Between the lines

Literature, written in the coffee houses of Vienna

 Coffee on book

From Karl Kraus, Robert Musil and Arthur Schnitzler via Elias Canetti and Thomas Bernhard to Elfriede Jelinek, Wolf Haas and Robert Menasse: the list of Viennese writers and poets is long. Their books are the greatest monument to the city.

“The Café Central isn’t just a coffeehouse like any other, but rather a worldview.” The author Alfred Polgar on Vienna’s most delectable attraction in his text “Theorie des Café Central” (1926)

In Arthur Schnitzler’s “Der Weg ins Freie” (“The Road Into the Open”) we wander through turn-of-the-century Vienna; in Hilde Spiel’s “Rückkehr nach Wien: ein Tagebuch” (“Return to Vienna: A Diary”) vivid images of the post-war city reveal themselves.” Heimito von Doderer made the Strudlhofstiege (“The Strudlhof Steps”) world famous in his novel of the same name. Doron Rabinovici makes a tender declaration of love for the Naschmarkt in his novel “Ohnehin” (“Anyway”), and in the poems of H.C. Artmann the Wiener Schmäh (Viennese humour) is captured vividly and lustily in words.

A large proportion of Viennese literature…

however, was not composed in lonely writers’ rooms, but rather in the company of Melange, Butterkipferl (croissant) and headwaiter: in the coffee houses of the city. Café Central, Café Griensteidl, Café Herrenhof: this is where the literary figures gathered and filled their notebooks.

 Vienna lines coffee house inside

 Stairs Vienna

 A coffee house

For the headwaiter of Café Herrenhof, Herr Hnatek, Friedrich Torberg wrote his “Requiem für einen Oberkellner” (“Requiem for a headwaiter”), Robert Menasse describes his main occupation as “coffeehouse guest”, and Alfred Polgar composed “Die Theorie des Café Central” (“Theory of the Café Central”).

Even today the coffeehouse and literature are fixtures of Viennese culture; writers are often to be seen at café tables, bent over their notebooks or laptops, under the watchful eye of the headwaiter: someone has to look after the physical well-being of the author’s soul.


Text: Nina Lucia Groß, Fotos: Christine Wurnig