HADERLAP READING POSTPONED TO 11 DECEMBER 2014. For more information click here!
On Thursday, 27 November, Bachmann Prize Winner 2011, MAJA HADERLAP (“Engel des Vergessens”/”Angel of Oblivion”) will come to London to read from her work at the Austrian Cultural Forum. The bilingual reading, co-organized by the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre for Austrian Literature London and the German Department of Kings College London will form the exciting close to the one-day conference “Es geht uns gut: Recent Trends in (Re-)Writing the Past in Austrian Literature Since 2000”, where scholars from the UK, Austria and Germany will speak on acclaimed authors like Eva Menasse, Elfriede Jelinek, Arno Geiger, Robert Schindel and lesser known literary gems like Melitta Breznik.
For the conference programme click here. Participation is FREE and registration is now open until 19 November!
Ever since her winning of the Bachmann Prize 3 years ago, Maja Haderlap has gained international acclaim for her novel and poems and now also represents a literature from Austria on an international scale that is fascinatingly multilingual but tied to a problem-ridden history. Haderlap publishes in German and Slovenian, putting a region on the literary map of the world that has been woefully underrepresented as a place of interesting multilingual writing in past decades, despite successful authors like Peter Handke or Ingeborg Bachmann, who also hail from there: the border region of Carinthia in the south of Austria.
Here is what Maja Haderlap had to say about writing and the poetics of the periphery, befittingly referring to Ingeborg Bachmann’s “Drei Wege zum See” in her opening speech for the Bachmann Prize event 2014 in Klagenfurt. The speech has been translated by Adrian West and can be downloaded from the pages of the Austrian Cultural Forum New York (click here).
Maja Haderlap: IN LIGHT OF LANGUAGE
Klagenfurt Address on Literature 2014
Translated by Adrian West
The origin of this story lies in topography, writes Ingeborg Bachmann at the beginning of
her tale Three Paths to the Lake. In it, the successful photographer Elisabeth Matrei visits
her father in Klagenfurt. During the days she spends at home, she tries to reach the
Wörthersee by the once frequently traveled mountain trails over the Kreuzbergl, the local
mountain, but the old connections between them vanish into uncertainty. Taking stock of
her life, she believes that for the first time, she has finally understood Franz Josef Trotta,
the great, difficult love of her life. Trotta is a descendent of that storied Slovenian house
that had been ennobled by the Kaiser three generations back, and has not recovered from
the catastrophes of the twentieth century. While the urbane Elisabeth, eager for
experience, voyages among continents and languages, Trotta is torn apart by all that
befell him in the past. In Klagenfurt, with her gaze toward the border, Elisabeth sees that
since Trotta entered her life, her view of the world proceeds from a hardly discernible but
still tangible location –– from the periphery, as she realizes –– that makes her thoroughly
foreign, for her spirit, her feelings, and her deeds belong hopelessly to the enormous
expanses of this spirit-realm.
Can one speak from a margin today, think or write in a time where spaces and distances
have, so to speak, imploded, when the world seems in a condition of flux, new territories
are thrown up and old borders swept away? With vertiginous speed, the great achievements
of technology suggest that space and location have become irrelevant, while at the same time,
positioning programs are being developed that draw the lines of demarcation more narrowly
and meticulously than ever before; around, that is to say,each individual person who steps
into the sights of assorted interests. Already in Ingeborg Bachmann’s story the differences
between countries, languages, and continents appear as a muddled chaos that can only be grasped
and classified with a gaze from the border….
Today, as we know, peripheries pullulate in the metropolises, while the old centers,
frozen in a vestigial posture of power, hold onto their vanished spirit realms from which
they affect to reign unchallenged. But the peripheries, as a result of their exposed
position, transmute into settings where societal, political, cultural, and social upheavals,
ruptures, tendencies are reflected without adornment, nearly all their facets laid bare.
