Review: European Literature Days 2020

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Wilderness. WILDERNESS! As if we weren’t right in the middle of it now anyway. In a jungle of the unknown, unexpected, perhaps frightening as well. Yet wilderness certainly also has positive connotations: like strength, resilience, pioneering spirit, hope (– not only the flora is green).

One way or the other, the topic of the European Literature Days 2020 couldn’t be more relevant. And I, Daniela Emminger, have the honour and pleasure over the next four days to speak up wild and enthusiastically every now and then.

In all honesty, I’m looking forward to it: to many enthralling discussions and readings with renowned writers and colleagues from all over the world. And also simply to the fact that finally – (albeit also online) – philosophical debate and literary conversation can take place; an element of normality sets in that allows you to forget the world around you for one or maybe two hours.

Wilderness can mean so many things. In the time-honoured dictionary by the Grimm brothers it stands for “lush, prolifically growing abundance, inhibiting need, mental confusion”. Henry David Thoreau defined the following: “Wildness is the preservation of the World”. And, completely up to date, Ariadne von Schirach and Robert Menasse will discuss this evening – live from Berlin and Vienna – how they understand wilderness.

In this spirt: Let’s all join in being untamed, innocent, perhaps even wild and romantic! “Come into the open, friend, and learn to be amazed”.

Thursday, 19.11.2020, 19.30
Live stream Talk and Writer Q&A:

Thursday, 19 November 2020

To begin with a brief, moving moment when Robert Menasse, as every year, photographs the audience. Only this year, the Minoritenkirche in Krems is deserted. Like many streets in Vienna. Public squares in Paris. Or buildings across Europe.

The two discussion partners for today’s opening event of the European Literature Days couldn’t have been more different. On the one hand, Robert Menasse, a self-confessed “friend of order” who has little idea how to deal with “unconscious”, inner wildness. On the other hand, Ariadne von Schirach whose approach to wildness in times of corona and climate change is almost lyrical.

Absolute highlight: her 10-minute keynote address “Come into the Open, Friend, and Learn to be Amazed” (– incidentally, accessible online until 22.11. –), in which one subtle metaphor chases the next: wilderness – the place where you can die; wilderness – the inaccessible of one’s soul, the marching order into the unconscious, the foreign amidst the familiar, the vulnerability of all life.
A plea for new tools of the trade, new maps, new skills, so we learn survival in times like these, so we learn how to live with loss. “We cannot, we ought not pause or rest”, she says, in the firm belief that wilderness unites us more than it divides us.

In that second I want to hear and read more from the writer and philosopher, born in Munich in 1978! I already know her essay “Der Tanz um die Lust”, published as a book by Goldmann in 2007, although not “Du sollst nicht funktionieren” (2014), “Ich und du und Müllers Kuh“ (2016) or “Die psychotische Gesellschaft. Wie wir Angst und Ohnmacht überwinden“ and the essay “Lob der Schöpfung. In Verteidigung des irdischen Glücks” (both published in 2019). As if she had a presentiment about corona ...

Another tip for online literature lovers: every weekday since 2009 Ariadne von Schirach has published a weather poem on Twitter: ariztweet. Today’s poem: “Grauer Himmel/Wolken eilen/Krähen auf dem/Dach verweilen” (“Grey sky/clouds scudding/crows linger/on the roof”

Sleep well. Until tomorrow maybe, Daniela Emminger


Friday, 20 November 2020

To all those who didn’t make it at 9am early today to the readings and conversations of and with Polly Clark and Dan Richards, I can only say: take a moment to catch up! The British–Canadian poet Polly Clark moved to the Russian taiga for her novel “Tiger” (2020). She employed a cat man and set off to hunt for Siberian tigers. Because tigers have an especially keen memory for revenge and don’t forget their enemies even years later. I don’t want to spoil the plot of the novel, except to say this much: the reader is right in the middle of the wilderness.

The British nature writer Dan Richards is no less adventurous; he travelled half way around the world for his new book of non-fiction, “Outpost – A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth” (2020). His aim: to meet extraordinary people and collect their stories.

Perhaps, they both have such an affinity with me because they’re similar to me in terms of the thought- and writing process. To plunge physically and mentally into the heart of a foreign, unknown terrain – be it in the mind of a tiger, a bear’s skin or, as in my case, the fur of a Braunau gorilla. I think that you know from the sound of a text when the focus is on the search for wild truth and for sheer survival. Clark says that a feeling of foreignness brings us closer to ourselves. Richards adds: “Going out is often going in”.

The discussion was moderated by the British journalist Rosie Goldsmith – lovely; she gives the authors just enough space and has no need to monopolize things. Boy, do I feel understood!

