Behind the seven hills? On Literature in Luxembourg
“Luxembourgish literature? – Yes, it exists!” This writing in bright neon letters adorned one of the walls of the Luxembourgish booth at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair. An orange-coloured provocation?
Not in the least, since Luxembourg, rather than tucked away behind seven hills, lies in the heart of the European continent. But it is so small that not even its closest neighbours are aware of or bother to engage with it – its culture, its art, its music, and still less its literature.
In a country of less than half a million native speakers you do not expect to find a relevant literary tradition or noteworthy book production in the 21st century. But these prejudices are ill-informed. Luxembourgish literature abounds with works, subjects and tendencies of which Luxembourgers themselves have little or no inkling.
Matters are made worse by the fact that Luxembourgish literature does not present itself exclusively in Lëtzebuergesch, the language of the Grand-Duchy, but in three or sometimes even four, five and more different languages. Besides Luxembourgish, local authors write in the two other official languages German and French, to which English, Portuguese and Italian have been added in recent years.
The first work of literature in Luxembourg is the epic poem on the life of Abbess Yolanda of Vianden, written in 1290 by the Benedictine friar Hermann of Veldenz. The emergence of Luxemburgish national literature is dated to the first half of the 19th century. An autonomous Luxemburgish language literature developed from 1829 onwards, when the first book in Lëtzebuergesch – the collection of poems by Anton Meyer (1801–1857) entitled E’ Schreck ob de Letzeburger Parnassus – was published.
Luxembourgish literature reached its first peak with national poets Michel Lentz (1820–1893), Edmond de la Fontaine aka Dicks (1823–1891) and Michel Rodange (1827–1876), who are now considered classics. Despite the diverse works of authors such as Nikolaus Welter (1871–1951) and Batty Weber (1860–1940), it was not until the 1960s that the patriotism and the linguistically often antiquated attachment to the native soil that characterised local authors shifted towards a critical discussion of the fatherland in the works of the younger generation of writers. The authors deserving the most credit in this regard are Roger Manderscheid (1933–2010), Josy Braun (1938–2012), Rolph Ketter (1938–2008), Lambert Schlechter (b. 1941), Jean-Paul Jacobs (b. 1941), Guy Rewenig (b. 1947), Jean Portante (b. 1950) and Nico Helminger (b. 1953).
From the mid-1980s onwards Manderscheid and Rewenig gave birth to the modern novel in Luxembourgish language. At the same time, many authors appeared to turn their attention to socially relevant issues in satirical or parodistic texts – a tendency exemplified in the works of Léopold Hoffmann (1915–2008), Josiane Kartheiser (b. 1950) and Jhemp Hoscheit (b. 1951).
The 1990s witnessed a real boom in literature for children and teenagers, a previously neglected genre which now produced some of the country’s most surprising bestsellers. Crime novels were also proving increasingly successful with readers, written by such diverse temperaments as Monique Felten (b. 1965), Marc Graas (b. 1963) and Marco Schank (b. 1954).
Since the turn of the millennium Luxembourgish contemporary literature has been attracting more attention abroad. Writers such as Pol Sax (b. 1960) and Guy Helminger (b. 1963) have not only chosen to live in Germany, but also work with publishers there who ensure that their books are widely distributed and attract new readers. Other internationally renowned writers include the poet Anise Koltz (b. 1928) and the lyricist Jean Krier (b. 1949), both whose work has been honoured with prestigious awards in France and Germany respectively.
Currently a new generation is emerging, with authors including Tullio Forgiarini (b. 1966), Raoul Biltgen (b. 1974), Francis Kirps (b. 1971) and Luc Spada (b. 1985). Mainly the two latter explore new paths, both in terms of style and subject matter, by turning their attention to modern literary genres such as poetry slam. The tradition of women writers is perpetuated by Carla Lucarelli (b. 1968), Alexandra Fixmer (b. 1976), Nathalie Ronvaux (b. 1977), Claudine Muno (b. 1979) and Nora Wagener (b. 1990), who are among the most remarkable newcomers in recent years.
In this “field of tension between multilingualism, regionalism, nationalism and internationalism” – as Claude D. Conter, literary scientist and director of the National Literature Centre (Centre national de littérature – CNL) in Mersch recently summed up the current situation in one of his essays – exploring Luxembourgish literature is both an exciting and challenging task which opens up numerous possibilities for unexpected discoveries.
More information about authors in Luxembourg can be found in the online encylopedia of luxembourgish authors of the CNL: [www.autorenlexikon.lu]