There’s an unusual series of events happening at the Austrian Cultural Forum in London. I was there for the first one. Sitting in a large white-walled room, its vast windows overlooking a secluded Knightsbridge street, I sat mesmerised by two remarkable writers.
The series, “Variations on a Theme”, brings together Austrian and British authors to discuss a topic that is prominent in their works. It’s a simple but unconventional idea. Instead of highlighting the differences between British literature and literature made on the continent, the starting point is similarity, which opens up far more interesting discussions.
On that particular cold Wednesday evening in February, we were treated to the words and reflections of Austrian writer Carolina Schutti and British author Joanna Walsh. Jen Calleja, the ACF’s translator in residence and soon to be published poet, guided the discussion.
Schutti was born in Innsbruck and studied German philology, English and American Studies, concert guitar and classical voice. She writes essays, reviews and novels as well as coordinating literary events and giving lectures on poetry. In 2015, she won the European Union Prize for Literature for her novel Einmal muss ich über weiches Gras gelaufen sein (Once I must have trodden soft grass).
Walsh’s memoir Hotel, described as a ‘strange, probing book’ in Publishers Weekly, appeared in 2015. Her short stories have been published in many journals including Granta Magazine and anthologised in Dalkey’s Best European Fiction 2015 and Salt’s Best British Short Stories. Vertigo, a collection of Walsh’s own short stories, is published this month.
Brought together to discuss how poetry permeates their writing, both women showed their mastery of the spoken as well as the written word. After reading extracts from their works, the conversation turned to ‘the poetic’. Schutti acknowledged her great debt to music, explaining how rhythm and sound are often far more influential as she constructs her sentences than linguistic meaning. “I read everything aloud,” she said.
Walsh agreed that the aural quality of language is key to its value as poetry. But she’s not keen for her prose to be labelled ‘poetic’, a word that is too often associated with frilly, overblown language, she explained. The word has more positive associations in German, Schutti said. “It’s certainly better than having your work labelled ‘experimental prose’. You can’t sell that!”
Both authors enthused over the joy of reduction. “My editor pleads with me not to cut anything more out,” Schutti joked. “’There’ll be nothing left to publish’, they say.” For Walsh, the interest lies in the relationship between author and reader. “I want to find out how little you can give the reader and still convey meaning,” she said.
At the end of the evening, I left the forum and made my way back onto the busy, brightly lit Brompton Road, crowded with late-night shoppers and bar-goers. My head felt a little fuller and my bag a little heavier. I spent the journey home engrossed in Walsh’s new book. I’m looking forward to the next ‘variation’.
By Judith Vonberg