Prior to the Peirene Salon, sitting a moment in a London café on a busy city street, the book between my hands, reading… drawn away from the London sunshine to other streets other times, to somewhere altogether less comfortable and more absorbing… and as the story finishes: again, a London street, but the light is somewhat different, the mood tweaked, my coffee, cold before me, untouched.
I couldn’t attempt to do justice in words to the oeuvre that is acclaimed Austrian writer Alois Hotschnig and his collection of stories, Maybe This Time, recently published by Peirene Press. Hotschnig’s is a rare art in this age, his tightly structured compositions born of a hefty intellect and a thorough precision more comparable to the work of Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka than contemporary writers. And, not unlike those other greats, Hotschnig’s stories have an arresting and ludic quality that draws the reader in deep, challenging their perspective of reality and identity. It would thus be erroneous to paint Hotschnig as an inaccessible literary creature, for much as in person he is thick with charm and humour, so his tales have a playfulness, a mischievousness and an allure that fast has the reader captivated.
Reading the stories I came across a voice so rich with echo, thick with it – a voice shudderingly familiar and shudderingly unplaceable. I have already mentioned Borges, and Kafka, the latter to whom critics are quick to compare Hotschnig… But, this is merely anodyne, as Hotschnig says – drawing a parallel with the paintings of an artist he’d come across that afternoon at the Tate, I saw Ernst there, Manet, Picasso, Chagall too – each of us writes, and reads, with our own literary history, a literary unconsciousness. He implies what Borges has said before: every writer creates his own precursors.
Furthermore, a collective history, a collective memory and a collective unconsciousness become apparent, so that Hotschnig is not simply writing in the wake of literary voices, but also in the wake of Auschwitz, of Sigmund Freud, of Austrian and Catholic histories. There is no innocence then, we are each of us speaking, reading, writing with what has gone before.
Nor could I hope to reproduce Hotschnig’s words. At the Peirene Salon this weekend, he spoke with an extraordinary calm and keenness for precision, as to his literary intention, his motives and how he crafts his stories. Precision, as if battling with a fear that the listener might misunderstand, misinterpret, an integral wish to be understood – oh impossible feat! His work is suited then to a translator, the very excellent Tess Lewis, who works with same precision and thoughtfulness. Lewis has worked in a very close relationship with Hotschnig for twenty years, as able to translate his Austrian as she was to express his thoughts. On speaking, Hotschnig held quite the same power as narrator of his stories, absorbing, at once silencing and animating the listener.
In Maybe This Time, tales are crafted with structures redolent of the artwork of M. C. Escher, and the reader finds himself in worlds of shifting perspectives, timeless anyplaces that whilst seemingly eccentric and other, are also deeply familiar. This is probably one of the most disturbing factors of these stories, their recognisable quality; Hotschnig creates an atmosphere of das unheimliche, the uncanny, that which is both strange and familiar.
The woman stopped me on my way to her neighbours. They were friends of mine who had invited me to visit. She waved me over to the house next door to theirs. From a distance, she had probably mistaken me for someone she knew.
The third story, Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut is most explicit of the experience of reading Alois Hotschnig. One takes a step through a door; it swings fast shut behind us. The sense of the inevitable is such, in this as all of the stories, that one cannot but watch as both reader and protagonist are swiftly guided from the seemingly everyday into quite another situation.
I had no idea how I would ever escape.
This is Karl, she said, and gently stroked the doll’s hair. Without thinking, I brushed the hair off my forehead in a matching gesture. Look at his face, she said.
The doll had my name. And now, as the woman drew my attention to the doll’s face, I noticed how much it resembled me.
Thus the protagonist is lured into a game of mirrors with the doll, and reader with protagonist, creating a quarrel of identification and dis-identification. Much as Hotschnig’s protagonists learn to look on their own self, part enthralled, part repulsed, so does the reader.
I stayed away for a while, forcing myself to keep my distance, yet I longed to go there all the more. I gave in, stopped resisting. I pretended nothing had changed, and she pretended nothing had changed, and we sat across from each other, as we had done before. She stroked Karl’s head and looked me in the eye and placed the child’s finger in her mouth, kissing it tenderly for a long time and sucking on it. She slavered over the little hand, and pulled it back out of her mouth where the fingers had begun to dissolve.
A not unrealistic scenario, stopping into an old woman’s house, has brought reader and protagonist to an unexpected place, an uncomfortable, disturbing place. In each of Hotschnig’s stories there is a change, the commonplace becomes the uncommon, the uncanny. It is but subtle, we are lured, much like Hansel and Gretel, and then it is too late, we cannot resist. A door has opened and swung shut. I have to admit, having finished this story, I found it hard to reopen the book. But like protagonist, as soon as I left her house I was drawn back there. So, I picked up the book again.
This then is where his art lies, not in the intellectual prowess that structures the stories, for, so mathematically precise, the reader can be oblivious to this. It is instead the trancelike rhythm, the magnetism conjured by an obsessive psyche that draws the reader into same obsession. Alois Hotschnig’s stories are not easy, nor are they so headily intellectual that reading becomes a trial. They are stark, beautiful, certainly uncanny. With this collection of short stories, Alois Hotschnig shows himself to be undoubtedly one of the contemporary literary greats.
Peirene Salon – An evening with Alois Hotschnig and Henrietta Foster
A joy to up to London and attend this Peirene Salon on Saturday eve’. Medlied wine and food, charm and literary chat, Alois Hotschnig in conversation with BBC’s Henrietta Foster and his translator Tess Lewis.
Read Peirene’s view on… the morning after here.
Not for their charm alone; Peirene is quite one of the most exciting publishers I know of, in a world where literary perspicacity is rare, Peirene is exemplary… I urge you to foray for yourself amongst their publications, some of which I have reviewed here.