The weltschmerz doesn't seem to be going away. So while the German-language Literaturbetrieb* had four days of fun at the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in Klagenfurt – albeit no longer drinking a right-wing populist's faux-champagne at the mayor's reception but the faux-champagne of the new Social Democratic mayor, who's had enough of her previous coalition with the FPÖ – I was sweating in tropical Berlin and working and not watching the spectacle ("Germany's Got Talent for swots" – Stefanie Sargnagel) on TV because how can I take so many days off work and Greece and Syria and Nigeria and also I've kind of had enough of a lot of German literary critics. I mean, they're only talking about literature, it's not like they deserve a medal for it, and I didn't want to spend four days watching jumped-up egos talk about literature, even though I've thoroughly enjoyed watching it in the past. I hope I'll get over this cynical phase I'm going through.
So the prize went to Nora Gomringer for her piece "Recherche". And here's the thing about this piece ("porn for Germanists" – Nora Gomringer): it's a magnificent story, a real humdinger of clever wit and good writing and light and dark ideas under the surface, as long as you know who her protagonist Nora Bossong is. Now, I happen to know who Nora Bossong is because she's a German writer and I've even had a drink with her and some other German publishing people on one occasion, and heard her reading a couple of times, although I don't think I've ever read one of her novels or any of her poetry. And she's a striking woman and one of those people a lot of publishing types know. But she's not, you know, famous. There's a bit in Gomringer's story where another character asks the Bossong character to sign a book, which is amusing because it's unexpected for the Bossong character, which makes us smile if we know who Nora Bossong is but doesn't come across as cruel; Gomringer doesn't seem to be taking the mickey (because we can probably assume Nora Gomringer would react the same way?). And there's another bit in the story where that same character sets her alarm clock to watch the Bachmann Prize on TV, which is also amusing if we know what the Bachmann Prize is because what kind of psycho would spend four days of her life watching a literary competition on TV, and again that self-deprecating humour is delightful. But Gomringer doesn't actually name the literary competition on TV, so it's a kind of double in-joke.
So what I think about "Recherche" is that it's the perfect story to win the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize right now, but it's not a story that works in any other context. From my point of view, there'd be no point in translating it, for instance, because no one would pick up on its big joke. Or you could add footnotes, but jokes with footnotes are a bit crap.
And I can't shake the impression that a story consisting partly of in-jokes for the German-language Literaturbetrieb* winning the prize is a bit of a swizz for people who don't get the in-jokes. OK, the competition has drawn attention to lots of talented writers who wouldn't have got on TV otherwise, and will be good for all of them, and I've no doubt Nora Gomringer has other texts that will appeal to a broader audience. But doesn't it seem a little provincial, dare I say it, for a prize that used to translate all its finalists' texts into seven languages to be awarded to a story that works only for a very limited readership?
Or, ach, maybe a literary prize's purpose isn't to provide a service to the maximum number of readers, a kind of capitalist efficiency logic by which the best story is the one that the largest number of people appreciate. Like Dire Straights on paper or something. I don't know. At least it goes towards disproving Tim Parks's theory that writers are pandering to international audiences by making their work more bland. That's a cheering thought. And at least Nora Gomringer gets a bit of fame and fortune for a while.
The weltschmerz is telling me it doesn't matter anyway, what with nothing mattering anyway. Maybe I shouldn't have started reading Camus. Here's a witty response to the story by the actual Nora Bossong, possibly. It's a fun game of pingpong for a summer afternoon.
*Literaturbetrieb, I nearly forgot. It translates as literary industry and means the sum of publishers, editors, writers, critics, etc. making a living out of literature, or trying to. And although a lot of books are published in German, the Literaturbetrieb feels very small and incestuous and tends to suffer a lot of storms in teacups. So you can use it as a term of abuse if you fancy raising yourself above it for any reason.