Review: European Literature Days 2019

A daily blog by Elias Hirschl

Thursday 21.11.2019

On the Unhappiness of Writing, the Austrian Trade Unions Federation and the Kantian Imperative

Blog entries per se tend to be a rather transient, short-lived literary genre, especially since you usually have to rattle them down late at night after a busy day because tomorrow’s cultural programme is so full again that you run out of time to write about the previous day. This is why such texts undergo rather little, if any editing whatsoever, and the requirement for correct spelling ought to be exhausted in the hope that the automatic correction mechanisms learned at school should help you through the tricky passages, but that’s just how it is: literature is a diffuse, confused affair.

Krems is also a diffuse, clouded affair, at least as far as the action-packed agenda and fog are concerned. Everything happens thick and fast; everything is at the same time and everywhere and the entire town is suddenly flooded by dozens of the literati from all over Europe. You’re already nervous enough about having to write the festival blog for an immense literature festival, and then without having slept, too, because naturally you tossed and turned in bed restlessly last night out of sheer anxiety that you might not have slept well enough for tomorrow’s workshop. Then, you arrive at the platform and the pea-soup fog swirls around so densely that, first off, you have to go right up to the station sign to make sure you catch the right train to start with. At least, no-one should have seen the dark circles around the eyes.

The mood significantly improves when the workshop begins and the 40 school pupils (I was already afraid that they would appear as a closed, anti-‘I’m-bothered’ crowd) have turned up with a really genuine and sincere desire for writing. The school kids hardly know each other as a quick ice-breaker game reveals. But they all seem to be involved in plenty of daily or weekly activities. During the workshop they are already preparing for the next discussion rounds on topics that I cannot remember word-for-word but roughly were headed “Everyone is stressed – work in a post-industrialized world” or “What does it mean to be grown up?” In other words, they’re talking about problems that I don’t even feel equipped to deal with myself and nor, I believe, do other adults. But the young people appear quite confident. They sit there with free biros and free notebooks courtesy of eljub (European Youth Meetings); their festival pass ribbons are adorned with “I Love Lower Austria” and “Drugs don’t work”, which I find an equally unfortunate as well as fitting combination, after I have consumed four espressos to cope with the tiredness.

We start off with an attempt inspired by Georges Perec and let the youngsters write a short text without the letter ‘A’ that amazingly mainly leads to a lot of Anglicisms like ‘societies’ (not ‘Gesellschaften’), work (vs. ‘Arbeit’), fun not ‘Spaß’ and cool instead of ‘krass’. 

We then collect different literary genres, as widely diverse as possible, adjectives, nouns that you can touch (trees, stones, columns, houses, George Clooney) and nouns that you cannot touch (freedom, love, energy, God, Satan). The spontaneous concepts that come from the pupils certainly seem to be quite religious, which might be to do with the country or Krems, or rather the fact that the workshop and actually the entire literature festival is taking place in a church that was formerly a salt warehouse, as Robert Menasse emphasized later that evening.

The genres that we come up with are: “crime thriller, crib sheets, love letters, poem, criminal charge, till sales receipt, birthday card, SMS/WhatsApp chat thread, obituary, vow and prayer”. In fact, a text is created for every genre with the exception of the sales receipt.

The five headings, which we derive as a writing task from the assembled words and should each be combined with a genre, also sound quite spiritual:

1. The beautiful window of the spectacular Holy Ghost

2. The multifaceted hatred of the little jellyfish

3. The heartbreaking ground of religious sadness

4. The respectable pillar of drunken solidarity

5. The conscientious steep path of the aching soul. 

These generate at times funny texts, but often texts filled with pain and longing and certainly critical ones about love, the past, future, pro-religion diatribes, anti-religion diatribes, anti-ex-boyfriend diatribes and anti-FPÖVP diatribes. Plenty of feeling, hatred, love and one or the other swear word flow down on paper and are finally performed vociferously in front of the entire class. And at least since then I’m no longer worried that these young people will hold their own in discussions and do well in future.

This is immediately followed by the first debate. That’s without the school pupils, but instead with Robert Menasse and Doron Rabinovici (who stood in as a discussion partner with just a few hours’ notice). The discussion is in German, but for the participants speaking other languages, two interpreters translate it live over a headset. This creates an amazing picture as half the room laughs, while the other half waits for another few seconds for the translation and then also laughs, like an emotional echo, which is chaotically dispersed through the crowd and jumps forwards and back.

The key theme for the evening and the festival as a whole is the ‘good life’. Menasse immediately satisfies the philosophy student in me when he begins with an introductory presentation about the philosophical history of the Eudaimonia from Aristoteles to the Stoics and up to the Austrian Federation of Trade Unions. Capitalism gets a mention, climate change too, Greta Thunberg gets a mention – I’ve already met her today as a Deix caricature in the display window of the Karikaturenmuseum. 

The discussion shifts to the grandparents’ generation of the two writers: Menasse’s grandfather who decided after the Second World War only to do what makes him happy, and from then on became a representative for arabica beans to spend his days in five to six different coffee houses. Rabinovici’s family travelled the world, sometimes more and sometimes less voluntarily, but always with optimism in their luggage. There is the remark that pure egoism is not enough for a happy life, just as little as pure excess: “Drugs don’t work.”

The conversation focuses on the happiness of writing. Both the successful best-selling writers agree that writing is a terrible torment, which brings nothing other than suffering and unhappiness, although it’s always still better than most contract work because it represents a non-alienated work process, as the saying goes: “Writing is bad. But not writing is even worse. And to be prevented from writing is the worst of all.” I agree with this, and I make a final note before my cheap and free 

biro from eljub falls apart in my hands. What remains in the end is fog, fluid, hazy, diffuse happiness, immortality as hell or as a general remedy and, as always, the Kantian imperative. 


Friday 22.11.2019

I don’t care if you lose your culture 

It’s the start of the second festival day and the fog has lifted, as if at the flick of a switch. I write yesterday’s blog over breakfast and set off for the festival centre at the Minoriten. I only notice now in the sunshine that on the way to the readings you walk past not one, but two prisons (Krems und Stein). But the policemen at the entrance seem to be rather bored. Not that many crimes seem to be going on here, even though one or the other festival participant is worried about the unlit streets of Stein at night-time.

The language for today’s event has immediately changed to English and the two interpreters switch the direction of their interpretation. I’m generally completely fascinated by the translation arts at this festival, but more on that later.

I arrive slightly late, so I sit on the only available seat next to a group of teenage boys who in contrast to the young people in the workshop don’t really seem as though they are here of their own accord. Ida Hegazi Høyer from Norway and Annelies Verbeke from Ghent are talking about love, love between strangers, love between friends, the anonymity of the big city and the transparency of country living. Today, the discussions seem generally much more emotional, more practically intended and more direct than yesterday’s rather highbrow, abstract and philosophical critique about the good life. So, today it’s about the good life to touch. It’s about the endeavour of being a good person and simply being in contact with others. Every time that the conversation touches on the topic of sexuality, the boys on my left and right giggle, casting each other looks and making gestures that go past me. During the discussion they come up with all kinds of creative strategies to deal with their restlessness. Whenever somebody has finished reading, they applaud and celebrate in an ostentatious and sarcastically loud manner, until their teacher finally reprimands them. They carry on by poking each other or pinching each other on the leg. The discussion on the stage switches to the question of cultural appropriation that crops up more often during the festival. Are you allowed nowadays to write at all from the viewpoint of other people, whose perspective you virtually have no right to immerse yourself in? The protagonist in Annelies Verbeke’s novel is black and moves to Flanders to the countryside where he rather stands out from the average population. Two youngsters next to me imitate the writer while she speaks. They seem to have a rather wholehearted approach to cultural appropriation. When they are told off again, they begin to make plopping noises with their mouths. And when they get a third telling off, they manage to listen for several minutes, but then erupt into laughter when the word ‘pussy’ is mentioned during the reading.

The podium discussion, on the other hand, seems to come to a point over the question of altruism vs. self-fulfilment. While Annelies Verbekes’ protagonist on her own admission represents one of the many Jesus figures, which repeatedly appear to her during her creative work, the protagonist in Ida Høyer’s novel tries to be independent and to find her own personal happiness. (Potentially, the protagonist could be three different characters, since in Norway the book was not published as a novel but as a collection of short stories in three separate parts).

