Three fine authors read in “Queerlesen”

Returning to the beautiful town of Ernen for a fourth time this summer, I left high temperatures behind in the lowlands, happy to be getting into cooler mountain air. But it was just as refreshing to climb the last hill to the village, and see Ernen’s hallmark parish church slowly rise up above the field to my left. The church is the major venue in the Musikdorf Ernen’s fine Baroque, piano and chamber music concerts throughout a eight-week season. As such, it is a beacon that has drawn music lovers to Ernen for the last 43 years, with good reason, I might add.

Ernen is a festival like none other, in no small part because it marries superb musical achievement and events with an idyllic alpine setting. Historically, the Goms valley was a major North-South trade route, isolated enough that the inhabitants spoke their own unique Swiss German. Until the 19th century, the village on the hill also had an important part to play in cantonal government and jurisdiction. Its mark on Swiss music history, however, began with the Hungarian-born American pianist and professor György Sebők. He chose the Ernen in 1974 as the place to conduct summer master classes that over the years and in turn, lead to a first-rate offer of musical performances of various genres for a wider public. Sebők remained the artistic director of the Musikdorf untill 1999, by which time Ernen had become a leading event on the yearly music calendar.

Another generation of Musikdorf Ernen festival began under the aegis of General Director Francesco Walter, who, in that position since 2004, has tirelessly worked to see the festival flourish and expand. A creative writing seminar was added; concentrations among the musical genres developed into single and alternating theme weeks with a focus on the Baroque, then chamber music, and piano. In combination with the tourist office, the village offers hikes, insights into local crafts, mineral and geology tours, specialist architecture study, and all order of fine gastronomy. And by appealing to such a breadth of interests, the village has become more than just “a place apart.” It is a tremendously exciting cultural gem.

This year’s annual festival is running under the title of “Limitless.” I joined it in the middle of its third week, whose music repertoire was, for the most part, Baroque. The very first event I attended, however, was the sequence of readings by three contemporary German authors − Christian Schünemann (1968), Angela Steidele (1968), and Daniel Schreiber (1977) – all three slated under the title “Queerlesen,” which loosely translates as “Queer Literature.” Each of the readings was moderated by Bettina Böttinger, the astute German television personality whose spot-on questions expertly propelled the course of discussion.

Author Christian Schünemann read from his latest, “Pfingstrosenrot,” a novel which resolves around to the visceral antagonism of the Serbian-Kosovo conflict and whose story is triggered by a brutal murder. The greater part of the narrative is set in Belgrade, for which the author convincingly made a case. Once violently bigoted regarding homosexuality, the city today has become more liberal, and has many inviting attributes. The author’s co-author, Jelena Volic, supplied him with highly detailed and site-specific material, which he then ordered and crafted, basing the final work on the meeting of two minds. Co-authoring a novel is a model I simply don’t know, but I was favorably impressed that given a lengthy friendship, tolerance, and commitment, their cooperation worked so well.

The second featured reader, Angela Steidele, has both a robustly healthy smile and a unique talent. Steidele is a literature historian, her novel “Rosenstengel” drawing 85 percent on historical fact, and the remainder, on her own vivid imagination. The story − peppered with that dualism of fact versus fiction, invention versus truth − is of the highly eccentric Bavarian King Ludwig II, and his keen interest in the fate of one Catharina Margareta Linck (Alias Anastasius Rosenstengel). More than a century before Ludwig, Linck had assumed the dress, military rank, behavioral traits and “instrument” of a male – thanks to a strapped on, leather-made, false organ – before being accused and executed for “fornication” with a woman to whom “he” had been “married.” Steidele’s research entailed an in-depth study of the differences between formal written language in the 18th and 19th centuries, given that the novel consists of letters exchanged during both times. Mastering that alone was a stunning feat, and her reading, no less so. It was strikingly dramatic, humorous, perfectly timed, and nothing short of inspired.

Finally, in reading excerpts from “Nüchtern, Über das Trinken und das Glück," Daniel Schreiber described his personal journey through addiction and recovery from alcoholism. It was a brave admission, one written because, he said, so few people afflicted are able to talk about what is often their most pressing issue: that drink becomes, as it once was for him, the “love of their life.” Schreiber was admittedly nervous, and had a soft voice that was hard put to be magnified even with an operative microphone, but his message was a powerful one. Homosexual men, he argued, are 3-4 times more inclined to alcoholism than their straight counterparts; further, the world-wide consumption of alcohol today is four times what it was in the 50s. And alcohol is almost ever-present. But Schreiber sees how his journey was a successful one: he was already celebrating 5 years of being dry, and had learned direct his energies towards good health and encouraging others to look at their own risk in befriending alcohol so closely.

In sum, the three fine authors of “Queerlesen” − despite their widely disparate narratives − all had compelling stories to tell, and struck chords that resonated far beyond the walls of Ernen’s Tellenhaus.

Ernen, 25 July 2016, by Sarah Batschelet