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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1099

Set in an upper-middle-class household in contemporary Vienna, where life revolves around the arts and the artistically pretentious, Holzfallen (woodcutting) focuses on a dinner party given for an actor of the prestigious Burgtheater. The actor’s late arrival, after the evening’s performance, delays the beginning of the actual meal until past midnight. Up to this midpoint in the novel, the narrator, a writer, observes the empty social chatter and ruminates on his past ties to the people around him from the vantage point of a comfortable chair at the outer edge of the activities. He ponders the circumstances which several days earlier brought him into renewed contact with his host and hostess, the Auersbergers, former friends whom he had abandoned twenty years ago. On the very morning when he learned of the suicide of Joana, a mutual friend from their past, he met the Auersbergers by accident on the street. In a state of emotional confusion, he accepted their invitation to the dinner party—despite the long estrangement and his declared loathing of them.

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The party itself takes place on the evening following Joana’s burial, almost all the guests still dressed in black. Particularly until the actor arrives, the narrative perspective is severely limited to his musings, and he catches only muffled echoes and sketchy shadows of the external world. Among these shadows the most prominent are the figures of the drunken host doing finger exercises on the piano and his wife constantly reassuring her hungry guests of the eminence of their guest of honor as well as the imminence of his arrival. From his seat in a dimly lit anteroom, the narrator watches others pass by him to the center of the party in the music room, consciously avoiding conversation and giving himself over to his reflections.

His failure to refuse the Auersbergers’ invitation becomes a core question that he poses to himself over and over, each time adding associations that gradually accrete to form a larger, more detailed picture of their common past. This past had its roots thirty-five years before, following the narrator’s graduation from the Mozarteum, an academy of music and the arts in Salzburg. Apparently jaded by his studies at the time, he had renounced his artistic ambitions until his acquaintance with the Auersbergers and, through them, with Joana. With Herr Auersberger accompanying him on the piano, he spent entire afternoons and evenings singing the classical repertories of Italian, German, and English arias and lieder. As a frequent guest at Joana’s home, the nascent writer came into a setting supportive of intellectual and aesthetic growth, a setting populated by the elite of the Viennese artistic, scientific, and political worlds. Over the years, the lives of these charismatic figures deteriorated, however, and an increasing alienation set in between them and the narrator. With the Auersbergers, mutual accusations of betrayal and exploitation grew into bitterness, while the narrator seemed simply to have forgotten Joana. When he first learned of her suicide, he reacted with surprise that she had not been dead for some time.

By the time the actor arrives, two hours after the others and midway through the novel, the hostess has to rouse the narrator from a nap before he can follow her into the dining room. Seated at the table across from Jeannie Billroth (a writer who claims the reputation of a Viennese Virginia Woolf), the narrator has less chance for introspection, since the monologue of the long-awaited guest overwhelms even his attention. The actor expounds, practically without pause, on his current and past successes in the theater as well as on the demands and difficulties of his profession. Almost uninterrupted, except by the movement of his spoon and fork in and out of his mouth, he talks incessantly, well into the early morning hours.

As the monologue grows increasingly tedious, the narrator’s focus turns inward once again, this time to the intimate details of his past relationship with Jeannie Billroth. Adhering to his convictions about his other relationships, the narrator also maintains that he broke with Jeannie at precisely the right moment in his life. He now holds her in complete contempt and believes that the feeling is mutual.

It is three o’clock in the morning by the time dinner is over, and the party moves back into the music room. Occasionally becoming lucid enough to stammer a few words into the conversation or to abuse his wife for her attempts to remove him from the scene into the bedroom, Herr Auersberger fades ever deeper into an intoxicated stupor. His embarrassing pranks reach a high point of tastelessness when he suddenly removes his lower dental plate and thrusts it under the nose of the actor as a graphic example, he remarks, of human frailty. Jeannie, her efforts to engage the guest of honor in intellectual discussion virtually ignored throughout the evening, presses the actor with increasingly personal challenges. Finally overstepping the limits of his tolerance and defenses by asking whether he had found “fulfillment” in the theater now at the “end of his life,” she touches off an almost paranoid response. It is only in the fury of this totally honest response that the actor becomes a sympathetic figure in the narrator’s eyes. As if mortally wounded, the enraged actor attacks Jeannie for her crassness and stupidity and laments the vulnerability of public figures such as himself to such insolence. His wish had always been, he claims, for the anonymity of a private existence, for the isolated peace of the “forest, mountain forest, felling trees.” For the narrator, who years ago radically disconnected himself from most of the people in the room, these are profoundly philosophical words that set the direction of millions of lives.

The storm passes quickly, however, and the civilities of social life return to the Auersberger household. During the ritual of departure, the actor not only gallantly kisses the hand of his antagonist but also pays a superfluous compliment to her adventurous spirit. Even the narrator becomes caught up in the social hypocrisies and finds himself kissing the brow of the hostess as he had twenty years ago, assuring her of his delight in having made renewed contact after the long interval. Alone on the street in the final scene and in a manic state fueled by conflicting emotions, the narrator sets out not in the direction of his apartment but toward the heart of the city that he both hates and loves. His final thoughts are dominated by an urgent need to set the experiences of the evening to paper.

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