glossen: interview

“I have always been a writer of style” – A conversation with Evelyn Schlag

On November 6, 2001, during her residency at Dickinson College as Max Kade Writer-in-Residence, Austrian poet and prose author Evelyn Schlag granted Beverley Driver Eddy an interview about her prose writings, including her newest work, Das ‘L’ in Laura, planned for publication in the spring of 2003. Schlag is the author of four volumes of poetry and seven volumes of prose fiction. She has won numerous awards for her writing, including the Bremer Förderpreis in 1988 for her novel Die Kränkung and the Anton Wildgans prize in 1998 for the novel Die göttliche Ordnung der Begierde.

In this interview, Evelyn Schlag discusses her major themes, her methodology, and her stylistic concerns in her prose fiction.

BDE: One theme that stands out in your writing seems to be the basic loneliness of people. I noticed that particularly in Brandstetters Reise.

ES: Which is, of course, a very early work. This theme is especially prominent in the novella before that, Beim Hüter des Schattens, which is about two people in Quebec, in Canada, a flute maker and a young artist from Vienna, who never manage to go beyond their different types of loneliness, and this is heightened by the aspect of bilinguality in Quebec, French and English. Not only are there two official languages, there are also the other kinds of fine dualities one finds between two partners.

BDE: Such as male/female.

ES: Yes. This has very much to do with different kinds of perception, because the man, Pflueger, has a way of perceiving things and of experiencing reality that is very different from hers, so at times they are unable to communicate.

BDE: In that story everything is told from her point of view, whereas in Brandstetters Reise you adopt the male point of view. Was that a deliberate decision to take the same theme and rework it from the male perspective?

ES: Yes. I was interested in general in having a male main character. I think it was triggered by a remark by Ingeborg Bachmann. She once wrote somewhere, I’ve forgotten where, that it would be so necessary to have a man’s point of view as perceived by a woman, to see how a woman thinks a man thinks and perceives his reality.

BDE: And how did you go about doing that?

ES: Well, it was not very difficult, really. That’s something that turned up later again with my novel Die göttliche Ordnung der Begierde, which you’d think would have been even more difficult to write, because there the male protagonist is a Roman Catholic priest. My experiences have been that men have always been grateful for being granted certain qualities in my writing, because I never denunciate them, you know? Even though I’m critical of them. But it hasn’t been that difficult, you just have to grant them feelings.

BDE: A related theme in your work seems to be the isolation of people; I found this especially strong in your flute-maker Pflueger.

ES: Yes, that’s right. Because he is socially isolated, he is really an outcast. He’s an American who has gone to Canada, but he would probably be an outcast in just about any sort of environment. And when the female figure comes to visit him, she is very surprised to find that she can’t stay with him for more than four weeks, and that’s going to be the longest time that he’s ever spent with another person. And especially with a woman.

BDE: When you wrote Unsichtbare Frauen, were you writing about women’s isolation, too, by making them invisible to other people?

ES: Yes, but especially with the Baroque poet and writer Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg. It is something that is explained by the historical situation, because she is a Protestant in a very hostile environment of Catholic neighbors, being spied upon. She must have felt isolated in a very physical way, staying in her castle and being afraid of venturing out too far, not knowing what’s happening. Wondering, for example, when the Turks were about to strike, and if the servants and the workers would really do their best to defend the castle. As to the other two women – it is more of a personal decision on the part of the men in the stories, that they want to hide these women and that they are not to show up in their lives. This is really exaggerated in the story about the biographer, where the woman – the secret lover – doesn’t even show up in the biography of the man he’s writing about.

BDE: On the other hand, the man is writing the biography incorrectly, anyway. He’s calling the subject H.R., and she’s saying he would be furious with that, that he didn’t like initials. The biographer may omit her from his work, but she’s the ultimate authority, too.

ES: The funny thing is that I had done quite a bit of theoretical reading about biography at the time. I had read some books about biography, mainly by American writers, because authors were very much a subject [of biography] at the time. And I knew a man who was writing a biography of a very famous Austrian writer, and so I knew how people went about writing a biography, and also about the pitfalls of biography, and how you would circumvent certain things. Also how you would always project your own life situation into what you were writing, very much as a fiction writer does, always looking for clues that would also reveal something about your own life as a biographer. And that was what I found very, very interesting.