From the periphery, from the German-Slovenian language border, which is formative for
Carinthia, I would like to try and reflect on the phenomenon of language shift in
literature. For the past three years at the German Literature Days in Klagenfurt, the
Ingeborg Bachmann Prize has been won by three women whose mother language was not
German. And so? one may interject, that’s nothing new, it’s happened before, it no longer
stands out, the theme has even become something of a commonplace. Whole branches of
study, cognitive science, linguistics, comparative literature have all addressed the subject,
there are prestigious prizes awarded for non-native authors writing in German, there is
talk of a new nomadism, if we may no longer make us of the shopworn concept of
“authors with an immigrant background.” One hears of itineracy, of postcolonial,
transcultural, and hybrid cultures, a veritable torrent of labels attempts to grasp the
concept of language shift in literature. It almost seems as if the authors who have
migrated into a language were commodities in an international transaction, torn loose
from their social, cultural, and linguistic anchors and washed up onto the shores of a new
And yet the reasons that compel authoresses and authors to switch languages could not be
more different or conspicuous. Too often, the point of departure is flight from political
persecution or escape from poverty and social misery, or a course of study, a new
profession, life with its enduring obligations, a multilingual living situation. Following
the fashionable discourse of dislocation, one may recognize a new form of
cosmopolitanism in these developments, but such a concept makes a presumption of
economic and political liberty and pays no attention whatsoever to the generally painful
experience of the loss of homeland and security and the great tribulations of those who
need a place to go.
Is it business as usual then? If only there were not the sundry clamoring, the reprimands,
the categorizations, the constant reiteration of questions about the authors and their
identities. Does a wish for a boundary line, for a demarcation of the ancestral literary
domain, not make itself noticeable thereby? Not so long ago, it was possible to read in the
culture pages of German-language newspapers that the authoresses and authors who have
migrated into German should stick to their own special set of themes and not try to pass
into the domain of German literature proper. This was followed by a brief discussion it
quickly seemed one had conceded to, affirming that “enlanguaged” authors, in Ilija
Trojanow’s term, represent an enrichment of German-language literature. And yet I
cannot shake the feeling that we now find ourselves in a moment of calm before the
storm, when there is a wish to call out to the arriving authoresses that they ought not
pride themselves excessively on their stories and efforts, that after all, there are still the
ancestral authors who remain the true proprietors of the sanctuary language.
My own experiences after switching to the German language and winning the Bachmann
Prize confirm my sense that language shift is a highly difficult process bound up with
cultural and personal conflicts. The discussions I have had in the past three years were
marked by great emotion and extremely heterogeneous demands placed upon me as a
writer. At almost every literary appearance and in almost every interview I was
persistently interrogated as to my language and my national and cultural identity. Why
did I write in the German language, though I grew up Slovene, a member of the
Carinthian Slovene community, and wrote in Slovenian at the beginning of my career?
Which culture did I feel I belonged to, did I see myself as a Slovenian or Austrian writer?
These situations resemble a neverending checkpoint, interminable naturalization
proceedings throughout which I am compelled to convince my questioner of the goodness
of my intentions and clarify the nature of my specific cultural affiliation.
Against the backdrop of the language conflict in Carinthia, is it even possible to decide
freely as to one’s choice of language?
In my linguistic biography I am always thrown back upon a certain point, a distinct
rupture. There my experiences of language flow together, marked by an awareness of the
lack of language and of spoken or unspoken linguistic prohibitions. Not only because
where I grew up, in remote southern Carinthia, the language of a girl or woman is held to
be improper or intrusive, but also because in Carinthia, my Slovenian mother tongue
often proved a stumbling block. On account of it I was classed among those politically
unreliable citizens who did not care to relinquish their right to a second national language
and thereby called the country’s unity into question. Before I could flee into a language,
before I could cleave to a language, I had to defend my mother tongue, without knowing
precisely how one speaks on a language’s behalf.
Even before I could have said what a language was –– a medium of thought, a means of
approaching the world, of communication, interaction, imagination, yearning –– the
indigenous languages of Carinthia were presented to me as an ideological, political
category, as two mutually exclusive poles between which I was compelled to decide. It
was a matter of the promise of a homeland, a matter of belonging, bound up with the
reproach of maladaptation with respect to the majority population. My family and I were
exposed to German nationalist demagoguery, because we lived in the country and the
propaganda was addressed to the bilingual rural population and not to the cultured few in
the small cities. Decades after the Second World War, the German nationalist homeland
associations continued to affirm to the bilingual Slovene population that only those
willing to give up the Slovenian language among their families and in public could be
counted as fully fledged Carinthians. Not only did policy eagerly accommodate the
homeland associations, it even took advantage of their phobia, if that is the word for it,
when it came to delaying the implementation of laws concerning minority rights that had
been ratified by a decree of the Austrian state. Whoever worked for the adaptation and
assimilation of the bilingual or Slovenian population, whoever was willing to make such
a sacrifice for the beloved homeland, could be said to have actually arrived in the
country. The absurd part of it was that I had always considered my beloved bilingualism
an asset, and even as a child I could not understand why it was supposed that being
monolingual was better. Later, through cultural and political engagement, I could object,
acting as though I moved between two equally worthy languages and cultures. But with
the years it became clear to me that from the beginning of the twentieth century onward,
due to its structural marginalization in society, the free and comprehensive realization of
the Slovenian language in Carinthia was hardly possible. A mediatic, cultural bond to
Slovenian was impeded by political and ideological hurdles. The cultural efforts on the
part of Carinthian Slovenes just barely sufficed to mend the threadbare patches in the
linguistic tapestry composed by the Slovenian language in Carinthia.
