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In the Light of Language— Klagenfurt Literature Speech By Maja Haderlap

Oct 3, 2022 | Non Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the German by Aaron Carpenter

The origin of this story lies in topography, wrote Ingeborg Bachmann at the beginning of her short story Drei Wege zum See [1]. In it, the successful photographer, Elisabeth Matrei, visits her father in Klagenfurt. On the day that she spends at home, she tries to reach the Wörthersee via the alpine paths she often traveled on before through the Kreuzbergl, but in the end, the old connecting paths trail off into nothingness. Her life passes by before her eyes and for the first time, she believes she understands Franz Joseph Trotta, the big, difficult love of her life. Trotta was a descendant of a fabulous line of Slovenians, who the emperor had ennobled for generations and who didn’t overcome the catastrophes of the 20th century. While Elisabeth moved and traveled across continents and languages, hungry for the world, Trotta was crushed by what befell him in the past. In Klagenfurt, looking towards the border, Elisabeth recognizes that since Trotta had stepped into her life her view of the world came from a barely noticeable, but still palpable topographical context, from the periphery that makes her a foreigner everywhere, as she ascertains, as her spirit, touch, and deeds belonged hopelessly to a spirit world of gigantic proportions.

Can you speak, think, or write today from the fringes in a time in which spaces and distances are quasi-imploded, the world appears to be loosening, new territorial units are created, and old borders are obliterated? With dizzying speed, great technical achievements suggest to us that the space, this context has become irrelevant, while at the same time perfect geolocalization programs will develop, that draw the lines even closer and more meticulously together than before, namely around every single person who is targeted by various interests. Even in Ingeborg Bachmann’s narration, the distances between the countries, languages, and continents appear as a confusing mess that can only be put in order and recorded when viewed from the fringe or a border.

Today, as we know, the peripheries are proliferating into the metropolises, the old centers hang on, frozen in an outlived power pose, to their bygone realms of ghosts, in which they pretend to rule uncontested. On the other hand, the peripheries mutate due to their exposed positions into arenas, in which societal, political, cultural, and social upheavals, cracks, and trends appear unvarnished, and virtually uncovered in all facets.

I would like to try, from a periphery, from the German-Slovenian linguistic border that is formative for Carinthia, to think about the phenomenon of switching literary languages. In the last three years at the Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur [2] in Klagenfurt, three authors whose native language is not German have won the Bachmann Prize. Nothing new, someone will interject, we’ve known that for years. Nobody notices anymore, that topic is out in the open so to speak. Meanwhile, whole branches of study—cognitive science, linguistics, comparative literature—have taken up the question that there are renowned prizes that are awarded to authors writing in German whose native language is not German; people speak of new nomadism if you don’t want to use the somewhat worn term “authors with migrant backgrounds” anymore. People speak of being on the road, of post-colonial, trans-cultural, and hybrid, mixed cultures, a true deluge of labels try to capture the phenomenon of language switching in literature. It almost seems as if the authors who have migrated into a language are the product of an international transaction, ripped out from their social, cultural, and linguistic anchors and washed up on the shore of a new language.

At the same time, the reasons that lead to authors switching languages could not be more different and ostentatious. All too often, at the exit stands the flight from political persecution or war, the flight from poverty and social misery, studies, a new job, love with its enduring powers to bind, and a multilingual living situation. In the trendy discourse on placelessness, one could recognize a new form of cosmopolitanism in this development, but the term presupposes economic and political freedom and would completely disregard the most painful experiences of loss of homeland and safety, as well as the great struggles of the people concerned, who need it to arrive somewhere.

So, business as usual [3]? If not only for the many calls, the rebukes, categorizations, and the constantly repeated questions about the identity of the authors. Doesn’t a desire for boundaries make itself noticeable, after marking the ancestral literary territory? Authors who migrated to the German language should confine themselves to their special topics, could be read in German culture pages not too long ago, and not strive to fit into the German-speaking literary scene. This follows a short discussion, in which people seemed to be united, that the “Germanized” authors as Ilija Trojanov calls them, are an enrichment for German-speaking literature. Despite that, I can’t shake the feeling that we find ourselves in a moment of quiet before the storm, in which people want to shout at the recent authors that they shouldn’t pride themselves too much on their stories and efforts, finally there are still the native-born authors to whom the language of refuge actually belongs.

