Language Is a Stretch of Land Imagined, Sometimes Snowbound

Context N°24

Alois Hotschnig

The following is the acceptance speech of Alois Hotschnig upon winning the inaugural Jonke Prize. A celebrated Austrian writer, Hotschnig was a great friend of Gert Jonke.

I believe that at this point I’m supposed to, what did they tell me earlier—I can’t remember if you told me or if someone else did—I’m supposed to say something though I don’t know to whom, much less what. But I see you’re really listening to me. I appreciate that. So it would be best if I finally just said what should have been said a long time ago.

These are lines from Gert Jonke’s play Speakers Round the Clock in which a speaker and his mouth talk to an audience but can’t agree on whose turn it is to speak, because the mouth is always rebelling against its supposed master. “He talks, I don’t,” the speaker says, “that should be made clear once and for all. Then more and more often the mouth starts telling everyone the opposite of what I suggested he say, or would have preferred or might prefer he say, always giving an opinion completely different from what I had asked be said,” the speaker says, describing an experience Jonke often wrote about and one that I know well.

At one point in my childhood, I had the habit of repeating words or sentences to myself over and over again until they lost all meaning or took on new meanings, until they turned into free rhythms, into sounds and tones, into music. I couldn’t name this music, but I could sense it and feel it. Red, green, yellow, blue, again and again from the top. When my mother sent me out on errands, I repeated the list of things I was meant to buy so often to myself and I so thoroughly internalized the words, that by the time I got to the store and stood in front of the counter, I no longer had the slightest idea what it was I was supposed to bring home.

Each fear, each anxiety, each desire, whatever it might be—I was convinced I only had to name it and to repeat it often enough to myself for it to weaken, lose all meaning, and finally disappear. This game fascinated and frightened me and gave me the same pleasure I still get from writing today.

I believe I can recognize such incantatory formulas and rituals in Gert Jonke’s texts too, and they have an irresistible hold on me because I know from my childhood experience that something new can emerge from this loss of control.

“I have the sense that I’m a child growing up in some other, inaccessible place while I stand here as an adult. I feel how I, as a child, deaf and dumb, grow towards myself and I experience this other childhood even though I’m not there.” This state, which Jonke describes in Speakers Round the Clock, could just as well be a description of my early years and of the exploratory process that writing has been always been for me.

“We long for something incomprehensible / in which we feel secure until / it, too, impertinently explains itself,” Jonke writes. I agree. We long for the incomprehensible, and we make ourselves a nest in it so that we can hatch something intelligible from it.

If you look at something long enough, what you see will become blurred. Or comical. Or bizarre. Perhaps this is because everything is distorted and comical and bizarre. And yet we only recognize this when we can step outside a particular situation long enough for it to reveal itself to us in all its disjointedness and then become familiar by blurring into recognizability, so to speak.

Distorted perception makes you dizzy. And this dizziness forces us to explore the newly uncertain territory and to develop new techniques when the old ones, for whatever reason, no longer fit. The methods Jonke used are as multifarious as what he portrays. His portrayals can be classified as poetry, as fiction, as drama, or as all of these at once: quiet and loud at the same time, as a flood of words and, in counterpoint, the silence between the lines.

His texts are sensory organs as well as digestive organs that can help us get rid of anything indigestible or stomach-churning we might have consumed. The Jonkian language enzyme breaks down the inassimilable into its elemental preconceptual substances, which are often recognizable only after the enzyme has done its work.

Gert Jonke’s explorations also consisted of surveying a new linguistic landscape rendered vague and arbitrary through overuse. The disintegrating language in Scattered Fugitive Words is one illustration of how crucial this renaming is. In this story, two people in conversation lose hold of the language they supposedly share as the very words in their mouths get up and leave. More and more words then join the fugitive words, becoming unpronounceable and finally inconceivable.

Jonke here depicts how words can melt in one’s mouth, yet in another story he posits that “we also need a new language so that we can inhabit mysterious realms as comfortably as we do our familiar environments. We need a new language we can eventually make our own even though its words still stick in our throats… We need a new language that can resist our influence.”

The search for a language still to be discovered binds us, I believe, even though he and I try to reach it through different approaches.

For some time now I’d be hard put to say who’s actually saying everything that has been said up to now.

Is what I’m saying now alright with you? Or would you rather hear something else? You must let me know if I should be saying something other than what I’m saying right now.

I very much want to tell you what you’d like to hear. You just have to tell me what that is.

The Speakers Round the Clock who people his texts also speak to reassure themselves that they are alive and so ensure their hold on life. Gert Jonke was no speaker, but a Listener Round the Clock. The few times I met with him alone, he always asked for news of others, of friends and acquaintances. He wanted to hear about their wellbeing in minute detail. That’s who he was. His essential qualities were his insistence, his sense of urgency, his intractability, too. The utter ruthlessness of his observation often seemed like childlike truthfulness.