In the eighties I wrote in Slovenian, not only to endorse, to conquer, to explore my
mother language, but also, I thought –– I hoped –– in order to forestall the decline of
Slovenian in Carinthia and to delve into my own history. For a while I even believed that
in my work as a writer I could resuscitate the romantic, linguistic, and political utopia of
nineteenth century Slovenian literature, in a cultural sense if not a national one. But the
deeper I penetrated into the narrowness of regional Slovenian culture and the anxious
escape attempts Slovenian literature represented, the more I thought of breaking free.
But how do you abandon the very thing that shores you up? How can you willfully withdraw
from a written language when the relinquishment of Slovenian in Carinthia is precisely
what is expected?
My anguish was deepened by the knowledge that in the National Socialist period, my
parents’ and grandparents’ generations had been made to pay for their commitment to the
Slovenian language and culture with persecution, oppression, and even with their lives.
This awareness left behind a fissure, a blue or white blot in my linguistic biography that I
neither wish to nor can conceal. There is no such thing as an untainted decision in a
constellation of inequality. Nonetheless, writing in German remains an escape route for
me from the narrow confines of the constant invocation of national and social attributes.
For this step into freedom, I had no need to leave a country behind, I had only to probe
my bilingualism and shift into a linguistic landscape that was already prepared to admit
Language does then its place. The point of departure for every history lies in topography.
The decision for or against a language is always inscribed in a societal and political
process. The processes of assimilation, of the extinction or flourishing of languages, often
take place in remote peripheries, around the arbitrarily drawn sovereign borders that also
strive to be cultural and national ones. The whole of the European continent is riven with
visible and invisible linguistic conflicts, with histories of linguistic displacement and
dominance. “If we knew nothing of history apart from the evolution of languages…
we would possess a historiography perhaps more precise than the one we know now,” writes
Olga Martynova in her essay Good-bye America, oh.
Arrival in a language is always also a story of rescue. Many-voiced, the texts of
enlanguaged authoresses and authors bear witness to such. With their work, they
undermine the ideology of globalization, which takes disengagement from geography and
from history to be a matter of course. For some time now, in their written images, they
have recorded the histories of the people and places they have left behind, or where they
live, or between which they shuttle, and reflected them in a multitude of ways. They are
pathfinders between languages and cultures, they replenish the archive of their language
–– new, conquered, borrowed –– with the histories of their families that have been left
behind, destroyed, or broken apart, with the richness of their cultures of origin. On their
desks, words and their meanings come together in manifold similes. They balance one
another, sound each other out, lay stress on delicate nuances, shadings, and distinctions.
For a long time in literature there has been a vigorous, abiding dialogue enriched and
broadened by every language that has opened its door to new arrivals. The tales of
enlanguaged authoresses revolve around the vulnerable conditio humana and open our
eyes to the fragility of every cultural attainment.
Hungry, the languages of migrant authors at times seek out nourishment, and return with
new quarry, new fruits, as can be read in the text of the 2012 Bachmann Prize winner
Olga Martynova. Her bilingual verse seems to frolic between the Russian and German
literary traditions, inaugurating a novel linguistic world that flouts, exuberantly and
anarchically, the imagined borders of language.
Arrival in another language is a dangerous liaison: “My German persists in the tension of
remoteness and insulates me from routine,” writes Katja Petrowskaja, last year’s
prizewinner, in her novel Perhaps Esther. “As if it were the smallest change, in this
language, which I acquired late, I paid back my past with the passion of a young lover…
My German, truth and treachery, the language of the enemy, was a way out, a second life,
a love that never lapsed, because one never reached it, blessing and blight, as if I had set
free a little bird.”
There is a phrase that comes up repeatedly concerning authoresses and authors who have
migrated into a language: “writing between languages” or “writing between cultures.” At
first glance it sounds obvious, but on closer inspection it fails to approximate the
phenomenon of language-shift or language-conquest. In fact it is the case that one writes
not between languages, but rather can only write within language, or write oneself into
language. So long as a person writes, she never finds herself outside a language and its
traditions. A phrase like the foregoing could only apply to the social situation of those
writers who imagine themselves to inhabit a political and personal no-man’s land
between cultures and traditions.
