Prize winning lecture from Christine Nöstlinger - ALMA
 

Prize winning lecture from Christine Nöstlinger

I have been asked to say a little about myself. I normally try to avoid such self-depictions, as I am of the opinion that pretty much everything I have to say is already in my books. But here in Stockholm that obviously does not apply. You, my listeners, have a perfect right to learn who this person is to whom your country has awarded this wonderful prize excelled by no other. Usually the first question interested people ask authors of children’s books is what their childhood was like – and that is quite legitimate as everyone who writes for children is tremendously directed towards memories of their own childhood in their work. Ultimately, the child that they once were is the only model of a child that they know through and through – or at least think they know. Conversely, the frequently asked question whether it was a happy childhood is not legitimate. I, at any rate, cannot get to grips with the concept of a ’happy childhood’. I can only say that in my childhood I had stronger feelings of happiness than ever again later – and similarly stronger feelings of unhappiness.

So I’ll try to make it as objective as possible: I was born 67 years ago in a working class district of the so-called suburbs of Vienna. My mother was a child-minder in a municipal kindergarten. My father was a clock-maker and unemployed like so many others, as a result of which – a rare exception these days – I was a baby and infant, dressed, fed and sung to sleep by its father. In those days Austria was ruled by the Austro-Fascists. When I was two, Adolf Hitler marched into Austria and when I was three, father had to march into Poland and thereafter advance almost as far as Moscow on foot. For a whole six years, I was bereft of him, the person to whom I related most closely and whom I loved fervently.

And from my fifth year I crouched with unfortunate regularity in various cellars and hoped that the ’All Clear’ siren would sound announcing the departure of the ’enemy forces’. Twice a bomb hit the house in whose cellar I was crouching but only once did the cellar collapse so that we had to be dug out. When I was nine, Vienna was liberated by the Red Army and I finally got my beloved father back.

I think having spent two thirds of their childhood under a dictatorship and in a war leaves its mark on a person. In my case this was above all because all the people to whom I closely related were strict antifascists and left me in no doubt about it from the beginning. That sounds rather dreary but it wasn’t. I think I coped well with it. I simply accepted that our country was ruled by ’criminals’, that the war must be lost as quickly as possible, that I mustn’t believe what ’Miss’ at school wanted to drill into me in the way of ideals and values and, what was more, I must not breathe a word of all this outside the house so as not to put Mother, Grandfather and Grandmother in danger of their lives. My father was in any case in latent danger of his life somewhere in Russia. That was enough. And when my friend of the same age raved about being allowed to join the ’League of German Girls’ in two, three years, I held my peace and thought to myself: You Lulu! By then the war will be lost and all the Nazis locked up and the Jews who are still alive will come back and ’democracy’ will come back too. My grandfather often told me about this ’democracy’. I can’t remember what he said to me about it, but in any event I longed for it. And not just because Grandfather promised me that then there would be chocolate and ham rolls again.

I attributed paradisiacal qualities to this unknown phenomenon of democracy, from which I hoped for a kind of Cockaigne of justice and freedom and solidarity. My grandfather could tell stories very well. I was only right when my friend had to miss out on the ’League of German Girls’. All the Nazis I knew were not locked up, the Jews who had survived the Shoa were not welcome in Austria and ’Miss’, who had been trying for a full three years to indoctrinate us with Nazi ideology, now, without even the slightest blush, sang us the praises of blessings of democracy and daily expressed her fervent gratitude to our American liberators (the fact that the USSR had played a tremendous part in the liberation of my home seemed to have escaped her).

Anyone who experiences all this as a child becomes, for good or ill, extremely sceptical, doubts all authority, believes nothing that is unproven, distrusts the opinion of the majority, sides with minorities and social outsiders and, in addition, perfects a scent for injustices of every shape and kind. In adolescence, this brings a great deal of hardship at school, particularly if you go to a rather catholically inclined grammar school, but that was easy to bear - with the family covering my back where necessary.

