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Austrian Literature Features

Translating Clemens J. Setz

© Paul Schirnhofer / SV
Clemens J. Setz
Clemens J. Setz is one of Austria’s most successful young authors. Born in 1982 in the town of Graz, where he still lives, Setz has received numerous prizes for his work, including the 2011 Leipzig Book Fair Prize for his short story collection Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes (‘Love in the Time of the Mahlstädter Child’). In 2012 Setz made the shortlist of the German Book Prize for the second time in four years. This latest novel, Indigo, is set in a boarding school for children suffering from a mysterious condition known as Indigo syndrome which causes everyone who comes close to them to experience nausea, dizziness and severe headaches. A young maths teacher at the school, Clemens Setz, becomes aware of strange goings on and is drawn to investigate. Here, Berlin-based literary translator Lucy Renner Jones discusses the pleasures and challenges of translating Indigo into English with Setz’s American translator, Ross Benjamin.
Lucy Renner Jones: Setz comes across as a collector of oddities – photographs, scraps, bizarre newspaper stories – a geek, as it were, and it seems as if Indigo has grown from this love of the bizarre. You have the feeling that if he hadn’t become a writer, he might have become a professional ladybug torturer or a director for an asylum for the insane ... is that what you feel too or do you think he’s just brilliantly funny?
Ross Benjamin: Yes, Setz is indeed a collector or curator of unusual anecdotes, neglected footnotes to historical or current events, cultural and pop cultural marginalia, which he incorporates into his fiction as well as his public appearances and interviews. In its role in his work, however, all this is more than just bric-a-brac. On one level, it has something of the encyclopedic abundance of someone like David Foster Wallace in his impulse to do justice to the mushrooming information environment of contemporary life. It’s at least a similarly expansive sense of what literature can be and what can be literature – which does not exclude all the random bits that currently constitute our media-saturated perception of the world.
I don’t think there’s anything to compare to this novel. Perhaps Bret Easton Ellis was called to mind in Setz’s meticulous attention to detail and the unempathetic, ‘autistic’ character of Robert. Are there any US writers who do what Setz does?
Well, I mentioned David Foster Wallace, but only in reference to one aspect of Setz’s writing. Certain elements of the novel remind me of the films of Terry Gilliam – its mix of the imaginative, the comic and the paranoid, the uncanny atmosphere and the characters’ disorienting confrontations with the absurd and unmasterable. There’s no doubt Setz has read his DeLillo and Pynchon, though he is confident enough not to ape their voices; he merely takes for granted the far-reaching terrain they’ve claimed for fiction. But I’ve never understood, at least from a literary standpoint, why the Englishspeaking publishing world seems to require a foreign author to be comparable to some native one, or at least someone already in English. What makes Clemens Setz so fascinating is that he is Clemens Setz. Setz is that rare thing, an original.
He adds the dimension of the internet to his writing. He almost wills you to go and google what he’s written, and if you do then you often find he’s playing a game, interweaving facts and fiction, so that at the end, you are led back to Setz and what he is reflecting on. He seems very aware of his position as a writer in the digital age.
There is a sort of four-way game going on between author and reader and book and internet, where certain material in the novel that gives the impression it could have been cribbed from Wikipedia or plucked from some website of perhaps dubious reliability sends readers searching and then discovering something that becomes part of their interplay with the novel. Knowing that readers of his work are likely to be immersed in the contemporary multimedia universe, he writes in a way that has – dare I say it – links to that universe. My guess would be, however, that he can’t help it, because that is simply the universe he lives in, just as we do. It’s a very traditional role of the writer to put that universe as he experiences it on the page as fully as possible.
How are we supposed to understand the central character being called Clemens Setz? Is it a Paul-Auster-type of device or is something else going on?
I’ve seen Setz express in interviews his discomfort with calling the Clemens Setz character ‘he’ and his preference for saying ‘I’, although he will then often end up reverting to ‘he’ anyway. I’d go out on a limb and say we are supposed to take it pretty much at face-value here that the character named Clemens Setz is Clemens Setz, is invested with his personality, life experience and responses to the world. It’s a version of him projected into a fictional world. It doesn’t have to be read as some crafty or complicated metafictional contrivance. This novel is constantly blurring the boundary between fact and fiction with its quasi-documentary or mockumentary format, not only at the textual level but also at the graphic level, thanks to the brilliant Judith Schalansky’s role in the book’s design. Indigo shows that those borders can be porous.
What does the novel tell us about our attitude to illness and isolating the sick?
That’s a big question, of course. All I’ll say about it is that I’m not sure whether the central point of this novel is to say something about our attitude to illness, although it might be considered something of a cop-out for a novel that’s all about a mysterious illness to say nothing whatsoever about that theme. Rather, it seems to me more an exploration of our all-too-human responses to overwhelming experiences – which include revulsion and anxiety, pain and incomprehension, as well as a potential for compassion, empathy and benevolence, though that too, we see in the novel, can be perverted.
This is an abridged version of an interview which originally appeared in November 2012 on Lucy Renner Jones’ blog:

Lucy Renner Jones
is a literary translator who lives in Berlin. She is a co-founder of Transfiction and writes reviews of German books for CULTurMAG.
© Lauren Benjamin
Ross Benjamin
Ross Benjamin
is a writer and translator living in Nyack, New York. He is currently at work on a translation of Clemens J. Setz’s Indigo, forthcoming from Liveright/Norton (US) and Serpent’s Tail (UK).