Clemens Setz is an Austrian writer born in Graz in 1982 and he is confirmed as one of the most interesting authors in the European literary panorama. Clemens constructs compelling narratives by embedding mini-essays in them revitalizing the novel-essay, a genre that reached full maturity in Austria and Germany in the interwar period as well as crucial for a renewed understanding not only of European literary history but also of the variety of literature, morphological and symbolic spectrum of modernism.
After studying mathematics and Germanistics, Setz began writing short stories in various magazines and made his debut in 2007 with Sons and planets, and then continue with his most successful novel The hour between the woman and the guitar of 2015 (La Nave di Teseo , 2019), until winning the prestigious Berliner Literaturpreis in 2019.
Setz’s novels (Die Frequenzen, Indigo, Die Bienen und das Unsichtbare, in addition to those already mentioned and poems), question the essence of the human being who walks in dark places and invites the reader to enter the soul and mind of its protagonists, because at least once we may have tried, thought, imagined what they do. The Austrian author seems to suggest this maxim: „first recognize, recognize yourself, then become, defending the stranger who is in us“.
Setz weaves stories with great balance, making poetry emerge even from the most unexpected places, passionate about bizarre and gloomy fragments of life, to seek each time a different reconciliation with the world, drawing inspiration from the figure of the anti-hero, a choice that corresponds to the response to the vertical tension that imposes to modify the coordinates of one’s existence, to work on oneself, to practice a conduct of life oriented on the basis of an ethical choice.
1 Do you feel among the greatest exponents of the novel-essay or novel of ideas?
I actually never thought of myself as having written novels of ideas, but I think I do tend to include lots of digressions and mini-essays in my stories. That’s pretty much the way I talk in real life. I digress, or miss the point, and go on like this forever, and that seems like someone who has lots of ideas.
2 What is the main task of literature?
Telepathy, of course.
3 Do you see something innovative in the field of literature? In the way it orders ideas?
The most innovative literary ‘thing’ in the German language has been the work of a couple of very strange and idiosyncratic twitter accounts. I have written about several of them. They have had a profound influence on the way young people speak, make jokes, and express themselves in a rhyme-like, fun or poetic way.
4 Who do you feel most inspired by?
Inspiration often comes to me in a very random, almost nonsensical way. From a guy on TikTok, a chance encounter, a person who lived 300 years ago.
5 „The hour between woman and guitar“ was a best seller. Could it be defined as a book on the madness of poets, of those who have a profound inner vivacity?
That sounds accurate. It’s a book about ‘doing things with words’, e.g. having power over someone just because you tell a story a certain way, or even getting someone to commit suicide, just through speech or other types of communication. But in the end it is a hopeful, optimistic book, I think.
6 The characters in his books are grotesque, restless, they feel inadequate. Is it this human sample that literature must deal with?
I don’t know anyone who is totally un-grotesque. Maybe such people exist but I suspect they would be pretty rare.
7 What are the Literary Awards for?
Financial help is one function, but I think the prestige that used to go along with certain awards has pretty much vanished altogether.
8 What do you think of yourself? Are you always able to turn your thoughts, your visions, into the right words?
Not at all. Most things that go through my head cannot be adequately expressed in words. And if it works, it is the result of many hours of trial and error. I am not good at writing, but I am quite good at rewriting. It’s actually the thing I most enjoy.
9 How much is culture promoted in Austria and Germany?
Well it pretty much completely vanished for a year during the pandemic. The whole culture was reduced to one thing: Netflix. Now the other branches of culture seem to be reemerging a little bit. So we will have to see. I am somewhat optimistic that people will still want to read books in the near future.
10 Does he feel you are crushed by questions and then saved by life itself, in its simplicity?
Simplicity can definitely save us. That’s because we are complicated animals with complicated thoughts. But what about a creature like the gold fish? It is pure simplicity, and apparently doesn’t think much. What will save the gold fish?
11 What would you say, if he were still alive, to Nabokov who despised the writers of ideas, thus delineating an idea of literature that takes the autonomous character of the literary text to extremes in order to make it a sort of precious jewel for a select few?
Well, for someone who hated ideas Nabokov sure had a lot of them! Maybe he meant specific political programs or philosophies that shouldn’t be the sole reason for writing a story. I tend to agree with him on that.
12 Don’t you think, about the previous question, that the bad reader is partly a product of the writer who has an elitist focus on literature, which could / should be spurious?
I agree. It’s pretty easy to write a difficult book that no one can read. I have, alas, done it myself in the past.
13 Who are your loyal readers?
I don’t think I have them. At least no one I know personally and have regular contact with. My family and friends don’t read my books, which is okay with me.
14 Could your writing be defined as an experimentation on linguistic matter?
Recently it has become that more and more, for example I just published a book-length essay which is a sort of history of all the poetry that has been written in invented languages (like Esperanto, Volapük, Blissymbolics, etc). I translated most of the obscure poetry from those obscure languages. That really felt like a great, risky, vibrant experiment.
15 A little preview on your next book?
I am writing a historical novel at the moment, set in the 1920s in Germany. It’s about a couple of real figures who believed that we live inside a hollow sphere, rather than on the outside of a planet. It’s a fun story – but it’s not really alive yet as a novel. The characters all behave as if they know that I am watching them, which is never good. They still feel the pull on the string of the ventriloquist’s dummy, so to speak. But I hope I can bring it to life.