As I write this, I never image what I will write about in advance; I rather let go to the language, to autonomous writing known by the French surrealists, and then death – without wanting it or thinking about it – catches up on me every time; I return to my childhood unintentionally, to the images of death that I saw.
(Delo, Književni listi, 21 April 2015, p. 14)
The Vilenica jury – consisting of Aljoša Harlamov (President), Tone Peršak (Vice President), Matej Bogataj, Ludwig Hartinger, Aljaž Koprivnikar, Martin Lissiach, Amalija Maček, Aleš Mustar, Andrej Pleterski, Julija Potrč, Jutka Rudaš and Đurđa Strsoglavec – have awarded the Vilenica 2021 Prize to Josef Winkler
The Austrian writer Josef Winkler was born on March 3, 1953, in Kamering near Paternion in northern Carinthia. He attended an eight-year primary school in his home village and then a three-year trade school in Villach. Between 1973 and 1982 he was employed in the administration of the then- new College of Education Sciences, today’s University of Klagenfurt. At that time, together with university professor and writer Alois Brandstetter, he set up a literary working group to invite writers from Austria and abroad to give literary readings. He was also publishing the literary magazine Schreibarbeiten (Paperwork). Since 1982, he has been a full-time writer. He is the author of numerous novels, short stories, novellas, diaries as well as newspaper and magazine articles. Since 2012, he has been President of the Austrian Senate for the Arts.
As a child, he resisted the domestic, familial and patriarchal environment in which he felt like a stranger, namely, by reading books and through his interest in literature, among other things. Growing up in a home without books and “without words,” he was often the victim of the mental and physical abuse of his father, whose “love was for the cattle and violence for the children,” while his mother was too marked by the scars of war herself.
Josef Winkler’s literary oeuvre is rich, distinguished by a special rhythm (often compared to litanies) and a dedication to the theme of death, especially the death of children. He does not hide his traumas but transforms them into literature, which often appears obsessive, as he always returns to motifs from his childhood: homeland, death, sexuality, Catholicism, life in the countryside. In his literature one can also find traces of his frequent trips to Italy and especially India, which is reflected, among other things, in the description of the funeral rituals there and their comparison with Catholic rites in his homeland. Through his travels to foreign worlds, he gathers new impressions and inspirations, which are motivically transferred to his own literature.
Already in his early novel trilogy Das wilde Kärnten (The Wild Carinthia), Winkler uses ecstatic language to describe how the traditional Catholic environment takes over the children’s imaginary world. He writes about the intense and difficult confrontation with his childhood in the Carinthian countryside, about his authoritarian, self-righteous, hated father and about his mother, who was helplessly hardened in her own depression, and about the village community, which is extremely hostile to people and all real life.
In addition to including autobiographical experiences, his artistic writing also refers to the literary work of other writers with whom he is thematically connected (death, loneliness, homosexuality) – among them, Jean Genet, Hans Henny Jahnn, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Georg Büchner, and Paul Celan. He often writes of the hardships of homosexual life in a society marked by patriarchal and Catholic morality.
Josef Winkler published his first novel in 1979 at the German publishing house Suhrkamp and has remained faithful to it to this day. His books have so far been translated into 17 languages, three also into Slovene: Wenn es soweit ist (Ko bo nekoč tako daleč; Klagenfurt: Mohorjeva, 2006; translated by Amalija Maček), Roppongi. Requiem für einen Vater (Roppongi. Rekviem za očeta; Klagenfurt: Mohorjeva, 2012; translated by Lučka Jenčič) and Ich reiß mir eine Wimper aus und stech dich damit tot (Trepalnico si izpulim in z njo do smrti te zabodem; Ljubljana: LUD Literatura, 2013; translated by Amalija Maček).
Prepared by Amalija Maček, member of the Vilenica Jury
Many laudations probably begin by observing that the prize could hardly have been conferred on a more appropriate author, but the motto of this year’s Vilenica Festival, ‘Fear and Courage’, might in fact serve as the motto of the prize recipient’s life and work. With his constant reminders that Nazism did not disappear at the end of World War II, as well as his unrelenting admonitions of our transience, the year’s winner remains an extremely relevant author.
