Borges? Broken washing machines? Iranians in leather shorts posing as Austrians?
These elements could easily be the bones of one of celebrated Austrian author, musician, and playwright Gert Jonke’s experimental fictions. Instead, they’re merely a few details about Jonke’s life that arose during a highly entertaining and enlightening conversation with Vincent Kling. A German professor and translator at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, Kling saw his annual trips to Vienna and academic interest in Jonke evolve into a friendship of many years, one that abruptly ended with Jonke’s death at 62 from pancreatic cancer on Jan. 4, 2009.
Kling has had a long career bringing Austrian poetry and prose into English. Some of his recent publications as translator include Heimito Von Doderer’s Divertimenti and Variations (Counterpath Press, 2008); two Jonke works, the novel The System of Vienna (reviewed here) and the collection of poems and fiction, Blinding Moment; and the Holocaust concrete poetry collection transcript by Heimrad Bäcker (Dalkey, 2010).
Interviewed over dinner in downtown Philadelphia, Kling touched on a host of details about Jonke’s personal struggles, his writing habits, and his “radical compassion.” He painted Jonke as remarkably down-to-earth considering the prizes and critical acclaim he received, including the Austrian State Prize for Literature, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, the Franz Kafka and Berlin Literature prizes, and more—and that’s to say nothing of his fame as a musician. Since many of Jonke’s autobiographical writings have not yet been translated, Kling’s insights are immensely useful to English speakers interested in learning more now about one of Austria’s most celebrated modern authors.
Read Matthew Jakubowski’s accompanying review of The System of Vienna by Gert Jonke in this issue here.
Matthew Jakubowski: When did you first get involved in Jonke’s work?
Vincent Kling: I guess around 2000, I don’t know what compelled me, but I saw that Dalkey [Archive Press] had a list of authors that they wanted somebody to edit online casebooks of. And that’s a smart thing that they do, they support a lot of their authors with an anthology of critical essays, but online. And I didn’t know a thing about Jonke—nothing—but I just thought this is for me because it’s time that I work with experimental, contemporary stuff.
So out of the blue I wrote to the editor and said—mainly because also Jonke was the only Austrian author on offer. It was a call for editors, so I said well, I’ll edit this casebook if you like and he said fine and I thought, “What do I do now?” Because I have to scramble and get contributors and so on. So I got a hold of a bunch of people and they all said yes and that came about.
When I went to start the online casebook, I suddenly realized that I had absolutely no way of getting a hold of him. And I went through a phase in May of 2002 when I was [in Vienna] getting ready to start this essay of mine—”What do I do? I don’t even know the man.” And I’d been told he’s impossible, he’s horrible.
VK: Well, yes. He was supposed to be a very impossible, difficult person. Full of tantrums and irresponsibility and ego and all that. Supposedly.
I had one of those days personally where everything that could go wrong did. It was hot as hell. I was furious with myself for even taking on this Jonke job, because I thought, “I don’t even know where to start.” And it’s a mistake being in Vienna, it was a mistake—everything catastrophized. And what I knew was I could either take the subway back home or a tiny little bus that winds its way through the center of the city. And I thought, “I’m not getting on that subway. It’s too hot.” I got on the little bus fuming with myself.
I looked up—there was Jonke at the bus stop. And he got on the bus. And I thought, “OK, he’s going to sit next to me.” I know it. And he did. He sat right next to me. And it wasn’t a very crowded bus. And I thought, “OK, you’re never supposed to talk to strangers in Europe—I’m doing it.” So I just said, “You’re Herr Jonke, I believe?” And he said, “Yes, why?” And I said, “Well, I’m writing a scholarly article on you.” He said, “You have to be from Great Britain because nobody from the United States knows who I am.”
And I said, “Well, I am American. But would you like to meet up?” He said, “Sure. Here’s my phone number. Call me.”