BDE: The work also shows that you can never really know another person.

ES: Right.

BDE: One can only sense and never really know…

ES: Right.

BDE: May I read a quote here? It’s not in that particular story, it was actually in “Rilkes Lieblingsgedicht”, but I thought it could almost be taken as a description of what you describe in this work: “Man wird nie einen anderen Menschen in seinen extremen Gefühlsstimmungen verstehen können, man weiß ja nicht einmal, wie die Gefühlsskala eines anderen geeicht ist. Man bleibt sich fremd.”

ES: Yes. I think that could be a motto to a lot of my works, especially the fiction. It’s as if there were two pictures of anything you’re talking about, because you don’t know what another person means by being disappointed, or what he means by being deserted, or by loving somebody. Things have such a variety of interpretations, and in the biographer’s tale this is the subject, you know. You write about things in a different way, looking at them from the outside, and taking a lot of aspects of these things literally. It’s as if we are always writing each other’s biographies in dealing with another person. Partners do that, especially. They are constantly writing and rewriting and revising the biography of the person they’re living with, without knowing it much of the time.

BDE: This quote I read was made in connection with Anne Sexton. Were you studying her at the time?

ES: I had read Middlebrook’s biography of her and had just written a review of it. I didn’t like it very much. No, I got the idea from that biographer that I knew at the time. He was telling me how he was going about his work. He would try to capture every day in the life of the person he was writing about, he would position day to day trying to find out as much as possible, visiting places, doing whatever he could to understand his subject. And still he didn’t know. He didn’t know.

BDE: At the end of the story he doesn’t know, but the woman lover does – at least to a greater degree than he does. That’s what I liked about her. She seemed so complete in herself, she didn’t have any need to communicate that she was H.R.’s lover and that she’d written the poem ascribed to him. It struck me as presenting a picture of the whole fallibility of scholarship. Of the scholars who think they know something, and don’t have a sense of it at all.

ES: At the time there were a lot of stories and novels built around biographers, especially in English novels, and part of the fun of writing that story was that I was trying to prove to myself that I could do that. I could write a novel about biography, too. And part of the fun also, of course, was, as you say, writing about the scholars, because they tend to go their strange ways at times. On the other hand, writers owe much of their afterlife to them as well.

BDE: It seems to me that another thing that you emphasize, not so much in your early works, but certainly in your later ones, is the major role literature plays in the lives of your characters, as support, as point of reference, as alter ego creations.

ES: That’s right. It started with Katherine Mansfield in the story Die Kränkung – Quotations of a Body. I pick these subjects very carefully, or maybe they pick me. Sometimes I have the feeling that a biographer – a really good biographer – would be visited by his subject, you know? He would be selected by the subject. That’s the way these things happen in my fiction, that figures like Katherine Mansfield, or another Katherine, Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg, really turn up in my life at a point when they are the sort of friends that I most need. And so it’s a very multi-layered thing, really. But you’re right. I don’t know if this makes my fiction post-modern. If it does, it’s okay with me

BDE: I was wondering about that, particularly in “Rilkes Lieblingsgedicht”, where there’s so much discussion of literature.

ES: Yes. You might say that there’s a bit too much. I might cut full passages now, maybe the ones about Robert Lowell and Jarrell, and Berryman. I think these could be cut.

BDE: But I like these literary references, and literature is obviously a large part of an intelligent person’s life.

ES: Well, that’s right. And it’s more real than the neighbor. Because the people I’m talking with all the time, all day long, are people like Catherina Regina von Greiffenberg. Or a lot of contemporary poets; I’ve been talking to them in English most of the time. What I really want to do, it’s a kind of angst in a writer, is write about the things that interest me. You could reach a wider readership by writing about the next door neighbors. And a lot more people would understand that. But then, I do not only write about writers, you know, that’s just one aspect of my work. Although it is a very important one.

BDE: Another major theme in your work is eroticism. This seems to be behind everything, behind literary discussions, behind the poetry that Greiffenberg writes.

