The fourth annual Festival Neue Literatur, New York’s first and only German-language literary festival, took place at an array of packed venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn last week, including Deutsches Haus at Columbia University, McNally Jackson bookstore, and Deutsches Haus at NYU. Six emerging voices in Austrian, German, and Swiss literature were invited to New York to meet with American authors Justin Taylor and Joshua Ferris. After participating in a series of readings and panel discussions with their American peers, the Deutsches Haus at NYU’s inaugural Friedrich Ulfers Prize was awarded to translator and editor Carol Brown Janeway, who has rendered authors like Bernhard Schlink, Ferdinand von Schirach, and Thomas Bernhard into English.
This year, apocalyptic books seemed to have touched upon a collective nerve. In an introductory clip, festival curators Susan Bernofsky (author, teacher, and acclaimed translator of Robert Walser and numerous other German-language authors) and Claudia Steinberg (author, journalist, and co-star of Rosa von Praunheim’s celebrated films “Survival in New York” (1989) and “New York Memories” (2010)) talk about the various dynamics dystopian and apocalyptic thinking adopt in contemporary literature—ranging from the disturbed relationship between the individual and society and between the individual and the self to the manner in which impending catastrophe creeps into and poisons even the closest and most intimate human relationships.
This is how Bernofsky described Austrian author Clemens J. Setz’s novel Indigo (2012): “You have an illness, and this is what the illness is: you walk around, and everyone around you gets sick. Like, very sick.” As it turns out, children born with a mysterious syndrome are sent off to an Austrian institute, where their “indigo potential” is exploited for shady purposes. When a protagonist with the author’s name, a former tutor to the children, begins researching their disappearance, he stumbles upon a secret subterranean world. Setz’s novel was shortlisted for the German Book Prize; his collection from 2011, Love in Times of the Mahlstadt Child, won the 2011 Leipzig Book Fair Prize and prompted comparisons to Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. It is a kind of spooky-smart science fiction novel, a post-modern montage of reality and fiction based on existing phenomena and trends in which illness becomes the metaphoric obsidian mirror held up to a society plagued by its own darker forces.
Shimmering Haze over Coby County by Leif Randt (Germany, 2011) presents a dystopia of another kind altogether—this is an artificial utopia, a pleasant seaside world based entirely on the corporate model. A high-end wellness industry in a resort hotel caters to the refined and expensive tastes of the wealthy creative class—yet life here has something distinctly somnambulant about it; instead of the joy, empathy, passion, or confusion people need to experience to feel alive, there is a kind of bland self-satisfaction that borders on disinterest and apathy. The logos and brands of the cosmetics company responsible for the dystopia thoroughly permeate the environment, and demonstrate that the closer satire is to reality, the less we recognize the fact that this is the world we already know all too well. It is the happiness of those lucky enough to be born in places that offer them everything they need to become well-educated, well-paid cosmopolitan members of modern capitalist societies—those who, even when they vaguely feel something is missing, would never trade in comfort or privilege for a more authentic human experience.
“Breaking Away: Contemporary Travelogues” was the title of the crowded panel discussion held February 24th at McNally Jackson in Soho. And indeed, several of the books featured in this festival read like modern travelogues, with one crucial difference: while journeys to foreign lands were often journeys to the self as the layers of family, upbringing, and national identity were peeled away, these are the chronicles of individuals engaged in a desperate attempt to escape some previous trauma in their lives. Mae, the wise young punk protagonist in twenty-five-year-old Cornelia Travnicek’s book Chucks (Austria, 2012), has inherited a pair of shoes from her beloved brother, who died of cancer while still a boy. Rebellious, and for a time homeless, her tough-kid language infuses the book with an atmosphere that’s fierce and funny despite its underlying sadness. Mae has never gotten over her brother’s death, and while she embraces his red sneakers as talismans in a life on the street that takes her to existential extremes, she is not fully present in her relationships with others. It’s only when she meets a man dying of AIDS and falls in love for the first time that she begins to explore the terrain of grief hidden inside her and discovers a path toward becoming emotionally whole.
