Karl-Markus Gauss does not want to waste time. As soon as he is greeted on this spring day in Salzburg, Gauss is already drawing attention to buildings or landmarks in his hometown. One of the bridges over the Salzach at Elisabethkai was set up as a meeting point, and you can recognize him from afar by his curly gray hair and wide gray mustache.
He points to the opposite side of the river, there is the Christian-Doppler-Gymnasium, where he went to school; tells how difficult the people of Salzburg are having with the brutalist construction of their combined heat and power plant, which we went through.
He remembers going for a walk with his parents in nearby Mirabell Gardens; on one of the many plaques in Salzburg’s Old Town it shows Georg Trakl, perhaps the city’s greatest poet, who died of a cocaine overdose in the early days of the First World War; and he claims to have a fairly distant relationship with the work of the other great writer who spent his youth in the city, Thomas Bernhard.
Continue at this rate. There is Gauss, equal parts city guide and autobiographer. Whether he takes his visitors to the tree on the Mönchsberg, under which he once read the books of Hermann Hesse or Elias Canetti when he was a student. Or he talks about the Bäcker-Bacher intersection, which he always passed by as a child, also because there was a bakery there.
Gauss remained faithful to Salzburg
He portrayed this crossroads as a place full of worldliness in his book “The Incessant Migration”. Unlike many other metropolises, according to Gauss, “the social and cultural diversity of urban life” can be seen here in a very small space.
Karl-Markus Gauss, who this Wednesday will receive the 20,000-euro prize for European understanding at the Nicolai church in Leipzig, was born in Salzburg in 1954. He is the fourth child of a couple of Danube Swabians who come from the area of what is now Serbian Vojvodina and, like most Danube Swabians, had to flee in 1945.
He stayed true to the city of Mozart (by the way, not a word about the most famous son of Salzburg that day). Gauss studied here at the faculty of philosophy; Here he met his wife, who also has roots in South Tyrol and whose grandparents ran the Peterskeller in the old town of Salzburg.
And he has lived with her in a three-story house on Reichenhaller Strasse, at the back of Mönchberg, since the mid-1990s. His apartment has two floors directly under the roof, described by him as an “inverted ship”, like an apartment that has “something extroverted and something introverted” at the same time.
The journey through your room also goes around the world
This is important insofar as, on the one hand, we will have a glass of wine at your place after our tour of Salzburg. On the other hand, in one of his most recent books, he candidly provides accurate information about his apartment.
The book is called “Adventurous Journey Through My Room” and is obviously based on Xavier de Maestre’s “Journey Through My Room” from 1794. In it, Gauss tells, among other things, about the company’s napkins with the HK monogram, on a letter opener and a globe, on his desk, of course his books, which are everywhere in his apartment, lying around or stored on shelves up to the ceiling.
At this point, at the latest, one or the other might wonder if the world of Karl-Markus Gauss is not a bit limited. What predestines this Austrian writer of all people to receive the Leipzig Prize for European Understanding?
But the journey through his bedroom is also a journey to Europe, one, as he would say later in his living room, “that leads the world at least as far as my other journeys.”
The letter opener, for example, takes Gauss to Zlín in the Czech Republic, “the first city in the world built entirely according to the architectural principles of functionalism”; a model city for workers with thousands of cubic houses.
Or the napkins: with them, he immerses himself in the time when his wife’s grandparents started running a hotel in Merano in 1900. Four decades later they were expelled from South Tyrol by the National Socialists.
A recipe book from her grandmother, on the other hand, reminds her of her origin story. Gauss’s grandmother came from a poor Slovak family who moved across the Danube in the 19th century “to seek some prosperity in the old Habsburg military frontier”.
The area today lies between Croatian Osijek and Serbian Vrsac, once inhabited by Serbs, Croats, Romanians, Hungarians, Slovaks and Danube Swabians. And, as Gauss adds, “by Jews who considered themselves to be Hungarians and Jews who considered themselves to be German ethnic groups, Roma, and a handful of scattered ethnic groups.”
