A reader asks about a writer I mentioned in passing in Thursday’s post – Alfred Polgar (1873-1955). For those of us without German he remains more rumor than master stylist. Little of his work has been translated into English. Polgar seems to be one of those rare writers – Henry Mayhew and A.J. Liebling are others – who turn journalism into literature. Born in Vienna, as a Jew he was chased from Austria by the twentieth century to Prague, Berlin, Paris, Spain, Portugal, Hollywood (he wrote screenplays, became an American citizen) and Zurich. Clive James devotes a chapter to Polgar in Cultural Amnesia (2007), calling him “the unsurpassable exemplar of German prose in modern times, even though he never, strictly speaking, wrote a book.”
The largest collection of Polgar’s feuilletons I know of in English can be found in The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits 1890-1938 (Purdue University Press, 1993), translated and edited by Harold B. Segel. Included are twenty-four pieces and a twelve-page biographical introduction. Segel also translates work by Karl Kraus, Peter Altenberg and Egon Friedell (all profiled by James) and three others.
Polgar’s miniatures are never artsy, heavy-handed or sham-poetic. They are gracefully dense and concise, and therefore difficult to quote briefly. One included by Segel is “The Viennese Feuilleton,” in which Polgar describes the form he perfected as “this flimsiest kind of literature.” Its essence, he writes, is “vacuity, the wishy-washy visage, winsomely set off by stylishly frizzled little curls.” I hear in Polgar’s translated words an echo of Beerbohm’s mature manner, a nicely calibrated play of irony. He continues:
“The Viennese feuilleton is not noticeable. It evaporates at once from the brain onto which it is spilled. Once you have finished reading it, you feel nothing afterward. What stood in these six faultlessly pleated columns? A minute after you have finished reading it, you have no answer. You know only that everything was affable and gracile. Not just life, but the Viennese feuilleton is an amusement-park slide. You’re down and you can’t say how you got there.”
Polgar had the courage to amuse and not attempt to rabble-rouse or persuade. “The Viennese feuilleton,” he writes, “dilutes seriousness into the fleeting humor of earnestness, and humor into mild jokes. . . . It makes for the reader as little work as it did for the writer. In a word, it is purely for the ladies. It is nothing for men. Sweet, coquettish, harmless, empty, flimsy, free of all toxins, smooth and inconsequential to the point of being detestable.”