European Literature Days
Thanks to the French air traffic controllers’ strike, my plane arrived at Vienna more than half an hour late, and after a breakneck drive along the winding Danube valley, we arrived in the vaulted medieval hall of the castle at Spitz an der Donau, high on its rock above the river, just in time to hear a talk by the Slovenian poet Aleš Šteger about literature and nationalism in the former Yugoslavia.
Šteger’s paper was the opening salvo in the European Literature Days festival in Austria’s picturesque, wine-growing Wachau region. Billed as “a cross-border literary dialogue about European literary topics”, it features authors from 17 European countries, from Iceland to Moldova, addressing subjects such as, how significant are national boundaries for literary writing?
Šteger took as his metaphor the old children’s game “Rotten Egg” (known in England as “Duck, Duck, Goose”), comparing it to the suggestion in Plato’s Republic that poets should be expelled from the state as fomentors of discontent (I once had the privilege of hearing Iris Murdoch lecture on the same subject). He went on to address Slavoj Žižek’s controversial and celebrated book Living in the End Times, which blames romantic poetry for sowing the seeds of the aggressive nationalism that led to genocide in Yugoslavia.
Afterwards, Šteger was joined in a lengthy and heated panel discussion by the Austrian novelist Robert Menasse, the Belgian critic Herbert van Uffelen and the German writer Zsuzsanna Gahse. Menasse, a towering presence who reminds me uncannily of the late Harold Pinter, dismissed Žižek’s ideas impatiently. Literature, he maintained, can reflect and help us to understand reality, but it does not change it. This is why the powerful nations in the EU – Britain, France, Germany – get to be in charge of trade, industry and agriculture, while the small countries get culture (it is currently run by Cyprus, and he cited a Cypriot Eurocrat complaining that the brief symbolised her country’s marginalisation within the Union).
Gahse, meanwhile, protested that she had been introduced as a German novelist of Hungarian parentage as stereotyping: “I don’t know who wrote my Wikipedia page, but I am a German writer and I feel like a European.”
This polite, quietly-spoken Van Uffelen described the national and linguistic conflict tearing his native Belgium apart as “a tame Yugoslavia”, and delivered the most telling observation of the evening: “Only by meeting another can we recognise ourselves. Only by meeting another culture can you recognise your own.”
The discussion was absorbing, digressive, exasperating and invigorating by turns. I can’t imaging such a conversation taking place in the UK, so introspective are we in our literary culture. Foreign writers only cross our radar when they become exceptional bestsellers, leaving us with a highly selective, and entirely unrepresentative, view of the literatures of their counties.
Over the next few days, the festival will address such topics as the European literary marketplace and the impact of digital technology. I will continue to report on it here.Tagged in: Aleš Šteger, Austria, European Literature Days, Robert Menasse, Slavoj Žižek, Yugoslavia
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter