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Literature

Lewitscharoff: 'I am bound to make use of my own language'

Sybille Lewitscharoff has been awarded the Georg Büchner Prize, Germany's most prestigious literary accolade. The author talks about her relationship to Büchner, the German language and her new plans.

On Saturday (26.10.2013), Sybille Lewitscharoff will receive the most highly regarded honor in German literature: The Georg Büchner Prize. She has been popular since 1998, when she received the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for her first work of prose, "Pong". Since then, the author has written numerous novels. DW reached Lewitscharoff in Rome, where she is staying at the Villa Massimo, and talked to her about books, new plans, the German language and the meaning of culture.

DW: You once stressed that you can't really relate to the eponym of Germany's most important literature award, Georg Büchner.

Sybille Lewitscharoff: I don't really feel a connection with him. There are other writers who have really grown on me and with whom I do feel a strong connection. Jean Paul for example. But the biggest contender for my great love is Franz Kafka. I need to slowly build a relationship with books.

In the jury's decision, it says that "Sybille Lewitscharoff expands the exact perception of the German present into areas of the satirical, the legendary and the fantastical." Do you agree with that?

That's a nice description. Whether it's right on point, I don't really know. It's hard to say about yourself.

You are currently in Rome. Has the stay inspired you to work on your newest project, a novel about Italian poet Dante?

Drawing of Georg Büchner (photo: Nicolas Armer/dpa
pixel)

'I don't really feel a connection with him," the novelist says about Büchner

That idea was in my head before. It just so happened that I was invited to the Villa Massimo now, without anyone knowing about the project. Of course I can really delve into it now, even though I won't finish it here. But it's definitely a wonderful coincidence that I am allowed to be in Rome again and work on a novel that's based in Rome, too.

What kind of novel project is this you're working on?

I am planning to fully get my head into Dante. Now this is truly a great poet, a millennium poet. You don't just learn the Italian language from his work. It's the greatest work that Christianity has ever created. I wasn't primarily interested in getting into Dante's world, writing about Dante or about the century he lived in. I was fascinated by this idea: what happens when a Dante-convention today discusses Dante, and all of a sudden, a miracle occurs that has nothing to do with Dante? When a new Pentecostal miracle befalls the community?

So it's about a Dante-convention that brings lots of different people with different languages together. What role does the language theme play?

It's very important, because it's about breaking up the Babylonian confusion. People don't understand each other in all these different languages. That's a very great Biblical topic to revive. That's definitely an asset a writer can show off. That's our very own topic: what can we do with language? And what happens in different languages? That's very interesting!

And language plays an important part in defining identity!

Absolutely. That's why I'm opposing trying to produce an international novel. That's a very weak approach. You are bound to make use of your own language and society and your own experience. You can't just internationalize this from within. That has to happen through translations, by turning the text to make it work in the respective local language.

Sibylle Lewitscharoff Buchcover Pong (photo: DW)

Lewitscharoff received the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 1998 for her novel "Pong"

Your book is about an understanding among people with different languages. How do you view German in light of the world language English?

I'm only able to write a German novel. That means I have to overcome difficulties; have to come up with a smart solution that these people speak in different languages. But yet I have to write a German novel. I can't let too many people babble in different languages. That doesn't keep readers interested. It just doesn't work. But I need to reattach that to the German language, I need to transport the flickering of the other languages. That's quite difficult by the way.

Today - at least in Europe - a great number of countries have come under economic discredit and can't provide jobs for the young people. Especially now, German language classes are in high demand in Goethe institutes in Greece, Spain, Portugal. They are packed, which they haven't been in decades.

Can you also notice that in an increased cultural interest? Is culture also something that defines identities?

I would definitely say Europe has cultural links. Of course also different traditions, the Roman Empire, the German empire, Habsburgs, that has very long historic ties. The Roman ancient world provided a strong unifying tradition over the course of many generations and centuries. Even though individuals might not be aware about it.

One also talks about an extended cultural terminology. What does culture mean to you?

I don't like to extend the cultural terminology, because it waters it down. To me, it's traditional areas such as literature, art, theater, music etc.

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