An interview with Marjana Gaponenko Singing a song that ends in an endless sigh

It sounds like a fairy tale: Marjana Gaponenko, a schoolgirl from the Ukraine, falls in love with the German language and begins writing poetry in German. 16 years later, she wins the Chamisso Prize for authors of non-German origin who write in German. The prize is awarded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the biggest German foundation, where international understanding has long been writ large. In this interview she tells her own story and talks about her prize-winning novel “Wer ist Martha?” (“Who Is Martha?”).

Marjana Gaponenko; © Robert Bosch Stiftung/Yves Noir Marjana Gaponenko | © Robert Bosch Stiftung/Yves Noir Ms Gaponenko, you’re from the Ukraine. How did you come to write in German there?

I came into contact with German for the first time in Odessa, in secondary school. German was not spoken in my family. My father is Georgian, my mother’s from Odessa and worked as a production manager at the film studios in Odessa.

But I had two teachers who really encouraged me: my German teacher at school, an old lady who, though strict, later turned out to be very warm-hearted, and a tutor, who laid the foundation of my literary career by having me write stories in German for our lessons. But from the start, I learned from reading German literature, especially poetry books. And today I know that nothing stimulates me to write more than assimilating great authors, whose greatness also consists in the fact that the most exact way to apprehend their work is not to copy them, but to think and write for yourself.

Who was the first to notice your poetry?

Whilst we were strolling down Franzusski Boulevard in Odessa, Moritz Senarclens de Grancy, who was working as a journalist in Kiev at the time, told me to send my poems to a few selected journals in Germany, which is what I did. My poems were printed soon after that: namely in the journal Muschelhaufen put out by Erik Martin.

You now live in Mainz: what led you to take the big leap over to Germany?

In 2001, soon after the poems came out, I got a six-month literary grant for the Schöppingen Artists’ Village near Münster. After spending time in Dublin, Cracow and Frankfurt, I came to Mainz in 2009.

And in this new setting you took on the larger genre: the novel. How come?

In 2007, along with some other writers I was asked by the tourist association of Vorarlberg whether I’d write a little story about Lech am Arlberg [a mountain village in the Austrian state of Vorarlberg]. I was invited to Lech and got to stay at an inn for a week. It was the first time I’d ever been that high up in the mountains. I wrote the story in the form of a letter from a journalist named Petrov to his love Anna Konstantinovna, and it came out in 2008 in the anthology Austern im Schnee (“Oysters in the Snow”). Shortly after that, I decided to write a reply to Petrov and slipped into the role of an aging village schoolteacher, Anna Konstantinovna. That’s how the second chapter of my first novel came about, and the other chapters were only a matter of time. When my first novel was done, I noticed I had matured and that the lyrical shoe had become too tight for me. I kept writing poems, though they all struck me suddenly as being so short-winded: I wanted to sing, not just heave a short sigh, but sing a real song, a song that ends in a long, endlessly long, sigh. That how I view the prose I write. I want it to resonate for a long time and yet be very close in nature to verse. That’s important to me.

This first novel in German was then published by Residenz-Verlag in Salzburg?

Piotr’s first letter, after it came out in the book Austern im Schnee, won Austria’s Frau Ava Literary Prize. The awards ceremony took place in 2009 in a rather ominous church in the mountains where the first German-tongue poetess supposedly lies buried. My former publisher, Herwig Bitsche, came to the event and, over a glass of wine under a chestnut tree, encouraged me to make more out of it, which I then sought to do in the sequel. So I promised to send him the completed manuscript within a reasonable period of time. A year later it was published as a novel by Residenz Verlag.

Every year the Robert Bosch Foundation awards the Chamisso Prize for the best book by an author of non-German origin writing in German. On 28 February 2013 you’ll be receiving first prize in Munich for your second novel Wer ist Martha? (“Who Is Martha?”). The protagonist is a 96-year old scientist from the Ukraine, more precisely an ornithologist, who’s celebrating his imminent demise in style in a luxurious Viennese hotel. Why this character and this setting?

Lewadski is not only old as the hills, he’s also terminally ill. These are attributes which on the one hand intensify the dramatic element of the story, while on the other hand it was important to me, precisely through these two attributes, to pull the rug out from under the drama by asking the following question: Is it worth it for a dying old man to struggle, and if so, what for? The answer is: for self-determination, first of all, and, if think about it for a bit, for more devotion and faith in God. So, terminally ill and close to a hundred years old, Lewadski sets off on his last journey. He spends his last days in the setting of a gorgeous though rather unreal place. At the outset, he admires the theatrical anonymity of the grand hotel, relishing the luxury in which he has never lived and now wants to die. He finds friends, he finds himself and goes in peace. All this was made possible by his decision to get up and go, to flee to a place that is diametrically opposed to his scientific passion and field of research: birds. Here in the lap of luxury, it becomes clear to him for the first time that his modest little life was beautiful and shines far more brightly than the glittering chandeliers and gilt frames. This is the idea behind the Viennese luxury hotel.

I feel the need to write about people who go through life inconspicuously, without attracting attention, and whose inner life is rich in wonders. As a writer, I look for the extraordinary in everyday life, and I see that everything is extraordinary. On closer scrutiny, that is where the mundane in the extraordinary smiles at me and I’m overcome with a deep-felt sense of compassion. And that’s how I write: full of tenderness and understanding for my ordinary extraordinary heroes. As far as age goes, my characters have to be mature. They can be 20 and have an old soul, or 96 like Lewadski, the protagonist of my latest novel, who retains his childlike nature even in his old age.

The new novel, which was critically acclaimed and praised to the skies by some, has now been published by Suhrkamp-Verlag. How did you end up switching publishers?

Everything seems in retrospect like it’s part of a causal chain: one novel after the other, two great awards. I’d call it an act of providence if I didn’t know full well how much hard work was involved every step of the way. A lot of blood, sweat and tears and a lot of time. 16 years ago, I couldn’t have dreamed of many things that are now a matter of course for me. I say that without any conceit. The switch to Suhrkamp Verlag happened like this: a Suhrkamp author recommended my first novel Annuschka Blume to the publishing house, after which the publisher gave me to understand that they were interested in working together.

And now you’re already working on a new project. You’ve also hinted that, regardless of your success, you’re only going to write a limited number of books and can even imagine doing something totally different. Can you tell us more about that, about the new book, but also about that something totally different?

One reason I enjoy writing literature so much is because literature isn’t the only thing that interests me. I don’t glorify it. I find that it’s vitally important to keep your heart open and available for something that has nothing to do with your profession. For that something else, in other words. You can’t be a good writer if you make literature the focus of your life. If you only have eyes for that, you’re struck blind. I can imagine that at 96, once I’ve said all I have to say as a writer, I might train as a carpenter and learn one of the wonderful crafts I’m genuinely fond of.

And as for the new book, well it’s a story that takes place partly in a horse-drawn carriage. It’s about furniture, trees and the philosophy of history; it’s about time and physics and a new children’s pedagogy that puts a legless war veteran back on his feet; it’s about possessions and the lack thereof and about freedom. It’s mainly about freedom.

On 28 February 2013 in Munich, Marjana Gaponenko will be presented with the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize for her second novel Wer ist Martha? (“Who Is Martha?”). The Robert Bosch Foundation awards the Chamisso Prize each year to the best book by an author of non-German origin who writes in German. Goethe-Institut President Klaus-Dieter Lehmann was a member of the jury.