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Ein irischer Schotte zu Gast in Bern

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Von Don­al McLaugh­lin - Liebe Berner­In­nen & Nicht-Berner­In­nen, die Artikel, die ich ein halbes Jahr lang für ENSUITE schreiben kann, sollen in englis­ch­er Sprache ver­fasst wer­den. Nach­dem ich aber Ihre Sprache, bzw. die hochdeutsche Vari­ante beherrsche, möchte ich mich zumin­d­est auf Deutsch vorstellen. Diese kleine Geste sei mir erlaubt.

Ich heisse Don­al McLaugh­lin, stamme ursprünglich aus Nordir­land, lebe aber seit 34 Jahren in Schot­t­land (wo ich als Kind ankam), gelte als irisch­er Schotte, bin als Autor, Über­set­zer / Dol­metsch­er & Her­aus­ge­ber tätig — und bin seit Anfang Feb­ru­ar in der Schweiz, und zwar als der allererste Scot­tish Writ­ing Fel­low der Stadt Bern.

Wer weiss, was ich in meinem hal­ben Jahr hier für ENSUITE und son­st so alles schreiben werde, aber heute geht’s los mit einem Überblick über die zeit­genös­sis­che schot­tis­che Lit­er­atur — und ein paar Worten zu mein­er bish­eri­gen Leseer­fahrung, zumin­d­est was die Schweiz­erische anbe­langt.

Im April bekom­men Sie dann meine ersten Bern­er Ein­drücke zu lesen!

Scot­tish Writ­ing

The last two decades of last cen­tu­ry gave rise, in Scot­land, to what crit­ics & review­ers were quick to call a lit­er­ary renais­sance, with Alas­dair Gray’s Lanark (1981) right­ly viewed as the major mile­stone which marks the begin­ning of the boom.

The renais­sance, it is often sug­gest­ed, had its roots in polit­i­cal set­backs. In the wake of both the failed ref­er­en­dum on devo­lu­tion in the spring of 1979 & Mar­garet Thatch­er becom­ing Prime Min­is­ter that autumn, Scotland’s writ­ers — like their film­mak­er, painter & musi­cian col­leagues — invest­ed in their art, rather than suc­cumb to the dou­ble wham­my deliv­ered by the polit­i­cal are­na.

These polit­i­cal dis­ap­point­ments are not to be under­es­ti­mat­ed. Many writ­ers & artists had helped cam­paign for devo­lu­tion — but while the major­i­ty of cit­i­zens who vot­ed vot­ed YES, the 40% hur­dle, intro­duced by the then Labour gov­ern­ment, was not cleared. The gen­er­al elec­tion result lat­er the same year soon meant Scots were expe­ri­enc­ing what poet Nor­man Mac­Caig famous­ly called ‘the indif­fer­ence / of a remote and igno­rant gov­ern­ment’. As huge Labour majori­ties in every elec­tion between 1979 and 1997 reflect, Scot­land con­sis­tent­ly & unam­bigu­ous­ly reject­ed the Con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment of that era.

The very con­sid­er­able fruits of the artists’ response to this state of affairs soon gave rise to the the­o­ry that Scot­land had achieved cul­tur­al (if not polit­i­cal) inde­pen­dence. Pol­i­tics, Cairns Craig even sug­gest­ed, had been reduced to a mere side-show in Scot­land. It might nonethe­less be argued that the cul­tur­al con­fi­dence inspired & instilled over two decades by those self­same artists bore polit­i­cal fruit when, in Sep­tem­ber 1997, in the ref­er­en­dum promised by the new­ly elect­ed New Labour gov­ern­ment, Scots emphat­i­cal­ly said YES both to Devo­lu­tion, and to high­er tax­es to pay for it. The coun­try, as a result, now has its own Par­lia­ment again.

Those observers who iden­ti­fy a lit­er­ary renais­sance in Scot­land tend to focus pri­mar­i­ly on the country’s nov­el­ists & short­sto­ry writ­ers. Whether such com­men­ta­tors live & work in Scot­land itself, or look on from their Lon­don bases, or even from con­ti­nen­tal Europe and beyond, the con­sen­sus seems to be that it all start­ed in Glas­gow with a group of writer friends — James Kel­man, Tom Leonard, Alas­dair Gray, Bernard Mac Laver­ty & Liz Lochhead — who’d met at a writer’s work­shop at Glas­gow Uni­ver­si­ty in the 1970’s. (Leonard & Lochhead, it should be not­ed, are poets; Lochhead, the only woman, has the clos­est con­tact with the the­atre world.) Kel­man, hav­ing seen how Leonard used the every­day lan­guage of Scot­land in his poet­ry, began to use lan­guage in sim­i­lar ways in prose. Gray, too, became known for the Scot­tish rhythms in his syn­tax. Unit­ed in their rejec­tion of T.S. Eliot’s notion of ‘The Voice of Lit­er­a­ture’, these writ­ers set out to use a whole palette of voic­es in their work; to show what could be expressed using the lan­guage and voic­es of ordi­nary peo­ple round about them; to show that it was pos­si­ble to write lit­er­a­ture in the lan­guage of their com­mu­ni­ty.

Such democ­ra­ti­sa­tion of lit­er­a­ture was to find expres­sion in oth­er ways, too. To over­come the elit­ism asso­ci­at­ed with lit­er­a­ture, writ­ers strove to take lit­er­a­ture out of the class­rooms, the uni­ver­si­ties, the some­times for­bid­ding libraries. Read­ings were held in out­ly­ing dis­tricts, and work­shops cre­at­ed to encour­age peo­ple to write. From such work­shops emerged, in due course, writ­ers such as Agnes Owens and Jeff Tor­ring­ton.

The exam­ple of these writ­ers in the West of Scot­land trig­gered fur­ther suc­cess — both there & else­where. In Glas­gow itself, in the late 80’s & ear­ly 90’s, two major female writ­ers emerged: Jan­ice Gal­loway & A L Kennedy. Aspir­ing writ­ers else­where in Scot­land fol­lowed suit, learn­ing from e.g. Kelman’s work. In the East, in Edin­burgh, Irvine Welsh pro­duced Trainspot­ting (1993). Sim­i­lar­ly, Dun­can McLean, from the North-East, used lan­guage and set­tings from that area in his work. And in the sec­ond half of the 1990’s, Alan Warn­er did the same for the North-West in nov­els such as Morvern Callar (1995) and The Sopra­nos (1998). In sharp con­trast to the decades before the 80’s & 90’s, new writ­ers, it seemed, were emerg­ing all over Scot­land.

The plau­dits & prizes rolled in. One mea­sure of recog­ni­tion came in the form of nom­i­na­tions for the Book­er Prize for Fic­tion, the major annu­al lit­er­ary award in the UK. James Kel­man was nom­i­nat­ed for A Dis­af­fec­tion in 1989, before tak­ing the prize in 1994, with How Late It Was, How Late. Authors such as George Mack­ay Brown, Bernard Mac Laver­ty, Ali Smith & Andrew O’Hagan have also since been short­list­ed. Col­umn inch­es devot­ed to Scot­tish fic­tion in the Lon­don & New York press, in addi­tion to aca­d­e­m­ic stud­ies & trans­la­tions pro­duced around the world, also tes­ti­fy to the sig­nif­i­cance & stay­ing­pow­er of this renais­sance. More telling­ly & encour­ag­ing­ly still, now that lit­er­ary Scot­land is more con­fi­dent of its own voice, the voic­es of Scotland’s minori­ties are begin­ning to be heard, as demon­strat­ed by pub­li­ca­tions, ini­tial­ly in lit­er­ary mag­a­zines & antholo­gies, by Irish Scots, Asian Scots, & Ital­ian Scots. An even more vibrant lit­er­ary scene is the result, with authors such as Des Dil­lon, Leila Aboulela & Suhayl Saa­di pub­lish­ing book after book & gar­ner­ing much praise.

