Rauriser Literaturtage, 18-22 March 2015
Not only readers of this report, but also several of the writers invited to the Rauris literature festival are to be forgiven for not knowing what, where or who Rauris is – the winner of the 2015 Rauris prize, Hamburg playwright and short story author Karen Koehler was greeted with appreciative laughter for her finely balanced comic acceptance speech, describing her initial mystification upon being offered the award. For those who do know, the name of this remote village south west of Salzburg has become a byword for the discovery of up-and-coming talent. The list of previous Rauris winners reads like an index to four decades of avant-garde prose in German: Bodo Hell, Michael Köhlmeier, Herta Müller, Raoul Schrott, Felicitas Hoppe. For four days a year, against a stunning alpine backdrop, the narrow streets of Rauris are filled with writers, publishers, journalists, book sellers and students: delegations from all the university literature departments in Austria are assigned an author each to publicly grill at one of the morning workshops. Festival events are held at the local school, in a church, and in the village’s capacious inns, one of which can only be reached by cable car. Podiums are often makeshift and the seating is far from ideal, but every reading, every interview session is packed, and the informal settings, coupled with the remoteness of Rauris, throw authors, organisers and audience together: discussions carry on long into the night.
The festival’s main prize is awarded for the best prose debut of the year in German. In the past, novelists have predominated; Köhler is a notable exception with Wir haben Raketen geangelt (2014), nine first-person short stories that are full of whimsy, but never twee. From the podium, the author described their subject matter as ‘heavy stuff in lightweight packaging’. Miscarriage, bowel cancer, racist violence, rape – her narrators have their backs against the wall, but they fight back and they have the last word in dialogues of deceptively off-hand naturalness, supremely satisfying for the reader. Rauris also awards a prize to unpublished prose authors; submissions were invited this year on the theme ‘Muttersprache’ (mother tongue). The Salzburger Birgit Birnbacher won with Ein Badewasserrest (Traces of Bathwater), a coming of age novelette in which silence is the defining feature of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship.
The theme of the 2015 Rauris festival as a whole, ‘Mehr.Sprachen’ reflects the current preoccupation with what has been described as the ‘hidden history of multilingualism in German literature’ (Kilchman, 2012). Sensitised in recent years above all by the writing of Turkish and Eastern European immigrants, scholars and critics are intent on investigating the narrative and aesthetic potential of linguistic plurality – a phenomenon that has particular resonance in dialect-rich rural Austria, where standard German itself is effectively a second language. Bi- and multilingual authors took centre stage in Rauris this year. Ilma Rakusa read from her evocative memoir Mehr Meer (2010) of a childhood spent between Hungary, Slovenia, Italy and Switzerland. She spoke of the negotiations inevitably present in the work of multilingual authors who are constantly aware of the possibilities (the ‘different temperatures’) of their other languages as they write: learning a new language means loss as well as gain, a loss of unselfconsciousness in one’s native tongue and an increased awareness of its limitations. Also openly personal is Anne Weber’s impressive Ahnen. Ein Zeitreisetagebuch (2015), a many-layered account of the author’s research into the life and times of her great-grandfather, the East Prussian pastor-philosopher Florens Christian Rang. Weber writes in German and French and her works are published simultaneously in both languages; the biography of Rang is also the autobiography of a German living in Paris, acutely aware of the historical distance and guilt that separates her from her restless, idealistic forebear. A further, at least partly autobiographical narrative of a German woman abroad was presented by Esther Kinsky, reading from her novel Am Fluß (2014) that traces its nameless protagonist’s wanderings along the banks of the River Lea as she seeks to detach herself from her chosen home of London following the end of a relationship. Kinsky is also a highly respected translator from Polish, Russian and English into German and has recently published an extended essay drawing on this experience Fremdsprachen. Gedanken zum Übersetzen (2013).
The poetic potential of translating idioms and images literally from one language to another (‘you can never do them justice in any case’) was illustrated by Seher Çakır with the title piece of her collection Ich bin das Festland (2012). Her laconic, funny, often shocking short stories are published by the Viennese Edition Exil, which specialises in works by authors with a ‘migration background’, as the politically correct German expression goes. Çakır’s texts oscillate between minimalist mimetic narrative and dreamlike associative prose; they are poised deftly on the fine line between exposing and buying into stereotypes. In controlled, direct prose, Olga Grjasnowa’s second novel Die juristische Unschärfe einer Ehe (2014), also tackles head-on a series of clichés about the former USSR, Germany post-1989, men, women, sexuality. Jaroslav Rudiš, a rock musician and novelist who regrettably has not yet been translated into English at all, spoke about the largely forgotten German-language heritage of his native Bohemia as a ‘dirty’ secret that he seeks to smuggle back into Czech literature with his tales of GDR punk in Pilsen and Bohemian railwaymen. His works are all available in German. With his customary ironic aplomb, Jewish Hungarian historian and political activist György Dalos spoke about the importance of the German language in his intellectual development – ‘despite everything’, as his grandmother said when she insisted he take private lessons as a boy. Dalos discussed his newly translated history of the Germans in Russia (Geschichte der Russlanddeutschen, 2014), and read from his latest novel Der Fall des Ökonomen (2012), which narrates the (mis)fortunes of a Moscow-educated Hungarian economist from the 1960s to the turn of the millennium. Having at first profited from the fall of the Iron Curtain, market liberalism reduces the protagonist to dependence on his father’s compensation money as a survivor of the Holocaust, leaving him with either a moral or a financial dilemma when his father dies.
Although the main focal point of the Rauris festival is prose writing, there have always been poets among the authors invited. For the first time this year, and with great success, the organisers decided to include separate sessions solely showcasing poetry. Raoul Schrott presented Hesiod’s Theogonie in his 2014 translation, whose modern idioms and free verse have been the cause of controversy in reviews. Readings by younger poets Ann Cotten and Nadja Küchenmeister memorably demonstrated what Cotten described as literature’s inherent multilingualism, defining the poet as someone who is constantly ‘trying out’ different idioms. Also highly concentrated and associative the works presented by established voices Erwin Einzinger and C.W. Aigner, whose production is intimately linked to their work as translators, from English and Italian respectively.
The spectacle of any literary festival or prize-giving in Austria inevitably puts one in mind of Thomas Bernhard’s wicked autobiographical text, Meine Preise, as a seemingly endless series of dignitaries must be applauded before any mention is made of the authors or works in question. In Rauris, however, this satirical specter was quickly laid to rest again by the palpable enthusiasm of all present and the patience and concentration of the audience. The festival’s embedding in the community is exemplary – Austrian novelist and broadcaster O.P. Zier ran a workshop for the local creative writing society, and authors were invited to present to the village school children and to drop in on private homes for impromptu readings (‘Störlesungen’). Literature is ‘practical magic for everyday life’ according to Ann Cotten: it is certainly freely available to everyone in Rauris.
Next year’s prize winners and programme will be published in February 2016, see
For photos of the Rauriser Literaturtage 2015 go to: http://davidsailer.viewbook.com/rlt
Deborah Holmes is Senior Lecturer in German at the University of Kent and a literary translator. Her publications include ‘Langeweile ist Gift. Das Leben der Eugenie Schwarzwald’ (Vienna, 2012) and ‘Vienna Tales’ (Oxford, 2014), a collection of translated short stories.