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Walter Kappacher – 2009 winner of the
Georg Büchner Prize

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Der Fliegenpalast (Residenz Verlag)
Der Fliegenpalast (Residenz Verlag)
A Portrait by Paul Ingendaay

There’s no getting away from it: we’re once again going to have to call him what everyone else will be calling him too, albeit for the last time: an outsider, a shrinking violet, a near-recluse. But it’s we who are the true outsiders: we the readers, we the journeymen of the literary scene, who have long failed to cotton on to Walter Kappacher and his writing. This being so, the German Academy for Language and Literature has certainly redressed the balance with a vengeance by awarding the €40,000 Büchner Prize to the seventy-year-old Austrian novelist for his life-time achievement as one of the finest authors now writing in German.
 
The decision was unanimous, or so we hear – an outcome by no means the norm. And in giving their reasons for making the award the Academy left us in no doubt about the sort of achievement involved: ‘Doggedly ploughing his own solitary furrow for decade after decade,’ they declared, ‘Walter Kappacher has put together a body of work that is highly notable and yet throughout most of his writing career far too little noted. Only since the appearance of his novel Selina (2005) has he gained any real attention. His quiet, musical prose, at once melancholy and implacable, unfailingly mournful yet never despairing, tells us what we are truly like. This modern exponent of Poetic Realism, an heir to the great narrative traditions of the past whilst also being thoroughly contemporary, creates prose that “draws us in through its very quietude”’.
 
A neat phrase indeed, for the heroes of Kappacher’s books really are quiet types, and in wonderful early works like Morgen (‘Tomorrow’, 1975) and Rosina (1978), which spotlights the life of a secretary, his protagonists would risk being annihilated by sadness, despair and the narrowness of the world within which they live, were it not for an instinct that all of them share – the instinct to flee, and for much the same reason as the Bremen Town Musicians fled: ‘Whatever we do and wherever we go, we’re bound to find something better than death!’ And so Rosina, the secretary, walks out on the coldness of her world and the stupefying daily grind of her job. Where she goes is left to our own imagination.
 
Walking away and taking refuge in solitude are key characteristics of Kappacher’s protagonists. In Der lange Brief (‘The Long Letter’, 1982, re-issued 2007), Rofner flees his ‘conveyor belt’ job in Austria’s State Pension Authority and goes to Australia. In Selina (2005) – the novel that first really put Kappacher on the map – Stefan, a teacher, creates his own private universe in Tuscany and dedicates himself to reading the secret symbols in stones, trees and sky. Thanks to Kappacher’s gift for observation and a steadfastly calm style whereby observations turn into insights as naturally as night follows day, the reader bears witness to a process that gladdens the very heart: less becomes more. To withdraw from one’s old world is to discover a new and thoroughly companionable one: the world of the self. Without the least fuss or palaver, Kappacher’s work converts outward solitude into inner infinitude.
 
Walter Kappacher must always have believed in such infinitude, for his protagonists’ trait of turning their backs on their customary world mirrors his own brave decision more than thirty years ago: to forsake all forms of ordinary employment and try to make it as a writer – and, be it noted, without the aid of any grants or special support schemes. No reading tours, no Goethe Institute trips, no booksigning sessions. As a young man Kappacher was by turns a passionate motor-bike mechanic, an actor, an artist, an employee in a travel agency. In the end, however, he simply had to get out – though if he had known how long it would take for the pundits of the literary world to notice him, he might perhaps have thought better of it.
 
But then again, perhaps not. For over the years Walter Kappacher has obviously learnt two things: keep working, and hang in there! There were some euphoric reviews every now and again, for instance by Martin Walser, who lauded Kappacher’s prose in the most enthusiastic terms as long as thirty years ago. But then there would be silence again. Then another book. Then more silence. Then his publisher decided that enough was enough. Even more silence. Doggedly Kappacher carried on writing, with the same singlemindedness he has shown in photographing Lake Grabensee near Salzburg each winter for year after year: hundreds of images, thousands of images, all of the same stretch of water, views of reeds, pictures of jagged ice floes. In recent months the beauty captured in this large body of photographic work has been on view for the first time in various exhibitions. Eternity resides in infinite variation.
 
Finally, five years ago, Walter Kappacher won the Hermann Lenz Prize, with the eulogy delivered by Peter Handke – though even this was not quite enough to really make his name. A writers’ writer, one might say – and in this context that would be very much a compliment. Kappacher’s most recent novel, Der Fliegenpalast (‘The Palace of Flies’, 2009) – pre-serialised in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and glowingly reviewed on all sides – was originally going to carry the epigraph ‘To the happy few’. He decided against it in the end. ‘The few’ know what’s what in any case. And it’s also now clear that the few have become the many.
 
This article first appeared on 26 May 2009 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
 
Translated by John Reddick.
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Paul Ingendaay
is based in Madrid where he works as cultural correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He is the author of the prizewinning novel Warum Du mich verlassen hast (2006, SchirmerGraf) and co-edited the German edition of Patricia Highsmith’s complete works in thirty-four volumes.
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