Ingeborg Bachmann Prize 2014 Chickenpox, humour and new formats

Tex Rubinowitz at the 2014 Festival of German-Language Literature
Tex Rubinowitz at the 2014 Festival of German-Language Literature | Photo (detail): Johannes Puch © ORF

The Bachmann Prize is awarded in early summer every year at the end of a three-day marathon of readings in the Austrian city of Klagenfurt. This award is regarded as one of the highest distinctions for literature in the German language. But this year’s authors and jurors at the Festival of German-Language Literature left a bit to be desired. A commentary by Bernd Zabel on the 38th edition of the Bachmann festival.

It all started with the chicken pox. Hanser’s literary chief Jo Lendle wordily lamented that Karen Köhler, an author represented by his publishing house, wouldn’t be able to make it down to Klagenfurt as she was quarantined up in Hamburg. The authors invited by the jury and backed up by their publishers and agents have to read their unpublished works in person at the competition, so this year only 13 writers, instead of the usual 14, took to the podium in the Austrian city by Lake Wörth.

 
But dark clouds had already been gathering over the lake. Word had it the Austrian broadcasting corporation ORF intended to pull out as lead sponsor. But once the competition got under way, there was no further talk of withdrawal: ORF had clearly thought better of it.
 

Screwball love story

Maja Haderlap, the winner of the Bachmann Prize in 2011, pointed out in her opening remarks in 2014 that over the past three years the Bachmann Prize has been awarded to three women authors whose native language is not German. In 2013, for example, Katja Petrowskaja won the day with an excerpt from her highly-acclaimed novel Vielleicht Esther (“Maybe Esther”)
 
Unfortunately, the quality of this year’s entries could not hold a candle to Petrowskaja’s work. And the jury were partly to blame: the writers they’d picked were not very convincing, not even the main prize winner, Tex Rubinowitz. A cartoonist by profession, Rubinowitz had previously lampooned this lit fest in Tage der reitenden Leichenwäscher (“The Riding Corpse Washers’ Festival”), as Tex titled his text in Rumgurken (“Driving Around”), a 2012 collection of his humorous travel logs. But his participation in the Bachmann competition automatically brought him into the fold. On the other hand, his screwball love story Wir waren niemals hier (“We Were Never Here”) provided a telling demonstration that there is no intrinsic value in merely deviating from codes and conventions. 
 
One cannot help thinking that, in casting their votes for Rubinowitz, the jury were taking to heart criticisms levelled at the event in past years. The preponderant subject-matter at the Bachmann festival is death, illness, war and undoings of all sorts, say detractors. Intelligent, humorous, lightweight pieces like Ich brauche das Buch (“I Need the Book”), which Joachim Meyerhoff presented in 2013, don’t stand a chance there, so they say. Which merely confirms widespread preconceptions abroad about the heaviness of Teutonic literature, an argument routinely adduced as the reason why German literature tends to come a cropper in the international licensing market of the publishing world.
 

Making a show of openness to new formats 

Other entries to the competition were discussed only in terms of subject-matter, not in terms of their aesthetic merits: coping with grief in Tibet, for example, drugs and detox in Berlin, or what juror Daniela Strigl, in the jury’s discussion of Kerstin Preiwuss’s entry, called a “concentration camp for minks” in East Germany. (These and all the other texts can be viewed on the Bachmann Prize website.)
 
The jury applied strikingly little in the way of aesthetic criteria. Hubert Winkels, literary editor at the German World Service (Deutschlandfunk), rolled out the red carpet for *educational qualities in the entries*?. Arno Dusini, professor of literature in Vienna, talked quite learnedly around the texts, while the only writer on the panel, Burkhard Spinnen, delved deep into the authors’ psyches before bidding farewell to Klagenfurt at the close of the event, after chairing the jury for 14 years.
 
In their ongoing efforts to show themselves impartial, however, the jury also expressed their appreciation for new formats like Vor der Zunahme der Zeichen (“Before the Increase in Signs”) by Senthuran Varatharajah, a love story between two emigrants in the form of a Facebook chatroom dialogue (3sat Prize), and Simeliberg, a text performance by Michael Fehr playing on Swiss national myths (Kelag Prize).
 
Katharina Gericke turned in a consummately crafted short story about the theatre scene. The author, an experienced thespian herself, was awarded the Ernst Willner Prize for this highly compressed prose composition. But she deserved to take home more than that, as not a few of the attendees opined.
 
Speaking of attendance: Klagenfurt is naturally an industry hot spot for publishers, journalists, critics and agents, on the one hand, and bloggers, lit students and literary tourists, on the other. 2014 saw a conspicuously large turnout of students from creative-writing schools in Biel, Hildesheim, Leipzig, Vienna and, for the first time, from the “Contemporary Cultures” programme at the University of Essen-Duisburg. The ensuing glut of blogs, videos and articles about the event on every available channel, platform and medium far exceeded the importance of what was read and said on location. But that’s just the way it is when youthful optimism meets crisis-ridden melancholy on summer break.