European Literature? by Katja Petrovic

Does European literature exist? If so, in what way is it influenced by writers whose lives and works are rooted in the diverse cultures, languages and countries? Nicole Bary, the French publisher and translator, has focused on these issues for over three decades.

“I’m interested in the development of language, the subjects and view of bilingual or bicultural writers,” explains Nicole Bary. For over thirty years her Parisian publishing house, Métailié, has published German language books by writers who have an affinity with or background in another language and culture. Many of them are from Eastern Europe. Nobel Laureate Herta Müller, who grew up in Banat, is her most famous discovery – Bary was the first to publish her works in France. Russian author Vladimir Vertlib is her most recent new addition. Also in her catalogue: the Serbian Melinda Nadj Abonji, who was awarded the German and Swiss Book Prize, the Bachman prize winner Maja Haderlab from Slovenia, the German-Iranian lyricist and prose writer SAID, the German-Iraqi writer Sherko Fatah living in Berlin and the Icelandic-German author Kristof Magnusson.

In their fictional works many of these writers focus on the recent history of their countries of origin, the Balkan wars, the collapse of Communist states or tensions between the Middle East and Europe. For instance, in her novel Tauben fliegen auf (“Falcons without Falconers”) Melinda Nadj Abonji writes about her childhood in Vojvodina, her arrival in Switzerland and the difficulty of integrating here. Bary explains, “Writers create from their own experience, yet without producing autobiographical texts. If, like Herta Müller one grew up in the Banat in Romania, or if one is a Slovenian from Carinthia like Maja Haderlab, naturally when writing one filters quite unique experiences.” Bary has lived for many years between Paris and Berlin; she has translated numerous writers’ works from German into French and over time she has honed her sensitivity for the linguistic idiosyncrasies of ‘her’ writers. “The German written by Herta Müller is in constant confrontation with Romanian. For the translator this presents a particular challenge because the source language was shattered by the foreign influences and these shattered elements must also be discernible in the translation.”

The distance between both cultures and the discovery of foreignness in oneself, according to the publisher, not only enriches these works, but also leads to an ‘extreme case’ of literary creativity. This is because a bilingual or bicultural writer becomes an intermediary for several realities simultaneously due to his or her language.

Beyond the subjects and the languages, one senses the other, non-German culture in the structure of these works. Vladimir Vertlib’s novel Das besondere Gedächtnis der Rosa Masur (“The Remarkable Memory of Rosa Masur”), explains Bary, is a Russian novel in German. It is built like a Matryoshka with numerous stories and characters layered like the nesting Russian dolls and finally finding their place in the epic story.

On the other hand, the prose work Selbstbildnis für eine ferne Mutter (“Landscapes of a Distant Mother”) by the Iranian SAID reveals a circular structure. The writer has lived for many years in exile in Munich and regards the German language as his “dwelling”. Bary states admiringly that, “In this way, he visualizes the excessive thought loops in this text which is rather unusual for Western literature. The contrast between writing in this style and the German language is enormously enriching.”

In response to the frequently posed question as to whether European literature exists – again a matter of debate during the last European Literature Days – the publisher gave a pragmatic answer: it is the sum total of all works written in European languages and translated into these languages. And Nicole Bary makes an important contribution through her own work.

By Katja Petrovic

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 11 February 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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