It’s well known that literature and television are difficult to reconcile. When you’re reading you embark on a quiet and leisurely journey to an imaginary realm, but the TV viewer expects entertainment with appealing images, eloquent writers and brief commentaries. It’s open season for all clichés. For example, in the German literary show Druckfrisch the young, attractive Austrian writer Vea Kaiser – she landed a bestseller with her novel Blasmusikpop (“Wind Music Pop”) set in a mountain village in her home region – is seen with the backdrop of an Alpine plateau. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owXRfhfr7Mw)
It’s cold up there at high altitude, and the writer’s mini-skirt flutters in the wind, which sometimes blows so strongly, that you can hardly understand the interview. Other writers lean against trees, or they’re filmed out of focus, as they stroll along the beach lost in thought. Druckfrisch host Denis Scheck even climbed into the pool with Kristof Magnusson, and the presenter was still wearing a suit and tie to rabbit on at the Arctic Circle about literature and life in Iceland. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKrKCehHLpE)
Currently, Michel Houellebecq probably rejects this kind of production in the most radical way. This summer he rebuffed the left-wing liberal daily Le Monde, which wanted to publish a six-part summer series about him, and wrote in an email, “I’m not talking to you”, and threatened a lawsuit if anything were to be published about his private life. On the ‘cc’ list, from Michel Onfray to Bernhard Henri Levy, he included all reputable Paris intellectuals whom he also asked to refuse to talk to the newspaper. That’s because Houellebecq has long since taken over his own production, as shown in his film, “Die Entführung des Michel Houellebecq” (“The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq”), which was presented at the Berlinale in 2014. Self-ironical and with Houellebecq’s own style of poetry the writer puts himself in the hands of amateurish petty criminals whom he befriends and openly chats about politics, society and literature. It’s an enthralling writer’s portrait. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-Ap1g83Dg4)
Currently, the documentary series “Writers of Europe” presents much less comic, through extremely informative profiles of the lives and experiences of writers in which popular authors talk about their home (http://www.arte.tv/guide/de/051138-000/europa-und-seine-schriftsteller-griechenland-erzaehlt-von). Bernhard Schlink, Orhan Pamuk, Petros Markaris or Jorn Riehl explain how they see history and the present-day in Germany, Turkey, Greece or Denmark – without relying on the usual clichés. And Henning Mankell, Katarina Mazetti, Sara Stridsberg and Jonas Khemiri put the picture in context that many Europeans have of snow-white Sweden, the land of equal opportunities, where the economy is booming, and unemployment or xenophobia hardly still exist. In contrast, Jonas Khemiri, who became well known for his novel Das Kamel ohne Höcker (“The Camel with Two Humps”, filmed in 2007), reveals his experience as a half-Tunisian in Stockholm where he was arrested on the street because of his long black hair.
Martine Saada, arte’s chief cultural editor, explains, “We want to put an end to the idea that a writer lives cut off from the rest of the world and writes his novel. In this series, we’re interested in the critical consciousness of many writers about history, politics and society in their country. Perhaps they don’t explicitly write about this in their work, but naturally it has an influence on their language.”
The episode about Austria shows how much, for instance, Catholicism, Conservatism and the contradiction between the former world power and today’s small state influence the language and work of Robert Menasse, Josef Winkler and Arno Geiger. Then the writers Mário de Carvalho, Lídia Jorge, Gonçalo M. Tavares and Mia Couto introduce viewers to their homeland, Portugal. On Wednesday 28 October the journey then continued to Romania.
By Katja Petrovic
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright