New New Books in German
The new issue of New Books in German has been out for a little while, but it’s pretty loaded and deserving of a mention for anyone who might have missed it.
I am delighted to introduce issue 33 of New Books in German: spring is finally springing here in London and our bright yellow plumage captures the vernal mood. After the focus on Berlin and Zurich in our previous issues, we now head to Vienna, Austria’s capital, to savour the diverse literary life of the city on the Danube. Mary Penman’s article on Vienna’s Book Fair and ‘Festival of Reading’, Lesefestwoche, captures the variety of literary offerings throughout the city during one of Austria’s newest and most imaginative literary festivals. Samuel Willcocks’ piece on Vienna’s independent publishing scene showcases some of the forward-thinking and innovative publishers who are a vital force behind Austria’s new literary talent. And we hear about last summer’s inspirational gathering at the European Literature Days, set amid the breathtaking scenery of Spitz an der Donau.
This issue is chock-full of reviews of new work by gifted Austrian writers. The first four novels profiled in these pages, by Eva Menasse, Barbara Frischmuth, Robert Schindel and Michael Köhlmeier, demonstrate the breadth of high quality writing in contemporary Austria. We also feature an interview with Ross Benjamin, the US translator of Austrian literary superstar Clemens J. Setz, revealing fascinating insights into the unique style and composition of his latest novel, Indigo. As a testament to the vibrancy of Austrian literary life, the authors of two of our four debut novels – Anita Augustin and Isabella Straub – were born in Austria, while the remaining two – Hannes Stein and Pyotr Magnus Nedov – were raised there.
The first piece that caught my eye is this conversation between Lucy Renner Jones and Ross Benjamin about Ross’s translation of Clemens Setz’s Indigo.
Lucy Renner Jones: Setz comes across as a collector of oddities – photographs, scraps, bizarre newspaper stories – a geek, as it were, and it seems as if Indigo has grown from this love of the bizarre. You have the feeling that if he hadn’t become a writer, he might have become a professional ladybug torturer or a director for an asylum for the insane . . . is that what you feel too or do you think he’s just brilliantly funny?
Ross Benjamin: Yes, Setz is indeed a collector or curator of unusual anecdotes, neglected footnotes to historical or current events, cultural and pop cultural marginalia, which he incorporates into his fiction as well as his public appearances and interviews. In its role in his work, however, all this is more than just bric-a-brac. On one level, it has something of the encyclopedic abundance of someone like David Foster Wallace in his impulse to do justice to the mushrooming information environment of contemporary life. It’s at least a similarly expansive sense of what literature can be and what can be literature – which does not exclude all the random bits that currently constitute our media-saturated perception of the world.
LRJ: I don’t think there’s anything to compare to this novel. Perhaps Bret Easton Ellis was called to mind in Setz’s meticulous attention to detail and the unempathetic, ‘autistic’ character of Robert. Are there any US writers who do what Setz does?
RB: Well, I mentioned David Foster Wallace, but only in reference to one aspect of Setz’s writing. Certain elements of the novel remind me of the films of Terry Gilliam – its mix of the imaginative, the comic and the paranoid, the uncanny atmosphere and the characters’ disorienting confrontations with the absurd and unmasterable. There’s no doubt Setz has read his DeLillo and Pynchon, though he is confident enough not to ape their voices; he merely takes for granted the far-reaching terrain they’ve claimed for fiction. But I’ve never understood, at least from a literary standpoint, why the Englishspeaking publishing world seems to require a foreign author to be comparable to some native one, or at least someone already in English. What makes Clemens Setz so fascinating is that he is Clemens Setz. Setz is that rare thing, an original.
For anyone who’s intrigued—which I’m sure all of you are, now—Norton is going to publish this book in the near future. (We’ll definitely review it as soon as possible.)
Another house experimenting with rewrites and remakes is Bernhard Salomon’s Labor Verlag, just around the corner from St Stephen’s Cathedral. I left the tourist crowds behind, climbing worn stone steps into the palace of a nineteenth-century merchant prince, and heard the colourful story of how Salomon ‘founded a publishing house by accident,’ as he puts it. The author of six novels, Salomon felt that Austrian publishing had lost sight of the narrative drive. When a brothel owner gave him €3,000 seed funding, he published two successful short story anthologies, and then a breakthrough title – Elfriede Vavrik’s autobiographical Nacktbadestrand (‘Nudist Beach’), about an octogenarian’s sex life, which stayed on the bestseller lists for weeks on end in both Germany and Austria. Salomon then entered into a joint venture with a major German house so that he could split the Labor list off as a dedicated venue for new novels. [. . .]
Indeed, Vienna has long been a city for writers from all over Central and Eastern Europe, and the city’s Exilliteratur Preis is the equivalent of Germany’s Chamisso Prize for immigrant authors. Two of these young newcomers publish with Edition Atelier: Ilir Ferra with Rauchschatten (‘Shadows of Smoke’), set in Albania in the totalitarian 1980s, and Melica Bešlija with Sarajevo in der Geliebten (‘Sarajevo in the Woman She Loves’), a story of same-sex love in Bosnia after the war. Atelier’s Jorghi Poll told me that ‘the kind of authors who could never get noticed in Germany have that chance in Austria.’