Daily blogs by "auf buchfühlung" | review European Literature Days 2022

Comedy and Crisis | Day 1
Thursday, 17.11.2022

Ukraine, Slovenia, Portugal, Germany, Estonia, Italy, Poland, Romania, Switzerland, Slovakia, France, Croatia and Austria – in his short opening address, Walter Grond mentioned the many countries that guests have travelled from this year to the European Literature Days in Krems. With so many writers coming from all over Europe, the exchange of ideas, according to Grond, will soon give almost 15 years of regular snapshots of European sensitivities. If all the images of those past years are put together, we would have a short film about European history that helps to make the turning points that we’re living through (more) comprehensible.


19.30 – Ukrainian history consists of tragic events. Meeting them with self-irony can help to break out of the narrative

At the festival’s opening event afterwards, Katja Gasser talked about the still stupefying and terrible dark days of Europe’s recent history with the Ukrainian writer, journalist and translator, Natalka Sniadanko, who is living in exile in Germany.

“The scandal and the war are always there. The personal tragedies and the suffering are always there,” explains Natalka Sniadanko in the first few minutes of her discussion with Katja Gasser. Ukrainian writers have more material, which they can process in literary form, than writers from “Europe’s most influential nations”. At some point, hopes Sniadanko, all the human destinies will find their way into great literature. What is important at this moment is to work to ensure that those, who can write the stories, survive.

Not to adopt a political stance at all, as she still claimed about her literary work a year ago, has become unthinkable for Natalka. As a debutante, as she was back then, the “literary carnival” that emerged in 1991 from Ivano-Frankivsk, was more than a landmark. It was very unusual at that time for Ukrainian society to make something comic out of tragic situations. A wide section of the public didn’t understand this, recalls Natalka Sniadanko. However, it became an important starting point for her. Ukrainian history is full of tragic events. Only to move within this narrative is oppressive. Irony, or rather self-irony, can help to break out of this narrative.


20.30 – Some comedy creates a collective

In conversation with Rosie Goldsmith, the Slovenian philosopher, Alenka Zupančič, talks about the subversive character of comedy. In her book “The Spirit of Comedy”, she considered the subject of comedy from a philosophical and psychoanalytical perspective. Her comments provide a valuable basis for discussion during the next few days.

In Zupančič’s view, comedy blossoms in times of crisis. Comedy enables us to let off steam and find relief. Comedy helps us to find release from the status of being a victim and to overcome paternalistic structures. Comedy can even encourage the formation of collective resistance.

Alenka Zupančič links the question of comedy in crisis situations with black humour that certainly exists outside crisis situations. “People suffer and die; wrong things are done; life shuts off from us and everything seems to exist in the dark.” However, black humour lets the light in. It doesn’t ignore this darkness but seizes it.

After the animated opening discussions, the guests and the many participants once again at this year’s European literature festival, assembled in the crypt of the Minoritenkirche, the venue for an excellent spread of gastronomic treats. Everyone was deep in conversation not only about the current crises, but there was a lot of heartfelt laughter, too.


Comedy and Crisis | Day 2
Friday, 18.11.2022

09.30 – About fluid identities and humour as a coping strategy
Rainer Moritz opens day two of the European Literature Days in discussion with the Croatian writer and theatre director, Ivana Sajko, and the writer and artist, Yahra Monteiro, who was born in Angola and lives in Portugal. “In the face of horror and suffering, is it unbearable to talk about comedy? Or is comedy something that, like hope, points beyond the abyss of violence and destruction?”, these are the topics of discussion for this morning.


Ivana Sajko’s novel, recently translated into German by Alida Bremer, “Jeder Aufbruch ist ein kleiner Tod” (“Every Departure is a Little Death”) tells the story of a writer and his insight into the impossibility of leading a fulfilling life. The political events, which influence his destiny, are intertwined with a love story – like incidents in private life are linked to political events.

After talking about social class, about the male perspective, which Sajko chose for this novel, as well as her own inner voice that she wanted to reveal by writing, she talks about irony and sarcasm. They are important means for opening doors when writing, because they are self-reflexive and therefore open doors to the inner self. “We cannot be funny, if we are not honest to ourselves.”


In her 2021 debut novel, “Gravity of Tears”, Yahra Monteiro deals with the search for a mother and the search for her own identity. War and colonialism, violence and the ghosts of the past that cannot be shake off, are factors influencing this search that ultimately can never be finished. Because identities are fluid; they shift, fluctuate and change. The conversation continued about the issue of changing perspective, literary role models and the “comic joy” of writing. Many people cannot even imagine that ordinary life carries on in times of war – but it does, according to Yahra Monteiro. Humour helps people to carry on living. In tense situations, comedy is a kind of relaxation technique.


11.30 – Press fully on the pedal of the grotesque
The translator taking a seat on the stage with Rosie Goldsmith together with the Estonian writer and literary critic, Paavo Matsin, and the British–Armenian writer, Baret Magarian, personifies the fantastic European (language-)mix that distinguishes the European Literature Days. He reads excerpts in German from Paavo Matsin’s text; he translates Matsin’s input in the talk live on stage from Estonian into English. Meanwhile, backstage for the spectators in the audience, who are using headphones, this is simultaneously interpreted into German.

