The Austrian Riveter: What is Austrian Literature? Katja Gasser introduced and interviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

April 2023 is an important milestone for Austrian literature, when Austria features as Guest of Honour at the prestigious Leipzig Book Fair. It is also an important milestone for Austria’s international standing, focusing the book world’s attention on this lesser-known but richly diverse German-language literature. The Austrian Riveter itself, commissioned to coincide with Leipzig, is playing a key role in helping to promote Austrian literature in English and to highlight translation and publishing opportunities in the anglophone market. Rosie Goldsmith spoke with Katja Gasser, the artistic director of Austria’s Guest Focus at Leipzig Book Fair. An award-winning literary journalist with national broadcaster ORF, Katja is an enthusiastic champion of Austrian literature.

RG: How would you describe Austrian literature?

KG: That is an old question and closely linked to Austria’s past. First of all, Austria’s literature is multilingual. Compared with German literature – as we always are – I would say that one of the main features of Austrian literature is our strong focus on language, form and the actual process of writing. Our literary tradition is inseparable from these concerns. After 1945 these tendencies intensified, for obvious reasons. Austria’s politics, culture and society diverged from that of Germany and these differences are reflected in our language, which I’d call ‘Austrian German’. It may sound over simplistic when I say that today Germany’s literature is more influenced by Britain and the USA, with more issue-driven books with strong plots. Austrian authors approach literature through issues less often, more often via language. The idea that writing literature is a form of exploration and experiment is widespread for us. But that does not mean that Austrian literature is inward-looking or insular. Quite the contrary. Austria was politically late in coming to terms with its recent past, for example, but that wasn’t the case for Austria’s literature. It was always a couple of steps ahead of social progress in this country (something that remains true today, by the way). There were a lot of Austrian authors among those who realised that literature after 1945 also needed a radical rethinking of language: it was clear that new forms were needed to be able to articulate and reflect on the recent catastrophe and trauma. The Nazis partly destroyed the German language as a reliable system – this understanding continues to influence how we think about language.   

Do you think it’s important for Austrian writers to continue to write about the Holocaust and Austria’s unique role in history?

Art is not obliged to fulfil any function. There is no democracy without freedom of art. Who am I to say what Austrian authors should or should not write? I do think that for the political consciousness of this country, it was very important that authors reflected on what happened here and continue to. That’s our political heritage and it’s a difficult one. In Austria and Europe today, there is still a lot of writing about being Austrian and Jewish, and in translation and publishing abroad there is still a strong focus on Austrian authors looking back at the Holocaust and their family history. 

To be blunt, it’s also what the market demands.

There is a lot of writing about the past but it is changing. Take the young Austrian author Raphaela Edelbauer, whose novel The Liquid Land is very popular and widely translated. She reflects on the historical heritage of this country that on the one hand quotes Elfriede Jelinek, while on the other seeks to tell the story of Austria’s past from scratch. Then you have Reinhard Kaiser-Mühlecker whose rural settings show a vanishing lifestyle – a sort of pre-industrial farming that is under siege everywhere at the moment. Austria’s past is only mentioned in the background, but it is of great importance. Then you have Helena Adler, a dynamic writer who doesn’t name the Holocaust or what her parents may or may not have done, but whose tone and anger are a direct legacy of this country. Something else is happening too – there is literature about Austria’s past and present coming from abroad. This is connected to Austria’s devastating past, when so many Jewish people fled Austria during the Nazi regime and never returned, although now that return is taking place in the form of literature. Like Edmund de Waal, for example.  

In German-language publishing the big publishers are German. What does that mean for Austria? 

Austrian writers usually start off with a smaller, independent Austrian publisher, and then, if they become successful, transfer to big German publishing houses. For Austrian publishers, this is definitely a problem. But Austria is a small country with a small market. And one of the main challenges is to be recognised on the German market. Germany has a lot of very good publishers, so there is a mismatch. But I will stick my neck out and claim that Austria’s literary power is even greater than Germany’s today so it’s not a question of content but of market dynamics and market power.

Do German readers read Austrian literature, and vice versa?

It’s a two-way street, however the majority of German books in Austrian bookshops are German, but in Germany only about 2% are Austrian – which is completely absurd, but that’s a fact. The interesting thing is that a lot of the really well-known Austrian authors like to be seen and read as German authors, because they publish in Germany. 

If you compare Austria with Germany, is there an inferiority complex? 

To put it humorously: I don’t see an inferiority complex, but rather megalomania! In fact, German literature today is heavily influenced by authors from Austria: where would German-language literature be without Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek, Josef Winkler, Clemens Setz, Robert Menasse, Maja Haderlap, Marlene Streeruwitz, Teresa Präauer, Anna Baar and others, who’ve won all kinds of major German prizes and are also published in Germany?

