Bambi in the Cottageviertel – the dark side of Felix Salten

I so often overlook the fact that my street was once home to Felix Salten, claimed by Austria as a son of Vienna, but originally born in Hungary during the dual monarchy. Between 1911 and 1938 he lived in a villa on the corner of Colloredogasse and my street, Cottagegasse, diagonally across from what is the Thai Embassy. Salten is also immortalised in a street name in Transdanubia, but spent most of his time in Vienna in what are the 9th, 18th and 19th districts, only being given the honour of a street name following his death and as Donaustadt started to sprawl.

I doubt, however, that Bambi used to stroll through the Türkenschanzpark smoking a Meerschaumpfeife, but I wouldn’t be surprised if deer spotted in the vicinity around that time might have possibly been part of the inspiration for Bambi, which he wrote while living in the flat on the corner of my street, although on the section of the Cottagegasse that is already in the 18th district – the street having its own Mason-Dixon line, that divides Währinger Cottagers and Döblinger Cottagers. Salten was a pseudonym, his real name being Siegmund Salzmann.

Apart from Bambi, possibly his best known work, or at least the most notorious assigned to him, although never categorically proven to have been by him was the scandalous book, Josefine Mutzenbacher oder Die Geschichte einer Wienerischen Dirne von ihr selbst erzählt (Josefine Mutzenbacher, or the Story of a Viennese Whore, told by herself). The book is written in the first person as the memoires of Josefine M., handed to her doctor as she was dying in her early fifties, having made her money in what is purportedly the oldest trade in the world.

I wasn’t quite sure what might interest readers during the first decade of the 20th century about the memoires of an old tart, but a friend, who has an antiques shop, recently regaled me about the intrigue. A recent house clearance in Upper Austria had yielded some rather interesting books, one of which was Josefine M., and over a glass of wine he shared his insight about the notorious work. The book is now assigned to Salten, although many thought another of Vienna’s most decadent, Arthur Schnitzler was behind it. The attribution to Salten stems in part due to his familiarity with some of the parts of the city referred to in the book. Josefine is “straight out of Ottakring”.

The more Klaus told me, the more I was amazed – my assumption that it was an old tart’s reminiscences was quickly shattered by Klaus, who described it as “pretty degenerate stuff” and that its legacy is far more profound than the book itself. In 1990, the German Constitutional Court ruled that it was to be placed on a list of literature that was classified as “endangering youth”, meaning that it can only be sold to adults. The decision was taken over eight decades after publication. Despite the fact we were in the privacy of his own home, he spoke in whispered tones about the taboos addressed in the book.

First and foremost the story deals with her life before she entered a brothel, and he stopped and paused for several seconds before tacking on “at the age of 12 years”. The book is also viewed with interest as it is written in Viennese dialect (it was not just the Fraktur typeface but archaic slang of the turn of the 20th century prostitution) and that proved beyond me when Klaus showed me the copy he had recently acquired. He told me he now had four copies, but part of the fascination was that there was an initial print-run, privately published, of only 1,000 copies. One copy he showed me was marked heavily, with underlined sections that were particularly shocking, presumably by “Schmidt” (whose name was in the same ink inside the cover).

The book is all the more scandalous for also addressing the taboos of incest (Josefine and her brother play a graphic version of “Fathers and Mothers” both alone and with friends), extreme under-age sexual activity, paedophilia on a continuous basis. Other literature of that era might have touched on such activity, but none deals with it so brazenly, in particular regarding also the fact that such activity was not clamped down on but simply acknowledged as being widespread in the impoverished working classes. Its variety of slang (a recent-ish Süddeutsche article says that one edition, with a glossary, has over 200 entries for verbs meaning to copulate) is also apparently particularly impressive, and another reason that the book is assigned to an author of standing, rather than a scandal-provoking third rate scribbler.

Felix Salten will never quite be the same from me (as I try to banish Disney’s cartoon version from my mind, albeit hoping not to have a graphic image of Josefine M.’s proclivities etched in my mind). While his name is largely forgotten, his works – Bambi and Josefine M. – are still well-known and the later still deeply disturbing over a century later. It makes some of the stuff I am learning about Burschenschaften (for another post that I am working on!) seem very tame.