The next discussion between Ghayath Almadhoun and Priya Basil addresses this matter. Ghayath Almadhoun talks about the complexity of the question “How are you?” to which he can think of no simple answer. What answer can one give, when your own family is under bombardment and you are living in one of the most peaceful and richest countries in the world. The writer from Palestine and Syria who now lives in Sweden or the whole world makes this absurdity clear with the picture that his mother phoned him when she heard of a severe storm heading for Sweden, while bomb explosions were clearly audible on her end of the telephone line. You get accustomed to something like that. You feel worried during the first year, afterwards it’s normal. The state of normality comes with familiarity and only then do you notice what falls outside of the normal state. Almadhoun also introduces the observation that he made about several other refugees from Syria. As soon as they have been in a new place for half a year, the post-traumatic stress disorder manifests itself. He therefore tends to keep moving on, not staying for too long in one place, so that it never catches up with him.

Priya Basil, who relocated from Great Britain to Germany, also talks about the absurdity of national borders, about Brexit, about changing citizenship and cultural differences.

I note down at some point in the conversation a wonderful phrase that unfortunately in hindsight I can no longer attribute to either of the discussion partners, but I would still like to reflect all the same: “So what if someone loses their culture? I don’t care if you lose your culture. I want all Polish people to go to China and all Norwegians to eat Indian food, I don’t care!” This is a project that certainly requires interpreters. The same also applies for the following Mozart evening walking tour with music for strings, although alongside the music and the round tour I’m almost more impressed by the interpreter. In real time, she skilfully translates for the non-German-speaking half of the group the explanations and fun facts about Mozart’s short time in Stein. Even totally obscure, Old Catholic terms are instantly given an English equivalent in translation. Words like archdiocese (Erzdiözese) or diocese (Bistum), words that I partly don’t even know how to write in German or what they actually precisely mean.

To round off this really action-packed day, there was still the short introduction to the exhibition Donauspuren at the State Gallery, the installation created by Carola Dertnig with performative elements from eurythmically curved copper rods as well as artefacts from the excavation on the construction site during the building of this gallery. The tour concluded with a reading by Theresa Präauer and Marente de Moor. In de Moor’s novel “Aus dem Licht” the invention of film is acted out by a patent-inventor who went missing during a train journey to Paris. Theresa Präauer’s focus, on the other hand, is still on hand-created painting, as she reveals in her novel “Johnny und Jean” set in the art student scene in the second biggest city.


Saturday 23.11.2019

The Inner and Outer World 

The third day begins and the weather is still as fine as yesterday. Today, the agenda suggests that things should get ‘extra-terrestrial’ or at least trans-terrestrial with the topic “How ‘terrestrial’ is life?”. If you’re familiar, in particular, with the fantastic “astronaut poems” by Clemens Setz, you know that you’re in for quite a time. Together with the Canadian and Berliner-by-choice, Rory MacLean, who is stepping in for Michel Faber, he talks about the wide expanses of the external and internal world. In his latest book “Der Trost runder Dinge” (“The Comfort of Round Things”) Clemens Setz explores by his own admission people’s everyday private lives with the focus being on ‘private’. He wants to capture the moments in life that, up till now, literature has tended to leave out: going to the toilet, eating, irrational actions and thoughts, arbitrary upsurges in fantasies of violence that you cannot explain and certainly can’t communicate to anyone. It’s about venturing as far as possible into the inner world of human experience. In contrast to Setz, the self-appointed Google-Earth writer, Rory MacLean tends to go on physical journeys and his semi-autobiographical travelogues present books that disrupt the Anglo-Saxon categories of ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’, which not everyone always finds acceptable. The discussion turns to the concept of empathy, as it did yesterday. Clemens Setz not only considers this as having positive connotations: “If I go into an abattoir and kill everyone out of empathy with the animals, then this is not necessarily good.” Here, he discusses a point that plays a role in the many discussions during the festival. There are repeated attempts to explore what is the mandate of literature. To cultivate empathy? To describe complex structures so they’re easy to digest? To educate society? And I think to myself over and again that this is the wrong question. That literature has no mandate, because it doesn’t need to have one and this is precisely what makes it an art. But that would lead too far now. 

