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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.

Websites:

www​.con​tem​pora​ry​wri​ters​.com
www​.scot​tish​book​trust​.com
www​.spl​.org​.uk (Scottish Poetry Library)
www​.​a​-​l​-ken​ne​dy​.co​.uk
www​.tom​leo​nard​.co​.uk
www​.edwin​mor​gan​.com
www​.suhayl​saa​di​.com

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