In discussion with Rosie Goldsmith, Paavo Matsin and Baret Megarian introduce their most recent novels “Gogol’s Disco” and “The Fabrications”.

In “Gogol’s Disco”, Paavo Matsin takes his readers with him to some point in the future when the newly formed Tsarist Empire of Russia has annexed the entire Baltic region and wiped out every trace of Estonian culture. One morning the master thief, Konstantin Opiatowitsch, robs a man who turns out to be Nikolai Gogol. Gogol has risen from the dead after almost 170 years. The synopsis of the novel alone shows that it is full of surreal ideas, comic characters and humorous twists. In his novel, Paavo Matsin treats with irony not only the Estonians’ fear of the mighty neighbour; he also implicitly describes the turmoil between eastern and western culture. With his anarchic humour and numerous references to pop culture he managed to make this fear tangible, while at the same time turning it into something comical.

The summary of Baret Megarian’s “The Fabrications” also already alludes to the themes of the European Literature Days. Baret narrates a surreal social satire on the fantasies of fantastical power and the absurdity of today’s media world. The writer Daniel Bloch is in a deep creative crisis when he has the idea of inventing a story about his uninteresting friend, Oscar Babel, but Baret’s fantasies become reality. Baret Magarian uses humour to sweeten the bitter pill of reality. He also wants to present challenging subjects to his readers in a humorous way. For him, humour is the possibility to make these awful realities palatable for his readers.

14.30 – Laughter that (never) gets caught in your throat
Rainer Moritz opened the discussion with the German writer and historian, Dana von Suffrin, and the Polish writer and historian, Konrad Bogusław Bach, with a search for common ground between his guests. Both novels – von Suffrin’s “Otto” and Bach’s “Der Wisent” (“The Bison”) – are debuts; both writers are also academics. While Konrad Bach pursues both vocations with equal enjoyment, in the case of Dana von Suffrin literary writing was “cannibalistic” and replaced the academic work.

Bach’s novel combines the absurd and bizarre with ancient myths, situation comedy with the depths of human nature and those of European history. “The Bison” is the story of two men, Heniek and Andrzej, who are getting older, and travel to Holland to bring back Beatka, Heniek’s wife, who has left him after 36 years of marriage. Both men embark on an odyssey through Europe that they detest. The journey is peppered with many comic as well as tragic events.

Bach explains that he wouldn’t want to give his book the label “black humour”. Black humour is something that blocks emotional life, which is why the more optimistic, world-affirming form of humour comes more naturally to him, in Bach’s opinion.

Dana von Suffrin’s novel “Otto” already raised the question pre-publication about whether one can use comic techniques to talk about the Holocaust, and whether one is allowed to portray a Jewish protagonist with such ambivalence. She was guided in her writing by the different phases of her father’s life; a novel emerged about the impossibility of writing a family novel.

While Bach’s “Bison” is certainly a novel of personal development, “Otto” is the direct opposite, in the writer’s view. Neither can break free of the tyranny of the protagonist: neither the daughters nor the carer. In the end, however, the book’s comedy is a result of precisely this tyranny. In Dana von Suffrin’s opinion, for her the difference between black humour or not is not so relevant. Laughter never gets caught in her throat.


19.30 – Words and Sounds
The stories of the multi award-winning Romanian writer, Mircea Cărtărescu, transform the

Minoritenkirche in Krems on the evening of the second day of the festival into a magically charged stage. Against the backdrop of rhythms created by the accordion (Franziska Hatz, Sasa Shevshenko) and the sounds of the saxophone (Richie Winkler), which musically span a wide arc from Moscow to Vienna and Graz, from Klezmer melodies to world music and jazz, Veronika Trubel led a conversation with the writer about his love of books, his childhood and the stories from “Melancolia”. The actress Dorothee Hartinger, a member of the Burgtheater ensemble, read from the mystical work of the Romanian writer. It was an evening full of atmosphere that led the guests deep into the writer’s fantasy worlds, where the inner world of children, along with their experiences of solitude, separation and love, play an important role.

Comedy and Crisis | Day 3
Saturday, 19.11.2022

11.00 – Hidden Treasures
“I don’t know how Krems is in spring or in summer. But in autumn it’s wonderful,” Mircea Cărtărescu was still enthusing on Friday evening. On Saturday morning, however, he and all the other guests at the European Literature Days experienced one of the rare snowy winter days in Wachau.

At the festival’s half-way point, we enjoyed a short tour of majestic and snow-covered Krems. In the heraldic hall of Gozzoburg Palace, the director of the Cultural Office of Krems welcomed guests who had gathered to hear more about “Hidden Treasures”. The cultural historian, Günther Buchinger, explained the history of the palace, which in fact isn’t a palace, but the former residence of Krems magistrate Gozzo, as well as the chapels of St John and St Catherine. Beneath the beam ceiling of the heraldic hall, dated 1255, the audience listened to Taner Türker’s cello recital, which included Bach’s sonatas as well as one of his own compositions.