Just like that. I did call him and we met. I suppose we met two or three times a year till he died. He could not have been more gracious, more cordial, more forthcoming, more wonderful. He heaped autographed copies of his books on me. In 2006, which was his sixtieth birthday, the Musil Museum in Klagenfurt, where he’s from, published a Jonke calendar and he gave me a copy of it. Could not have been nicer.
MJ: So then where does the nasty Jonke come from?
VK: What I understood from reading him and him talking is, the reputation for being difficult comes because he used to be a completely incontrollable alcoholic. And almost died from it. But he got past that. No recovery program. No nothing. He just decided it was: die, or continue to write. And that was already in the ’80s.
So I met this wonderful, cordial man who would never have dreamed of saying a bad word about anybody. And he was more aware than others of the fraudulence and the jockeying and the politicking and so on (in publishing and literary circles). Not one bad word ever.
MJ: What was it like working with him?
VK: Well, we’d go to a café and he’d say, “Just read me what you’ve got. I don’t know English, but read it to me.” And I would and he would listen for the rhythm. And if he thought the rhythm approximated that, he would be happy with that. So that’s what he would listen to, the rhythm of it, if what I was translating rhythmically matched the original.
MJ: This might be obvious, but why was it important for you to meet him? Couldn’t you have just done the casebook and not met him, and focused on the texts?
VK: I could have. I think I realized instinctively at that time that if I’m going to write about a living writer, part of it should be an interview. Just reading the works themselves and writing about them would’ve been fine, but why not do that and report some of the things that he said? You ask a good question because I suppose I could’ve just done it the other way, but from the minute I started I thought, “I just have to meet this man.” I don’t know why. It was partly instinct.
Part of it was, I used to try to run past him analytical, critical insights that I had, which I thought were, of course, wonderful. And he would just say, “Well, you know, that could be.” I presented him with the idea, for example, that Geometric Regional Novel was organized like a great big orchestral rondo with the same theme keeps coming back, and I thought, “Boy, am I special or what?” And he said, “Well, yeah, that might be.” He never endorsed or denied any critical statement.
He never bad-mouthed anybody. And the only thing he kept saying was that translators are often too slavish about lexical meaning, because what’s going on with his work is that of course it has lexical meaning, but it should build like a musical composition rhythmically.
I think almost any book teaches you how to read it. So I didn’t need him to say to me, “This is the way to read me.” But it was a ratification from him of where I thought his work was going.
MJ: In your piece in Calque that you wrote after Jonke died, about his ethos and comparing him to David Foster Wallace, as the kind of writer promoting a moral kind of fiction. Can you say more about that?
VK: I think the particular manifestation of morality in their work is a radical compassion. You cannot read a page of David Foster Wallace without seeing that incredible, compassionate involvement. So that all the circumstances of his death, and giving his life for the reader, all which has come out—it was already there in the beginning. You could see that. Even his footnotes to his essays are about, “Well, no wonder adolescents go crazy drinking—life is so scary, and they haven’t learned to deal with it yet.”
I think with Jonke, with all the hilarity and so on, is just radically compassionate. If you read System of Vienna, for example, the outlandish characters that he runs across, he compassionates with them all—the man who might have imitated an owl, the crazy political fish-wholesaler, and even the people who are dumping the garbage on his steps, and the raging building superintendent—he’s compassionate.
And mind you, Matt, I’ll digress—I have often read things that I am kind of flabbergasted by and I think, “What did I just read?” When I was 21, 22, I read my first story by Eudora Welty. I finished it and I thought, “What did I just read? It doesn’t have an ending.” And Jonke was that way to me—”What did I just read?” But I kept going back to it. Probably if you said, “Well, why him and not another?” It’s that musical thing. I could feel the music. I could hear the music. And I read everything I could get my hands on. And I would say I understood a full thirty to forty percent of it. [laughs]
MJ: So with The System of Vienna then, when you were translating it. You had contact with him. You worked on it together? I don’t know if I’m getting the timeline right.
