Eleanor Updegraff interviews award- winning Austrian author Norbert Gstrein. In this wide-ranging interview, they discuss morality in narrators, writing from a sense of being an outsider, and which authors have had the greatest influence on his work.
Eleanor Updegraff: Norbert Gstrein is a highly acclaimed author of contemporary German literature. His numerous novels, many of which feed thematically into one another, have won awards including the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, the Austrian Book Prize and the Düsseldorf Literature Prize. He is known for his complex, authentically flawed characters, elegant prose and unpicking of thorny moral issues. Two of his recent novels, The Years to Come (2018) and The Second Jacob (2021) have been selected by New Books in German and are currently eligible for translation funding.
The Second Jacob is the story of an Austrian actor who attempts to contradict an unauthorised biography of his life, but at the same time finds himself forced to face up to his past. It builds on the themes of silence, storytelling and self-knowledge that appear throughout your work. Where did the idea for this particular novel come from?
Norbert Gstrein: I’m not at all convinced by the phrase ‘idea for a novel’. Moving in fictional worlds is simply a part of my life. My own experiences may provide one of the seeds for what I write about, of course, but then each seed I examine produces new seeds of its own. The necessity of writing a new book often arises from the book immediately preceding it. There’s always enough unexplored territory that I feel the need to venture on to and then describe. Aside from that, there’s also the fundamental question of who is telling the story – who has the right to tell it, who is entitled to, perhaps. Do we necessarily know more about ourselves than others do?
In The Years to Come, the first-person narrator is directly confronted with the refugee crisis, while the main protagonist of The Second Jacob is somehow trying to escape his past – if not his entire life. Escape and the feeling of being an outsider seem to be important themes for you. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
Over the years I’ve learned that nothing sets the wheels of my writing in motion as much as a sense of not belonging. I mean that on many levels: not being able to belong, not wanting to belong, not being allowed to belong. The result is movement in two opposing directions – inward and outward – each of which is a form of escape.
Both first-person narrators, but particularly the narrator of The Second Jacob, share certain aspects of your own life, not least your childhood in a Tyrolean village. Do you deliberately work autobiographical details into your novels?
It’s a technique that other authors work with, too – playing with fact and fiction. You can smuggle purportedly autobiographical details into your fiction and so add a factual touch to the parts that are clearly fictional. Conversely, the allegedly factual elements take on a fictional veneer.
Your narrators are often morally questionable, and not always terribly likeable, if I may say so. What’s it like to write from the perspective of characters like these?
I agree with you about ‘morally questionable’, but not entirely when it comes to ‘not always terribly likeable’. My narrators reveal things about themselves that others might keep hidden, because they’re trying to probe their own darkest recesses. In political debate in the real world, they’re the kind of people who might be judged not worth talking to, or pointless trying to converse with. I don’t think it’s good to keep drawing ever-narrower boundaries, and I think that immoral narrators can be very fruitful ground for moral stories. Elsewhere in literature, it’s often the case that you can’t achieve a particular effect by aiming for it directly, but only by adopting an indirect approach.
I don’t think it’s good to keep drawing ever-narrower boundaries, and I think that immoral narrators can be very fruitful ground for moral stories.Norbert Gstrein
At the end of your novel The Years to Come we get not one but three different endings. What were you aiming for with this literary technique?
I was inspired by a Friedrich Dürrenmatt novel, Once a Greek, which has two different endings. The first is titled ‘The Lending Library Ending’, if I remember correctly, but I can’t tell you what the second one is called. You could claim that an author who takes this approach is simply clueless, that he doesn’t know how to bring his story to an end. Or you could see it as his sending a signal of his sovereignty as a writer, pointing out the contingency of everything. No story has a definite ending, and the apparent necessity of writing one is merely a construct – often it’s an attempt to provide meaning when in fact there is none. My different endings all hinge on whether the narrator, who is travelling by train to Montreal, arrives on time, early or late. We go about our lives assuming that something like this wouldn’t make that much of a difference, but we can’t know for sure – we only experience one reality, after all, and don’t have the opportunity to try out alternatives.
No story has a definite ending, and the apparent necessity of writing one is merely a construct – often it’s an attempt to provide meaning when in fact there is none.Norbert Gstrein
Your novels explore universal themes, and large parts of them are also set in the USA, Mexico or Canada – something that no doubt helps them appeal to international readers. Do you have a strong link to North America, or could you tell us what you find so fascinating about the continent?
I don’t hold with the kind of international readership that selects literature based on where it’s set. That would mean that any story set somewhere different would have to be given a remake in order to make it ‘fit for Hollywood’. By the same token, a large proportion of the great literature that enjoys an international readership isn’t set in these ‘international places’ at all. Take Ismael Kadare and his Albania. Take Danilo Kiš and his Yugoslavia, which has now long since ceased to exist. Take Franz Kafka, whose literature is ‘set’ before the gates of hell. In my case it ended up being America, because ever since my youth America has been the land of reading, imagination and escape for me. I always imagined that New York, not Vienna, would be the place to take me in if the going got really tough.
Which authors have had the greatest influence on your work?
I don’t know where to begin, or where to end. I could give three names: Faulkner, Juan Carlos Onetti, Claude Simon. I could also add a fourth that came along later: Antonio Lobo Antunes. Alternatively, I could just as well begin with Danilo Kiš, who to my mind is a political writer like no other – he rendered the two great totalitarian regimes of the previous century into a workable literary form, and did so without being blind in one eye like so many other authors have been, particularly in German literature. That would lead me to Miroslav Krleža, and from there I could make two or three further links. Or I could go right back to the beginning and mention the Bible and God as an author, or talk about The Little Witch and Ottfried Preußler.
In The Years to Come, Herr Farhi, a Syrian refugee, asks: ‘To what end are we human? We can talk.’ Communication is easier than ever in today’s world, but we often seem to be talking at cross-purposes – a problem your characters are constantly confronted with on a personal and a global level. Do you think literature can (or should) help us to communicate better?
That would be too pious a wish for me, but if communication also means tolerating different opinions and viewpoints, or even making them seem conceivable in the first place, then literature can certainly help. It shows us that the world is still so much bigger and more beautiful and smaller and more terrible than we thought it was before another masterwork came along to show us entirely new ways of conceiving of things.
…if communication also means tolerating different opinions and viewpoints, or even making them seem conceivable in the first place, then literature can certainly help.Norbert Gstrein
And finally: would you tell us what you’re currently working on?
I find myself faced with a new ‘I’ who isn’t me and whom I’ve been listening to for a while now. This ‘I’ is morally questionable and perhaps – to agree with you after all – really not terribly likeable, and I’m trying to give them a couple of traits that will nonetheless make them just a human like the rest of us.
Norbert Gstrein was born in 1961 in Tyrol, Austria and now lives in Hamburg. He has been awarded the Alfred Döblin Prize and the Uwe Johnson Prize, among others. Hanser has published his novels Die Winter im Süden (2008), Die englischen Jahre (new edition 2008), Das Handwerk des Tötens (new edition 2010), Die ganze Wahrheit (2010), Eine Ahnung vom Anfang (2013) and In der freien Welt (2016), several of which have been published in English translation.
As mentioned above, two of his novels currently come under the New Books in German funding guarantee, which means there is guaranteed assistance for the cost of translation into English.
Author photograph © Oliver Wolf.
Eleanor Updegraff a freelance writer, translator and proofreader/copy- editor. She comes from the UK but has lived in Austria since 2015, first in Vienna and now in a small town in the southern state of Kärnten/Carinthia.