Today, things are moving along rapidly. Going forwards with really fantastic writers and their books about wilderness. I just got to know Fabio Andina and his novel “Tage mit Felice” (2020). A story about slowness and being humble, or specifically, about an old man who climbs a mountain every morning, every evening, in summer and winter, to bathe in the upland pool. By the way, this is a true legend and it marked the start of Andina’s story twenty years ago. Beyond the book, it has brought about fundamental change to his own life. He no longer needs much to be happy, recounts the Swiss-Italian who was born in 1972. He leads a quiet, minimalist life. I don’t know his book yet. But it’s sure to sound so beautifully quiet, like he is.

And then Miek! Miek Zwamborn, born in The Netherlands in 1974. She is a unique fairy persona in thoughts, words and (her) works. Since her childhood the photographer, writer, activist and visual artist has always been on the go trying to understand the wilderness. And herself in this wilderness. She has fallen in love with stones and seaweed, and so much so that for this reason she first moved to Switzerland and later to Scotland. Therefore, it’s not very surprising that her last book was entitled “Algen: Ein Portrait” (2019). Here, she sets out in search of traces of these wonderful plants and finds (out) stories quite incidentally in which “the nondescript combines with the powerful, the personal with the historical and the obvious with the obscure”. When Zwamborn isn’t currently preoccupied with writing, she collects worms or dropped umbrella covers, clears plastic rubbish from the beach near her house and just makes the world a little better in her own enchanting way.

If I had one wish, I would love to eat seaweed at Miek’s house with the vegan Andina. Then again, it would also suffice just to be the wispy cloud in the sky.


Friday, 20 November 2020

I wasn’t expecting such dark and at the same time illuminating reading material this afternoon. On the “online reading stage” of the European Literature Days two masterpieces of African colonial history landed that couldn’t have been more bizarre and enthralling.

Let’s begin with the Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah (b. 1971). Her CV is at least as impressive as the story that she relates in her novel “Out of Darkness, Shining Light” (2019). What incredible creativity and experiences that will not run out in a hundred years: apartheid, study and an international career in record time. (She achieved her doctorate, by the way, in Graz). Aged 30, she also added literary composition. “Out of Darkness, Shining Light” tells the incredible tale of the Scottish missionary and Africa explorer David Livingstone who died in 1873 on a quest to discover the Nile sources. His corpse was then carried across Africa by 60 loyal companions, so he can find peace in his own country.

Even more bizarre are the contents of Gergely Péterfy’s work “The Stuffed Barbarian” (2016). This is the story of the African child slave Angelo Soliman who as a seven-year-old child is presented in 1720 as a gift to Prince Johann Georg Christian von Lobkowitz and sent to Vienna. Soliman declares this, in brief, to be his personal “civilisation experiment” and granting him access to education and high society. In fact, the exceptional Afro-Austrian soon cultivates relationships to many renowned personalities of his day. Yet due to the colour of his skin he remains a fairground attraction. After his death Soliman lands (stuffed) in a glass cabinet in the court natural history collection.

The Hungarian writer Péterfy (b. 1966) spent more than ten years working on this book that then also focuses on the friendship between Soliman and the epoch-making agent of language regeneration, Ferenz Kazinczy. Both tried in vain for the rest of their lives to make the world a little better through the communication of learning and knowledge. But 300 years later Gergely Péterfy has magnificently succeeded in doing just that!

Now, being so fascinated in the book I didn’t deal with the highlights from the genuinely exciting discussion. But you can also watch them yourself until 22.11. And you should do!

Hurrah, to round off the day there is the traditional literary-artistic soirée! Even if this year it doesn’t begin on location in the State Gallery of Lower Austria. And later we will “only” see the new exhibition “Traces and Masks of Refugees”, curated by Günther Oberhollenzer, in virtual excerpts.

Instead, I now listen to the writer Olga Grjasnowa who was born in Azerbaijan and grew up in Germany. She introduces her new novel “Der verlorene Sohn” (2020). She is actually known for her strong focus on current events. However, in this case she entices us to the wild Caucasus and to the setting of the 19th century, during the Caucasian war, the conquering crusade of Nicholas I, who wanted to seize Constantinople. However, at the heart of the story is 9-year-old Jamalludin, the son of a powerful Imam, who in 1839 ends up in the chaos of war as a hostage at the court of the Tsar in St. Petersburg. Now things get really exciting – also regarding the festival topic of wilderness: Jamalludin is and remains – in fact for his entire lifetime – torn between the two cultures, two religions, two identities. “Which makes the story in a certain sense completely up to date,” laughs Grjasnowa.