Not even looking back can I see any indication in my schooldays that I could become a writer. My essays got bad marks, what I wrote did not please the worthy Frau Professor at all. What I read – and I read a lot – did not please her either. They were all authors in her private Index - Tucholsky, Brecht, Ringelnatz, adult Kästners and likeminded people. But that did not grieve me in the slightest. A bad mark for a maths test would have upset me considerably more. As for my extraordinarily bad mark in ’Deportment’, I was actually uncommonly proud of it. I thought it showed that I ’dared’ do something and ’rebel’ and was not adapting without protest to the prevailing circumstances, which I did not consider at all good. After my Higher School Certificate, I studied at the Academy of Applied Art. I actually had the misfortune to go to a girl’s grammar school at which, remarkably, not a single pupil could draw really well. I could do it passably and therefore, for lack of competition, incorrectly thought of myself as a great talent. It took two terms for me to realise I was 5 - Moderate. It then took more terms until I accepted the consequences of this insight and finally gave up the dream of becoming a fabulous illustrator, let my studies go and looked for an office job. I wasn’t happy in it – although I did it, short hand, speed typing and all – really well.

The way out of this dreary position in life in the late fifties: marry, bring two daughters into the world in rapid succession, and set up as a housewife and mother! At least that is how I see it looking back. At the time I would have vigorously denied this interpretation and insisted: Because I’m pregnant, the road to a professional career is unfortunately barred to me! And so I cooked and knitted and so on, sewed pretty baby clothes and no less pretty stuff for myself, read a little Bloch, Marcuse and Adorno, had a go at non-authoritarian parenting,entertained many guests – sometimes until the small hours – and discussed eagerly with them what to do to make my childhood ideals of freedom, justice and solidarity a reality in our society. It wasn’t a bad life, but I was not very contented with my lot. I still, for example, well remember the shock when the official renewing my passport crossed out ’Student’ three times and overwrote it with ’Housewife’ in copy book handwriting. I would rather have thrown the passport away. I did not want to go through life as a housewife! I told myself I must have more in me and must be able to get it out. My daughters’ children’s books brought me to the idea that my painting and drawing talents should be sufficient for illustrating children’s books.

However, in those days I was far to shy to simply contact a publisher and ask for illustration jobs. It would also probably not have been very successful. So, as beginners will, I decided to send a publisher a ’finished product’. And in order to produce one, for better or worse I had to think up a story and put it down on paper. I played around with that story for almost two years. I questioned every sentence, discarded and rewrote it innumerable times. I was doing something for which, in my view, I had no talent and the only relevant skill I allowed myself was sternly self-critical judgement of my text. I finally said to myself once again, ’You simply can’t do it any better’ and sent the thing to the only publisher of children’s books whose address I knew. Had they sent it back to me with polite regrets, I can guarantee I wouldn’t have burdened another publisher with it but merely thought sadly: Oh well, so you can’t do that either! But the publishers were willing. And hardly had the book, it was called ’Fiery Frederica’, come out when it won a highly regarded prize in Germany. It was not for the pictures, which I had painted, but for the text I had written that I got the prize. That irritated me a little. I would have preferred praise for my pictures. But at the end of the day, any success was fine by me as a frustrated housewife. And so I rapidly thought out another story and painted pictures for it. This time the publishers wanted only the text from me and had it illustrated by someone else. And so in my third book I understandably left the illustrations out from the start and submitted only a simple manuscript.

Each of these three books appeared with a different publisher. They were the three publishers who have stuck by me – and me them – to this day. The reason I was not satisfied with a single publisher was that, fascinated by my unexpected success, I was writing with all the industry of a bumblebee without very many scruples about formulae. Every two years, reckoned the publisher who had published my first book, he wanted a book from me. However, only six months after ’Fiery Frederica’ appeared, I had the next book ready and could not see why I should leave it to ’ripen’ for another year and a half. So I sent it to the German publisher I thought most appropriate. And they liked my story. In the meantime, I had got to know a delightful young German publisher at a conference – conferences were very much the fashion in those days – and profound friendship arose at first sight and it came about once again that I must without fail write something for his only just established children’s book publishing house. And so I produced children’s books for my three publishers, always in strict rotation and at a pace at which today I can only wonder.

I know it sounds rather ’fairytale effortless’. But those were happy days for authors of children’s books who broke away from the harmless world cliché. In tune with the social situation in Germany and Austria, there was any amount of discussion about children, child raising, and children’s literature. Educationalists, psychologists, sociologists, authors, publishers and other experts squabbled violently when it came to what children should be allowed to know about the world and what must be kept secret from them, what they had to be protected from and what should be explained to them.

