Introduction 

By Martin Liebscher

Welcome to this evening’s reading of Lydia Mischkulnig
Lydia Mischkulnig is in London by invitation of the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre. Once a year we invite Austrian authors to become the centre’s writer-in-residence. This is a chance to introduce the writings of these authors to an English audience and thereby stimulate the cultural exchange and debate between Austria and the UK.

Given the aim of this programme I do not necessarily take it for granted that the audience will be familiar with the author’s works. I will therefore take the liberty to say a few words about Lydia Mischkulnig and her writings, an attempt that was boldly announced as an introduction. I am not sure if this is the case at all, perhaps it’s more of a teaser for the reading that awaits you.

Of course there are the biographical facts – no ‘introduction’ is complete without those:
Lydia Mischkulnig was born in Klagenfurt, something which she has in common with two icons of Austrian literature, Robert Musil and Ingeborg Bachmann. The latter played a crucial part in Mischkulnig’s literary development as she – as Mischkulinig said in an interview - has ‘opened a deeper understanding of the world’ to her:
Ingeborg Bachmann hat in zwei verschiedenen Formen das Thema Sprache behandelt. Einmal in der Erzählung "Alles", die finde ich großartig, und sie war für mich eines meiner ersten wichtigen Leseerlebnisse. Der Illusionsentzug, den die Geschichte bei mir bewirkte, war für mich wie eine Befreiung. Man weiß ja, dass alles verlogen ist. Und dann habe ich das Gedicht "Ihr Worte" gelesen. Und das finde ich furchtbar, das hat mich angekotzt, dieser pathetische Ton, den ich nicht aushalte. "Ihr Worte, auf, mir nach", so beginnt das Gedicht. So kann man mit mir nicht reden. (Lacht.) Ich glaube, ich weiß, was mich stört am pathetischen Ton, er erlaubt es, ungenau zu sein und das mag ich nicht. Für die Erzählung "Alles" bin ich dankbar.
Bachmann’s "Alles” from her short story collection "Das dreißigste Jahr” is not only of importance to Mischkulnig because of Bachmann’s thematization of language – but even more so because Bachmann opens up a link between language and gender:
Ich war damals noch jung, und mir war von Sprachtheorie noch gar nichts bekannt. Ich fand es damals einfach großartig, dass sich jemand traut, Kindstod darzustellen, dass sich jemand traut, in eine Situation hineinzuschreiben, die sprachlos macht, dass jemand eine Grenze überschreitet. Als Befreiung empfand ich diese Möglichkeit der Sprache, in ihr alles zu sein, was man will; und auch diesen Perspektivenwechsel, ein Frau schreibt als Mann, habe ich als Befreiung empfunden. Das war für mich die Herstellung der Rollengleichheit.
The topic of female writing is an important aspect of Mischkulnig writings. She encounters and explores the difficulties of such a label: „Nieder mit dem weiblichen Schreiben, welches eine männliche Konstrunktion ist, die von der weinlichen Konstruktion übernommen ist, und sich prächtig fügt in die Diskriminierungsnische, weibliches Schreiben sei auch Literatur." Writing means for Mischkulnig to escape those classifications, though she is constantly aware that female writing exists and that is distinct from male attempts. Her "Versuch über das weibliche Schreiben” ends accordingly with the lines: "Nimm den Stift und schreibe, dich aus der Einordnung befreiend, für einen lebenslänglichen Zustand aus der Emanzipation. Das ist alles." Is it a coincidence that the final word is the title of Bachmann’s story?

It was the Bertelsmann Literaturpreis at the Bachmann award 1996 that brought Mischkulnig for the first time to the attention of a broader audience. Again there is a link with Bachmann – even if it is only the name of the contest in Klagenfurt. More important if one compares Mischkulnig to Bachmann is the similar relationship to Carinthia: both could not bear to live in the provincial climate of Klagenfurt and moved away. Both saw Vienna as their logical next step. We know Bachmann, at the end, chose to leave Vienna for Rom, but the Beatrixgassenland (portrayed in Malina) would always play a crucial role for her – as does Vienna for Mischkulnig, who nevertheless spend a significant time travelling around the world: She was guest lecturer in Nagoya (Japan), followed Jean Amery’s traces in Brussels and spent some time in the USA. But despite of that Carinthia would not cease to play a role in her writing – as it always seem to linger in the background of Bachmann’s works, most obvious in ‘Jugend in einer österreichischen Stadt’. For Mischkulnig, an author with Slovenian background, the political situation in Carinthia during the years of Jörg Haider and after his death has to be addressed and to that extent her writing can also be said to be literature engage.
Mischkulnig’s writing style is less comparable to Bachmann’s – though the theorization of language plays a part in the works of both authors, Mischkulnig is more imbedded in the tradition of the Austrian avantgarde. Her use of and play with everyday and commercial language brings her close to another famous Austrian author: Elfriede Jelinek. Mischkulnig’s text about Jelinek’s nobel prize – seen from the perspective of Jörg Haider who praises himself to having prepared the climate for Jelinek’s award – is deeply ironic and hilariously funny at times.

Lydia Mischkulnig’s talent and quality as a writer has not gone unnoticed: She was awarded prestigious prizes like Manuskripte-Preis (2002) and the Elias Canetti Stipendium (2007). She has written three novels to date, Halbes Leben (1994), Hollywood im Winter (1996) and Umarmung (2002). Her latest collection of short stories is entitled Macht Euch keine Sorgen (2009).
Lydia Mischkulnig has currently a teaching assignment at the Institute of Language Art at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna.

Before I hand over to Lydia I would like to leave you with a quote by her describing the writing process as resulting from outside irritations – perhaps you can contemplate about this while listening to her texts: Ich benütze Irritationen, um sie weiterzudenken, recherchierend oder fiktionalisierend, wahrscheinlich um sie wegzudenken, indem ich sie mir ausdenke. [I am using irritations to extent my thinking about them, be it part of a recherché or in a fictional process, probably to think them away while I create them (ausdenken).]

University of London 2010