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.
CJ: You write that “Nearly everything is translation, unfortunately, the original would have been the ideal.” In what ways does your translation work enrich or disturb your other (“original,” “ideal”) writing?
ZG: The quotation with which you begin this question is indeed important to me, and I promise to write a whole book about this subject. It does refer to language, among other things. I’ve always asked myself, at the very least since I started translating, what things can be said in which language. Each of the languages that I can claim to somewhat know possesses great and not always comparable talent. Languages are talented.
In context, however, the sentence that begins “nearly everything is translation” actually refers to a person, the Spanish man Pierre. To the narrator, Pierre is not a translation, but easily recognizable just as he is. Luckily, he doesn’t pretend to be any different from who he is, and that’s what makes him the ideal. That doesn’t happen very often.
CJ: Can you remember how you first learned German? Does the language still feel strange in any way? Conversely, have you ever considered writing in Hungarian?
ZG: Yes, no one forgets their beginnings easily. (It would be too easy to promise another book about these beginnings, although it certainly wouldn’t be pointless, given all the migration and shifts in language and speech taking place worldwide.) When my family fled Hungary [during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956], I was a child; I learned German easily and could say whole sentences after only a few weeks. Then I saw an American film in German (Alle Herrlichkeiten auf Erden), and when I came out of the theatre I thought I could speak German perfectly. Which wasn’t, of course, true.
In any case, I find German to be beautiful (that is to say, talented), and I can attempt to teach it a greater degree of elasticity, even to smuggle over some of the elasticity of English, though I don’t speak English well. Spanish idioms scurry about in my brain, too, and a few of them appear in Volatile Texts. I don’t write Hungarian, but I sometimes enjoy thinking in terms of the elegant brevity that’s possible in Hungarian.
CJ: As you point out, “The fact that so much is translated is one of the most wonderful European accomplishments, even though translation so often leads to misunderstanding.” I’m aware that your work has been translated into many languages: is this the first time that Volatile Texts has been translated for a non-European audience, or have there already been others? How do you view this extra-European act of translation aimed (at least in part) at American readers?
ZG: Translations are more or less a doubling of life, or rather, a translation is the doubling of a book’s life. Volatile Texts has already been doubled into French. Your translation for Dalkey Archive, which will appear outside of Europe, gives the book another double life, and a good one. I am looking forward to having American readers. Some of my favorite authors over the decades have been American writers, and I’m looking forward to Volatile Texts reaching the readers of these authors.
CJ: How does Europe today differ from the continent on which you wrote Volatile Texts? How does this make it a different place to migrate to or inhabit?
ZG: Volatile Texts is more easily recognized as a description of today’s Europe than of the Europe in which it was written. That is a good thing, although the things that make it so are less positive. The degree of migration taking place all across Europe can hardly be considered favorable. But Volatile Texts’ suggestion that the Spanish and English should be fetched from America in order to be returned to their ancestral Indo-European home has lost none of its irony, and it’s good that it has already been written.
However, I’d never have imagined while writing this book that the wrinkled, ugly, and yet still alluring (mythological) woman called Europa who moves to America in [the first story in the book], and not long thereafter to Asia—that this dubious character would ever actually speak American English in a new American edition of the book. This is a happy development.
CJ: Could you say a little bit about if/how the concerns of Volatile Texts appear in your subsequent books? What are you writing next?
ZG: Some of these themes appear again in my later books, but each in new contexts with new backgrounds. I hope my thinking on these subjects makes progress as I continue to reflect on them. Oh Roman  is about a man called Roman, who has affinities with the Pierre from Spain in Volatile Texts]. I think it’s important for female authors to invent tolerably positive male characters, since male authors have given us such impressive female characters as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. The book Donauwürfel  is about a journey through Europe by river, which is also, quite simply, about water; in Volatile Texts I write, for instance, about Switzerland’s rapidly flowing Aare River. The pieces in Donauwürfel take the form of poems, which makes them similar to “320 Characters” in Volatile Texts.
JAN, JANKA, SARA und ich appeared in 2015. Among other things, it is about the rapid growth of cities, and contains pieces that function as dramatic scenes. The book is dedicated to Richard Sennett because its original idea was suggested to me by his book Flesh and Stone.
And right now I’m writing about siblings, genes, and identities.
Zsuzanna Ghase was born in 1946 in Budapest, from which she fled with her parents to Austria during the 1956 revolution. She grew up in Vienna and Kassel, and currently lives in Switzerland. She has published twenty-five books, and has translated the works of Hungarian writers such as Zsuzsa Rakovszky und István Vörös into German. Recent works include JAN, JANKA, SARA und ich (Edition Korrespondenzen, 2015) and More Than Eleven, an opera libretto for mezzosoprano. She has received numerous prizes for her work, including the Aspekte-Literaturpreis (1983) and the Adelbert-von-Chamisso-Preis (2006). Since 2011 she has been a member of the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung.
Chenxin Jiang is Asymptote‘s Senior Editor for Chinese.
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