The Austrian Riveter: Snapshots of a Defamiliarised World by Ross Benjamin

Ross Benjamin is an award-winning translator of German-language literature and a long-time champion of Clemens J. Setz’s work. He has translated Clemens J. Setz’s third novel Indigo (Liveright, 2014), as well as numerous poems and short stories, including most recently the short story ‘The Class Picture’ from Setz’s latest collection, ‘The Solace of Round Things’ (Der Trost runder Dinger, Suhrkamp, 2019). We are delighted to feature an exclusive new translation of another intriguing story from this collection, ‘Kvaløya’, with an introduction by Ross Benjamin in which he elucidates his relationship to Setz’s surreally beautiful and playfully inventive literary art.

The short story ‘Kvaløya’, by Austrian writer Clemens J. Setz, begins by presuming our prior knowledge about its imaginary universe, to which, in actuality, we are being introduced for the first time: ‘As everyone knows, it’s not easy to travel with an Or.’ If everyone knows this, it stands to reason, everyone must also know what an Or is. Which is why the first-person female narrator doesn’t bother to explain it to us. From the outset, we understand that an Or is a living being of some sort accompanying her on a trip from Germany to Norway, and we go on to witness how the Or behaves in various situations, how different people respond to it, and how all this affects the narrator. From the clues we gather in the course of reading the story, we might surmise certain things about the Or, but this won’t amount to a full elucidation of what it is, where it comes from, why it is the narrator’s travel companion, in short, what, exactly, is going on in this alternate reality, at times so strange, at times so like our own, from which the narrator is speaking to us. 

It’s true that this makes the Or mystifying – a descendant, perhaps, minus five letters, of Kafka’s Odradek, whose physical description, for all its apparent precision, is a kind of riddle. Odradek, Kafka informs us, is a creature that is also a star-shaped spool with varied pieces of thread wound around it, attached to a wooden crossbar and a rod, which render it mobile; and it speaks, if only to give an enigmatic response to the question of where it lives: ‘Indefinite residence.’ No more than Kafka, however, does Setz use mystification for its own sake. In ‘Kvaløya’ the narrator tells her story as if there is no mystery, as if the basic features of her reality go without saying – just as, for example, the narrator of a story that takes place in London does not feel obliged to add that London is located on planet Earth. In this way, Setz gives her narration a plausibility that it would lack if she were to go out of her way to enlighten us about the very things that inhabitants of her universe take for granted – the existence of Ors, extra wristwatch hands showing something called ‘proximal time’, or what it means when she reports that she wants to buy a new scarf for the Or because ‘The first one it had already assimilated in several places’.

Setz’s fiction hurtles us into a twilight zone without the godlike voice of a Rod Serling to announce our stops. Another thing it does might at first seem like the opposite but is actually just the other side of the same coin: it looks around at our everyday reality as if through the eyes of a Martian who just landed here. For example, another story in the same volume in which ‘Kvaløya’ appears, Setz’s collection Der Trost runder Dinger (‘The Solace of Round Things’), contains the line: ‘On the street walked many people, most of them with facial expressions.’ (On second thought, Setz is the sort of writer we might find reporting that London is a city on Earth.) And from another story: ‘Fortunately, a soda machine existed directly beside us.’ Whether in thick novels – Die Frequenzen (‘The Frequencies’), Indigo, Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre (‘The Hour Between Woman and Guitar’) – or in tweets, Setz offers us snapshots of a defamiliarised world. 

To characterise Setz’s writing, it’s not enough to resort to clichés about what differentiates Austrian and German literature and culture. On an episode of American host Conan O’Brien’s talk show some time ago, Austrian actor Christoph Waltz made remarks that reflect Austria’s cultural self-understanding and pride in distinguishing itself from its larger, more dominant neighbour by likening the difference between Germany and Austria to ‘the difference between a battleship and a waltz’. The German sense of humour, Waltz went on, tends to aim for ‘a head-on collision’, rarely has ‘grace, melody, and rhythm’. The implication is that German humour is more of a blunt instrument, more straightforward, heavy-handed, and directed outward at others, whereas Austrian humour is more inward-looking, self-deprecating, slippery, and artful. Waltz suggested that ‘the difference between Austrians and German is very much like English and Irish’, the smaller countries cultivating greater subtlety, finesse, wit, and musicality. 

Setz certainly exemplifies these qualities, but to call him a typically Austrian writer in this sense would be misleading. Nor does it do justice to his singularity to point out that his native city of Graz has its own rich literary culture distinct from that of Vienna. It’s not that Graz’s more experimental and avant-garde reputation, in contrast to the capital’s more traditional and classical one, is entirely irrelevant to the offbeat nature of Setz’s work. It’s just that the idiosyncrasy of his art can’t be pinpointed by these ever-narrowing coordinates. We would also have to scan extra-terrestrial and multi-dimensional realms. 

When I translate Setz, I seek to treat each turn of phrase with the ingenuity, curiosity, playfulness, and tenderness with which the author does. Examples can be chosen almost at random: ‘A long pause. Time rushed softly in the room like a small indoor fountain.’ Or: ‘that intense anorak smell of collar snow that has melted and then grown warm in the lining.’ Or: ‘In the driveway lay a lost wool glove in the posture of a starfish washed up on the shore.’ Setz is always animating the inanimate, as in this line from ‘Kvaløya’: ‘The piano lid was closed, and a clay vase stood on it, its handles akimbo.’ It’s these magical, unforgettable moments that make his writing such a pleasure to read and to translate.

Ross Benjamin

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