Conducted by Allison Grimaldi-Donahue
Wolfgang Hermann is a prolific Austrian writer whose work I had never encounteredprior to reading his latest book in English translation, Herr Faustini Takes a Trip. The short novel, translated by Rachel Hildebrandt and reviewed by ALTA here, contemplates life choices each of us make and the ever present possibility for change. It is the story of one man and his very small steps out into the wider world. My exchange with Wolfgang via email was quite lovely, we talked about books, influences and the changing (literary) landscape of our home, Europe. This is the first part of a two-part interview.
Do you consciously see yourself as writer of philosophical fiction?
I would not consider myself a writer of philosophical fiction. But what is important to me is the language and the inner images. I want to create strong and pure inner images.
Herr Faustini needs the world around him, he is living on his own, not to forget his cat. He is curious and tender while meeting other people. He would never judge anybody. When it comes to a trip to Ticino where his sister lives his life opens up, nothing will be the same as it was before. He who was afraid of going on this trip because he felt that nothing would be as it used to be — he is now ready for a radical change because of what happened when he met his niece and how he became aware of how emotionally poor and secluded he was living on all his life. There is a kind of soft revolution going on in Herr Faustini. The book is about inner transformation and the beauty of ordinary things. It is more about emotions than abstract thoughts. I did not intend to illustrate my thoughts by this story. I wanted to show a character in his small world.
This is a character in a small world, and therefore maybe it is a bit ironic he is the protagonist of your first text in translation. With these emotions and this soft revolution— do you think there is something unique this book can bring to English language readers?
A small world can contain the whole world, Herr Faustini is attentive and emphatically. He is an average man but I hope also English readers will be interested to see and feel his inner world within the small world he lives in.
Is this notion of soft revolution something present your other work? Do you think of writing in some way as a soft revolution?
I think the more attentive and present in daily life the deeper a character gets. Herr Faustini is vulnerable but authentic. For my writing I can say that I am rather looking for authenticity than for spectacular effects.
I understand there are other Herr Faustini texts? Was this always the plan or has the project grown in a more organic fashion?
This autumn the fourth Faustini novel will be published in German: Herr Faustini bleibt zu Hause [Herr Faustini Stays Home]. I was not through with this character after the first novel so I went on to accompany him. Meanwhile, I wrote several other books very different from the Faustinis, novels, short stories, books of poetry, libretti. But I came back to Faustini — looks like I love him, and cannot live without him.
I am wondering, since you work in so many genre, how you know which form is appropriate for a certain idea or story. How do you decide?
My first two books (Das schöne Leben, 1988; Die Namen die Schatten die Tage, 1991) were collections of shorter prose. I tried to create small worlds within very little space. These texts were almost poems or, as the French say: poèmes en prose. This very dense form is the nucleus of my writing. Although I extended this form in longer prose, the short form remained the inner nucleus. Maybe I am a kind of poet who writes prose.
You say that the Herr Faustini stories are very different from the other work, what exactly is different about this other work?
Faustini was a way to say things in a crazier way. He is a member oft the family of anti-heroes like Don Quixote, Monsieur Hulot, the soldier Schwejk, or the sad and silent anti heroes of Robert Walser. I would write these stories with a lighter hand.
What draws you to writing an anti-hero?
The anti-hero is an old and honorable figure in the history of literature. Unfortunately, I am not the first author to create such a character. I can tell a story in a lighter way when I see the world through the eyes of someone like Herr Faustini. This is also a relief for me. When I am writing poetry I have a different access to the world.
Do you think an anti-heroes are a type that can reach across cultures?
I think the anti-hero is easy going, a lot of readers like this kind of apparently weak and sympathetic character. I say apparently because they are strong in their weakness. Monsieur Hulot for example conquered the heart of the movie goers all over the world, or Kaurismäkis strange and eccentric characters. I know, movies are another story, they get much easier access to a great number of people than books.
Allison Grimaldi-Donahue is a writer and translator originally from Connecticut. Her fiction, essays and translations have appeared in The American Reader, The New Inquiry,Omega Metatron, and tNYpress Eeel. She was awarded an NEA Translation grant to the Vermont Studio Center for her translation work on Davide Orecchio’s novel Città distrutte. Sei biografie infedeli. In summer 2015 she was a Katherine Bakeless Fellow at the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. Allison is contributing fiction editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, an online literary and arts journal. She earned her BA from St. Michael’s College, an MA from Middlebury College in Italian, and an MA from the University of Toronto in Comparative literature. Allison is also pursuing her MFA in fiction and translation in the low-residency program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives and works in Bologna, Italy.