VK: In the Review of Contemporary Fiction piece, it has two pieces from The System of Vienna in it. Those we worked on together in the sense that he would say to me, “I don’t know English at all well, just read this paragraph to me.” And I would. And his comment wouldn’t be it’s good, it’s bad, it’s indifferent, he would say, “You know when this piece was translated into Italian, I really like the way the translator captured the same sentences.” And he’d say, “You’ve done the same thing.” Which I thought was high praise.
I just read Breon Mitchell’s afterword to Grass’s The Tin Drum, and he has the same principle I have: That you replicate in the translation. If a sentence is very long, you don’t just say, “Oh, well, that’s how German is.” It’s long for a reason and you replicate that. And if it’s got sixteen or seventeen clauses in it, you replicate that.
And with Jonke that’s terrifying. I came to that one—what’s the second one (story) in System of Vienna?
MJ: [checking book] “The Small City on the Lake.”
VK: [Pointing to one sentence across several pages.] It goes from here to here. I used to get in my own way by saying, “I have to have it all in my head before I write anything.” It can’t be done. So, I’ll get one piece of one of those gigantic huge sentences and think, “OK, I’m writing that down.” And then piece by bit, piece and bit, and bit by clause and clause—it emerges.
MJ: And in those long sentences though, he’ll change tense, he’ll throw a verb there, he’ll use a different tense of it there—
VK:—He’ll address a different person.
MJ: And those verbs when it comes to German, it’s not the same, it’s nowhere near the same structure.
VJ: Real experts in syntax tell me that a good many of those long sentences are deliberately short-circuited syntactically. And I can’t tell, because I’m so desperate just to get the same meaning and the same length and the same clauses in the same order—
MJ: What do you mean by “deliberately short-circuited”?
VK: That he is parodying the extreme turgidity of the way German can be, by leading all the way up to some gigantic verb that ties it all together, and then not putting it there. I hadn’t noticed it. Because everything that I’ve read eventually wound up making sense as just an utterance.
This, what I’m saying now, all comes out of Breon Mitchell’s observation, which I’m a big fan of. That you capture short sentences with short sentences. You do not break long sentences into two or three. This would take me into—if a poem rhymes in the original, it must rhyme in English. And so on, but that’s another thing. And I’m not even sure what original question of yours I just answered. [laughs]
MJ: That’s fine. This is great. Because I don’t know who else for English-speaking audiences, for the audience that’s going to be reading this interview, how many people like yourself who are out there who have met Jonke and knew him and know all these details. This is really good to know.
VK: Try and stop me.
MJ: [laughing] I’d talk about this all night.
VK: My last train is at eleven-forty-something, so—
MJ: OK, great. Well, your interest in German, and in Austrian authors, how did that happen?
VK: Long story short, I got interested in lieder, in opera in literature, and noticed that everything I was really interested in tended to be Austrian. And back in the mid-’60s the classical radio station (in Philadelphia) ran the Salzburg Music Festival. Then I accidentally, in 1961, before I knew any German, read a very long novel in English by Heimito Von Doderer, The Demons. And was enthralled. Captivated.
MJ: Really? Isn’t that a twelve-hundred page book?
VK: Thirteen. [laughs] I loved it. I got it as a book club selection by not sending back the card. And when I was first teaching at LaSalle as a grad student, I had a colleague in the Spanish department who translated into Spanish The Grass Harp by Truman Capote. And I thought like, “Oh, my God, a real translator.” You know? So in the ’70s, I just started writing around to publishers. I wanted to work on Doderer and nobody wanted to bite, because by that time three of his novels had been published in English and gone nowhere. And Knopf wrote me a very nice letter saying, “We think this is wonderful and we would love to, but we have done our share by losing all the money we’re going to on Doderer.” OK. But I did in the ’70s then place some stories in Chicago Review and then I’ve done stuff since. But there was a pretty long hiatus where I was working on my Ph.D. and translating.
MJ: Is seems like living in Vienna is a great advantage.
