Postmodernism and Pastry
Lillian Faschinger is one of the leading Austrian authors of her generation. Defiant and nostalgic at the same time, she represents what Austria tries to acquire in the global age: cosmopolitanism. Her novels, translated into 17 languages, are known for their rebellious heroines.
NPQ: I bet you’re not the most well liked writer in Austria. Especially for conservative Austrians, some of your books could be insulting. I really enjoyed your book Magdalena the Sinner. Your character, Magdalena, is a modern Scheherazade who kidnaps a priest to confess her sins and then she travels like a fugitive all over Europe with a passion similar to Thelma and Louise’s. Then she has to return to Austria because, after all, she misses Austrian pastry! Nothing else but the pastry! She can’t live without it and that’s what her country is: a pastry trap. How is this perceived in Austria?
Lillian Faschinger: It depends on the humor of the people. Some of them really appreciate my bitterness. I am an established writer in my country now so it does not really matter what people think of you as long as they read your work. But, before that, in the beginning of my career, I had a lot of negative reactions. I just have to ignore them and continue. My job was dealing with British literary theory, so I think this kind of black humor comes from reading British literature. It’s true that Austrian writers really are different from the German ones, also with respect to their humor. Austrian literature is more whimsical, there’s more play with language, it’s as if Austrians would like to overcome a sort of linguistic inferiority complex, because the Germans speak "good" German and Austrians have all these kinds of dialects.
NPQ: In your work the local coexists with the global. Your cultural experience serves as a starting point, but then your imagination spreads its wings over an ocean of global possibilities and popular culture. Your heroine in The New Scheherazade is romantically involved with the artist Christo, with Clint Eastwood and with Tom Waits. Your narratives, as a critic noted, stretch from the Bible to Batman and from Dante to Dracula. Is that the spirit of the post-national author in the age of globalization?
Faschinger: It’s difficult to say, but indeed I am vacillating between the two. And this has always been my problem in a way. On one hand I feel emotionally attached to my country, something that is very well epitomized by the pastry that you mentioned before. On the other hand I come from rural Austria and that is an environment characterized by misogynist attitudes and small mindedness. But I’m not so sure if globalization is that much better. Commercialism is getting more brutal than ever and people are getting more impersonal than ever before. So I try to negotiate between the two and find some kind of practical identity in a given situation.
Of course, no one can escape globalization the same way that no one can escape his or her past. So one has to be positive and look at the bright side of things, I suppose, like how cities are changing spectacularly and opening up because of globalization. Vienna is developing rather nicely, I think. It used to be gray and a bit backward and now it’s really moving.
In reference to my writing I should say that I was influenced by my country, but not only. The split has already been in my writing for a while. I am fascinated by pop culture. I like to link the high and the low, the global and the local. This is in a way the life that I lead and that’s what interests me. In my new book I use a citation from Hamlet and Bruce Springsteen. I don’t have a problem with post-modernity. So, I guess, the post-national author is a direct outcome of post-modernity.
NPQ: Six years ago when most of the Western world was still a happy place, the resurgence of fascist politics spoiled the millennium euphoria for liberals in Austria. There was a lot of international concern and negative publicity for Austria then. Were you upset?
Faschinger: I was never politicized before that, but I had to come to grips with this latent fascism, otherwise I couldn’t have unfolded as an artist at all. Before that I lived in my own bubble. I don’t see myself much as a radical, political artist like Elfriede Jelinek. I just want to be left alone and write. You see, I write from my imagination. I write always about power and power structures, but not necessarily political ones. So the elections of 1999 affected me profoundly.
I had written all my life against fascism, not explicitly perhaps, but implicitly certainly. And that was the year that I had just left Paris where I lived for a period of time to settle down back in Vienna. Right then this happened and I felt trapped. I remember telling myself "this is what I’ve been writing all my life and now I’m stuck in Vienna!" I had a depressive crisis after that. I was frantic at the time. But things turned out better than I thought.
Things have changed now because the right-wing people in Austria quarrel so much among themselves, so one hopes they will totally destroy each other in the near future. The return of fascism was some kind of a strange repetition; it was something that was not completely dealt with before and it had to come back to be dealt with now. But history never repeats itself in the same way. People took a stand after that. It was the first time that the question of fascism was open and clear. There were discussions and there was awareness. In the end the issue was tackled and I liked that better than this sort of vague, uncomfortable atmosphere we had before.