In short, as in politics, the ’right’ and the ’left’ came head to head on children’s literature issues. The passion of the debates in which participants in conferences on children’s books indulged can scarcely be imagined today. Teachers and booksellers, librarians and editors, representatives of parents’ associations, writers and heaven knows who else argued vehemently about the good of children for the benefit of children. In this atmosphere authors who broke away from the ’traditional’ did not have much difficulty in becoming well-known. They were praised to the heavens by the ’progressive’ faction and roundly scolded by the ’conservatives’, both of which increased their notoriety. I got a lot of praise and even more abuse. Conservative teachers, in particular, rejected my books – not only because not all the teachers who appeared in my books were fine people, but above all because the children who appeared in them spoke like children actually do and not like well brought up children should. And although even then one marriage in three in Austria ended in divorce, it was ’unheard of’ to talk about it in children’s books. They were supposed to deal with the ’Happy Family’ with good ’manners’. So roughly as with the motto: You can’t expect children to read about how they live and what they experience! Obviously I got involved in the lively debate on children’s books. Many of my statements, essays and speeches of the time are still in print, some even between hard covers and painstakingly researching journalists like reading through them and confronting me in interviews with what I said and wrote decades ago. I would then sometimes like to quote the long dead German Chancellor Adenauer, who once said: “What do I care about my prattling from yesterday!” I could also quote an Austrian politician, still in office, for whom I have no great regard, who likes to say: “Truth is a daughter of time!” But you aren’t supposed to answer painstaking journalists like that. So I say simply that over the course of the decades any half-way reasonable person undergoes development and that today I can only smile weakly at many of my pronouncements of the seventies. Weakly because it would be truly marvellous if children’s literature could bring about everything that I was demanding of it in those days: it was supposed to make children cleverer! And more self aware! And sensitive to other people’s problems! It was supposed to arouse social imagination! And it was supposed to make children stick up boldly for their rights and rebel properly if wrong was done to them or others! In the best case, children’s literature may perhaps bring about a little of all of these. In any event a child is not guaranteed to be stupider, less sensitive, more disheartened, more intimidated and less imaginative through reading books.

I, however, have become more modest and now demand these results of neither myself nor my reader. Translating a piece of the world into words’, is today sufficient for me as a description of what I have to achieve in my work. And the fact that I generally do it in such a way that my readers have something to laugh about is not only because children like to laugh but above all because I tend to notice the comical, droll and witty things in life. Even in situations in which I am very, very sad, the funny side of the matter doesn’t escape me. Then obviously I don’t actually laugh but save my ’laugh about it’ for later.

Furthermore, over the decades I have realised that children also want to rediscover part of their own sadness in a story together with a suitable dose of consolation in order to come to terms with that sadness. I owe this realisation not least to Astrid Lindgren and all her comforting stories that tell of freedom in security. Every child needs both simultaneously as freedom without security is as much use for being happy as security without freedom. Unfortunately, in real life, childhood freedom in security is rather rare. Most children lack one or the other, if not both. Giving them this ’twin-pack experience’, at least in so far as they get involved with the hero of a book, appears to me today – in contrast to many years ago – to be absolutely right. In this I must concede that in those days I not only polemicised very theoretically against this point of view, I claimed that it deceived readers, cheated them, distorted reality for them, failed to take them seriously and clouded their clear vision.

In practice I had no problems with ’freedom’ in any case, as describing longing for it and the right to it does not obscure the required closeness to reality. As for the necessary quantum of ’security and comfort’, where this could realistically be provided in a story, the ’fantastic level of action’ that I then introduced dealt with this. If Fiery Frederica could not be happy in this country, she flew off to an unknown distant country where her happiness was guaranteed. And when an authoritarian son of a bitch of a father could not realistically be brought to his senses, I invented a repulsive Kumi-Ori-Cucumber King in the cellar, who ultimately made something like a happy ending possible, or a fearful child got a worker’s protection ghost and by night a secret grandfather looked after the protection of poor, oppressed children. I retired this ’fantastic’ prop many years ago. It remained to hand but was no longer required for my work. Because I have caught onto the fact – and Astrid’s books have contributed greatly in this – that it is not so much the story by which children feel secure and comforted and free when they read, it’s the language! Language can drive you to laughter or tears, language can comfort, can caress, can give the feeling of security, can make you feel free as if you are in a balloon. You will never learn this kind of language without liking the reader, and Astrid was such a master of it that probably no one will ever again match her, but at least I am trying to go in the same direction.