The experiences that I’ve had after switching to the German literary language and after the Bachmann Prize, confirm my evaluation that switching languages is an extremely difficult process and unavoidably bound by cultural and personal conflicts. The discussions that I’ve held in the last three years were stamped by intense emotions and very disparate requirements of me as an author. At almost every literary appearance and in almost all interviews I’ve been doggedly interrogated about my language and my national, and cultural identity. Why do I write in German, when I grew up in Slovenian as a member of the Carinthian Slovenes and wrote in Slovenian at the beginning of my literary career? Which culture do I feel I belong to; do I see myself as a Slovenian or Austrian writer? The situations resemble a persistent border control, an uninterrupted naturalization process in which it is demanded of me to convince the questioners of my honest intentions and to state my individual cultural belonging.

Is it even possible to freely choose one’s language as an author against the backdrop of the Carinthian language conflict?

In my linguistic biography, there is a point that I am always thrown back to, a striking cut. At this point, my linguistic experiences flow together, stamped by knowledge of the lack of language and by spoken or unspoken bans on language. Not only that in far-flung southern Carinthia, where I grew up, a girl or a woman speaking was seen as unbecoming and obtrusive, but my Slovenian mother tongue also blew up in my face in Carinthia. Because of it, I was counted among the politically unreliable citizens, who didn’t want to rescind their right to their second national language and therefore put the unity of the country in question. Before I fled to a language or clung to a language, I had to defend my native language without knowing exactly how you speak for a language.

Even before I could have said what a language is, a vehicle of thought, of viewing the world, of understanding, of bargaining, of fantasy, of longing, the indigenous languages were presented to me as ideological, political categories, as two mutually exclusive poles between which I had to decide. It was about the promise of homeland, about belonging, connected with the majority’s accusation of non-conformity. My family and I were abandoned by the German nationalist demagogues because we lived in the countryside and the propaganda was addressed to the bilingual rural population, not to the few cosmopolitan people in the small cities. Even decades after the Second World War, the bilingual and Slovenian populations who had been living in Carinthia for centuries were advised by the German-nationalist homeland associations, that they would only count as full Carinthians if they were ready to give up the Slovenian language at home and in public. Politicians not only willingly took a hands-off approach to the homeland societies, they even invoked their phobias, if it was about delaying the implementation of the minority rights guaranteed in Austria’s post-war treaty. Whoever from the bilingual or Slovenian population conformed or assimilated, whoever was ready to make cultural sacrifices for the coveted homeland, could assume that they have arrived in the country. The absurd thing about it was that I had always felt my lived bilingualism to be an enrichment and even as a child I could not understand why it should be better to be monolingual. Later, I could counter with cultural-political engagement for a long time and act as if I moved into two completely equal languages and cultures. But over the years it became clear to me that since the beginning of the 20th century, the Slovenian language in Carinthia could hardly develop freely and comprehensively by virtue of its structural, societal marginalization. The media and cultural connection to Slovenia were hindered by political and ideological hurdles. All the Slovene Carinthians’ cultural endeavors sufficed to botch the thin dress of language of the Slovenes all over Carinthia.

In the eighties, I wrote in Slovenian, not only to ascertain my mother tongue, to capture it, to explore it, but to stop the retreat of Slovenian in Carinthia; I thought, I hoped, and to force my way into my own history. For a time, I even believed I was able to resuscitate the romantic, linguistic, and political utopia of 19th century Slovenian literature with my literary work, even if not in a national but in cultural respect. The further I advanced into the constriction of the regional Slovenian culture and into the nervous attempts to escape Slovenian literature, the more I thought of fleeing. But how do you leave something that requires your support? How to wantonly move out of a literary language, when abandoning Slovenian in Carinthia is what is expected?