And again, hurrah! Now a true rock star of words bids good evening to us: the Austrian writer Michael Stavarič, born in 1972 in the Czech Republic. Of course, he has brought along his new dystopian novel “Fremdes Licht” (2020). And here things get really wild: first, the entire world collapses, then the survivors after the impact of a comet encounter polar bears, and finally there is only one survivor (a woman, grin) who becomes as it were the chronicler of the whole history of humanity. He automatically hears the sound of a playlist for each new book; you can hear that in the language, in general for him the language is the actual story, explains Stavarič. But we’ll gladly take all the trappings along with it!

A last word on the exhibition: as soon as it’s allowed again, please travel to Krems and see the wall mural by the Iranian artist Ramesch Daha at the prison wall at Stein prison. It is a poignant reminder of the momentous historical events of 6 April 1945 when one of the last cruel crimes occurred in Krems in the final phases of the Second World War.

I wish you a peaceful evening!


Saturday, 21 November 2020

This morning two readings are scheduled when WILDERNESS changes tempo:

The idler: Edo Popović. He began in the 1990s as a pop writer, then become a war reporter and is now a thinking man’s essayist. How does that work, he is asked, and his answer is simply: “It happens naturally. My life, my writing is somehow like an ECG.” The Croatian writer, born in 1957, published “Anleitung zum Gehen” (2015) that is ideally suited to survey our world. Of course, inevitably I have to think of Thomas Bernhard who defined “Walking” as: “There is a constant tug-of-war going on between all the possibilities of human thought and between all the possibilities of a human mind’s sensitivity, and between all the possibilities of human character.” Walking also helps Popović in observing, thinking and listening to his inner self. Nature, the wilderness would be his teachers. All of this reflects the content of his book. Very congenial!

The fast-paced: Matthias Politycki. The German writer, born in 1955, a marathon runner and globetrotter goes at a different pace when it comes to thought-trains and walking. His topics, exactly like his language, have a more striking, louder effect on me. His most recent novel is “Das kann uns keiner nehmen” (2020), and he reads an extract from it today; he also tackled Mount Kilimanjaro for this – in physical and literary terms. At the crater summit two men meet who couldn’t be more different regarding their world-view and socialization. Plenty of things don’t matter in an extreme situation, says Politycki. Sometimes you’d even be happy about somebody else being there, though normally you wouldn’t want anything to do with them; you’d find conversation and touch points that otherwise would be unthinkable.

It would be good if the act of walking, no matter whether physically or in thought, would actually make it possible to get closer. Getting closer to strange people. Views. Value judgments. In this sense: accompany me for a little longer.

Ariadne von Schirach needs no further introduction from me; she already delighted us on the opening day of the festival. It’s different for her conversation partner today, Andreas Weber: he is a German biologist, biosemiotician, philosopher and journalist (his latest essay was “Indigenialität” (2018)). Above all, he’s someone whom I gladly listen to for an explanation of biology. And from a totally new, holistic perspective.

I cannot adequately summarize the 90 minutes for you – there were too many exciting impulses, innovative ideas and inspiring approaches that ranged from Kierkegaard to quantum physics to the fairy tale about “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. You will not avoid watching the discussion for yourself; you can consider it as a compulsory lesson in all things altruistic. But if I were really pressed, in the end only a single word would remain: LOVE.

Because every child knows that things cannot carry on like this with the world, with the political, ecological, social toxicity, with discrimination against other life, unfair distribution of wealth, with this poisoning of mutual respect. “This is all wrong,” says Greta Thunberg for instance. But let’s allow that the dogmas of the West increasingly undermine the philosophy of animism: I am because you’re not, it goes, instead of: I am because you are. Or: egoism is the core of our being instead of: reciprocity makes being (here) possible in the first place. Or else: reality is dead matter instead of: everything is alive. You already see that the complexity of the subject makes me unavoidably jump from one subject to another.

What do we do now?
What if we were to stick to the truth more often?
What if we slept, like Jane Goodall as a child, with earthworms under the pillow? Shared experiences with animate beings that are not humans?
Studied other maps, concepts, orders, cultures, and learned from them?
Thought more holistically?
Understood ourselves as a collective body?
Developed a feeling of solidarity again?
Went without more and shared?
Allowed reciprocal treatment?
Created reality anew?

But now I’m repeating myself:
how would it be with more love?

Saturday, 21 November 2020

It was extremely pleasant with my colleagues Anna Ospelt, Peter Balko, Filip Springer and of course the moderator, Hans Koch, who discussed four books in record time. Today’s literary journey took us once across the whole of Europe, from Poland to Liechtenstein.

The Slovakian (screenplay) writer and journalist Peter Balko kicked off with his debut novel “Zusammen sind wir unbesiegbar” (2020). He tells the moving story of a boyhood friendship that is reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn, with the subtle difference that it – as he says himself – comes along “in wild, black-humoured Balkan style”. At the same time Balko issues a literary declaration of love to his hometown and his family in Slovakia. I would like to learn to love them too.