VK: Well, I was sort of a late bloomer. One reason that Jonke and I were able to connect on the subject because I told him I’d had my own problems with alcohol. And this would be OK for me to tell you, as far as he’s concerned, because he said this (and has written about it), he had an extremely severe relapse in 2005, and he came to me and told me about it. Anyway. Because we had had the same experiences.
So I blossomed late for that reason. So in ’96, my department chair (at LaSalle) called me and said there’s a Fulbright guest professorship to Vienna. Apply for it. And I was just really starting in the mid-’90s to get my feet on the ground with research and publications. I said, “I don’t think I’m one of the big-time professors.” She said, “Shut the hell up and fill out the application.”
So ’97 was my first trip to Vienna, even though it had been my spiritual home for decades. And then what happened was that I had such wonderful experiences because all the librarians and the colleagues and the archivists that I met (in Vienna) turned out to be really terrific people. So going back and going back, in 2001 I was in a six-week seminar for American scholars and purveyors of German-language culture to learn more about Vienna. And I thought, “Well, this is ridiculous. I might as well find out if I can buy an apartment here.” So, it’s really only since ’97 that I’ve been going back and forth, once or more than once a year.
After a short break, we begin talking about other publishers and Kling tells how several years ago Jonke told him he was approached by some Americans interested in publishing Jonke’s works in English.
VK: Jonke said, “Two people from an American publisher came to see me and they were absolutely wonderful. And they inquired about doing other books.” And I said, “Well, who?” And he said, “I don’t know.” He could never remember their names.
It was John O’Brien and I think Chad [Post]. They were from Dalkey, at least I got that much. And John O’Brien does go crisscrossing Europe to meet writers. So, I’m sure it was he. And of course the books he was going to do were, among other things, The System of Vienna, and Homage to Czerny. They asked me to do that originally (Homage) and I couldn’t because I had another contract, because I did two Doderer books. Now I wish that I had because I love those stories. But at least I’ve got the two that I’ve got, Blinding Moment with Ariadne Books and The System of Vienna.
MJ: Were there other things?
VK: I had a contract years ago to translate Doderer’s Die Strudlhofstiege, which is not quite 1300 pages, it’s only a little over 900. I got halfway through and they went bankrupt. And I cannot place that thing to save my life. I’d love to finish it, but I won’t do it unless I have a contract.
MJ: You were talking a little bit about your approach to literature in translation and your idea of doing a book about translators.
VK: I can certainly expand on that. What’s been uppermost in my mind for a long time, and what is leading me to want to talk to translators who do new versions, is well, I’ll back up and make an analogy. For decades, the Academy of Music, when the Philadelphia Orchestra was there, was called one of the three or four greatest halls acoustically in the world, along with Wigmore Hall in London, and the Musikverein in Vienna, and so forth. Twenty years ago, I started to read about dead spots, dry acoustics, and I thought, “They’re going to build a new hall.” In other words, maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it was a run-up to bad-mouthing the Academy enough that it would justify building a new hall.
When I was coming up, Helen Lowe-Porter’s translations of Thomas Mann were the absolute last word. And [C.K.] Scott Moncrieff’s Proust was the triumph of all the ages, and so on and so forth. And starting around 1970, I start reading how clumsy Lowe-Porter is, and Scott Moncrieff did nothing but betray Proust. And I thought, “These are publishers getting ready to bring out new versions.” And it became standard to trash previous translations, not just to say, “Well, you know, fifty years ago,” but to trash them: “Constance Garnett had no idea what she was doing.”
And it’s true, the Book of the Month Club and organizations like that used to rush these things. It’s true. But many of the—especially Proust—everything that supplanted him was so clumsy compared to what Moncrieff did. And sure, the book isn’t called Remembrance of Things Past in French. But I wrote and published a very spirited defense of that at one time.