Do Austrian authors write about Austrian topics?

Every writer on earth is also writing about the circumstances (s)he lives in on a certain level, which is not necessarily visible in the writing at the first glance. That is true also for writers who live in Austria. Apart from that, we’ve had times in Austria dominated by right-wing politics and there are lots of authors who reflect on that in their texts. But the tendency towards right-wing politics is today not just an Austrian problem, but also a European one, and Austrian authors often reflect upon European issues. Robert Menasse holds an important place in European literature with his perspective on the European Union. Austrian literature is full of very different political realities: take the Ukrainian-Austrian author Tanja Maljartschuk, or Serbian-born Barbi Markovič, or Marko Dinić, and a lot of other writers who live in Austria now, but who have taken other cultural and language routes. That for me is the power of Austrian literature today. 

Looking back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, German wasn’t the only language spoken but Slovene, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Turkish, Italian and others: what impact does that have today?

It is very important to highlight that Austria isn’t one mighty language country but shaped by migration and multiple cultures and languages. We have several official minority languages. We have Slovenian authors writing in Slovene and a really thriving literary scene, for example, represented in the writing of Florjan Lipuš. Actually, I don’t talk about ‘Austrian’ authors but authors who live in Austria, which makes a difference. I am myself a Slovene-speaking Carinthian. My interest in diversity is obviously also driven by my roots. 

Tell me about Peter Handke, Austria’s best-known Slovene author.

I am not sure if he would be happy about this national classification. Peter Handke’s origins are in the bilingual south Austrian region, where I come from. He is able to read and to speak Slovene, he has also translated from Slovene into German. His roots help us to understand his whole approach to ex-Yugoslavia: one could claim that in this regard he’s driven by his roots and his experience in a place where a minority was discriminated against for decades. Carinthian Slovenians were also victims of Hitler, which is little-known. Handke knows this history very well, he has written about this part of the Austrian past. His drama Immer noch Sturm (‘Storm Still’), for example, expresses his literary and political position very well. This historical and geographical context is of great importance for his whole work and his relationship with Yugoslavia.

In 2019 Peter Handke won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He’s undeniably a great writer. But he is controversial. He was a supporter of Slobodan Milošević in Yugoslavia, and when Handke won the Nobel Prize it was hard for some people to accept. How is he seen by Austrians?

He would definitely deny that he was a supporter of Slobodan Milošević! It is a very complex issue. Peter Handke’s understanding of literature was always linked to the idea that the language of literature opposes the political sphere and therefore also the sphere of media/ journalism. It is also very important to understand that his literature is rooted in radical anti-fascism, that it is an attempt to find a new language after the civilisational breakdown (‘Zivilisationsbruch’) of the Nazi regime. In Austria too he divides opinion. My view was, and is still, that we must be able to accept ambivalence. His views on politics are one thing, his literary output another. He has a huge body of work, novels, plays, poetry, film scripts and there is no doubt that he is an author of world status.   

What role do book prizes play in Austria? The Austrian Book Prize was only launched in 2016 but already has some great winners: Friederike Mayröcker, Eva Menasse, Daniel Wisser, Norbert Gstrein, Xaver Bayer, Raphaela Edelbauer and Verena Rossbacher in 2022.

The Austrian Book Prize – like the German Book Prize – was invented to stimulate book sales, so these are prizes intended to heat up the market. Experience shows that if the titles are easy to read, then prizes reinforce sales, but if it’s a more complex title, like Mayröcker in the first year, then it doesn’t. The Ingeborg-Bachmann Prize is also an important prize. The Austrian State Prize, which is awarded not just for literature, was won by author Anna Baar in 2022 and is Austria’s most prestigious arts award. But there are also Germany’s book prizes: first and foremost, the Georg Büchner Prize, which last year – as so often in the past – went to an Austrian, Clemens Setz. I should also mention the excellent and diverse provision of grants and fellowships for authors in Austria. The fact that the promotion of authors in Austria is so well-funded by the state is one reason for the country’s wide array of literary talent – that’s also true for the Austrian publishing sector. 

Austria is a small country. What influence can such a small country have on literature?

Franz Kafka – where did he come from?! Whether a country is big or small says nothing about the quality of the writing it produces. What makes Austria’s literature so special and powerful is its multicultural and multilingual minting. We are in the Balkans. No one wants to hear that, but we are in the Balkans. In Vienna – and elsewhere in Austria – you walk the streets and hear so many different languages.  This is our identity. We Austrians are many things at the same time, many languages at the same time, many cultures at the same. We are in a good place.

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