Jonke’s world is charged, even in the quietest passages. It shimmers with attentiveness, just as he himself was always in motion, never completely at rest, constantly tensed to leap.

In the quietest stretches of the Jonkian linguistic landscapes, at the headwaters, so to speak, you can feel the pull of the current below the stillness, the undertow that drags one sentence after another or seems to chase this sentence with that. This tug of desire is as characteristic of the most intimate parts of his sentences as it is of the narrative flow, of the quietest solo arias as of the chorus into which the solo then dissolves for a choral fantasy.

“I moved so slowly / I went over the speed limit,” he wrote.

Indeed, in Jonke even slowness is in a rush. His typical high-velocity slowness, his desire or need to escape from anywhere, the way he finds a particular word or thought that must be expressed, and his restlessness, are all, for me, elements of an acute perceptiveness that seems to be directed everywhere at once. This perceptiveness is so highly tuned and comprehensive that, when on Jonkian terrain, I can often barely follow a specific idea because it is immediately tied to the next idea or set in opposition to it or to the subsequent one, and is soon expanded, linked to a fourth or fifth idea in a tangle of sentences and thoughts which I find overwhelming at first but then becomes an irresistible invitation to play along. I’m then immersed in constellations of thought and feeling that, for me at least, had previously been unthinkable and imperceptible; yet nonetheless retain some of their strangeness.

If you want to hear something other than what I’m telling you now, you must tell me exactly what I should say instead, as long, that is, as you don’t want to hear what I’m now saying to you!

Oh, I see. You just wanted to tell me that you’d simply like to keep on listening to me as you have been. Now that is wonderful.

I had the good fortune of reading publicly with Gert Jonke on several occasions, without having to follow him immediately. Usually anyone who read right after him suffered a literary incineration in the linguistic inferno he unleashed.
“The name of your valley is . . . no, that’s your home valley . . . How does it go again? . . . The word is gone. Vanished. It’s a mystery to me. As if I never knew it. Odd.” These lines are from Scattered Fugitive Words, which I heard him read more than once. I remember the audience’s uncertain laughter. Some sat with their mouths gaping in astonishment, others traded reassuring glances. And I remember how he used humor in his delivery to free his audience from the story’s stranglehold without softening its perceptual and communicative despair.

While listening to him, I had the opportunity to reflect on my own writing. In fact, his stories demanded it and time and again they made me aware of the weight I carried in myself and in my writing. And they also showed me how writing could work differently, how my writing, too, could be lighter, looser, clearer and reach towards other effects both possible and impossible.

“This summer / when you left / it was so cold / the garden caught a chill,” he writes, “the tulips coughed at me / the trees and bushes kept sneezing / the meadow had hay fever.” Again and again these tulips have coughed along with me when I’ve had to say goodbye, not at the actual partings, but in my depictions of them, whenever, that is, my depictions were only worth sneezing at.

Gert Jonke doesn’t do away with gravity, he overcomes it when he starts to play around and engages a difficulty, a failure, an insufficiency of whatever kind as a partner in a game or in conversation. This ludic approach alone changes the terms of debate. It reminds me of the blind Croatian translator Sead Muhamedagić, my and Gert Jonke’s shared translator and friend. His mother always sent him out to play tag with the other children in the apartment building. After a while Sead was no longer content catching his sighted friends, as he says, and so he began to play with the wind. “Back then in the courtyard,” he told me, “I realized that the wind was as blind as I was and that the wind also had no prospects. I had some paper toys, which I threw into the wind and was always happy when I discovered where the wind had hidden them.”

I am reminded that Sead’s story and Gert Jonke’s writing were both occasioned by grappling with obstacles. This, too, binds us, as do the long pauses between our books, the periods of recovery that have little to do with rest. The spring-times of writing that always eventually follow the recovery periods bind us as well, as do all the writing seasons, along with the creative doubts that bloomed in every color imaginable and doubt in general.

“I write very happily when I can, when the page doesn’t remain blank, but I’m happier still when I’ve finished writing something than when I’m actually writing it,” he says. So am I. And yet there is pleasure that comes solely from the process of writing.

Hesitation. The reluctance to begin even though you know you must begin at some point and the sense of being unable to stop. “Perhaps I write because I’m always trying to understand the world, because I have the feeling I know nothing about it,” Jonke says. “The experience of discovering things while writing, things that you didn’t know before,”—that has always kept me writing, too.

Translated by Tess Lewis.

Selected Works by Gert Jonke
Geometric Regional Novel. Dalkey Archive Press, 2000.
Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique. Dalkey Archive Press, 2008.
The System of Vienna: From Heaven Street to Earth Mound Square. Dalkey Archive Press, 2009.
The Distant Sound. Dalkey Archive Press, 2010.
Awakening to the Great Sleep War. Dalkey Archive Press, 2012.

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