Place: Switzerland

Asymptote Podcast: The World of Mundartliteratur, Part 2

Language with fewer boundaries.

In this episode of the Asymptote Podcast we return to the world of Mundartliteratur in Switzerland in an exclusive interview with Pedro Lenz, one of the best known Swiss authors who writes in dialect. His engaging and immediate works of prose and poetry present life in modern Switzerland as it really is: a far cry from the idealized herders of Heidi. His 2010 novel Der Goalie bin ig has been translated out of the Bernese Swiss-German into 8 languages, including Glaswegian English, and adapted as a film.
Podcast Editor Dominick Boyle talks with Lenz about the relationship between language, sound, and story. Lenz believes that the highly deliberate but ultimately artificial way he constructs his texts paradoxically allows a work to connect to its audience with fewer boundaries. We also speak about how his work was given a new life and context when translated into Glaswegian.

All sound recorded and produced by Dominick Boyle, or available in public domain.

Translation Tuesday: “The Emergency Brake” by Hermann Burger

Everyone has a red handle over his head. All that’s required is the courage to pull down.

Fresh from releasing our massive quarterly edition gathering new work from 30 countries (a sixth of which make up our Special Feature on Literatures from Banned Countries), we’re thrilled to present one of the issue’s many amazing highlights: a new story by Hermann Burger, “one of the truly great authors of the German language: a writer of consummate control and range, with a singular and haunting worldview.” German critic Uwe Schütte goes on to lament: “Yet it is not surprising that he fell into obscurity after his death, from an overdose of barbiturates at age forty-six. He shares this fate with many of the most august names from the peripheries of German-language literature who, never managing to escape from the ghetto of Austrian or Swiss publishing, either gave up in exhaustion, or went on writing and were forgotten nonetheless.” When you’re finished with this brilliant story, don’t forget to check out Schütte’s accompanying critical introduction in our free portal for world literature.

I sit in the dining car in my customary place. On the table stands a plaque: Réservé. I have the table to myself, although at this hour, the dining car is always rather full. I’m free to invite someone over, as I often do, to have someone to talk to during the long journey. The express train left punctually from the station concourse with its frosted glass, brown platforms, hurried people, plastic voices in the loudspeakers, and races now through the industrial quarter past the roadworks, apartment blocks, refineries, and silos. As always, a certain comfortable feeling of movement; the rhythm of the track joints is soft. A park with bright yellow building machines, which always look to me like giant dinosaurs from a vanished era, stretches out in the blinding midday light. Backhoes, fangs raised skyward, heavy dump trucks with ribs on their laterals, graders and excavators, a tranquil family, all together. I love how the landscape whizzes past in the train, this fleeing joy from a picture book. A bridge, a brief, hollow sound—and already, the river with the birches returns.

Punctual as ever, the service has begun, the waiter takes the place settings from my table. “Monsieur?” he says, as I close the menu. I nod in agreement with the menu of the day, and order a bottle of Dôle to accompany it. “Monsieur,” the waiter says again, after bringing me the soup, a consommé finished with white wine, sloshing slightly from the shuddering of the train car. Bon appétit, I wish myself, breaking my bread and giving the server a sideways bow. He knows he has a good tip coming, and is right to give a conspicuous smile. Monsieur, Monsieur, one hears from the other tables. It is an elegant proceeding. The waiters in their khaki coats speak fluent French and broken German. This team in particular serves quickly and with grace. One simply must see with what precision my waiters lay the spinach on the plate, how they post on one leg and balance the meat platter with its perilously whipped-up sauce through a curve, or how they pour the wine without spilling a drop. That is service! The guests, business travelers in dark suits, mostly, take pains to spoon their soup as soundlessly as possible. The chef de service greets the newcomers with the question: “zum Essen, pour manger?” When they refuse, they are dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders. I understand the head waiter’s verdict. There are always travelers who think one can sit in the middle of the dining car and order a peppermint tea or a plate of terrine. In fact, we, the regulars and staff, have no desire for our established ceremony to be spoiled over a bit of terrine. I always say: after all, it’s called the dining car, not the picnic wagon. By the way the other guests pour, I see whether they have dining car experience or not. The neophytes let the glass stand on the table, so that, naturally, the beverage spills over and leaves spots behind on the blinding white tablecloth. The old hands hold the glass in front of the bottle’s neck, but without bracing their elbow. I, and I say this not without pride, am an old hand.

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Zsuzanna Gahse’s Europe: Like Her New Book, It’s a Collection

Translations are more or less a doubling of life, or rather, a translation is the doubling of a book’s life.

Zsuzanna Gahse’s strange and eloquent meditation on the question of what, or rather, who “Europe” is has only become more relevant over the course of the past year in politics. Gahse’s Europe is the continent that shares her name with a princess abducted by Zeus. “Europe consists of its disintegration,” she writes. Gahse’s writing is all the more relevant for not being “topical”: these prescient thoughts on Europe’s disintegration date from 2004, the year of the EU’s most ambitious expansion. Her Europe is composed of a collection of accents, languages, and landscapes, “a collection of mountain ridges wrinkling the earth.” It’s an Europe for travellers, migrants, and lovers.

Her first book to be published in English comes out this month with Dalkey Archive in Chenxin Jiang’s translation. The translator and writer spoke shortly before the book’s release.

Chenxin Jiang (CJ): The Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote of you a few days ago: “As a master of short prose, she has become a truly European author.” Is the short prose form central to your being a European author?

Zsuzanna Ghase (ZG): Short compact narratives and even individual sentences can be memorable and indeed arresting. Whether in prose, poetry, or drama, these types of writing have a remarkable role to play in the modern world, and the endless (serious and unserious) ways of playing on them constitute an experimental challenge. As for being a European author, I certainly am one, in that I don’t focus on any one country (or my so-called “own” country) in my books, but am interested in many different countries.

CJ: In what sense are the pieces in Volatile Texts part of what the first piece would call “a collection”?

ZG: The word “collection” only applies to the first piece in the book and the pictures of Europe it presents. Europe can be described as a collection of various customs and histories, different languages, climates, political arrangements and so on; a collection that is both well- and less-than-well-developed. You could spend a long time surveying the cuisines alone. All that taken together is Europe: in other words, a collection.

But the individual pieces in Volatile Texts are carefully composed. As such, they do not constitute an arbitrarily assembled collection—hence the subtext of Europe that runs throughout. The fact that a Hamburger can become a Roman and a woman from France an American in one of the Volatile Texts speaks to the porousness of identity, to the existence of a collection of identities.

CJ: In Volatile Texts, you write that “languages [are] shaped by landscape, by topography.” How has your own attentiveness to language and your writing been shaped by living in Switzerland?

ZG: In the mountains, in order to make yourself understood between the cliffs, you need a different voice from the voice you’d use on the plains. It must be true in the Rockies too, that voices have to prevail against the mountains. Conditions are different on the tranquil plains: for instance, in windswept northern Germany, I’ve observed that people talk with a distinct singsong, so that the wind doesn’t take all their syllables and sounds with it. The striking number of phonological shifts in Swiss German, which might have to do with the topography of the landscape, has always interested me—not to mention the fact that Switzerland has four languages. Because of these linguistic boundaries and the different regions within Switzerland, I began playing with the idea of depicting Switzerland, of all places, as Europe—since, as you know, Switzerland is part of the continent but not part of the EU.

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