The knowledge that the generations of my grandparents and parents had to pay for their avowal to the Slovenian language and culture with persecution, suppression, and in many cases with their lives during the period of National Socialism pulled me into further distress. This circumstance left behind a rift, blue or white flecks in my linguistic biography, that I cannot and do not want to hide. There is no truly flawless decision in an unequal constellation. Despite this, writing in German for me meant a way out of the constriction of the continual national and social attributions. For this step into freedom, I didn’t have to leave a country, only question my bilingualism and switch to a linguistic landscape that was ready to receive me.

Thus, language has a place. The starting point of every language lies in the topographic. The decision for or against a language is also embedded in a societal and political process. The processes of assimilation, of the perishing or thriving of languages take place on far-flung peripheries, on arbitrarily drawn state borders, that always want to be cultural and national as well. They are described as peripheral; however, they aim for the center of European culture. The whole European continent is crossed by visible and invisible language conflicts, by histories of suppression and the dominance of languages. “If we didn’t know anything about the history besides the development of language… we would have a knowledge of history that would probably even be more accurate than what we have,” wrote Olga Martynova in her essay Good-bye, America, oh.

The arrival in a language is always also a story of rescue. Many voices in the texts of “Germanized” authors talk about this. With their work, they undermine the ideology of globalization, whereby it has become a matter, of course, to disengage from geography and from history. They have for a long time absorbed the history of the countries and locations that they either left, in which they live, or between which they oscillate and mirror them in numerous ways. They are trackers between languages and cultures, they fill the archives of their new, conquered, borrowed languages with the histories of their abandoned, destroyed, splintered families or their rich native cultures. On their desks, meet words and their meanings in numerous comparisons. They balance each other, listen to each other, and put weight on fine nuances, shades, and differences. Long ago, in the literature loomed a powerful, deep-reaching dialogue, that enriched and widened every language, that had opened the doors for those arriving there. The narratives of the “Germanized” authors circled around the vulnerable conditio humana and brought home again and persistently the fragility of all cultural achievements.

The hungry languages of the authors who emigrated sometimes go foraging and come back with new spoils and new fruits, as you can read in the texts of the 2012 Bachmann Prize winner, Olga Martynova. Her bilingual poems resemble a dance between Russian and German literary traditions, it creates a new linguistic world, that flies in the face of imaginary linguistic borders with playfulness and anarchy.

The arrival in another language is a dangerous liaison: “My German, still taut with unattainability, kept me from falling into a routine,” wrote Katja Petrowskaja , the previous year’s winner, in her novel Maybe Esther . “I paid back my past in this language I acquired relatively late in life as if counting out small change but with the ardor of a young lover… My German, truth and illusion, the language of the enemy, was an outlet, a second life, a love that does not leave if it does not get, a gift and a goad as if I had set a bird loose.” [4]

There is an expression that is used again and again in relation to authors who have emigrated to a language: “writing between languages” or “writing between cultures.” At first glance, that sounds plausible, but on closer inspection, it can’t capture the phenomenon of switching languages or of capturing a language. The fact of the matter is that you don’t write between languages, but only write in the language or invent a language. As long as you write, you never find yourself outside a language and its traditions. Such an expression could only relate to the social situation of writers who often consider themselves to be in a political and personal no-man’s-land between cultures and traditions.

With that I come again to speak of a place that you could only designate as a no-mans-land with the utmost caution, because it seldom seems to be so uninhabited, like the empty, threatening security stripes between two states. It is a troubled, telling place, because it stands as a symbol for the differences between languages and their self-absorption and keeps alive, even inspires, the need for understanding, arrival, and entry, for reaching the other, strangers. Ilma Rakusa once wrote, that as a multilingual, you learn that nothing is self-evident, that everything is based on differences. There is no place that yearns for a quarrel, for a translation as much as a linguistic border.

I too inhabit such a place, rather a space. It is not visible and resembles a darkened corridor that I built or dug as a path between my determinative languages. In comparison to the narrow, substantially more unstably made corridors, that lead to other languages, it is full of embellishments from the past and history of my languages. All cabinets and shops are overflowing with imagined, heard, and lived histories. In this corridor, I school myself in the art of invisibility, constantly pacing up and down, interrogating one, then the other side. I hold my personal court of shards and pass judgment on the history of conflict, that is my own, and school myself in the art of matching. The connecting binds that I drew around my languages and cultures are the net that holds and secures me. Sometimes the voices and calls wander like ghosts around the seclusion and silence of the corridor, as reverberations of fear, experiences of violence, and apprehension, then they are again hunted by the echoing waves of a successful dialogue.

