the cobbler, son of Momus, postilion of whores, brother of Lazarus who shoes the asses. Remain a hundred devils, you who are not much better than he." (Cipani's notes also suggest the original book edition spelled out (part of) the reference -- ὅ γέγραφα, γέγραφα -- rather than, as the Jung and Jung edition has it, just presenting the reference ("joh. 19,22").)
       The novel itself then is far from a traditional fiction-narrative. It is presented in a variety of parts, beginning with an Introduction ('vorwort') that, like much of the work, consists of short pieces of text on a wide variety of subjects. A short title, printed in italics, for each suggests what is then addressed or discussed. Like much of the novel, much here would seem to be more essayistic than 'fiction'; of particular note is how actively (and often aggressively) Wiener tries to engage with the reader.
       The opening of the Introduction suggests what Wiener hopes to do in and with the text, a guiding set of principles (that also serve, in some respects, to guide the reader):

einfach einwirken auf andere, auf sich selbst einwirken, sätze einnehmen wie sonst pillen, sich wohin führen lassen, sich in einen zustand versetzen, lassen, mitteilen wollen, auch wohl sich eine hypothese zurechtlegen.

[simply have an effect on others, have an effect on yourself, take sentences the way you do pills, let yourself be guided somewhere, put yourself in a state of being, allowing, wanting to communicate, probably even putting together a hypothesis for oneself.]
       Some later sections then are longer, more cohesive pieces: one section is a 'hymne an den erzengel' ('Hymn to the archangel'), another explores: 'kernstücke zu einer experimentellen vergangenheit:' ('Core pieces to an experimental past'). A piece titled 'PURIM' (a rare instance of upper case lettering) is not so much a play-script as an entire play-conception, describing also everything from the time of its performance ("zu lebzeiterm des autors, jedoch in dessen abwesenheit. am besten freitags, unbedingt 20h." ('during the author's lifetime, but in his absence. preferably fridays, without fail at 8 pm') to a description of the audience. There are 'zwei studien über das sitzen' ('Two studies on sitting') and the best-known part of the novel, Wiener's 'notizen zum konzept des bio-adapters' ("Notes on the concept of the Bio-Adapter'); there are also three appendices, the first of which also focuses on the Bio-Adapter concept and which has been translated (by Nathaniel McBride) into English.
       Much of die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman deals with language and communication -- "wie spricht der astronom zum biologen ? pidginphilosophie, esperanto" ('how does the astronomer speak to the biologist ? pidgin-philosophy, esperanto') --, Wiener exploring and considering, including at a very fundamental level, what words and text can convey. (So also the titling of the introductory section as 'vorwort' (literally: 'Introduction') can also be read as "vor Wort" -- 'pre-word' --, as Wiener's reflections tend to even (and also repeatedly allude to) the Wittgensteinian.)
       Pieces describe the attempt to find expression (in words): "ich suche nach worten der satz muss verändert werden man muss den eindruck wettmachen" ('i am looking for words the sentence must be altered one must make up for the impression'). He is aware -- and suspicious -- of 'the aura of words', and suggests, to counter its fetishization: "die liebe zur sprache muss man mit exzessen neutralisieren" ('one has to neutralize the love of language with excesses'). Wiener recognizes the seductiveness of the well-turned phrase -- and takes pleasure in turning no few of them himself -- but chastises the reader (or reviewer ...) for succumbing so easily; so also his call: "nieder mit den zitaten !" ('down with the quotes !') -- in a text that frequently quotes, and refers constantly to and mentions others' words and thoughts.
       He playfully goads the reader -- "die unausweichbarkeit des satzes wer das liest ist blöd" ('the unavoidability of the sentence whoever reads this is stupid') -- while also being constantly self-aware and referential, and often sharply self-critical: on page fifty we find some paragraphs in summary "kritik der ersten neunundvierzig seiten" ('Critique of the first forty-nine pages'), and elsewhere he complains: "das buch ist langweilig und blöd, blöde wie kunst, wie literatur, blöde wie der glaube, der doch damit vernichtet wird" ('the book is boring and stupid, stupid like art, like literature, stupid like faith, which is destroyed by it'). Wiener argues that nothing worth reading has been published for ages; he notes and complains that: "jedes arschloch kann sich eine schreibmaschine kaufen" ('every asshole can buy themselves a typewriter') -- but: "was man mit der sprache alles anfangen kann, das lockt doch keinen köter mehr" ('all the things that can be done with language don't even attract any mutt any longer').
       There's humor to his bite:
mein ideal.
ich schreibe für die kommenden klugscheisser; um das milieu dieser ära komplett zu machen.

[my ideal.
i am writing for the smartasses to come; to make the milieu of this era complete.]
       Wiener sees and presents the "Notes on the concept of the Bio-Adapter' as a separate and complete-within-itself section of the novel, but also one that serves as an aid in the interpretation of the rest. Here it is most clear how Wiener's entire conception is informed by then-current thinking on cybernetics, linguistics, and artificial intelligence. If dated, many of the fundamentals are still of relevance today -- and in his singularity-like conception of the Bio-Adapter, this part of die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman, in particular, still impresses (though its significance remains curiously under-appreciated outside the German-speaking world).
       The closing section of the novel is its Bibliography -- an alphabetical (by author) listing of the influences on and references in the book -- an impressive and revealing reading-list that ranges across a great deal of literature, from the technical to classical fiction to philosophy. From eight of Hugh Lofting's 'Doctor Dolittle'- novels or seven Raymond Chandler works and four by William Burroughs to Georges Simenon (simply listing his: "gesamtwerk" ('complete works')), there are may more literary influences than a first reading of the text might have suggested; this too makes Wiener's point of the difficulty of perceiving everything in what someone might be trying to express: the appearance -- the words and formulations -- might not obviously reveal everything that in fact they hold.
       die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman is a challenging, even daunting text. Wiener's own uncertainty about it, in the form of textual variants or, for example, acknowledging in a footnote about one particular piece, that it is a: "misslungenes fragment. ich gebe es hier trotzdem, weil ich das gefühl habe dass es vielleicht wichtig ist" ('Misbegotten fragment. I nevertheless include it here because I have the feeling that it might be important'), are of a piece in a work that is meant, if not to entirely defy comprehension, so at least to constantly keep in the reader's mind the complexity of any sort of understanding.
       In this time of the rise of Artificial Intelligence, Wiener's focus on language and communication and how he presents this material are also as timely as ever.

       Special mention must also be made of the one other edition of die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman that is available, Nicola Cipani's Italian translation, Il miglioramento della mitteleuropa, romanzo, which comes in an edition from il verri that includes a lengthy essay by Cipani, and extensive annotations to the text; the essay and the annotations are now also available in German, as Zur Theorie eines », roman«, from Ergon Verlag. Given also Wiener's many then-contemporary (and often very Austria-specific) references the notes are particularly useful for foreign readers coming to the book now, more than half a century after its first publication. Cipani's introduction and notes make for an invaluable companion-piece to this text, and German- and Italian-speaking readers should certainly consider availing themselves of these if tackling Wiener's text; there is, regrettably, very little other accessible secondary literature on it available. (One hopes also that any English-language publisher that finally takes the plunge on this one take advantage of this very useful resource and include an English translation of it with the text.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 January2023

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die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman: Reviews: Oswald Wiener: Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:

       Austrian author Oswald Wiener lived 1935 to 2021.

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© 2023 the complete review

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