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.
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...
(The entire section contains 1099 words.)
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