Bachmann Prize Company Outing for the Literary Scene – the Bachmann Festival in Klagenfurt

The director of ORF with the winners of the Bachmann Festival (Nadine Kegele, Heinz Helle, Katja Petrowskaja, Verena Güntner, Benjamin Maack) and ORF general director Dr. Wrabetz; © Johannes Puch
The director of ORF with the winners of the Bachmann Festival (Nadine Kegele, Heinz Helle, Katja Petrowskaja, Verena Güntner, Benjamin Maack) and ORF general director Dr. Wrabetz | Photo (detail): © Johannes Puch

Many discussions accompanied the Bachmann Prize in 2013. That it is worth the money was shown by the quality of the writers who were invited. The winner was Katja Petrowskaja.

Let it be said in advance: everything will be fine – the Bachmann Prize will continue. Shortly before the start of the 2013 literary festival in Klagenfurt, the ORF (Austrian Broadcasting) announced its withdrawal as a sponsor of the prize, which would have meant its end. A storm of indignation broke loose. The German-language literary and cultural scene would not have this “snuffing” of the prize, as the author Michael Köhlmeier put it in his opening address. And the scandalized outcry actually had an effect. The ORF buckled; the prize will continue. And there was at least one good side effect of the heated discussions: so much attention has probably not been bestowed upon the prize since Rainald Goetz’s razor cut.

A festival with plenty of flair

The prize merits attention even apart from such flaps. Those who go to the German-language literary festival in Klagenfurt immediately sense the particular charm of this event. Nowhere else can you run into so many relaxed members of the literary scene. They stroll over the grounds of the ORF studio, ride through the city on hired bikes, swim in Wörthersee and round off the evening at the city-sponsored buffet at the Maria Loretto Castle. Literature lovers in holiday mood – that is what you find at the Bachmann Prize in Klagenfurt. And this particular mood is probably owing to the casual yet intense exchanges on literature that take place at the event. For here it is not only the jury – namely Hubert Winkels, Daniela Strigl, Meike Feßmann, Burkhard Spinnen, Hildegard E. Keller, Paul Jandl and Juri Steiner – who submit the recited texts to critical scrutiny for four days.

Reading competition for five prizes

Those who rise early can experience the authors’ readings live in the ORF studio. But since the Klagenfurt pensioner is usually up earlier than the typical member of the literary scene, the bulk of visitors gather in the ORF garden to follow the readings on monitors. Larissa Boehning, invited by Meike Feßmann, opened the festival with an excerpt from the manuscript of her novel Zucker (i.e., Sugar). The jury was unanimous in its ambivalent judgement: a well-made “chamber drama about legacy hunters”, said Daniela Strigl, but staged too oedipally. There followed readings by Joachim Meyerhoff, Nadine Kegele, Verena Güntner and Annousch Müller. Two of the five prizes to be awarded went to this first group of authors: Verena Güntner, whom, it was rumoured, had received a huge advance for the manuscript out of which she read, won the Kelag Prize. The Audience Prize went surprisingly to the Austrian writer Nadine Kegele. One would have rather tipped Joachim Meyerhoff for the winner, with his witty, dynamically presented text.

Less surprising was the choice of the Bachmann Prize winner, Katja Petrowskaja. When she, the fifth and last reader on the second day, began to read Vielleicht Esther (i.e., Perhaps Esther), there were whispers in the audience: she’s it. The text overcame the slackening concentration to be expected so late in the day; the audience was suddenly more alert and attentive than it had been the whole time. “Everything else stood still”, as the novel excerpt itself began. Petrowskaja’s delicately, urgently narrated text treated with an unexpected light touch a difficult theme: the shooting of a Jewish grandmother by the Nazis in Kiev in 1941. The text is free of pathos and kitsch, plays a game with fiction and employs strong images. Only Paul Jandl wondered “how the individual parts fit together”, and whether it worked; he felt it didn’t entirely. Yet he was still “in love” with the text. As she listened to Jandl’s criticism, Petrowskaja smiled. After the reading, she said that she would have liked to hear more such comments.

Two further highlights were the texts by Benjamin Maack and Roman Ehrlich. Ehrlich just missed winning the Ernst Willner Prize, which was won instead by Heinz Helles; the jury could not quite place the former’s apocalyptic scenery in which a man lives together with a strange boy in an apparently magical world. Here everything remained suspended; the complete novel Das kalte Jahr (i.e., The cold year), which has just been published by Dumont, promises to fill in the gaps. Benjamin Maack won the 3sat Prize with his “Wie man einen Käfer richtig fängt” von Joachim Kaltenbach (i.e., “How One Catches a Beetle Properly” by Joachim Kaltenbach), which he wrote especially for the competition. A very good, rounded text with the power to revolt the reader.

The summing up of this year’s Bachmann Prize is clear: promising writers with texts on a high literary level, and the whole framed by a marvellous accompanying programme in and around Wörthersee. Who would want to miss that?