Fic­tion writ­ers, of course, do not enjoy a monop­oly on suc­cess. From the 1990s onwards, their poet col­leagues, too, have been short­list­ed for, and won, major lit­er­ary awards — with Kath­leen Jamie, John Burn­side & Don Pater­son lead­ing the way. To make this obser­va­tion is in no way to under­es­ti­mate the con­tri­bu­tion of old­er gen­er­a­tions; the oeu­vres of men such as Nor­man Mac­Caig, Sor­ley McLean, Iain Crich­ton Smith & Edwin Mor­gan. Nor should the gen­er­a­tion of poets now in their ear­ly fifties be over­looked: Bri­an McCabe, Dilys Rose, Andrew Greig, Ron But­lin (all Edin­burgh writ­ers). Two vol­umes of the poet­ry of younger gen­er­a­tions augur well for the future: the orig­i­nal Dream State anthol­o­gy of 1994; and the expand­ed sec­ond edi­tion of 2002. What’s more: the Scot­tish Poet­ry Library (my idea of heav­en) now has a beau­ti­ful new build­ing, next to the Par­lia­ment. And as of 16 Feb­ru­ary 2004, Scot­land has its own Poet Lau­re­ate — its Scots Makar — in the much-loved Edwin Mor­gan.

The one puz­zle in all of this is why play­wrights appear not to share the pro­file & sta­tus enjoyed by their poet and nov­el­ist col­leagues? The suc­cess of writ­ers such as David Har­row­er (Knives in Hens) & Gre­go­ry Burke (Gagarin Way) — to name but two, much trans­lat­ed & staged abroad — is sure­ly chang­ing that. The recent suc­cess (one hopes) of the cam­paign for a Nation­al The­atre should also give the stage in Scot­land a much need­ed boost.

In short, there’s no doubt about it: for twen­ty-odd years now, a great deal’s been hap­pen­ing, in lit­er­ary terms, in Scot­land. Some will chal­lenge the term renais­sance. Oth­ers balk at talk of ‘Scot­tish lit­er­a­ture’, dis­put­ing — right­ly — the exis­tence of such a (sin­gle) beast. What of mid­dle-class expe­ri­ence? still oth­ers object, irri­tat­ed by the focus on work­ing-class writ­ers. Oth­ers still will con­test the dom­i­nance of Glas­gow; or pre­fer to focus on work in Scots & Gael­ic. Fair enough. But there’s one thing I do know for sure: it’s been an hon­our & priv­i­lege to live through this peri­od; to fol­low the progress of the many & var­ied writ­ers; & join their audi­ences for many a mem­o­rable read­ing.


www.spl.org.uk (Scot­tish Poet­ry Library)

Swiss Writ­ing

To what extent do Scots know Swiss writ­ing? you might won­der. At the Uni­ver­si­ty of Strath­clyde (Glas­gow), there exists a Cen­tre for Swiss Stud­ies, the remit of which, I under­stand, cov­ers French-, Ger­man- & Ital­ian-speak­ing Switzer­land. Beyond acad­e­mia, peo­ple, I sus­pect, would at most be aware of Frisch & Dür­ren­matt though Tom Hubbard’s recent issue of the mag­a­zine Fife Lines has done some­thing to counter that (‘Poet­ry in Switzer­land’, Autumn 2002).

My own aware­ness is restrict­ed to authors writ­ing in Ger­man. My appli­ca­tion for Bern men­tioned cau­tious­ly, I recall knowl­edge of “Swiss writ­ing, and even — to a degree — some work from Bern”. Clos­er inspec­tion of Bern­er Texte (2002) & the Bern­er Almanach (1998) reveals to my sur­prise that Bern’s asso­ci­at­ed with a num­ber of writ­ers, exam­ples of whose work I know: F.D. (sowieso), Kurt Mar­ti, E. Y. Mey­er, Ver­e­na Ste­fan, Beat Ster­chi, Fran­co Supino, & Chris­t­ian Uetz. By the end of six months, need­less to say, I aim to be more bewan­dert..

Fur­ther rec­om­men­da­tions are already begin­ning to reach me: Lukas Bär­fuss, Mar­tin Frank, Christoph Geis­er, Raphael Urwei­der, to name but four. I begin with Die toten Män­ner (‘Danielle hat neulich ges­tanden’ etc), my head trans­lat­ing as I read, and a recent sus­pi­cion resur­faces. Who knows, I find myself mus­ing: a Swiss anthol­o­gy — or new trans­la­tions — might well be in the cards here.

© Don­al McLaugh­lin
Bild: Mar­tin Zel­me­nis, Riga
ensuite, März 2004