Literary Responses to the Financial Crisis

Every year, a European writers' festival takes place in the tiny town of Spitz in Austria's picturesque wine-growing region of Wachau. European Literature Days always features a range of writers and encourages lively debates on a variety of literary subjects. This year's theme was "Europe: Fortress, Trauma, Dream", with a particular focus on how writers have responded to the financial crisis or 'trauma'.

Over two days, writers and other literary professionals explored the notion of 'Fortress Europe'. The negative connotation is that the European Union has drawn "a dividing line across this continent" that welcomes the wealthy nations and excludes the poorer states. Equally, European culture, it was suggested, is defined as "a variation of Anglo-American culture where exceptional individuals gain entry from other linguistic backgrounds". Despite these perceived inequities, many authors, particularly from Southeast Europe, retain faith in "the European dream". For them, Europe is synonymous with hope for a better future.

One of the most interesting debates was about how writers have responded to the global crisis. There have been several books written by economists that offer thoughtful analysis of, and even solutions to, the financial crash, but what about fiction? Two German names came up. Thomas von Steinäcker's Das Jahr, in dem ich aufhörte, mir Sorgen zu machen, und anfing zu träumen (The Year in which I Stopped Worrying and Started Dreaming) is set in an insurance firm at the height of the financial crisis. Kristof Magnusson's Das war ich nicht (It Wasn't Me) is about a German banker on a Chicago trading floor. Magnusson writes in German and translates from the Icelandic. Both received rave reviews and, regrettably, neither has been translated into English yet.

Some of the Eastern European delegates offered interesting perspectives. Jaroslav Balvin, editor of the multilingual Czech Literature Portal, asked dryly "crisis, which crisis?" Sreten Ugričić, former director of Serbia's national library, pointed out: "Humankind is always in some sort of crisis." Aleš Šteger, a Slovene poet and publisher, remarked that the financial newspapers in his country "serve as a platform for hidden messages between politicians, bankers and managers." The majority of people don't know how to read them and find the financial pages boring, he suggested, but the happy few who read between the lines can glean essential information. He compared this to the use of poetry in communist times that contained hidden allusions and metaphors.

When it comes to literary fiction, maybe the Germans are ahead of the game. As to British authors, rather feebly, I could only recall Alex Preston, a young city trader, and his debut novel This Bleeding City, which received mixed reviews. Theatre can react so much faster. I immediately thought of David Hare's piece of verbatim theatre, The Power of Yes (2009) Lucy Prebble's morality tale, Enron (also 2009) and Denis Kelly's The Gods Weep. (2010) Perhaps it is just too early for fiction writers to respond with anything meaningful and they have to gain the necessary perspective before delivering the definitive chronicles.

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