Sunday, 7 April 2013

Clemens J. Setz: Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes

Clemens J. Setz, in case you didn't know, is a young Austrian writer much feted by the literary establishment. I was sceptical about his second novel Die Frequenzen, mainly because the extract I read was peppered with adjectives. I gave up on his third novel Indigo for various reasons that didn't include the writing itself, but I'm going to start again now. Because I've just read his in-between book, the short story collection Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes, which won the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair in 2011.

I've been reading Austrian short stories, specifically the anthology edited by Martin Chalmers, Beneath Black Stars. Now it's hard to generalise and perhaps it's just Martin's taste, but a good few of these stories from post-war to Austria are a tad strange. Falling in love with a sheep, random-ish capitals or none at all, social commentary via lists of dishes cooked and mainly thrown away, writing on the margins of sense like Sabine Scholl's "Sex - The Other Homeland" (trans. Martin Chalmers):
And trousers of leather and a yellow glance and a skirt, a dress and a yellow glance, just pretend, in front of the horses, while all the rest moved off, the search for a woman. In trousers the feel of leather and the hand on the clay, breasts, just pretend and tend horses, living in a steel moon.
Much of this is not for those who like their reading smooth. And then there is Alois Hotschnig, whose translator Tess Lewis I interviewed here: another one for bizarre and rather scary developments. Kathrin Röggla does some fairly radical things in prose and drama. Or there's my favourite Austrian writer Verena Rossbacher, whose work is odd in the very best way. Even one I'm not quite as keen on, Thomas Glavinic, does strange things like imagining everyone's disappeared or writing a novel about a writer called Thomas Glavinic. Alright, there are more commercial Austrian writers such as Daniel Kehlmann, Eva Menasse and Daniel Glattauer. But I'm gradually getting a picture - without even glancing in Jelinek's direction or even thinking seriously about Jandl and poetry in general - of a literary line that's proud to be a little different. Martin Chalmers argues in his foreword that many Austrian writers felt a pressing need to rebel against a society that refused to acknowledge its own guilt over fascism. I don't know whether that need still exists today, or whether there are other driving forces behind the envelope-pushing in terms of style and content. But I sense it's still prevalent.

I once saw Clemens Setz being interviewed, and I remember he was asked about whether there was any pressure on him because he comes from Graz, which was a centre of literary rebellion and experimentation in the 60s and 70s. I suspect the idea behind the question was that the city now has a certain literary reputation to protect.

I can't say whether Clemens Setz feels obliged to that tradition, not remembering his answer. But I can say one thing: his short stories are out of the ordinary. His stories are disturbing, much more so than Hotschnig's, which I already found disturbing. Nothing quite impossible happens apart from in one of the weaker stories. It's more that people manipulate each other in disturbing ways, which then escalates until it becomes rather revolting. Or reality is slightly different: mothers for hire by the hour on dark street-corners. Or there's a museum to a writer that's more than a little out of the ordinary. Actually, you can read that particular story in English, translated by Bradley Schmidt, in no man's land issue 7. You ought to. It's one of the less disturbing pieces. It's still disturbing.

There are ideas wrapped up in these stories, ideas about how people perceive the world. There are characters with shifted morals or whose morals shift during the course of the stories. Sometimes I caught a whiff of gender theory: some of the male characters are exaggeratedly male, acting out clichéd men's roles (the lecturer, the boss, the inventor, the torturer), and some of the women are so stereotypically female that I felt it couldn't be coincidence in such clever writing. But that was one of the more subtle elements, overlaid perhaps by the overwhelming sense of oddity. The form, too, is often unusual. I enjoyed the portrait of a fictional computer-game inventor complete with footnotes referencing fictional books by or about him published by real American publishers. I can see now that the frequency of adjectives in Clemens J. Setz's second novel is an irrelevant factor for judging the quality of his writing.

What Setz doesn't do here to any major extent - or is it just very subtle? - is berate Austrian society, in that way one might expect after reading Beneath Black Stars, at least. Most of the stories could be set almost anywhere in Europe; or perhaps in any predominantly Catholic country in a couple of cases. The world they portray is made up of individuals, often isolated emotionally or physically. It's not a society in the way we traditionally understand it. In fact I found it more like Margaret Thatcher's take on the way the world works:
And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation.
Perhaps that was the most disturbing thing about the book. It's very good.

1 comment:

Tony said...

'Indigo' was namechecked in a podcast I listened to yesterday, and his name has cropped up several times elsewhere recently. Given that I enjoyed the Hotschnig collection I read, I shouldprobably give Setz a try some time too :)