NPQ: Since 1999 you’ve been spending a lot of time in the United States as a writer in residence in various universities, Dartmouth College being one of them. Was America a crucial experience for you?
Faschinger: Of course. To be invited as a woman writer in an American university you have such good conditions. It’s been very creative for me. Discovering America has also been a wonderful part of my life. But I have to say that since the Bush administration has been in power, America has changed a bit. It’s not the country the world loved. There are still a lot of wonderful values in America for sure, but I really don’t like politics right now—no one does. These people sometimes are very fascist in their politics and very imperialist. I think Europeans, especially the French, are justified for not liking them. It’s a pity. Even giving your fingerprints now in immigration at the airport gives you an uncomfortable feeling. But unfortunately nowadays it’s not only America that tends to play the ugly part as Europeans like to think. We have our own problems to be concerned about. Religion and hypocrisy go hand in hand in Europe as well.
NPQ: What do you think of the new German Pope, Benedict XVI?
Faschinger: Will he be better than the old one? I doubt it, I don’t like any of them. And then the media frenzy about the funeral of John Paul II was deplorable. I didn’t like the previous Pope either; he was this big authority figure and you couldn’t understand a word he said the year before he died! I don’t like Popes, it’s very clear. As long as there’s not a woman Pope, this is impossible for me. On top of it the new one sounds a bit more intolerant. That would be a pity, because we already have Bush in the US, an elephant in a china shop. He deals with hypersensitive issues with the force of an elephant.
The most important, sensitive issue today is the relation of Islam with the Western countries. The most powerful nation in the world is taking this imprudent stand and then if we have a Pope espousing the same attitude it would be terrible. We could have a clash of civilizations that could be very dangerous.
All this makes me think of my country and how its history was rerouted because of a clash of civilizations. Austria twice depended on the West against the Turks. There were two big sieges of Vienna by the Turks. I happen to be living very near by a place where a plaque reminds "Here was the tent of the Sultan Suleiman in the year..." That’s how history was written in Austria.
My translator in Holland, where the murder of a filmmaker by a fanatic Muslim outraged public opinion last year, told me the other day that she believes that in 50 years Europe is going to be a Muslim continent. That is not so stupid. Many people think so. It’s not completely impossible. Sometimes I think we are a little bit degenerate, like the Romans—aren’t we? Rich and degenerate and comfortable. The Muslims in our cities usually have to work hard, have a lot of children and they don’t take anything for granted as we do.
I have to say that I’m not really crazy about the Turks in the European Union. I think Turkey is not a democratic country at all. There are people being tortured there and women’s issues are really neglected. Of course, there are these people who say that Turkey will change if it gets into the EU, but I’m doubtful.
Further, the religious aspect is not easy to overlook. It could create a difficult situation because the EU is not only about economic issues, it is also about ideology. The clash with Islam is already happening and it will get bigger and bigger. And it’s not only America that feels the clash with Islam; Europeans do too, because we have so many Muslims in our cities. Whereas in the US it is different, they’re not as many Arab people living there. In the US it is more about foreign policy; in Europe is more about coexistence.
NPQ: Would you say that Austria is more of secular country nowadays?
Faschinger: Traditionally it’s a very Catholic country but it gets more and more secular in comparison to Germany. It’s like Italy, 90% Catholics and 10% Protestants, but it seems that a lot of people in Austria lately are disputing the Church. There are some scandals with the clergy—the child molestation has angered a lot of people. You see, Austria has been a Catholic country for so long and in our history we’ve never had secularization. The power of the Hapsburg always went hand in hand with the power of the Catholic Church. There was no separation of the two like in France. Catholicism is a religious but also a historical reality which is ingrained in people, generation after generation. Also the Catholic Church is still very rich and it owns a lot of land in Austria. But hypocrisy is exposed nowadays. They can’t go on with that anymore.
NPQ: I hear that lately you’ve been spending time at a Catholic parsonage in Austria in search of inspiration for your next book.
Faschinger: I am trying to separate living and working and I found this room high up in a parsonage, in an administrative building attached to a church. It has an interesting atmosphere, it’s very quiet and it has a nice view. I’m like a bank clerk. I go there in the morning and work. The funny thing is that I have this really negative attitude toward Catholicism and for me it is like as if I’m going into the middle of a hurricane, into the cave of the devil!
Catholicism is supposed to be an antidote to this cold era of globalization. It’s hypocritical, of course, and at the same time it’s beautiful. Catholicism is deceiving beauty as well—isn’t it?