Altenberg, Peter (1859–1919) By Kim, David
Born in Vienna on 9 March 1859, the Jewish-Austrian poet Peter Altenberg (birth name: Richard Engländer) became a literary sensation with his characteristically telegraphic writing style. The purpose of this narrative form, he explained, was to capture Kleinigkeit (the smallness) of modern life—fleeting, ordinary, and unembellished. His so-called prose poems went on to garner the admiration of contemporary artists, architects and writers who belonged to the Young Vienna. They included, among others, Hermann Bahr, Gustav Klimt, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Karl Kraus and Arthur Schnitzler. Suffering from pneumonia, Altenberg died in Vienna on 8 January 1919.
Opposed to the assignment and expectation of specific social roles in a conservative Austro-Hungarian Empire, Altenberg took on a nom de plume to redefine his cultural identity in the image of the oppressed, including children, women and non-Europeans. This act of political resistance in writing became a lifelong commitment to exposing the divided and hypocritical world around him, although some of his works portrayed those in suffering with a certain degree of eroticization and prejudice. By focusing on moments of ambiguity, contradiction, monotony and triviality in social interaction, he exposed the clash of cultures between old provincialism and new cosmopolitanism in contemporary Vienna while pushing new limits of mimetic representation.