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Austrian Literature Features

Kaffee, Kuchen und Bücher: Vienna’s thriving independent publishing scene

By Samuel Pakucs Willcocks
© PROverbis
The Karl-May-Box Winnetou reloaded
Think of Viennese literature and you think of the coffee-house; my first interview with one of the city’s small, independent publishers took place in the stylish Café Prückel. Andreas Schinko, owner and editor of PROverbis Verlag, talked to me about current trends in publishing and his latest catalogue. ‘I get sent a lot of political thrillers, especially with Islamist themes,’ he remarks. This spring’s new release is Djihad für Lila (‘Jihad for Lila’), a story of radicalisation which plays wryly with the rhetoric of Austrian nationalist politicians in recent years. Schinko, who founded his house in 2007, previously worked for a school textbooks publisher and brings twenty years of editorial and graphics experience for his authors. ‘Textbooks are mass-market products,’ he explains, ‘but I wanted to make some really beautiful books.’ Among the snappily designed titles on his list are three volumes in an ongoing series of new versions of Karl May – the German giant of the nineteenth-century adventure story, rewritten in fresh language for twenty-first century readers.
© Joerg Artaker/PROverbis © Phillip Hacker/PROverbis
The cover of Djihad für Lila The cover of PROverbis' bestselling book 2012, Emily Walton's Mein Leben ist ein Senfglas

© Hasan Ali Ider/PROverbis © F. J. Galuschka/PROverbis
Hasan Ali Ider, author of
Djihad für Lila
Emily Walton reading at Orlando Bookshop in Vienna

Another house experimenting with rewrites and remakes is Bernhard Salomon’s Labor Verlag, just around the corner from St Stephen’s Cathedral. I left the tourist crowds behind, climbing worn stone steps into the palace of a nineteenth-century merchant prince, and heard the colourful story of how Salomon ‘founded a publishing house by accident,’ as he puts it. The author of six novels, Salomon felt that Austrian publishing had lost sight of the narrative drive. When a brothel owner gave him €3,000 seed funding, he published two successful short story anthologies, and then a breakthrough title – Elfriede Vavrik’s autobiographical Nacktbadestrand (‘Nudist Beach’), about an octogenarian’s sex life, which stayed on the bestseller lists for weeks on end in both Germany and Austria. Salomon then entered into a joint venture with a major German house so that he could split the Labor list off as a dedicated venue for new novels.
Labor publishes four debut titles a year in small print runs, accepting submissions via literary magazines or university competitions. Its rising star is Johannes Epple, from Mauthausen, Upper Austria, whose Gesternstadt (‘Yesterday Town’) tells of everyday life and childhood in a town that was the site of one of the Third Reich’s largest and most lethal concentration camps. Epple has won numerous literary awards and been wooed by larger houses, but has stayed with Labor, says Salomon, ‘because we take care of him in ways that a larger publisher would not.’
© Martin Urner
Sarah Wedler, Nadine d’Arachart
And the remakes? The thriller Die Muse des Mörders (‘The Murderer’s Muse’) transposes an 1819 serial killer classic by E.T.A. Hoffmann to today’s Vienna, where the murderer becomes the target of a modern man-hunt. Nadine d’Arachart und Sarah Wedler, stars of the Berlin open-mike scene, tackle the detective genre with brio. Ondřej Cikán goes even further back for source material in his Menandros und Thaďs, to the epics of Greek antiquity and a story of love, pirates and sorcery. Cikán, a classicist, was born in Prague but grew up in Austria and writes in German.
The cover of Ondřej Cikán's book Menandros und Thaďs The cover of Melica Bešlija's book Sarajevo in der Geliebten

© Daniel Kaldori
Author Ilir Ferra
Indeed, Vienna has long been a city for writers from all over Central and Eastern Europe, and the city’s Exilliteratur Preis is the equivalent of Germany’s Chamisso Prize for immigrant authors. Two of these young newcomers publish with Edition Atelier: Ilir Ferra with Rauchschatten (‘Shadows of Smoke’), set in Albania in the totalitarian 1980s, and Melica Bešlija with Sarajevo in der Geliebten (‘Sarajevo in the Woman She Loves’), a story of same-sex love in Bosnia after the war. Atelier’s Jorghi Poll told me that ‘the kind of authors who could never get noticed in Germany have that chance in Austria.’
Vienna’s immigrant culture also shows up in the rambunctious thrillers of Manfred Rebhandl, published by Czernin Verlag. In Das Schwert des Ostens (‘The Sword of the East’) the hapless detective Rock Rockenschaub looks into the death of a porn-cinema proprietor, and comes to suspect a well-endowed Turkish porn star – or perhaps the murder was the work of yummy mummies who are snapping up property, and will go to any lengths to gentrify their neighbourhood? With two Rockenschaub mysteries so far, Rebhandl has also written a fourbook series with another detective.
Czernin was founded by the investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin, who uncovered the fate of artworks stolen by the Nazis and set in motion the legal struggles to have these returned. When his health declined Czernin invited the current chief editor to take over the house: Benedikt Föger, a biologist by background who is now also chairman of the Austrian Publishers’ Association. The house has a strong list in politics and current affairs, including further studies of the looted art question, alongside its literary list, all run out of an open-plan basement office. ‘The only doors in the whole place are on the toilet and the stockroom,’ says Föger. ‘This makes communication much easier, sometimes far too easy. Authors drop in all the time unannounced, wanting advice or a bit of attention. I work wherever there’s a free space but when we’re full up I go out to the coffeehouse.’ As long as the city’s publishers are hard at work, the cafés will never lack for custom.

Samuel Pakucs Willcocks
is a literary and academic translator from German and other Central/East European languages. In 2010 he won the German Embassy Award for Translators, in its inaugural year. He lives in Cluj, Romania (also known as Klausenburg, Author Ilir Ferra Transylvania) with his family.