The Swiss writer Johanna Lier read from her book “Amori. Die Inseln”, which emerged from her campaigning work in Greece for migrants arriving by boat. James Baldwin’s essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” was a crucial source that helped her process her experiences in literary form. Her purpose was to illustrate in the text the approach to power hierarchies and to show where violence comes from and who perpetrates it. After the impressive reading and the atmospheric musical setting, the questions about crisis and humanity had a lingering effect in the minds of the listeners.


14.30 – Musical Walking Tour Through Stein
In the afternoon, a group led by Albert Hosp set off on the trail for clues about Mozart in Stein. Despite the cold, the many tour participants listened to the melodies of Gregor Reinberg’s and Severin Endelweber’s violins.

17.00 – Comedy and Game Sequences
We repeated last year’s guest curatorship of Book Talk once again with our podcast “Auf Buchfühlung”. Our guests, Barbi Marković, Ivana Gibová and Pascale Osterwalder introduced us and many members of the audience to the books that they brought with them.

Barbi Marković opened the late afternoon session with a reading from her 2021 novel, “Die verschissene Zeit”. She took us with her to Belgrade of the 1990s and, with the techniques of comedy, told the stories of three young people growing up amidst the war, inflation and poverty.

In Ivana Gibová’s texts, alongside the narrative, images and even self-created lettering fonts emphasize the drastic comedy and deep tragedy of her work. Barbora’s body (she is the protagonist of the novel) is coping with another identity, Sylvia, who lives alongside her in the aftermath of a rape. In this uneasy coexistence, the two women make their lives difficult for each other. Comedy emerges here primarily in the form of the contrast between the two characters.

Pascale Osterwalder’s illustrations of depressive soap dispensers made a superb finale for the evening. With chapter excerpts from her graphic novel “Daily Soap”, published in 2021, she demonstrated how comedy and crisis can converge in pictures and words. The project, ongoing since 2008, gained new impetus not only due to the pandemic and a more enthusiastic reception, but also because of entirely new aspects deriving from the artist’s changed perception of an everyday item that suddenly became a high priority.

The evening and the three readings not only changed the audience’s view of soap dispensers, but also gave a glimpse of how diverse, innovative, on trend and humorous young European writers currently react to crises both with internal and external significance.


20.00 – About Anomalies and Special Effects
To round off the day, Jürgen and Romy Ritte co-hosted the multi award-winning and best-selling writer and OuLiPien, Hervé Le Tellier, who had brought his novel, “The Anomaly”, with him to Krems. As on Friday evening, the actress, Dorothee Hartinger, gave a reading from the writer’s work. The evening was accompanied by the guitar recital of Diknu Schneeberger and Alexander Sieber.

“This novel must have a point,” Jürgen Ritte remarked at the start. After all, there are already 47 translations, a million copies of the book in France alone and enormous interest in the novel around the world. After the reading and the discussion, the audience could instantly appreciate this success.

Comedy and Crisis | Day 4
Sunday, 20.11.2022


11.00 – On the capacity for imagination that empowers tolerance

The closing highlight of the Literature Days took place on Sunday morning in the acoustic setting of the Klangraum Krems Minoritenkirche with the ceremony to present the Austrian Book Trade’s Honorary Prize for Tolerance in Thought and Action to the Zagreb-based writer, Miljenko Jergović.

In his good-humoured laudatio speech, Michael Martens introduced Jergović as a “reader who writes”, whose meandering prose captures the complexity of his characters. Yugoslavia no longer exists, explained Martens, but there is a “Yugosphere”, which is bigger than Yugoslavia ever was, and whose population lives in far-flung corners of the world. This population neither has a passport nor a football team, but it has a poet: Miljenko Jergović.

In Jergović’s short acceptance speech, which was eloquently translated into German for the audience by the interpreter and writer, Mascha Dabić, he pointed out that today tolerance was endangered for different reasons than several decades ago. While previously it was in jeopardy because of ideological systems, nowadays the aptitude for tolerance is restricted by the poor capacity for imagination. We can simply no longer imagine the suffering of other people. Jergović stated that he was truly delighted to accept the prize for tolerance as recognition precisely for this imagination.

In conversation with Katja Gasser the prize-winner explained, among other things, why being in a good humour without any reason was a fairly risky business, which is why today he is still working on processing his childhood, and why Europe and the rest of the world are increasingly undergoing an experience of Balkanization.

The matinée was accompanied by the musical recital of the duo Hofmaninger/Schwarz. Their impressive music on the soprano saxophone and percussion, bass clarinet and slit drum is dedicated to the archetypal form of dissonant sounds from the East, which made a fitting context for the award ceremony.

“Miljenko Jergović is a combative humanist and a precise chronicler of the lines of social conflict,” according to the jury’s verdict on the Honorary Prize of the Austrian Book Trade that was restated by the Main Association’s President, Benedikt Föger. He continued: “Jergović is a European storyteller in the best sense of the word, who is tirelessly committed to tolerance, openness and peace.” What better setting could there be to present this prize than the European Literature Days in Krems that, during the last few days and for the fourteenth time, focused on and precisely expressed these values in talks and readings.

Victoria Strobl, Irene Zanol
 Auf Buchfühlung

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