Category: Fiction

Clemens Setz
Der Trost runder Dinge
[The Solace of Round Things]

Stories

Snapshots of a Dizzying World

The Austrian writer Clemens J. Setz has a special talent for throwing life off kilter. In his work the strange is always near at hand. The world of his fiction is inhabited not by average people, but by peculiar figures balancing on the threshold between madness and everyday life. They’re hypersensitive, see signs in everything. Yet it would never occur to Setz to expose them to ridicule or sneer at them. On the contrary, he observes their lives with curiosity and tenderness, embedding their individual fates in odd tales. After thick novels like Die Frequenzen (The Frequencies) and Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre (The Hour Between Woman and Guitar), the author has now put out a new collection of stories.  

With irrepressible imagination he depicts those whose singularity catapults them out of normality, conveys the surreal tendencies of so-called reality, and probes the impossibilities of existence. These stories are snapshots of a dizzying world. The title character of “Frau Triegler,” for example, turns out to be a spooky nurse who takes her little patients to her bosom with cold affection, while the mother in “Zauberer” (“Magician”) lays her dead son in his bed and invites her lovers to necrophilic one-night stands. A few pages later the author presents a psychotic father who is incapable of avowing his madness, while another father wraps himself in his delusion of youth as though in a sleeping bag. “People are so strange,” says one of Setz’s narrators, and this observation lies at the heart of his diverse stories.   

The oddity of his characters and their experiences are one thing; the other is the power of the language with which Setz tells their stories. By avoiding common verbs like to sit, to stand, and to lie, he transforms the quotidian into literature: “Fortunately, a soda machine exists beside us.” He describes a vase, too, not as an inanimate object but as a living thing, “its handles akimbo.” He uses idiosyncratic phrases to describe equally idiosyncratic sense perceptions: “an intense anorak smell of collar snow that has melted and then grown warm in the lining.” All the stories in this collection testify to Setz’s love of language and pleasure in playing with it. A reader with pen in hand can hardly keep up with the sentences demanding to be underlined. This was the case with his first collection, too, Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes (Love in the Time of the Mahlstadt Child), with which Setz gained wide acclaim in 2011, receiving the Leipzig Book Fair Prize. Having taken his place among the most important German-language authors, he writes poems and plays in addition to novels and stories and recently gave a highly regarded speech at the Festival of German-Language Literature in Klagenfurt.

Setz was born in 1982 in Graz, where he lives today. Before becoming a successful writer, he studied mathematics and German literature. Characteristic of his writing is a daring openness, reflected not only in his chosen subjects, but also in his range of literary registers. In the story “Spam,” for example, he mangles the German language in the manner of a fraudulent e-mail generated by machine translation. No story sounds quite the same as the next. At times he narrates in the first person, at other times in the third, at times the tone is highly discreet, at other times subtly ironic, at times Setz pays homage to high culture, at other times to pop culture, here his work is moving, there comic. Openness distinguishes his endings, too. Rather than culminating in a tidy resolution, they settle into indeterminacy, having not infrequently taken a striking turn from the real into the surreal.
 
Shirin Sojitrawalla

By Shirin Sojitrawalla, 11.09.2019

Shirin Sojitrawalla is a freelance journalist who writes chiefly on theatre and literature for a variety of outlets including Deutschlandfunk, taz - die tageszeitung, Frankfurter Rundschau, Theater der Zeit and Nachtkritik.de. She lives and works in Wiesbaden.

Translated by Ross Benjamin