Austrian authors write about London: “Zwei Wochen England” (Sonderzahl, 2012)


In 2012, the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre for Austrian Literature London celebrated its 10th Anniversary as a Centre that not only promotes and facilitates the research of Modern Austrian Literature but also Austrian literature itself, always in close co-operation with the Austrian Cultural Forum London. In connection with this joyful event,  I am delighted to announce the publication of our book “Zwei Wochen England” that was published in October 2012 with Sonderzahl Verlag, Vienna. The book features texts by all previous IBC Writers-in-Residence and it has been an extraordinary experience to work with 11 of the finest contemporary literary voices from AustriaWalter Grond, Doron Rabinovici, Anna Kim, Lilian Faschinger, Bettina Baláka, Gabriele Petricek, Lydia Mischkulnig, Evelyn Schlag, Wolfgang Hermann, Erich Wolfgang Skwara and Franzobel (in order of appearance in the book) – and a group of excellent young and more established translators from the UK and the US – Geoffrey C. Howes, Rachel McNicholl, Jamie Lee Searle, Charlotte Ryland, Imogen Taylor and Donna Ochs. The book also contains a series of photographs by Valeska Hass, that were specifically taken for the project.

The following essay puts the various short prose texts and poems into context and will hopefully work as a ‘teaser’! To order the book online, click here.

Cover_Zwei Wochen

Heide Kunzelmann

The Zero Meridian as Vanishing Point: Notes on Austrian Texts About England

In Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler’s final essay collection, “…das fortgeschrittenste Land ohne es zu wissen“: Unbewusster Avantgardismus aus Österreich  (“… the Most Progressive Country without Knowing It”: Unconscious Avant-Gardism from Austria; Studien Verlag 2009), we read the following about the globalisation of Austrian literature, or rather literature from Austria: “In the nineties, Austrian authors were compelled to become cosmopolitan; there no longer seemed to be any position inside of Austria, and so they set out on a search for an Archimedean point from which to lift it off its foundation.” (91) “Getting away” has been a focus since the 1980s –Thomas Bernhard was not the only one who demonstrated this in a variety of ways – and even in the 1990s, Austrian literature was also obliged to “pay tribute to globalisation” (ibid).

“…das fortgeschrittenste Land ohne es zu wissen”

Schmidt-Dengler, one of the foremost experts on what is specifically Austrian in German-language literature, locates a will to hit the road, to expand one’s identity outward, and to engage in a movement that is discernable in manifold ways, in both content and form, in many texts and authorial postures that flow out of that small central-European country into the global circulation of literature. Interestingly, he speaks of a compulsion that arose toward the end of the twentieth century, propelling authors to seek the locus of individual intellectual and emotional grounding outside of the nation’s borders, against the foil of an Austrian identity. As an example of a literary search for a suitable perspective from which writers can observe Austria in a detached or more-detached way, Schmidt-Dengler cites a literary project that combines many perspectives, thematises travel and movement, and sees the encounter with the world abroad as a chance to revise and re-evaluate one’s own positions. The project in question is Walter Grond’s highly idiosyncratic version of the Odyssey, Absolut Homer (1996), in which a number of authors were invited by Grond to embark on and report about various voyages on analogy with Odysseus’s travels. In this project one could already detect not so much a compulsion as the writers’ desire to stay in motion while assuming different points of view, blending in with other cultures, and turning the difference between the host culture and one’s own culture into an “Archimedean point”.

“The Zero Meridean as fictional ‘Archimedean point'”

Thus it is no coincidence that this anthology, like the entire Ingeborg Bachmann Centre (IBC) Writer-in-Residence-Programme, begins with a contribution by the very first guest writer in London in 2002, Walter Grond. In the case of the IBC writers in residence, the “Archimedean point” with which one’s existence in the context of its origins can be lifted “off its foundation” is the vertical axis where two halves of the globe meet: the Zero Meridian, which can be seen today as a marker in the asphalt on a hill in the London district of Greenwich. Zero degrees – this is a suitable point of departure for a narrative self-calibration, and a metaphor for positioning the cosmopolitan gaze that looks toward all of the points on the compass.

The writers in residence of the IBC in London originally had at their disposal four weeks, and now they have two, during which they can pursue their own writing while engaging as guests in new experiences, and familiar ones too, that may be fraught with emotion. In his contribution Walter Grond details how the status of the “resident” fits in with his self-image as a writer, at the same that these interim periods, during which the authors are supposed to be strengthed in their professional development, always seem to resonate with an element of duress. For many Austrian authors a stay in England in particular awakens associations with exile, since London was a station on the journey out of Austria for Stefan Zweig and other authors as well. Writing is an act of “self-empowerment”, but also one of “voyeurism”, as Grond writes. And it leads back to oneself.

Doron Rabinovici, who was the guest of the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre this year, 2012, complements this idea in his text: as a guest writer, one has been “invited to remain a character”. The nature of this character is precisely the special aura that surrounds authors on their travels and at their stops along the way. In Austria they write at the centre, but in England their visitor status relegates them to the periphery of the culture, and thus they are able to apply their characteristic point of view to whatever they see, without being drawn into the centre of what is going on. In their land of origin, in this case Austria, it may be that the authors are at the centre of public discourse. Thus Doron Rabinovici is known not only for his novels and stories, but also for his commitment to a political consciousness of openness and reason in Austrian national politics. As a Jewish intellectual of the “second generation”, Rabinovici is clearly located between Vienna and Israel. In order to be able to “pursue what is essential” and to undertake “an expedition into the innermost regions of his self”, it is necessary to be dis-located by travelling and spending time elsewhere. Elsewhere is the title of Doron Rabinovici’s most recent novel, and with regard to his presence in London, where he presented the book in English, this positioning seems almost like a programmatic orientation for an Austrian literature of the twenty-first century.

