THE NEW YORK TIMES, June 4, 2021
Reviewed by A. J. Goldmann
"Friederike Mayröcker, Grande Dame in German Literature, Dies at
An Austrian, she was among the most decorated German-language poets
of the postwar period, producing a large body of daring work.
Friederike Mayröcker, who was among the most influential and decorated
German-language poets of the postwar period, died on Friday in Vienna. She was
Suhrkamp Verlag, her Berlin-based publisher, announced the death.
Though acclaimed as a poet, Ms. Mayröcker ranged far more widely, producing
an immense body of work that encompassed nearly every literary genre: novels,
memoirs, children’s books, drama and radio plays as well as poetry. (Only a handful
of her works have been translated into English.)
Her work was formally inventive, much of it exploiting the imaginative potential of
language to capture the minutiae of daily life, the natural world, love and grief. If it
was often avant-garde, it was also deeply personal. Her language was exuberant
and concentrated, “a kind of continuous torrent of freely associative, passionate
language in the service of private obsessions,” as the Irish poet Peter Sirr wrote.
In the 2008 poem “ecstatic morning, for Linde Waber,” Ms. Mayröcker wrote (as
translated by Jonathan Larson and published on the arts website
on up the mirroring woodpath that is mirroring
the glaring lake to the right as towards us 1 beautiful wanderer
and over the roots of the mighty trees I strayed
while the clanging sun that is the high midday light
dusted through the vaulted treetops
She was the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2001 Georg Büchner
Prize, one of German literature’s top honors. It was a distinction she shared with
several authors who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, including Heinrich
Böll, Günter Grass, Elfriede Jelinek and Peter Handke. (She was nominated for the
prize in 2004.)
The German Academy for Language and Literature in Darmstadt, which
administers the Büchner prize, said in its award citation that Ms. Mayröcker’s work
had “made German literature richer in its very own way with its streams of language,
word inventions, and associations.”
The writer and translator Ryan Ruby wrote of her, “She is a poet who writes in
the intersection between the most personal moment — the passing thought — and
the indisputably universal one — individual death.”
After the death of her companion, the avant-garde writer Ernst Jandl, in 2000,
Ms. Mayröcker plumbed the depths of her grief in “Requiem for Ernst Jandl,” a
book-length lament. Exhibiting her frequent liberal use of capitalization, it reads in
part (translated by Roslyn Theobald):
I saw, I heard the song of a bird
DIE AWAY in an INDIFFERENCE bush,
because I no longer had eyes for it, nothing
but INDIFFERENT bushes and branches and
shrubs and an INDIFFERENT opening of
mouths the passersby and the INDIFFERENT
words of friends and the INDIFFERENT
chirping of this world overflowing with
abundance — nothing of IMPORT, had neither
eyes nor ears for thing and word and image
and bouquet and book and blossom ...
Friederike Mayröcker was born on Dec. 20, 1924, in Vienna and grew up there
and in Deinzendorf, a town in Lower Austria. Her father was a teacher and her
mother a milliner.
In 1942, when she was 17, she was drafted by the Luftwaffe and worked for it as
a secretary, living in Vienna during the Allied bombing of the city.
After attending a trade academy for high school, she passed the state exam for
English instruction. From 1946 to 1969 she worked as an English teacher at middle
schools in Vienna.
Ms. Mayröcker’s earliest published works included short poems written for the
avant-garde magazine Plan, an influential literary review published in Vienna from
1945 to 1948. Inspired by influential prewar periodicals like Die Fackel, it featured
young writers and contributed to Austria’s cultural rebirth in the wake of the Nazi
In the early 1950s, Ms. Mayröcker formed links with the Viennese literary scene
that centered on Ingeborg Bachmann, the Austrian feminist author and poet. She
also became involved in the Wiener Gruppe (Viennese Group), a loose association
of Austrian writers with a shared interest in avant-garde movements like Dadaism,
Surrealism and Expressionism. They would gather at the Café Glory, across from the
main building of the University of Vienna.
“I had my wildest times when it was pure experimentation for us,” she said of her
years in the orbit of the group, in a 2013 interview with Die Welt. Publishers showed
little interest in their books. “For a decade, we wrote for ourselves,” she said.
Ms. Mayröcker met Mr. Jandl in 1954 at a youth literature festival in Innsbruck,
Austria. Married to other people at the time, they divorced their spouses to be
together but did not share a home.
“If you want to write something proper, you can’t live with someone,” Ms.
Mayröcker told the Austrian daily newspaper Kurier in 2014.
She and Mr. Jandl formed a creative partnership, producing four radio plays
from 1968 to 1970 as well as other works. The first radio play, “Five Man Humanity,”
was awarded the 1969 Kriegsblindenpreis, the leading prize for audio dramas, which
was originally voted on by blind war veterans.
Her first book of prose miniatures, “Larifari: A Confused Book,” appeared in 1956
as part of a series of works by young Austrian writers. But she did not publish her
first volume of poetry, “Death by Muses,” until a decade later, when she was 42. It
established her as a leading lyrical voice of her generation.
Shortly thereafter, in 1969, she took early retirement after 24 years of teaching
English and devoted the rest of her long life to writing.
That writing was prodigious. A 2003 edition of her collected poems, published by
Suhrkamp, holds more than 1,000 pieces. Her prose works run to more than 20
volumes, including a series of memoirs about her and Mr. Jandl. The most
comprehensive sampling of her poetry to appear in English is “Raving Language:
Selected Poems 1946-2005.”
Ms. Mayröcker once drew a distinction between verse and prose this way:
“Writing poetry is like painting in watercolors. Writing prose is a hard art, like making
Earlier this year, a selection of her autobiographical works appeared in English
with the title “The Communicating Vessels,” from Public Space Books. Ms.
Mayröcker said her books, which appeared mostly in editions of only several
thousand copies, had not made her wealthy. “I live off the prize money,” she said in
the Kurier interview.
She left no immediate survivors.
Ms. Mayröcker’s most recent book, “as mornings and mossgreen I. Step to the
window,” published last July, was shortlisted for the 2021 Leipzig Book Fair Prize.
The jury that nominated her called attention to the way she “fuses poetry and prose
into ‘proems’ full of infatuations, futilities, fantasies, daydreams.”
Summing up her life in “my heart my room my name,” a 1988 story written
without punctuation, she chose to put things simply: “I live I write.”
She elaborated in the 2013 Welt interview. “Death is really a tyrant,” she said.
“Because you don’t want to leave, but you have to, because he wants you to. You
haven’t done everything you want to yet. And I still want so much. I can’t imagine
saying at some point before I die: Now enough with the writing.”