Reading as a “never-ending journey into your own psyche” – The Chamisso Prize Winner Michael Stavarič
In 2012 Michael Stavarič was awarded the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize as an “outstanding figure in contemporary literary life”. The novelist, essayist, translator and children’s book author was born in 1972 in Brno (today in the Czech Republic) and has lived for over 30 years in Austria. An interview.
Mr. Stavarič, the Chamisso Prize honors writers who write in German, but whose native language or cultural background isn’t German. Is this prize something special for you?
Certainly! For me this prize even has several very special aspects. A few months ago my “literary mentor” – he would probably forgive for calling him that – died: Jiří Gruša, who also received the Chamisso Prize many years ago. In this respect, being given the Prize completes a personal circle. I’d like to do what Gruša, the “wanderer in language”, did.
Receiving this honor has also made me aware of how important it was for me to be at home, from my earliest childhood, in two completely different language worlds. In Gruša’s words: It is probably the only way to be “happily homeless”.
You were honored for your previous work as a whole, but especially for your latest novel Brenntage (Burn Days), which critics have described as a “monstrous novel about childhood” and an “experimental Bildungsroman”. Does this reading correspond to your own appraisal?
The prerogative of interpretation is always a tricky thing – everyone is responsible for his own reading. I take pains to design my books so as to leave plenty of room for the thoughts of my readers. I never tell my stories through. I build in empty spaces. I destroy threads. In Brenntage it was important to me to give the landscape an eerie note, to create a sort of “Little Heart of Darkness”, a literary fairy tale fallen out of time.
You treat quite somber themes. Your first novel, Stillborn, was about a woman who felt like a stillborn child. Terminifera also describes childhood wounds. Böse Spiele (Wicked Games) is about the war between the sexes.
The somberness is certainly there, but it’s being constantly broken through by irony. None of my main characters are pathological – I take care about that. I also try to show my readers a way to remember the past. Many adults lost long ago their own childhoods. And I’d like to show how the world really is: beautiful and terrible! It’s not insignificant that, in addition to my novels, I’ve written quite a few humorous books.
Your texts meander; there’s no narrator that takes the reader by the hand.
Many years ago Milan Kundera declared – I quote from memory: Whoever is so crazy as to write novels today should write them in a way that their contents can’t be recounted. I’m in full agreement with this advice. To take the reader by the hand means to patronize him to a certain degree.
Books may be the last art form that deliberately preserves its secrecy. Literature – and I mean real literature – is like a spell: you have to work hard for it – and merit it. In this sense, reading is in my view a gamble – and a never-ending journey into your own psyche.
In the last five years you’ve published five novels. How do you manage to be so productive?
I sometimes ask myself that. But my novels aren’t mighty tomes. I aim quite deliberately at a maximum of 250 pages. And many ideas I’ve been carrying about with me for a long time. So all I really need to do is to create the space needed to work them out.
Another point is probably that I’m always working on several projects simultaneously: a novel, a translation, a children’s book and something small and experimental – such as recently, for example, a bestiary. It’s almost as if book projects get completed by the way.
In an interview with goethe.de, Artur Becker, the winner of the Chamisso Prize in 2009, said: “It makes no difference at all what language you write in”. Is that also the case with you?
I’m happy to agree with Artur – it even makes absolutely no difference what language you think and reflect in. The main thing is you (still) do it.
You once said: “Language is music, and I make music”.
It’s immensely important not to try to understand language exclusively at the level of content. Literature is often about not what’s said, but rather how it’s said. It’s as in good pieces of music: I hear a melody, refrains, rhythms, and so on. All that brings me to places that elude thought. And in the end you feel something … and are happy or sad. Or, if it was a really good book, both!
conducted the interview. She is a freelance journalist based in Bonn.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
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