Poetik und Linguistik: Die literarische Sprache Marie-Thérèse Kerschbaumer by Martina Wörgötter
Shaped by her transcultural background, her childhood in Tyrol, her linguistics studies in Vienna, and her association with the Austrian avant-garde, novelist and poet Marie-Thérèse Kerschbaumer (*1936) is positioned between different cultural traditions and languages and between generations and age cohorts. The struggles of older intellectuals trying to establish themselves within the postwar and post-Shoah world affected her, as did the increasingly critical oppositional literature by the descendants of the perpetrator collective, including Ingeborg Bachmann, and the language criticism of avant-garde authors born in the 1930s and 1940s, and, conversely, the works of survivors and children of survivors—Ilse Aichinger, Paul Celan, Jakov Lind, and Erich Fried. Kerschbaumer was a member of the age cohort born in the 1930s. She was influenced by the abstract experimentalism of the Vienna Group, the exploration of the fascist legacy by Thomas Bernhard, and the writings about the survivor experience by Albert Drach, Jakov Lind, and Robert Schindel. Kerschbaumer's most acclaimed work is her (from a historical perspective) most distinctly contextualized prose work, Der weibliche Name des Widerstands, which explores in several thematically linked narratives the victimization of women under the Nazi regime.
Martina Wörgött er examines Kerschbaumer's work with the tools of poetics, rhetoric, and linguistics. Kerschbaumer, who was born in France to a Cuban father and an Austrian mother, had been exposed to Romance languages early in life. At the University of Vienna she studied linguistics, specializing in the Romanian language. Wörgött er argues that an individualistic theoretical program designed to analyze the structural and communicative aspects of language constitutes the basis for Kerschbaumer's literary production. The twenty-seven textual analyses in the study at hand reveal that Kerschbaumer's work, far from being composed of a multitude of disparate techniques, is based on a consistent repertoire of forms. Wörgötter identifies and traces strategies and elements in Kerschbaumer's prose and argues that they are intended to uncover the capabilities and boundaries of literary language. In the process, the self-referentiality of Kerschbaumer's prose becomes obvious, which makes it, according to Wörgötter, a paradigmatic site of the [End Page 185] "funktionelle Vollkommenheit der Sprache" (417). Discounting occasional conceptual vague argumentation, avoidance of the semantic level, and weaknesses in the historical framing, Wörgötter's approach to Kerschbaumer is insightful and informative. Issues that remain unaddressed or under-discussed include Wörgötter's use of the concept "language crisis," which is a constant theme in the debates about modern Austrian literature since Hofmannstahl's Chandos letter.
Kerschbaumer's age cohort can be assumed to have experienced several historically specific language crises. Aware of Hofmannsthal's language experience, they were affected by the postwar dilemma framed as Kahlschlag or Stunde Null by the Group 47, in which also Austrian authors participated, and the language and cultural crisis after the Holocaust, which was debated under the auspices of Adorno's dictum on the impossibility of writing poetry after Auschwitz. As Dan Diner maintained, the Shoah produced distinct sets of memory discourses among victims and perpetrators, and discourse analysts and literary theorists such as Ruth Wodak and Andrea Reiter have provided further insight into divergent identity and memory models informing narratives.
Positioning Kerschbaumer within the panorama of her period would have helped to provide access to two important questions that Wörgötter does not raise: What was Kerschbaumer's motivation for developing her particular "experimental" style, and into which post-1945 tradition did she inscribe herself? A comparative approach making the intercultural and interlingual perspectives of her work explicit, above and beyond the painstaking descriptions of narrative practices, might lead to a deeper analysis of this author-linguist's oeuvre, which, as Wörgötter notes, also has a socially critical trajectory. Perhaps a comprehensive discussion (instead of the chronological, text-by-text arrangement) would have avoided redundancies and provided room for the elaboration of important issues to which Poetik und Linguistik only alludes. For example, Wörgötter suggests that Kerschbaumer's prose exceeds the formalist abstraction characteristic of the Vienna Group or Concrete Poetry, but she stops short at articulating precisely in which way Kerschbaumer's work differs. Similarly, the cursory remarks on the categories of "feminism" and "écriture feminine" lack specificity. This kind of disconnectedness poses problems throughout the study, the appeal of which, as it stands, will be most [End Page 186] likely limited to Kerschbaumer fans, poetics buffs, and Jakobsonian linguists, while a more encompassing Kerschbaumer study would have the potential of resonating in the international arena. Wörgötter is aware of the dilemma posed by disciplinary constrictions, and she issues a plea for interdisciplinary work between linguistics and literary studies (418).
Poetik und Linguistik proceeds from general observations that establish the study's methodological basis to the theoretical contextualization of Kerschbaumer's writing, and from there to the level of text analysis and the application of the theoretical tools. Kerschbaumer's work is examined with conceptual devices that include language experiment, language criticism, and social criticism. The rubric of "microstructures" includes the sentence, the word, and the code, with syntax, vocabulary, codes, and "Fremdsprachenexperiement" as subordinate categories. Textual examples are introduced to elucidate the function of these elements in Kerschbaumer; for example, prototypical for Der Schwimmer is the "flowing" syntax, but the "flexible" syntax is paradigmatic of Gespräche in Tuskulum. Another major segment examines "macrostructures"—textual grammar, text theme, and intertextuality. Wörgötter's discussions on this level are perceptive and validate her methodology. Modified and fine-tuned, her approach could be successfully applied to authors such as Bernhard or Jelinek, especially if the structurally descriptive aspects were complemented by a compelling interpretative effort.
The analytical process outlined in Poetik und Linguistik brings to light poetological and stylistic correspondences as well as disparities between Kerschbaumer's writings of different creative periods. In her exploration of linguistic elements and units Wörgötter documents the poeticity of Kerschbaumer's literary practice and a consistency of her narrative elements. Wörgötter also reveals how meticulously Kerschbaumer constructed her texts in keeping with her project of developing a poetic method and style for each particular narrative content (416). The study at hand makes an important contribution to a better understanding of Kerschbaumer's narratives and offers a solid foundation for more broadly conceived interpretations. [End Page 187]