Thursday, September 8, 2011

Review of Veza Canneti's Yellow Street, by Harry Zohn

Veza Canneti De Gelbe Straß (München: Hanser, 1990). Translated from the German by Ian Mitchell as Yellow Street (London: Halban, 1990).
Review by Harry Zohn

Does a collection of five stories featuring some of the same characters constitute a novel? Veza Canetti thought so, and so do Elias Canetti, who has contributed an affectionate foreword about the lady to whom he was married for three decades, and Helmut Göbel, the author of a helpful analytic afterword. Whether or not Die Gelbe Straß is an episodic roman à clef, however, the author, who was born in Vienna as Venetiana Taubner-Calderon and died in London in 1963 at the age of sixty-six, was a storyteller of consummate skill, and her work makes for absorbing reading. Her stories appeared in the Arbeiter-Zeitung in 1932-33, and she used such pseudonyms as Veza Magd and Vernoika Knecht; the Hanser edition, hwoever, is their first publication in book form.

“Es ist eine merkwüridge Straß, deie Gelbe Straß,” writes Canetti. “Es wohen da Krüppel, Mondsüchtige, Verrückte, Verzweifelte und Satte.” The “yellow street” of the title is ostensibly the author’s own Ferdinandstraße in the Leopoldstadt, the second district of Vienna, and the adjective refers not only to the color of the signs and bales of the leather dealers established there, but also to the sun, certain illnesses, and emotions like envy, jealousy, and rage, not to mention canine feces. Canetti writes about mean-spirited entrepreneurs, put-upon women, lustful lmen, solipsistic simpletons—“characters” that are as colorful as they are pathetic—as well as about the dynamics of power, ruthlessness, brutality, and despair.

“Der Unhold” begins with the near-fatal accident of “die Runkel,” the grotesquely crippled tyrant of the street. “Der Oger” features the Jekyll-and-Hyde-like Iger, who is at once a domestic dictator, a public paragon, and a popular prestidigitator. “Der Kanal” takes a mordant view of the relationship between servants and mistresses; under the guise of supplying maids and cooks for “Gnädige,” a woman runs a prostitution ring and advises her destitute chattels to improve their situation by jumping into the Danube. Derdak, the owner of several cafés, is “Der Tiger,” who wants to turn the Lusthaus into a lust house—but, to go the author’s closing double entendre one better, his plan is a bust. In the lighthearted final story (or chapter) Herr Iger reappears as “Der Swinger,” a can-do type. Two playful and guileless children, a five-year-old Hedi (with a dog called Grimm) and Helli Wunderer, frustrate the designs of a prurient, predatory public and carry the machinations of adults ad absurdum. [Harry Zohn, World Literature Today]

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