Focus on Literature in Germany

“Journey into the unknown” – Thea Dorn talks about the Munich Literature Festival

Thea Dorn, curator of forum:authors | © Munich Literature Festival, photo: Volker Derlath
Thea Dorn, curator of forum:authors | © Munich Literature Festival, photo: Volker Derlath


November 2012 is only the third time the Munich Literature Festival has opened its doors to the public. And yet it has already made a good name for itself in the scene. How did that happen? The individual signatures of curators who are also authors themselves give the literature festival its distinctive profile. In 2012 Thea Dorn, an author and critic who has undertaken a great deal for the forum:authors (forum:autoren), takes centre stage after Ilija Trojanow and Matthias Politycki. An interview.

Ms Dorn, which criteria have you used as a basis for inviting your authors to the Munich Literature Festival 2012?

Having decided last autumn to interpret my festival as a journey into the unknown, it was obvious that this would only be possible with authors who think about this in a similar way to me, who also sense a surfeit of our current over-cautiousness, who yearn for opportunity and adventure. I was very fortunate in that many of my colleagues whom I value for their literary boldness have published new books this year, such as Christian Kracht with his spectacular novel Imperium, Vladimir Sorokin with his high-tech alchemy fairytale Der Schneesturm (The Snowstorm) or Christoph Ransmayr with his book Atlas eines ängstlichen Mannes (Atlas of an anxious man).

In contrast with the previous year, authors from overseas have also been invited in 2012 – is this because there are not that many German-speaking authors who fulfil your expectations after all, or what are the reasons?

It was specifically because the Forum:Authors was restricted to German literature last year that I thought it was the right thing to invite international authors as well this year. Apart from Sorokin, Scottish authors A. L. Kennedy and John Burnside are here – colleagues whose works I have read and loved for years. And both cultures, Russian as well as Scottish, have the reputation of having a highly intimate relationship with romance.

The “Schwarze Romantik” (Dark Romanticism) exhibition is currently on show at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt. Many of the female authors you have invited are taking up motifs and forms from literary Romanticism in their books. Do you view that as a new trend?

We live in an extremely prosaic age: efficiency, safety and predictability are the categories by which not only our thoughts and actions are governed, but now this even applies to the way we feel. Scope for dreams, fantasies, the ancient game of art: “What if…?” have virtually disappeared. In recent decades this prosaic attitude has reached out to influence literature too. With the result that novels that are “reality-orientated” – realistic, socially-critical or historically significant – are in great demand. But I think I have seen that resistance has been rife for a while: against realism both in real life and in literature. I’m glad about that. And the fact that Felicitas Hoppe, this year’s Büchner prize winner, Sibylle Lewitscharoff, last year’s Kleist award winner, and Clemens J. Setz, who won the Leipzig Book Fair award last year, are so successful, is an indication that I am not alone in my gladness. If you explore history, you will see that German literature in particular has always been at its greatest when it has liberated itself from the constraints of reality: for all his worldliness and cosmopolitan attitude, Goethe was never a realist. Kleist himself knew that he could never find what he needed in this world. For Eichendorff, E.T.A. Hoffmann and all the other Romantic authors, “reality” was a swear-word. Kafka wrote about his very real pains and fears – but never by attempting to put them down on paper directly. Even Thomas Mann does not come across as an absolutely realistic author – or why else would he write a novel, his book Doktor Faustus, in which the Devil features in the plot?

The festival programme features ideas such as God, the afterlife and death, which you don’t normally come across with such frequency at literature festivals; they tend to be more associated with a religious context. What are you trying to suggest here?

The flip-side of our realistic pseudo-rationality is that we suffer from a transcendental, metaphysical hypoglycaemia. When we encounter trials and tribulations, we are quick to call the insurance company, doctor or therapist, in the hope that everything can be sorted out again. I think it is more sensible to assume that life’s great questions: “What does it all mean?”, “Where do we come from?”, “Where are we going to?”, “How can we cope with the horror of our mortality?” – are resonating with the same lack of answers as they did for people two thousand years ago. Since I – contrary to any rumours claiming otherwise – do not believe that classical religions will undergo a great renaissance here, I believe art to be the best forum in which to expose oneself to these questions. Martin Walser has been exploring what “the afterlife” might mean for some time in his novels. Jenny Erpenbeck has just written a fascinating novel about mortality. I read books like this to comfort myself – specifically because they provide me with no answers.

Do you envisage an opportunity to present literature from lesser-known countries at festivals too, and what formats/communication methods could be used to make international literature – especially from Asia, Africa and Latin America – better-known and more successful here?

I fear that such deliberate attempts at promotion always come across as being contrived. You can see that every year at the Frankfurt Book Fair with the guest country in question. For instance, last year when Iceland was the guest of honour, the demand for Icelandic literature shot through the roof – at least for that one season. In the case of New Zealand this year, great interest failed to be forthcoming. It just seems as though there are certain literatures that captivate the German readership more than others.

Munich Literature Festival 14/11–02/12/2012
Dr. Bernd Zabel
conducted the interview. He is a specialist in the field of “Literature and promotion of translation” at the Goethe-Institut.

Translation: Jo Beckett
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
November 2012

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