European Literature Days Day 02 – Back to school

Chewing Gum Machines and Beautiful Mutations

I was given full poetic licence for the presentation of this blog. Because – at least here in Spitz an der Donau, and in Krems and far beyond on all the small plots of ground in the picturesque countryside where the European Literature Days reach out – art is free. Because the amiable festival director, Walter Grond, doesn’t seem to be someone who wants to prescribe, demand or push through things that you must or must not do. In business and politics, as we know, things are different. And in his role Walter Grond is more than just acquainted with them. He shakes – as I can imagine – Ms Politics and Madame Business not only by the hand over an Aperol spritz or this season’s red wine, but he most likely sits a while longer with them at a table. His only wish from me was good texts, and that I should review and describe everything going on here and my experience.

Now, I hereby officially confess: apart from several good conversations at dinner, I didn’t learn very much about the work of my many international, sometimes more, sometimes less wildly gesticulating colleagues. I didn’t manage to attend many sessions because yesterday and today I was presenting workshops in local schools. On behalf of the European Literature Days. And that – above all retrospectively – seems to me a wonderful, inspirational and sensible exercise. (Mainly in retrospect, because looking forward to this task I felt some trepidation and awe.) While I looked into twenty faces of young pupils from Lower Austria who occasionally watched the teacher’s podium with open mouths, or occasionally with raised eyebrows when Ms Florian was on today’s timetable, I couldn’t avoid remembering Richard David Precht’s slightly sarcastic comments from the previous evening. How absurd the current school system is that it educates people normatively, yet not to become independent personalities and so forth. (Reviewed in summary here)

After two fifty-minute sessions talking about literature and film, I cannot give a verdict on the status of educating the boys and girls who stared at me with wide eyes. However, I can say with certainty that they were interested. They listened and also asked questions, and that impressed me. At least in Melk an der Donau, I think, you should not be worried that future generations no longer know what a book is and only surf on the data stream into digital nirvana. A boy gave a response after I had read from my novel and described the language as particularly vivid. In his own words, of course, but he had listened very attentively and also absorbed something from listening and – I don’t know how it should be described and suddenly feel very naive – but I don’t stand very often as part of my daily routine in front of today’s adolescent generation and talk with youngsters about how you write or could try to write texts and even earn money doing so. And I enjoyed it. How the boy analysed my language. Although it was sobering counting the hands that went up after I asked how many of the thirteen- and fourteen-year-old school pupils take one or two books with them on holiday – I think about a third of the class put their hands up. However, I can easily imagine that a survey in my school days during the 1990s wouldn’t have turned out so differently.

I must also reflect on those days as I was strolling up the narrow alleyways of the pretty town of Spitz to join my colleagues – more than much too late – and many other participants of the literature festival to enjoy lunch at Schloss Spitz. I walk past a chewing gum machine, the tooth of time has gnawed away at the outer material, traces of scratches and weathering are visible, but the pale orange of the paint is still easily recognizable. Whether it has been standing here since the 1990s or not, we don’t know... After a little too much discussion about smartphone and e-readers and artificial intelligence yesterday evening, (and yes, I also asked the pupils: “Do you read books on e-readers or analogue?”), I sense the triumphal thought flash across my mind: “Plenty of things have also not changed.” Some things stay the same. At least there are not many visible signs of technocracy in the narrow alleys of Spitz, and I’m pleased about that. The shoe shop is next to the watch shop and, for decades, the signs reveal the same ornate writing, and no traces of “Amazon” and “Google” here. Indeed, I was attracted by the chewing gum machine and my own sense of nostalgia. I haven’t even mentioned the dozen or so smaller and larger cultivated vineyards that complete the entire tableau and let you sense a strange calm, which spreads across your chest, and as a city-dweller you treat yourself to this far too infrequently. I am gently lulled by this atmosphere; the mist has descended but doesn’t make me sad, and the dew, which lasts until midday, doesn’t disturb me in the least. The “Loch Ness Weather”, which encompasses Spitz and the literature festival since yesterday, and yet still doesn’t spoil the atmosphere for us, is just fitting for the time of year, as the driver explained to me when he drove me this morning to the school in Melk. After all, the entire summer and autumn were “unusually warm”.

The day draws to a close with a reading by Vea Kaiser, one of Austria’s most renowned writers, thanks a few years ago to her debut novel “Blasmusikpop – oder Wie die Wissenschaft in die Berge kam”. In no time, Vea Kaiser mutated to a shooting star of German-speaking literature. This evening the focus is also on mutations, as the writer explains to us, while she introduces her musical accompanists, two likeable young men. The band “Sain Mus” has made its mission “working according to Darwinist principles”. If the audience hasn’t responded well a few times, no song is kept in the repertoire. Their joint rehearsals constantly make a good job of sifting out the numbers that deserved to be worked on more, and those that don’t. Vea Kaiser’s life and work also seem to have undergone profound transformations just recently: she proudly tells us that she has just got married and about a film version of her debut novel that will also be released soon. She reveals snippets of her latest novel which should be published next year. As my eyes grow tired, I let myself be transported a little by what to me seems very powerful music of the duo “Sain Mus”; it sounds a bit like the landscape around Spitz, which has an effect on me: peaceful, rustic and somewhere you can always hear the leisurely flow of a small stream or the River Danube. Towards the end of the programme, however, the duo sends us home with a sound slightly resembling the “Mission Impossible” soundtrack, and I enjoy this no less. I needed the energy boost to look ahead with curiosity to the upcoming finale of the Literature Days.

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