So I started to mock this phrase called “translations for our time.” You know, John E. Woods’ Thomas Mann, which is very good. But I thought, this is just publishers trying to sell books. And what clicked, or precipitated, my desire to write on the topic, or talk with translators—I’d gotten those Norton Critical Editions of things, and I got the one on “The Brothers Karamazov.” And the new translator [Susan McReynolds] writes a wonderful essay talking about her respect for Constance Garnett, [Kling paraphrasing]: “But these are the kinds of mistakes she was prone to make, and these were some of the clumsinesses. Still, let us not exhibit disrespect. Garnett is still a major figure in literary history.” And I thought, “Good.”
MJ: But in publishing these days it’s all about what’s new.
VK: I want to pull the topic away from what I suspect—publishers just trashing previous translations—to really put some of them side-by-side the way Mitchell does with his versions and Ralph Manheim’s versions of The Tin Drum. So, one of the ideas on my mind is: “Translations for our time”—are they really just a gimmick? And because often times when you read these articles about “Lowe-Porter was absolutely terrible with Thomas Mann”—you never get any substantiation. It’s just name-calling. I want to go back and take a look at passages and compare them. Some day down the line.
And when I go out to see Breon [Mitchell], he not only will talk to me, which is very gracious, but he presides over an archive of translation at Indiana University, with all of John E. Woods’ papers. So I can look at what Woods was doing and what he had in mind. I found the Knopf archive—do you know where it is? Austin, Texas. Thousands of cartons of stuff. So I can access Lowe-Porter. I’ve already been through the Doderer correspondence. But I want to say is how strongly I object to what looks to me like publishers trashing older versions without substantiation. That seems to me have been the practice. I’ll put Scott Moncrieff against any of his successors. In Search of Lost Time—sorry, that’s what it says in French, but that’s not, it doesn’t cut it the way Moncrieff does. Anyway, now I could go on to Richard Wilbur translating Moliere into pentameters and not hexameters and I’ve written on this, but I could just start going on one tirade after another.
MJ: Getting back to The System of Vienna, how does that compare to Jonke’s other work? Because it is his take, I guess, on what an autobiography would be. So it’s his most personal, or it pretends to be his most personal at least.
VK: The answer isn’t simple. He never wrote those pieces originally to go together. They were all different things at different times. One of them was part of a record jacket for Andre Heller. And he never, when I asked him, “Did you put them together as a sort of loose chronology of your spiritual journey?” His answer was, “I guess you could think of it that way.” [Laughs] But if I follow where they originally appeared, they originally had nothing whatsoever to do with each other.
So, if you want a more directly autobiographical piece, he has about a 70-page essay that hasn’t been translated yet. It’s much more straight-up autobiography with his reflections on how he became a writer, living in South America for a while, befriending Borges, hanging out with Elias Canetti in London, that’s much more straight-up autobiography.
MJ: Jonke hung out with Borges?
VK: Oh, yes. It is called “Individuum und Metamorphose.” A wonderful essay. I would love to place that in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, but it’s probably too long. That said, it contains how he wrote his first poems, what it means to be from Klagenfurt, which is the most reactionary, neo-Nazi place anywhere, and so on.
So I see it The System of Vienna as a spiritual journey involving a conversion, but that doesn’t mean that’s what it is.
But I just read something by Daniel Mendelsohn, an article in [the Jan. 25, 2010 issue of] The New Yorker and it’s a book review. I would’ve said some autobiographies seem to be conversion narratives. But Mendelsohn says that’s what every autobiography is. Because we go from Point A to Point B and usually by Point B we’re a little bit better off. And every autobiography is some sort of wrinkle on the Confessions of St. Augustine. And I said, “Damn if that doesn’t seem right.”
I wanted to put Jonke as his own thing in this category called a conversionary tale. But now I’ve begun to think with Mendelsohn from two weeks ago—every autobiography is a conversion narrative of some kind. The woman who got rid of the abusive spouse, or whatever it might be. The man who threw off the stockbroker’s job and raised bees or something.
Like in System, with that story about seeing the flash of light gleaming off the trolley tracks, and the butterflies hovering in the heat wave, as the central point. Particularly since, as I said, the stories leading up to it, he’s bewildered and confused, the stories leading away from it, he at least knows what to do.