The Liechtenstein writer Anna Ospelt, b. 1987, proves with her debut “Wurzelstudien” (2020) that not only violin makers know something about trees (– incidentally, that’s exactly the same as me; I only know about this since I’ve read her book). She quickly sends her protagonist on a search for traces of trees, plants and rhizomes. And she unearths interesting literary, philosophical and botanical accidental treasures.

Filip Springer, born in 1982 in Poland, is a photographer, reporter and author – with a marked weakness for archaeology and scrap. In other words, he likes reading stories out of objects and letting things disappear in his narratives. In his novel “Kupferberg” (2020) he concentrates on the small town of Kupferberg/Miedzianka, established in the 13th century, which he allows to re-emerge in an amazing way.

That would finally leave myself, Daniela Emminger, – and since it would be a little strange to write about yourself, just briefly: the wilderness isn’t foreign to me. For my novel “Kafka mit Flügeln“ (2018), I spent months in the Kyrgyzstan high mountains. Currently, I ended up in Braunau am Inn with “Zirkus.Braunau – Ein österreichisch-europäisches Glamourstück für politisch schwierige Zeiten“; I changed into a gorilla costume here to put the “political desolation” under the microscope. This was already discussed today with Ariadne von Schirach and Andreas Weber.

A fantastic evening! Have fun with the new books! Thank you!

I’ve already been gripped for a long while by the passion for Iceland, however, at the latest since today’s performance by writer, musician and artist Sjón, I would say: Reykjavík, heat up your geysers in good time! (Of course, I well know that they do this of their own accord.) Sjón, born in 1963, has written song lyrics for Björk and Lars von Trier. And produced stacks of wonderful books – for example, “Schattenfuchs“ or “The Boy Who Never Was” – and in the latter he already worked through a global pandemic in a literary context. “The thing with corona, in my case, would have already been dealt with,” jokes the Icelandic master of storytelling.

But the focal point and highlight of the literary-musical soirée, which incidentally is co-hosted together with the “Glatt & Verkehrt” festival, is his novel trilogy published in German, “CoDex 1962” (2020). Here grotesque humour meets political current events and sci-fi meets Icelandic identity and history.

“Iceland is famous for its wilderness”, states Sjón at one point, and for him this is especially settled in the fantasy, the imagination and in stories. And another impressive statement is asserted: “It‘s all and always about the fight between the tyrant and the poet, the rebellion in heart against all power that tries to restrain individuals.“ Fortunately, in his opinion, the poet always emerges as the victor because he would possess the most powerful of all weapons: language.

“Wüdnis” is also aired by the talented songwriter and author Ernst Molden. Along with “the best percussionist in the whole of Austria”, Maria Petrova, he treats us to a concert recital and songs from the album of the same title. They must definitely not be described, but heard!

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Grand finale! The Honorary Award of the Austrian Book Trade for Tolerance in Thought and Action has been presented to the outstanding Scottish writer and performer A.L. Kennedy! Hurray & congratulations!

“A.L. Kennedy’s novels and stories are profound and daring and are among the most artistically important works of contemporary literature,” according to the jury’s verdict. But Kennedy is also a person who doesn’t tire of raising her voice – be it her biting Brexit-column “Affentheater” (“Charade”), her dynamically delivered invective-poetry or her social commitment as well.

“Literature lights up life”, she says, “and helps us to face the challenges of the world with greater empathy.” Kennedy is certain “that in the post-pandemic era we will have learned to love one another.” In general, she shows basic trust in the good, the beautiful and a steadfast belief in our ability to shape the world. She knows about the wonder of words, and how through them we can get closer to the truth and knowledge.

Among the many congratulatory messages was an especially touching contribution – the laudatio speech by the German journalist Sonja Zekri: “A.L. Kennedy doesn’t let things get her down. And if she doesn’t lose heart, then maybe she knows something that we don’t know.”

At this point, with the best will in the world, I don’t know which of the prize-winner’s books I should particularly recommend to you: “Serious Sweet”?, “The Blue Book”?, “The Little Snake“?, the book of essays “On Writing” – they are all indispensable.

The European Literature Days 2020 have almost ended. The jazz trio “Mario Rom’s Interzone” is performing again. And now, at the latest, I would really like to be in Krems, perhaps with an (early) glass of wine in my hand, but definitely with a wish list in my pocket that – given numerous inspirational book presentations during the past four days – is so long that it spans the globe once.

All that remains for me now is to say goodbye. And to send my special thanks to the artistic director of the festival, Walter Grond, his team and of course all colleagues. It was a wonderful celebration for me!
In this sense: live wild and dangerously (– which of course shouldn’t apply to Covid-19)! And carry on reading for all you’re worth!

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