ES: I think my intention has always been to write about erotic love in a language that, again, does not denunciate bodies, and especially, being a woman writer, does not denunciate male sex and the male body. I learned a lot, I guess, from Harold Brodkey, especially before I wrote the one story in Touché, “Alle deine Himbeersträucher.” On rereading it a short time ago I thought, I really had some courage, you know? And “Rilkes Lieblingsgedicht,” -- I like that a lot, too. I wanted to set a very clear example for myself, rather than for any readership, that it is not necessary to use language like Elfriede Jelinek sometimes does, language that doesn’t explain anything. Of course that’s a very personal judgment, but I was more interested in writing in an unideological way. It seems to me easier to go about things when you have an ideology. I don’t have much of an ideology about these things; I just wanted to be true to perceptions and to nuances of feelings.

BDE: How have feminist critics reacted?

ES: Well, by being interested, which is fine. There were some reviews in newspapers from the former German Democratic Republic, from critics who could not understand these female figures who just love a man and who commit themselves totally to a man and are willing to “let’s see what happens.” To them these women seemed very behind the times.

BDE: Your characters give themselves not only physically, but in conversation, as well. It’s not just that they are giving themselves in erotic love, there’s a whole eroticism of language. I’m trying to remember which one of your books it was where you had a male character say that he had a need to pour out all his pain as an ejaculation.

ES: Yes. Many men don’t talk about their feelings that much, although certainly there are men who do. And that’s what male readers like, especially about Brandstetters Reise and about the priest novel [Die göttliche Ordnung der Begierde], that these characters are men who talk about their feelings, or who are brought to talk about their feelings in their encounters with a woman. And they experience that as something very liberating. A lot of men just don’t have a friend. They might have a woman friend they can trust, you know?

BDE: I guess that’s what makes your works so optimistic. I find them very positive.

ES: That’s good to hear.

BDE: Another theme that comes up in your works is illness.

ES: Well, through personal experiences and through being the daughter of a physician and being married to a physician, it’s only natural I should have written about physical illness. I think that illness is one of those profound things that not only make you rearrange your life, but that can really change it. A lot of people experience that, and not just in old age, luckily, they experience the kind of illness that can change their life early on. I was interested in the connection between literature and medicine on several levels when I prepared my Graz lectures. One thing that interested me, which sounds rather stupid, I admit, was doctors who were writers. There are some good examples, like William Carlos Williams, who delivered more babies than he did poems, but there are also some very poor examples, of course. But I like the idea of the similarity between a good doctor -- he would probably have to be a general practitioner in the old sense -- who would listen to his patients’ stories, and the writer who is always out for stories. It seemed very natural to combine these.

BDE: What prose writers do you particularly admire?

ES: Well, speaking about German-language writers, certainly Robert Musil. He’s really a towering figure, and this combination of, as he himself said, “Genauigkeit und Seele”, exactitude and soul, is something that seems to me to reconcile male and female conflicts and get on a very high level. I do read a lot of American writers, now. I used to read a lot wanting to learn something from these writers; this is getting more and more important for me in poetry.

BDE: Do you go through phases of reading mostly poetry and then coming back and reading prose?

ES: Yes. Right now reading fiction makes me impatient. I can only encounter the world and language in the form of poetry, because it’s very dense and something that has shed off all redundancies.

BDE: But you’re still writing prose.

ES: Yes. I am, I am, but on the other hand I’m writing poetry again. But you experience things in different kinds of breaths, you know? And I think it has to do with how you perceive and remember things in language; some things direct you to take a long breath, and other things tend to be very short. Basically, I’d say it’s a matter of how something I experience gets transformed into language, how it reaches me and answers my mind. Some things enter my mind as a line of a poem and some things enter it and I know, this is going to be a line in one of my stories.

BDE: If you look back over the development of, what is it, 12/13 books, how do you see yourself developing as a prose writer?

ES: As a prose writer I see myself developing towards paying more attention to the plot. I’ve always been a writer of style, where the language was important, and I’ve always been sort of doomed by writing quality fiction, because economically it is a verdict. And what I’ve tried to do recently, especially in the latest novel, is to reconcile these two things, by trying to develop a nice plot without ever leaving the level of style that I want to write. I can’t stand fiction where the language is not charged, you know. If nothing happens in a sentence it is boring. Of course you can’t do it with every sentence. ‘Jeder Satz muss ans Ziel kommen,’ is what Martin Walser said. Basically, that’s what I’m trying to do. Each sentence should be a sentence that cannot be cut. Of course this is a process of reduction that can make a text very heavy and loaded. So that’s another danger. So you should be light, you should never see the struggle, because if you do, this is ultimate dilettantism.