The discussion turns to the autonomous republic of Transnistria in Moldavia, which is not recognized by any state; it jumps to the issue of non-recognized states and finally lands at the complex problem of microstates, which at least fascinates both discussion partners as much as me and the moderator Rosie Goldsmith. Rory MacLean founded his own state when his family came into possession of an absurdly small island due to a bureaucratic error. Although he didn’t receive an answer from the Canadian government to his declaration of independence of the “Bumpalump” republic, the return letter to “Bumpalump” was officially stamped, which at least gave the state a degree of legitimacy. The issue of microstates as a symptom of the desire for isolation also applies to the following discussion between Marc Elsberg and Zoë Beck. Beck, who writes from London in a post-Brexit world, indicates what an automated, isolated world could mean, with London only standing as a model example of a wider social phenomenon. But this is London: a breeding ground for social trends and developments. Child poverty, rent explosions, gentrification, avocado toasts, everything first emerges in London. Meanwhile, Marc Elsberg illustrates with a really existing mathematical proof the relevance of cooperation in vital systems and points to the irritating condition that all our state and economic systems are based on the false assumption that a cake gets its size from being divided, whereas in reality it grows bigger and bigger the more hands it passes through.

In the evening there is a literary and musical soirée with a performance by the six-piece band Darkstone Brass with plenty of jazz and funk. This is accompanied by three readings and discussions with the writers Helena Janeczek, Julia von Lucadou and Enis Maci. The focus is on remembering, commemoration and rehabilitation in “The Girl with the Leica” – a translation of Helena Janeczek’s novel first published in Italian. It’s about skyscrapers, megacities, influencers, pressure to perform and the madness of living a better life in Julia von Lucadou’s novel “Die Hochhausspringerin” (“The Skyscraper Jumper”), which is her self-confessed way of thinking through the capitalist idea to its logical conclusion. Finally, Enis Maci reads from

her essay “Insel” from the edition “Eiscafé Europa” about collecting and deleting processes, about newspaper articles on Albania, which her father took years to painstakingly translate from German into Albanian, so he could publish them online. Yet, he omitted ever to save them in the meantime, so suddenly they all disappeared. In the subsequent discussion, the focus is on identities and identifying features, which the brass band elegantly concludes with a cover version of In the neighbourhood. This is followed by a wine tasting with the choice between wine with sophistication, with minerality and an unpretentious wine.


Sunday 24.11.2019

Three Cheers for the Translators! 

It’s the start of the last day of the festival, and I sense the abundance of the discussions still in my head and the opulence of the food in my stomach. However, today in any case there is no full programme but the final presentation of the Austrian Book Trade Honorary Award for Tolerance in Thought and Action to the Italian writer Francesca Melandri who is receiving the prize especially for her new book “Alle, außer mir” (Italian: “Sangue Giusto”). The event, which it feels like all Lower Austria’s priests and politicians are attending, is accompanied by music from Simon Zöchbauer and the Koehne Quartet. They create a highly rhythmic, almost cinematic atmosphere of drama with strings and trumpet along with very minimal and effective electronic elements and overall would fit perfectly as film music in any South Korean arthouse film. 

Francesca Melandri is praised from different sides for her work in which she transposes political themes into family structures and differentiates global developments as chamber theatre. “The family itself becomes a borderland, a conflict region and battle zone”, as Helena Janeczek, who gave a reading yesterday, sums it up in her laudatio speech. Francesca Melandri also focuses strongly on the theme of translation in her acceptance speech. The translation of politics into family, of an idea into ink, of one language to another. She thanks and praises the literary and diplomatic translators and interpreters who are far too often forgotten. I imagine how the two interpreters who are seated out of sight and hidden away somewhere outside the venue room for several days, while they interpret the discussions over headsets for the audience that doesn’t speak German, now secretly go unnoticed as they hear the praise and accept the thanks and even hear the audience’s applause only through the microphone. I can only add my voice to that of Francesca Melandri here, as far as the festival goes as well as every other aspect of cultural and political meeting: three cheers for interpreters and translators everywhere, and for all those who keep alive and promote cultural networking and disciplines like art across national borders. Let’s embrace all arts and cultures so that we all don’t lose art and culture one day. Perhaps, here is a key to a happy life in the sense of literature: cooperation, culture, art and the ability to think through fixed ideas so they become fuzzy, to have the capacity to translate everything into everything else.

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