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Austrian Literature Features

Lesefestwoche 2012:
an Austrian celebration of literature

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By Mary Penman
 
A November week in Vienna. On Tuesday evening a group gathers in a bookshop near Schönbrunn Palace to listen, in the after-hours quiet, to Barbara Wolfingseder recount some of her Dunkle Geschichten aus dem alten Wien (‘Dark Tales from Old Vienna’), gruesomely intriguing stories of Vienna’s most infamous crimes and punishments. On Wednesday four poets sit together in the low-lit cellar of die Alte Schmiede (the Old Smithy), complete with sooty black walls, rows of tools and a hefty anvil. They take turns reading selected works and discussing their writing with a captivated audience. On Thursday afternoon a group of warmly clad youngsters pause in the stony surroundings of the city’s Museum Quarter and peer into the windows of Café Corbaci. They are taking part in the ‘Sounds of Vienna Walking Tour’ and are listening to a scene from Mascha Dabic’s Shiny Happy People as it plays out under the tiled ceiling of the cafe.
 
© Richard Schuster
Book Fair audience
 
I was party to each of these events, which took place as part of the annual Lesefestwoche (Festival of Reading) in Vienna, held last year in mid-November. The festival, which is accompanied by BUCHWien, a four-day-long international book fair, has only been running since 2007, but has already established itself as one of the highlights of Vienna’s literary calendar.
 
The festival’s programme of events was varied: numerous book readings and presentations, literary walking tours and illustration exhibitions drew visitors into the world of reading, while open discussions and workshops on multilingual writing, poetry, or children’s literature encouraged participants to foray into the world of authorship themselves.
 
© HVA/APA/Rastegar
Patrick K Addai
Self-proclaimed as ‘international’, 2012’s book fair showed Vienna to be a meeting point of many cultures and languages, welcoming exhibitors from thirteen different countries. Patrick Addai’s colourful children’s stories from his native Ghana proved popular on the Kinderbühne (Children’s Stage), while the Donau Lounge (Danube Lounge) focused on literary and cultural exchange between countries of the Danube Region.
 
Intercultural dialogue was also an important theme of the event, with the awarding of a number of prizes that strongly reflected this issue. A prize awarded on behalf of the Austrian book trade to recognise ‘tolerance in thought and action’ was conferred on German historian Brigitte Hamann, in recognition of the numerous and insightful books on Austrian history which she has authored. The top award of the 2012 exil-literaturpreise recognises authors who write in German despite it not being their mother tongue. This year it was presented to Russian-born Ekaterina Heider for her short story ‘Am Strand’. London-born Hazel Rosenstrauch, who grew up in Vienna and now resides in Germany, was presented with the Austrian Federal Prize for Cultural Journalism in recognition of her achievements as an academic, journalist and writer, whose intellectual integrity and independence have informed her work in the field of cultural journalism.
 
© HVB
Rafik Schami
As part of the festival, each year the city of Vienna also prints and freely distributes 100,000 copies of a specially chosen book, an initiative aimed at encouraging and enabling more people to read, and an opportunity to draw readers’ attention to a particular theme or author. In 2012 copies of Eine Hand voller Sterne (‘A Handful of Stars’) by Syrian-German author Rafik Schami were distributed. This choice has generated renewed interest in Schami’s narrative about the highs and lows of his Damascan childhood, which was first published twenty-five years ago, but continues to be strikingly pertinent in the light of the current international political situation. This relevance was noted by Vienna mayor Michael Häupl in his introduction to the edition, in which he encouraged readers to consider the fates of those children and adults who do not live in a peaceful, democratic and stable city like the Austrian capital. During and after the festival I often noticed copies of this edition of Eine Hand voller Sterne emerging from the pockets of commuters on the tram, or in the hands of students waiting in the colonnaded courtyard of the old university; its bright azure cover stood out against the inescapable gloom of late November, and showed the quiet spread of the festival’s influence throughout the city.
 
© Richard Schuster
Ari Rath
For publishers, illustrators, authors and agents this book festival and fair have obvious commercial value, but sitting in the large exhibition centre, listening to Austrian-Israeli writer Ari Rath discuss his memoirs, Ari heißt Löwe (‘Ari means Lion’), I was struck by the festival’s potential to achieve something far beyond publicity and revenue: its ability to close the gap between author and reader. The series of small gatherings, usually beginning with a reading or book presentation and ending in an open discussion and opportunity to talk with the author personally, had the wonderful effect of humanising the often distant figure of ‘the author’. Hearing authors talk about their professional backgrounds, how they began to write, and the processes by which they continue to do so, lent a concrete insight into the profession of writing. Whilst it took nothing away from the magic of writing and reading, the festival made the idea of becoming an author much more plausible – perhaps enough to inspire some of the wordsmiths who will take to the stage at the Lesefestwoche 2013.
 
© Richard Schuster
BUCH WIEN International Book Fair
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