BDE: You call your newest novel, Das ‘L’ in Laura, a cyber love story?

ES: It can be called a cyber love story on one level, because it’s about two people who, although they meet at the beginning -- and it’s a very short meeting --, fall in love, and then since they are living apart in different countries, they have to rely on e-mail. I found this new, very recent medium so interesting. I wanted to show how this would make things possible in a relationship, but also how it would change the nature of a relationship, when the partners have to live apart, when it’s not possible that they meet, and when they wouldn’t even want to live together. I think that e-mail is a fantastic thing, because it’s fast, it’s discreet, and it’s very polite. I have always liked this line in Hofmannsthal’s Der Schwierige, when Hans Karl Bühl says about the telephone, “ Ich mag diese indiskrete Maschine nicht!” That’s true, because the telephone really gets right on your nerves, you know. Well, e-mail hasn’t supplanted the telephone, of course, but I like using this relatively new medium and applying it in my work.

BDE: It seems to me, and of course I haven’t read it yet, but just in hearing about your new novel it seems to me that in a way it’s like your conversations with Kathleen in Die Kränkung, because the conversation is in a sense disembodied.

ES: Yes, that’s right. It’s disembodied and that makes it difficult for the relationship on one hand; on the other hand it adds a lot of dimensions.

BDE: It almost adds a new intimacy, doesn’t it?

ES: Yes. And also it’s a lot of fun. I think it’s the funniest thing I’ve written. It does have a melancholy level, because the characters don’t meet very often -- they meet twice in the novel, but on the other hand, the male character has such wit and intelligence, and has such a way with words. And since they have to rely on words, it’s a highly charged language again. It has to accomplish so many things. It has to be communication and, since it’s the language of two poets, this adds another dimension. Language is always a character itself that plays and works with fun. Also of course technical things enter the novel, like when she sends her friend a poem that she has written for him and after a while she finds out it hasn’t come through in the stanzas that she had sent it in, because his machine would not format it the same way. It comes as a whole block, and then when, really by chance, she mentions something about the poem, then he finds out this is a five-line stanza poem. This is the medium playing tricks, then.

BDE: Do the two always converse in English?

ES: Yes. Since he’s an English poet and she’s a German-speaking writer, what I do is I give most quotes of his that are really important in English, and I paraphrase some other things. I think the general reading public should be able to understand and to appreciate this.

BDE: Well, in a way, it’s sort of symbolic of what you’re saying in chapter three in that scene at the Lisbon reading, when you say that she holds a book and paper in her hand to show that she speaks a foreign language in her own country as a poet. It distances her, I think, in a nice way.

ES: Yes, on the one hand a poet always speaks a foreign language even in his mother tongue, because so many people don’t understand what one is writing and the way one is thinking, and on the other hand, these two people are much closer in basically different languages, because something else is stronger. And it doesn’t matter that she is writing in English.

BDE: How do you pick your characters’ names, such as “Laura” in this newest novel. Everyone thinks Petrarch, rightly or wrongly. Was that your intent?

ES: I just liked the name Laura a lot. And since she’s a poet, I thought it would just be fine, you know, that I have Laura in it. Also, it’s easily translatable. She’s recognizable as some person that has had some life before this one in literature, yes. But choosing names is a very difficult affair, very difficult.

BDE: Are the poems – “Laura’s poems” – going to be in the novel?

ES: One of them is, and a stanza or something is included, but basically they will be published separately.

BDE: You mentioned at your reading that you wrote these poems as the character Laura would write them and not as you yourself would. How are they different?

ES: They’re much simpler. They are deliberately using some 17th-century models, especially in the titling – like ‘When He Came Visiting Her’ or ‘Her Sober Song.’ They are really songs, the kind of songs you wouldn’t write today. But this was part of the fascination.

BDE: Why did you have her write in these 17th-century forms?

ES: Because she loves it. And because it’s more musical. She can allow herself emotions in these poems, by expressing things in a different way, although the setting is contemporary, with the Sears Tower and the new Tate.

BDE: So what will happen with the other Laura songs?

ES: They will be published in my next poetry volume as a sequence called “Laura’s Songs.” I think people should be able to understand them without knowing the novel. They work by themselves.