The Austrian writer Josef Winkler was born in 1953 in the north of Carinthia, in an environment which was too rough for him from the very beginning. Afraid of his verbally and physically abusive father, afraid for the life of his downtrodden mother, who had been broken and silenced by the death of her brothers during the war, he longed throughout his childhood for words and images of comfort, which were not to be found at a bookless home. In the post-war period hostile to art, Winkler – like his fellow countrymen Florjan Lipuš and Peter Handke, by whom he was strongly influenced – first divined the power of the poetic in Church litanies. Their rhythm has marked the obsessively rhythmical melody of his works to the present day, although he soon unmasked the falseness of the village religiousness, which was likewise based on intimidation. He literally rebelled in mind and body by disobeying his father, by breaking all patriarchal taboos of the rural environment, and, most importantly, by refusing to keep silent about the things ‘not to be talked about’ which he had witnessed in his childhood and adolescence. He sought refuge in reading (later in films as well): in an environment where every word was either an order or a reproach, he created his own language and a specific, microscopic way of describing. Every painful event is compulsively described so often that it is gradually reworked in this narrative ritual. Winkler began to write in order to stay sane, to stay alive. He belongs to the rebellious post-war generation of ‘nest soilers’ (Nestbeschmutzer), who, particularly in Austrian literature, confronted their parents’ generation and symbolically condemned it, as there had been no real denazification at the national level. This went beyond mere suspicion that their ancestors may have been criminals. At the village tavern and by the home hearth they would recall their military feats and, above all, they never changed. More than a mere political regime, Nazism is a form of daily discriminatory communication in family and society, a refusal to accept otherness even at a personal level, a preaching of obsolete dogmas with the aim of preserving one’s own supremacy and repressing others. If a few years ago Josef Winkler was occasionally still charged with being fixated on the past, his works are now sadly relevant to the present.
The extensive body of work which brought Josef Winkler, among other accolades, the highest German literary prize – the Georg Büchner Prize – and the Grand Austrian State Prize begins with a trilogy on Carinthia: Wild Carinthia (Das wilde Kärnten, 1979–1982), which literally burst out of him. Its angry, accusing, but extremely polished and melodious style at once captivated both his fellow writers and the Suhrkamp publishing house, which has remained his publisher to the present day. Wild Carinthia depicts the figures of rebellious son, tyrannical father, and downtrodden mother: a trio that ran through his Carinthia-related works until the demise of both parents, who each lived to an extraordinary old age. His farewell to his father is embodied in Roppongi: Requiem for a Father (Roppongi. Requiem für einen Vater, 2007), a text addressing his relationship with his father. Josef’s father actually suggested that he might write anything about the elder Winkler, but he should leave the other villagers alone. On the other hand, he forbade him to attend his funeral. At his father’s death, Josef Winkler was indeed unable to attend the funeral, since he was on a prolonged stay in Japan, but he composed this valedictory and somewhat more conciliatory text. He took his leave from his mother in Mother and the Pencil (Mutter und der Bleistift, 2013).
Josef Winkler’s home village and the duplicity of his fellow villagers (who threatened him with lawsuits after publication) are tackled in a baroquely sombre work, Once Things Have Come This Far (Wenn es soweit ist, 1998), which describes with sincerity and naturalistic precision, coupled with an incantatory reiteration and at times with surrealism, how the people from his village passed on, one after the other. His first memory is the shocking sight of a female relation’s dead body. Ever since, Josef Winkler has looked at everything ‘too closely’.
His home village is revisited most recently in Get Out of Here, Father, or Write Death into My Heart (Lass dich heimgeigen, Vater oder Den Tod ins Herz mir schreibe, 2018). In the past, Josef Winkler often employed the metaphor that his village was eating bread poisoned by Nazism, vegetables fed on water from the churchyard, and the like; and some years ago it transpired that the Nazi mass murderer and SS member of Slovene-Triestine origins, Odilo Globocnik, who had committed suicide in the presence of the British forces by biting down on a cyanide capsule, was actually buried in the common field where the writer’s father and grandfather used to grow wheat – a coincidence which defies even the invention of an author who sees traces of Nazism all over the Austrian countryside. In Austria, Josef Winkler is known as an outspoken and courageous opponent to neo-Nazi tendencies, to the idolatry of Jörg Haider, and to the misuse of public funds in Carinthia, which he expressed fearlessly and directly in his speech at the acclaimed Ingeborg Bachmann literary competition in 2009.