“Writer-in-Residence programmes: being elsewhere and seeing the familiar anew”

The purpose of the Writer-in-Residence programme also lies in the possibility of being elsewhere and seeing the familiar anew, in light of the unfamiliar. In the first place it is intended to celebrate these literary figures, to show them that their work is much appreciated even abroad and that, in spite of the emphasis on the Austrian aspect, the global validity of their works can also be accentuated. Of course, it cannot be denied that programs of this kind are a solid component of the activities of university centres and contribute to legitimising the scholarly study of literature within a climate in which for some time now everything must be connectable to an immediate practical benefit in order to meet with the approval of those who hold the purse strings. Hence the authors agree to be available for readings and a seminar, and of course they also act in their own interest and the interest of their publishers by promoting by means of their presence the first translation or further translations of their books. Their presence between cultures is a balancing act that requires of them as much tact as critical perspective. Confronted again and again during their stay with questions like “So, what do you think of England? Do you like it here?”, the authors can never completely shed the role of a (paid) guest and forthrightly give out information about all of the intercultural problems and bizarre observations that are doubtless on the tips of their tongues without alienating or even insulting their hosts or audiences. For the time being, the critical gaze is directed inward. Insights into oneself and one’s unfamiliar surroundings are stored up and written down for future texts, if they happen to be gained immediately, which is not always the case, since every experience also has a certain half-life. First and foremost, the authors always remain obligated to perform their role as guests, which means that we, the public, usually miss the immediate initial reaction of these observers who by dint of their vocation and their avocation are attuned to a high level of sensory acuity. The work of a writer always harbours a variety of observations and traces of the author’s real existence that are situated outside of the fictional text. Some examples of these are diary entries, reflections on the environment, identity, belonging or marginality, or notes on the weather, politics or even physical circumstances at a particular point in human history.

This book now places the authors’ circumstances, and those valuable and personal perspectives during their two-week stays, at the centre of attention, casting light on how Austrian authors at work in Britain critically perceive their surroundings, and how they are influenced by them. The eleven contributions by guest authors from ten years of the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre are relatively heterogeneous, for the writers and poets reacted in a wide variety of ways to my request to them to write about their “two weeks in England”. And so it is that the reflections by Walter Grond and Doron Rabinovici about their own identities as guest writers are followed by Anna Kim and Bettina Baláka, who critically confront the United Kingdom with its assertions of power and its shortcomings, which are attributable partly to history and partly to modern capitalism. At the same time, they are fascinated by the scurrility and the salutary differences between Britain and Central Europe, which build a bridge to personal crises and renewal in the poetry of Lilian Faschinger. Thus, poetic games of perception make London into a vertical equator that brings together fiction and reality and affords the “I” in the text a chance to establish its location, as is the case in Gabriele Petricek’s contribution. And thus the self-location of the author ends up between the north and south poles of England (or Scotland) and Italy in Lydia Mischkulnig’s text, while Evelyn Schlag poetically explores the theme of how the northerly can become a redemptive answer to the southerly.

Wolfgang Hermann’s piece, composed by a flaneûr à la Walter Benjamin who conceives of movement as an opportunity to approach the true nature of life as something that is always incomplete, is juxtaposed with Erich Wolfgang Skwara’s poems and appended commentary, in which a courageous moment of pause is the only thing that can lead to a redemptive confrontation with oneself in an emotionally laden place, London. And thus it is that these extremely personal texts on the great themes of death, love, and sexuality in the context of a big city are confronted with Franzobel’s satirical, scurrilous, absurd — and very Austrian —perspective on the themes of sex and sport, which occupy the English tabloids. In my view there is something very Austrian in the contrast between sensitivity and introspection on the one hand — not least with regard to his own origins in that small central-European country marked by Catholicism, with a population about the same as London’s — and on the other hand the playfully provocative undercutting of all of the dominant, one-sided, chauvinistic discourses that mark the world view of the so-called ‘lad culture’, the culture of mates, sports, and boozing that is especially evident in Great Britain, where it is viewed quite positively. The Austrian element is a certain zest that takes literary form by disharmonising the views of the familiar culture and the foreign culture, with the goal of negotiating and provoking even the unsavoury. The satirical piquancy of a scurrilous text is just as much a form of the criticism of the self and the other as is a classically realistic confrontation with oneself and one’s surroundings. It is linguistic and narrative virtuosity that ultimately lends these texts their lustre and their universal validity, and which invites readers to enter into an interaction with them.

“Translations…complete the bridge between cultures”

The translations of the texts into English, which were undertaken by established and distinguished translators, complete the bridge between cultures that this book attempts to achieve. They bring to light the power of language to transport contents and perspectives from one cultural context into another and continue the interplay of centre and periphery that began with the displacement of the linguistic centre in the writers’ residencies. For readers of the German texts these authors are reporting from the English-speaking world overseas, from the periphery. For readers of the English texts, they can certainly be regarded as reports about their centre, their culture, composed by guest writers from a peripheral perspective.

The photographs by Valeska Hass can be understood as texts of another kind, which effectively makes her into the collection’s twelfth author. Her views of England and specifically of London complement the written contributions and round off the anthology, since these special, visual narratives require no translation. Her photographically recorded impressions are universally accessible and can always be absorbed from the perspective of one particular centre: that of the famous eye of the beholder.

Translation by Geoffrey C. Howes

(In: Heide Kunzelmann (Ed.): Zwei Wochen England. Vienna: Sonderzahl, pps. 218-231)


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