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However, Gauss does not want his own family history to be understood as professionally innovative, as decisive for his many journeys in the footsteps of the gypsies and many other forgotten nationalities. They took him to the far reaches of Europe, especially Eastern Europe, “where petty past meets modernity that was built right here as the work of master ruin builders.”
Now, sitting at a large table on the “airy upper floor” of his apartment, he says he started reading newspaper articles dealing with national, ethnic or religious minorities when he was 17 or 18 years old. “Even during my student days, a small file was created. But that was completely involuntary. I really was a couch potato until I was 30.”
He does not receive the Leipzig Prize for Comprehension for his so-called diaries, of which there are now six, each a mix of diary entries, memoir fragments, aphorisms, language, contemporary and cultural criticism. Except for the numerous travel books of his.
He was with the Sephardim, Gargausos, Aromanians and others.
Karl-Markus Gauss started traveling in the late 1990s, together with photographer Karl Kaindl (“He served me a lot as a photographer, friend and driver, Karl really likes to drive,” he laughs). For example, the Sephardim in Sarajevo, the Gargauz in Moldavia, the Arbëreshe in Calabria, the Aromanians in Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, the Ruthenians in the Ukraine or the Roma in Slovakia.
Or to the Cimbri, a German-speaking minority in Venice and Trento: “Sometime in the eighth century, they were sent as subjects of a German bishop to an area in the Dolomites assigned to him, and they have survived in the towns and valleys to this day and they speak in German, where you can at least guess what they mean. By the way, one has to say, and I find it very fascinating: there are more Cimbrian researchers than there are Cimbrian people in the whole world today. They carry scientific battles over what High Cymberian is now, what linguistic subtypes there are, etc. And yet there are only a few hundred people left alive who speak this language.”
Gauss has written numerous books about his travels. They are saturated with facts, but always take a decidedly subjective perspective. These include “The Dying Europeans”, the first of these books, which came out in 2001, “The Dog Eaters of Svinia” from 2004 or “Twenty Leva or Dead”.
The latter was published in 2017 and deals with four trips to Bulgaria, Moldova and Vojvodina. In his last book, the magazine “The Seasons of Eternity”, Karl-Markus Gauss described as his main task “to present every place, even if it has no history, as a historical and cultural place”.
Planned: a book about the Salzach
The obvious question is how he communicated linguistically with the numerous minority ethnic groups. And if he was particularly gifted with languages. “Not at all. I have the ability to learn and remember many words and phrases in a given language in a short period of time. It is enough. Because almost all sections of the population were excited that I could speak a few words in their language and they were asked about their lives. Sure, that was always a crash course. Then once I wrote one of my books, I immediately forgot everything I had ever learned in that language.”
Gauss admits that traveling is no longer so easy for him, solely for reasons of age. The spontaneous, relying on chance as a faithful companion, no longer has that. But it is enough to walk with him through Salzburg or sit in his apartment with a bottle of Grüner Veltliner and follow his stories and associations.
For example, while still standing on the Mönchsberg, he points to the hotel where Jean Améry took her own life in 1978, recounting how he once asked hotel management how this suicide was handled: “I was able to understand the empathize bias, because I didn’t you can hang a board there.”
Or draw attention to one of the few houses in Kapuzinerberg that Helene Fischer is said to have just acquired. Or he talks about his trips to Odessa: about the many wonderful museums there, and the many big, black, evil SUVs that don’t know the rules of the road, whose numbers usually end in 777 and are vehicles of organized crime or the prosecutor’s office . .
Finally, he announces that he wants to write a book about the Salzach, stories about this river from its source to its mouth, about the people on its banks in the past and today. It will be the image of an infamous river.
He will certainly be able to give this place, this river, “its time, time capacity, time value,” as he said recently. Because Karl-Markus Gauss still found time on his travels and in his hometown.