MJ: I forget at what point that comes up in the book?
VK: I think “In the Course of My Courses,” where he’s aiding this professor who wears the SS boots and he suddenly sees the inanity and the stupidity of it and just walks out. I love that. And that’s when he tries to escape to Klosterneuburg and he meets that crazy man with the dog. But he also meets the ditch digger who is like the person who is spiritually resolved because he’s just doing his job.
MJ: But everything you’re saying is very interesting to me in contrast to what you were saying earlier about translation, about being very dedicated to keeping the musicality of the language, rhyme if it rhymes. And yet, there’s this other half to it you just described in terms of the vision you have of what the author’s trying to accomplish. So obviously you do a balance there as a translator.
VK: Again, I just happened to read Breon Mitchell’s afterword to the new Tin Drum and one way that he says other translations are needed is that even without the passage of time any translation is a reading, it’s an act of criticism, it’s an act of selection. And for me with Jonke, for instance, he never said this, but I happen to know through other people that he grew up Austrian Protestant, which is practically unheard of, meaning he was probably steeped in the Bible. But I already thought that, because I would read sentences and think, “This is like the opening of Genesis.” Or, “This is like such and such a chapter of John’s gospel.”
And I’d go to him, “Look you’re paraphrasing the opening of John’s gospel.” He’d go, “Oh, maybe.” That kind of thing. So, because I know Biblical references and was trained in it, and then had reached the conclusion that I saw a lot of Biblical paraphrases, then found out that he was a Protestant, meaning likely to be steeped in the Bible—I don’t think I’m reading into that, I think it’s there. But another reader growing up not knowing the Bible wouldn’t see it and would find other facts.
I’m enormously impressed and will be till the day I die by William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. The moment I saw that thing (in Jonke’s story) about the flash of light, and he’d been involved in a fraud, and he ran out of the building and didn’t know where he was going, I said, “This looks like the center, the conversion point from a William James narration.”
So I sometimes sit with that [as a translator]: was she vexed, was she irked, was she annoyed, was she miffed, or perturbed—OK, pick one before you drive yourself crazy. I’m not Flaubert spending six days picking a word. But I’m interpreting, I’m not just picking the word, I’m interpreting.
MJ: And you knew the man.
VJ: And I knew the man. But I’m interpreting Doderer, and I’m interpreting Heimrad Bäcker, and I’m interpreting with Gerhard Fritsch. And why I really believe that you have to capture the form as closely as possible, including rhyme, or don’t do it—if I don’t get the rhymes, I don’t do it—but I do not publish rhymed poetry as unrhymed poetry in English, thank you, Robert Bly. But one way to at least have a check on my interpretation is to keep the form as close to possible. So I don’t know if that reconciles the two points that I’m talking about.
MJ: I was just curious about your approach. Because there’s a lot to it, because you seem to have, I don’t know if affinities is the right word, for Jonke’s purpose. And getting back to what you said about David Foster Wallace. And you just seem to sort of have that sort of connection. It doesn’t seem to happen that often. It’s not every translator who can do that and sometimes it’s just a contract, sometimes it’s just a job.
JK: This may be an odd reply to what you’re saying. But not only was Jonke what the Irish would call “a lovely man.” He really, really was. But he liked me. And he always enjoyed seeing me. Which suggests we did have some kind of an affinity. He liked my work, he liked me, he liked telling me crazy stories.
MJ: Which I would like to hear, by the way.
JK: Oh, well I can tell you two, but I can’t recapture the one. But at one point I said, “I put laundry in the washer and left and it’ll be finished when I get home.” And he said, “Oh, you know what happened to me once. I did that and when I came home—” And he started talking about “die unbeaufsichtigte Waschmachine.” And he improvised for about three minutes and it became like a flood, you know, and cascades of soapy water were gushing down the stairs—he just was inventing on the spot, it was absolutely unbelievable because it started with, “Oh, what happened to me once” and just like some of these things in his stories, it expands into cosmoses.
