#TDDL: a summary. Part 2: The Good

So you have seen me announce my TDDL coverage and then nothing happened? Apologies, did NOT have a good week. Anyway, yesterday the awards were voted on by the jurors, and I thought that’s a solid opportunity to summarize the past 3 days of readings for you.

I split my summary into three parts: the writers I did not like, or didn’t like enough, my favorites, and then a third about the actual results. Here is part 1: The Bad, which you should read first.

My favorites are, in this order:

Helga Schubert

Laura Freudenthaler

Egon Christian Leitner

Lydia Haider

Audience Award: Hanna Herbst

In the first summary I grouped the writers by similarities rather than by chronological order or preference. I would like to continue doing it here, and there are two obvious groups. The odd woman out is Laura Freudenthaler. I’ll begin with an admission: I listened to the story and was bored, looked at the text and was a bit nonplussed by some elements of the style and was ready to dismiss it, until one of the readers I value most suggested I have another look (because of that reader I had another look at Lisa Krusche too, but that did not help. More on Lisa Krusche at the very end of Part 1). And I was wrong. Freudenthaler’s story is an extraordinary achievement. Structurally it moves like a melody, with a devastating, literally explosive ending – and it’s a testament to her skill that a big, devastating, fiery end, after only 8 pages of story, feels earned, and not like a gimmick. Freudenthaler, like Ally Klein at TDDL 2018, does a remarkable job of making anxiety feel real. Moreover, she excels at using real scientific facts about the developments of peat fires or other phenomena of spontaneous underground combustion organically, as a way to illuminate the knowledge we have about her story. As a writer, Freudenthaler has a knack for the curious detail – like the sound of a burning fire, sucking in oxygen, and its similarity to the sound of an asthmatic person having an attack. Freudenthaler connects insides and outsides, a personal violent episode leads us into the story and a massive conflagration leads us out. It touches on political concerns, but indirectly, trusting the protagonist’s anxiety to carry us over.

Much more overtly political are Egon Christian Leitner and Lydia Haider. Both of them extraordinarily Austrian in their talk and both of them explicitly, directly and forthrightly political. Neither of them really helped their texts by reading them aloud. Egon Christian Leitner has a large body of work of largely fragmentary or rather: episodic prose about life on the margins. Unlike exploitative texts, like Bachmann participants Neft and Schutti, Leitner is always empathetic and clear about his own speaking position. The language evades simple emotive tendencies, it doesn’t try to manipulate the reader, it grounds marginalized people in the details of their own realities. Despite the clarity of the language, it’s not plain or journalistic, instead Leitner’s tone is deliberate and clean. His reading, regrettably, was offered in a monotone that emphasized some of the structural repetitions, but undersold his skills at deploying sarcasm and other forms of pointed humor. Leitner stood out, and is one of my favorites because his work felt genuinely unique – not filled with the phraseology of Bachmanntexts past, or leaning on the imagery of 1990s fiction or nonfiction, it felt almost sui generis, though particularly 1970s Austrian literature can offer further examples of work written in Leitner’s style. A similar mixture of sui generis with echoes of brilliant texts in the Austrian tradition is found in Lydia Haider’s text. Where Leitner’s text was dominated by the reasoned speaker’s voice, Haider’s story teems with voices. A text about contemporary politics, violence and right wing rhetoric, it borrows from a completely different Austrian tradition, most famously Jelinek, whose later novels and plays interrogate the violence inherent in common and popular phrases. I will admit, I am not as well read in other examples of that tradition. At the end of her presentation, Haider reads from a copy of plays by Werner Schwab, furnishing us further venues of reference and interpretation. The text is dense, and Haider’s intensely dramatic reading regrettably covered up its details – revisiting it quietly, its well-turned language reveals a skilled writer, with an urgency that’s equal part literary and political. Much of it is flashy, clearly, but the unusual language, the thoughtful engagement with a tradition, and the examination of contemporary issues lift it beyond all the texts discussed in the previous section. Both Leitner and Haider’s texts are unthinkable without assuming that these writers see themselves, as Otoo noted, as citizens as well as writers, and they present us also with an answer to some of the lazy reactions to Otoo’s speech, such as irritated (and irritating) complaint, Otoo were expecting us to learn a bibliography before or instead of engaging with the issues. What Otoo did instead, with several examples early in her speech, is ask for a literature that’s thought- and careful, that considers questions of solidarity, and that brings empathy to not just its characters, but its readers, as well. The jury could have noted any of that or other links to Otoo’s speech, which would have been especially apropos in Leitner’s case, but they decided to ignore it instead.

And finally, my favorite writer of the competition – she was my favorite before everything started and consistently my pick to win it all: Helga Schubert. Helga Schubert and Hanna Herbst presented texts about parents, and they did so one after the other. Of all the writers in this post, Hanna Herbst is the weakest, and on the level of writing, she does not reach some of Lisa Krusche’s heights. At the same time, her texts also do not evince some of the downsides to Krusche’s text. Herbst is not, as far as I can tell, primarily a literary writer – and this text, though it may become part of something larger, feels specific to a moment. Herbst’s text is gimmicky – a remembrance of a father that’s filled with small bits and bobs, frequently unpleasantly precious. If you’ll think of the music of Belle & Sebastian, the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Silvain Chomet, you can guess at the tone. Through it all, the text, however, retains a genuine, a moving core, and unlike other texts in the previous section, never reproduces racism. In fact, it’s the rare text that feels carefully crafted even though it’s sometimes overrun with unexamined common phraseology. There’s a sense of a kind of writing that came out of creative writing departments in the early 2000s, like Paul Harding’s Tinkers. One episode had the father ask his daughter to bring her three favorite books to him, only to burn them without explanation, a story that Hanna Herbst manages to invest with a sense of connection and mystery – everything seems polyvalent, resonating with different energies, a good text. Its biggest disadvantage was to be presented immediately after Helga Schubert gave us a story about remembering a mother. Schubert’s text swings wildly, it can be tender, cruel, warm, violent, personal, political – it’s a rich text by a writer who has been ignored by the literary establishment for a long, long time. A psychoanalyst by training, the prose she published in the 1980s is at times staggering in its use of economy. The story “Schöne Reise,” collected in the collection of the same name, reads like Carver after Lish was through with him. And Schubert preserved this quality. Politically, Schubert had always been complicated, I recommend reading a conversation she had with Rita Süssmuth, published as Gehen die Frauen in die Knie? in 1990, where Schubert evades expectations of feminist assumptions, harshly critical of GDR society and politics. The politics of the story she presented at TDDL were similarly complicated, but ultimately overshadowed by the portrait of a difficult mother – a mother who tells her daughter on her dying bed that she wasn’t wanted, and that she wants acknowledgment for giving birth to her despite that. It’s part of the power of Schubert’s story, that she ends up outside of the hospital, giving her mother that gratitude, without rancor, or damaging resentment. And though it’s tempting to retell bits and pieces of the story which can move the attentive reader to tears, what truly sets it apart is Schubert’s stylistic sharpness. Take sentence length for example – the normal sentence here is short, but not remarkably so; yet when she expands her sentences, they immediately fill up with detail and direction. Strangely, the story never feels like Schubert had to fight to get it into this shape – she’s just this skilled. I feel obligated to state that the story is not as good as some of the 1980s work, but it’s more generous and expansive than that work.

My next post discusses the actual awards (spoiler: I’m not unhappy).