Can Literature Bear Witness? A Lecture and Conversation with Herta Müller

May 20th, 2012 in Event Highlights, News

On Saturday, May 12, the Center for the Study of Europe welcomed Nobel Laureate Herta Müller to Boston University. Nearly a hundred people gathered in BU’s Barrister’s Hall to hear the acclaimed author, who was in the United States to promote a new translation of her Nobel Prize winning book Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel, translated by Philip Boehm). Müller’s visit to Boston was co-sponsored by the Goethe Institute, where she read the night before.

The event at Boston University took place as part of a revived series of conversations with European artists and writers, formerly organized by the Institute for Human Sciences at Boston University in collaboration with the literary journal AGNI. AGNI’s founding and senior editors, Askold Melnyczuk and William Pierce, presided over the event, which also featured translator Philip Boehm and Müller scholar Anca Luca Holden, a visiting Assistant Professor of German at Mount Holyoke College.

After introducing his former colleague, William Pierce introduced Herta Müller, who read the opening pages of her autobiographical essay – Wenn wir schweigen, werden wir unangenehm – wenn wir reden, werden air lächerlich. Kann Literatur Zeugnis ablegen? After giving the audience the opportunity to hear Müller read in her native German, Askold Melnyczuk took over, continuing the reading from Philip Boehm’s translation of the hauntingly beautiful essay: When We Don’t Speak, We Become Unbearable, and When We Do, We Make Fools of Ourselves. Can Literature Bear Witness?

On awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, the Nobel Foundation described Müller as a writer “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.” The opening lines of the essay she read at BU revealed the preoccupation with displacement and dislocation that characterizes her novels and that had garnered the attention of the Nobel Foundation:

Books about bad times are often read as testimonies. My own books are also about bad times—I had little other choice. They deal with the stunted life under the dictatorship, the everyday existence of a German minority that, in giving way to outside intimidation, responded with an internal despotism all its own, and the eventual disappearance of these people as they left for Germany. Many consider my books testimonies. As I write them, however, I don’t think of myself as bearing witness. This is because of how I learned to write: not from speaking, but from silence and concealment. That’s how it began.
Later I had to relearn how to keep silent, since few wanted to hear the whole, exact truth.

Following the reading, Pierce and Melnyczuk took turns asking questions of Müller, before opening the floor to questions from the audience. The conversation touched on themes from the essay – Müller’s relationships to language and place, her experiences of exile and dictatorship – as well as reality of life under the Romanian dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Philip Boehm and Anca Luca Holden took turns translating the author’s responses.

The event was videotaped and can be viewed on BUniverse.

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