Peter Altenberg



Peter Altenberg was born Richard Engländer in Vienna on March 9, 1859. The son of Jewish middle class parents, he never managed to obtain a university degree, let alone hold a permanent job. He started studying law at the University of Vienna, but abandoned it in order to switch to Medical School. In 1879, a year later, he dropped out of Medical School and traveled to Stuttgart to start a career as a bookseller. After a brief stay in Stuttgart, he returned to Vienna with the intent of again taking up law the University of Graz. However, this endeavour proved unsuccessful. Fortunately, a physician relieved him from all future work, stating that Altenberg was not fit for a regular job due to an overly sensitive nervous system.

In the 1880’s, Altenberg moved out of his family home and started leading the life of a bohemian. He never had his own apartment, but would instead rent cheap hotel rooms where he kept all of his belongings. He became a frequent visitor of Cafe Griensteidl where he not only befriended the art historian Erich Friedell,  but also met Karl Kraus, Alfred Polgar, Arthur Schnitzler as well as other authors of the group Jung Wien. He soon became a member of the coffeehouse circle and was particularly supported and liked by Kraus and Hofmannsthal.

Altenberg did most of his writing at coffeehouses. After Café Griensteidl closed down, his favorite coffeehouse became Café Central, where he spent most of his time. He mainly wrote short, seemingly spontaneous pieces, capturing the fleeting moment by using an impressionistic style of writing. In 1896, Altenberg published his first book entitled Wie ich es sehe, which was comprised of short pieces about the everyday life of people from various social classes. His book was favorably received and helped him establish a reputation as a significant author. Ten more books followed throughout his life, among them Ashantee and Semmering.

Altenberg was never a commercially successful writer and could not make a living off of his books. As a result, he was constantly short of money, but somehow managed to seek out people who would support him financially. Even though Altenberg hardly ever repaid his debt, he felt that his entertaining company, his witticism, as well as his bright intellect were worth more than all the money he received.  

Altenberg never married even though he was a romantic at heart. His nom de plum was supposedly related to an unrequited love from his earlier years: At the small town of Altenberg where his family would spend their vacations, he became acquainted with a girl nicknamed Peter whom he dearly loved. He finally decided to adopt her name as well as the name of the town where they used to meet. Despite remaining a bachelor throughout his life, he had numerous romantic relationships. His detractors called him a pedophile since he loved the company of young girls.

Altenberg was a very extravagant person. He dressed unconventionally, had a humongous collection of postcards, was not opposed to alcohol and drugs, and developed his own health theory which he published in Prodromos. He wore sandals on bare feet and slept with the window open in all weather. Moreover, he was prone to depression and melancholy, which resulted in his spending quite a bit of his time in asylums, sometimes even against his own will.

Altenberg died of pneumonia at the age of 59 in Vienna on January 8, 1919.

-Gabi Eichmanns-