In a striking parallel to Joshua Ferris’s disturbing novel The Unnamed, which charts the course of a man’s pathological compulsion to walk, Swiss author Ulrike Ulrich presents us with a woman obsessed with trains and an unquenchable thirst for running away. Her novel Staying Gone (2010) tells the story of young Lo who wins a sum of money on a quiz show, buys a train ticket, and takes off for Rome. But she can hardly stay in one place, and as her journeys takes her through Milan, Naples, Vienna, Basel, Zurich, Paris, Madrid, and so on, she discovers that she prefers the sleeping car to a hotel—or to staying anywhere for long. Movement becomes a form of stasis as she remains enclosed in trains and tunnels to avoid the necessity of making decisions, of facing reality or engaging with it in any way.
The quickest way between two points is the subway, she thinks, but she’d like to
at least see a little of Paris if she can, maybe pass by the Eiffel Tower. She needn’t
be original. If there had been several train stations in Rome, if she had been
forced to leave Termini, perhaps she would have passed something—the Forum
or the Colosseum. And then maybe she would have stayed. This Boulevard de
Magenta certainly isn’t offering any reasons to stay. The cars and their four
lanes have crowded the sidewalks and trees right up against the houses. Better
to travel underground than like this.
And then, of course, there’s the ordinary apocalypse lurking in the workplace (Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End) and everyday life. The nine stories in Silke Scheuermann’s third novel Other People’s Houses (Germany, 2012) are narrated by different characters, each crippled by envy, by coveting other people’s things, in a dystopian world the size of a small city block in a fictional suburb of Frankfurt:
I walk rapidly past the black façades of the buildings. Even in the darkness that
swallows everything you can still tell whether the people living behind them are
well off or not. There’s the arrogant, cold blackness of emotionally dulled,
middle-class residents and the hopeless, contagious blackness of the apartment
houses with the small, bare windows. (…) Fifteen minutes away by foot, it all looks
different. The entire street Kuhlmühlgraben, including the house we used to live in,
belongs to people whose blackness is of the arrogant sort.
On the other hand, the sea becomes the scene both of grief and longing in Tim Krohn’s To the Sea (Switzerland, 2009), a story based on two families linked by a tragedy that eventually reveals the secrets hidden behind the façades of their exemplary domestic lives. Krohn’s novel, which has been compared to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, shows how impossible it is to flee, to become free of repressed guilt; it is only when the past is brought to the surface that life for the people involved can continue in any meaningful way.
In introducing six new voices on the German-language literary scene, the Festival Neue Literatur offers the American public a rare opportunity to gain insight into a cross-section of contemporary Austrian, German, and Swiss literature that is notoriously underrepresented in English translation. Its jam-packed panel discussions provide a unique platform for discovering some of Europe’s most promising new voices—something not to be taken for granted in the American literary landscape today. The legacy we share with post-war Europe, our common knowledge of the apocalyptic extremes our species is capable of returning to again and again is also a shared dreamscape, a collective nightmare. In the words of Ulrike Ulrich’s Lo (Staying Gone):
The next metro station is called Jacques Soandso, and she takes the 5, which goes to
the Gare d’Austerlitz. You just have to look at the first and last letters of a word—if
the ones in the middle were switched around you could still figure it out. In this case
four different letters could be in the middle of the word and it will still oppress her.
Changing four letters in Austerlitz would give the station its own war. Her inner
censor immediately reproves her for breach of taboo. Thought is not free. They even
sang that together in her Catholic youth group. There’s so much that Lo can’t think,
can’t keep thinking, and certainly so many thoughts she can’t follow through to their
In a world where the ubiquity of repressed horror and guilt can be expressed and immediately understood with such minimal means, an encounter between the author of these lines and, say, Justin Taylor, whose collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever provided a pitch-perfect counterpoint with his images of uneasy Jewish identity, was bound to be illuminating. From the wry and poignant story “Tennessee”:
Like Jews raising swine on elevated platforms in the Holy Land, Rusty obeyed the letter
of his father’s law. He never smoked in the house. But Dad was convinced that the smell
clung to his clothes, that he left bits of odor and ash everywhere he sat, soiling the couch
fabric, the cushions on the kitchen chairs, everything. He may even have been right, in
fact he probably was, but that wasn’t the issue anymore. The house stank, not with
cigarette smoke but with synthetic bouquets of every variety. It was potpourri without
end, amen, and we all lived in its invisible, cloying crush.