This leads me to speak again of a place that can only with the most extreme reticence be
described as a no-man’s land, for it rarely appears as deserted and lifeless as the empty,
menacing security perimeters that divide two countries. It is a sensitive, evocative place,
because it is emblematic of the differences between languages and their self-involvement
and keeps alive, even invigorates, the need for communication, arrival, crossing-over, for
reaching out to others. Ilina Rakusa once wrote that as a polyglot, you learn there is no
such thing as the obvious, that everything is based on difference. There is no place that
begs as much for deliberation, for translation, as the border between languages.
I also inhabit such a place, or better said, such a space. It is not visible, and resembles a
shadowy passageway I have built or dug between the languages that define me. Unlike
the narrow, precariously constructed passageways that lead to other tongues, it is rife
with set pieces from the past and the history of my languages. All the drawers and
cupboards overflow with stories: thought, heard, lived. In this corridor I train myself to
be invisible, I move constantly back and forth, up and down, inspecting one side, then the
other. I enact my own ostracism over the history of a conflict, my own, and I train myself
in the art of association. The ropes that bind me to my languages and cultures are the net
that constricts and secures me. Sometimes calls and voices wander through the privacy
and quiet of the corridor, resonances of fears, experiences of violence, and apprehensions,
and they are chased away by the echoes of auspicious dialogue.
In the corridor I set aside all signifier and signified, I am freed from all attribution.
Outside the corridor I see the languages glimmer. They give off a potent, alluring light.
Everything that plunges therein appears in light of language, and is rendered real and
vital and discernible. Language for me is the eternally unattained, the yearned-for,
a place of longing, a stage for veracity and its directors. My basic experience in relation to
language is that of presumptive language-owners, language-protectors, ushers and
gatekeepers trying over and over to wedge themselves between me and my languages.
They acted as if their language had fallen down from the sky, bestowed on them by the
will of God irrespective of whether they were capable of doing anything with it. My
concern as a writer is therefore to usurp a part of the stockpiled, as it were hegemonic
linguistic estate, because a fortune that has been hoarded and locked away should and
must be shared.
What counts in the end, writes Michael Hamburger, whose mother tongue was German
and who wrote in English, is not the specific way we are classified or labeled, least of all
by ourselves, but rather how we deal with our identity. Concerning literature, he was
opposed to any qualification of authors springing not from the nature of the work itself,
but from the externalities of biography. I can only agree that the literary work of
enlanguaged authoresses and authors should irrupt into the space currently reserved for
the discussion of their provenance and biography, because it is the written text that
Sometimes, however, the biographies, and with them what Michael Hamburger calls
externalities, appear as if conceived by some great director who chases them in
concentric circles through the ether. Franz Josef Trotta from Ingeborg Bachmann’s tale is
a descendent of that Trotta in Joseph Roth’s novel The Emperor’s Tomb who hastens to
the Capuchin Tombs in Vienna at the novel’s end. After the collapse of the multi-ethnic
state comprised by Hapsburg Monarchy, on the eve of the menacing apotheosis of
nationalism in the German Reich, he believes he has lost his homeland once and for all. It
had been a country that drew on the peripheries, on the substance of its crown lands with
their languages and cultures, a country where one could be anything, Slovene, Ruthenian,
Galician, Ukrainian, Bosnian, and yet nevertheless Austrian. That was to change.
Ingeborg Bachmann takes up the thread of this story and spins it further in her time with
a gaze turned back on what took place in the intervening years. In the last chapter of her
novel, Katja Petrowskaja comes to Vienna on the day when the mortal remains of Otto
von Hapsburg are being laid to rest in the Capuchin Tombs. In search of her ancestors,
she comes, like Joseph Roth, from what is now the Ukraine, a country that at that time
was at the center of Europe and now lies on its periphery, in the borderlands, where it
may once more become the proving grounds for catastrophe. Petrowskaja has covered a
great distance, traveling through countries and cities, places known and unknown as well
as those that over the last century have been thrust like specters into our awareness,
places with names like Babi Yar, Gunskirchen, Mauthausen, and others that remain
unnamed. The end of Europe is prophesied, but Europe has yet to come into its own, to
apprehend the center of its strength, the greatest book of which is the diversity of its
languages and cultures and its social achievements.