The other thing he told me, almost the last time I saw him, he was leaving Vienna for three months—and again, I don’t think he was making this up. He was going to live for the summer all-expenses paid on some remote island in the North Sea. Which had been in World War II this series of factories to make aircraft parts for the German Army. But it had recently been bought, the whole island, by an Austrian named something like Herman Mueller or something like that, millions and millions and millions of Euros invested into creating an artist’s colony. And people were invited to come and paint or write or come and do whatever.
MJ: Like a North Sea Bellagio Center.
VK: And it was very remote. It would take 45 minutes on the ferry to get to the nearest place. And he felt he would be all right. But he said, “Here’s the good part. This Herman Mueller goes around with you know the country garb, with the hat, with the feather, and so on. With leather shorts. But he’s really an Iranian by birth. But he is now so ultra, ultra Austrian that he has not spoken Farsi in years. He’s changed his name legally and he owns this artist’s colony and I’m going to be his guest.”
The other thing he told me, we used to meet at one particular café, The Sperl, but one day he said let’s meet at The Englander. So we were there. Very nice sort of modern place. And there’s a portrait of Frau Englander up on the wall. So we were having coffee and he said, “Now tell me what you think this portrait of Frau Englander represents.” I said, “Well, judging by the name and so on I think that this was a café that was confiscated from a Jewish family, the Englanders, and now it’s back in the hands of the Englander family and that’s probably the matriarch.” He said, “That’s what they’d like you to think.” He said, “They found that portrait at a flea market and on the basis of it made up the name Café Englander because they figured that a whole legend would just congeal around it, which it has done. There was no Englander.” And again, I don’t know whether he was making that up or not. But he would never have been so disrespectful to an actual person as to pretend there wasn’t a Frau Englander if there had been. But I thought, “If I stick with this guy, I’m going to find out a lot of stuff.”
JK: And he had a little room near where he lived. He wouldn’t tell anybody where it was. And he would go there at night, at about six o’clock at night and put the headphones on. And just write all night long.
MJ: He told you he did this?
JK: Yes. And they published a wonderful, beautiful book—all of his plays, and then all of his poems are coming out in February in German. And there was a wonderful afterword, where the writer of the afterword, Joachim Lux, who was a wonderful theater man in Vienna, and a great promoter and friend of Jonke. And he also told the story of Jonke just sort of going into the zone every night by himself in this room. I would’ve had no other reason to think that wasn’t so, but there’s another source for you.
MJ: How prolific was he? From what you described, it seems he could’ve written massive, massive thick novels.
JK: He did. Again, many of the things are recycled. Just like a composer will write something for piano and orchestra, but then he’ll write a piano reduction. Or Bach concerto for violin, but then it’s also a flute concerto. So how many different things did he write? A lot. But in the book called “All the Plays” there are also so many things, there were short stories, or record jackets, or whatever. He probably wrote about three-fourths as much of separate pieces as are there. I don’t think there was any end to the inventiveness. Like the washing-machine that wasn’t looked after. Because again he would go and give readings and he would start with the printed text, but he would just start improvising. And if people had just taped it, there would be a hundred volumes of stuff.
He told me once, what had happened was he sort of drifted into being forgotten for a good while.
MJ: That was my other question—how was he viewed?
VJ: He made a big splash in the late ’60s early ’70s with Geometric Regional Novel and three or four other novels. I think him getting involved with drinking probably hurt him. Later, he married an Argentine woman, went to South America. I think that’s where his child died. [Jonke's son died as an infant, as mentioned in Kling's essay in Calque.]
MJ: In the ’70s?
VJ: Probably the ’80s, and he knew Borges. He knew them all. He writes about that in “Individuum und Metamorphose.” I don’t think he came back to Austria until the late ’80s. And then around 2000 he starts writing plays again, he had written quite a number.
MJ: And they were produced regularly?