Like other authors hailing from Austrian Carinthia, Josef Winkler has been marked for life by the images and sufferings of his smaller homeland. Born in north Carinthia, he did not encounter the problems of the Slovene minority in his childhood, but he learnt about them through the works of Lipuš and Handke. With his refined sense of high-quality writing and his sense of justice, he introduced, despite the threats and remonstrations of eminent Austrian writers, a change into the statute for conferring the highest awards in literature, which now no longer stipulates that Austrian literature should necessarily be written in the German language. Thus it was thanks to his activism that the highest Austrian state recognition in the field of art could be conferred in 2018 on Florjan Lipuš.
Carinthia is a microcosm, a lab where the author closely examines toxic germs. Nevertheless, the oeuvre of Josef Winkler is not limited to that geographic area. For him, the narrowness of his home village was set off by the picturesque Rome, where he had been impressed by the parallels running between historical grandeur, cinema glamour, and everyday misery of the backstreets as portrayed in his most translated work, the concise Natura Morta (1980), dubbed by the author as a ‘Roman novella’. His cinematic eye roams the colourful outdoor market, watches the spasms of the fish for sale, identifies with the agony of a poor boy. Traffic accidents ending in the death of children are another touching point to which the author keeps returning. In fact, none but children appear to be sacred to him and exempt from his bitingly macabre portrayal of the world.
What takes Josef Winkler even further away from Carinthia is his many travels and notes from India. India had shocked him with its even more brutal attitude to the socially underprivileged (a recurring theme in his road notes) and with its spiritual, but to a western observer no less shocking naturalistic attitude to death. He sat at the Ganges for days, watching the cremation of the dead. Impressed by what he had seen, he wrote the novel Domra: On the Banks of the Ganges (Domra. Am Ufer des Ganges, 1996), which is a far cry from light reading: readers have to hack their way through an interminable sequence of detailed descriptions of transience, which reveal the physical processes of boiling, roasting and incinerating the human body. A unique attitude to death has likewise forged the author’s close link with another geographic area, Mexico.
Nevertheless, Winkler’s observations of the world are ever interlaced with reminiscences of his home environment and with quotations from the fellow writers he respects, for writer Josef Winkler is also a constant reader who gives free rein to admiration of his colleagues. He is known for his generous encouragement of the younger generations of writers. Even as a young boy, he sought refuge from his stifling, toxic childhood environment in reading. Lighter reading gave place to ‘his’ discovered authors, which include Oscar Wilde, Albert Camus, Julien Green, and particularly Jean Genet. Indeed, a text by Josef Winkler (to which Slovene scholars were alerted by Bernard Banoun’s excellent French translation) made its appearance at the opening of Mini teater on its new location in Križevniška Street, Ljubljana, in the company of texts by Genet and Bernard-Marie Koltès. The same theatre saw in 2010 a nine-hour marathon reading of the whole Slovene translation of the novel Once Things Have Come This Far, performed by the actor Marko Mandić. In this work, the villagers’ deaths pile up like layers of a bone stew cooked by a surrealistic chronicler: the relentless sequence of the harrowing deaths evokes a sense of the smallness and bizarreness of any existence.
Three of Josef Winkler’s works have been translated into Slovene, including the above-mentioned novels Once Things Have Come This Far and Roppongi; both were released in Austriaca, a brilliant series of contemporary Austrian literature edited by Lučka Jenčič, but in Slovenia they unfortunately lacked adequate distribution and consequently they found limited reception. The author has visited Slovenia three times and met with a favourable response, since many can identify with his personal attempt at wrenching himself free from an ossified patriarchal environment. The third translation, released by the Literatura publishing house in 2013, brings Winkler’s lectures on poetics, which are – in keeping with the author’s style – poetry rather than classic prose. This booklet, I Pluck Out an Eyelash and Use It to Stab You to Death (Ich reiß mir eine Wimper aus und stech dich damit tot, 2008), is a distillation of the writer’s oeuvre, spanning all his stations from Carinthia and India to Mexico, and a dialogue with his favourite fellow writers, including Terézia Mora and Annemarie Schwarzenbach. A series of short yet still rhythmical texts, it provides subversive representations of Christian imagery, flashes of gallows humour, compassion for children who die in traffic accidents or by their own choice, as well as a sensitive conscientious probing into the extent of one’s own guilt in, for example, the plight of the poorer classes in India. In Carinthia, Josef Winkler has been labelled as the Discomfiter (der Unangenehme) for never keeping silent and ever mercilessly holding a mirror up to the world. However, he can never be charged with superiority, for the object which is stripped first and most thoroughly is himself. Reading his books is no blithe undertaking, but in this era, when neo-Fascist tendencies are on the rise and the pandemic daily confronts us with transience, it is urgent and relevant.