In the corridor, I discard all characteristics and designations and become free from affiliations. Outside of the corridor, I see the languages glowing. They give off a strong, pleasing light. Everything that pushes into this light, appears in the light of language, will become real and important and recognizable through this. For me, language is ever unrivaled, what we long for, a stage or reality and its director. My fundamental experience with regards to language is that would-be owners and attendants of speech as well as those who direct you to and dismiss you from a place try again and again to come between me and my languages. They act as if their language fell to them from heaven by the will of God, regardless of whether or not they can manage it. My wish as an author is, therefore, to seize a part of the accumulated, quasi-hegemonic ownership of language, as hoarded and protected wealth should and must be shared.

What counts, in the end, writes Michael Hamburger , whose native language was German and who wrote in English, is not the way we classify or label, least of all by us ourselves, but how we handle our identities. For literature’s part, be it against every qualification of authors for terms, that result not from the quality of the work, but from the outward appearance of the biography. I can only agree that the discussion of the literary works of “Germanized” authors finally takes the place of reflections on their origins and biographies, as it is the written text that that counts.

But sometimes, biographies and that which Michael Hamburger calls outward appearances seem as if a big director devised and hunted them in concentric circles through the ether. Franz Joseph Trotta from Ingeborg Bachmann’s novella is a decedent of a Trotta, who at the end of Joseph Roth’s novel The Emperor’s Tomb hurries to just this tomb in Vienna. After the collapse of the multiethnic state of the Hapsburg monarchy, before the start of the threatening apotheosis of the nation into the “German Reich”, he believed he had definitively lost his homeland. It was a country that fed on the peripheries, on the substance of its crown lands with their languages and cultures, in which one could be anything: Slovene, Ruthenian, Galician, Ukrainian, Bosnian, and still an Austrian. That should change. Ingeborg Bachmann borrows this narrative thread and spins it further in her time with a look back at what came in between. Katja Petrowskaja in the last chapter of her novel arrives in Vienna on the day that the remains of Otto von Habsburg are laid to rest in the tomb. She is searching for her ancestors and, like Joseph Roth, hails from today’s Ukraine, a country, that at the time was in central Europe and today lies on its periphery, in the border area, that could again become a test site for a catastrophe. Petrowskaja covered a great distance, which took her through countries and states, known and unknown places, and through some that in the last century were pushed like ghosts into our consciousness, with names like Babi Yar, Gunskirchen, Mauthausen, and others that remain unnamed. You speak of the heralded end of Europe, though Europe has not yet attained its true power center, which derives its biggest win from the diversity of its languages, cultures, and from its social achievements.


End Notes:

[1] Three Paths to the Lake
[2] Days of German-Language Literature
[3] English in the original
[4] Petrowskaja, Katja. Maybe Esther. Trans. Shelley Frisch. New York: HarperCollins. 2018. 67-69. Print.


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Maja Haderlap was born in 1961 in Eisenkappel-Vellach, Austria. She has a Ph.D. in Theater Studies from the University of Vienna. Haderlap has published several poetry collections in Slovenian. Her first book in German, Engel des Vergessens, was published in 2011 for which she received numerous awards. It was translated into English in 2016 as Angle of Oblivian. “In the Light of Language” is her Bachman prize acceptance speech. In it, she describes her process of switching from writing in Slovenian to writing in German in the context of a place where her community’s history was ignored and suppressed.

Aaron Carpenter is a Ph.D. Candidate in German Studies at the University of Washington. After obtaining his BA in German at Boise State University, Aaron went on to teach English in China and Austria. In 2013, he obtained his MA in Technical Communication before working as a technical writer at Hewlett- Packard. In 2016, Aaron began his work towards a Ph.D. in Seattle, with a focus on Austrian and works by authors whose native language is not German. The focus of his dissertation is on writers from former Yugoslavia who write in German.

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