VK: Oh, yes. And he became more or less a superstar then. For instance, in 2006, was it? When Graz was the cultural capital, there was a play of his commissioned and he sat one day in the café and he said, “I can’t think of a single thing.” And I said, “What’s your deadline?” And he said, “About four weeks from now.” And I thought, “Well, good luck.” But the next time I saw him, that play had been produced. It was a smash success in Vienna, Die versunkele Kathedrale, based on that legend of the sunken cathedral that Debussy wrote his piece about. I said, “Well, I see that you finished the play.” And he said, “Yes, I was sitting on the train and it hit me all of a sudden.”
To add something about his productivity, after he died, I purposely went to The Sperl, the café where he and I used to meet, and the waitress who waited on me that evening was the one who had waited on us all the time. She served me. And I said, “I see that you’re not very busy. I don’t know you, but I really want to tell you how sorry I am at the death of Jonke and you must be, too.” She reminisced about him and said he was always always always in sweet mode—”aber immer immer war er gut gelaubt.” I thought what a tribute to an artist who’s suffering to find an idea. You know what I mean? So that’s another way in which I would like to be like him. And I miss him. I miss him as a person. He was such a sweet man.
MJ: You’re certainly making it sound that way.
VK: He used to send a text message you know to a whole group of people, every year right at New Year’s, midnight—”Happy New Year. Hope all is well. Gert Jonke.” And when 2009 was coming my friend Jeff was in Vienna with me. And I said, “Oh, it’s New Year’s Eve, I’m waiting for Jonke’s text message.” And sure enough there was a beep at midnight, but it was another friend. At about twelve-thirty I said to Jeff, “It’s funny that I haven’t heard from Jonke.” And then a few days later I saw in the paper that he had died. I didn’t know he had been sick. But it was pancreatic cancer and it took him very, very quickly.
Jonke appeared in public [to do readings] right up until the end. Right up until the end. As long as he was physically able to do it. And that’s a kind of courage.
But it was so quick that, as I said, I didn’t know it, and I hadn’t seen him for about a year before because Blinding Moment was getting ready to come out, and I wanted to wait to have it to give to him. But it was not to be.
JM: I’m sorry that didn’t happen.
VK: So this man who was supposed to be so impossible and so difficult turned out to be one of the sweetest, loveliest, nicest people. And where I got a very definite connection between David Foster Wallace (and Jonke) is that so many people who knew him, talked about the same trait in him, he was just the nicest, gentlest person. And it just oozes through everything.
I am giving a paper late this spring at a conference about the theater of compassion. And I’ll work backwards from Jonke’s last play in which, just to kind of cut to the chase, a man and his girlfriend—it’s called Freefall, Freier Fall. And the man and his girlfriend are the last representatives of truth somewhere and these police are coming after them and they’re going to kill them. And the police speak in all this like gibberish, like aliens from another planet, like in Superman comic books and so on. And just as they are about to grab hold of this man and his girlfriend, they leap through the fourth wall and wind up in the audience. And start talking with the audience—”Now we’re where we’re supposed to be.”
JM: Was the theater important for him in ways novels and essays weren’t?
VK: To me, the very fact that Jonke was returned to theater after doing other things means he was seeking that contact through the one genre that is most involved with a public being present in the flesh and responding and reacting.
So Jonke’s character breaking out of the fourth wall and winding up in the audience acts as the culmination of the whole Austrian view of drama which involves interaction with the audience. The Austrian folk plays never banished those bawdy clowns and the clowns wind up being the people who turn to the audience and say, “Get a load of that one.” So there’s a bridge built. Whereas in the 1770s the Germans officially banned the clown figure from the stage as low and vulgar, so what do we get—the didactic theater of Brecht, that I don’t think is very good. It just lectures at the audience and presumes to instruct, rather than amuse, to be part of, to entertain. And I see Wallace as a figure in that way of looking at literature, and to me Jonke’s last play is the pinnacle of that. The characters wind up in the audience.
Matthew Jakubowski is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Philadelphia.
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